Leadership in any sphere of life can often be a lonely experience. This is certainly true of Church leadership. In a recent study in America, the role of ‘pastor’ was considered to be among the top four most difficult roles (1). Wherever the buck stops, the pressure is on. That’s how it should be. In church leadership, it’s mostly subtle pressure of which it would be unfair to expect everyone to get. Leadership can be both a privilege and a painful experience too. Ironically, it’s the times of growth that can be most painful.
During one particularly challenging season, a well meaning Christian once said to me ‘Don’t worry, it’s God’s church, not yours’. It was meant as encouragement – but in that moment, it sounded like an empty platitude, void of any real responsibility. I felt like replying with the line that every church leader is tempted to say from time to time ‘If only you knew…’ But there wouldn’t have been any virtue if I’d explained the hits I’d taken on behalf of God’s church during the previous months! You see, in leadership, real encouragement comes from the one who has your back and is willing to take some hits for you – even when you mess it up (because leaders often mess up).
A friend of mine led a successful multi-million turnover business for many years. One day, he decided to leave his job and go into church leadership. Within six months, he suffered a nervous breakdown from which he has never really recovered. He thought leading church looked pretty easy. He was wrong. It was a harsh, brutal, lonely experience for which his business experience could never really have prepared him. He told me ‘Leading in business was easy. But I found leading in church impossible’
‘More pastors have died of broken hearts than swollen heads.’ – Tom Rawls
A church leader will often find themselves taking the blame on God’s behalf for issues of pain in other people’s lives. Sometimes it feels vulnerable, even scary. This is where a leader needs to deeply root their trust in God. Perhaps for a leader, this is a small measure of the kind of thing Paul meant when he wrote about ‘sharing in his suffering’ (Phil3:10)? The important thing for a leader is never to become cynical of people. Everything we do is about love people enough to help them become what God has called them to be. This is the privilege of leadership. The journey to get there can sometimes be tough and thankless. But keep journeying anyway. It’s worth it.
As much as leadership is incredibly challenging at times, I have always found it helpful to remind myself why I’m doing this. The vision of building a community that impacts our region with the greatest news on the planet – that’s what rings my bell every day. I guess it’s the same for every leader. What an incredible privilege.
If you’re a church leader and you find yourself reading this, I salute you. If life is tough for you at the moment, I honour you for your perseverance. Chances are, you’re doing a lot better than you think. You’re not on your own. Keep going. Keep believing. Have the audacity to keep dreaming. You will get there. In the end, the privilege is always greater than the pain.
1 (Leadership Pain, Chand, Page 30)