“Leadership is Lonely” Doesn’t Have to Be True

Originally published on the Companioning Center.

“I don’t want to go to church… it just makes me feel more exhausted… I’m not even sure if I know how to pray anymore…”

These sentiments summed up my heart during a time when I was in the thick of ministry. There was almost no circle I inhabited where I wasn’t a leader. Small group? I was the leader. Church? I was on the college ministry staff and an assistant to the senior pastor. School? I was directing a small staff for a summer student program. It was a full season, constantly surrounded by others, yet it was a lonely season. And it broke me.

Some time in the midst of that season I started skipping the Sunday service at the church where I worked and “sneaking” off to another church in town with a friend. Maybe it was the thrill of playing hooky that began to snap me out of my dry spell, but the experience at another church gave me two gifts that set me on a different path.

First, visiting another church brought me into a spiritual experience where I wasn’t in charge. Second, the church I attended was in the anglican tradition, so the prayers we prayed were not our own spontaneous thoughts but rather liturgical prayers written and selected beforehand. A single word unites both of these experiences: receive.

By leading in every circle I was a part of, I was never in a posture to receive. I was constantly in a position of pouring out and never in one of being filled. It was only a matter of time before I ran dry. In the midst of burnout, I wasn’t sure how or what to pray anymore. But in the leadership and liturgy of others I was able to receive these written prayers and find my voice again through words I did not have to generate. It was utterly refreshing.

Whatever kind of worship or liturgy you’re accustomed to, this truth is the same: we need spaces of receiving. In the years since, I have sought balance in both leading and receiving.

You see, the adage “Leadership is lonely” can be true, but it doesn’t have to be. There is another way to live and move in leadership. Here are a few practices that are integral to sustaining the work of ministry:

Rest. God rested from the work of creation. Jesus occasionally disappeared from the public eye in order to rest and pray. If God rests, then so should we. Constant availability has more to do with a culture of productivity than the Kingdom of God. Whether it is choosing and guarding a few hours each day or a day each week, it is necessary for leaders to take a break, unplug, and be unavailable. Rest looks different for everyone. For some it might look like quiet, solitary stillness; for others it may be activities with a group of friends. Rest is an essential ingredient to not only surviving but also thriving in life and ministry. What does rest look like for you?

Spiritual Community. Just like I discovered when visiting a different church, belonging to a spiritual community where I’m not in charge is essential. In the Jordan, Jesus received from the divine community of the dove-like Spirit and the Father speaking “Beloved.” In the garden, Jesus asked his human community to sit and pray with him in his time of need. As a pastor, I have sought out spiritual communities beyond my church. These are places where I can share, be vulnerable, and receive from others with no pressure and no expectations. Are there places in your life where you too can hear voices speaking “Beloved” over you?

Guidance. During a particularly tumultuous time in my life, I was very fortunate to be part of a church where a number of people encouraged me to go to counseling and even helped me pay for it. Meeting with someone who could help me through that season was vital to my healing and growth. Over the past few years, I have regularly met with a spiritual director. These monthly meetings offer the opportunity to reflect on patterns in my life, discover new things about myself, and sense God’s presence in places I was unaware of. Every pastor needs a pastor. Every leader needs guidance. Whether a counselor, spiritual director, mentor, or supervisor, receiving from a trusted guide is a necessary support in ministry. Who can you turn to for guidance and support?

This past year has been challenging for everyone and I am no exception. I’ve once more faced loneliness, burnout, and spiritual drought. But leadership doesn’t have to be lonely. The rhythms of rest, community, and guidance have sustained and carried me through. They can carry you too.

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