Support and Resources For Pastors and
Christian Ministry Professionals
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A., Editor
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Checklist For Loneliness
Thomas F. Fischer
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 8) Though some things are out of control, are there areas where you can
- 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
- 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
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:14 PM