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Leadership is Lonely – Are You?

WANTED:  a friend in ministry who won’t get angry at my church and leave me in the wake of their angst, won’t gossip my dirt to the masses, and isn’t impressed with my job title. Must be my gender, about my age (bonus if our families are similar), authentically seeking Jesus, and in need of a good friend. For more info, please contact soundstogoodtobetrue@mychurch.com.

If you have ever felt like you could have posted that ad, then I feel your pain.

I’ve been a full-time student ministries pastor for 16 years now, and my experience says one of the hardest things to conquer as a leader is the lonely factor. To some degree, the cliché that “leadership is lonely” is way more than cliché; it’s true – especially when things aren’t going well. When a family is upset, or a volunteer makes a poor choice, or you have to remove someone from their role, the weight of those events will land on your desk. When the budget needs balancing, the sacred event cow needs sacrificing, and the call for clarity on the mission must go out…leadership is lonely. It just is.

Add to that some ridiculous, superhuman, and hyper-holy expectations people put on many youth workers, and we have a recipe for a massive sense that very few people will actually understand us and even fewer are truly safe to vent to. I mean really, who in your church can you have an honest conversation with that isn’t ultimately looking to you as their role model, required to by marriage, or responsible for signing your checks?

Recently, this problem came to a head for me, and I could not escape it. I had to do something about it. Here are some things I had to confess about myself.

  • I WAS HURTING. My friends have wounded me. I’m sure I have wounded some, too. I’m not some perfect specimen of a friend with a few bad apples around me. But the fact remains that I have worked hard to develop friendships that have ultimately resulted in more pain than joy, and that has left some deep wounds in me. I think it is the pain that David expresses in Psalm 55:12-14 “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, one like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers.” (NIV)
  • I NEED A FEW. I need a few. Not a lot, but I need a few safe people to share my deepest fears, regrets, struggles, joys, and dreams with. I’ve taught students that even Jesus had Peter, James, and John, and that we all need this, but for too long I’ve allowed that to go unrealized in me.
  • THE CHURCH HAS COST ME SOME FRIENDSHIPS. No matter how much I try to avoid it, when things go wrong at my church, it affects friendships I build at the church. There is no healthy way for me to separate myself from church decisions that wound people. I could start throwing friends and co-workers under the bus, but that’s not going to be healthy. Truth is, we all implicate one another, and that means that even if I have a great friendship, it can become strained by a problem with someone seemingly completely disconnected from me. But, because our tie is through the local church, and that local church is also my employer and an integral part of my life, the domino affect will put our friendship in a difficult spot.
  • MY MINISTRY STUFF CAN STRAIN MY MARRIAGE. I know some will say their spouse is their confidant and best friend. I don’t debate this. But because my spouse is also my biggest advocate and is stuck with me for life, she can’t choose another church to attend if friendships get hard. The truth is, sometimes what is a hundred pounds of weight for me, becomes a ton for my wife. I need safe friends who can help me with my marriage, and in some cases, who can protect my marriage from the unnecessary baggage my ministry strains can bring upon it. 

So, having observed these things in myself, I recently decided to take the bull by the horns and ask a few other pastors and long term friends in my life if they needed some place to intentionally have much deeper conversations. The response from some trusted volunteers I approached was that they already had this. But from those I contacted who were in the paid pastorate, I received a resounding yes.

A few months ago, myself and 4 pastors, all from different local churches, got together to bear our souls for 3 days. We ate together, played together, prayed together, and just talked about the real issues of real life. We talked marriage and family and ministry and our futures. We were able to be vulnerable, to offer counsel to one another, and to take even time-tested friendships to a whole new level.

It was like a breath of fresh air and more powerful and nourishing to my soul than a lot of conferences I’ve attended or books I’ve read over the years. For a few days, leadership was not lonely. I’m praying it never is again.

If this need in me rings true for you, then, from one pastor to another, I want to encourage you to not let it go another month. Don’t assume this deep need for genuine friendship will go away or be willing to neglect the need for a few to know you intimately. Send an e-mail, make a phone call, grab some lunch with someone, and launch into a faith risk. It’s soul care for you. You may be surprised how many others need that soul care, too.

I’m praying the Holy Spirit will direct you, encourage you, and inspire you to find God’s solution for you. To that end, I’m right behind you.

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Brian Berry is a proven veteran of student ministry. He serves as the generation ministries pastor at Journey Community Church near San Diego, California, where he works directly with the high school ministry and oversees a staff that is responsible for infants through teens. Brian is also a frequent blogger, writes and teaches for youth workers, and is the author of both As for Me and My Crazy House and Criticism Bites. He speaks at various conferences, camps, and retreats for a variety of audiences. He is married to Shannon, and they have five kids.