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Banishing Spiritual Loneliness

Three practices for leaders (or anyone)

I want more of God. Although I write and speak on spiritual formation, work with other Christians, have friends who encourage my faith, am married to a Christian man with whom I've raised Christian children, I still sometimes feel lonely. Not just emotionally lonely, but spiritually lonely—disconnected from God and my faith.

Leaders walk a lonely road. The leader of any enterprise, from a corporation to a small group, must ultimately make decisions that may be unpopular. Even if they consider others' opinions and feelings, leaders, by definition, must take responsibility and make decisions. That can feel lonely.

A position of spiritual leadership can add another layer of isolation. When you are caring for and mentoring others, guiding them spiritually, questions often nag at the back of your mind: Who's mentoring me? Where do I take my questions and doubts? If I'm supposed to be a role model/leader/encourager, who does that for me? And there's nothing like doubt to make you feel alone.

Banishing spiritual loneliness begins with being honest about the fact that you feel lonely to begin with. Acknowledge your feelings, then move forward by engaging in spiritual practices that will help you and those you lead.

Here are three strategies to combat spiritual loneliness as a leader.

Slow Down

Do you ever feel as if you're moving so fast through life that you don't really see the people around you? Or you do see them, but you feel annoyed at them far too often? Do you feel that you don't have time to really connect? Ironically, busyness (even with an overabundance of connections) can be isolating.

Slow down. For a day, or even a morning, try this: Do one thing at a time. Use "time chunking": allocate a chunk of time to one task, then move on to the next "chunk." Multi-tasking actually decreases efficiency.

Take time to look into the eyes of people you're meeting with, noticing their non-verbal communication. Listen without composing your next thought. Pause between tasks. Delegate some tasks, maybe. Or just let some things (which you might possibly be micromanaging unnecessarily) just go undone. (Could that be the reason you're so busy? Hmm.)

Our hurry can even taint our time with God—prayer becomes another item on a to-do list. We get more out of checking it off the list than we do actually being with God. Take time to slow down with God, even if you don't have a lot of time. Meditate on God's promises of love and acceptance. For example, start with 1 John 3. Focus on your identity in him; you are a deeply loved child of God.

Spend Time in Solitude

It may seem counterintuitive, but the antidote for loneliness can sometimes be found in solitude—especially when we define solitude as not simply time alone, but time alone with God. God can fill our spiritual tank. But just as you can't fill a car while driving it down the road, spiritual filling requires us to slow down and connect with the source.

Be sure to understand the distinction between time alone being with God and time spent alone doing tasks for God. There's a big difference.

Leaders are people who get things done. We're task-oriented. While that's helpful, it can fuel an underlying belief that God's approval is related to our accomplishments, even contingent upon them. That's another way of saying we believe God's love is conditional.

When we simply take time to be alone, and to be with God, without tasks or even an agenda (such as study, memorization, lesson prep), we affirm our faith in God's unconditional love. Does he really love me when I'm not doing something for him? The only way to find out, and thereby truly experience that deep, unconditional love, is to stop doing for a while. Just be with God and know him (See Psalm 46).

Seek Community

This may seem like the opposite of the previous strategy. But if you look, for example, at the life of Jesus, you'll see that he engaged in both solitude and community. We need time alone with God, but we also need others to minister to us, to encourage us. God designed us to live in community with others. He can speak to us through others and in the quiet of our hearts.

If you find this challenging, you may need to ask yourself, Am I keeping people at a distance? Am I willing to risk revealing my need for support or encouragement? Am I valuing tasks over people?

Seek out other leaders, or friends who have some emotional distance from your leadership position. (In other words, people who are in another organization or are not your direct reports.) Look for friends who will support you but also be willing to tell you the truth when it's not pretty.

Be willing to seek spiritual friendship in which you can both be honest, where you can take off the leadership hat and just be yourself. Jesus did ministry in community, and we'd do well to follow his example.

Other people who lead in other environments often can provide the understanding and support you need. But you have to be brave enough to ask.

Loneliness is inevitable at times. Rather than avoid it by getting busy, let that quiet ache in your heart push you toward God. Use these three practices—slowing down, solitude, and community—to experience his presence and to create some space for God in your life.

Keri Wyatt Kent teaches and writes about spiritual formation, leadership, and discipleship. Connect with her at KeriWyattKent.com.

March28, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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