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11 Secrets Most Church Leaders Won’t Tell You

Leadership is a journey…a journey that’s probably different than you thought it would be before you stepped into leadership.

When I was young, I always thought leaders had it all figured out. That the uncertainty would one day disappear once I had more life and leadership under my belt.

But as you eventually learn, it doesn’t really work that way.

In fact, I think most leaders struggle more than they let on. I know personally, at one point or another, I’ve struggled in each of the areas listed below. But, at the time, because I didn’t want to tell anyone how I really felt, I kept mostly quiet.

Looking back, I realize for too long I kept far too much of it to myself.

You know what keeping it to yourself does, right?

It leaves you isolated. And the silence gives fear power—power it should never have.

secrets leaders won't tell you

11 Secrets Most Church Leaders Won’t Tell You

Just to let you know you’re not alone, and to break the power of darkness by cracking some daylight, here are 11 secrets most leaders won’t tell you:

1. I’m less secure than I appear

The together exterior doesn’t always match the fragile interior.

Security is a journey for sure…a tough one. Most people don’t like insecure leaders. But insecurity is a trap…the more insecure you are, the more you resist telling anyone you’re insecure. And the more they dislike you.

If it helps, I outline 5 signs you’re an insecure leader in this post, and 5 ways to become a more secure leader here.

I think the best way to start dealing with your insecurity is to admit it, and deal with it. Counsellors’ offices and best friends are great places to start with that by the way. So is prayer.

2. Getting close to God isn’t easy

There’s a particular pressure on pastors and church leaders to have a ‘great’ relationship with God.

But the truth is, our relationship is just like anyone else’s relationship with God. It has ups and downs.

Even as a church leader, you go through dry seasons. Okay, maybe especially as a church leader, you go through dry seasons spiritually.

I think church leaders struggle with God in different ways than most people. I outline those ways here.

3. I’m lonelier than I let on

Leadership is complex and involves going through seasons of unpopularity. It also involves making tough calls that can make you the goat, or at least feel like a goat.

Add to that the fact that most of us who are driven type leaders don’t do relationships easily, and sometimes it’s lonelier than it needs to be.

4. It’s hard at home sometimes

Let’s just say it. Our Instagrams lie. It’s not always easy at home.

It’s gotten better over the years, but there have been seasons in my leadership where my family got too much of my unfiltered stress. Not fair. Not fair at all. But true.

Home is hard. Work is hard. Put the two together in an ill-thought through combination and it can be lethal.

I really believe that, in the long run, everything rides on how you lead at home.

5. The criticism hurts

We pretend the criticism doesn’t hurt, but it does, whether we admit it or not.

We put our poker faces on, but deep down it stings.

Tell God.

Tell somebody.

And don’t let your family bear the brunt of it every time.

There are ways to make criticism sting less, but acknowledging it hurts is a great first step.

6. I’m afraid to ask for what I really want

I’ve usually been pretty forward in my leadership and I’m grateful for an incredibly honest dialogue I have with my staff and elder team where I serve.

But there are seasons where I’ve been afraid to ask for what I really want. And even as I type those words I think “That sounds so selfish.”

But sometimes you just need a vacation. Or, especially when your family is young and you’re just starting out, you need a raise. Or you need more staff. Or you need someone to have your back. Or you need a friend. You’re just afraid to ask.

You know what I’ve found? Almost every time I’ve asked, someone said “Why didn’t you ask sooner? We’d love to help.”

See what secrets and silence do?

7. I’ve thought about leaving even though I’m staying

You’ve thought about leaving, even though you’re staying…true? Of course it’s true, unless you just started last Tuesday, and even then…

Everyone goes through seasons of doubt and questions about the future.

But when you sit in silence with this one for too long, you end up waffling. Not staying, but not leaving either. You end up putting in half an effort, and you’re half the leader you could be.

Brad Lomenick offers some great insight in Episode 27 of my podcast about how to know when it’s time to go.

8. My secret job is nothing like this job

One of the reasons leadership is hard is because you deal with so many intangibles. It’s brain work. People management. Conflict management. Getting people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

On bad days, many leaders I know dream of doing something entirely different. For a season, my escape job was to stack boxes in a warehouse. Because at least if you moved a box, it stayed moved.

