Hey Leaders: Loneliness is a Choice

Loneliness is a Choice

I’ve said it. You might have said it too.

Leadership is lonely.

For all my time since graduating university, I’ve been a senior leader. It sounds more glamourous than it is.

When I started, all three churches I served had a total attendance of less than 50 people; I was the senior leader because I was the only paid leader. But as our ministry has grown, I’m leading more people than I’ve ever led. And with over a dozen staff and 1500 people who call our church home, I find myself something thinking that leadership is lonely.

Ever said these things as a leader?

Nobody understand what this leadership load is like.

People don’t really care how I feel.

It’s lonely at the top.

Leadership is just lonely.

I have. And I began to accept loneliness as part of the job.

Sure, I know I things happened along the way:

Early on in ministry I got ‘peopled out’ – I got worn down by the constant demands on my time.

My time in leadership has actually seen me move from a moderate extrovert to a moderate introvert in my personality type.

I’ve had to struggle hard to keep my heart fresh and to keep cynicism from overtaking me (see these posts for five early warning signs of a hard heart and ways to avoid becoming cynical).

I’ve also begun to realize that being lonely is a terrible way to live.

Sure, we come by it honestly.

Doing things alone is part of our culture. Ever think through High Occupancy Vehicle lanes?

Two people in a car passes as ‘high occupancy’ in our culture. Over 9 out of 10 people drive alone!!

People might live that way.

But you don’t have to lead that way.

So I developed a new way of thinking about the loneliness that creeps into the life of most leaders:

Loneliness is a choice.

Solitude is good. It’s healthy and healing.

But isolation is a tool used by the enemy. When I isolate myself, I lose touch with reality, cut myself off from relationships that give life, and expose myself to risks that would never happen if I’m in authentic community.

As much as I decide to be lonely, I will be. But I don’t need to be.

Here are 5 ways you can fight loneliness as a leader:

1. Admit that loneliness is a decision you’re making. If I decide to be lonely, I have no one to blame but myself. Solitude is good. Isolation is of the enemy. If I’m lonely, it’s my fault. Period.

2. Cultivate relationships with leaders outside your organization you trust. I hit a rough spot last week. I had long and helpful discussions with two really close friends who helped me a lot. One lives 800 miles away. We texted my way through my funk. The other is a good business leader friend who lives nearby. They love me and accept me for who I am. They are also leading similar sized or larger organizations and understand the unique pressures leaders face. They can also call any bluff I send their way. Many pastors I know don’t cultivate friends like this. I see God use mine again and again to renew my heart and my leadership. Cultivate them.

3. Have a strong relationship with a few close people inside your church or organization. Using last week as an example, my friend Jeff (who reports to me) helped me work through a big chunk of the issue. Sure, it was “a role reversal”, but sometimes one of the gifts God gives you are the people around you. Being the leader doesn’t mean you always have it together, and others around you often help you see things you’re missing. I also shared how I was feeling with our elders and a couple of other people close to me.

4. Be in community.  I have three circles of relationships I pursue locally. My wife and I have always been in community groups in our church. I realize lots of pastors opt out of them, and I realize there are a few things you just probably can’t share with your group, but the benefits of being in authentic community with people from your church outweighs the costs.  We also pursue a few good friendships outside of group in our community.  And (third circle) I try to reach out to a few new leaders or colleagues every year to keep my circle fresh and alive.

5. Talk to God about it. Elijah thought he was the only one left (1 Kings 19). God has a way of reminding us it’s not nearly as bad as we think. Keeping your loneliness a part of your prayer life will help remind you that you are responsible for your loneliness. Even Jesus traveled with a tribe of twelve or more and cultivated an inner circle of three. If Jesus valued relationships, why do you think you should be different?

You know what links all five ways to fight loneliness for me personally?

I have to work at them. They don’t come naturally.

But they are so worth it.

What are you learning about leadership and loneliness?

What’s helping or hurting you?

9 Comments

  1. Ben on December 24, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    Well not for me it wasn’t.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 26, 2013 at 9:38 am

      That’s strange Ben. Sorry to hear that.

      • Ben on January 8, 2014 at 11:53 am

        The very sad thing is that there are so many women that are Not so nice at all to meet these days, and they really think that they’re all that since it is all about Money for them. And many women today just can’t Accept a man for who he is anymore like many of them did years ago. Well that certainly explains why our parents and grandparents had very long lasting marriages back then, especially when most of them were very committed to one another too. Then again, most women now are certainly Nothing like the Real Good Ladies that we had years ago. It is very obvious why many of us good men can’t meet a good woman anymore these days.

  2. […] many leaders I talk to are isolated, a bit lonely and as a result, are […]

  3. Casey Elmore on May 16, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Thank you. This came at just the right time. I came to realize this yesterday when I shared a frustration with a fellow minister, who lives in another state. I thought I was crazy to be as frustrated as I was, but it turned out that he had been dealing with the exact same thing. We actually ended up having a good laugh about it all. Very refreshing.

  4. Brent Dumler on May 14, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    Agreed…these 5 practices are very difficult. But they are so much worth it! There are times to intensionally choose isolation, and other times for community. All of either one can become detrimental to a senior leader.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on May 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm

      Thanks Brent…so appreciate your engagement on the blog.

  5. Craig Jutila on May 14, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks Carey. Great reminder for me on alone vs isolation.

  6. robyn blaikiecollins on May 14, 2013 at 2:57 am

    what great reminders. i had lunch today with a volunteer and we talked about this very issue of loneliness. you’re right. it’s a decision only you can make for yourself. mad #leaderlove

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