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January 12, 2012

Lonely Leadership

Community’s not just a good idea—it’s essential!



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I walked off the stage, the title to my presentation—Community in Leadership—in bold at the top of my speaking notes. I had just spent 40 minutes convincing women leaders of the power and importance of being intimately involved in community with others.

Ironically, or perhaps hypocritically, I was the loneliest, most isolated person I knew. Mentally, I knew leadership and relationships weren’t mutually exclusive. I just couldn’t convince my lonely heart. As I battled feelings of loneliness, I realized I harbored several patterns of thinking that kept me feeling alone.

Lonely for God. I was doing all the right things–praying, reading my Bible, serving Jesus in ministry. Yet here I was, lonely. It seemed like God had abandoned me. Wasn’t he supposed to meet all my needs? Had I done something wrong? Or not done enough for him?

Oddly, for all the praying I was doing, the one thing I didn’t talk about with God was my loneliness. It seemed bringing it up would be tantamount to accusing him of not being able to meet my needs. For some reason, I thought I should be able to take care of loneliness on my own.

One morning, as I was dutifully reading my Bible, I came across the familiar verse in Philippians that reminds us to present our requests to God in every situation. I took God at his word and bared my soul. God, would you bring me some friends to fill the void? God, is there something wrong with me? Do I need to adjust my expectations? Is this simply a season? What are you trying to teach me? Just being able to share my feelings was a relief.

Lonely Expectations. All through grade school, I wanted a little girl exactly like me to move into our neighborhood. I wanted someone who would understand everything about me–what it was like to look different from everyone else, to be too embarrassed to admit I was a Christian at school, to want respite from an annoying little brother as much as I did. I wanted a best friend.

Life isn’t so different as an adult, even if you are a leader. I still want a BFF. But I’ve discovered no one can understand all of me. My mom-friends can commiserate with me about the daily grind of mothering. Ministry friends understand the unique struggles I have reaching women for Christ. My Asian American friends resonate with the cultural pressures I feel. But I have yet to find a friend who gets all of it.

Friends struggle alongside me as I try to understand God’s ways. They rejoice as he changes my perspective. But they cannot understand all of me, nor can they fully process my raw emotions.

The truth is, only Jesus has me figured out. He made me, gave me my story and sees how it all plays together. Only he can fully sympathize and explain it to me. I’ve learned to change my expectations of those around me. I appreciate the friends I do have and understand that each plays a significant, yet different, role in my life. But I fight to keep unrealistic expectations at bay.

Lone Ranger. “How are things [in ministry] going?” A gesture of friendship, a new friend knocks at the door to intimacy. But I am hesitant to open the floodgates. My head is stuck several months in advance. I don’t want to inundate her with all the sticky details. She wouldn’t understand.

A natural part of being a leader is thinking, planning and working months or even years in advance. Influencers generate ideas and forge ahead into new territory. There is inherent alone-ness in this aspect of leadership. It becomes easy to believe the lie that you’re the only one—the only one who cares, the only one who knows how to do ministry, the only one who really loves Jesus.

As I processed these feelings with God, and spent time with those serving alongside me, I discovered many people had a passion to serve God. Yes, much of my leadership position requires thinking months ahead. But many others had walked the road before me. The reality is, we’re all serving together.

I respond to my friend by sharing some of my feelings of frustration, being overwhelmed, and the need for discernment. She encourages me to persevere, and prays for wisdom. She also blesses me with practical ideas. Even as a leader, I am not alone.

Strong, but Lonely. Someone once said to me “You seem like a very powerful woman.” At the time, I was a stay-at-home-mom. The only thing I had control over was naptime, and sometimes, not even that!

As I spoke with him, I realized I carried myself in a way that made it seem like I had my life together. “Fake it till you make it” is helpful in many situations, but it doesn’t work when it comes to relationships. Casting the image that you have it all together isolates you.

Perfection doesn’t breed intimacy—authenticity does. I began to risk looking weak, immature, and ignorant in many areas of life, including areas of leadership. Being honest about my weaknesses, my needs, and moments of desperation actually draws others near, giving them permission to take their masks off too.

