Handling Loneliness - Building Friendships
By Leigh Ann Powers
I was on a mission trip when I finally put a word to the emotion that had been niggling at the back of my mind for months: loneliness. It wasn't that I didn't have enough to occupy my mind and energy. My husband and I had moved from seminary to our first pastorate and started our family shortly thereafter.
I was nursing my six-month-old daughter, working part-time as a collegiate minister at a local community college, helping my husband with the church youth group, and trying to keep up with all the responsibilities of home. I knew something was missing, but I never got off my treadmill long enough to figure out what the problem was. Watching the camaraderie and silliness my students shared as they enjoyed some well-earned down time after the day's work, I finally ran my fingers around the hole and recognized the shape: I needed a friend.
Now, looking back, I'm not sure what took me so long to come to that realization. It was partly due to over commitment, but part of it was also my spiritual pride. Sometimes it's hard to admit our own needs. Today, though, I am blessed with women I call friends. God answered my prayers and provided me with people to laugh with and cry with, friends with whom I can celebrate victory and from whom I find support in times of defeat. Together, we challenge one another in ministry and in our walks with the Lord. God abundantly met my need, but He also showed me some places where I needed to make changes along the way.
When my husband and I moved to our small town, I fully expected to find a buddy. Someone like me—a young mother, happily married, working parttime or staying at home, involved in her church. Oddly enough, I never found that person. Yet, God provided other friends for me—a single school teacher, a seventy-year-old grandmother, and a live wire retiree. None of them was what I originally had in mind for myself, but God knew there were more important things—like the ability to keep a confidence, a shared heart for ministry, wisdom learned from life's lessons, and a passion for prayer. God knew what I needed better than I did.
I had made the mistake of substituting activity for intimacy. I was trying so hard to be superwoman that I was no longer prioritizing things that were really important. Despite being in ministry, I had little time for a rich devotional life, much less a rewarding friendship. For my spiritual, emotional, and physical health, I had to let some things go. It wasn't until I cleared my calendar that I had the emotional energy to invest in friendship.
Taking the Initiative
I realized one day that I was never going to have someone come knock on my door and ask to be my friend. It's easy to get into our little routines of where we go, who we see, and who we speak to. Meeting new people and deepening relationships sometimes means changing our routines. Although I don't consider myself a particularly outgoing person, I tried to chat with different people at church every week. I looked for opportunities to strike up conversations with moms at the playground. I invited ladies I wanted to get to know better over for lunch and visited different community clubs and support groups. Some of my efforts bore fruit and some didn't, but I discovered new relationships and ministry opportunities along the way.
Trying Something New
I took up scrapbooking. Okay, it's not a revolutionary idea, and when I accepted the first invitation, scenes from Stepford Wives kept flashing through my head. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed it, and I met the woman who has become my closest friend through that group. Now, our crop club functions both as an excuse for us to get together and as a comfortable place to invite new people we'd like to get to know.
Risking Being Vulnerable
I am by nature a private person, and my reticence to speak up about personal struggles only intensifies when I'm in public or leadership positions. Let's face it, as the very pregnant pastor's wife, when a dear pillar of the church cheerfully points out how fat you look, the urge to blurt out, "Thanks, so do you," is not something you really want to confess at a prayer meeting. Still, we need those people with whom we can be open and share our struggles, those who will bear our burdens as we also bear theirs, and who will support us in prayer. That kind of vulnerability is what produces genuine fellowship, or koinonia--the heart-to-heart connection God desires for His people. Even within our circle of friends there are different levels of sharing. For some, we may just need to say, "God is really convicting me about something and I'm struggling. Please pray for me." With others we can share more details, but the specificity needs to be tailored to the intimacy of the friendship. On some level, though, we must risk revealing our hearts to those around us. Without that vulnerability, we miss out on one of the ways God speaks to us—through the body of Christ.
Sometimes, those of us in leadership or ministry positions fall into the trap of thinking that we don't need anyone else. After all, shouldn't God be enough for us? Yet, God designed us to need one another. Admitting that need is not weakness, but strength.
We serve a God who delights in meeting all of our needs—even our need for friendship. Developing intimate friendships can require change and risk, but it is possible. Nothing is too difficult for God.