9. I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing

Eventually you reach a level of leadership, either because you’ve been at it long enough or because whatever you’re leading got big enough, that you realize there are no clear answers. There just aren’t.

You surrounded yourself with the smartest people you could and you realize that even the smart people don’t know what to do.

That’s where real leadership begins—when you feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing, but you keep doing anyway.

That’s how history gets changed. You were just the last person standing, even though inside it felt like sheer confusion.

10. People seem to believe in me more than I believe in myself some days

When you’ve been through #9 enough times, you will be ready to give up believing in yourself. But you look around and realize other people keep believing in you.

That’s exactly what you need. You’re likely leading very well if enough of the good people keep believing in you.

So when you stop believing in you, keep believing in the people who believe in you.

11. I thought we would have made more progress by now

You don’t want to say it out loud, but you really do think you would have made more progress by now.

You look at all the overnight successes and think “How come that wasn’t me?” This only works, of course, until you look more closely at the overnight successes only to realize almost all of them were 5-15 years in the making.

The fact that your vision is bigger than your reality is paradoxically a sign that you’re a good leader.

So keep being mildly disappointed, because it will always spur you on to more.

And one day when it’s over you’ll look back and be amazed at how much you actually accomplished.

Some Practical Help In Personal Growth

His you want to navigate the personal challenges that come with leadership, my latest book, Didn’t See It Coming can help.

It’s often not the hard issues of leadership that sink leaders or cap their potential. It’s often the soft issues, things like cynicism, pride, compromise, emptiness and burnout.

The book is about overcoming 7 of the greatest challenges that everyone experiences and no one expects as leaders.

You can learn more about Didn’t See It Coming and get your copy here.

What Are Your Secrets?

What thoughts do you have that you have a hard time admitting to anyone else?

I’d love to hear them.

And what’s yours experience with these 11?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

42 Comments

  1. Joy on January 27, 2019 at 1:21 pm

    My church makes me feel like they don’t want me to suceed in being a Lay Leader I ask for there HELP they say ok BUT DON’T what should I do?joy

  2. Troy D. Wilson on January 22, 2019 at 4:02 pm

    Thank you for this, very helpful and boldly honest.

  3. Nigel Muller on January 21, 2019 at 2:05 am

    Really enjoyed this post Carey.
    Loved your comment – ‘When you move a box it stays moved’. Truth..
    Before ministry I managed an abattoir for 13 years and I always loved seeing the work we’d done at the end of the day, which is not always as visible when dealing with people.

    Keep up the great work.

  4. Trevor on January 20, 2019 at 4:23 pm

    When I left Seminary I thought I was going to change the world, I now struggle to change my socks. It’s been a humbling process of Him increasing and me decreasing and leaving the results to be revealed on the final day. My questions have decreased to two, Am I doing what He has called me to do? And, am I doing it the way He wants me to? And I leave the rest to Him.

  5. scott mcgill on August 7, 2018 at 10:33 am

    in reply to your comment “at least if you moved a box, it stayed moved.” Sometimes we can put boxes in the wrong place and then we have to go back and move them to where they really belong. Such is the life of leadership and management.

  6. Grant Barber on August 6, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    My family was eating Thanksgiving. When we shared what we were thankful for, I realized one big deal: I hadn’t received an email from problem parishioners in 3 whole days. I used to “run away” of an afternoon….jump in car, alone, drive an hour each way…to a bookstore. Coffee, see what new novels were out, probably…ok, usually…resort to some retail therapy: if I sat down to read any of the books instead of make the round trip, I’d surely fall asleep, but staying in motion and imagining what it would feel like to eventually read the book at some future time. 2 other things. Often when everything clicks, say pastorally in the midst of grief, and people would be so grateful…that’s actually when I knew it wasn’t me but God in the mix. Last..other clergy as a rule make crappy friends…better to find a Buddhist or Jew.

  7. Bruce Havens on August 6, 2018 at 10:43 am

    I thought I was the only one who felt this way. Been at this 30 years and feel like everything I knew how to do well doesn’t matter anymore – it’s like I know nothing about how to help the church I am in make the transition from what is to what must be. What is ain’t working. I spend too much time fantasizing about when I can retire and leave it all behind. The frustration is mind-numbing. The thing I feared most as a young pastor and swore I would not become, I have become. All this makes getting close to God a major issue.

