Doing Life (and Ministry) Alone: When Community is Ripped Away
“We are a communal people.” My students heard this week after week for years. When I left the church I was given a plaque with a list of all the phrases I said repeatedly—things like: “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” (Thanks, Dad!), “y’all,” “fixin’ to” (seminary in Texas will do that to you), “the ground is level at the foot of the cross” (a carry over from my own youth pastor, Rick Ousley), but above all, the phrase “we are a communal people.”
I don’t know where I got it, but I don’t actually remember a time when it wasn’t a part of my vocabulary.
At the time, a few of my seniors admitted they weren’t even sure what that meant, but they figured it must be important because I said it all the time. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in touch with several of these students. Years later, through many hard knocks and the maturity that comes only with time, these people have reported that they’ve begun to understand what being a communal people means.
Some, sadly, have learned the hard way— people they thought would be around forever turned their backs on them or they learned what community was by having it ripped away or disappear before their very eyes. Not having others around you who know your story can make you feel adrift in a very big and scary world. One of the key developmental issues for adolescence is the question: Where do I belong? Actually, I’d argue this is an issue for any age. Community is what helps us feel supported, connected, and like we’re not completely crazy. It’s where we experience friendship, family, and love.
Individualism isn’t biblical. The Old Testament is full of examples of people connected to other people. Moses led the Israelites to freedom; Esther saved her people; Jeremiah wept over Jerusalem. The New Testament emphasizes this even more. God incarnate didn’t walk this earth alone—Jesus was raised in a family and chose some friends to walk with him through life and ministry. Paul traveled with companions.
Community is in every book of the Old and New Testaments. Yet in today’s religious language, who hasn’t heard, “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior”? I’ve yet to see this ubiquitous phrase in any Bible translation or paraphrase. The use of “my” is more a reflection of an individualistic culture than any biblical or theological teaching.
Nearly 15 years ago my circle of community shifted the way we talk about being Christian. We began talking about being a follower of Christ—an individual choice to follow a communal God. Scripture is clear: Jesus is Lord. He isn’t simply my Lord. Acknowledged or not, Jesus is the Christ. He’s Lord of all.
Is this pushy, opinionated, or egocentric? Maybe, but this realization brought great freedom for me. Believing Jesus is Lord of all meant I didn’t have to be isolated in my little Christian ghetto in order to follow Jesus. I could stumble through the world, honestly and openly—which, I realize, is scary for a lot of people.
‘Birds of a Feather…’
There’s a reason the saying “birds of a feather flock together” was coined. Most Christians love being with others on the same winding journey—out of breath as we try to follow Jesus in this world. We love the comfort of not having to watch our words or explain what we mean. We love sharing music and interests, being with other believers and praising God in all we do. As Christians this is what we’ve been told comprises the ideal community.
These are the people with whom we play on the softball team and have BBQs, game nights, and vacations. These are the people present for celebrations, tragedies, and everything in between. These are the people who make up the very fabric of our lives.
But in our transient world, community is often hard to maintain. Some of us handle transition better than others. For many, a change in community is like having your very heart ripped from your chest. (I’m one of these people. With each change in community, I grieve. It’s a death of sorts, and while the death might not be a literal one, the grief is nonetheless very real.)
Sometimes it’s not our choice; we’re removed from community or have it removed from us. A job is lost; a best friend moves; a sudden death changes everything; relationships fall apart, and no one is certain how to navigate the new waters.
You already have friends (distant now), you already had a community you loved, and now it’s gone. It becomes easier to skip church or a small group and slip into anonymity than risk losing something so precious again.
When community is present, I truly believe there’s nothing closer to heaven on this earth. When community is absent, I believe there’s nothing closer to hell. The North American understanding of Imago Dei most often considers each individual as being made in the image of God. But a proper understanding of this doctrine is that all of humanity—all races; able-bodied and not; young and old; rich and poor; urban, suburban, and rural; and even those who aren’t followers of Christ—provide a glimpse of God, since humanity was made in God’s image.
This impacts our understanding of church: Who is the church? What is the purpose of church? It impacts the Kingdom: Is it now or not yet? An imminent probability?
God has chosen to work in this world and allow us the privilege of joining. Jesus set the precedent for not walking this journey alone. God doesn’t desire for you to live an isolated life. God provides others, both Christians and non-Christians, to come along and walk with us.
Almost from birth, society stresses the importance of taking care of ourselves. Individual success is each individual’s responsibility. My mother worked for years in the responsibility room at Encanto Elementary—it was the equivalent of little kid detention. There they’d sit during their recess, talk about their actions, and create a plan to better handle future situations. There’s a place for individual responsibility in the world. We each can, and must, make individual decisions; but they don’t occur in a vacuum. Whether we like it or not, we’re connected.