Reaching out of Lonely. A friend suggested we have lunch together, for the third week in a row. I smiled and put her off yet again. I thought, I can’t just be going out to lunch and coffee all day long! At the very same time I complained to God about being lonely, I rejected offers to build relationships.

There are many reasons we refuse to reach out of loneliness. In this particular instance, it was overachieving work-a-holism at its best. Sometimes it is self-righteousness, fear, or just plain laziness that keeps me from exerting the effort needed for a relationship.

After a few rejections, my friend (if I could still call her that!) stopped inviting me out for coffee. I realized that coming out of loneliness required stretching myself. I had to make relationships a priority if I wanted to soothe my lonely heart.

I sheepishly called my friend, offering to make her lunch. As we caught up with each other’s lives, I rediscovered the joy and fun of connecting heart-to-heart. I don’t know why I waited so long.

As I fought these misconceptions that kept me from friendships, I experienced God’s grace and love in others. Indeed, it was important to be in community; there was power in knowing and being known. Even as I grow in relationship, it’s easy to lapse into these lonely thoughts. But God promises to help me transform my mind so I can experience deep, authentic relationship.

How do you keep from becoming isolated and lonely in leadership?

Esther Feng lives in Central New York with her husband and two daughters. She serves as a Community Developer for MOPS International, and has been published in Fullfill, Connections, and various online publications and blogs at www.estherfeng.com

Related Tags: community, isolation, loneliness, Relationships

Comments

Esther, nailed it. Your communication, pathos...AND reality are clear and honest. Thanks for this post. I work in the area of leadership development & mentoring in a Christ-centered context. It is refreshing to read your story (stumbling upon it as I recently surfed around since I'm recovering from surgery), your thoughts, and your ultimate reliance on Christ alone....yet, still embracing all that His body of believers has for you. Yes, and also embracing what you have for the Body (the she's and he's). Many thanks for your honesty and leadership in the places you live and minister! Blessings, G.

Yes, if we're honest with ourselves, many of us are really lonely. It's different from being alone or enjoying our solitude.

I find this especially true for ministry leaders, and even more particularly, women in ministry, because there are so few of us around and we haven't taken the time to find some kind of supportive community to nurture and sharpen us.

But oh ... when we do ... we begin to become alive ...

Fear is a crippling thing that causes many of us that need the important relationships to find excuses to not meet. Perhaps the overarching preconceived ideas of the effort it will take and whether it is worth it keeps a lot of us at bay rather than discovering the value in a listening ear and the pleasure of blessing others when we least feel usable. "Just do it anyway" should be a motto many should follow if we find ourselves continually in the lonely mode. This continual mode is a result of our continual choice to isolate ourselves due to fears. If we really want fellowship we can find it and will be far greater because if it. Let us this new year branch out more and give and get blessings we never imagined. Life is risky but worth it in the long run.

Gretchen -- Thank you for your encouraging words!
Valerie -- Indeed, reaching out in community is hard! Over and over I find myself in seasons where I am asking God to know how to be a friend. It feels silly at first but it's effective in the long run.
Linda -- I'm off to read your post!

Not often I'm amazed, but seeing my thoughts come through your words hit the nail on the head. I always wanted a sister. All of my friends had one and it seemed so cool to have a relationship like that. However, if I'd had a sister I don't think I'd have the relationship with Jesus that I have now.

We are starting a group called Spirited Sister for those women in my life who are "just like me" - leaders in various callings, but still all walking the same path as your article - to form community.

Thanks for the timely encouragement!

Esther, I always am encouraged with your writing. My friend, your message is all too true. There are so many in ministry wearing the mask of "got it all together." And so many struggling with loneliness. There were several occasions when as a pastor's wife I felt like an island...totally isolated and alone. Yet, I put on that smile as I walked to my spot on the second pew, daring to let anyone see the truth within.

Yes, Jesus is our ultimate friend. And He blesses us with earthly friends that walk with us along our journey. Finding those with whom we can be REAL is the challenge. And with prayer, as you said, He will meet our need.

Blessings!!

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