Once we have acknowledged the challenge of loneliness in the pastorate, we need to identify some additional steps in coping with this loneliness. As was mentioned yesterday, one unfortunate tactic for coping with the pain of loneliness is to build a shield around you so that though outwardly you are interacting with others, inwardly you are shutting down. To counter that, it is important that a pastor intentionally build some community experiences that touch feelings of joy, nurture, and pleasure. If you are married, you need to deliberately schedule with your partner some fun experiences and some nurturing of each other. Life is an intricate web and sharing feelings with one person can nurture our capacity to be sensitive to feelings among others. For single pastors, the need is no less real but needs to be pursued in another manner.
A second step might be to find a colleague, perhaps in another denomination or even another faith community with whom you can occasionally share your challenges and your joys. Several times during my ministry, I found that type of kinship with a Jewish Rabbi or a Muslim Imam. Being outside my particular faith but sharing similar challenges within his or her faith allowed us to care for each other in special ways.
I have already mentioned the value of a Spiritual Director or counselor with whom you can meet regularly.
Given our modern technology, one might find a value in establishing a skype relationship with a clergy who shares a similar position in another part of either this country or another country. A regular scheduled conversation by such a means could have mutual benefits.
A focused discipline of prayer and Scripture study that made use of the psalms of lament and others laments such as shared by Jeremiah could also help you wrestle with the challenge of loneliness in a spiritual context.
The critical issue is not to deny the burden of loneliness and to seek out means to keep centered in the community that can restore you.
As a basis for this reflection, let me tie together two separate passages. The first is from Genesis 2:18, “Then the Lord god said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone;’” This passage at the beginning of the Bible reflects the foundational need of humanity for community. We were meant for relationships. The first sin recorded in Scripture was a breaking of that essential relationship, first with God and then with neighbor. Now, relate that passage to Paul’s statement about Jesus in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ took on the burden of our brokenness that he might reconcile us to God and each other. A rather simple translation of righteousness is restoring us to right relationship.
At another point, when asked to sum up the essence of the faith, Jesus identified the two essential commandments that focus on relationships — love of God and love of neighbor. As any pastor knows, when you reach out in community to one who experiences the sin or brokenness of community, you take on those feelings in your own being. Christ took on the sin, or brokenness of community of the whole world. Pastors do the same for their congregants and often others.
The first part of a pastor’s coping with that loneliness, is acknowledging its reality as part of the nature of his or her own calling. You do not defeat that loneliness by drugs, alcohol, sexual experiences, etc. In fact the danger is that some pastors try to escape that burden through such destructive behavior. Others seek to dull the pain by separating themselves from what they are feeling with the result that they lose the capacity to feel any feelings at all.
One of the great values of having a spiritual director is that that person can help you re-engage in feeling those feelings and place them in a spiritual context. You are reconnecting with community in a way that doesn’t violate confidentiality. Its a first step but a very valuable one. We will consider others tomorrow.
What most members and society do not recognize with respect to the role of clergy is the sheer loneliness that is part of a good pastor’s life. When our faith speaks of Christ bearing the sins of the world, it is identifying an often neglected aspect of the role of pastors of the Body of Christ. It is, of course, at a level far below that of Christ, but good pastors do absorb the wounds, pain, fears, angers, and sins of their neighbors. In a way that always astonishes me, people will entrust to a pastor some of the most private secrets in their lives. Even non-members will often come to a pastor of a church to bare their souls. Frequently there are no answers to the crisis, tragedy, shameful secret, or fear they bring to the pastor and often they don’t even expect a solution but they need to share it with someone. Sometimes that revelation reflects traditional definitions of sin but at others it simply reflects the brokenness of the world. It is not unusual for a pastor to look out at the congregation on a Sunday morning and be struck by the many forms of woundedness arrayed before him or her.
In many cases, we are entrusted with other people’s burdens but are not free to share them and process our own feelings with others. In that sense we bear the sins of the world in our own being. We are in the season of lent. It might be a valuable discipline for a pastor to meditate on the incredible loneliness of Christ as he traveled to the cross and how Christ handled that loneliness as a basis for reflecting on how we are to respond to our own sense of loneliness in the ministry.
In light of that loneliness, Matthew 11:28 through 30 might be a good passage for reflection. How can Jesus say, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Over the next few days we will look at how pastors can cope with the loneliness and not let it defeat them.
Another category of expectations that is often overlooked is that of the public’s expectation for congregations. While many in our society do not choose to participate in a congregation, one frequently encounters their expectations for congregations and clergy. A church may think that it is invisible in a community but when a scandal erupts or a zoning debate goes public, it is front page news. Let a clergy violate community expectations and it becomes a major topic for debate. There is a societal expectation for churches that sometimes is higher than the church’s own expectation. It often makes little room for grace and forgiveness.
So what are the routine expectations that the public holds for any institution within the community. The recent debates about mega-church buildings, traffic patterns on Sunday morning, etc. reveal some community expectations.
Second, what does the community expect because it is a Christian church? Name several ways that the public would quickly want to identify how we had violated their assumptions about how Christians should behave. Usually that is around ethical issues. Though they also have expectation about how we should offer community liturgical events.
The third category is a little more difficult and is usually seen in situations when the church has sacrificially acted on its faith. Recall how the public has responded when a church houses the homeless or responds to a neighbor who has had a fire, etc.
The fourth category, that of unreasonable expectations, reveals the public’s naivete about Christian beliefs. As mentioned above, the public has little understanding about the practice of forgiveness and grace. Their expectation is that the church should be perfect and any failure to be so in their eyes is an example of hypocrisy.
The examination of these areas of public perception would make a good church school discussion. How does a church make a witness to the community by its behavior?
If you want to identify some of the key factors in clergy dropping out, there are probably few areas that are more important than identifying the expectations that the pastor has for the congregation. This may well be another topic that your email clergy friends could help you with initially. When you have worked it through, however, it should also be part of a discussion at least with the session if not the whole congregation. If the congregation and also the public has expectations for you as a pastor, it is also true that you have expectations for them. Some of the cynicism and disillusionment that can finally drive a pastor from the ministry is the failure of people to live up to the pastor’s expectations, spoken and often unspoken.
Your examination can be based on the same categories that we have previously used. First, try to identify several routine expectations that pastors have for members of the congregation. While you can do this by yourself, it will be much more fruitful if you share it with others. Do we expect members to speak well of the congregation in public? Do we expect them to be regular in their attendance? Try to think of at least four or more such expectations.
Moving to category two, what are your expectations of members that reflect their call or vocation as Christians? Do you expect them to seek forgiveness and be forgiving in relationship to others? Do you expect them to make prayer a regular part of their lives? Identify at least four more expectations.
In category three, you are looking at a more demanding but ultimately satisfying expectation for your members. Do you expect them to financially support the church in a significant way? Do you expect Christians to reflect the compassion of Christ for the less fortunate in society? Go ahead and name some more. In contrast to category two, you are considering some extra sacrifice but actions and attitudes that will contribute to their maturity as Christians.
Category four is important because unexamined expectations here can be a source of frustration for a pastor. What are the unreasonable expectations that you may need to set aside. Do you expect perfect attendance at worship? Do you expect them to always support you in whatever you do? Again, strive for several expectations that when examined, you may recognize as unreasonable.