It's Springtime in Boston, and that means one thing — exodus. This time each year, around 200,000 students begin to trickle out of the city, many of them never to return, as they enter the real world of employment (hopefully). Others leave the city because of the nature of the place itself. People come here to pad resumes, get degrees, complete internships, etc. Put simply, the high taxes, high cost of living, and tempestuous weather means that most folks who find there way here eventually find their way out again.
What this all means for me is that around 20% or so of my flock turns over each year, usually around this time. Then, in just a few short weeks after the exodus, the city fills back up again. Hundreds of new faces stare back at me as I preach, new hands extend to me as I greet, new messages fill my inbox to request a coffee.
And it's absolutely. relationally. exhausting.
Saying goodbye to people I love and hello to people I don't know — over and over and over and over and over again — is just hard. I mean, it's even hard for me. I'm an extreme extrovert. I'm not particularly emotional about this kind of thing, either. I'm pretty well-built for a place like this. And I'm exceedingly grateful to Jesus that our church is a growing church, and that so many come through our doors.
But, jeez. Even me being me, this can all get really relationally exhausting.
What's worse, I can see this same relational exhaustion in my leaders. While a huge number of people in my church turn over each year, another huge number of people don't. They live here, and they don't plan to leave any time soon. They're trying to build relationships, and this transience makes that really, really hard. And while I may be an extrovert, most of them aren't. I can see their care-worn faces, wishing for roots that simply resist the soil of our city.
How Do I Know If I'm Relationally Exhausted?
Relational exhaustion manifests itself in me in two ways. First, when I begin intentionally distancing myself emotionally from pretty much everybody, I know that my emotional defense mechanisms have kicked it. I see you there. You're new. I smile, introduce myself, small-talk, and then walk away. Five minutes, I have forgotten you, your face, and your story. Safety.
The other symptom of relational exhaustion comes when I start measuring my interest in another human being based solely upon their answer to the question, "How long do you plan to be in Boston?" Less than a year? Bye bye.
These are not good reactions at all. They're understandable, but not appropriate for a minister of the gospel.
A Danger and an Opportunity
The great opportunity of ministry in the global city is just that — it's a global city. People from literally all over the world come to this city to become great. What better place to reach the world? What more strategic location from which to proclaim the good news of the gospel and make disciples? This is the opportunity that I and others have who do such ministry.
But, liabilities abound. The opportunity for cynicism is high. With so much human turnover, it's entirely possible to see these image-bearers of God as a commodity instead of a creation. I must guard my heart against that tendency. Equally dangerous is leaning into the frustration that comes from desiring a safe, stable, relational Mayberry where I see all my closest friends and neighbors as I walk my children to the same, safe, idyllic school all their kids attend. We "do life" together, grow old together, and a whole bunch of other stuff that probably won't happen. Do I wish for that life? Sure. Who wouldn't. But if I allow my longing for a perfect relational heaven to trap me in a frustrating relational hell, that's no good either.
Impermanence and It's Fruits
The simple fact is, that relational place I'm longing for does not exist. At least, not on this side of the Sun. Everything here is impermanent.
What's a Pastor to do with the impermanence of his ministry? What's a Christian to do with the impermanence of his influence? What are the relationally exhausted to do with the impermanence of their relationships? I can think of three appropriate responses.
- Long - Impermanence of the good in this life must not create the soil for cynicism to grow. Rather, it must be the beginnings of an appropriate longing for the future world with Jesus Christ. In the Kingdom, we will finally be home. Those roots we wished to lay in this world that just never seemed to take will finally establish themselves in the soil of the Heavenly city. The friendships we were designed for but destined to drop will be had. Laughter will be richer, meals will be fuller, and we will know even as we are fully known. That's a good thing to want.
- Wait - In the meantime, we must wait. Waiting is a fact of life designed by God to improve our character. Patience is not a natural phenomenon. It's formed in the waiting room. While we will have great friendships in this life, we must wait for the greatest one. While we will have laughter in this life, we must wait for the greatest joy.
- Work - We must resist with all our might the twin temptations to relationally retreat or emotionally write off others, just because they might not be permanent fixtures in our lives. We should work to fight the cynical thermodynamics of relational exhaustion. We must make friends, even for the 53rd time. We must invite people in our lives, even though we're freshly sad about those who've recently left our lives. We simply must work to be and become all that God has for us here.
The gospel is good news for the relationally exhausted precisely because in Jesus we find the one man who loved the world that abandoned him. I, for one, am glad he did. Now I shall attempt to go and do likewise.