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Monday, June 22, 2015

I Thought I was Going to Have Friends

Expectation #2

Ministry is often lonely.  By nature, I'm an introvert, so I actually don't require tons of interaction with people.  This, in itself, is sometimes misunderstood.  I love people.  I just need some time alone to recharge on a fairly regular basis.  This does not mean that I love being alone all, or even most, of the time.
I thrive in social situations when I have a defined role, and particularly a defined leadership role.  Because of this, I tend to gravitate toward people who need help.  I'm adamant about the connections we should be making with those whom Jesus defines as the least of these.  All of this is a part of who I am, and it's good.  But there's something else.
Over the years, I've grown quite fond of Wesley's image of discipleship and spiritual formation as a process of climbing a stairway with one hand reaching forward and one hand reaching back.  I think many ministers do the reaching back well, but my concern is that so many of us are walking up the stairs backward, altogether, attempting to drag the whole world behind us with both hands.  With this posture, the potential for falling down the stairs is enormous!
The relationship of spiritual direction is vital.  For me, this was a very difficult step to take.  When I enrolled at NNU, it was a requirement that I find a spiritual director.  The fear involved in this process was almost palpable, because I knew that entering into this kind of relationship would leave me vulnerable and transparent.  I wasn't sure this was what I wanted, but I did want to be at NNU, so I had to do it.  Interestingly enough, NNU also provided me with a cohort of people with whom to journey in my educational pursuits, and many of them became friends.  I thought I went to NNU to get a degree, but I got a lot more than I bargained for. 
It would be nice to leave the story at that, but I think there  are some real challenges for pastors once they move beyond required relationships.  Unfortunately, for many, these relationships only last so long.  This has left me wondering how I can encourage people to continue with one on one spiritual direction and regular communication with a cohort of colleagues when that kind of engagement is no longer obligatory to reach some other goal.
Part of the problem is that you have to want it.  I would not have sought a spiritual director if I had not been required to do so.  I'm not exactly sure what that says about me.  Perhaps it says that I thought I had it all together, or I thought I had arrived, or I thought it was easier to listen to God alone than with someone else.  Maybe it says that I knew I did not have it all together, and I had certainly not arrived, and it was easier to not listen to God at all than to get honest with another human being who might not be as trustworthy as I'd hoped.  Pastors get burned by people, sometimes, and so we often choose to go solo as opposed to engaging in community.  Oh, we build community for other people.  We serve as the spiritual directors and the mentors and the resident theologians.  And we should.  But we definitely have needs, too.
Another part of the problem, though, is actually finding people who are willing and able to fill the roles of spiritual director and friends in your life.  When I started praying about who I should ask to be my spiritual director, only one name came to mind.  I was on the verge of asking her, which had taken me quite some time, courage gathering and all, when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Honestly, I was blown away with grief for this family, and I didn't feel as if I could ask her to take on one more thing, namely my mess of a life, so I waited and prayed some more and was reaching near panic attack level as the start of the school year came and went, and I still did not have a name to submit as my spiritual director.
Finally, because I was out of time, and I tend to work best under pressure, at the eleventh hour, I sent an e-mail asking if she would be willing to fulfill this role as my spiritual director.  Part of her response to me read, as follows:
"I did read over the requirements and said to myself, 'This doesn’t sound like me.'  I feel like there must be many, many people who meet the criteria better than I... Perhaps you see something that I don’t; it seems like you think I could do it.  I have never done anything like this before.  And then I wondered, 'Why did God put this opportunity in front of me?'  Perhaps He wants me to do it.  So, if you think I would meet the criteria well enough, I will try my best.  And if you have doubts, I won’t be a bit upset if you ask someone else."

Well, that was enough for me.  The fact that she was willing was all I really needed, and there was absolutely no way I was going to put myself through the process of looking for someone else if I didn't absolutely have to.