    • Marlene Malaglowicz on January 21, 2019 at 11:13 am

      Maybe u misread God and aren’t in a place where He wants u to be

  8. Janet Oller on August 5, 2018 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks- hit home as I’ve been pondering when/whether to retire given frustrations so many of which you named in your post.
    And then I realized that I am eligible for a sabbatical and all of a sudden the environment looks different!
    What will unfold is as yet unknown but your post was most helpful.
    Thanks

  9. Dan Collins on August 5, 2018 at 11:03 am

    wow, #9 and #11 really hit home.
    “…you realize there are no clear answers. There just aren’t. You surrounded yourself with the smartest people you could and you realize that even the smart people don’t know what to do. That’s where real leadership begins—when you feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing, but you keep doing anyway.”
    This is my current reality. Thanks for putting words to something going on inside.

  10. Frank Hopkins on August 5, 2018 at 9:15 am

    This is a great article not limited to church leadership. I’ve been an xp and owned many businesses. We all deal with this in every industry and we have to fight through it. When we signed up to be leaders, all of this came with it. I realize some of us didn’t sign up at least at first.

    There are so many resources available to learn about these and be coached that weren’t available when I started out in leadership 35 years ago. Rock and roll baby. The option is to be led by someone else whose vision isn’t your vision. It’s an honor to be allowed to lead others!!

  11. Mike on August 5, 2018 at 9:09 am

    It is frightening how spot on this is. I have felt guilty for having some of these feelings. It is a comfort to know that it is “normal!” Thanks for sharing!!

  12. Chris Vacher on September 30, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    Chickens may not stay moved but they are a great escape job 🙂

  13. Aaron Stimpson on June 1, 2015 at 11:15 am

    I’m afraid that I won’t get hired or could get fired if I admit I have these issues as a leader. Come to think of it, I did get fired for some of these reasons. ?

  14. Aaron Stimpson on June 1, 2015 at 11:13 am

    I’m more cynical than I let on. I hide it by encouraging others or keeping my self busy. I self medicate in this area.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 1, 2015 at 11:22 am

      Thats’s so refreshing…and so liberating to hear Aaron, Knowing and admitting it is half the journey. Way to go.

  15. Andy on April 14, 2015 at 9:05 am

    Been there and still am there. The reason most won’t say anything? A lot hinges from #1. Colleagues put up a front and don’t want to let their guard down so they look right through you if you say anything. Non-ministerial folks simply can’t and won’t grasp the complexity of the calling. How many times do we have to explain ministry is not employment but a call from God? When the position’s compensation is held over your head and threatened with pay cuts and reduced support, a person struggles with what they are to do. You don’t find that level of stress and insecurity anywhere else.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 15, 2015 at 5:50 am

      Andy…thanks. That’s a highly toxic and dangerous environment you’re describing. Sorry you find yourself in it.

    • P.J. Murray on April 15, 2015 at 5:04 pm

      Andy, how true. It’s hard to remember that the Lord is your employer when the piranha are nipping at you.

    • pastor gladys hyman on August 5, 2018 at 6:16 am

      wow Andy, I am there. find myself not believing God is going to bless me in this way. fear of always having to fine work or caught between some decisions to support myself. then I look at present situations and say, you continue to provide. there’s alot seemingly coming against me at all times. the things that are in my mind, would be mine blowing. yet I struggle in my perseverance. but press.

  16. Benjer McVeigh on April 14, 2015 at 6:08 am

    At least once a month, I tell one of my teammates, “Maybe we should just go make widgets!” Doesn’t have to be simple or easy; just no people.

    I’ve found that with more responsibility in ministry, #9 becomes more and more true. In other words, the more people trust me to do, the less I have any idea what I’m doing.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 14, 2015 at 6:12 am

      I can relate Benjer. Thanks for sharing!

    • P.J. Murray on April 15, 2015 at 5:01 pm

      Face it Benjir, Ministry would be great if we could do it without the people! LOL.

