Loneliness. Regardless of its duration or what things one might do to avoid it, loneliness is here to stay. But the experience of loneliness deserves special focus for pastors. Loneliness is a professional hazard of many leadership professions, including the ministry.
General physical condition, health of significant relationships, “flow,” and spirituality are but some of the many things which contribute to loneliness.
Most important to recognize is that loneliness is, above all, an issue of intimacy. It often arises when significant, intimately valued “pillars”–be it people, work, expectations, family, and unshakable trust and faith in God–are taken from us. The resulting sense of subversion, betrayal, lack of focus and hopeless purposelessness can so easily take root as loneliness.
Checklist For Loneliness
Perhaps the most difficult part of loneliness is understanding what factors cause loneliness to emerge. Of course, some will say it’s all a matter of attitude. That may be true to the extent that other, more dominant forces and events don’t overwhelm the strength of attitude.
Some of those forces which seem to trigger–or make one vulnerable to–loneliness are listed below. Any one of these forces–or a combination thereof–can increase the risk of loneliness. Recognizing the source of the loneliness becomes helpful to identify the direction toward which dealing with–and healing–the loneliness may occur.
1) What significant losses of intimacy have you experienced? Whether through death, separation, rebellion, or painful sudden detachment, the loss of significant others (spouse, parents, children, confidants, et al) is a major trigger for loneliness. Of course, physical separation is not always needed. The rebellion of adolescent children, the growing distance with a spouse or other family members, for example, represents an emotional separation from intimate connections.
2) Have you substituted scholarly pursuits, hobbies, activities, or work for intimacy? Though it may not be clear whether the activities were pursued as the cause or the result of lacking in other intimate relationships, one thing is clear. This substitution is a key signal of intimacy issues.
Admired, driven leaders absorbed in their ministries are easy prey for substituting work and ministry tasks for real, genuine intimate relationships. These leaders may exhibit narcissistic tendencies–liking attention, following their “Great Vision,” “going where no man has gone before,” and exhibiting their unique intelligence, cunning, daring and abilities to attain amazing accomplishments (with “God’s” help, of course).
When their work and ministry world comes to an uncontrollable crash, the “Humpty Dumpty” can crash into an almost unbearable experience of loneliness.
3) Do you have difficulties facing conflict? Those who are not able to cope with conflict and able to generate healthy adaptive resolution of differences in intimate relationships are also prone to loneliness. Whether it’s due to fear of others or of self, a key reason people have difficulty with conflict is that conflict unveils intimacy issues.
Ironically, it’s not until individuals deal with the difficult issues of intimacy that they can effectively engage in adaptive conflict resolution. In such cases, loneliness is a painful and enduring symptom of unresolved issues. For many, the pain of loneliness can be intense enough to cause them to seek resolution of these issues through intervention of some sort.
4) What conflicts are you avoiding? Often the conflicts which are most painful are those which go to the heart-and-soul-center of our existence. It is precisely because they touch those issues too essential to our existence that they engender such a pervasive and overwhelming sense of loneliness. Dr. M. Scott Peck, in his Road Less Traveled series, speaks of the value of “therapeutic depression.” When loneliness and/or depression is experienced, Peck would have individuals consider these times to be opportunities for painful self-reflection, renewal and growth.
5) Do you see yourself as a “peacekeeper”? Those who try not to “rock the boat” to avoid conflict often find that sooner or later loneliness appears. Attenuation of conflict is simply a short-term escape from dealing with–and growing from–intimacy.
6) Are you currently in emotionally detached relationships? Some individuals never have been in healthy intimate relationships. Others, having experienced the pain of broken relationships, avoid them. Still others simply don’t have the time, energy, interest, or capacity for meaningful intimate relationships. For such individuals loneliness is a virtually foregone conclusion.
7) Are you substituting something/someone else for genuine intimacy? When one gets a headache they take an aspirin. When they break a limb they go to the doctor and get a cast. When the car tire goes flat they fix it or replace it with a new one.