This was the beginning of a beautiful relationship in which my spiritual director and I are able to commune and listen to God together.  It has been amazing, not only how she has helped me in the process of spiritual formation, but also how she has helped me in everyday, ordinary life.  She was exactly who I needed.


Perhaps not ironically, the relationship has been good for her, as well.  I think God has used my leaning toward compassion and listening to also help her through a very difficult time in life, through grief and healing connected to the loss of her husband.  It seems that God does, indeed, direct us to the people we need and the people who need us.


In regard to other friendships, it can be a complicated process.  I remember being told, before we entered into ministry, that you shouldn't really make friends within your congregation, and you absolutely should never, ever stay connected to the people from previous ministry assignments.  I found this advice, at first, to be appalling.  Then we went through some painful transitions, and the whole concept of friendship started to seem like a revolving door.  I am ashamed to admit that I started to buy into the lie that forming transparent relationships with the people to whom you minister is taboo.  It was easier to not care that much.  It was definitely easier to walk away without thinking about how life had gone on without us.  But the things that are easiest are so often not synonymous with the things that are right.


Enter social networking.  We live in a different world than we did, even a decade ago.  Now, people whose names you could hardly remember when you lived across the street might very well be privy to such private information as what you had for breakfast or when you plan to next have your tires rotated.  I think the word "friend" has taken on a life of its own.  As an example, at this very moment I have just over 800 friends on Facebook.  They live all over the country, and some of them even in other world areas.  A good number of them haven't been very nice to me in real-life situations.  A few of them, I have never met face to face. 


I really like social networking, because it has helped me to re-connect with a lot of people who would otherwise be relationship casualties of ministries in the minister and move on mode.  I like that I have been able to re-connect with childhood friends.  I like that every time I meet someone and have an even moderately meaningful conversation with them, I can add them to my list of friends and keep track of them, get glimpses into their lives, pray for them when they have needs.  It's an amazing tool.  It does, however, lack physical contact.


After a whirlwind of five states in six years, our family landed in the mid-west, which was a plus for us, since that's where Phil and I both grew up, and managed to stay put for just as long as we'd been traveling.  Gradually, we started remembering what is was like to have regular contact with the same people, week after week, month after month, year after year.  I had become very guarded, because it was simply painful to start to make friends only to have them ripped out of my life, but as we settled in to a new way of living, with new rhythms and a stable location, my guard began to drop.  I didn't go looking for friends, but they started to show up sort of unexpectedly, working their way into my life, simply because we had something in common.  Several of them became the kinds of friends that I could depend on to pray for me and to respond with grace and love, even when the things I needed to share were a jumble of raw emotion.  It was a very blessed time in my life in regard to friendship.


Unfortunately, even if you stay in one place for a really long time, it is likely that you will move again someday.  As a general rule, that's just the way vocational ministry goes.  So, when we packed up after six years of life with the same people, it was actually a much harder goodbye than some of the others.  It's not that we lost all of our friends, but we had to adjust to a different way of doing friendship with them.  They no longer eat in our living room once a week.  It might seem like a little thing, but I knew what they liked.  I mean, like clockwork, I could tell you which people were going to show up, and bring more friends, on breakfast night.  I knew who wanted crushed red peppers in their cheesy eggs and who didn't, and I always made both kinds.  I knew no one was ever coming again if I attempted pumpkin pancakes a second time.  But when we left that town, I had to start over again with people I didn't know.  The truth is, it takes a long time to make friends, and it hurts when you have to leave them.


You also have to be aware that every time you find yourself in a new situation, many of the people there are naturally going to have been friends for their entire lives.  It's OK.  You can still be friends with them, but your relationships are going to be different.  You don't have a history together.  They do. 


I've often heard it said that God places people in our lives, and places us in the lives of people,  for specific times and situations.  I don't really know how true that is, but I do know that it's best if you love the people you're with, all the time, regardless of how long you get with each one.  There are times when I honestly wish that our life had been more geographically stable, but if that were the case, I would have missed out on a lot of people.  Sometimes you have to say goodbye in order to say hello.   


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