How Sex, Love and Marriage Are A Lot Like Leadership

I spent a day recently with a group of ministry friends and mentors, all of whom have been leading their organizations for a long time. In some cases over 20 years.

We had a heartfelt, gut-wrenching conversation about the challenges of leading in the same organization for most of our adult lives.

As I processed our day together, I realized there are more than a few common denominators between leadership and sex, love and marriage.

 sex love marriage and leadership

After all…most of us are trying to make our relationships work out, both personally and organizationally. And it’s not easy.

Just like it’s easier to be unhealthy than healthy, at some points it’s harder to make the magic happen year after year than it is to keep starting over again.

Now as you read this, please know this post comes out of my experience. I realize many marriages don’t make it and I realize that I will have a hard time understanding those dynamics.

I’ve been married to my wife Toni for 23 years. We have not always had an easy marriage, but we are both so thankful that we decided to work through the issues (Toni and I talked openly about the struggles in our marriage here).

Similarly, I’ve been in leadership with many of the same people for 18 years in the same community. It hasn’t always been easy, but there we’ve seen some incredible things together.

While these reflections come out of my personal experience, I offer them in the hopes that they help us all filter through the challenges of life and leadership.

So whether you’re

a young leader just starting out

thinking about quitting

are happily engaged in long term leadership,

…Here are 6 things sex love and marriage can teach you about leadership:


1. There is no such thing as casual leadership.

As much as we live in a culture where casual sex has become normal for many people, it doesn’t produce strong or healthy relationships. Similarly, there is nothing casual about leadership.

Like a healthy relationship, it takes work, effort and commitment over the long haul. As much as we try to make things easier and easier in our culture, leadership will remain challenging by its very nature. Just like great relationships—it will always take work, effort and commitment.


2. At some point you need to choose between serial commitment and long term commitment.

Someone once told me that commitment in our culture has shifted from life-time monogamy to serial monogamy; you’re with someone exclusively for a few years until you move on.

Take a look around you. Many leaders approach leadership the same way. They’re with an organization for 3-5 years and then they move on.

I’m not saying that’s always a bad idea, but most of the people who make significant impact in an organization stay at least a decade. If you think about most ministry leaders you admire and who have transformed their organizations and communities, most have been there their entire lives.

I blogged in more detail about why most leaders leave their organizations too soon in this post.  Regardless, at some point, every leader needs to choose between serial commitment and long term commitment.


3. It’s easier to leave or have an affair than it is to work through your issues.

This is the gut wrenching part. Every leader I know who has been in leadership for a long time has been tempted to leave, tempted to pursue other interest and hit cruise control…in other words, been tempted to have an affair on what might be their real calling.

Very few couples who make it over the long haul do so because they have “no issues”. They stay when it’s easier to leave. (By the way, this New York Times piece by Wendy Plump is an the most haunting article I have ever read on having an affair.)


4. There will be some joyless seasons.

It’s not all dancing and singing all the time. Every leader I know who is in long term leadership has either had to scale significant organization issues or even personal crises. God uses dark nights of the soul to grow us and shape us. (If you’re interested, I blogged about how I got through burnout to recovery here.)

But here’s the promise. If you’re being faithful, your emotions eventually catch up to your obedience.


5. As hard as it is to admit, wise people realize that they are the problem.

So many relationships fail because one partner says the other partner is the problem. I lived like that in my marriage and in my leadership for a season until I realized, gulp, that I’m the problem. In fact, the longer you stay in a relationship or leadership the more you will have to come to terms with the grinding truth that you are the cap on progress.

That’s why serial relationships and serial leadership is so wide-spread. Leave soon enough and you never have to look in the mirror. It’s always someone else’s fault.

Wise people understand that embrace that they are the problem. I tell myself almost daily that I am the problem in leadership where I serve, and that potentially God might work a solution through me.

Wise people also seek help in identifying their blind spots and problems by gather mentors, counselors and friends around them to help them spot their issues. They are also wide open to hearing about problems from the people they work with.


6. There is a certain joy that can only happen after years of being together.

When you are able to work through your issues in a marriage, everything gets better. There’s a certain joy that comes in being with the same person for 23 years. We know things about each other that no one else can know. We can read each other better than anyone else can read us. And the deep pleasure in simply being together grows every year.  There’s an intimacy that only time can deliver that is almost hard to put into words.

That’s one of the things I love about working with some of the same people for years and years. There are stories whose mere mention brings a smile to everyone’s face. The trust runs so deep. And there’s a joy in just knowing that you’ve been in this together for so long and it’s making a difference.

Let me guess your next question: am I saying you should never leave?

No. Not at all. I wrote here about 5 signs that will tell you it’s time to move on and Ron Edmondson offers some great thoughts on the subject. But I do think many leaders leave too soon.

So what’s your experience? Do you see parallels between sex love and marriage and leadership?  What are you learning?


  1. sisteract on July 27, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    Ok, just to clarify, you are equating a biblical covenant (marriage) or contract, with leadership? I know very few pastors who have remained in my city for more than 5-7 years and their churches seem to be doing well. I had a difficult time following your analogies. Some of the apostles traveled around and others stayed put. Doesn’t this speak to being where God places you and hearing from Him when it is time to move on?

  2. Shervoskie Rishi Superville on July 1, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Why is it that human beings think in order for something to be enjoyable it has to be difficult? Do you have to work hard to enjoy the benefits of the sun? What in your life is more important than the sun? Or the oxygen you breathe? Maybe we should all put a plastic bag over our heads so breathing can be more difficult in order for us to enjoy it.

  3. Pastorjf on January 29, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    Jesus said that fruit would be borne with patience (Lk. 8:15), in other words it’s going to take time. That being the case endurance becomes the leaders ally. I personally know of very few pastoral leaders who have fulfilled their mandate within a decade unless they were called in to be transitional leaders from the beginning. I think your analogy between marriage is brilliant and the candour refreshing!

  4. […] How Sex, Love And Marriage Are A Lot Like Leadership by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  5. Sean Chandler on December 16, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    That might be the most unique take on leadership I’ve ever seen. Very interesting.

  6. Lawrence W. Wilson on December 16, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Wasn’t sure what to expect with that title … but the observations are dead on!

  7. Steve Fogg on December 13, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Some great thoughts here Carey! I think another principle is that, like in marriage you have to love unconditionally. Sometimes ministry/work is a one way straight full of giving without getting. No matter what season you are in you have to make a choice to choose to say ‘yes’ I’m going to stick at it.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 16, 2013 at 2:19 am

      Thanks Steve. So true! It applies in every season.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 16, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Steve that’s such a great point. Thank you for sharing it. I think that often leads me to a season with less joy as well.

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