Reflecting on what loneliness looks like in parish ministry Bob Mayo considers the reality that ‘The possibility of loneliness is never far away for a church leader’.
When I stand up to preach, it is always with the same sensation. I am Isaiah in the Temple or Peter falling at Jesus’ knees saying ‘get away from me Lord for I am a sinful man’ (Is 6 & Lk 5:8). The reality of God is an uncomfortable truth. As I start my sermon it is midnight and the bridegroom is in sight, yet the ‘wise’ virgins will still not share their oil in case they are left without enough for themselves (Mt 25:1-13). On that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left (Lk 17:34).
I am one of the virgins at midnight. I can tell people of the coming Christ but I can’t myself pass on to them oil of grace. Each person has to receive it himself or herself as a gift straight from the Lord. This truth contains within it the paradox of Christian leadership. I can teach, encourage and witness to the love of Christ, but my effectiveness in so doing comes in drawing attention away from myself. As with John the Baptist:
He must become greater; I must become less (Jn 3:30).
There is a stamp of separation that lies at the heart of a life of faith in God. In the Old Testament God calls his people to a nomadic life of faith full of inconvenience and risk. Moses spent 40 years leading the Israelites through the wilderness on a journey that might otherwise have taken only 11 days (Dt 1:2).
The Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel and He made them wander in the wilderness for forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was dead (Num 32:13).
Moses brought the Israelites to the threshold of the Promised Land but was not allowed by God to enter with them (Num 20:9-11). David describes himself as lonely and afflicted (Ps 25:16). Jeremiah (20:14) and Job (3:1) are driven to despair by what God is asking of them. They both curse the day on which they were born.
The disciples leave their families and shake the dust off their feet when people do not listen to them (Mt 10:14 & 19:29). Jesus then begins to distance himself from them as they walk towards Jerusalem. He walks ahead of them. They are astonished and afraid (Mk 10:32). Jesus has had a lifetime of being misunderstood (Mt 13:55-56). He needs to face his coming trial alone and he is starting the process of separating himself from his disciples. In Gethsemane Jesus is in anguish: sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44).
The need for separation and solitude is an integral part of being a church leader. Prayer, reading and reflection all require times of being alone. These are core roles for any church leader. The challenge for the church leader is to practice the art of solitude while avoiding the trap of loneliness. Solitude is something we choose. It is constructive and restorative. Loneliness is imposed. Tillich (2010) writes that loneliness expresses the pain and solitude the glory of being alone. In a society that puts a premium on romantic love and relationships solitude is not properly appreciated. Solitude can be as therapeutic and insightful as can emotional support and friendship from others.
Loneliness in the Parish
Rowan Williams (1995:121) wrote that Christians seem to treat the subject of loneliness with a consistent lack of seriousness and with a painful lack of imagination and sympathy. What the Bible depicts as prayer reflects the often-lonely experience of the parish priest. Prayer is, in effect, an offering to God of our obedience. The fundamental truth is that Christ’s way is the way of self-emptying (Phil. 2:5-11). It is a way that the world sees as weakness and failure. The day to day living of the parish priest, poured out in conversations, prayer and stick-at-it-ness, makes it a necessary truth to learn that Christ took no account of achievement and success, only of serving and giving and loving.
The possibility of loneliness is never far away for a church leader. There is a hard edge to living in a vicarage and being permanently accessible to others. I can only lose when someone knocks at the door asking for money. If I give the person money then it is no more than what is expected of me. If I do not do so then I am open to criticism for being ungenerous. I have nights with people ringing the vicarage door at 2am and then again at 5am. At the church school fete it is seen as obligatory for the vicar to buy a raffle ticket but it is equally as important that he is never seen to win the prize.
My loneliness has the stamp of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are a text of beauty and terror. We are blessed for being poor in spirit, mourning, being insulted or persecuted (Mt 5:3-12). We are left clean with an inner raw longing for God. There is nowhere to hide when leading public worship. I preach as someone longing for God. I pray as someone reaching out for God. I sing as someone praising God and lead others in the process.
Loneliness can be a channel of grace and the grace of God makes us who we are (1 Cor 15:10). Nouwen (1997) writes that loneliness can be not only tolerable but also fruitful. Some of the most diligent, conscientious and devoted ministers that I have known have been celibate with a hint of loneliness. Freed from the exclusive attachments of family they are able to be available to God and to meet with people as one vulnerable person to another. ‘I wish that all of you were as I am’, says Paul of his unmarried state, ‘but each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that (1 Cor 7:7). The gospel takes shape through people’s weakness and vulnerability. Paul talks thus about the pressures he faced through his own public ministry:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Cor 4:8-10).
