Lonely at the Top

Too many senior pastors and other key leaders in the church do not have a close, safe friend who they see regularly. This is what concerns me most in my new role as a leadership coach. With all the temptations, challenges, and hectic pace for church leaders, I see the need for one or two close friends as far more than a “nice to have” bonus. It is essential. And I am not talking about the leader’s spouse – though, for those who are married, I sincerely hope the spouse is a safe person and a source of support. Several leaders have confessed to me that, truth be told, there is not a person outside of their home who they intentionally check in with, who provides the opportunity for them to be completely open with their shadow side. I believe this is one of the primary reasons so many pastors burn out, lose their passion, fall into a pattern of escape, and miss out on the deep down joy and freedom Jesus promised to all of us.

The good news is that it is never too late to intentionally build one of these friendships. The key word is intentionally. None of these relationships just happen – they require time and effort to begin and maintain. The resource of time is most precious to pastors, so they easily convince themselves there is no room for tremendous, life-giving friendships. How I wish I had the words to convince them that the benefits far outweigh the cost! In my own life as a church leader for three decades, it was my closest friends who kept me from jumping off a cliff, from losing my way, from giving up and quitting, from avoiding that truthful look at my besetting sins and my propensity toward selfishness and pride. My friends have provided wisdom when I was confused, encouragement when I was despairing, laughter when I was too serious, and practical help when I most needed it just to do life as a pastor, leader, wife, and mother. I cannot imagine where I would be without them.

If you are a leader, no doubt you have many, many relationships and even some “outer circle” friends. But do you have someone who is closer than a brother? If your honest answer is no, or if the only person you can think of lives far away, how can you begin to build such a friendship? It begins with choosing someone who has the potential to speak truth into your life, who will not be intimidated by your “star quality” as a pastor, someone who will take the time to know you well and listen well and ask you probing questions. It may be best in many cases for this person to be a Christ follower outside of your own church community, unless you are blessed with a person who will not freak out if their pastor confesses to not having it all together!

I am fully aware that men and women do not usually “do friendship” quite the same. One of my safe people lives 4 hours away. Next week we will each drive halfway to meet in a Bob Evans restaurant and sit there for 3 or 4 hours drinking Diet Cokes and opening up our lives to one another. We do this at least 4 times a year, and when I get home, my husband says, “How could you possibly have that much to talk about?” I tell him that often when we get back in our cars, we get on the phone because there was still so much to say!

Like all Christ followers in the kingdom, I am deeply saddened whenever I hear about a pastor or key leader who has resigned because of some kind of sin pattern. Certainly there are many complex reasons why church leaders lose their way. But one of them must be the lack of someone who they can choke out the word Help to, and receive the kind of grace and truth all of us so desperately need. It does not have to be lonely at the top.

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