The Loneliness of Leadership
“It’s friendship, friendship, just the perfect blendship.
When other friendships have been forgot,
Ours will still be hot!”
One of my favorite episodes of “I Love Lucy,” is one in which Lucy and her best friend, Ethel, independently buy the same evening gown for a show they will perform in together. When they realize their predicament, they both promise to return the formals and buy new ones. Unfortunately, their passion for fashion temporarily eclipses their love for one another and each one keeps their purchase, betraying the promises. The episode ends with the two ladies on stage, in the matching gowns. They simultaneously sing a song about the wonders of friendship while tearing one another’s dresses and hairdo’s apart.
The theme of relationship problems is a universal human experience. When you are in a ministry or leadership role, friendships can be tricksy. In a recent survey done among pastors and leaders by the magazine “Ministry Today,” loneliness landed in the top five list of problems. During the month of January, I’ll be focusing on different reasons leaders can feel isolated.
Being the lead dog of anything can be lonesome. Anyone from a single parent all the way up to the president of a giant corporation can experience this at some point. So, how can a leader build a circle of confidantes?
Ken and I received a wide range of advice during our early years. One pastor warned us to never, ever engage in friendships with people you pastor. Others told us you can never successfully maintain social associations with anyone under your authority. Over the years as pastors and as business owners, we learned how to forge our own path to creating and tending our relationship gardens. Here’s some of our tips based on our triumphs and failures.
- Find someone similar to you, outside of your environment. If you’re a single parent, find another one or two. If you’re pastoring a tiny church, find another small church pastor, etc. etc. This seems obvious, but I’ve been amazed how many people in leadership do not prioritize building friendships. They become so overly engaged in their life or ministry, they do not cultivate relationships out of their immediate sphere.
Ken and I worked to spend time with pastors of other small churches and business owners. Spending time with other teachers saved my biscuits and gravy in my classrooms numerous times. Do not make the mistake of allowing your entire world to consist of wherever you are planted right now. God has a way of turning over apple carts to move us in different directions. If you don’t know any other apple trees in other orchards, you will achieve a new low on the loneliness meter.
- Befriend people underneath you, with boundaries. Ken and I maintained close relationships with people inside both churches we pastored. At our best, we shielded those friends from dark situations that occurred in both congregations. At our worst, we poured out our hurt and frustration on them. Don’t do that. Friends on the inside should only know what anyone can know. Burdening them with the details of conflicts is selfish. The struggles you face as a leader should first be poured out to God.
Secondly, for large challenges, seek counsel from trusted advisers outside of your situation. The relationships we maintained with other pastors, teachers and business owners were invaluable during a crisis. Their objectivity helped us to see our weaknesses better, affirmed our strengths and consoled us with the knowledge that our trials were common ones.
- Don’t lose heart. It takes time to find just the right folks. Sharing a meal or a cup of coffee should usually reveal whether you share enough common interests and values with someone. Don’t take offense, though, if you enjoy someone who doesn’t reciprocate. It happens. Move on. Trust me, everywhere I go, one of the most common concerns I hear from people is their lack of true friends. Just keep inviting people to engage with you and God will connect you with the ones that will celebrate you, not just tolerate you.
- Tend your garden. All relationships are work. We are old enough now that some of our friendships are 30 and 40 years old. They’ve grown through the years with shared meals, vacations, side by side ministry and just doing life together. They’ve endured geographical moves and numerous life crisis, simply because we prioritize them. We put dates on the calendar. We celebrate life events together. These things don’t come easily as all of us are still heavily engaged in life on top of grandparenting and caring for aging parents.
As a gardener, I hate to see a neglected yard. The weeds overtaking the flowers, paved walkways buckled, a look of chaos and disorder, are all very disheartening to me. In the spiritual realm, some of our relationships appear the same way and we wonder why we are lonely. Hmmmmmm………
So, go plant some new seeds if needed, or fertilize, weed and water what you’ve got if you’ve been careless. Friendship is God’s idea so be assured that He wants your life graced with significant people.