The Lonely Leader: What to Do When Leading Feels Lonely
Published: June 17, 2022
What to do when leading in ministry feels like the loneliest job in the world.
As ministry leaders, we have the dual role of caring for our team members and the people we minister to. While this can bring great joy, it’s also capable of delivering stress and isolation. I once had a pastor say to me, “It’s been a day. I’ve been a chaplain, a fireman, and a cheerleader today. I’m beat.”
You and I wear many hats. But the reality of the Christian world is we sometimes forget that all those people-centered hats don’t necessarily equate with fellowship or community. I wanted this article to be a happy “You’re not alone in this!” cheer. But the reality is, our world has changed. Loneliness and isolation are very real to those of us in ministry leadership. And it’s time to start talking about it. In an age where we’ve seen ministry leaders take their own lives and struggle with mental health, it’s time to talk about the reality of loneliness—and how we can take steps to get out of it. There’s joy to come. I promise.
Years ago, while in ministry I served as a police chaplain. And very early on, the lead chaplain would tell us at times to “remember to be the receiver of compassion.” I always took this with a grain of salt and moved on. After all, we were there as leaders—the strong ones with the answers. What did he mean by that statement, anyway?
About two years into it, I learned.
Suddenly I was in a position of decision-making, offering counsel, and being an example. There’s a reason that the stress of this life is often referred to as “weight” or as “being heavy” in the Bible; it can be crushing. Like so many ministry leaders, I began to execute decisions that were made to protect those I worked with and led. I carried the stress of knowing a church leader had been diagnosed with cancer and keeping it quiet. I carried the worry of a failing economy, potentially having to downsize my staff, and understanding what that could do to families. The life people were being handed at times was an incredible sorrow to witness, and even though we knew Who to seek and trust in those moments, the journey was still hard. I just wanted to hold their burden for a minute, so they could breathe.
The Stress Changed Me
As time went on, I began to notice my personality changing. I’d always been an extreme extrovert. People used to fill up my energy tank. But now, I wanted to escape and just be away from people. What I didn’t realize was that I’d built walls around myself made of others’ battles. I couldn’t talk about these battles because privacy was critical. And clearly I couldn’t seek help for myself because I was the leader, the one with the answers. It seemed that loneliness wasn’t reasonable because God is with us. Yet it was the loneliest place I’d ever been while being surrounded by many who loved me and had no idea I was struggling. And there it was, the need for compassion. The lead chaplain’s advice suddenly made sense. I understood my responsibility to lead and maintain discretion was great, but I also needed an outlet.
I believe much of the loneliness we experience in leadership is self-inflicted. The reality is, nobody had pushed me away or made me feel unwanted; I myself had built those walls. So my hope for you is that you minister in a supportive environment—and that you choose to become the recipient of compassion.
Let’s look at five leadership traps that can result in loneliness—and how we can break away from them.
1. We distance ourselves to maintain discretion.
As ministry leaders, we often know things not everyone needs to know or can know. While this reality won’t change, having a friend or mentor who can hear us out, resonate with the moment, and offer wisdom or compassion is important. Find a person you trust who’s in ministry but separate from your church to be a sounding board. Clearly I’m not talking about airing counseling sessions, but sharing day-to-day ministry stresses will make them lighter for you to bear.
2. Everywhere we go, we feel the need to lead.
This is an unnecessary role we often take on purely out of habit.
Chances are if you participate in something long enough, you’ll end up leading it, right? You’re just built that way. But you need to find areas in life where you aren’t the leader. The relief of letting go of the constant need to lead is very real and reinvigorating. Want to build a quick relationship with a child? Let him or her teach you something. (I have the dance moves to prove that I follow my own advice here.) Have you ever served at an event you weren’t in charge of? It’s refreshing! Also, making friends outside the church can be challenging, but it will provide a remarkable stress relief.
