Dear Pastor . . . in a Lonely World, Cultivating Community Is Worth It

This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.

Dear Pastor,

I want to offer hope, encouragement, and wisdom to pastors and other vocational church leaders. We sure do have a hard job! And of all the many things we do, cultivating spiritual community in a lonely world ranks among the most difficult, time-consuming, and personally demanding efforts. But once again, I want to encourage you that it is worth it—for you and your church.

1. Take the initiative.

It can be difficult for a pastor to build and maintain genuine personal relationships in the church. Your church may want you to remain a distinct, distant professional, offering your expertise without being personally connected to their lives. But this aloofness is to be resisted. For your own sake, for your family’s health, and for your church’s growth, take the initiative in forming deep relationships in your local church body.

While you should also maintain key friendships and relationships outside your local church, let your church be your primary community as you also seek growth in Christ as a relational being. How? Join or lead a small group. Rather than meeting only with leaders, connect with a regular fellowship group, and even if you lead, make clear that you are still an ordinary and needy Christian. Invite people to spend time together. Although church leaders meet with people for a living, consider having two or three meetings or gatherings (coffee, lunch, or evening get-togethers) each week for the sole purpose of building relationships. Form and maintain two or three deep relationships. Jesus had Peter, James, and John; similarly, we would do well to have a few close friends in our own church communities with whom we can be completely present, honest, and trusting.

Why Do We Feel Lonely at Church?

Jeremy Linneman

Why Do We Feel Lonely at Church? addresses the loneliness epidemic facing the church, encourages readers to pursue a life of fellowship, and urges church leaders to cultivate communities that reflect Jesus’s mission, ministry, and care.

Involve other families in your family’s activities. If you are married with kids, find ways to invite other families to the things you’re already doing—go to the park together, invite others to your own kids’ activities, and welcome other families to your weekend and holiday get-togethers.

2. Model the way.

Paul told Timothy, “Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). He also told Titus, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (Titus 2:7). While Paul was primarily encouraging these young pastors in their teaching and moral purity, the principle holds for all areas of leaders’ lives. The church watches you, and they are likely to model much of their spiritual and relational habits after yours. Thus, show them the way of relational depth and interdependence.

There are a few practical ways that you can model Christ-shaped relationships. I encourage pastors to regularly use sermon illustrations from their community group or friendships in the church—with permission when necessary. Further, when meeting with new people in the church, tell them about the community you have found, and urge them to follow the steps that have most helped you. For those struggling to make friends and build relationships, share how you’ve struggled in the same way but persevered to create a close-knit community. For those with families, share how you have involved other families in your children’s activities. Model the way of friendship and community, and others will be glad to follow the pattern.

Model the way of friendship and community, and others will be glad to follow the pattern.

3. Focus on simple, sustainable ministry.

If you’re like me, you likely work long days and full weeks and have little spare time to invest in new friendships and other families. (This is part of why it’s so helpful to invite others to things you’re already doing.) To embrace a life of relationships, we will have to be more intentional in how we structure our churches’ ministries. We will have to focus on simple, sustainable ministry instead of running too many events and unwieldy programs.

It’s natural for church members to want to meet felt needs and provide numerous connection points—especially when wanting to cultivate deeper community. But we must be careful. If we say yes to every new group, class, service opportunity, and ministry event, we will soon have a church calendar so full that it’s almost impossible to build relationships outside of structured church events. Plus, each of these events demands more time in preparation and administration for volunteer leaders, limiting their capacity to develop deep friendships.

I’ll be honest. I love ending events and programs that have reached their expiration date. Early in my ministry, I was so afraid of disappointing or offending people that I would let studies, groups, and recurring events go on forever. But after seeing the value of free time for friendship and community, I’ve grown to appreciate saying no to new things and graciously ending things that have fulfilled their purpose so that members have free time to build relationships together.

I’ll give one simple example. When we first began planting Trinity Church, we thought offering free family movies in the park would be a great way to connect with our neighborhood. It was a great idea, but the volunteer need was immense. We bought a large, inflatable screen and borrowed a projector and sound system. We canvassed the neighborhood with invitations, secured park reservations, obtained movie licenses, and posted on social media. We set up the event, transported and stored the items, and cleaned up afterward. It was exhausting. And in the year that we held these move nights, we spent thousands of volunteer hours, and not a single person from the neighborhood ever visited the church. Gaining church attendees wasn’t our only goal, but it had become clear that this ministry was not bearing the fruit we desired. So we ended it. And nearly everyone breathed a sigh of relief. (Now, we make the projector, screen, and sound system available to any community groups that want to throw their own neighborhood party.)

Pastor, you have an incredibly difficult and demanding position. You have been called to teach the word, pray with and for your people, and shepherd the flock under the care of the good shepherd. But don’t neglect your own life and relationships, and don’t forget to lead the church in forming and sustaining healthy, deep relationships. I’m convinced you won’t regret guarding these priorities.

Your brother,

This article is adapted from Why Do We Feel Lonely at Church? by Jeremy Linneman.

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