Monday, September 26, 2011

Loneliness on the Journey

Dear Pamela,
You know how we have often talked about the loneliness of this leadership journey? When I think back on the past 15 years with seminary training, internship and now nine years of pastoral leadership, the loneliness has waxed and waned throughout the times.
I didn’t really believe that it would be a lonely vocation when I first heard it said in seminary. How could it be? After all you are surrounded by people! People are in worship, they are serving at church functions, they are calling and talking to you frequently, and there is always activity to be involved in any time you desire it. Even on internship when I had my first experiences of being turned loose in the parish to “do ministry” I still didn’t believe my internship supervisor that this could be a lonely walk. But now after nine years in the parish, even though I am surrounded by people who love me and who show me that love almost constantly, I “get it.” In fact, I got it a long time ago.
So what’s the difference you might ask? I think the difference is about being the one whose job it is to take responsibility for the leading of the mission and ministry. In seminary I had no responsibility for a congregation. Even on internship there was a safety net in place, if I messed up it was probably not going to be me who paid the emotional price (depending how bad a mess up it was perhaps) but the supervising pastor who was in charge. That safety net was for training purposes, of course, and allowed me the freedom to grow and stretch and try new things. But the buck never stopped with me. . . it stopped with him. Period.
This isn’t about “messing up” or “getting it right” either. It’s about leadership and the fact that leading a group of people, any group (a business, a village, a country, a unit of soldiers), requires one to be able to take a clear stand and bear the burden of other’s dissatisfaction when it happens. And it always happens. It is about having enough pain tolerance to tolerate the “pain” that will be thrust upon the leader when anything changes, and I mean anything. It is a lonely place to be where the leader has to make decisions and not vacillate on those decisions based upon every opinion within the church family. It is emotionally strenuous to be a leader and the loneliness becomes more pervasive when we are on the “right track.” Edwin Friedman called it “sabotage” and warned leaders that it would happen if they were being clear about their values, goals and purpose.
I knew that there would be sabotage. I just expected it to look different, more blatant I guess. When it’s an all out attack I can clearly see that as sabotage. When it’s passive aggressive behavior or envious barbs I can eventually discern that as sabotage. But the loneliness. . . now that’s taken me a little while longer to come to terms with. So, my friend, what is your take on this business of loneliness? Any suggestions for one who finds herself wandering in the wilderness on a variety of occasions?

Ah! dear trekker....
I am convinced that leaders of institutions, communities and yes, families and churches, will often be “out there” and alone. It has much to do with our commitment to the truth.
Leaders will speak the truth to the best of their ability. And seeking the truth and then speaking it takes one beyond the spaces and places where folks have built up their own notion of what is “real." Their notions are tinted and toned by human feelings such as hunger, fear, pride, envy, doubt. And somewhere underlying the notions is God’s truth...God’s thoughts....God’s Way.
Our minds can’t conceive of God’s truth. But Christ leads us towards truth and compels us to proclaim it.
The truth may set one free (John 8:31), but freedom doesn’t usually result in being surrounded by attaboys. When one discovers an essential truth about something (ie, “What is really going on here?” ) Truth sets us free from doubt, at least at its onset. Then come the questions: So now what? And then the wonder: Why the resistance?
It seems to me that when we experience the resistance of others, which may be expressed, at first, as apathy, passive aggression, envy or sabotage, our first response needs to be: What can I learn from those who are resisting me? Can their response help to clarify the truth even more?
Think about how truth affects relationships. So often, the most fundamental truth stimulates awkwardness. . . On the lightest note: “You have lettuce stuck between your teeth.” (Or something hanging out of your nose.... chuckle). On a heavier note: “Why do your shirts smell like another woman’s perfume?” Or: “Really? You don’t want to shake hands with our guest because his fingernails are dirty?”
I attended a conference where I heard Richard Rohr speak about true statements. He said that we will often meet resistance when we tell somebody what they most need to hear. This may be equally true with words that challenge as well as words that comfort. Challenging words may stimulate change by exposing pride (ouch!) and comforting words stimulate change by exposing an abiding sense of worthlessness (
Yet, if our intention is love for the other, we are granted by God the power to proceed along the path of truth. Our strength lies totally in our utter dependence upon Christ, who walked the lonely path before us and invited us (commissioned us) to follow.
There will be times when we look around and see that we are, in fact, totally alone. If we notice that our “friends” are not with us, we will have our own Gethsemane experience, and weep our tears of loneliness and isolation.
And, there we will be embraced by Christ, saying “I know... I know... I was here too!”
Now, given all of that, what do you think happens when we try to avoid or numb away our pain of loneliness?
Journeying with you...

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