The Answer for Isolation & Loneliness in Ministry Life

Proverbs 4:23 – “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (ESV)

                               “Keep vigilant watch over your heart; that’s where life starts.” MSG

1 Timothy 4:16 – “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (ESV)

“Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching. Don’t be diverted. Just keep at it. Both you and those who hear you will experience salvation.” MSG

Good soul care for pastors includes both appropriate self-awareness – watching over our hearts, and good rhythms – watching over the patterns of our lives that reflect our true values. Healthy hearts and healthy souls mean healthy lives and ministry.

I have deliberately chosen the word “rhythm” rather than discipline because of the organic nature that the word represents. In music, rhythm is “an ordered alternation of contrasting elements.” Good rhythms in ministry allow us to account for the realities we all face, and keep us from a rigid approach to our discipleship that can far too often create shame rather than joy and freedom.  Rhythms reflect the ebb and flow of life under grace.

In order to address the issues of isolation and loneliness in ministry, we must consider the rhythm between solitude and community.

SOLITUDE AND COMMUNITY

I can be alone in a group. I jokingly refer to my “people quotient.” I am energized by being alone. But when being alone becomes isolation – both externally and internally –  we are in the danger zone. My own story is a clear example of how self-isolation can lead to disaster and an exit from ministry. Reasons and rationalizations abound to keep us from pursuing authentic relationships; creating the opportunity for discouragement and sin to grow.

Many of us in ministry are dangerously isolated – perhaps not because of a lack of proximity to others, but because we lack the commitment to those significant, authentic relationships. This is the loneliness and isolation of many pastors and spouses.

We need the rhythm of both solitude and community to combat isolation and loneliness.

Solitude

Solitude is different from isolation. It is an intentional “coming apart” as Jesus advised, in order to hear God. Jesus planned times of intentional aloneness with the Father. (Mt 14:23, Mk 1:35)

Solitude is that time and place where we find, as John Ortberg has said, that ” …your existence is larger than your job at church.”

Being alone with God in solitude is a Place and Time to remember who I am and to confront the real issues of my heart. One of the clearest examples of this in my own life occurred when I was on a personal retreat at a local Jesuit retreat center. Walking through the “stations of the cross” in the outside gardens, I came to the one where Jesus asked the Father, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In that moment of solitude, God was able to speak into my own feelings of abandonment carried with me from when I was a child – feelings that affected a good deal of how I treated others. In the cry of Jesus, I knew that He understood my pain. Without the time alone, I never would have experienced God’s healing touch in my heart.

Solitude can be a time when we fast from things, people, and all the outer props of our lives; including technology. (R. Foster)

But we must be careful here. We do not live only in those internal moments. There is a reason Jesus created the Church, the physical expression of His Body here on earth. As pastors, we live much of our lives between our ears. The contrasting element to solitude is community – the other element necessary for overcoming isolation and loneliness. Being alone needs to prepare us to be with others.

Community

Pastors and pastor families need genuine community. We may preach it to our congregations. But we can avoid it for ourselves. Ministry happens in community and we need it for our souls to be healthy.

Jesus desired that Peter, James and John share with Him in His times of glory (on the mountain) and in His deep sorrow (in the Garden)

Paul longed for the company of his companions while in prison.

Community is a word that is very popular right now. With it has come a greater willingness of some pastors to be more open about their own challenges from the pulpit. While I am grateful for that, the deeper issue is: are there those who really know us? Do we avoid real and authentic relationships for ourselves out of fear or pride?

Are there people we can be unfettered with? Are there those who can advocate God’s presence and grace to us?

Pastors need others to remind them who they really are – because we can forget that we are human beings first, disciples second and ministers third. All of us need people who can speak God’s truth and grace into our lives and take us back to the Gospel for US!

I am used to being a lone ranger. But understanding that I need others in my life caused me to create an Advisory Team when I returned to ministry life. This small group of men know me, and I can be transparent with them. One of the greatest joy’s in my life is that, where once I had none, now I have friends.

