Overcoming Loneliness

I want to share a bit about a fabulous book that I just read, A Path to Belonging: Overcoming Clergy Loneliness, by Mary Kay DuChene and Mark Sundby. We have a small group of recent grads who are reading it, and will have a conversation with Deacon Mary Kay next month, so I wanted to read it, too—and I am so glad that I did.

Several years before the pandemic, during his first tenure as Surgeon General, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy started talking publicly—and often—about what he was calling “an epidemic of loneliness” in the US. We often think about the mental and emotional ramifications of loneliness, but there are physical ramifications as well.

Perhaps you are aware of this. Perhaps you have experienced this. Know you are not alone.

Especially post-pandemic, I think few of us would question that loneliness is a wide-reaching problem that crosses age, racial and economic divides. In the beginning of the book, DuChene & Sundby [hereafter D&S] quote Murthy as saying that as he talked with people across America, “loneliness ran like a dark thread through many of the more obvious issues that people brough to my attention, like addiction, violence, anxiety, and depression” [3]. In Murthy’s experience, loneliness manifests in many different ways, all of them damaging, dangerous and unhealthy.

For those of us who are [and who work with] public ministers, we know that loneliness affects us as well, and is in some ways harder to deal with, given the important pastoral boundaries that ministers need to set, which can prevent them from nurturing strong support networks, especially in more rural communities. So, this book seeks to address the specific problem of clergy loneliness—but the strategies they offer would benefit anyone. Let me share a few of those.

The authors cite the work of Tara Branch, and her RAIN acronym, which invites us to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings in a constructive way: recognize what is happening, allow the experience to be there, just as it is; investigate with interest and care; and nurture with self-compassion [71]. Related to mindfulness, Buddhism makes an appearance a few times throughout the book; at one point, the authors reference Thich Nhat Hanh, who coined the word “inter-are” to describe the fundamental inter-connectedness of all beings. Reminding ourselves of this can help us show more compassion to ourselves and to others—and help connect us to others.

The authors also cite Brené Brown’s definition of “true belonging:” “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are” [89]. And it begins with “being in right relationship with ourselves.”

Wisdom serves as an antidote to loneliness. To that end, D&S describe a “wise reasoning model” that incorporates four aspects of wise decision-making: intellectual humility, recognizing uncertainty and change (impermanence), seeking the perspective of others, and integrating different perspectives [131-132]. Wisdom helps us better understand and process our emotions, and make better decisions. All of these strategies serve the development of deeper resilience: “our capacity to adapt, change, and respond to life’s challenges and also our capacity to grow, learn, and develop new capabilities and capacities” [143].

Finally, the last two chapters are directed to congregations and other Christian communities, suggesting how they can both support their leaders and also become more welcoming communities of inclusive belonging. D&S describe M. Scott Peck’s description of “true communities”—his emphasis on inclusivity. He writes, “groups that exclude others, because they are poor or doubters or divorced or sinners or of some different race or nationality are not communities; they are cliques – actually defensive bastions against community” [160].  I thought that was a pretty powerful distinction.

It is a great read for anyone who is lonely, knows someone who is lonely, or who wants to contribute to practices and communities that can help mitigate loneliness. Especially clergy.

One thought on “Overcoming Loneliness

  1. Thank you for this post. This book sounds excellent, especially the final chapters about being an inclusive community. Our faith community is striving to be inclusive, and this sounds like it might be helpful reading. Thanks!


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