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Loneliness: A Calling

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 99

Loneliness: It's Always There
 
"Lonely days, lonely nights, where would I be without..."
 
This song, popularized by the Bee Gees, aptly summarizes the ministry. At times it is lonely. For some it's lonely in the day; it's lonely in the night; it's lonely when we're busy and it's lonely when we're not. Though we try to cover it up, it's so hard, so very hard to escape.
 
Why? Maybe it's a part of the calling to ministry. Maybe it's your calling.
 
The Reality Of Ministerial Loneliness
 
In an article on page 5 in the Winter 1998 Lutheran Family Association Journal* entitled "Intertwined: Marriage, Family and Professional Church Workers,"  Dr. Bruce Hartung, Executive Director of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support, stated,
 

The four top problems in clergy marriages are 81 percent insufficient time together, 71 percent use of money, 70 percent income level and 64 percent communication difficulties (Leadership, Fall, 1992). Additionally, 80 percent of pastors "believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively" (Fuller Theological Seminary Study, 1991). What's more, 33 percent of pastors are dissatisfied with the level of sexual intimacy in their marriage, and pastors report that 16 percent of their spouses are dissatisfied, which 69 percent blame on their spouse's schedule and 35 person on frequent night church meetings (Leadership, Fall, 1992).

That's the reality. For a considerable number of pastors, the ministry can be a lonely, a very lonely calling.
 
Loneliness: A Calling?
 
One of the major illusions pastors have is that because one is doing the Lord's work they are connected with God. Since they assume such is the case, the way pastors try to find connectedness with God is by working harder, working more faithfully, and immersing themselves in a love for God which requires all of their heart and mind...but not their soul.
 
No matter how hard they work, no matter how much sweat and success or tireless efforts and failures, it seems that at some point the loneliness begins to be felt in a incrementally increasing strength.
 
When the loneliness is first felt, pastors may be tempted to believe that if they work harder it will help. But it doesn't. As it increases, these pastors may begin looking to others to fill the loneliness. Such individuals may be a spouse, family members, church staff members, or friends and acquaintances. When the pastor finally seems to find someone who will offer an empathetic ear to hear our loneliness, they often strengthen that tie--often overlooking the potential consequences of such ties. As the dependency grows, it can unknowingly become addictive.
 
When crisis or trauma occurs, the addiction can take hold. The addiction may become more obvious as the personal difficulties and loneliness increase. As the attachment grows stronger, so does the dependency. Though the loneliness is still there, it is blinded by the euphoria of the relationship.
 
Loneliness: Negative Consequences
 
Unless restraint is exercised, pastors in this state may find themselves at risk of various forms of clergy sexual misconduct. Even if it doesn't reach such a level, if the supportive relationship or relationships are disrupted, the result is a an even greater and more acute awareness of--you guessed it--the loneliness.
 
But even in the most optimum marriage in which the pastor and his spouse absolutely and totally support each other in their loneliness, there may still be something missing. Something missing deep, deep, deep down in the soul. Sooner or later we find out that the external things in this world cannot fill the loneliness. Sooner or later the affirmation of St. Augustine, "Our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee," becomes our affirmation.
What Are You Doing For Your Soul?
 
Excessive dependency on any individual--even, I dare say, your spouse--may help you run from the loneliness. But you still can't hide. That's because your loneliness can't be consoled by anything outside of you. The only thing that can console it is your faith and soul-connectedness with God.
 
The Connection With God
 
In Stand Like Mountain, Flow Like Water: Reflections on Stress and Human Spirituality (Health Publications, 1997), author Brian Seaward described several individuals who during difficulties learned to access the inner resources of their faith in God for strength.

One young woman, having discovered she contracted AIDS from an infected sperm sample used to artificially inseminate her confessed,

"I have a very personal connection with the supreme force. We all have to realize that here is someone or something a whole lot bigger than we are. There is something there, and I rely upon this as well. I find each day I must strike a balance between taking an active role in my life, yet at the same time surrendering to God."
Stress: An Opportunity
 
Chinese do not have a word for "stress." Instead, they use the word "opportunity" to describe what we call "stress." Loneliness is, among other things, "stress."
 
