“I’m tired…” is what I said for 18 straight months as a response to every well-meaning friend who asked how I was. “I’m tired, but good,” “I’m tired, but great,” and “I’m REALLY tired,” et cetera, et cetera.
It’s not their fault that no other answer was good enough. Nothing else I could say would have been honest and nothing they said could have given me the direction I craved or the rest I desired. It was, in the words of Joey Tribiani, “A moo point… like a cow’s opinion, it’s just moo.” My heart longed to be cared for — fully cared for. The kind of care that brings refreshment and new life. But my emotional state was chaotic. All relationships that were closest to me and had the majority of my time were in disorder. I know I’m not the only one whose life has looked like this at some point; where all parts of your life seem hard, because they are in fact hard. Waking up and getting out of bed was hard in and of itself. Feeding and cooking for myself was hard. Returning emails was hard. All aspects of living became chores. Talking to people became a chore. Being a good friend became a chore. And as the list of chores grew, so did my exhaustion.
Whenever these friends who cared for me wanted to check in, I thought it only made sense that I be honest. I was tired — in that mind, heart, body, spiritual life kind of way. Looking back on it now, I can’t believe how long I sounded like a broken record. I wish to believe that the people around me didn’t notice, but I am sure some of them did. And though they wanted to provide relief…they couldn’t…no one could…because something even deeper than tiredness had set in.
I was lonely.
There. I said it. I was lonelier than I ever could have imagined.
It was the loneliness that comes from days, months, and even years of caring for others. In caring for others, I had somehow lost myself — not in the work of Jesus — but in the care of everyone else. Many of my students couldn’t tell the difference. Many of the loving parents I worked with couldn’t tell the difference. When I was with people, I want to believe I was truly with them. I had some of my best ideas and moments of ministry growth while I was exhausted and lonely. In the midst of leadership change within the church I serve, the areas I was responsible for held strong and steady. So I thought I was okay, but I wasn’t. Often our pain and suffering is wrapped in vain memories of victory and glory.
All ministers would tell you that loneliness is a part of their story, yet I think youth ministry holds a unique place on the perpetual loneliness shelf. We are often burnt-out by trying to do the next and best thing every six months. Our core groups change year by year because students graduate out. Dedicated leaders and parent-volunteers do too, so you can never stop building a foundational volunteer team. The culture changes with every new smart phone app released, so we are constantly listening to podcasts, reading books and articles, and analyzing the newest songs and albums. We can barely intake everything we need to keep up with our students and their lives, and then there is the ever-present Sunday-Weekly-Things that need to be done. The students who need to be met with. The parents who need to be shepherded through their student’s trauma. The list could go on.
It’s a lot to carry and when we carry a lot we are met with loneliness, because not everyone knows (or needs to know) what we know and carry — what we’ve been called to carry for others.
So how did I deal with ministry loneliness?
There are three things I did and I’d like to suggest and encourage you to consider for your times of that deep, painful, ministry loneliness:
1. Ask for prayer. I know it seems simple, but often we do this last. Ask trusted co-ministers, friends, parents of your students, and session members to pray with and for you as often as they think of you. We have been promised the strength of the Holy Spirit in our times of need, and when we seek it in prayer, we are calling on that promise to be made real in us and through us (Eph. 3:16).
2. Find a group of people who will challenge you to think of other things outside of your ministry context. We can often attempt to do so much in our specific role or ministry that we forget we are actually a part of a much bigger plan and a much bigger world. I’m a part of a group who meets regularly to discuss politics, relationships, social movements, etc. As we are all believers, we speak openly about our opinions on these things and naturally weave the scriptures and our belief of the gospel into our conversations. These friends have been invaluable to me as people who know my daily life, but also help to pull me out of my loneliness simply by sharing with me their world and reminding me that more is happening outside of my growing inbox and to-do list!
3. Be intentional about your loneliness, so that Jesus can meet you there. Often we run from our loneliness toward friends, family, and anything else that might tell us we are not in fact alone. However, Jesus himself actually sought time alone to meet with the Father in the midst of his own loneliness and overwhelming burden (Matt. 26:36-46). Why wouldn’t we do the same? Whether that means staying in bed longer to read in the morning, waking up earlier to go for a run, setting aside time to study outside of your church office and going for a hike instead — you get the idea.
When you lean into your loneliness through prayer, community, and intentionality, you can ask our good King Jesus to meet you there. He promises to do just that. His life, death, and resurrection was a direct response to our loneliness. In loneliness we live out the truth of how sin has twisted our relationships. Yet Jesus answered with his life, where he too experienced deep loneliness. He answered with his death, where he took on the ultimate payment for the sin that twisted us. And he answered with his resurrection by putting an end date to our fear of experiencing loneliness for all eternity. Jesus is our deepest friend in the midst of our loneliness. Lean on him, friend. He will not leave you.