My brain is always busy—making plans, lists, comparisons, decisions—reviewing the past—sometimes apprehensive about the future—regularly gauging that internal query: “Do I measure up? Am I enough?”
Do I want cucumbers and hummus or chips and salsa? Gluten-free cardboard bread or hot, fresh sourdough? Netflix or the gym? Mountain bike or road bike? Cruiser or car? Freeway or backroads? Strawberries or a strawberry-filled donut? Jeans or yoga pants? Flats or heels? Answer that call or ignore it? Stay in or go out? I analyze--then choose. Easy. Some days.
Until it’s not.
Especially when my brain drives me a direction that doesn’t serve me well. Like when it comes to people.
Our brain’s primary function is to keep us alive. It is designed to distinguish between danger and safety, friend or foe, good and bad. Consequently, it’s really good at discerning the “bad”—seeing the “negative”—sniffing out the “dangerous”—situations and people. Pastors have especially honed this skill--Serving and loving and doing life alongside broken, hurting, hurtful humans--that's scary business. People are--messy. Neat and tidy? Ministry is not.
As I type today, my laptop sits atop some pretty shredded jeans. I actually paid good money for them, and they are some of my favorite. I didn’t make these holes and rips, but somebody did. Somebody intentionally said, “These jeans need some personality. They need some character. Let’s rip ‘em up.”
Ironically, I think ministry feels like that some days. Pastors do too. Our insides metaphorically mirror my jeans. Patching holes is exhausting. Helping shredded humans navigate their “holes” is too.
Rejection is painful.
Repetitive disappointment becomes unbearable. We become hypersensitive and hyper-vigilant.
Church members here one day—ghosting the next
Smiles on Sunday—harsh words on Wednesday
Councils, family, budgets, and attitudes
The wounds of a brother— enough said
Like the bowsprit on the protruding nose of a sailing vessel or the plow on the front of an old train, pastors take the initial hits and repeated blows of life and ministry. Sometimes we recoil and withdraw from the barrage of injuries or quietly (resentfully and angrily) harden ourselves to the onslaught.
The latest statistics show that most ministry leaders (70%) feel isolated and have no close friend or support structure outside of their families (2017). Without safe and healthy connection and care, pastors are exposed and unprotected—alone and isolated. Prime targets for the enemy and annihilation.
You know the drill—the council wants better numbers and bigger offerings—your spouse wants more of your time and your presence—your parents are aging and need your help—your weight continues to climb—your dog dies--the list feels exponential. Exhausted. Spent. Fried. Looking to tap-out. At capacity.
Quitting looks like a possible option (until we run that movie reel forward…) So… we Run. Hide. Escape. Harken to that familiar internal voice that rationalizes and validates…
Five minutes in the bathroom with your phone—hurts no one and offers some momentary relief.
So do donuts and ice cream and peanut butter and chocolate and chips and fries.
And social media “friendships.”
And social media.
And those new shoes.
And the gym. (What have I missed?)
Isolation sounds and feels so good.
When I’m alone, no one is bossing me around. No one is judging me for my choices. No one is managing my time. No one is airing their rejection and disappointment. No one condemns me. No harassment.
I’m free—free to choose. Free to act. Freedom…finally.
I can eat what I want.
I can watch what I want.
I can do what I want.
For a moment, I forget that I’m not enough.
Comforted by the familiar. The harsh internal judge momentarily silenced. Calmed. Relief. But only for a few moments.
Isolation fuels addictions.
Exhaustion empowers them.
So does shame.
I now know that addictions thrive in the shadows and seclusion of isolation. The shame cycle is perpetuated by aloneness.
Since the very beginning, “it’s not good for man to be alone.” God the Father lives in community with the Son and Holy Spirit, and we are created in that image. Humans are hard-wired for authentic connection. God highly values community--Christ announced it when he stated the Royal Law: Love God—Love people. The Gospel. The fifty-nine One Anothers in the Bible communicate the crucial piece connection plays in our overall health and well-being--and the focus of the Gospel.
Real connection requires us to bring our “real” selves to the party. The good. The bad. The ugly.
Finding that place—the one where you can authentically be is really hard--especially if you’ve been in ministry for any number of years and have slogged it out Lone Ranger style. But that’s no excuse. This one brave intentional decision can transform every facet of your ministry, your internal life, relationship with God, family—and marriage.
This real relationship can’t be your spouse. Or your kids. Or your mother. Those people are probably as worn out as you are and equally overwhelmed by your frustrations. It must be someone in a similar place in life who is also trying to live authentically. Without healthy people who genuinely seek to hear, know, and love us (warts and all), our lives will slowly (or quickly) disintegrate and exhibit indications of burnout and compassion fatigue like: resentment, cynicism, judgmentalism, harshness, impatience, and all-or-nothing thinking. Any of those sound familiar?
Science and medicine repeatedly prove that isolation is harmful and even deadly to our physical, emotional, mental, and overall health. Rejection psychologically wounds us—more deeply than almost anything else. Other studies confirm that isolation increases levels of stress hormones and contributes to poor sleep, a compromised immune system, and eventual cognitive decline (McAndrew, 2016).
There is hope. We can change. Small corrections and intentional decisions to engage real relationships create a climate for increased health and much-needed balance in our lives. We get out of the chaos that is our brain and find that everyone else is jacked too. We are all fractured, broken, shredded, and “holey” … My worn, shredded, ripped, and frayed jeans-- feel way more comfortable. So do authentic friendships. Let’s do this!
George, C. F. (1996). Prepare your church for the future. Grand Rapids (Mich.): Fleming H. Revell.
McAndrew, F. T. (2016, November 12). The Perils of Social Isolation. Retrieved May 25, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-ooze/201611/the-perils-social-isolation
Study of Pastor Attrition and Pastoral Ministry. (2017, September 13). Retrieved from https://lifewayresearch.com/pastorprotection/