Not too long ago I found a short, barely legible note in my mailbox at church. “Dear Pastor,” it read, “please define for me the word ‘pastor.’” I knew enough about the author to know that he wasn’t looking for a definition (though I was tempted to give him one). This blessed parishioner was simply expressing his disappointment that it had been over a year since my last visit.
I noticed early on in my call to Victoria, British Columbia, that I was ministering to a congregation of individuals. There are a lot of single people in my church. Some have lost spouses or are divorced. Others never married. Many live alone and tell me that they are lonely. On paper we call ourselves a “family,” but in reality we are more like distant relatives.
I’m old enough to remember when it was common for church people to have other church people over for lunch on Sunday. I know the practice wasn’t perfect, but at least it got people into each other’s living rooms. Visitation ministry used to be a shared endeavour.
This doesn’t happen anymore, at least not to the same degree. And it hasn’t been replaced by anything either. The result, in my community anyway, is that people are growing apart. A parishioner’s sense of connection used to be mediated by many strands, now (more than ever) it is dependent on the pastor’s coming for a visit.
After four years of consistent visitation ministry, I came to realize that while people were growing in their connection to me, they weren’t growing in their connection to others. At the same time, I also came to see that some of the people who wanted the “pastor to visit” didn’t really need spiritual care. What they needed was a friend.
So what am I doing to fight the growing isolation problem in my community? Truthfully, not a lot. But I have been experimenting in a few areas.
One breakthrough I experienced recently came while leading a small group through an intensive discipleship process. The curriculum we used was dependent on people sharing in an authentic way. Once the group became comfortable doing this, amazing things started to happen. People experienced healing as they brought their wounds out into the light. Sins were confessed, and people felt heard, loved, and supported as they sought to put off the old self. When the discipleship process concluded, people didn’t want the small group to end.
Vulnerability, it seems to me, is a major antidote in the fight against isolation.
Another way I’ve tried to combat isolation has been by bringing people together for pastoral visits.
This past Christmas I served the Eucharist to a few shut-in members of my community. Instead of doing two services for two individuals, I managed to get these nonagenarians into the same room. Little did I know that they had been great friends earlier in life. Amazing! Together, at table, we remembered the Word made flesh. Together, we enjoyed the fellowship we have with God and one another through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Its not God’s intention for us to be alone. I hope to continue bringing people together to find life and connection in his name.
Read more stories of hope and heartbreak in the Summer 2018 symposium on social isolation here.