Pressures Faced by Christian Leaders

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.

Demands

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.

 

Limitations

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.

 

Rewards

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.

 

Trauma

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.

 

Relationships

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.

 

Idealisation

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.

Facilitating Change

By Rick Lewis

I am firmly convinced that Christian mentoring necessarily involves helping a person consciously, deliberately and freely move from their present state of affairs to what, in God’s eyes, is a better state of affairs. That, in turn, necessarily involves the person having a clear idea of where they are, where God is calling them to be, and developing a desire to make the move forward.

But what about when a mentoree sets out on that journey to where they believe God is calling them to be and the process of change falls over? How can a mentor help to discern what is going on and why things are not progressing as first imagined? How can a mentor be a facilitator of positive change?

Continue reading “Facilitating Change”

Mentoring in Groups and Between Peers: Alternatives to the One-to-One Mentoring Model

by Rick Lewis.   

Where experienced, competent mentors are hard to find, a group-mentoring model may be attractive. Compared with a one-to-one approach, groups for mentoring among peers have both advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages:

  • a greater number of perspectives are available;
  • a greater variety of ideas may be generated;
  • members experience strong accountability due to peer pressure;
  • a sense of commonality such that one does not need to explain everything.

Disadvantages:

  • Less time available for each person to share;
  • greater potential for breach of trust;
  • conversations tend toward generic topics that all understand;
  • meeting together requires more complicated scheduling.

Peer mentoring groups require strong values in order to remain healthy: honesty, suspension of judgement, activation of discernment, confidentiality and intentionality. You may wish to consider other values that you would find essential, and whether or not a group would need a facilitator in order to stay true to these values and to stay on track in terms of focus and time. These groups may adopt one or more of several approaches, sticking with one that works best for them, or mixing things up over time:

  • Group supervision process, taking it in turn to present a case study arising from their experience of living as a disciple of Jesus. This may take the form of a theological reflection on a critical incident. Other members of the group then ask questions and make observations about how God is active in the life of the person sharing and may help generate options for how the individual can respond and grow.
  • Wesleyan approach, considering a standard set of accountability questions at each meeting. As a variation, each meeting may address a limited number of accountability questions drawn from a longer list in order to facilitate deeper exploration of the issues.
  • Retreating together, taking an extended time to withdraw from normal life patterns in order to listen to God attentively in community. A retreat setting can serve as a time for sharing life stories. Reese and Loane have a suggested format for such retreats[1].

Mallison outlines several different applications for mentoring in the life of a church. For one of these he draws on the example of Rod Denton[2] whose practice, as a pastoral team leader, involved mentoring members of his staff as a group. Compare this with the observations Lewis makes in chapters 5 and 7 of Mentoring Matters[3] about the operation of power within mentoring relationships.

A link to a PDF version of this article – Anamcara Consulting


[1] Reese, Randy and Loane, Robert. Deep Mentoring: Guiding Others on Their Leadership Journey. Downers Grove, IVP, 2012, p. 170-171

[2] Mallison, John. Mentoring: To Develop Disciples and Leaders. Adelaide: Openbook/Lidcombe: Scripture Union, 1998, p. 156f

[3] Lewis, Rick. Mentoring Matters: Building Strong Leaders, Avoiding Burnout, Reaching the Finishing Line. Oxford, Monarch, 2009, p. 129-132 and 178-180.

Toward a Theology of Christian Mentoring

by Rick Lewis.   

It must be acknowledged that mentoring is not a Biblical word, yet it does describe a Biblical reality, observable in several key relationships between leaders in both the Old and New Testaments, as we will explore towards the end of this section. The Biblical terms most closely related to mentoring are μαθητεύσατε ‘make disciples’ (Matthew 28:19), καταρτισμός ‘prepare’ or ‘equip’ (Ephesians 4:12) and ποιμαίνω ‘tend as a shepherd’ (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). Mentoring can make a key contribution to these larger concerns.

A useful theology of Christian mentoring will answer questions such as these:

· Where is God active in a Christian mentoring partnership?

· What Biblical texts inform the process and outcomes of mentoring?

· How does mentoring sit alongside other methods of disciple-making, preparation of God’s people and pastoral leadership?

· What personal qualities and attitudes are required of those involved in mentoring?

· What values must be respected in mentoring that are worthy of being called ‘Christian’?

God’s already present action is affirmed by Paul in Philippians 1:6 where he says, ‘He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’. God’s action calls for a response from individuals such as that expressed in Philippians 3:12 ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me’. The scope for mentoring emerges from the New Testament’s insistence that others have a part to play in facilitating an individual’s response to God’s gracious action. Some examples of this include the following:

· And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:12,14)

· Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24)

· I myself am certain of you, brothers, that you are full of what is good, complete in all knowledge, able to give direction to one another. (Romans 15:14)

· Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. (Colossians 3:16)

In understanding mentoring as essentially a formational process we can see three key elements:

· God is the one who forms; ‘For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son’ (Romans 8:29)

· The mentoree offers themselves to be formed; ‘Offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.’ (Romans 6:13)

· Mentors participate in this formation; ‘My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you’ (Galatians 4:19)

Following Anderson and Reese’s description of mentoring[1] as a ‘triadic relationship’, consider what is going on in each of the six interactions within mentoring:

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· What comes from God to the mentoree?

· What comes from the mentoree to God?

· What comes from God to the mentor?

· What comes from the mentor to God?

· What comes from the mentor to the mentoree?

· What comes from the mentoree to the mentor?

As you construct your theology of Christian mentoring, take note of the qualities that stand out to you as most important features of the sort of mentoring you would choose for yourself and would wish to provide for others. As a starting point, you may wish to consider the following qualities of mentoring as shaped by the New Testament:

Ontological – concerned for being as a foundation for doing; Matthew 28:19-20; Ephesians 4:12-13

Incarnational – requiring an aspect of modelling; Philippians 3:17; 4:9; 1 Corinthians 4:15-16; 11:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:9

Liberating – eschewing domination; 2 Thessalonians 3:8; 1 Peter 5:2-3

Generative – receivers pass it on; 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 2 Timothy 2:2

Christocentric – formation aimed at Christlikeness; Galatians 4:19; Colossians 1:28-29

In Mentoring Matters, Lewis cites several relationships between people in the Bible that display some of the attributes of mentoring[2]. We should be careful not to advance these as precise, definitive examples of mentoring. They might be more accurately identified as Biblical precedents of mentoring in the sense that we use the term today. They are, nonetheless, useful in identifying how God has been pleased to use human relationships in the past to further his work of forming leaders for his mission in the world. Reflections on Biblical relationships that help us understand the potential of mentoring may also be found in Mallison[3] and Horsfall[4].

A PDF version of this article is available here.  From Anamcara Consulting


[1] Their definition reads, “A triadic relationship between mentor, mentoree and the Holy Spirit, where the mentoree can discover, through the already present action of God, intimacy with God, ultimate identity as a child of God and a unique voice for kingdom responsibility.” Anderson and Reese, Spiritual Mentoring: A Guide for Seeking and Giving Direction. Downers Grove: IVP, 1999, p. 12.

[2] Lewis, Rick. Mentoring Matters: Building Strong Leaders, Avoiding Burnout, Reaching the Finishing Line. Oxford, Monarch, 2009, p. 42-56

[3] Mallison, John. Mentoring: To Develop Disciples and Leaders. Adelaide: Openbook/Lidcombe: Scripture Union, 1998, p. 37-42

[4] Horsfall, Tony. Mentoring for Spiritual Growth. Abingdon: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2008, p. 27-34