Where is that place, and who are the people with whom you can be fully known without secrets? Who can you sit with and confess, “Here is what I am most ashamed of…” and experience grace, forgiveness and healing! I believe that James 5:16 is the most avoided passage of Scripture I know. Yet the work of confession – of bringing our faults and sins into the light – is vital for the health of our souls. Personal confession is good. But real healing takes place in that community activity of speaking and hearing in the presence of others. Being authentic at this level will allow us to be authentic in other relationships both inside and outside of our congregations.

It is important that we nurture this kind of community with our spouses. They are a “help” fit for you (Gen. 2:18). They are on this journey with you. Then you must find those folks – within and outside your congregation that can be your friends. Before you leave today, I challenge you to reach out and find one other person to begin with.

In the rhythm of Solitude and Community, we can find a lasting answer to the problems of isolation and loneliness in ministry.

For more information on pastoral renewal and restoration, please visit our website at http://www.pirministries.org, or contact us at info@pirministries.org.

Burnout isn’t Just a Pastor Thing…

Last week I reposted an article by Ken Sande regarding his first hand experience with a pastor friend who burned out. This week, we hear the story of how easy it is for the spouse of a pastor to get caught in the whirlwind of ministry life and end up toasted as well.  I want to encourage all pastors to read this – and work to protect their spouse. But to the church at large – let’s do a better job of caring for both our pastor AND spouse.

Read here

Pastors’ Wives Can Burn Out Too

 

I Can Manage on My Own… Part 2 of “5 Reasons Pastors Don’t Ask for Help – and what can happen if you do!”

In my last blog, I began to explore what I think are the top five reasons pastors (and probably quite a few of the rest of us) don’t ask for help. I know that in my own life, I am constantly amazed at how often these tendencies crop up. The daily challenge is to lean into a different way of living, one where the surprises come from what happens when I DO ask for help.

My spiritual director (who’s in addition to my therapist!) said that “ask and you will receive” is a marker of spiritual maturity. I’ve never really considered asking for help as a strength or sign of maturity. In fact, I think our culture promotes the opposite.” – April Diaz

Number 1: Help requires others… but self-sufficiency is our motto.

No matter how many times we may publiclyimages (1) declare the Scriptural truth of our neediness and dependence, we believe that we are more than enough for what we face. We can manage all by ourselves. This management approach dominates in our culture, and pastors are not immune. I know I battle with my inner cowboy – the rough and ready, independent character, self-sufficient in every way. It shows up in simple things, like projects around the house (I have a long list of my own making!), where it never occurs to me to ask others to help. And it extends to the deep and lasting spiritual battles I fight. Regardless of the situation, my inner monologue is, “I can manage it, my thinking is the best, my strength of will can see me through!”

Only humans, this side of the fall, have the audacity to attempt self-sufficiency. Everything in nature is interdependent.

 I watch the barley my son-in-law is growing in our backyard and it shouts this truth. The seed cannot go it alone. Sun, water, soil and the watchful tending of another all play a part. But we are taught early and long that the only one we can really depend on is ourselves. This runs strong in us. I have watched the elderly struggle with being dependent, or interdependent, on others even when it is clear that they cannot care for themselves.

For pastors, this tendency is often reinforced by the expectations that come with the role – both internal and external. Internally, our training, skills and personal need to succeed can lead us to believe that we are sufficient for anything the job can throw at us, if we just manage it better. In our actions, we quite simply say to Jesus, “I’ve got this!” Sometimes the disappointment of having others not follow through can reinforce the feeling that it is just better to go it alone. Externally, pastors are expected to be the one with all the answers to life’s deepest questions. They obviously have their act together; their degree says so… and the illusion of self-sufficiency grows stronger.

We don’t ask for help because asking for help will shatter the illusion and will require that we invite others into our lives and ministries.

“So when you have forgotten who you are, when you assign to yourself more maturity than you actually have, and when you think you are more capable than you really are, you leave yourself little reason to seek the ongoing help of your Savior” – Paul Tripp from Dangerous Calling

What if we were less “…so self-assured,” as the song goes?

In an interview published by the Alban Institute, Eugene Peterson reflected on his own efforts to avoid the trap of self-sufficiency. In seeking to develop a culture of mutuality in life and ministry, he made this bold statement to his congregation:

“Help me. I have needs. I can’t function well without help from you. We’re in this together, we’re doing the same thing, we’re worshiping together, we’re living the Christian life together. You’ve asked me to do certain things to help you do it—to lead you in worship on Sunday, to visit you when you’re sick, to help administer the church. But I need help in all of this.”

