Coping With Isolation and Leadership Pressure
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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Go it alone.
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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
Brian Orme is a pastor and freelance writer in West Milton, Ohio. He’s pretty much your average armchair theologian. You can visit him at www.brianorme.com.