The best thing about these fixes is that they are fast and easy. When individuals seek the fast and easy “fix” for loneliness, almost anything can happen. The energies of unsatisfied intimacy can reach out to virtually anything for rest.
Unfortunately, the “quick and dirty” relief of loneliness is only temporary. The results of the temporary “quick” remedies for loneliness, however, may be quite “dirty” and lead to devastating consequences–alcoholism, immoral sexual behaviors, eating disorders, excessive co-dependency on others, etc.
8) Are you involved in a critical/criticism-based relationship? Critical support is no support at all. Criticism from others only invites self-criticism. When repeated, this cycle of self- and other-criticism deteriorates one’s self-esteem, confidence, and dreams. Given enough criticism, virtually everyone will finally believe the criticism and begin feeling powerless, inept, incapable, overwhelmed, and worthless. Feelings such as these are vintage components of loneliness.
9) Have you traded “peace” for “autonomy”? When relationships require the total giving up of one’s self for the sake of “peace,” even the remotest potential for any type of healthy intimacy is denied. If you are lonely because you have sacrificed your own self to “maintain peace” (read “avoid the real issues requiring intimacy”), it ought not be a surprise. After all, you have given up your most important ally to prevent loneliness: yourself.
10) What is the relative state of your coping relationships?“Five Types of Coping Relationships” (Ministry Health Article 14) describes the types of relationships most needed to uphold one’s emotional, spiritual and physical well-being. Whenever any of these relationships fail, loneliness may not be far behind.
In addition to ensuring a continued development of supportive relationships, pursuing such relationships also helps to sustain appropriate levels of self-differentiation. Of these relationships, perhaps the two most important are 1) having a trusted confidant and 2) having God as a trusted confidant.
11) How differentiated are you in your activities and interests? Lack of self-differentiation and propensities for loneliness virtually go hand-in-hand. When all one’s emotional eggs are all in one basket, one’s psyche is on very shaky ground.
Tarzan never swung through the jungle back and forth on just one vine. If he did, his life would have been an endless “back and forth” pendulum swing between utter meaninglessness and inescapable loneliness.
Take some advice from Tarzan and his monkey friend, Chita. Never swing on just one vine! If you don’t, you just may go ape! (See “Checklist for Self-Differentiation,”Ministry Health Article 49, for more insights on self-differentiation).
12) Are you guilt-prone and tend to feel responsible for everything? The more conscientious and competent the individual, the greater the likelihood they will feel guilt and responsibility for everything. Especially if they have experienced remarkable success–and attributed that success largely to their own efforts–when failure or setbacks occur, they will also blame themselves. Others have tendencies to feel inappropriate responsibility for things with which they have little or no association.
An inordinate, unhealthy sense of responsibility is a sure recipe for loneliness. It is difficult for some to keep from becoming too enmeshed or fused to issues, causes and results over which they have no responsibility. As such enmeshment is an intimacy issue, guilt-proneness and hyper-responsibility need to be addressed in healthy ways to help alleviate loneliness.
13) What are you trying to “figure out” that continues to elude you? Things happen in life which often defy rationality. Accidents kill. Fearful people flee. Unjust things happen to people in the most unjust ways. The relentless wrestling to try to “figure things out” can be born of–and lead to–depression and loneliness.
Certain personality types respond to trauma in ways that can engender loneliness. For example, the “J” (Judgmental) personality, as measured by the Myers-Briggs Temperament Inventory, has a natural tendency to engage in an extremely deep, incessant brooding in response to crisis. The resulting state of “hermit-ization” is characterized–as virtually any escapist mechanism–by an extremely deep sense of loneliness.
Some personality types, especially those which continue to criticize and question motivations and behaviors of others, are also prone to loneliness. Jesus’ exhortation, “Don’t be judgmental and condemnatory and you will not be condemned in return” (Matthew 7:1 paraphrased) is not just good ethics. It’s good health, too!