If all we have is ourselves, it robs us of intimacy and closes the door on getting the help we desperately need. I find that, in always encouraging others, pastors rarely share their own needs. They challenge their congregations to build community, yet are often sorely lacking in the communal aspect of their own journey.

But if we can step away from our do-it-yourself tendencies for a moment we might find:

  • That we have peace instead of anxiety. Keeping all the plates spinning, being the sole fixer for people’s lives takes a lot of energy; and usually leaves me grouchy and far from the peace that Jesus offered. Taking the risk and asking for help has a mysterious way of renewing my spirit – I don’t have to do it all by myself.
  • That we remember who we really are (because we can forget). Pastors need to find their place among the rest of the human race. We need others who can speak God’s truth and grace into our lives and take us back to the Gospel FOR US! There is a grace that can only flow to us through others – a grace that reminds us that we still need a Savior, as well as the rest of His Body.
  •  That we are healed. James 5:16 is a powerful antidote to the poison of our self-sufficiency, yet we rarely apply it. When we confess our faults to each other and allow ourselves to be prayed for regarding our true needs, we are admitting that we cannot manage on our own – we need help. It does a lot to ruin our sense of being capable for all things. And the healing that comes may be the healing from our own deep independence.

What happens when you do ask for help? You find yourself actually living in the “community” that we all talk about, program for, and so desperately need.

Next week: “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” – Andre Gide

The Surprising Grace of Disappointment – Book Review

Surprising GraceI just finished reading this extremely thought provoking book by Dr. John Koessler, and I highly recommend it for everyone – but especially for the exited pastors among us. The title was what first drew me to purchase the book. It was a mind grabber. However, Dr. Koessler’s ability to be both pastor and theologian while unpacking this important topic made it deeply practical while stimulating my thinking.

Many of us who follow Jesus and are in ministry leadership struggle with disappointment. Beyond trying to comfort others who are in the crisis of wondering why God “didn’t show up,” we ourselves are deeply disappointed in Him. We find it difficult to reconcile the Jesus we have learned in church and school with the Jesus we have to live with each day.

What do we do when our experience of life collides with our expectations of the same – and of God?

“The point of this book is that you can expect to meet Jesus in the most unlikely place – at the intersection of Expectation and Disappointment. The Jesus you meet there is not the Jesus of your dreams. Nor is He the airbrushed Christ of popular Christianity. He is the enigmatic and unpredictable Jesus of the Bible. You will not forget Him.” – from the introduction to The Surprising Grace of Disappointment.

Dr. Koessler asserts that our good theology regarding the reliability of God has taken a left turn and become the bad practice of expecting Him to be predictable.

The subtitle of the book is “Finding Hope When God Seems to Fail Us,” and there is hope to be found in these pages. Let me suggest that you pick up a copy for yourself and discover the grace that is born out of disappointment – the grace of a deeper understanding of His faithfulness.

Dr. John Koessler is the Chair of the Pastoral Theology department at Moody Bible Institute, and pastor in the Chicago area.

A Loose Grip

“Today, I can write about helping pastors, or I can actually help them.”

This was the statement I made to my wife sitting out on our patio the other morning. As we talked over coffee, I was facing choices about my agenda for the day. There were a couple of situations that had come up recently requiring hands on involvement in the ministry of helping pastors. But I had planned on doing some long overdue writing for my blog, a task that has eluded me over the last couple of months. What has kept me from writing? Because I have been actually working at helping pastors – preparing seminars, having lunch, talking on the phone, walking with people in crisis, setting up Pastor in Residence programs.

And so, there on a bright summer morning, real life battled with my expectations.

to do listI have faced this often in my life; and it continues to be a struggle. I am deeply committed to people, but I can also be deeply obsessed with accomplishing my agenda. The horns of my dilemma – tasks vs. people! When I have opted for the former, it has been easy to shut others out and not be present in the moment. I can get grumpy when my plan gets interrupted. Clearly, there are tasks that are important to tackle – things do need to get “done.” But it has been my inability to loosen my grip on the day – on my agenda – that has made many days miserable and unfruitful in a more lasting way.

