Shame, Isolation, and Pastoral Leadership

Fail Quote.jpg

This one is for my pastor friends.

I'm reading this fantastic book called Fail by J.R. Briggs (that's the photo quote here). I highly recommend J.R.'s book to anyone is pastoral leadership, or anyone who wants to understand how exhausting pastoral leadership can be.

Being a pastor is terribly difficult. Us pastors, we all know this.

We bring our own stories of shame, pain, fear, and neediness into our leadership. The result can be less than flattering at best, and seriously abusive or harmful at worst.

I know the isolation of pastoral leadership. It's honestly way more difficult than I could have ever imagined, especially in a small church context.

The late leadership guru Peter Drucker famously said that the four most difficult jobs in the world (in no particular order) are President of the United States, President of a University/College, COE of a hospital, and a local pastor.

I'm reluctant to write any of this, but I think it's important for folks to understand the difficulty of what pastors face on a regular basis.

As a spiritual leader/guide, it is SOOO easy to think that I/we need to have our lives put together, OR project that we have our lives put together. The temptation is real, at least for me.

But my life is simply NOT put together.

More often than not, my life tends to be a mess.

Just in the past few months, I've dealt with the following: 1) emotional burnout, 2) a staff member I care deeply about abruptly resigning, 3) two invasive lip surgeries, 4) financial stress, both at home and at work, 5) regular communication stalemates at home (usually my fault, related to #1), and the list could go on and on.

What all of these messes tend to produce initially is a deep feeling of shame.

According to Brené Brown, shame is a deep belief and feeling that what I've done, or left undone, isn't simply bad, but that because of my actions or behaviors, I AM BAD. Shame says to me (and you) that we are not worthy of connection and belonging.

Shame is real y'all. Especially for an enneagram 3 like myself

So what do we do about this?

I wish I had a simple answer. All I can share with you is what I do, and hope that this somehow helps. I know these things have helped me tremendously:

1. Lean into connection. Take risks. Ask people for coffee, for breakfast, for a phone call, for a video chat. Lean into your friendships, especially with those who know you the best and have stuck with you the longest. You're worthy of connection. To be honest, I get turned down from folks more than I care to admit, but the connection I have as a result is always worth the risk.

2. Find a good counselor, and see her/him regularly. I started doing this nearly three years ago know. I drive nearly three hours for in-person appointments. I do some appointments over the phone. It has been so worth it for my health, and the health of my family, and the church I serve.

3. Take your physical health seriously. I've always been a big guy. Since I was a kid, I've always carried more weight than I'd like. It's too easy to miss this one, especially if it wasn't modeled well for you as a kid. I walk a few miles 4-5 times a week, and that's been consistent only in the past several months for me. I still have a long way to go to get to better health, but I'm working my way there. Just being vulnerable here...

4. Find a good hobby that has nothing to do with your work. Listening to church leadership podcasts is not a hobby. Spending time with people you pastor outside of the office is not a hobby. Fly fishing is a hobby. So is bread baking. Gardening too. Find something that feeds your soul, that you can connect into, connect with others around, and that will help you disconnect from your ministry work.

5. Create, and fight for, space in your life for silence, solitude, reading scripture, writing, prayer, spiritual practices, and reflection. I get up early to do this, but not as much as I'd like. I have a window in the early morning, before my kids are awake, for time with God that is significant and meaningful to me. If I miss this window, I often miss that time.

6. Prioritize your family, your marriage, and your kids, over the church that you serve. You will be a healthier person for it, your ego will perhaps receive some necessary deflation, and those that you serve will benefit from it in the long run. Your family needs you, and they will continue to be your family long after you leave your current ministry context. Don't sacrifice your family for the sake of God's work. That's not what God asks of you, and if you think God is asking you to do that, I would humbly suggest that what your hearing is NOT the voice of God.

7. Grieve your losses. When you're a leader in the public eye (even of a 10 person church) people will criticize you for all kinds of things. It just comes with the territory. Harness it for what it is: learn what you can, make appropriate adjustments, but realize that so much of that criticizing is simply hurting people avoiding their own pain, and throwing it at you. Set clear boundaries, but don't hit back. Take your pain to your trusted spiritual friends, and to God in your solitude and silence time. Pouring your heart out to God is what will heal you, not hurting the people who are trying to hurt you.

8. Find a community outside of your ministry context. I get why people resist this, but for me, this has been life-saving. I love the people I serve. I give and receive so many hugs on a Sunday morning, and I'm genuinely glad to see the people that God has entrusted to my leadership and care. But if I'm looking for validated from the folks that I serve, I'll always been needy, and looking for something they are not meant to give me. So, beginning about two years ago, once a quarter, I head to Chicago for a ministry leadership cohort with about 70 other ministry leaders. This has probably saved my life more than I can say at this point. I have friends that I see and spend time with locally who are not part of my church, and outside of my area too. Many of these friendship keep me grounded, because many of my friends are just not that impressed with me. As an enneagram three, that's what I need.

So, in summary...

My life is often a mess. I often feel down. I often feel defeated. I used to asked God to make me humble, but I've stopped asking, because it seems like God got a little carried away :)

I'm still a work in process. My life is both broken AND beautiful.

That's how it is. But I'm learning, and growing, and being transformed. It can hurt way more than I'd like it too, but that's what a life found in God feels like sometimes. As Waterdeep said, "you gotta let the fire burn you if you wanna get free."

And if you have a pastor or spiritual leader, please keep in mind that the work that she/he does is some of the most difficult work that anyone can do in our culture. So be kind to us, pray for us, and make sure we're seeing a good counselor or spiritual director (or both), because, well, we really need it. Don't assume you know what we need, but be an advocate for us that we get what we need. We'll be forever grateful for your voice in that battle.

And if you're a pastor who feels isolated, alone, beat up, torn down - whatever it is - reach out to me, or preferably, to someone who knows you well.

Don't keep your pain inside, don't keep your exhaustion a secret. There's still hope. God is still making all things new. Including your very own life.

Call a counselor, talk to a spiritual friend. Reach out to a trusted person.

You were never meant to do this alone. If you think you have to remain isolated, you're beginning to believe the LIE. There's a different, and much better, Way.

I'm rooting for you, all the way.

May grace and peace be yours today.