Overcoming The New Leadership Epidemic — Isolation and Loneliness

loneliness

I talk to a growing number of leaders who ask for advice—very personal advice.

They ask me questions like Should I stay in this church or move on? or I’m struggling with my elder board, is it time for me to leave? These are really big questions, and they’re situation-specific. As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible for me to answer the question because I don’t know the leader, I don’t know the church and I don’t know the situation in any detail. Even a 17 paragraph email or a 30 minute phone call wouldn’t give me enough context to truly weigh in, because the situation is so specific and the stakes are so high.

So my advice is always the same. I tell leaders “First I would pray about it and search the scriptures. But then I would find 2-5 wise people who know you well, who love God, who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth, who love you and love the church/organization you’re a part of, and I would see what they have to say.”

You know what I hear back after I say that? Usually silence. Not like “thanks, that’s exactly what I’m going to do” kind of silence. I mean crickets. Which I think means they don’t have that circle around them.

And on the odd occasion when I do hear back, I often hear that the leader doesn’t have a group of people locally who can help.

That breaks my heart.

The paradox of our culture is this. We’ve never been better connected than we are today. And we’ve never felt more alone.

So many of us have a thousand friends online, but nobody to talk to (at a deep level) in real life. Loneliness has become a modern epidemic.

Early in 2018, the United Kingdom appointed a minister of loneliness. As the New York Times reports, research is showing that loneliness can be more deadly to your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A recent study showed that over 200,000 elderly people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in a month. And it’s not just older people. University students report feeling very alone because they feel rejected or they don’t fit in.

It’s Lonely At the Top, We Tell Ourselves

Add leadership into the mix, and it gets even worse.

After all, I’ve said it. You might have said it too: Leadership is lonely.

Maybe you’ve had these phrases come out of your mouth too:

Nobody understands what this leadership load is like.

People don’t really care how I feel.

It’s lonely at the top.

I have. Early in my time of leadership, I began to accept loneliness as part of the job.

Over time, though, 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. In fact, it’s a gift from God. Solitude is restorative, transformative and powerful.

Isolation? Just the opposite. 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.

Isolation isn’t a gift from God at all. It’s a tool of the enemy.

As much as I decide to be lonely, I will be. But I don’t need to be. Ditto for you. You’re as lonely as you decide to be.

Who Can Help You Make Better Decisions? Well…Not These Guys

I can understand why people reach out to leaders they don’t know for advice. I get that.

Sometimes in my head I think an hour with Andy Stanley, Tim Keller or Craig Groeschel would solve all my problems and make my path clear. Or that a day with Ann Voskamp would help me plot out my next 17 books.

It’s not that I can’t learn from leaders like that. But a call to Brian Houston (even though I’ve spent some personal time with Brian), smart as he is, isn’t going to help me know what God wants me to do in this next phase of my life. He just doesn’t know me well enough.

Nor do I know the people who message me well enough to really speak into their life with precision and accuracy.

And even when I do speak into the life of a close friend, I’m sincerely hoping he or she gets a second, third and fourth opinion. The stakes are just too high.

Every time I’ve made a big decision (jumping from law to ministry, finding churches to serve in, stepping into a founding pastor role, becoming an author/blogger/podcaster), the decisions have been made after much prayer, much reading of scripture and hours of prayerful conversation with close friends and family. People who know me well can speak into my life.

Sometimes you hear the voice of God most clearly from the mouths of people who know God well and know you well. I know I do. They help me interpret what I’m reading in scripture and what I’m hearing in prayer much better than I do on my own.

Because of the constant connectivity we have with leaders and influencers, I think a lot of the time we think someone ‘famous’ can solve our problems, and we bank on that.

While I learn from the best leaders in the church and business world today, I realize Seth Godin may never personally speak into my life. That’s okay. I enjoy Seth Godin for about 100 other reasons.

Your best shot at staying connected is becoming friends with a leader who’s a step ahead of you in your town or a neighbouring town. They’ll likely have lunch with you once a month or even once a week. And you can learn.

Honestly, that’s how I started connecting two decades ago. I still treasure many of those relationships.

