“Ah, look at all the lonely people,” the band sang in the old song. “Where do they all come from?” This question hums with haunted melody, as the song searches out the lonely lives of a priest, his congregant and the church they both serve. Why is it that those who give their days to a vocation charged with the enjoyment, love and glory of God remain so vulnerable to the loneliness and isolation that any human being can feel? Anton Chekhov’s short story, The Bishop, helps us. Without spoiling the story, I’d like to tell you why.
Sometimes as ministers we feel consumed rather than loved, managed rather than listened to, flattered rather than known, downloaded rather than understood, begrudged rather than forgiven. Sometimes those we serve experience this from us.
Loneliness flourishes as human relationships fade
Chekhov’s story takes us through holy week. We follow the Bishop through his pastoral duties as Easter approaches. The Bishop hears people laugh with each other but with him they hide their laughter. The crowds, though many, are distant and impersonal. Chekhov tells us about the Bishop’s response to this.
“He could not get used to the awe, which through no wish of his own, he inspired in people . . . The whole time he had been there, not one person had spoken to him genuinely, simply, as to a human being . . . (16)”
Even those next to him fail to notice that the man himself can cry with love and was a child once; that he too has memories both beautiful and tragic, and that even he can be ill or hurt. Loneliness stalks us not only when congregants consume rather than love us; when they uphold our persona rather than who we are as persons. But loneliness also finds us out when friends and family members also relate to us differently than before or with ongoing disfunction.
The bishop felt vexed and then hurt that with other people his old mother behaved in a simple, ordinary way, while with him, her son, she was shy, spoke little, and did not say what she meant . . . (19)
Even Adam, though he was in Eden, tasting the perfect peace, honest conversation, and intimate satisfaction of God with all creation; was still, as God said, “Alone.” And this was “not good.” Human companionship and community forges part of what fits us to battle loneliness. God has said so. Pastors are no exception to this need for human friendship as a fellow human being.
This is why our Lord Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, asked someone to help him when he was tired (John 4:7), looked to his closest friends to pray with him when his sweat was like blood (Matthew 26:36-46), needed Simon to carry the weight of the cross when Jesus’s bodily strength gave way (Matthew 27:32).
A mentor and friend, Leighton Ford, has often repeated this phrase: “People in ministry need safe times, safe places and safe people in order to go the long haul and to remain fruitful in ministry.” The Apostle Paul would seem to agree. He was downcast, troubled, exhausted and fearful. God’s supernatural gift of comfort came in the form of a true ordinary friend named Titus, who offered presence, time and conversation (2 Corinthians 7:5-6).
No wonder, when Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, the Pilgrim did not travel alone. Bunyan gave him a companion named faithful and then another named hopeful to journey with him along the way to share the joy and the burden together. “Two are better than one” the old sage said. The presence of a friend, a fellow human being, to help us handle what is hard at work, or to navigate harsh weather that would otherwise makes us vulnerable or to defend ourselves when in danger among foul-intentioned souls (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12) is a gift from God.
Loneliness flourishes as restful human companionship fades. Pastors need people; not simply so they can lead a congregation or secure a salary or to garner enough members in order to mobilize for mission. Pastors need people because pastors are human beings and by God’s design, human beings need one another.
Fatigue without friends emboldens loneliness
Add to this the daily burden that weighs upon the pastor’s mind to care well for souls and sleep can become hard to find. The Bishop “hadn’t slept in a long time . . . Some trifling detail which haunted his brain as soon as his eyes were closed kept him from sleeping (18).” The Apostle Paul describes the felt weight of this daily pastoral burden (2 Corinthians 11:28).
Make no mistake. The fatigue stems from good and honest work. The difficulty of course is that a pastor’s work is always unfinished. As Jesus said, this side of heaven, “the poor you always have with you (Matthew 26:11).” Needs of body and soul are many. “The Bishop saw all who came to ask his help.” He would faithfully visit those who were in a bad way and couldn’t get to him. Add to this the administrative and mentoring responsibilities of the Bishop’s office, the all-day-long tasks of the organization and the people, and the Bishop had “not one minute to spare” (15).
This kind of fatigue from care for others, in the midst of never-ending work and problems, along with an absence of genuine human friendship, irritates us into frustration and even to self-pity.
“And he who in his sermons could never bring himself to speak ill of people, never reproached anyone because he was so sorry for them, was moved to fury with the people who came to consult him, lost his temper and flung their petitions on the floor” (16).
Wore out and lonely, what we once loved about the place of our ministry now disgruntles us. We want out! We say with the Psalmist,
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me.
And I say, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest . . . (Psalm 55:5-8)
Likewise, the Bishop “felt a sudden longing to be abroad, an insufferable longing! He felt that he would give his life not to see those pitiful cheap shutters, those low ceilings, not to smell that heavy monastery smell. If only there were one person to whom he could have talked, have opened his heart!” (22)
We are now like Elijah running from Jezebel, alone and exhausted. We begin, in these washed-out-moments, to second-guess and even to regret our very calling and life.
“I ought not to be a Bishop,” said the Bishop softly. “I ought to have been a village priest, a deacon . . . or simply a monk . . . All of this oppresses me . . . oppresses me.” (23)
Has this friendless, fatigued, loneliness become the norm for you?
- In Chekhov’s story, a surprising challenge confronts the Bishop. The fatigue, the sense of oppression, the desire to fly away, the mounting frustration are not typical to this pastor. They reveal symptoms of a particular life season through which the Bishop must travel. Such things do not indicate that we would agree with the Bishop. We are glad that he is in ministry. He loves God and us well. But this sudden life trauma has exposed what he and we who care about him must see–that he doesn’t have someone to talk to. That he is wore out with good work. In this case, he needn’t reconsider his calling, but rather reorient the way he is going about it. He just needs rest and a friend for a while. This is the gift of God’s lovely grace for him and for us.
Is there someone or a ministry to pastors somewhere that God is kindly bringing across your path? A place to rest? A friend to trust? A break you need? A fellow friend in ministry to spend unhurried time with?
2. Or let’s imagine that being friendless, fatigued and lonely has become a joyless norm in ministry. We pursued being Bishop or its like because we envisioned greater influence for God. But we’ve since learned that this “greater influence” has only separated us from what a human soul most needs with God and with others. In this case, could it be that you and I would need to reconsider whether or not our “greater influence” has turned out actually to have been a temptation that now tears at our soul? If we are in danger of gaining the whole ministerial world but forfeiting our soul, maybe its time for a change. Maybe we’d say to the Bishop, “You are right,” serving as a Deacon or a local priest is a noble and good life. You have wasted nothing and are not crazy but wise to choose so.”
Either way, Jesus has not left us. He draws near to us to gently lead us home to him.