When I was pastoring, I remember not always being at my best for people. My mind was on what I was NOT doing, what I could be doing other than actually listening, caring, helping. Go figure!

It has taken awhile, but I am learning to step back from the emotions that hijack my ability to see the bigger picture – emotions like frustration, annoyance and anxiety. It is not a pretty picture sometimes. And I definitely need help – from my wife and others – to challenge my default mode. An actual willingness to listen to their input has often resulted in a better grasp of what I am feeling and what the real priorities need to be.

I am in process. And the sense I have is that I am moving in the right direction. God’s agenda is always more deeply satisfying. The paradigm of “people over projects” is mostly true. (I am still not fully convinced!). However, I am convinced that our treasures in heaven are not completed “to do” lists.

reins According to my resident equestrian expert, having a “death grip” on the reins of a horse typically doesn’t result in the best ride. It is counter-intuitive, but light contact and a deeper seat in the saddle create the kind of connection that makes for an effective ride. I sometimes find it difficult to release my death grip on how I think a day should go. When I do, my connection to real life is actually much better .

So now, it is becoming easier to step back, to loosen my grip. When God completely turns my day upside down, I find there is a new grace that frees me to be present in the moment and adjust my agenda to His.

I think it is a good choice.

What about you?

Do You Know Where Your Pastor Is?

looking for“Do you know where your pastor is?” I am not asking about where he is physically; that would be weird. (Besides, if he has a smartphone the GPS will handle that.) What I am asking is, do you know the emotional and spiritual state of the one who shepherds the flock you are a part of? In a report published in 2007, Dr. Richard Krejcir of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development stated that, based on their survey of over 1,000 pastors

  • 90% of pastors stated they are frequently fatigued, and worn out on a weekly and even daily basis
  • 71% of pastors stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.

It is an unfortunate fact that many of our most significant relationships suffer from a common malady – the tendency to take things for granted. Pastors, and their families, can go months and even years without having someone go beyond the “That was a nice sermon, pastor” at the end of the service.

thumbs upI am not always a fan of mandated holidays.(We all generally suspect that there is a conspiracy between the card, candy and flower companies!) But I think Pastor Appreciation Month is an exception worth making. Because of the ministry I am now in, and remembering back to the years I was a pastor, I can vouch for the need to express some well-deserved appreciation for those whom God has called to lead us.

There are a lot of forms that this can take – and a little creativity can take it to a new level. However you chose to do it, let your pastor and his family know how much you appreciate them; not only the work they do but also for who they are: human beings, fellow believers and friends.

If you are a pastor reading this, I am sure there are those in your life who have pastored you. When was the last time you told them how much their lives have meant to you?

It has been a slow process, but I am learning (and re-learning) just how big a return on investment gratitude can bring. It builds bridges and mends fences. It flies in the face of our self-centeredness and a culture of  “me.” And it affirms the eternal value God has placed on each of our lives. That includes those that labor everyday on our behalf, praying, teaching and leading us into the places of growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Do you know where your pastor is? Take the time to find out, and make it a better place today!

Tell them “Thanks!”thank you

 

October is Pastor Appreciation Month

The Thankful Pastor – Patterns for Healthy Pastoral Life Pt. 2

Years ago, when I was pastoring, I asked one of the ladies at our church to create a banner around the Latin term “Sursum Corda.” She did a fabulous job, visually depicting the concept of what the term literally means: “Up with Your Heart!” Hanging for all to see at the front of the church, that banner was a weekly reminder to look up, to spiritually take our hearts by the chin and look into the face of a gracious loving God who has provided “everything we need for life and godliness” in Christ.

sursum corda 2

Living under that banner has been a big struggle for me, both in ministry and in life. I spent a lot of time laboring under the shadow of the emotional environment with which I grew up; expectations were never achievable and little time was devoted to truly being thankful. Family members’ constant reminders to send “thank you notes” made that gracious act into an obligation, and not a true expression of my heart.