Those who experience long-term loneliness and depression may feel as if their faith, prayer, and attitude will heal. Sometimes the inability to “let go” of the thoughts can be best dealt with via depression or anxiety medications. Those who fail to seek appropriate medical intervention may, at best, be short-sighted. At worst, they are foolishly gambling with their mind and their ministry.
14) What is it that preoccupies your every thought and that needs to be shared but you are afraid to disclose completely? Whatever it is that is hidden and for whatever reasons you feel you can’t share it, concealing the thoughts will exact its price. Often the price is loneliness. The longer it remains concealed, the more it will literally eat you up with more intense loneliness.Psalm 6, 22, et al, frequently speak of this dynamic.
“My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak.” Psalm 31:10 NIV
You have to respect the impact of what is concealed. Whether it is an issue of morality, of fear, of uncertainty, personal realization of failure, failed relationships, or grief, it must be shared with a competent, confidential professional. Confession and absolution are the first steps of renewing the healthy intimacy of grace with God. They are also the first steps toward healthy intimacy with ourselves.
15) Are you feeling unable to fight back? When the things we are most connected to start slipping out of control, our instinct is to try to “fight back” and wrest back control. The more things appear out of our control, the more we try to control them the greater the potential for loneliness.
“Letting go and letting God” truly is one of the hardest lessons to learn. Until one can “let go” of the need to control, retaliate, get things back to where they were, get the last word et al, one may be allowing for a susceptibility for loneliness.
16) Are you feeling disinterested in taking–or unable to take–initiative? “Letting go” is only one side of the anti-loneliness coin. One must also be able to pick one’s self up, be willing to forge ahead, and passionately strive toward new visions, goals and objectives. To resist or otherwise fail to move forward, especially after “letting go,” simply leaves one out of the flow of life, relationships and ministry.
Until one can move forward, one has not really “let go.” Isn’t letting go and taking new initiatives what faith is all about anyway? As scary as it can be to confront the loneliness, it’s only when we step out that we experience the comfort of being carried as if “on eagle’s wings.”
17) What seasonal dynamics are operative? The change of seasons, the variations of weather, varying amounts of sunshine, and holidays all affect one’s relative susceptibility to loneliness. The changes in seasons can affect one’s level of activity, overall fitness (it’s hard to take daily outdoor walks in deep snow), and body chemistries.
Some holidays, especially Christmas, tend to be grief triggers. “The hopes and fears of all the years” are met in Christmas. Past griefs, losses of significant intimate relationships, and the present awareness of their being absent (through death, distance, broken relationships, etc.) can trigger momentarily or relatively durative experiences of loneliness.
18) How dependent are you on the “BIG FOUR”–validation, approval, warmth, and affection? When individuals are too dependent on the regular, overt experience of these four relationship elements, loneliness is waiting just outside the door. Though these four elements are important to all humanity, the excessive expectation that one will–and should–receive these on a regular basis can be harmful.
This excessive expectation can point to unresolved intimacy issues from parents or other significant others. More importantly, it can betray a Law-based pattern of intimacy based on works…and how well the works are done.
Trying to earn approval by what one does is a poor substitute for Gospel-based intimacy which validates unconditionally, approves unconditionally, and gives unconditional warmth, affection, and acceptance. Indeed, it is in direct conflict with the healthy intimacy of God’s unconditional grace which disallows all works and boasting.
Paul put it this way: “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13 (NIV). Having subjugated all his accomplishments, rights to validation and approval to God’s grace, he considered them “feces.” This was not merely an act of faith. It was also a key to his intimate fellowship and identification with Christ which fended off loneliness.
Certainly validation, approval et al from significant others is important. But it must always be put into perspective. Jesus’ words remind us of that truth: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).
19) Are you feeling understood and validated? Individuals who sense the 100% support of their lives by significant others–and God–tend to have the lowest level of loneliness. Without that support, however, loneliness can quickly begin causing emotional cave-ins.
The experience of loneliness often means that there has been a breakdown in the equality in a trusting, intimate relationship. Without the balance of mutual understanding and validation. the consequences of imbalance–including loneliness–can emerge.
