From Isolation to Community
by Bob Clark
“It’s the other people in our lives who offer the best opportunities to overcome instinctive, deep-rooted sin.” — Frederica Mathewes-Green
Moving from isolation to community is the second part of a life-giving holy rhythm that can feed a church leader’s soul. By community I mean church leaders opening up their hearts and lives to one another with a sense of cooperation and vulnerability that is countercultural to the prevailing individualism of the day. Living in community means getting to know each other, developing friendships, and accepting one another as we really are, with our strengths and our weaknesses.
God creates humans to live in community. The creation story is not complete until the humans are living in community that reflects God. The preaching of the Old Testament prophets is often a thundering message to teach God’s people to express God’s character toward one another as they live in community. The incarnation reveals God as interested enough to live among the humans.
Jesus cultivates close friendships, enjoying the hospitality of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and bonding with “the disciple Jesus loved.” Jesus also lives in community with a very diverse group of 12 that he chooses after a season of prayer and later sends out in pairs to do ministry. Paul chooses to travel on missionary journeys with a partner or team, thinks of Timothy as his spiritual son, and works hand in hand with Euodia and Synteche.
Paul’s relationship with the elders at Ephesus is of special interest in considering church leaders and community (Acts 20:13-38). While some caution church leaders to keep their distance from the congregation and counsel ministers to avoid friendships with elders, Paul seems very comfortable being in community with the church and the elders. He recalls three years in which they partnered in ministry, working closely together. Paul and the elders serve together, preach together, and pray together.
Their parting scene demonstrates their relationship to be a safe place where they can share their feelings and express their emotions. In most churches, developing these deep relationships can be difficult. But I have found that wrestling with the complications of such vulnerability is worth the risk because the benefits of shared lives are so rich.
When we live in isolation, keeping the church and other leaders at arm’s length, we feel we have much more control. We can call the shots and run our lives. By living in community we choose to open up ourselves to the influence of others, which can help us grow out of a manipulative model of church leadership. Living in community means we will sin against and offend one another, which provides opportunities to forgive one another and release offenses. When we become angry at someone with whom we share fellowship we have occasion to look inward to discover what underlying force might be at work in our hearts.
Honestly living in community means we are open to the encouragement and to the accountability others may offer. Much of the carnage I see among church leaders caught in sin involves people who are living in isolation rather than in community or are not open and honest with their friends. Fellowship is strengthened when we open up our hearts to another in heartfelt confession. Fellowship is broken when we pose as vulnerable and pretend to be something we are not. Merely being a member of a prayer group or accountability group is not community, but opening up about who we really are in a prayer group or accountability group builds community.
Looking back at many of my boneheaded decisions, I realize most were made in isolation, without the benefit of community discernment offered by deep spiritual friendships. I can only wonder how I might have handled situations differently had I made those decisions in community. I cannot go back and change the mistakes of the past, but I choose to make present and future decisions with the benefit of community discernment.
As my mentor Lynn Anderson teaches, I continually must refuse to go down a path that leads to isolation even if all I want to do is run away and hide. Instead of isolating myself, I must pray for courage and pick up the phone or somehow reach out to those I have built deep relationships with.
And so spiritual formation takes place not only in solitude, but also in community. Relationships give us practical opportunities both to see Jesus in others and to treat people with the love of Jesus. Our relationships, particularly difficult relationships, provide a gauge for our spiritual growth. Building friendships with people who are different in some way allows us to expand our capacity for grace, love, and acceptance. Intentional relationships with difficult people offer us chances to lay down our lives.
Community means having companions on the journey of faith. So we nurture friendships with fellow leaders in our congregation and with those we serve. We build relationships with people serving like congregations and those serving congregations of other tribes. We seek to develop friendships with people who self-identify as “nones” (those without religious affiliation).
Church leaders cultivate long-term connections while remaining open to new discoveries. For example, my colleague talks on the telephone every morning as he arrives at his office, talking to the same person he has talked to almost every day for years. Though in that relationship of encouragement and accountability for years before we met, he reaches out to me, inviting me to join him on the journey of faith. Moving from isolation to community is a crucial component of soul care that provides opportunities for spiritual nourishment.
You are right: what you do matters, both to God and the church. Just like you, I know how invigorating this truth can be. And just like you, I know how much stress it can create. But I have learned that it is possible both to delight in the joy of ministry and to manage the stresses of ministry with careful attention to soul care.
So may God give you the discipline to ease out of busyness and into solitude, and may God give you the courage to move from isolation into community, that you might have all the nourishment you need to lead faithfully and lovingly.