Being Lonely and Being Alone

By Ircel Harrison, Pinnacle's Coaching Coordinator

Throughout my ministry—first as a collegiate minister, then as a denominational worker, and now as a coach/consultant/trainer—I have had many opportunities to talk with clergy leaders about the challenges and concerns they experience. Since I have usually been an outsider who could not affect their standing among their peers and have been somewhat detached from their local church situations, they have tended to be very open and honest, sharing both joys and fears.

Being a minister, especially one serving a local congregation, is not an easy task. One must be involved but at the same time preserve some detachment to carry out the calling properly. In Family Systems Theory, this is called differentiation of self and is a worthy ideal that can only be approximated and never fully achieved. When I talk with clergy about their roles in the congregational system, we often talk about how he or she can be an “honest broker”—seeking the best for the congregation while maintaining both personal and professional integrity and avoiding “taking sides.”

When a minister pursues this ideal, she or he often must deal with two seemingly conflicting but actually complementary situations—being lonely and being alone.

Because they have to work with many different people with varying demands on them, ministers often find themselves feeling lonely. They are reticent about making friends in the congregation for fear of being charged with favoritism. Ministers are sometimes concerned about being open with peers, especially in their own “tribe” or denomination because honesty may affect their status. The minister’s desire to be emotionally independent can place undue pressure on spouses and family members and leads to martial and family issues.

On the other hand, there is a strong argument for a minister to have some time alone. Whether extrovert or introvert, time spent in introspection, study, and fellowship with God can strengthen a person’s ministry. As a friend recently shared, “I need to spend more time being a human being than a human doer.” Our days are so absorbed with activity that we feel guilty when we are not in action.

My argument is that time spent alone can actually help one deal with loneliness. When we spend time alone, we learn more about ourselves and how to be comfortable with whom we are as creatures of God. We discover our strengths, make peace with our weaknesses, and become more dependent on God. This equips us for the rough patches we encounter in ministry.

This is not argument against the value of peer groups and ministerial support groups, but we benefit most from these shared experiences when we have achieved some level of comfort with whom we are and recognize the ultimate source of our strength. Being alone can prepare us for the value of being in intentional community.

What do you think?

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Helen