As much as my mother’s job was about being in the responsibility room, what she discovered and passed on to me were the stories of students she met. Often, when a student was acting up in class, something major was happening at home. My mother became a frontline worker dealing with neglect, abuse, learning disorders, and a whole host of heartbreaking situations. She became that friendly face and voice on campus for children who were kicked out of class. In her, they found someone to listen, to set boundaries, to encourage, and from whom they received unconditional acceptance. With her, students found a bit of community, evidenced by the sheer volume of pictures, cards, and notes that students and parents sent to the woman in the detention room. What was created as punishment, she turned into a place of redemption.
Even if we didn’t spend time in the responsibility room, we’re told from an early age that individuality is best. “Take care of yourself” is the mantra in many classrooms, churches, homes, and neighborhood streets. We’re taught—and have modeled—individualism. It’s celebrated in the ways our homes are built and our systems set in place. The older we get, the more we’re expected to be able to take care of ourselves; and if we’re not, we’re seen as weak or as a drain on society.
Like a Child
Wouldn’t it be great to humble ourselves— to be imitators of little children? Despite all of the subtle messages, kids find one another. Some find community in large groups; some find the support and friendship they need in just one or two others. Wouldn’t it be great if we could stop pretending to have it so together and welcome the idea of asking for help and being asked for help? What if community wasn’t a contrived cell group where we’re told to create community, but rather an organic part of who we are as followers of Christ?
Ideal, yes—but I’m a realist who spends most of my time on a pendulum swing between optimism and cynicism. On good days, I believe God provides and wants not only what’s best for the world but for me as well; I believe God grieves over this broken, fragmented world. On not-so-good days, I believe God wants what’s best for the world and if that means ignoring me or sacrificing my heart, so be it. Needless to say, I’m a work in progress. What I believe and what I hold as valuable and true isn’t always what my heart and my guts experience. When I’m being really honest, I want community, and I want to be obedient to God—I just don’t want it to hurt on the way.
I’ve spent the better part of the last decade building community—pouring my heart and soul into people, both individually and in groups. I have amazing friends who I don’t get to see nearly enough. I was told once that while in high school and college we have groups of friends—there’s always someone up for a movie, a midnight run, hours of conversation, or a spontaneous road trip. Adults, I’ve been told, are blessed to have one or maybe two good friends.
In some ways this makes me the least qualified person in the world to be writing on community. In others, because I’ve spent the last decade—and the last three years intensively—wrestling with this, I’m perfectly qualified.
‘So Desperately Alone’
Students seem to find reasons to come and hang out in my office or grab a cup of tea. Some have actual questions about class. Some have questions about ministry or life. A good number of them come to ask if they’re normal—if it’s okay that they feel so desperately alone surrounded by thousands of other students. They wonder why the community or the church in which they grew up and were so ready to leave suddenly seems like the most perfect place on earth. They wonder if they’re the only ones to feel this way. No one ever told them that once the excitement and adrenaline of change wears off, reality and longing for community set in. Many are ministry students, ashamed at not feeling more at peace— shouldn’t they feel blessed to be in school and serving? They feel foolish and trapped projecting a happy, grateful persona when they’re crying inside.
These aren’t the only people with whom I have this conversation. Some are in their first year or two of ministry. Whether you stumbled into ministry from a roundabout path or studied and planned for this all along, once you’re in the field— once you’ve gone to the church or the community center or parachurch location— it’s easy to get blindsided. You offered up prayers and testimonies of how you were willing to go to the ends of the earth, to suffer in prison just like Paul, to serve where no one else was willing to go.
In churches, colleges, and seminaries, you’re blessed to be surrounded by others sharing the same heart. It doesn’t seem so odd to be willing to spend all of that money on an education only to take a position where you either have to raise your own support or are making only enough to sleep on someone else’s couch. Maybe you’re blessed financially as you serve, but you never counted on so much work for one person. Churches blessed and commissioned you but never told you how long the hours alone could be. Classes prepared you for group projects, not for being misunderstood and isolated. All of you are the very people for whom this article was written.
‘Dirty Little Secrets’
I wrote a journal entry right after taking an amazing position as director with my denominational camp several years ago. I was sent to Washington, D.C., to start a new camp location. It was a job I wanted, a job to which I felt called and blessed to have been offered. I had a great apartment in Alexandria—even if it didn’t have furniture. Here’s an excerpt of that entry: “I believe in missions; I believe in what I’m doing, but my heart hurts. I suppose I ought to be longing for more trials for character, and more rejection for reliance upon you. What I want are hearts and flowers, sweat and dirt, tears and laughter all for the glory of God, just not so alone…I don’t remember reading about any of the missionaries who said wholeheartedly, ‘I’ll go. I am willing but I am scared; I’m lonely and I really want to stay’…I’m not afraid of following you to the end of the world; I’m afraid of being a shell of a person when I get there.”