They’ve been the lifeline that has moved me through the ups and downs of leadership.

5 Ways to Fight Loneliness

Struggling with isolation in leadership? 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

We all hit rough spots. I do.

But after years of cultivating close relationships with people both inside and outside of where I serve, I have a dozen or so people I turn to regularly for wise counsel. Many of them aren’t part of our church. This can be helpful because sometimes, if you’re struggling through an issue, they have an outside perspective that can really help you.

What unites this diverse group? 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. And 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 these relationships today, and they’ll be there for you when you need them.

3. Have a strong relationship with a few close people inside your church or organization.

Having friends outside your organization is one thing, but you also need great friends inside your organization. I’m grateful that I feel like I can always share how I’m doing and feeling with our elders and a couple of other people close to me.

4. Stay 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 outweigh 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.

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

But they are so worth it.

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?

Battle Back

didn't see it coming

In my next book, Didn’t See It Coming, I devote an entire section to the epidemic of loneliness and disconnectedness many of us are experiencing. I’m hoping it will be a beacon of hope and some real help for people.

You can preorder Didn’t See It Coming on Amazon now.

What are you learning about leadership and loneliness?

What’s helping or hurting you? Scroll down and leave a comment.

16 Comments

  1. […] Nieuwhof writes in his blog about this leadership challenge and what we can do about it. It strikes me as particular appropriate as our denomination, synod, […]

  2. Mark on April 18, 2018 at 7:58 am

    Most people at the top only are around other people who are at the top. This is their choice and the fact that some at the top see the people beneath them as lesser people. Leaders are seen as and frequently they think they are gods on Mt. Olympus, not mere mortals.

  3. John Horton on April 7, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    Carey, Thank you for addressing this problem. In my later years now (I’m 71, been a founding pastor for 39 years), we are planning in another year to put the church in moth balls. Most of the people have left, and nearly every minister I used to know and have some fellowship with have left the city. I’ve felt like Lt. John Dunbar in the movie Dances with Wolves, a forgotten outpost. I’ve even thought of those thousands of ministers God told Elijah He had hidden in those cave, and ask God if he had a vacancy there. (chuckle). I belong to a ministers’ association that claims to care, but as you probably know the tongue in the shoe speaks louder that the other tongue. And yes, before I leave I’ll remember to bring the flag. So, I’ll go quietly into retirement and write books, mainly to stay in shape and keep myself active teaching-n-writing. I know God isn’t through with me yet, so we’ll see what God has next.
    I do remember a humorous story that might fit here. Sister “D” was an old maid and was a charter member of a church in the mid west. She’s seen a few generations come and go. She never married. In her later years when she was 88 she requested a pastoral visit from Jim Bob, the young associate minister. During the visit she explained what she wanted done at her funeral. She requested all female pallbearers. Pastor Jim Bob stated that such seemed unusual, and asked for Sister “D’s” reasoning. She said that it was simple. The men didn’t want her while she was here, and they weren’t going to get to carry her out when she died!
    Well, keep up the good work. It’s reassuring for us to know that we’re not the only ones who have these thoughts and struggles. Thanks again. One of your many colleagues, peers and brothers, …john

    • Tim Miller on April 7, 2018 at 6:33 pm

      John – I’ve been there, too – 35+ years serving and now I’m doing exactly what you described – writing and connecting with others. But I’m certainly not retired from ministry or having impact. It’s merely a transition to a larger congregation – one without walls. Both your situation and mine require initiative on our parts to develop sustaining relationships. Make the most of where you’re at – and Carey’s materials provide excellent insight in achieving even more impact, but don’t dread the time after you leave the pulpit. It can be your most exciting time yet. Blessings! -Tim

  4. Weekend Leadership Roundup - Hope's Reason on March 31, 2018 at 11:58 am

    […] Overcoming The New Leadership Epidemic — Isolation And Loneliness – Carey Nieuwhof […]

  5. Tim Miller on March 29, 2018 at 11:15 pm

    Good post – building an amazing group of like-minded leaders in my field (worship pastor) was something that I failed to take the initiative to develop for way too many years! It’s so easy to fall into the isolation of feeding others that we forget to feed ourselves. Hmmm – didn’t the disciples do that??? Good company. But we can learn – I’m building it now! Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. Jeff Keady on March 29, 2018 at 9:34 pm

    Carey, I’m a fairly outgoing guy and am in my first year in a new ministry and new town. I HAVE TO be intentional about getting out of my office and church and into relationships with other pastors and leaders. Even for an outgoing person, we have the luxury of staying isolated in pastoral ministry. Not a luxury I should indulge in! Thanks for calling this problem out in the pastoral and leadership community.

