Apart from a couple of teenage turns on a Yamaha 60cc around the pastures of my great uncle’s Oklahoma wheat farm, no one would ever mistake me for a “Biker Chick.” I’ve always admired shiny motorcycles, however, particularly those infamous Indians, and admired the bikers who answer the call of the lonesome road, especially the ones who ride to raise money for a good cause. Such is one reason I found myself surrounded by bikers, lots of pink wristbands and leather, and BBQ yesterday, as I attended the annual Cancer Sucks picnic in my hometown.
This picnic, started by a handful of volunteers to honor cancer survivors and victims of this godawful disease, brings together people of all ages who are passionate about helping the local chapter of Gilda’s Club. Bikers embark on a scenic tour of our county for a couple of hours, then return to a lakeside park for a blessing, live music, BBQ, and door prizes including fake Willie Nelson braids (which I coveted, but alas, did not win). A close friend who survived cancer invited me to attend, and I accepted, intrigued by the opportunity to kick cancer’s ass in her honor, while hoping to greet and thank some bikers with generous hearts in the process. And the promise of BBQ didn’t hurt, either.
In fact, I’ve discovered, already in my pastoring career, that pastors get fed. A lot. I’ve had to get myself back to the gym as a result of all this feeding. I need to huddle with some older, wiser clergy-type pals to learn the tricks of the trade, with respect to polite refusals of parishioner hospitality that serves up banana pudding, warm gingerbread and delicious Southern meat-and-three home-cookin’ with a vengeance that won’t take no for an answer. But gathering around food is a significant aspect of human celebration and theological discussion, so who am I to judge, let alone miss out on fudge pie?
Here’s another surprising discovery I’ve made: pastoring is very lonely work, and that’s another reason I accepted my friend’s invitation to the Cancer Sucks picnic: I needed to be around some fun that wasn’t related to church. If you question whether a picnic for cancer survivors is fun, you’re an idiot: there is no more genuine sense of celebration, sincerity, friendliness and kindness than a cancer survivor event. It was my privilege and blessing to attend a party where, though I knew only one person upon arriving, I counted over two dozen new friends as I left. All was truly well with my soul, which has been desperately lonely, of late.
Despite being “in community” with parishioners day in, day out, pastors often find themselves stranded on an island of one, surrounded by a sea of friends and acquaintances who keep a safe distance from that clerical collar…at least, until there’s a crisis. Some invite us to and include us in the festivities, only to hold us at arm’s length, fearful we might judge what they say or do against a rigid, Victorian morality that few, including pastors, could attain. Or we’re not invited to the fun at all, for the same reason. Pastors are imagined to be at-the-ready, always-on-duty, held up as perfect specimens of God’s holy army. Not. I’m still the fun, sarcastic, wickedly humorous, imperfect, klutzy girl God made me to be. Go ahead, invite me, I double-dog dare ya…
I would say that many pastors counter their loneliness by spending time with their significant others and families, where they can take shelter in the sacred domestic relationships that feed them. For singleton pastors like me, that’s an epic fail right out of the gate, because when I’m alone, I’m really alone. My son is in school on my day off, so right now, I’m struggling a lot as I try to navigate ‘alone time’ by myself. I’m a person who enjoys solo time, so it’s surprising to me that after 6 days a week of giving myself to others, I suddenly crave deep conversation, social outlets and new friends who can remind me that I’m not alone (see ‘Bikers,’ above…).
You wouldn’t think friendship would be so tricky for pastors, but it can be. Our closest family and friends love us and include us, but they quickly tire of God-talk, and it can be difficult for them to distinguish when we’re wearing our clerical collars…and when we’re not. “Are you giving me your advice as my friend now, or as a pastor, because I hate it when you analyze me as the pastor!”
As if I can separate my training and theological education from myself. Why would I want to compartmentalize what has been the most challenging, eye-opening, difficult but fulfilling work of my life, from who I am now? Who I am now represents the product of creation by God, the influence of my divinity school professors and ministry mentors, my own failures and successes, and my past life experience. I have to own all of this together, and speak from that truth, versus dole out advice wearing blinders that block out the ‘pastor’ aspect of my vocation, apart from my other identities as mom/sister/friend/daughter/advocate/volunteer. So if you ask me for my opinion, you get the bonus of receiving all of these perspectives, together in one nice cake. And if you ask me for the specific theological chapter-and-verse icing on top, then I’m prepared to give you that, too. But you have to ask, unless you’re my parishioner. Then you get the icing first.
I asked my spiritual director, who is a profound blessing to me, what I should do about the crushing loneliness I feel. She pointed out that I’m probably still grieving the loss of my Divinity school community, and the loss of my summer Greek squad from seminary, as horrific as that condensed learning experience was. You don’t spend nearly four years in close conversational quarters and depart suddenly, without experiencing loss. Hmmm…
Then she completely pulled the theological rug out from under me by saying that my loneliness could be a gift from God, who intends for me to put that loneliness to use, to create new community, blending together the gifts and skills I’ve honed during theological education and formation. Where I see loneliness as a haunting, negative side effect of a vocation that chose me and refuses to leave me alone, my spiritual director revealed to me that I’ve been given a rare opportunity to bless others through my loneliness. To find others who are lonely, and make friends. Duh. It’s the Gospel, at work. Create community. Reach out, take hands, and have fun. Ride a Harley for cancer. Eat some BBQ and some fudge pie. Make new friends for a good cause, and then stay connected to those friends as you work together to invite others to join. Have fork, will travel…on a Vespa, perhaps?
Peace until next time,