I was angry that no one ever talked about how hard ministry can be—angry that if I said I was struggling I was told I had a spiritual problem, lacked faith, wasn’t called, or that I might be depressed or have something wrong with me. I longed for conversations that would be a place of redemption, a glimpse of community. I wondered if I was the only one to ever experience this. I longed to be able to be real and walk with others who were also a ragtag bunch passionately in love with Jesus but confined to a world where life is hard. What I found was sugar-coated judgment.
There’s a part of me that’s tempted to end the article right here. I’m tempted because I don’t want to prematurely rush to solutions. To grow through something, you must actually grow through it, not skip over it as quickly as possible. Moving out of the darkness takes time. Perhaps I should leave it in that uncomfortable tension that simply says, “If you’ve found yourself in this place of questioning your call, of questioning the very core of your beliefs out of a longing for community and finding that it’s simply not as automatic as you’d like, you’re not alone. It’s one of the dirty little secrets in ministry often not discussed. Oh, take heart…you’re not alone.”
But I won’t end right there. I do encourage you to take a walk, get a cup of coffee or tea, and sit in this difficult place for a bit. Afterwards take a look at a few suggestions listed below for surviving the experience of having community ripped away.
Change is inevitable. With every change, even the most ideal of communities alters. Change also brings disequilibrium and struggle, even volitional change. This may seem like common sense, but even the blatantly obvious needs to be stated once in awhile. This realization is the first step in surviving.
Community can feel ripped away when a church splits, a parachurch re-organizes, the intense camp staff comes to an end, the home church is left for higher education, or a new ministry position is taken. Even staying in a position brings change. As long as we’re living, change is all around. Accepting this can go a long way toward adjusting expectations.
“To everything there is a season.” Words of little comfort when you’re in the midst of the throes of life…or are they? Scripture isn’t weak pabulum, nor is it so sweet that it sends you into a sugar coma. It’s solid and true; it tells what we need to hear even if it’s not what we want to hear in that moment.
In the long run, the truth it offers is sustaining. Scripture tells the stories that set the imperative for community. Spend time in the Word, and let it speak deeply into your soul.
A lack of community can indeed manifest in depression. This isn’t uncommon, nor does it disqualify you from God’s call on your life. It can, however, take on a life of its own if not addressed. Exercise really does wonders. Talking it out, even long distance with close friends can also help.
There is a difference between feeling depressed and having clinical depression. Clinical depression manifests with pervasive symptoms for at least six months.
Don’t beat yourself up for feeling depressed or wrestling with depressed moments for many months or years after a change.
If the depression never lifts, there could be something that needs more attention. It would take a whole different article to address this issue, but know that being depressed and clinical depression are correlated but different. If you doubt which you may be experiencing, seek help from a counselor.
Communion of Saints
There’ve been seasons of life when my only community was found in the voices of other believers, past and present—theologians, tapes of my pastor, and writings that reminded me I wasn’t alone in this world, time, and space. Walter Rauschenbusch, Henri Nouwen, Stanley Grenz, Jim McClendon, Kwame Bediako, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Diana Garland, and countless others all have spoken into my life and helped me understand God’s desire for people to live in community.
It’s hard to have community with an inward focus. There are others longing for relationships just like you. Lift your head, open you eyes, and see others as God would have you see them. Friends are often found in unlikely places when we allow God to guide us. Don’t be afraid to get out there. Initiate a lunch; organize a game night; visit a church. You may not make lifelong friends right away—but then again, you might.
Don’t forget, you’re part of a larger community spanning all over the world. Pick up a phone and create a prayer support. Know that while immediate community is necessary, God knows no barriers, and we live in a time where phones, e-mail, IM, blogs, and airplanes can help us stay connected. Just because your closest friends have moved away doesn’t mean they’re gone. Just because you’ve taken a new position in a town where you don’t know anyone doesn’t mean you’re alone.
God is Lord of all. It may be that God chooses to minister to you, to build community in unlikely ways and places. Stop feeling guilty for not being surrounded by other believers. Friendships and community can be centered on common interests. Let them come. Relish the freedom to enjoy unlikely gifts from God.
Building relationships should flow from who we are in Christ, not as a means to an end. The relationship is the end. Too many of us go into a relationship with an agenda. If we’re to be imitators of Christ, we must follow his incarnational example of seeing everyone the way Jesus does. We’re to love unconditionally and assume our rightful position not as savior or judge but as fellow human being.
Solitude, not Loneliness
Time alone can be a gift. I know when you’re in the darkest places this seems like a ridiculous statement. God longs to be in a real viable relationship, longs to spend time with you. Many people surround themselves with others not to be in authentic community but to avoid really facing God. Pray, meditate, go for a walk with God, and listen for the still, small voice—and know that it may take awhile for you to hear it.
Soon enough you’ll be fighting for moments of solitude wondering how you could ever have squandered those precious days when you could’ve been with God. Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. When we shift the focus from ourselves, we’re able to see that God has been present all along and loves you and desires that you find peace.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.