Lonely Leadership

It can be lonely at the top. The struggles and pressures that come
with being the “point person” in an organization or a church are, at
times, overwhelming. These struggles tend to create doubts, distance
and loneliness, but don’t worry, this is normal. Although, how you
decide to deal with these pressures may be one of the defining factors
in the longevity of your career.


You don’t have to look far in
the Bible to find lonely leaders. Moses, David, Elijah and countless
others experienced this gut-wrenching emotion we call loneliness.
There’s a certain mystique to leadership that often leads to isolation.
For me, I was hit with the stark reality of isolation during my second
year as a youth pastor. I remember sitting in my beaten-up swivel
chair—left by the previous youth pastor—and thinking, No one can
understand the pressure I feel. No one else will get it. I was thrown
into the gauntlet that year with multiple events: planning a mission
trip to Africa (which included some big decisions that created a stir),
planning a large outreach event with national artists, getting the
logistics set for a youth conference and many other responsibilities.
My rough-hewn life started to spin out of control. I felt abandoned and
alone. I remember walking out of church early one Sunday, just because
I was mad at the overwhelming responsibilities I’d been given. I felt
completely alone. I thought God had abandoned me, and I didn’t think I
could talk to one more person without going postal. So I left.
Fortunately, God was patient with me.

He let me rant for a while and slowly brought me back.

I
still struggle with the feeling that I am somehow the last one standing
and God has left the building, but I’ve learned how to deal with these
emotions in a much better way these days. I rarely have to leave a
church service for fear of harming someone. Of course, there was no
quick fix, and it definitely didn’t happen overnight. Really, it’s a
number of factors that help keep me in check.

If you’re in a
leadership position, it’s inevitable—you will experience loneliness.
Sometimes it’s more of a crowded loneliness—surrounded by others, but
still a deep and heavy feeling of being stranded, left vulnerable and
abandoned. Maybe it’s after a tough decision that distances others and
draws criticism, or during a personal struggle that no one else can
understand, but you arrive at a point where you feel lost and alone.
The path of leadership is filled with obstacles, vulnerable experiences
and gaping steps of faith—it goes with the territory. And that’s not
all. There are still the expectations and criticisms of others hovering
around you like a foggy mist—clouding your judgment. Finding out how to
clear the fog and deal with the root issues of leadership is perhaps
one of the most pivotal factors in letting the leader within emerge.

That’s
not to say that leadership should be done alone. Every good leader knows
the importance of being a team player, but when it comes to
responsibility, the buck has to fall somewhere, and it usually falls on
you, the fearless leader.

Leadership has its casualties, too.
Sometimes leaders just don’t make it—that’s reality—churches can be
ruthless. And so can leaders. Even in healthy churches you’re bound to
deal with criticism and decisions that will distance you from others.
So, when you are faced with the insurmountable pressures of leadership,
what will you do? What should you do? You have a choice—you can do one
of two things:

1. You can crawl up in the fetal position and try to get in touch with your inner child, or

2. You can seek God and look for ways to make changes and renew your passion.

Let’s
just say you choose number 2, you decide to face your fears and work
through the obstacles in leadership. That means you have to embrace
change. Not just in your church or organization, but in your own life.
Developing some healthy patterns that will renew your heart as a leader
will go a long way in cultivating a heart that sticks around for the
long haul.

Here are some constructive ways to deal with the
pressures of leadership. Of course, all of these things need to be
supported through prayer.

Don’t go it alone

Chances are if you’re a leader in your 20s or early 30s, you are
serving with people twice your age, people who think much differently
about church and ministry. You need to connect with others who are
going through the same thing. One of the biggest mistakes in ministry
is trying to go it alone, without any support or network. Connecting
with a few passionate people that you can identify with goes a long way
in keeping one’s sanity.

