“The Loneliest Job” is a famous picture taken of John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office in 1961. In the picture, he stands over his desk, giving the iconic image of him bearing the weight of the world alone. In reality, he was reading the newspaper while leaning over the desk, which helped alleviate the chronic pain he had in his back. Regardless of what the picture actually captured, we can all imagine how lonely it is to lead in a position with such incredible power and unfathomable responsibility.
However, loneliness in leadership isn’t just reserved for positions of tremendous power. It is present in the life of every leader. Much of it is the inevitable byproduct of serving in the positions we do. After all, there are decisions that are made regularly that are ours, and only ours, to make. There’s a loneliness that naturally comes with that.
A leader must bear the burden that comes along with being the final decision maker, but far too often we push others away and drift further into an isolated place that simply isn’t necessary. As church leaders, this is a topic that does not get talked about enough. It’s a topic that is just as relevant, if not more, to ministers as it is to anyone else.
One might think that working on staff at a church means you never feel lonely. I mean, it’s a church staff, right? Doesn’t everyone always work together, support each other, love one another, and give out more encouragement than you need? If you’re smiling or laughing right now it probably means you work on staff at a church.
That should be true of church staffs, but it’s not always the case. It’s probably not that common, actually. Staff teams are just like churches, being made up of imperfect people who are going to miss the mark. Not only that, something I have observed is that many people on church staff teams spend so much energy serving the members of their church, they don’t leave any time to focus on themselves and their staff peers. If you feel alone in ministry, that might be true of you and your team.
What if that is you?
What do you do?
Maybe it’s not you right now, but it could be if you don’t have specific guardrails in place. Here are a few guardrails that have been helpful to me in combatting loneliness in ministry. I hope they’ll be helpful to you, either to get out of a lonely place or to guard against it in the future.
One reason it’s easy for ministry leaders to end up alone in their role is because it’s hard to make friends at church when you are on staff. Sure, you have tons of friends because most people in the church are your friends, but they’re not your best friends. Your guard is always up a little bit because you never feel like you can just be you. That is a reality, but it doesn’t have to be the only reality.
I think it’s important for all of us to make some friends at church that you can be real with. It might be an additional small group you’re a part of that you protect and keep closed. It might be a few people you really connect with and trust is deep enough that you can just be you.
Another option is to make friends outside of your church. It might be someone who attends another church in town or a pastor at another church that you connect with virtually.
Speaking of other pastors, one of the greatest guardrails a leader can have in place to protect against loneliness is being part of a network. Specifically, being involved in a network of leaders who serve in a similar role. There’s power in connecting with people who do what you do and understand the challenges you face. Also, they are not a part of your church so it allows you to be completely open about anything and everything. It’s one reason I love the Orange Conference so much, because every year I get to connect with leaders who I would consider to be friends. Most of those friendships were started at the conference years ago.
Networks can come in many formats and sizes. They could be coaching networks, mastermind groups, Facebook groups, local networks, or any regular gathering where you connect with other leaders. Networks are also a great place to form the kind of friendships that will serve you well going forward.
A big reason leaders feel alone is because they don’t intentionally pursue relationships with others. That’s why friends and networks are important. They are a way to make sure you are talking and connecting with other people regularly. Mentors are also important because they do more than just provide regular connection. They speak into our lives and help redirect us when we’re headed down the wrong path.
Friends and networks can do that as well, but there’s a wisdom that can be learned from mentors. A great mentor is also less likely to hold back for fear of damaging the relationship. They can be completely honest and challenge us in ways that many friends may not. In the same way, we can be more open and honest with them knowing they are not as close to everything.
Finding a mentor sounds more complicated than it has to be. Simply ask someone if they would be willing to meet with you and answer questions you have. Meet once and go from there. An even better option would be to see a professional counselor. The healthiest people I know see a counselor regularly.
How do you feel?
Loneliness will always accompany leadership. We just can’t escape the burden that comes with being the decision maker on certain things. However, we can combat that loneliness to make sure it doesn’t cross into unhealthy levels. We should not feel lonely most of the time. If we do, it’s probably because we don’t have guardrails in place and we have drifted further into isolation.
Do you feel isolated and alone? If so, I would encourage you to reach out to someone. A friend, a network, a counselor, an Orange Specialist, someone. You might think it won’t get worse, but inaction will lead to further isolation. Take the bold step now of reaching out to someone. We do not and should not take this journey alone.