My friend Brian, who is a pastor, posted a while back about loneliness in leadership. His post really resonated with me, and the number of responses that he received showed that people really care and can relate.
There’s something about leadership, particularly church leadership, that causes loneliness. Perhaps it feels more acute in church leadership because we church leaders go around telling people how they are made for community and God intended for us to be together to help each other grow spiritually. But though we do the “right things,” (small groups, relationships, prayer together, etc.) we still feel lonely sometimes (or even often).
This week, a number of incidents happened that brought the feelings of loneliness back full force. By themselves, each incident would have rolled off my back. But combined, I found myself in a “funk” and wondering if what I was going through was normal or if there was something wrong with me.
It is pretty cool how God just brings the right encouragement at the right time, because there in my email was a note about a podcast offered by Leadership Network, called “Leadership Loneliness: How Pastors Deal with Times They Feel Alone,” by Dr. Sam Chand. In the podcast, he talks about his own personal “funk,” and what is normal loneliness and what is “red zone” loneliness. To my relief, I’m not in the red zone… (but also not sure this is “normal….”) He also talks about how a church leader’s life is like an accordion — expanding and contracting at the same time, causing more loneliness. It’s a concept that makes total sense now, though I would have never thought of it before.
Interestingly, at a previous job, which was extremely challenging and difficult, I did not feel lonely, because there were other women pastors. Here in my current job, I totally love where I am at, what I do, and am so blessed to work with so many wonderful people. But it takes time to get connected. The podcast says also how entrepreneurial leaders face loneliness, so that makes sense, given I am the first Asian + female pastor on staff. It is a great honor and calling, but comes with a price.
Another interesting thing is that this week I have been reading about the life of Elijah. After the huge victory on Mount Carmel, he’s in the dumps and ready to die. He thinks he’s alone when in reality, there are 7,000 other people committed to God. But because he doesn’t know any of them, he feels alone. He complains to God, but what I find fascinating is that God doesn’t even try to tell him everything’s ok, or remind him of the great victory, or tell him to just focus and worship God for the loneliness to go away, or explain why things happen. As I look at the passage, there were three things God did to help Elijah in his loneliness:
1. Renewed him physically. (1 King 19:5) Elijah says, “Let me die.” The response is “Get up and eat.” Not your typical response for a person in depression. But God knew how exhausted Elijah was. He needed food and rest.
2. Gave him work to do. (v15-16) God gave him directions on where to go and what to do. He gave Elijah a task to focus on. Sometimes we can get caught up in so much self-introspection that everything looks bleak. When we turn our focus outwards and are given a goal, we regain a sense of purpose to our lives.
3. Reminded him of the bigger picture. (v18) God told Elijah that there were 7,000 other people out there who had the same values and beliefs Elijah had. When we gain a larger perspective, we realize we are not alone. There are a lot of pastors out there, and probably all of them struggle with loneliness at some point or another. It helps to know that it is a normal thing and part of ministry. I also find it helps me to gain a thankful attitude when I look at the bigger picture of how incredibly blessed I am. My problems become quite small in comparison to the goodness of God.
4. Provided a teammate. (v21) We don’t know the circumstances in which Elijah found Elisha. Perhaps God told Elijah from the beginning where to find Elisha. Or perhaps as he was traveling, God guided him to turn off the road and find Elisha. But in any case, Elisha became Elijah’s attendant. (I like the New Living Translation, which calls Elisha his “assistant,” which is a word we use more often nowadays.) Up to this time, Elijah had been going solo. From this point on, Elijah never worked alone again.
I love how the Bible speaks to present day life. In my loneliness, God is present and nearby.
In this case, #2 worked. After some prayer, I started working on my seminary homework… and the funk lifted for a while. It will be a constant thing to revisit, but God is faithful!