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 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.
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.
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