How to Overcome Lonely Leadership

Effective leadership is defined by community, not loneliness.

“Lonely!” It’s the word that best describes my memory as the pastor of a small church. To this day, it’s a palpable feeling. I hated it. Even worse, it resulted in the worst failure of my pastoral ministry.

Here are some harsh but honest realities about those days for me.

The loneliness made the ministry a very difficult and undesirable experience.

It resulted in very destructive leadership patterns. I did leadership to people rather than leading them. I saw the ministry as being about me rather than about them. When things went wrong, I worried about what it meant for me instead of what it meant for those in the ministry or those it should have been reaching.

In my first pastoral ministry, a church of 18 people, it led to a predictable place: Failure. Where else could it end?

It was unnecessary. To be totally frank, it was my fault.

Unfortunately, for me, it took the failure of that first ministry to figure out that I had a problem to solve. Here’s the good news, from my own experience and God’s truth: Failure doesn’t have to be final—if we do the hard thing and actually learn from it. Romans 8:28 is true. God really can and does “work together for good” in all things, if we let Him.

Loneliness or Community?

Though I still wrestle with doing ministry alone, I generally win the battle. As a result, the rest of my journey has been very different. Yes, leadership can still have its lonely moments—when we’re faced with tough decisions that only we can make or we have to teach the hard truths that don’t put us first on most people’s invite lists. But leadership doesn’t have to be defined by loneliness.

I believe Scripture makes clear that leadership is not supposed to be defined by loneliness. It’s supposed to be defined by community. Think about it. Even Jesus—the only one who could have legitimately done ministry alone—did ministry in community. His first and arguably most important leadership investment was to select The Twelve.

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Yes, it’s true that His decision to do ministry with others led to some very hurtful experiences. Judas’ betrayal helped to put Him on the cross, and the others left Him in the lurch and denied Him for a time as well. However, if He hadn’t shared His ministry with others, we wouldn’t know Him or the beauty of His redemption today. After all, the disciples are the ones that passed His teaching, His hope and His Church down to us. Now, it’s our turn.

As I see it, the problem in most churches today, small and large, is the same. We’re attempting to follow Jesus, do ministry and build His church alone. And, it doesn’t work. If you and your church are struggling, I believe that a careful examination will reveal this characteristic. So, if you’re going to lead change in your church, it needs to begin by leading people together—into community. We need to lead them into a shared experience of faith; a shared passion for Christ and His truth; and a shared commitment to take His love, truth and hope into our communities and world.

“Me” or “We”?

After I messed up my first pastoral experience—after I figured out and finally admitted that I was actually a big part of the problem—I started looking for answers to the problem. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find those answers alone. As I started opening myself up to others, God started revealing some very important leadership truths to me.

One that I believe can help you in leading change in your context was a principle that John Maxwell introduced to me. Pastor + People = TEAM. TEAM stands for “Together Experiencing A Ministry.” For me, it became a powerful picture of what my pastoral leadership was supposed to be accomplishing. I was supposed to be leading people away from our natural bent of “me” to the “we” Christ demonstrated and made possible for us.

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This view transformed how I saw myself and ministry and how I invested my time, teaching and leadership. I went from doing ministry to or for people to sharing ministry with them. It was transformative—for my ministry, the entire church family and me. It took the church from selfish and inward-focused to unselfish and outward-focused. And though it wasn’t my primary focus, it took me from “lonely” to “loved.” To be honest, it saved my ministry. I can’t believe that I’d still be in ministry without this life- and leadership-changing experience.

Live, Do and Lead

So here’s my advice: Stop living your Christian life alone. Stop doing ministry alone. And stop leading alone. Live, do and lead with others. Figure out ways to bring people into the experience. It’s amazing what happens when the vision and strategy move from being passionately embraced and communicated by one person to an entire community of people embracing and communicating them.

It changes everything. It changes you. And I can promise you this: You’ll never define your life and ministry as lonely again. Yes, you will have lonely moments, but you won’t be alone. You’ll have a community of people who, like Aaron and Hur with Moses, are always there to hold up your arms. You don’t have to and you shouldn’t do ministry any other way. If you do, the odds are you’ll either be miserable or fail. Most likely, both.

Remember, God may have called and anointed you to lead. You may have to hold up your hands or lift your voice on God’s behalf, but you’ll have people with you to encourage and strengthen you in your weaker moments. Take it from someone who’s been there and done that. Leadership is better when you’re not alone. And, more importantly, the church becomes more of what God called it to be: the hope of the world.