How lonely is the leader of your local church? I once worked for a highly effective parish priest in a very large church set up. He would often morosely tell me a favourite quotation of his:
Behind every growing church is a dying priest
It’s obviously a play on St Paul’s letter to the frustrating church in Corinth. Paul tells them that in order for life to be at work in them death is at work in him. To put it another way: ‘I drink up the poison so you can just have the pure water of life’
There is no doubt leadership can be a very lonely business. However collegial you are in your style at some point or another you will:
- make a decision for the benefit of one party that alienates another;
- challenge someone’s deep seated prejudices and create a backlash for yourself;
- fail to live up to the idealised version of yourself you or your congregation have a unwittingly projected as necessary for effective ongoing ministry.
- feel you have let yourself and others down.
This can all produce a deep loneliness in a leader. Strangely though I am convinced also that we are often most in danger when:
- we think that things are going well,
- we receive praise,
- we begin to believe that we can do this job without God.
Say you had a bump up in the attendees of a carol service this year, it’s easy to then talk about the success of those events, and to begin to position your identity more on the pedestal of successful minister than on the only place it should be – the rock of Jesus’s words (cf The wise and foolish builder). Your narrative becomes ‘well despite what the Guardian has to say on religious decline at ‘MY’ church we had a bumper year’. This ‘success’ then becomes a thing to defend at all costs, with a cycle of gimmicks and attractions felt necessary in the following years to desperately try and hold onto audience share.
I have been hugely challenged and helped this year by the growth and grief cycles in the CPAS growing leaders course. They show the problem that happens when we try and get our sense of acceptance by working hard to prove ourselves to others. The best way, according to the model, is to already know that you are loved, accepted and valued, and then work for God out of that place of assurance and rest.
However when you get praised, or things go well, it is easy to reverse the cycle. As you achieve something I have found it is all too easy to get identity from that achievement. This takes me out of the ‘grace cycle’ into the ‘grief cycle’ where I am always trying to prove myself. My success is the fuel that drives my ambitions on, which enhances my insecurity and accentuates any isolation or loneliness I might feel. If ‘I’ did this then ‘I’ have to maintain this too. When the success is not wholly given back to God – (remember ‘all this is from you and without you we can do nothing’) – it makes me vulnerable, isolated and lonely trying to maintain the illusion of success and control in a volatile world.
John Ortberg’s latest book Soul Keeping is helping many…
John Ortberg: The soul craves a Father, success, power, recognition and approval. You need to unblock the river of God’s approval in your life to know he loves, accepts and values you.
If you’re struggling with loneliness, proving yourself, or know someone who is this Christmas, remember God has already written you a report card that could have had his son’s name on the top. Rich Nathan is right:
“Every church leader should spend time meditating on the judgement seat of Christ” Rich Nathan
But sometimes all you need to do is come and soak again in the love of God and know once again that you have a Good, Good, Father. That’s what I’m most hoping to do more of in 2016.