When I moved to San Diego, I said I’d learn to surf. Once we were unpacked, I went to a little surf school and signed up for a lesson. I knew nothing about surfing other than it looked really cool. Brendan, my instructor, was the age of my oldest son. He taught me to surf, and I think he was quite entertained by the age of his student. Today I’m still very much a student and have a lot more to learn. However, on any given Friday, I can walk into that little surf shop and be among friends and community. The café down the street from where I surf has grown into another source of friends. I get to be a friend, a sharer of faith and laughter, and a receiver of rest. Breaking out of the “need to lead” has changed my entire level of stress and isolation.
3. We study the Bible for purpose or agenda.
Instead, find quiet time to immerse in the Bible without an agenda. As ministry leaders, we have a terrible habit of opening our Bibles to find a topic to teach or to address a specific issue. Recently I finished my master’s degree. Afterward, I realized that the majority of my Bible immersion during that time had been for writing a paper. While I do think God can speak during those times, it’s different when I sit down to read and take in what his Word has for me. I’m never disappointed. Knowing God is near is different than practicing that God is near. In my loneliest hours, I knew Jesus was with me. But to instead sit and listen and read and pray and truly draw close to him is so different than that head knowledge. I was relying on knowledge and my own strength in those lonely times.
4. We choose loneliness.
Yes, I said it.
At the end of a busy ministry week, we’d often rather stay in, watch a movie, or just be home with our families. (And who can blame us?) Relationships are hard work, and we did that all week. But we must make the choice to be in community and develop relationships with people we can do life with. It’s a choice we face in the midst of having an endless to-do list because we know God made us by design to be in community. This doesn’t mean you have to spend every waking second with people working on community, but it does mean you find ways to regularly invest in your personal relationships.
5. We forget the battle is real.
God called me to teach kids about Jesus. God called me to spread the message of the gospel to future generations. Kids ministry, in my very biased opinion, is the most important thing we do at church. And the enemy doesn’t like it. We need a small circle of relationships we can rely on for reciprocal prayer and for accountability. God never meant for you to fight this battle alone.
Whether you’re in children’s ministry leadership, or any leadership position, the ultimate reality is that serving can be as lonely as we let it be. I once heard a speaker say at a conference, “If it’s lonely at the top, you’re doing it wrong.” Our personal health, spiritual health, and relationships are in fact our responsibility to pursue.
Be the Change
So what about leaders who say they aren’t lonely? There’s no major battle or strife, just a sense of being disconnected at times. You, dear leader, are in a great place of potential. The ability to reach out to children’s ministers at other churches and develop community is at your fingertips. Our communities are full of churches, and the ability to connect with area kids’ leaders could be just what you and others are longing for. We can network with people online but imagine the sweet spirit that could develop in your community as you join forces to minister to kids. A healthy leader needs community, and you just may be reaching out to a leader who’s on the brink of quitting.
I’ve learned over time that the work of being in community is something I have to doggedly pursue, especially in a world that’s telling me my duties should require that I be lonely. After all, the clichés we hear about leadership proclaim that it’s lonely at the top and that if we can’t handle that loneliness, maybe we aren’t really cut out for this line of work. And suddenly everything we know about our biblical design for community goes out the window. So as you work to be in community and build relationships, cut yourself some slack. Yes, you lead. But you’re also human. You will at times be tired, emotional, or even need a sabbatical break. Lean on those you trust in those moments and grow. Find your safe place to be broken, and find the people who’ll lift you up to keep going.
Remember: Loneliness is part of the battle.
While he may not have been lonely, I always think of Moses holding up his hands. Loneliness is part of a battle: As long as Moses was able to hold up his hands, Joshua prevailed, but as soon as his hands grew tired and fell, the Amalekites prevailed. It would take Aaron and Hur sitting Moses on a rock and holding up his arms to win the battle. In leadership, sometimes we’re Moses. But sometimes we’re Aaron and Hur. Most importantly, who’s your Aaron and Hur? And whose arms are you watching in case they fall? I hope you find a renewed sense of desire for relationship after reading this. I also sincerely hope that if you read this and feel you’re far beyond these solutions, or you know someone who is, that you’ll seek professional help. You’re a loved leader, your ministry matters, and I pray you know that.
Heidi Hensley is the next gen pastor at Skyline Church in San Diego, California. Heidi has more than 20 years of ministry leadership experience and loves to coach and mentor young leaders.
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