Confessions of a Cynical Pastor

Note: We received the following story at Church Answers recently. The only changes I made were to protect the identity of the pastor. His self-awareness and prescriptions are very helpful.

I spent the last week with my family at the beach on vacation. We really enjoyed ourselves. I wished we had another week! While there, I hoped to detox from the constant pressures of the ministry, unplug from screens and social media, and just be present with my wife and kids.

After a few days of this detox, I had a troubling realization. I am jaded and self-protective toward people—strangers, church members, whatever — just people in general.

Avoiding People

I often find myself not wanting to be around people—even people I like. For example, at the beach, I didn’t want to meet new people or become friends with any of the other families at our condo that we kept running into down on the beach or by the pool. I smile and try to be polite, of course. But deep down, I sense this growing and alarming sense of fear at letting people get close to me.

On an almost subconscious level, I have come to distrust others, thinking that they’re going to end up scrutinizing me or adhering to some strange theological or political belief very passionately and holding suspicion toward me if I don’t hold the same view with the same level of fervor.

When Cynicism Hits

I have become cynical. Cynicism is the belief that people are motivated by self-interest. To be cynical is to be distrustful of human sincerity. I feel like most people are hard to please and easy to offend. Accordingly, I have learned to tread lightly. It has negatively impacted my ability to fulfill God’s call on my life to be a pastor to his people.

I shared my realization with my wife. She is always so supportive and mature. She said it was good that God was showing me these developments. Then, she asked, “What are you going to do about it?”

A Prescription for Pastoral Cynicism

So this morning, after my Bible reading, I made a list of responses to the question, How I can fight back against cynicism in my life and ministry? Here are my six responses. I would appreciate your feedback, especially if you’ve dealt with this sort of thing and have advice or resources you can share. Thanks in advance.

How can I fight back against cynicism in my life and ministry?

Pray for God’s help. Pray that God would heal my heart, forgive me of a lack of love, renew my love for my people, and give me a thick hide and a tender heart. It is a gift to see a struggle and be able to name it, admit it, confess it, and be forgiven.

Create, maintain, and regularly engage a pictorial directory of prayer of church members. And pray for my church members!

Seek help from books, articles, sermons, podcasts related to the subject.

Cultivate relationships with other pastors in which cynicism can be discussed, confessed, commiserated, and prayed about.

“Smell like the sheep”—that is, spend time with my flock. Reactive opportunities will happen, sure, but they alone are insufficient. Be proactive and create opportunities. Call them, text them, send them Facebook messages, visit them.

Regulate social media intake. Creativity should be the price of consumption. Interact. Share “likes” supportively. Don’t just be nosey, but be kind and magnanimous with the way you scroll your feeds. Be on guard against negative material. Being “in the know” on Twitter isn’t really that important, especially if it contributes to cynicism that adversely affects your love for people.

Note: Thank you, pastor, for these words of wisdom. I know many pastors who feel similarly to you. I also know you have likely helped thousands of them with these words.

Posted on July 5, 2021

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Mary Armstrong-Reiner says on

    I have been broken by the church several times over 25 years of ministry, and several things that have helped me heal include having a trained spiritual director to work with me, going on retreat for 3-5 days ( to me 1-2 just barely let me relax), reading or re-reading the book, “ The Wounded Healer”, by Henri Nouwen, therapy, and stepping away from social media more. I have also defriended people, even members, who are just looking to enflame others with their rhetoric online. Prayer is always a part of all of it but healing takes time. I hope you extend the grace to walk through this with God just as you would extend that grace to others.

  • Thanks for the article. I’ve pastored a small congregation in rural VT for over 20 years and find myself lapsing into cynicism from time to time. Greatly appreciate your insights and transparency.

  • Richard Plotzker says on

    The Reverend may not really be cynical but more like somebody who does not like being on display. Not unique to pastors. Doctors or elected officials also have their private space intruded. Probably also true of anyone else serving the public in a professional and visible way. Carving out time someplace where nobody knows who you are becomes essential, which seems to be what the Reverend did. But ultimately you serve a constituency. Being among them, listening to them, or sometimes being the Cruise Director who makes sure they all have a good time tends to be what attracts people to these type of professions. And performing well professionally, whether for doctors, ministers, or officials getting reelected generates its own satisfactions.