  17. Cindy on April 13, 2015 at 6:21 pm

    Oh me! I’m at 1-11 right now! It is REALLY TOUGH and I have remained silent, keeping it all to myself. I really needed this article! You are absolutely right in that it leaves you isolated and gives fear power. Thank you so much for sharing and being so open and honest. It is time for the power to be taken away from the fear!!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 14, 2015 at 6:12 am

      Hopefully Cindy you can find a friend to start the conversation with. Best wishes!

  18. Aaron Newell on April 13, 2015 at 9:41 am

    Hard at home can be the understatement of the century, especially when we leave the people that are most effected by the fallout of changes out of the loop as it were.

    My escape job has always been landscaping, I like being outside, and I like seeing visible progress, not something that you always see in leadership.

    There is always the danger of falling to the I remember when the old leader….this can be deadly to an organization, especially if the old leader is still withing driving distance of the organization, usually there are two types of people that bring this up, the people that couldn’t wait to get rid of the old leader which means that they will likely come to a place that they want to get rid of you… and the people that loved the old leader so much nothing you as the new leader does will ever measure up to his or her greatness. When these two factions start up it’s easy to dismiss both and look for the people that are “all mine” the danger here is that I have now put the other two groups on a list that rarely gets looked at, unless it’s to complain. This is problematic because these people need to be led as well and as a leader or as the leader if that’s where you stand in an organization, you must still lead them, love them, and serve them…that’s the tricky part, how do we serve someone that is so hard to serve…

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 14, 2015 at 6:12 am

      Such a great point Aaron. Thanks for your honesty!

  19. Catherine MacDonald on April 13, 2015 at 8:18 am

    The single best thing I did for my ministry was to read Tending to the Holy by Bruce Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly and ask three other colleagues to form a support and accountability group. We meet monthly and have done so for three years.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 13, 2015 at 10:08 am

      Never heard of that book. Thanks for sharing Catherine. Glad you found some great support!

  20. ab on April 13, 2015 at 7:42 am

    “…my escape job was to stack boxes in a warehouse. Because at least if you moved a box, it stayed moved.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 13, 2015 at 10:08 am

      Yes!

    • P.J. Murray on April 15, 2015 at 5:05 pm

      Ab, LOL. What a great line!

    • Evelyn Lee on August 5, 2018 at 9:43 am

      Yes. That made me laugh. Leading and shepherding a herd of cats is more difficult than stacking boxes.

  21. Nancy K. Gardner Shute on April 13, 2015 at 7:39 am

    For the longest time, mine was #9. Now I embrace it. I have no idea what I am doing much of the time. However, there has to be space for God to work. So…all that “I don’t know” space is God’s.

    Secret job? Mine is ironing. I love to take a wrinkled piece of clothing, curtain, tablecloth and produce a beautiful crisp smooth result. Wheeee! I need to remember the words of a former mentor. “The mess is the ministry.” Peace.

  22. Charla Gwartney on April 11, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    I’ve experienced every single thing you listed. The depth of loneliness at times can take your breath away.

    When I talk with those in the first five years of ministry, I beg them not to go it alone. Find a friend. Find a spiritual director. Find someone who will speak truth into your life — and that you trust enough to really listen to.

    It is hard to find these people. Some will betray you. Some will disappoint you. Some will even compete with you. Some will find it impossible to remain in the relationship once you are honest with them about how much pain you are carrying.

    Keep looking. Keep trusting. Keep loving. And, always be looking for others earlier in the journey that are interested in learning from you. That brings back energy when you can pour into them. My thoughts.

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  24. Josh on April 10, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    Wow, Carey. You hit me right where I’m living right now. Brought me to tears. Thanks for writing…10 & 11 are exactly what I needed to hear.

    Thanks…

  25. Bobby Wood on April 10, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Great post. I appreciate the honesty here. I think most other pastors and church leaders feel this way whether they admit it or not. I think we are our worst critics and we put more pressure on ourselves than anyone else with expectations we have that never get met or a perception of what “successful” ministry looks like that is not being met.

    Also, I thought the secret job thing was funny about the warehouse worker. My secret job has been a garbage man. You work a 9-5, pick up people’s trash, and go home leaving work at work.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 10, 2015 at 6:35 pm

      Thanks Bobby. Love that job idea! I can relate. Another for me is lawn cutter or car washer. Something was dirty/long…an hour later it’s clean/short. Bam!

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