But it need not be. Perhaps we need to remove the word "stress" from our vocabulary and replace it with "opportunity." Imagine how different things would be if we did just that! Church conflict is an opportunity. The resignation of a trusted member is an opportunity. Personal weakness is an opportunity. Decline in church attendance and finances is an opportunity. Interpersonal conflict is an opportunity. The stress of loneliness is also an opportunity.
 
Loneliness As An Opportunity
 
You may not think of loneliness as much of an opportunity. But maybe God does. Maybe God has a reason for your loneliness. God's reason for giving us loneliness may be to draw us to love Him with all our heart, mind and, finally, our soul. If loneliness is a God-given opportunity, then by implication it becomes in a special part of God's working in us. Perhaps it even becomes a calling.
 
Loneliness can be God's way of calling you to a greater relationship with Him. It can be a calling to intentionally remove yourself from others and use that loneliness to connect with God through prayer, meditation, Scripture reading, or a regular, quiet contemplative experience of taking a walk at night in the stars and reflecting on God's goodness. Try taking a walk or a drive in the country with the windows open and pondering just one or two key words or phrases of your favorite Christian hymn or song. Though simple, it can help begin a connection with God.
 
Reflect on how God is so awesomely present in everything--from the ants on the sidewalk to the worms that come out of the ground in the rain to the rainbow of God's promise to the northern lights which flash so brilliantly. All creation is right there before your eyes to help you meditate on the recognition that God is right there with you. Though He's always present, we seldom are really cognizant of it. So often we fail to see His majesty until we consciously develop an "How-Great-Thou-Art" awareness of His immanent presence in all of His creation.
 
As long as we maintain a lonely lifestyle which looks to people, things, personal performance, and events to totally fill our loneliness, we will likely never really benefit from recognizing the presence of God. Perhaps we need to practice the presence of God not just in our church, our work, and in our families, but deep inside the innermost dwelling of our souls where only God can fill the loneliness.
 
Jesus And Loneliness
 
Jesus even get lonely? Sure He did. He was forsaken of God. Human in every respect except without sin, He almost surely did experience loneliness. Adam also experienced loneliness in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. By providing Adam a "helper fit for him," God showed that part of His plan to deal with loneliness is through other people. No doubt, Jesus dealt with loneliness through the support of His disciples and closest friends--including his best friend, Lazarus, for whom He wept.
 
Yet this does not preclude the fact that loneliness is ultimately most fully satisfied through a connectedness with God. Thus, a meditative lifestyle is essential. When Jesus, as was His custom, went by Himself to pray early in the morning, it wasn't just to pray to His Father. It was His way to maintain a spiritual connection with God to deal with the utter and essential existential loneliness of human existence.
 
Loneliness: Some Suggestions
 
1) Take a walk...but be careful not to allow yourself to "brood". If such is the case, try shorter walks or a different activity.
 
2) Call a seminary classmate you haven't seen or talked to in years to renew old friendships.
 
3) Go to a Christian music event. If there's not one nearby, put together a "Greatest Hits" worship service which includes all those special hymns which speak so directly to the soul.
 
4) Drive through your home town or do something nostalgic that reminds you of God's blessings of people whom He has brought into your life. When you see them, see them as God's special gifts for you.
 
5) Take a walk with a prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah by reading their prophecies with an eye for those verses which affirm God's presence with them and all God's people.
 
6) And there are so many, many more possibilities.
 
Using "Soul" Verses In Loneliness
 
As I consider those pastors with whom I've been acquainted and reflect on their ministries, one thing that I noticed that many of them had in common is that each of them had a "soul" verse. Usually it's just one or two very short verses which they bring to mind during their more frustrating times.
 
My sainted grandfather, also a pastor, used to frequently quote Isaiah's words,

"Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Isaiah 40:31 (NIV)

I never knew why he did that until I started developing my own. Personally, I have three soul verses, one for a different type of ministry situation.
 
For Loneliness From Leadership Issues
 
My first one is Matthew 16:18. I use this verse for dealing with the loneliness resulting from those time when "Entropy happens."
 