Join a network of like-minded leaders

Committees are out, cohorts are in—they’re a great way to connect with
others who have the same passions in leadership as you do. You need
these relationships to let you know that you’re not alone—there are
others who are dealing with similar battles. Don’t get the Elijah
complex and wallow in a cave with self-pity when there are thousands of
others facing the same battles as you.

When I finally met a few
others who said the same things I did about ministry, it was like a
breath of fresh air. I’ve met with many pastors who are dealing with
difficult issues and difficult people in their churches, and it’s
amazing what healing occurs when you have a listening ear. Sometimes
just laying it all out with a friend who listens is all that needs to
happen for healing to begin. Support is a necessary inspiration for
every leader.

Participate in a conference

Be warned from the start:Don’t become a conference junkie. Just find
one or two a year that will deal with some of the issues that are
relevant to your ministry. This will give you a chance to connect with
others, get recharged and see things from a different angle. But don’t
put it off, either. It’s always easier to dismiss conferences because
of the time and money involved, but if you can afford it (plan in
advance) and you can open up your schedule (I know, you’re really
important) make it happen. One of my fondest and most powerful
retooling times in ministry happened when a friend and I took off to
California for a renewal experience. I came back ready to tackle the
tough issues with renewed vigor and added friendships. Don’t
underestimate the fact that God can use a simple conference to provide
the network and encouragement you need in leadership.

Go it alone

See Also

In addition to getting encouragement from others, take time to create a
quiet space to really listen to God. Take a personal retreat. Give up
one day to do nothing but rest, pray and earnestly seek God. When I was
in seminary, I was inspired to take a full day—sunrise to sunset—and go
to a serene location in nature, an convent, and fast. I’ll never forget
the day I was sitting in the back room of a convent in Phoenix, reading
the book Abba’s Child. That was a defining moment in my spiritual
journey. I also took a nap by a fountain, went on a hike to a peak and
walked through the Stations of the Cross. The main objective was to
listen. God didn’t reveal Himself through a thunderous epiphany, but,
like Elijah, I received a small whisper, and that was all I needed. I
no longer felt alone. In The Leadership Genius of Jesus (Thomas
Nelson), William Beausay II wrote, “Depart from the crowds daily.
Think, meditate, and pray if you like. See clearly where you are going
today. Learn to let the moments of solitude focus you and energize you.”

It
seems that Jesus often slipped away to be renewed. I really believe
there’s a keen sense of solidarity that ensues when we stop long enough
to listen to God—away from the crowds. It’s ironic, but sometimes being
alone is what we need to squelch the pain of loneliness.

Make it a regular rhythm of life to take time off

There’s a reason why God commanded His people to obey the Sabbath. If
we keep running through life and never stop long enough to rest, we
perpetuate two myths:

1. The world can’t go on without our involvement and,

2. God’s work depends on us.

Mike
Yaconelli said that sleep is the greatest act of humility. When we
sleep, we are not necessary to keep the world running. “Christianity is
not about inviting Jesus to speed through life with us; it’s about
noticing Jesus sitting at the rest stop,” he said. One of the largest
struggles that leaders wrestle with is burnout. When we’re at this
stage, every conflict seems intensified. Our lives need to be balanced.
We need to get into a Sabbath rhythm. We can’t give something to others
that we don’t experience ourselves. When we are balanced and in tune
with God’s voice, suddenly the void of loneliness is demystified. But
it doesn’t happen until we embed this mindset into our daily living.
And remember, man wasn’t made for the Sabbath; it’s the other way
around.

Become a transformational leader

Albert Einstein was right, you know. It really is insanity to do the
same thing over and over and expect different results. If you are
experiencing the isolation and desperation of leadership, then remix
your life with some new habits. Change it up. It won’t be a quick fix,
but you may find that over time you are better equipped in dealing with
the perils of leadership. Becoming a transformational leader begins
with the small stuff, the daily routines and patterns that enable us to
practice the art of leadership in a way that reflects the One we
follow. In leadership, these small changes could make a big difference.

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