  • This article was sent to me a very timely moment. I also had just recently realized my own cynical attitude. I confided in my wife and told her, “I just don’t like people anymore.” That was very hard to admit and very alarming for my ministry. I had begun to pray very specifically for my heart to soften and I also began to be more mindful of the influence of social media. I really appreciated all of the additional suggested ideas the author gives to help overcome this. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  • Darrell says on

    I like being around people. I have found this article to make very strong points that I have experienced due to past hurt from people leaving without telling us why etc. After a while I feel like sometimes, I too, want to just be isolated or not noticed in a crowd. I have also been without that pastor to pastor accountability that is much needed. It is so hard it seems to find other pastors that are not competing in a sense or always talking ministry.

  • Curtis says on

    I believe most of US pastors share his concerns. He left a lot out of his post but there is enough there to glean where he is at in his ministry and his life. It is difficult to self-assess or self-monitor our interaction with people. We may think we are coming across as nice and Christian like but our body language, tonal inflection etc says something different.

    Another consideration is perhaps it is time for him to move on? Pastors can overstay their tenure and become cynical when things do not go or continue as expected. He did not state how long he has been serving this church; however there comes a point that a pastor needs to move on. I had a toxic church that I knew in three-months there was little I could do there. I had another church where I stayed ten-years with two of those years being too long. Another church I realized a year into my pastorate that this church is closer to Sardis that Philadelphia. I do not believe there is a church that does not have issues and these issues wear on the pastor and are transferred to his family. It is difficult to minister to broken people day after day including the ones who need a lot of grace and it not affect you negatively.

    Jesus escaped to the mountains to pray. I believe he felt the stress and emotional toll. Perhaps more AWAY time from the church would also be beneficial. Look at the ragtag bunch of disciples Jesus had following him. All the infighting and pettiness between them Jesus handled. I need to be more like Jesus. Prayers for your success.

  • Wesley Henry says on

    I have heard it said that cynicism is rarely founded in not caring, but rather caring too much. This pastor said to be cynical is to be distrusting of human sincerity, but I often find that it has more to do with me and my perspective of people, via socials or complaints of others, than a distrust of others. I love his number one point of prayer for Gods help for a “thick hide and a tender heart”! When cynicism begins to build in our hearts, we often see a thick (read hardened) heart and tender skin (read feelings).

    Great words this morning and definitely an on time read. Thanks Thom for sharing!

  • Donald Key says on

    I think remembering the “why” is helpful. Why are you in the ministry? Why are you a pastor? Secondly, maybe your gifted ness is more on the administrative side. I spoke recently with a pastor who admitted he did not like people. He was not sociable. He was more administrative. Perhaps you need to find a ministry that fits your gifted ness.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good points. Thanks, Donald. But I do know many extroverted pastors who like to be around people. Many of them experience these same struggles.

  • David Oyster says on

    This pastor wrote that he is jaded and self-protective and often does not want to be around people. Contributing to these feelings may be past hurts and wounds that have not been constructively and sufficiently dealt with and forgiven. We all have such wounds, and the vast majority of churches do nothing to help their members deal with them by God’s grace in the context of a loving, supportive faith community. I have been helped very significantly by support groups. They may be of help to this pastor.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, David.

    • Virginia says on

      Excellent point, David Oyster, and true that churches rarely speak of or help with wounds. What we label sin or character flaw is often an unhealed wound instead. Support groups, prayer groups, books on healing, counselors and friends we can open up to can all be helpful.

  • Bob Myers says on

    Been there. I think cynicism is an ever-present temptation for pastors who face a constant onslaught of criticism, attack, and discouragement. But it is, of course, counter-productive for yourself and your congregation and, if spiritually sensitive, the Holy Spirit won’t allow you to stay there. I found this especially to be true after I left a toxic church. In my case, it took years to work through the fear and cynicism. It’s still a temptation but I’m grateful for the Spirit’s insistent prompting and a patient and loving congregation.

    I found the pastor’s transparency and insights to be very helpful. Thanks for sharing them, Thom!

  • The single largest factor from his list, for me, is the regulating of negative intake from social media sources. It can sour the best of days and set me up for a bad attitude toward others–including my wife and family–I encounter during the day.