EMBRACING LONELINESS OVER ISOLATION
by Trevor DeVage
I don’t know about most of you, but the last year of leadership in ministry has had some very lonely moments. For some it has even been isolating. There were moments where it was lonely pre-pandemic, but in the midst of it, it has been even more lonesome and even isolating at times. Throw in political, racial, and social upheaval, and you have a perfect leadership storm of loneliness that can turn isolating quickly.
“It’s lonely at the top.” Like most clichés, this one gets repeated so often because it expresses at least a little truth. In fact, according to some research, at least half of all CEOS report feelings of loneliness. As one researcher puts it, “You can imagine that … over time having to make a lot of tough, unpopular decisions that are constantly going to upset at least one part of your constituency could start to feel isolating.”
Even though the roles of CEO and senior pastor are different in many ways, I can relate. The lead pastor may feel as if he’s the only one who truly understands all the issues and the challenges. Carrying such a weight can isolate you.
One reason I enjoy attending an annual conference of megachurch pastors is that the guys there all understand and share this weight. When any one of us talks about it, the others say, “I get it.” And I know they really do.
But I’ve decided loneliness need not lead to isolation. Apple CEO Tim Cook believes isolation is the real problem for CEOs and top leaders, and that reflects the title I chose for this post. I highly value the times I choose to be alone, for at least three reasons.
1. BEING LIKE JESUS
Again and again in the Gospel accounts, we see Jesus removing himself from the crowd. I’ve learned I need to do that too. As a high extrovert, I seek and enjoy interaction with other people all the time. But as I grow older, I’m finding I long for moments alone. If I can’t play golf with my daughter or a friend, I like to walk 18 holes by myself. All I need to do is to focus on hit the ball, walk to the ball, hit the ball again, walk to the ball again. In a week filled with important decisions, I’m restored by this simple routine. I like to go on walks by myself. Some of my best prayer times are when I’m away and alone—not isolated, I’m with the Father.
2. DISCOVERING CLARITY
When I’m walking, working, or sitting in my office alone, I have space to think about church staffing, other challenges our church must tackle, or decisions our family is facing. These times by myself are often the most productive parts of my day. Things become much clearer when I’m alone with God facing my issues. Without this step, I struggle to communicate clearly with my team.
3. DESIRING COMMUNITY
It’s great to travel, but inevitably about Day Four of a trip, I have this overwhelming longing to be with my wife and kids. The longer I’m alone, the deeper grows my need for community. Being alone helps me draw more closely to people when I’m back. When I can be alone for the first couple hours of the day, I inevitably experience a deep desire to be with people.
But isolation is another issue. Isolation means I’m avoiding conflict and staying away from the demands and needs of people in my world. Isolation increases my self-talk about being misunderstood or under appreciated. Isolation leads to bitterness and depression. Isolation is damaging to me and to the ministry I’m leading.
But being alone? It’s an experience I’m learning to embrace with joy.