Entering ministry, I found pastoral work to be a field of land mines that regularly blew any idea of thankfulness or gratitude to smithereens. People were always coming up short, things didn’t happen fast enough or the way I believed they should. It was far too easy to be affected by the spirit of our age, which – like it or not – sees people as products, with efficiency as the master of the system. Certainly, there are tasks that could use a good dose of efficiency. But people are not projects! They will never be subject to efficiency. The more we try to fit them into that mold, the more angry we become – and less thankful. Unfortunately, in this mode, even God can come up short in our eyes. We unconsciously believe He promised things He never did, or didn’t show up when we thought He should – as if somehow He owes us.

We have become production managers when we should be shepherds.

shepherdI am constantly being drawn back to this fundamental idea of pastoral work, that we are indeed shepherds. It flies in the face of our “chronos” (clock) driven culture, and functions in the world of “kairos” (event) time. Sheep, we realize, are not something that function any better or quicker if ‘managed.’ Sheep will indeed produce fleece, in time! If the sheep are healthy, they will naturally repopulate the flock. The shepherd’s job is to protect the sheep, to seek out green pastures for them to feed on and fresh water for them to quench their thirst. The shepherd is called to be faithful to the owner – since that’s whose sheep they are!

Similarly, pastors must also regularly take their places as one of the sheep, finding nourishment for their own souls and health for their own hearts. This is how we become the kind of shepherds that are gracious and wise; without that time for our own hearts to find their proper posture before God, we will be driven instead by anger, impatience, control, and a sense of entitlement. The inner voices that correspond to our own emotional neediness will demand the drug of approval from others – and that is dangerous.

With these images never far from my mind, I am learning to be grateful, to be a thankful person. The results are becoming apparent and the benefits obvious. I smile a lot now! I am finding that my schedule is more flexible around people and, most certainly, God. People even like to be around me – most times. There are still things to get done, and I have my strategy for ministry, but it is daily put on God’s desk for editing and amendment. And each day is a fresh page to be turned.

So, if I were going to try to describe the “thankful pastor,” I would offer a few things that might be helpful. The thankful pastor is:

First and foremost, daily rooted in the understanding and joy of his own redemption;

  • Attentive to his own call to follow Jesus before he worries about others;
  • Aware that life and ministry are gifts from God – undeserved, but lavishly given;
  • Understanding that the people he leads and the church he serves are not his, nor is he serving at their call;
  • A peacemaker in his own heart between the voices of efficiency and the voice of the Spirit of grace;
  • On a daily adventure with God, having been invited into the wonder of spiritual work;
  • Growing in flexibility, faith, and the ability to take joy in the moment.

gratitudeThankfulness and gratitude are the barometer of our heart, a choice regarding how we see the world we live in, the person we are and the calling we have received. If we can begin with the truth of the gospel every day – for our own lives – we will be the healthy pastor people hope for. Sursum Corda is an invitation to pick the eyes of our hearts up from the ground and look full in His wonderful face. And THAT is a privilege we cannot take for granted!

I recently heard a great piece of advice for pastors who are beginning ministry in a new church: when you begin your new role, find anything and everything you can commend and be genuinely thankful for among the people you have come to pastor. I think that is a great way to start! It helps us to recognize that God was there before us, and softens our hearts so that we are less prone to see only those things that are wrong or frustrating.

In his book, Pastors at Risk, Chuck Wickman makes this simple statement that is so true: “Count your blessings. Gratitude is a healer.”

Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk) expresses his own journey toward thankfulness:

“There is discouragement in my world, but if I am honest, most of it is smaller than I make it. I am the one who amplifies it most of the time. As I’ve learned to listen more and more to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, I’m learning that Jesus was very dependable when he taught us that the Kingdom of God is upon is. Right here, right now, close by. I choose to not see it because I am lobbying for that most destructive of emotions: self-pity. Jesus is reminding me that there is sufficiency in the love he extends, and the love he places around us. That love comes in thousands of different ways in a day. The problem is that I don’t expect it, don’t listen or look for it, don’t live in expectation that his gracious love will meet me throughout the day.”

Paul has a lot to say about thankfulness in the book of Colossians, but I have always been drawn particularly to Colossians 2:7. The progression in this passage is noteworthy: rooted in Christ, renewed in the truth of the gospel, which creates a geyser of thankfulness. It reminds us that there is too much wonder in the world to be grumpy. The Gospel is too strong to allow us to remain disappointed.

How have you grown in thankfulness?

sursum corda