In the midst of our present global scenario—of social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines, of distance learning, work from home, and digital churches—a phrase from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together keeps coming to mind: “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.”
Bonhoeffer’s meaning is simple enough. We regularly make use of either solitude or groups to hide our insecurities—whether those insecurities are the stillness of being alone or the energy of being with others. Whole people need both. The Church needs both.
Drifting prominently across my news feed these past weeks have been the increasingly urgent concerns of my more extraverted friends. Typically, it is the introverts in my life who post plaintive image macros about how much they’d rather be inside, alone, and about how much they relish cancelled plans. But a notable reversal sees my extraverted friends panicking that they have to stay inside. Desperate for connection, they’ve jacked up their online presence: they’re posting photos and videos of themselves doing things (any number of things), they’re standing in their doorways and shouting to their neighbours, and they clarify with some urgency that “social distancing” isn’t human, or humane, that we’re not made for this, and then follow up their concerns with a correction: “Social distancing isn’t right—it’s physical distancing that matters!”
In these moments I hear Bonhoeffer in the background: “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community.” With this in mind, I think there are two things I want to speak into this situation. One is to the church generally, the other is to clergy.
To the Church: Our present situation warrants serious reflection on Bonhoeffer’s warning. In particular, it seems to me that certain extraverted church members have collapsed being social into being the Church, while certain introverted church members have collapsed being alone into being spiritual. No doubt the Church is a social entity; no doubt significant spiritual activity happens in solitude. It is also beyond doubt that neither tells the whole human story. Today, however, I want to focus on the distortion of my extraverted friends.
In case you’re not familiar with the terms, ‘extraverted’ and ‘introverted’ are personality types devised by Carl Jung, based on his broad observations of a multitude of clients. Some of them, he came to see, were recharged by being with people, while others, he perceived, were recharged by being alone. I’ve put ‘recharged’ in italics both times because it’s the key phrase here—extraversion and introversion are measurements of energy, not social skill, as is commonly thought (there are socially incompetent extraverts and socially expert introverts).
See, my extraverted friends, I used to be one of you. I used to be addicted to being with people, around people, and they gave me immense energy and I was energized and enlivened by being among you. But something happened during the ten years I was a pastor. People went from energizing, to utterly draining. I still loved my congregation, and still used a lot of energy while in groups, but it would take me, on average, about double the time in solitude to recover from any meeting I had. I suddenly needed lots of time alone. I’ve now come to terms with the fact that I’m an introvert.
I tell this story is because I want you to know that I’m not one of those smug introverts who, confident in the superiority of being alone over being in groups, is taking advantage of your present confinement to tell you how bad you are and to dish out a little of your own medicine. All the same, the person who cannot be alone should beware community. What is Bonhoeffer teaching us right now? Many of you are revealing that you cannot be alone, and I suspect that this incapacity to be alone is impacting how we think about spirituality. More to the point, I fear that we’ve collapsed the complexity of communal spirituality into the simplicity of energized gatherings. We get together, we chat and visit, we sing and listen to a sermon, and we go home feeling good about ourselves, but the ‘good feeling’ may or may not be spiritual in origin. It might just be that a group of extraverts have been recharged by being together and doing extraverted things. Doing ‘churchy’ things is no guarantee of spiritual benefit. Neither, for that matter, is feeling ‘churchy’ feelings.
To put this another way, I fear that a lot of our spiritual practice may be dominated by extraverted dispositions. Extraverted pastors, cultivating extraverted churches, where extraverted people engage in extraverted forms of spirituality. And I see evidence of this domination in our ecclesial response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Why should not being able to meet, temporarily, result in such panic for so many of the people I see? Why should staying home for two weeks be so deeply frightening? Why is it that we must immediately set up a host of Zoom meetings to keep our Churches meeting, meeting, and meeting?
Face it—we’re really bad at being alone. We’re even worse at being still. We fill and populate our minds and our time with noise and things so that we can hold the stillness at bay. I feel this general noisiness especially around Christmastime. For years now I’ve felt that there was something deeply wrong with how we approach Christmas. Busy, busy, busy! Buying, cooking, cleaning, wrapping, preparing, getting Christmas cards together, gathering the last of the shopping—and then, finally, we all take one day off to rest, Christmas Day. But by the time we get there we’re so knackered from preparing for a day off, that that day itself is nearly ruined.
The reason this seems so odd to me is because even when I was growing up, the world was much better at taking a weekly Sabbath. This wasn’t that long ago, but on Sundays all the shops were closed. Need to shop? Do it another day. Need groceries? Get them another day. Need to look at cars? Do it next Saturday. Need to make a business call? Wait till Monday. When the world was in the habit of regular retreat from the busyness of life, Christmas was a bonus sabbath in a year of Sabbaths. Nowadays, it’s the only one we take—and we’re so busy we ruin it.