20) Are you feeling sorry for yourself? There is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes noted, a time for everything. But don’t overdo it. All leaders need time to recover from the frequent experiences of loneliness. But they also recognize that they must move on. Attitudinal resources of the “Maxwellian” genre are often helpful in this regard. Greg Morris’ excellent articles are excellent examples of motivational “Maxwellian” leadership materials (cf. Ministry Health archives #214-219, 229, 249 et al.)
21) Why aren’t you spending more time with God? This question isn’t intended to be the expected clichéd diatribe that any Christian article should include. It’s a poignant reminder that the basis for the “flow of joy” is ones intimate connection with God. It must be nurtured in a personal, dynamic manner. Whether exercised by the classic oratio, tenatio et al or by other means, the key issue for dealing with loneliness is to recover the “soul” of Christian spirituality.
Jesus exemplified the nurturing of this kind of spirituality. Whenever Jesus was troubled or tired, joyful or lonely, He didn’t go out to be someplace by Himself out of sheer desperation. He didn’t just go to God when everything else failed. His first desire was to be with God. He frequently went out to be alone by Himself. In these encounters, however, He was never lonely. It was in the aloneness that He found strength in the nurturing of His intimate faith and life relationship between Himself and His Father.
Professional ministry has a way of degrading to a barren, emotionless professionalism. Pastors as well as other professionals, tired of all the emotions their professions entail, will often strip away the personal, intimate part of their profession. What remains is a barren and very lonely recurrence of professional activity.
To turn away from loneliness, one needs to turn back to the personal, the intimate. There is no better place to begin than with a personal, intimate, recurring encounter with the Father.
Other Questions To Consider
Of course the list above is not exhaustive. Other questions or issues relating to loneliness might include…
1) Do you feel as if you are allowed to have free, uninhibited self-disclosure with a significant other?
2) When was the last time you shared your deepest fears? With whom did you share them?
3) When was the last time you made and shared love to your spouse?
4) Is your sense of helplessness reinforced in your key relationships?
5) Do those around you withdraw or engage in vague behaviors which leave you confused, bewildered and lonely?
6) Do you have difficulty trusting your own judgment?
7) Are you receiving the appropriate attention and admiration you “deserve”?
8) Though some things are out of control, are there areas where you can take control?
Loneliness In Biblical Perspective
Loneliness has been part of this world since the very beginning of man’s experience. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God reflected. So He made Eve, the companion suited to address Adam’s aloneness.
Perhaps the greatest encounter with loneliness in Scripture occurs in the wilderness. In fact, the “wilderness” might be a very appropriate metaphor for “loneliness.” Yet how amazing it is that it was in the wilderness where the people of God prepared the people of Israel for forty years to enter the Promised Land. It was in the wilderness that God prepared Paul. It was in the wilderness that Christ was severely tested and then ministered to by angels. And it was in the wilderness that John the Baptist called people to repent, be baptized, and “prepare the way of the Lord.”
That is what the wilderness experience of loneliness is for Christians. It is especially so for the leaders of His flock. Moses’ many years tending sheep in the wilderness areas of Midian was where he experienced loneliness. But it was also there He experienced God and His calling. It is from these wilderness experiences that God continues to bring His chosen leaders through the never ending cycle of victory-loss-loneliness-confession-grace-and-affirmation in God’s calling.
But also notice one more thing. In every example listed above, those who have gone through the wilderness were never quite the same. They didn’t go back to what they were. Instead, God called them to something totally new. They had a new direction, a new vision, a new set of circumstances which required greater trust in God.
Certainly leadership and loneliness will continue to go hand-in-hand. As God’s calling propels us forward, our experience of loneliness can draw us backward to the grief. But it can also be a springboard to thrust us forward to a new experience of practicing the presence of God in the greater ministry challenges which God has placed before us.
As Elijah discovered, God’s resources are there. The most difficult part of the loneliness is to have such an intimate faith in God to trust Him that those resources will be there–even when we’re most alone.
“Be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'” Hebrews 13:5 (NIV)
Thomas F. Fischer
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