My Struggle with Community: A Pastor’s Confession
We were created for community. So why do we want to be alone? This statement and question motivated why I wrote The Community of God: A Theology of the Church From A Reluctant Pastor. The book has just been released and I’d like to share with The Moderate Voice readers a special sneak preview. Enjoy!
(This is an excerpt from Chapter 4: Pursuing the Tree of Ruin from Doug Bursch’s new book, The Community of God: A Theology of the Church From a Reluctant Pastor)
My tree of ruin
With so many ways of hurting each other, people can be terrifying. I have always been a rather emotional person. I do not know if this is an aspect of my dyslexia or of my biological or emotional makeup, but I have a difficult time feeling comfortable in group settings. People who do not know me well find my emotional issues hard to imagine. My vocation as a pastor, writer and speaker has led me to communicate to thousands of individuals. Even so, I often feel overwhelmed, awkward and out of place in social situations. My discomfort is primarily because I tend to be an anxious, hypersensitive introvert.
Through the years, I have picked up some definitions concerning introverts and extroverts that have helped me to understand why I have had such a difficult time abiding in community. In the most basic terms, an extrovert feeds off the energy of the room while an introvert is drained by the activity of the room. Extroverts feed off of people, while introverts weaken in groups. Extroverts seek people to be rejuvenated; introverts seek solace. Extroverts tend to be somewhat thick skinned; introverts can be easily hurt or emotionally overwhelmed. Extroverts do not mind getting to know new people in new environments, while introverts usually feel comfortable only with people they consider emotionally safe or in environments where they have control.
A common misgiving concerning introverts is that they all keep to themselves. This is simply not true. Certainly, some introverts live relatively isolated lives. However, introverts also exist in large communities, but with controlled boundaries and habits. For instance, some introverts can speak to thousands of people in a controlled setting, yet experience difficulty existing in another informal setting, such as a small home group. I have seen this with pastors of large churches, comedians, authors and entertainers. Although they can captivate a room full of people, they are frequently drained by the experience and overwhelmed by the relational elements that accompany their public speaking. To be an introvert is often more about the emotional cost to the person than about their activities.
Along with being an introvert, I am a hypersensitive and emotional person. I would liken my emotional life to a sensitive stringed instrument. Even the slightest stroke of my emotional strings can lead to a deep and prolonged reverberation. Sometimes the note is pure joy or sincere exuberance; other times, it is profound sorrow or agonizing heartache. Regardless of my own self-regulating efforts or the well-intentioned advice of others, I have frequently been unable to prevent my emotional strings from playing their own tune. This too has led me to be wary of environments where I might possibly experience hurt and the plucking of painful strings.
There are so many personality nuances that make up a person. The nature and nurture of a person are far too complex to dissect and categorize. I honestly do not know if my emotional makeup, dyslexia and introverted nature influenced my fear of abiding with others, but I know that I have always struggled with low-grade anxiety about how I exist in community. I cannot ever remember feeling comfortable in a room full of people. I have had to work hard at trying to belong or to feel as if I belong.
Not only have I worked hard to feel comfortable in groups, I have also assumed responsibility for making things right. As the middle child of five, I tried to make everyone happy or at least to make everything okay. Throughout my life, I have tried to bring peace to every room and to eliminate and to resolve every conflict. For me, well-being was synonymous with the absence of conflict, tension or emotional pain. Consequently, I became an expert in helping those around me deal with arguments, tension and emotional pain. The skills I developed made me look like someone who would make a good pastor. However, I developed many of these talents for the wrong reasons.
I can relate to Adam and Eve’s desire for control. I understand how they wanted knowledge to deal with their present circumstances and their future challenges. When I became a pastor, I felt I had many skills that other pastors lacked. I thought that I was just a little bit wiser, stronger and better prepared to deal with the burdens of ministry. Throughout my life, I had worked hard to understand the complexities of human nature. In my desire to prevent or to solve conflict, I had become somewhat of an expert in human behavior. Or at least, that is what I thought in the naivety of my youth. I assumed I had learned enough to avoid most of the heartache and the conflict I had seen and experienced as a kid growing up in the church. I thought I would be able to structure the church and my ministry in a way that kept people from hurting each other and hurting me. If I just said the right words, lived the right life and structured the right church, I would create a congregation where people would not hurt each other and, more importantly, would not hurt me.
I believe if many of us were honest with ourselves, we would admit to this primitive desire not to be hurt by others. Everyone desires to be loved. But if we cannot be loved, we at least do not want to be harmed. Consequently, we often structure our lives to mitigate our risk of being hurt. We avoid people, places and situations that will increase our likelihood of being wounded. Sometimes we include the church in that list. For me, I tried to start a church that would satisfy my need to not be hurt. Sure, I wanted others to feel loved. But for me personally, my goal was not to be harmed.
However, as I ministered, I realized that no matter how I structured the church I could not avoid being hurt. I also noticed that even when I solved conflicts, these resolutions often did not bring me peace. Instead, my ability to solve problems or bring about conflict resolution made me feel more conflicted. Rather than bringing people love from God’s tree of life, I anxiously sought wisdom from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I tried to process people through my own wisdom, for my own emotional well-being. Instead of learning how to make room for the love of Christ, I pastored people from a place of fear and anxiety, for the purpose of control. I was “loving” people to avoid conflict, all the while growing more conflicted within myself.
My ministry looked loving, but so much of what I did was motivated by a desire to make conflict and problems go away. Instead of growing in love, I was becoming a restless problem solver. While others were helped by my advice or pastoral counsel, I grew more restless. I grew restless because no matter how many problems I solved or conflicts I resolved, there was always another one on the horizon. No matter what I did or said or how I structured the church, discord was inevitable. The kind of conflict where people you have loved and invested your life in will scream at you, slam the door to your office and leave, just because you gently said something they did not want to hear. In those first few years of ministry, I came to the stark realization that no one can avoid the conflict and hurt of community.
Adam and Eve wanted the knowledge of good and evil so they could be like God. They wanted control. I also wanted to control my environment and the people around me. I wanted to say and do everything just right, so I could avoid dealing with the reality of what happens when you love real people and foster real relationships. I thought that if I just did it better than everyone else, I could somehow avoid the pain of abiding with broken people and I would not have to depend upon the grace and love of God.
When I look back at my foolishness, I realize I was trying to lead without truly depending upon the reconciling power of the gospel and the hard, long-term work of authentically abiding with those entrusted to my care. I tried to avoid being dependent upon the power of God’s grace, love and mercy. I tried and failed. Instead of learning to love amid conflict, I tried to process people out of conflict. I am thankful God had enough grace for me. He had enough grace to show me the futility of my efforts. He offered a better way and brought me back to the tree of life.
Over time, I have learned to appreciate the assignment of simply loving people. It is not my job to solve every conflict. I do not have to make everything right or have all the right knowledge for God to be sovereign and the world to be okay. In fact, I do not need to figure out life’s complexities. Instead, I get to learn how to love during conflict, amid the perpetual messiness that arises when people gather in the name of the Lord. I may be emotional, I may be an introvert, I may be anxious, I might even feel too weak to abide with others. Regardless, I do not have to control things! I do not have to take over and I do not have to run away. I have a God who understands and who helps me when I face the complex realities of living in authentic relationship with people. I was created to put my trust in God, not in my own strength or knowledge. Therefore, I can learn to control less and to love more.