By Rick Lewis
Leadership in any field of endeavour brings pressure. However, leadership in the context of Christian organisations – and in being a leader for Christ in a secular organisational context – carries with it a peculiar set of stressors especially in respect of demands, limitations, rewards, trauma, relationships and idealisation. Mentors need a detailed understanding of these aspects of context in order to help Christian leaders build effective and relevant strategies for resilience and sustainability. I have posted elsewhere about those strategies; this post is about understanding context.
Are not all positions of leadership demanding? Construction managers, school principals, politicians and bank executives may all put a great deal of effort into their work. But the tasks they perform and the outcomes expected as a result of their efforts are usually not nearly so varied as those faced by leaders of Christian communities, especially pastors. The range of skills required is, I believe, rivalled only by parenthood. Being required to rapidly switch between various task categories – from strategic planning to sermon preparation to grief counselling to performing a wedding to leading a new believer to Christ, for example – places enormous demands on Christian leaders on a daily basis.
At the same time, other people within the organisational context will have differing expectations of how the leader should allocate their time between these tasks, and differing ideas about which strategic outcomes should take priority. In secular leadership contexts, the leader is only required to meet the expectations of the person or group in authority over them. It’s more complex for the Christian leader. Not only must they satisfy the human authority over them, they have a deeper sense of accountability to Christ. The expectations of these two authorities may not always align. In addition, the Christian paradigm of servant leadership requires leaders to take seriously the expectations of those they lead, and these may be so varied and contradictory that the leader is placed in an impossible situation.
The weight and diversity of all these demands are not easily shrugged off. Few leadership roles are so intimately entwined with deeply held spiritual values, sense of identity and eternal destiny. Christian leaders care so profoundly about the work they do that the inevitable consequences of not being able to meet every demand are serious indeed. Without resilience, this stressor alone can lead to the end of effective ministry.
In order to deliver expected outcomes leaders must have access to the means to make things happen – authority, respect, financial and material resources, channels of communication, agreed procedures and so on. It is these very things that are so often in short supply in Christian organisations.
Wherever volunteers make up a large proportion of the workforce the leader in a situation of relative powerlessness. This is the case in most churches, charities and mission agencies. In order to facilitate the attainment of organisation goals the leader requires cooperation from people who may not feel any obligation to play their part or keep their commitments. This is a serious limitation because volunteers feel free to change their minds at any moment with little or no negative consequences for themselves. Christian leaders are expected to endure these events with understanding, grace and leniency. One cannot freely use the usual sanctions of dismissal, demotion and exclusion which are available to leaders of employed workers or volunteers in a secular context.
Authority and respect work differently in a Christian context. The leader may have positional authority, but this is not sufficient to lead through difficult circumstances. Every Christian also has a direct line of communication through prayer to the ‘higher authority’ of God. If the leader should suggest something stretching, those they lead may appeal to the ‘higher authority’, thus limiting the leader’s ability to get things achieved quickly. This requires the Christian leader to work more slowly, building trust and respect with followers, establishing their own spiritual authority as one who may be relied upon to accurately represent the will of the ‘higher authority’. Even accepting this accountability as appropriate in the kingdom of God, it does create a leadership limitation that can be stressful.
Stress-inducing limitations also exist around shortage of resources. Passionate Christian groups with vision are constantly biting off more than they can chew. Leaders responsible for delivering on the vision get caught in the resulting pressure. In addition, churches are notoriously poor at communication across their membership and often lack clear, agreed ways and means for decisions to be put into effect. All these limitations tend to create frustration. Without resilience, these frustrations can lead to anger, depression and worse.
As I mentor Christian leaders I will regularly recommend they take up a hobby in which they can bring a physical project to completion in a relatively short period of time. The satisfaction they gain from getting something finished can be a rare feeling. This is because in the work of ministry results are usually long-term, delayed and may be intangible. It’s very easy to feel as if you’re getting nowhere when in fact the hidden groundwork is being laid for significant progress that will be revealed many years hence. In the meantime, it requires resilience to press on.
Few people will go into Christian leadership in order to get rich. Those who do will either be disappointed or will turn into unscrupulous wolves in sheep’s clothing, unworthy to represent Christ. Although the vast majority of Christian leaders know that they could earn more money doing something else, they carry on in their calling because they do not place material prosperity at the top of their list of values. Nevertheless, income stress is a significant factor in the adversity faced by Christian leaders. Resilience helps to keep this disadvantage within a wider frame of reference in which its all worth it.
Pastors, in particular, are exposed to trauma far more regularly than most people. Only emergency services workers such as paramedics have a comparable experience in terms of the regularity of exposure. In the case of pastors, they are dealing with people in trauma with whom they have an ongoing relationship, so the impact of vicarious trauma is intensified. Talking and praying with someone whose life has been shattered is in itself a shattering experience. It takes both time and resilience to come through these pastoral encounters in a positive state.
Beyond the traumatic human interactions that may leave a Christian leader depleted, opposition from hostile spiritual forces is also experienced by Christian leaders. We should not make more of this than is warranted; this is not a point upon which to become fixated or about which to be intimidated. But spiritual warfare is real and Christian leaders are prime targets of the enemy of our soul. Being attacked on a spiritual level is very unpleasant indeed. It can occur in ways that are hard to identify and leave a leader wondering what on earth could be wrong with them to be in such a poor state. With the benefit of strategies for resilience in place it is entirely possible for Christian leaders to come through such episodes stronger, wiser and more confident than ever and utterly overturn the intent of the enemy.
As a direct result of their calling, Christian leaders may undergo the distress of loneliness and social isolation. Numerous factors contribute to this outcome. For example, busyness of work at times when potential friends are socialising, entrenched ideas of clergy/laity distinction, role conflicts within Christian community, geographical mobility, and the experience of working cross-culturally and away from one’s native environment.
One of the more difficult factors to overcome is being stereotyped according to one’s leadership role in a particular organisation. In ordinary social conversations with strangers, Christian leaders become quite creative in answering the question, “So, what do you do for a living?” This is because a straight, clear answer is likely to cause a negative reaction from people who are antagonistic to institutional Christianity – and there are a growing number of those people out there. It can be quite wearing when you are regularly not taken for who you are but are categorised according to your role. It requires resilience to keep approaching social situations with openness and good humour.
On the other side of the coin, within Christian community, being stereotyped according to one’s role can take a different tone. Those who follow a Christian leader may have unrealistic, idealised expectations of sainthood, or of the leader being their best friend, or of the leader having all the answers. To be placed on a pedestal in this way amounts to being set up to be a disappointment. No leader can live up to these lofty ideals, but one may be reticent to ‘pop the bubble’ of naivety for fear of suffering a backlash.
Appointed to a position of leadership, a person then represents their organisation in relevant circles. In secular settings, a leader usually knows when they are ‘on duty’ and when they may simply be a private citizen. Christian leaders are never off duty. They represent their organisation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In this respect they undergo the same level of scrutiny as politicians. Though that scrutiny may not be as widely covered in the media as that of politicians it is nevertheless equally as judgemental and eager to catch out the leader in the slightest deviation from ideal expectations.
With all these pressures, and others not listed here, it’s no surprise that people in Christian ministry do, from time to time, come to a point of depletion. At those times, they need to draw on their resilience, and develop it further to maintain a faithful response to God’s call to his service. Although the specific challenges may have varied across centuries and between cultural contexts, God’s servants have always required resilience to come through adversity in a positive condition.