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?
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.
What are you learning about leadership and loneliness?
What’s helping or hurting you? Scroll down and leave a comment.