Coping With Loneliness

by Chris Lautsbaugh on April 8, 2013

Have you ever found yourself asking,

“What am I doing?”
“Is this worth it?”
“Is this what we signed up for?”

If so you are not alone in your emotions, although these feelings can make you feel very isolated.

Missions and any form of leadership carries with it an aspect of loneliness. Ordinary friendships become even more difficult when we take on these positions and roles.

Dan Allendar in his excellent book, Leading With A Limp, says “Loneliness also assaults a leader when he must absorb the inevitable expressions of disappointment from others. A leader bears loneliness, but also the guilt that comes with others disappointment.”

Have you experienced this?

As a missionary, we will have great successes, but also disappoint people and fail to live up to their expectations.

Sometimes the greatest loneliness in leadership comes on the heels of our greatest success.

Elijah experienced this immediately following his miraculous defeat of the prophets of Baal recounted in 1 Kings 18. Elijah just had the ultimate missionary newsletter headline.

One chapter later he finds himself on the run from Jezebel. Look at the conversation he has with God. (1 Kings 19)

Vs. 4 “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

Vs 10 “He said, “I have been jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”

I’m the only one left!
Where are you God?
What am I doing?

God shows up in a still, small voice; reassuring him of His Presence, urging Elijah to get back to work. (1 Kings 19:11-16)

The reality of leadership and missions comes with a realization no one can fully understand all that we go through. Except God.

But even with this amazing gift of the presence of God, it feels lonely.

Dan Allender list the following loneliness inducing traits of a leader or missionary (also from Leading With A Limp.)

– The moment we take this role, others assign to us the power to do good or harm.
– Leaders often have information they are unable to share, constantly creating a situation where they could be misunderstood by people not seeing the whole picture of our decisions.
– Honoring confidentiality puts a leader in the direct path of gossip. The tough decisions which cannot be defended or explained leave leaders vulnerable and alone.

No one can fully understand a leader, what may hurt more…is often no one wants to.

This is inevitable at some point in life and ministry. When it happens, what are some things you can do minimize the loneliness?

1. Have good Relationships – with God first and foremost, but also extremely important is our time with our family and spouse. I would also advise we seek at least one other person who can be a confidant and friend.

2. Rest – Lack of rest makes loneliness even worse.

3. Take Inventory – Are you over committed? Are you priorities in line? Remind yourself of why you do what you do….daily!

What other tips can you offer missionaries and leaders who struggle with this. Or, if you are so bold, let our Life Overseas family know you struggle with loneliness so we can be a support to you.

– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
Blog: NoSuperHeroes   Twitter: @lautsbaugh   Facebook: NoSuperHeroes

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About Chris Lautsbaugh

In missions for 20+ years currently in South Africa as a teacher and leadership coach. He serves side by side with wife, Lindsey, and two boys, Garett and Thabo. Blogs at NoSuperHeroes.com on grace, leadership, and missions. Wrote Death of the Modern SuperHero:How Grace Breaks our Rules.
  • Debbie

    Our biggest struggle has been the lack of encouragement from the friends we thought would encourage us. It is like we left and they forgot about us. I have since been able to move on and just realize that is how it is. I make it a point to be sure and encourage them and other missionaries as I can.

    • This happens so often – out of sight out of mind. We need to remember it can happen both ways, so we need to be faithful to engage with our friends back home as well. Great addition Debbie

    • Yes Debbie, I have really struggled with this as well. But as I have always said, the phone goes both ways. I am going to work on this more and I pray we find the encouragement we both need to continue!

    • me too!

  • I understand your struggle Debbie. We have moved countless times and walked the path of intense loneliness and lack of community. I always hope that our friendships will remain but inevitably they fade away and life goes on for those we have left behind. I, personally, need to not have so many expectations on others and be thankful for the friendships I have had in each season of my life, and then be willing to let them go. Not always easy though. Xx

  • Linda Funke

    I have been following alifeoverseas for about six weeks, and I just want to introduce myself and tell you all what a blessing this blog has been to me!

    My husband and I moved to Tanzania in September 2012. My husband is working as a secondary school teacher, and I am a deaconess/social worker doing community development work with the Lutheran Church. This is my second time to live overseas. My first was a year-long internship, where I lived with a missionary family in Papua New Guinea. In PNG, I worked with a grassroots organization that taught about HIV prevention and treatment and promoted care for families affected by HIV. However, this is my husband’s first time living overseas and my first time working overseas as a “grown-up” missionary, i.e. setting up our own household where the lifestyle, systems, problem-solving techniques, and community reputation/relationships were not already established for us.

    I was recently trying to make cookies without all the the ingredients to which I am accustomed, and I told my husband “Well, this will be an experiment.” His response was “Our entire life here is an experiment.” I had to laugh, because it’s true. We do believe in the Holy Spirit’s power to lead and guide us, but there are definitely times where life feels like a trial by fire.

    Over the course of the six weeks, so many posts have touched me. I first discovered the blog by searching for culture shock. We were at the three-month mark of living in our new community (the 3 months in language school don’t really count), and culture shock was hitting hard. The blog on learning language helped me articulate some of my frustrations. I read “Ice Cream and Poverty” shortly after I burst into tears when I had to turn another person away from our door (I just didn’t have any work for them, and my language skills aren’t good enough to simply listen to their story). This in conjunction with the Matthew 25 sermon the previous Sunday made me feel like I had just turned away Jesus, again. The blog helped me realize I am not alone in the feelings of helplessness. I read “The Help” the same week we hired consistent househelp for the first time in our lives. And then my husband and I were just talking about our loneliness the other night. We are the only American missionaries in our diocese, and all the Finnish missionaries (the other ex-patriots in our diocese) live 2.5 hours away from us. There are some South Africans in our immediate community, and they are good resources, but they work for the local diamond mine and have a very different focus than we do. So as with many of the articles, this one was well-timed!

    So thank you to all the writers and commentors for your wisdom and experience, for normalizing so many of the issues we are facing, and for challenging us to think and pray deeply about life.

    • Thank you Linda for sharing a bit of your journey. Welcome to the community!

    • Linda, Thanks so much for this comment! It is really encouraging. I totally relate to so much of what you are saying . . . the first months are brutal, brutal, brutal. Hang in there. Breathe. Give yourself grace.

      And then breathe some more and give yourself some more grace.

      We’re glad you’re here.

  • This is so true, Chris– leadership is lonely. Absolutely. And I think there is a goodness in just knowing that that comes with the territory.

    Thanks for this– love that you brought in Dan Allender– I’ve read some of his stuff and he is super insightful!

  • Julie Beasley

    Thank you so much for this blog! It is such an encouragement to me! My husband and I are in Costa Rica at language school. We are second/third career missionaries, so we left children and grandchildren behind. Celebrating my first mother’s day abroad, and my birthday will be Wednesday. We knew things like this would be difficult, but knowing and experiencing are not the same. I am grateful to read the stories of people who are walking through similar situations. I am not strong enough for this, but my God is!!

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  • Beth

    This is a great article, and I really appreciate the Truth shared. It’s been very helpful to me. I wonder if you could expand a little to include single missionaries when suggestions such as #1 are posted. It’s quite challenging to find a friend, a true heart friend, on the field. Being a leader as a single missionary also is very lonely because there’s no built-in person with whom you can share struggles and victories. 1. Have good Relationships – with God first and foremost, but also extremely important is our time with our family and spouse. I would also advise we seek at least one other person who can be a confidant and friend.

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