The point, my friends, is that we have been given a gift—the gift of solitude, of extended Sabbath. Why are we trying to ruin it with our excessive busyness? Why are we struggling to remember the Sabbath Day, and its joy of retreat from the normative busyness of life? Now is the time to be still, to reflect on being alone, and to really learn what it means to be the Church in solitude—to separate our spirituality from our extraversion. That’s where the clergy come in.
To Clergy: One of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry, I believe, is the unfair ratio of visible to invisible work, of tangible to intangible objectives. What I mean is that pastors typically get credit for their time for those things that appear to the church. For a small to mid-size church, that means an hour’s visible work on Sunday morning, maybe two if you teach Sunday School. People look at this visible work and conclude that you’ve got it easy. They say things like, “Well, you’ve done your hour’s work for the week! I wish I could get paid to do so little. Ha ha ha.” (You find you never laugh with them.) Members can ask, “So, what is it you do all week?” Their intonation makes it clear that they don’t think you do very much at all. The average time required for sermon prep, I understand, is between 8-20 hours per week. But you don’t get credit for that time, because it’s invisible. You don’t get credit for visiting sick families, teaching a weekly bible study, answering your phone, reading spiritually to enrich your own faith, praying for your congregation, or attending a board meeting. Pastoral ministry is dominated by the intangibles, and if we’re not careful this can be deeply frustrating.
The first reason this is frustrating is because clergy can fall into this visibility trap and come to believe that their chief value is in their visible work. This involves a severe flattening of the pastoral office—prayer, solitude, personal spiritual development; care, concern, support; vision, planning, implementation, management—each of these categories is a significant part of the clerical office. They are also invisible. The pastor who puts all of his eggs into the basket of visible actions will distort the office and enervate the life of the church. It’s like a gardener who spends more time posing for promotional pictures than tending to the trees. The pictures may look great, but the invisible work has to go on.
But we can compound the problem further with a second reason. Let’s imagine you’re a pastor who is extraverted, who gets a charge from being with your people. Suddenly, not only has the visible portion of your work been taken away from you, but you are also prohibited from connecting with the people who give you life. If you’ve only focused on extraverted spirituality, to the neglect of introverted spirituality, then there’s a good chance you’ve been skipping leg day in your spiritual workouts. And Covid-19 has commanded you to lift a piano with your legs.
To tie this all together, I suspect that, suddenly, a lot of the pastors in the world find themselves feeling the need to justify their existence. Their visible work is removed from them, and now they have to find a new and creative way to prove their value. It is all too easy in the pastoral office to allow identity to be intertwined with visible busyness, and visible busyness militates against stillness and solitude. Finding oneself in a place of hollow busyness, many pastors attempt to justify their busyness as spirituality. But the more activist we are in ministry, the less our contemplative muscles get worked. We need both. But for some pastors who are now forced to be alone and still it may amount to a crisis of identity, if not of faith.
But pastoring is so much more than public teaching, and there’s no time like now to show people what that looks like. I’ve got four suggestions:
1) Let the big churches be the big churches. There are a whole ton of great preaching pastors out there who are better than you, more professional than you, and who already know how to use the technology better than you. Why not just outsource your teaching for this season? Send your people out on ‘visitation’ to see how the big dogs do their digital ministry. Then, instead of you teaching, you can hold a discussion group for after the teaching. Go ahead and have your Zoom meeting, but instead of being the one talking, you get to do the listening and hear about what other people learned in their digital churches this week.
2) Focus on your people. As clergy, your job has always been your people. That hasn’t changed; the only thing that’s changed is the ability to gather in a big group. So this is as great a time as any to get out the phone list and call every single parishioner on it. Write down a few key questions ahead of time. Do you have everything you need? How are you holding up? How’s your spirit? How can I pray for you? If your people don’t like the phone, send them a chat or text. Your care for your people will be evident more in your connections than in your digital sermons.
3) Make the most of your time. What a time you have to plan for the future! To pray, reflect, and read, to listen to God and attempt to hear what He wants for the future of your congregation. This is the best of times to write out some sermon outlines, or plan some Sunday School lessons, or just to take a break. Put your feet up and listen to some music, or spend time in your garden, or prepare a feast and eat it, or play games with your family. Now is the time to remember that busyness is not spirituality. Live it, and then you’ll be able to teach it better.
4) Be still and alone. The best of all is time to simply be still. Recently I’ve read through Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—a book that argues that the training of attention is essential to the achievement of happiness. Csikszentmihalyi writes, that “unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided attention.” This is your chance, O clergy and parishioners, to develop your attention, to piggyback on enforced solitude as an opportunity for personal development. Take the time! Stop being so busy! And… just rest.