If you are a church leader of any type, you have likely had that moment when you feel the weight of responsibility, conviction, or compassion, and it seems as if no one else supports you or even gets it. Unlike conflict, this moment presents no villain or even a loyal opposition. There is no fight; rather it is a struggle to keep going. You might describe this moment as being all alone.
The circumstances that cause a leader to feel isolated are many. They often combine to create an arid and difficult environment for the soul of the leader. For instance, reluctance to ask for help and a concern about burdening others may produce resentment or burnout. Resentment and burnout then trigger withdrawal and thus the feeling of isolation increases. It’s a vicious cycle.
When that moment of loneliness occurs you may feel like you have been abandoned on a desert island, or even another planet—such as Mars. Which brings us to Ridley Scott’s film The Martian (2015), based on the novel by Andy Weir. The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, who is part of a NASA mission team on Mars. After Watney is presumed dead during an emergency evacuation, he is abandoned on the red planet. All alone, Watney’s new mission is to survive and seek help.
The Martian is typically classified as science-fiction with a heavy emphasis on the science. Yet, it may be seen as a parable on survival for the isolated and lonely church leader. Watney’s inspiring key statement at one point in the film sounds like a testimony:
At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work.
That decision is the secret to finding “life on Mars.” There is rarely a quick fix that will solve all problems. However, the intentional decision to “do the work” is the primary step. But what does the work look like for isolated, burnt out spiritual leaders? For astronaut Mark Watney, the survival work involved science, math, technology, and potatoes—lots of potatoes. At this point, we must use our imagination and wisdom to interpret the parable. So then, what does the parable of The Martian teach us about spiritual survival when we feel all alone?
1. Self-care is not selfishness. It makes sense to us when Mark Watney’s first action is to care for his basic needs. He has no hope of being rescued if he cannot keep himself alive. In church leadership, the balance between self-emptying and self-care can be more complex. (See Ben Fike’s post on Self-Care and Self Emptying). Leaders and caregivers are prone to ignoring their basic needs. Caring for others and considering their needs above your own is a biblical virtue (Phil 2:3). Yet, we are commanded to love others as we love ourselves (Matt 22:39). Appropriate self-care and love for self is assumed in the instruction to love others.
Consider the logic of the emergency instructions given before take-off on an airplane. We are instructed to put on our oxygen mask before assisting others. It is not selfishness to insure that you are not passed out and of no help to anyone.
The concept of Sabbath or sabbatical is a vital resource that God has given us. Sadly, it can be warped by minutia (Matt 12:1-14) or ignored because of our worldly work ethics. Jesus lived and taught that the spirit of the Sabbath was life-giving. When his care-giving disciples were so burdened ministering to other that were unable to take care of basic needs, he ordered them to go on a retreat with him to a quiet place for rest (Mark 6:31).
2. Communicate and commune. Mark Watney has to find a way to communicate with others who can share in his predicament. I won’t spoil how he does this, but it is one of the most interesting developments in the movie, in my opinion. Suffice to say that, like Watney, we have to be creative and work at communication. To survive as church leaders we need to learn how to communicate what we need. No, it is not always easy or convenient to inform others, but it is usually best that we try. When we fail to try, our isolation may be self-imposed.
Communion is a vital resource God has given to us so that we may share with others who know what we know. Communion extends beyond the observance on Sunday morning and draws us into meaningful relationships with those who also “do this in remembrance of me.” This dimension of communion is on display in Genesis 14 when Melchizedek shares bread and wine with Abraham. Consider how isolated Abraham must have felt when he alone was the keeper of the covenant with Yahweh, God Most High. Then out of nowhere comes a priest, Melchizedek, who gets it. He too praises God Most High and knows that this God is behind Abraham blessings. Do not pass up the opportunity to commune and communicate with those who can serve as priests during your loneliness. (See Sara Barton’s post on Melchizedek’s Blessing.)
3. You are not alone. In another quotable line, Mark Watney says that “every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out.” That seems good, but experience has taught us that this is not always true. Our isolation and sense of loneliness increases when we focus on the bad actors. It drains us of hope and faith. It skews our perspective which leads to cynicism and anger. Watney overcomes that negative perspective quite logically when he affirms that those who do not care are “massively outnumbered by the people who do. And because of that, I [have] billions of people on my side.”
The church family for which you care so much is also your vital support system. You may resist allowing others to help you because you are so accustomed to being in the role of helping them. You may find the change of roles disorienting and inappropriate. Remember that you have set an example for others to follow, and if you allow them to minister to you, then you affirm the Spirit of God at work in them.
Peter objected to Jesus taking on the role of the foot washing servant (John 13). He was more at ease sacrificing his life to protect and promote the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. However, he considered it indecent when his Lord and Teacher took on the menial task of washing the dirt off his disciples’ feet. The words of Jesus that rescued Peter from his self-imposed isolation and refusal to be served were, “If I don’t wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing.”