Spiritual growth can be lonely at times. Yielding to God and letting him do the hard inner work that is required for us to grow can be difficult.
I once worked for a rural church. My previous churches had all been in cities of different sizes. This church sold itself to me as being a suburb of a nearby city. In actuality, the nearby city was a solid 45 minute drive away.
After we moved, I began to feel isolated. The church was in a village. Actually, it was outside the village limits, literally in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town was a 25 minute drive away. It felt like I had to take half a day if I wanted to drive to a coffee shop in that town to do some reading and work. I drove south through farmland, through the one traffic light in the village, then south for another 18 minutes through more farmland until I came to the town. I only did this about once a week; it just didn’t seem worth the drive to me.
My experience was a far cry from the cities I had lived in, where it was nothing to leave for a few minutes’ drive to a coffee shop or a restaurant to meet with someone. In one city, I could drive 8 minutes to the hospital in the morning to visit with a church member, find them asleep or in a test, but then visit the hospital again later in the afternoon to catch up with them. In the village church, the nearest hospital was 35 minutes away, and the two main ones were 45 and 50 minutes away. It was a half-day commitment to leave the church office and visit a church member in the hospital.
The isolation got to me. The weekly grind of cranking out lessons, while being alone in my office and rarely seeing anyone, led me to burnout. I eventually found myself in a huge rut, going through the motions, and not even wanting to be around people.
As part of my recovery from burnout, I asked a minister who pastored a church in a different city if we could meet every two weeks for coffee. I asked him to hold me accountable to some things that would help me track whether I was finding joy in ministry again or falling back toward the rut of burnout.
The benefit of this relationship became clear and obvious to me over time as this minister and I became very close friends. Our meetings became times of refreshment where we would catch each other up on our lives, commiserate about church issues, and pray together. We grew into a true spiritual friendship.
Spiritual friendship is vital for overall spiritual health. A spiritual friend is different from acquaintances at church, or the small group that meets in your home, or even the Christian friends you volunteer with. A spiritual friend is one with whom you can be yourself around and share deeply with. Spiritual friends are rare, because these relationships require both to be vulnerable, and vulnerability means taking a risk.
Loneliness is not only found in physical isolation; it comes in many forms: from feeling like you are a part in the machine, to not being able to express your true feelings with others, to keeping frustration bottled up because you have no one to open up to. When these feelings are left unattended, you begin shifting towards the dangerous space of burnout.
I encourage you to look for a spiritual friend. You may have to summon some courage and become vulnerable to ask someone for this kind of relationship. But, when you find it, this friendship will nurture your soul and enable you to grow in grace.
If you’d like to learn more about this, we discuss taking risks and being vulnerable in community in our recent podcast episode with Cheryl Russell, Forming a Missional Community. Make sure you listen to the episode and subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss any episodes.
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