"I shall build My Church and the gates of hell
shall not prevail against it." (KJV)

If there's any promise of Jesus that I believe, this is it. Whenever there is difficulty in the church or when things occur which perplex me, I simply repeat the truth, "He will build His Church." He is in charge and it's His Church, not mine. This does not absolve me from any responsibility. Nor does it mean I'm just an innocent, apathetic bystander, either. Instead, it's a rock-bottom conviction that nothing happens in His church without Him knowing it.
 
Here's what I do. If a leader resigns, I repeat, "He shall build His church." If unexpected conflict arises, I repeat, "He shall build His Church." If a program has failed or is in critical need of staff, "He shall build His Church." If my ministry is undercut and the church is splitting uncontrollably at the seams with no guarantee it will survive, "He shall build His church." When I let go of the church and give it to Him, He does as He promises in His way and in His time. He shall build His church. You can take it to the bank. He shall build His Church.
 
So, whatever happens, whenever I resource this Scripture it re-affirms my absolutely 100% confidence that He shall build His Church--with or without me--no matter what it looks like in the present. So, with these words, I give the Church over to Jesus and let Him worry about it as I continue to faithfully preach the Word, administer the Sacraments, and carry out the ministry which God has given me.
 
For Loneliness From Doubts Of One's Divine Calling
 
My second "soul" verse is the call of Jeremiah in Jeremiah1:4-10. Here God, in calling Jeremiah, tells Jeremiah that he, like me, was called from before the beginning of the world to ministry. Though I think I'm only a child and must face fear, God reaffirms to Jeremiah,

"'Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,' declares the Lord." (NIV)

Those who are familiar with the original Hebrew will appreciate the undeniable force of the formula, "declares the Lord." It's the most solemn, authoritative word that God can give. Indeed, the very character and integrity of God hangs in the balance on this declaration. If God declared it, there's just no way it can't or won't happen.
 
The vividness of God touching Jeremiah's mouth in Jeremiah 1:9 for me gives a special sometimes needed "kick in the pants" to move me boldly and courageously forward.

"Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant." (Jeremiah 1:9-10 NIV)

Sooner or later the Word of God will work in our lives to "uproot and tear down..." even though we might be expecting "success." God's Words to Jeremiah simply bring me back to the reality that God's calling means that we will experience success, failure and everything in between. Though it will be hard, it is our calling.
 
Whatever God is doing in my ministry--destroying or building, uprooting or planting--I will simply let God do His work and rely on His paradoxical principle that He builds by destroying, He plants by uprooting, and He establishes by overthrowing.
 
Other "Soul" Verses In Loneliness
 
My confirmation verse is I Corinthians 6:19, "You are bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and your spirit, for they are God's." This verse helps me to remember who I am and put my self back into the perspective of grace. The reason I do whatever God calls me to do for Him is simply because His calling is for me to glorify Him in my life and ministry. After all, I have been "bought with a price."
 
A final suggestion is also one of my very, very favorites. I use it in good times and in bad times, whether happy or sad. I used it for a farewell sermon from my first church and used it for my initial sermon in my second. I even have a stain glass etching of it hanging in the window above my desk to remind me of God's promise each time I look at it. It's the familiar words of Jeremiah,

"'I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" (NIV)

Does Your Heart Yearn?
 
Isaiah in chapter twenty six, verse nine wrote,

"My soul yearns for you in the night;
in the morning my spirit longs for you." (v. 9)

Saint Augustine was right. "Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee." The loneliness we feel may be a reminder that maybe we're tied too closely to our external, material world and not really "in touch" with God in the deepest places of our "soul."
 
This restlessness may  simply be God's "tapping" you on the shoulder, or "kicking" you where you may need it most until it hurts, to urge you to love Him differently than you have in the past. We are called not just to love Him with our heart or with our mind, but now with the fullness of our souls.
 
Take up your Bible and begin to find those special words of God to comfort you in your loneliness. Indeed, it's an opportunity to walk with the One who will never, ever leave you or forsake you.
 
Thomas F. Fischer
 

* For subscription information for the Lutheran Family Association Journal, write Lutheran Family Association, 3558 S. Jefferson, St. Louis, Mo. 63118 or call them at 1-800-393-8918.  Please mention Ministry Health in your inquiry.

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:49 PM