  7. Joseph O. Oyaka on March 29, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    Very helpful post Thanks.

  8. ricky dyaka on March 29, 2018 at 11:13 am

    Thank you for sharing useful nuggets

  9. Garry E. Milley on March 29, 2018 at 10:15 am

    Carey,

    Excellent. I have reposted this to my FB with an introductory comment. Blessings,

    Garry

    Garry E. Milley

  10. Dan Donaldson on March 29, 2018 at 10:07 am

    Great stuff! I have valued and benefitted from the kind of friends/advisors you are describing for the last 20 years. Before that, during my first 12 years of ministry, not so much. The difference is night and day! So thankful for the day! Over the course of challenging ministry opportunities and adventures in Orlando, St. Louis, and Chicago… Through a separation, divorce, and single parenting… Discerning God’s direction for life at key pivoting points, a small handful of amazing friends/advisors have been used by God in wonderful ways to encourage me and help me determine The Spirit’s direction. This is great advice! Dan

  11. Cheryl Parris on March 29, 2018 at 10:04 am

    A few years ago I joined 7 other women clergy in my denomination as a way to address the isolation in ministry. We made a covenant to pray and work towards each other’s success. We are mostly in different parts of the USA and in no way are in ‘spheres of competition,’ which makes this work well. We meet twice a year and speak together every other week to share all aspects of life.
    Be it a deliberate group or a cohort group from seminary or something (the friends from seminary knew you when), peer support is an essential part

  12. JOHN on March 29, 2018 at 9:54 am

    Carey, I definitely know that loneliness is a problem. Many people need you and cannot get enough of you as long as you are helping them through some problem or difficulty; but, once you have gotten them through it, they no longer need you. It makes you feel deserted and all alone. But, I have never had anyone tell me that my loneliness was my problem. Thus, I am the one who needs to take control and invite people to do things with me instead of always waiting on someone to invite me. It takes experiences together to build friendships. I will start today! Thanks for your encouraging words!

  13. Dennis A. Dillman on March 29, 2018 at 9:44 am

    Thank you Carey! There are times I feel lonely but then I turn to another leader in this community to hold me accountable to God. It is painful because of my pride, and I even get defensive at times, but they love me because of the relationships we have built in the last 3 years in this context. God always talks to me through them, and I am so grateful for them! In Christ we never lead alone, Pastor Dennis A. Dillman (DAD 🙂 )

  14. billfikes on March 29, 2018 at 9:38 am

    God has been really good to me in this area, and I feel for those who don’t know the blessings of unity! I’m close friends with 5 other ministers here in town. We see each other all of the time at the local coffee house. (We also held a community Lessons and Carols service together, and that was a huge blessing to all of our people!) We laugh with, pray for and console each other. We’re in different traditions, but we really love each other well. There’s also a group of ministers in my presbytery with whom I meet monthly and I can call on any of them if I need prayer or just need to vent, so that I don’t say something stupid at church.
    My question to those of you who serve big churches. I’m at a small church, so I’m wondering if this part of what comes with a larger organization (and therefore I need to be on my guard as we enter into a growth path)?

  15. David on March 29, 2018 at 8:59 am

    Carey,

    Great Post. I just got done reading Nouwen’s great little book “In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.” This book deals largely with loneliness and isolation. My problem in reaching out has consistently been on the other end. Cultivating relationships in many circles (not all) is difficult because it takes asking a lot of people to find a few that will enter into such an authentic relationship. Many leaders are fearful to accept such transparency. It is truly a sad epidemic.

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