Sometimes the greatest cause of isolation is not what others do but what we do to ourselves. Warren (2002) and Savage (2006) both say that clergy are stressed because they are carrying around unreasonable expectations of themselves and disappointed because the reality of the parish life has not lived up to the ideal they had imagined. A difficult individual, an unresolved issue or a lack of gratitude for what we do are not issues peculiar to a parish but would be evident in any number of work contexts.
Parish work can feel like a treadmill where clergy are left struggling to keep up with [what they feel are] endless demands made on their time. A sense of isolation can be exacerbated by the fact that there is an assumed competence to the role of church leader whose task is to care for others. It is possible to be with people and still feel isolated.
Friendship forming is a critical role for the Church to play. Set against a social backdrop of rural isolation, urban fragmentation and suburban commuting, parish churches offer people a chance to gather together and to form relationships with each other. Our strength as the church lies in our collective relationships in the name of Jesus Christ. Our uniqueness lies in the one true historical faith. Our mission is to embody this in how we live our lives, shaping ourselves round the needs of the most vulnerable because therein lies the face of Christ.
In the Old Testament David and Jonathan’s friendship had started when each recognized the courage in the other. Before he fought Goliath David had fought a lion and a bear (1 Sam 17:34). Jonathan himself was a man of great courage. He had initiated a one-man war against the Philistines (1 Sam 14). Jonathan accepted God’s decision that David, rather than he, should be king. At Jonathan’s funeral David wept and described Jonathan’s love as more wonderful than that of women (2 Sam 1:26).
Loneliness in Scripture
The paradox of Christianity is that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The trauma of crucifixion contains within it the offer of salvation. The brokenness of one is the salvation of all. The importance of Jesus’ cry of despair from the Cross is shown in the fact that the only one of Jesus’ seven sayings from the cross recorded in both Mark and Matthew.
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me (Mk 15:34 & Mt 27:46)
It comes after Jesus has been on the cross for six hours. It contains within it the insight needed for difficult weeks as a church leader. Jesus’ words come from Psalm 22. The Psalm is in two parts: verses 1-21 (suffering & grief) and verses 22-31 (praise & hope). Hope and grief are not binary opposites but are each a part of the other. Grieving does not happen automatically. Anyone can decide to cover up his pain and ignore unresolved grief. When we accept grief, we are choosing hope. Grieving embraced is a hopeful and deliberate choice, made because we want to be whole once more.
Psalm 22 bridges Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, crossing from grief to hope. Jesus was alone but not lonely. To think of Jesus as lonely stresses His human qualities: compassion, love, justice, and social conscience and so on, at the expense of his divine nature. Jesus was temporarily lower than the angels (Heb 2:9). This however was subservience in role but not subservience in essence. Jesus was not just someone chosen by God to do a special mission. Jesus was God Himself.
Loneliness in society
We live in a lonely society. According to a report Church in Action (2015) published by the Church Urban Fund (CUF) clergy listed loneliness and social isolation as the most widespread social problems affecting English communities, regardless of income or social class. The report showed that nearly half, or 46%, of churches are running organized activities to tackle social isolation through programs such as youth groups, parent-toddler groups or lunch clubs. Churches are also providing informal support, through social networks and friendship groups.
I spend time with people who live lonely lives. I go a short distance from the vicarage to the supermarket to buy a lunchtime sandwich. It takes me three attempts to return home because on each occasion a homeless person asks for the sandwich that I have just bought for myself. They want companionship more than food and so I take time in turn to speak to each of them. It is Psalm 22 in the parish, but a lot easier for me with simple conversations than it had been for Jesus with his crucifixion.
Bob Mayo is Vicar at St Stephen’s W12, and Chaplain to Queen’s Park Rangers Football Club
This is an extract from The Parish Handbook by Bob Mayo, Cameron Collington, David Gillett, which is included in our summer sale.
The Bishop of Kensington, the Rt Revd Graham Tomlin described the book as “hugely valuable… It is more than a handbook – it is a guide, a collection of jewel-like insights, a distillation of years of experience that gives a genuine taste of the gritty reality and the sheer privilege of parish life and ministry.”