Leadership is Lonely - Are You?

By Brian Berry Posted on August 12 2010

WANTED: a friend in ministry who won’t get angry at my church and leave me in the wake of their angst, won’t gossip my dirt to the masses, and isn’t impressed with my job title. Must be my gender, about my age (bonus if our families are similar), authentically seeking Jesus, and in need of a good friend. For more info, please contact soundstogoodtobetrue@mychurch.com.

If you have ever felt like you could have posted that ad, then I feel your pain.

I’ve been a full-time student ministries pastor for 16 years now and my experience says one of the hardest things to conquer as a leader is the lonely factor. To some degree, the cliché that “leadership is lonely”, is way more than cliché; it’s true - especially when things aren’t going well. When a family is upset, or a volunteer makes a poor choice, or you have to remove someone from their role, the weight of those events will land on your desk. When the budget needs balancing, the sacred event cow needs sacrificing, and the call for clarity on the mission must go out… leadership is lonely. It just is.

Add to that some ridiculous, superhuman, and hyper-holy expectations people put on many youth workers and we have a recipe for a massive sense that very few people will actually understand us and even fewer are truly safe to vent to. I mean really, who in your church can you have an honest conversation with that isn’t ultimately looking to you as their role model, required to by marriage, or responsible for signing your checks?

Recently, this problem came to a head for me and I could not escape it. I had to do something about it. Here’s some things I had to confess about myself.

  • I WAS HURTING. My friends have wounded me. I’m sure I have wounded some too. I’m not some perfect specimen of a friend with a few bad apples around me. But the fact remains, that I have worked hard to develop friendships that have ultimately resulted in more pain than joy, and that has left some deep wounds in me. I think it is the pain that David expresses in Psalm 55:12-14 “If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, one like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers.” (NIV)
  • I NEED A FEW. I need a few. Not a lot, but I need a few safe people to share my deepest fears, regrets, struggles, joys and dreams with. I’ve taught students that even Jesus had Peter, James, and John and that we all need this, but for too long I’ve allowed that to go unrealized in me.
  • THE CHURCH HAS COST ME SOME FRIENDSHIPS. No matter how much I try and avoid it, when things go wrong at my church, it affects friendships I build at the church. There is no healthy way for me to separate myself from church decisions that wound people. I could start throwing friends and co-workers under the bus, but that’s not going to be healthy. Truth is, we all implicate one another and that means that even if I have a great friendship, it can become strained by a problem with someone seemingly completely disconnected from me. But, because our tie is through the local church, and that local church is also my employer and an integral part of my life, the domino affect will put our friendship in a difficult spot.
  • MY MINISTRY STUFF CAN STRAIN MY MARRIAGE. I know some will say their spouse is their confidant and best friend. I don’t debate this. But because my spouse is also my biggest advocate and stuck with me for life, she can’t choose another church to attend if friendships get hard. The truth is, sometimes what is a hundred pounds of weight for me, becomes a ton for my wife. I need safe friends who can help me with my marriage, and in some cases, who can protect my marriage from the unnecessary baggage my ministry strains can bring upon it. 

So, having observed these things in myself, I recently decided to take the bull by the horns and ask a few other pastors and long term friends in my life if they needed some place to intentionally have much deeper conversations. The response from some trusted volunteers I approached was that they already had this. But from those who I contacted who were in the paid pastorate, I received a resounding yes.

A few months ago, myself and 4 pastors, all from different local churches, got together to bear our souls for 3 days. We ate together, played together, prayed together, and just talked about the real issues of real life. We talked marriage and family and ministry and our futures. We were able to be vulnerable, to offer counsel to one another, and to take even time-tested friendships to a whole new level.

It was like a breath of fresh air and more powerful and nourishing to my soul than a lot of conferences I’ve attended or books I’ve read over the years. For a few days, leadership was not lonely. I’m praying it never is again.

If this need in me rings true for you, then, from one pastor to another, I want to encourage you to not let it go another month. Don’t assume this deep need for genuine friendship will go away or be willing to neglect the need for a few to know you intimately. Send an e-mail, make a phone call, grab some lunch with someone and launch into a faith risk. It’s soul care for you. You may be surprised how many others need that soul care too.

I’m praying the Holy Spirit will direct you, encourage you, and inspire you to find God’s solution for you. To that end, I’m right behind you.   


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From Dave on August 12, 2010

The mentor who God used to share the gospel with me also shared this with me years later. It prepared me well for leadership down the road. Good thoughts.

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From Scott on August 16, 2010

Brian,  So true.  There is nothing like another pastor to understand a pastor.  I pray more of us have what you describe.  And may the pastors above us recognize the opportunity to invest in those “below” them on the org chart.  Every Timothy needs a Paul!  Therefore, start being both today.

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From Angela Stephens on August 26, 2010

I am in a unique situation in that I am the pastor’s wife but also a called youth minister.  I am currently serving as the Director of Student Ministries at the church my husband is pastoring.  B/c I’m the pastor’s wife, though, I am unpaid & very much underappreciated.  My education and experience is in youth ministry/education & through God’s grace and my willingness to allow Him to use me, the student ministries has grown from 0 to 17 in two years.  We have seen salvations, baptisms, recommittments, as well as spiritual & physical growth.  For me this is a calling and is something that I’m very passionate about but serving in such duel roles has led to complete lonliness.  Other pastor’s wives can’t seem to relate, the youth minister’s in my area are men and see me more as a layperson/pastor’s wife filling a role until the church is willing to hire a paid youth minister, and people of the church seem to put me and my family on a petistule & just are in wait for us to slip up or to say the wrong thing.  I desperately need a few (or just one) safe person I can talk to, befriend and relate to.  I have tried to seek out individuals and/or groups in my local area such as the pastor’s wives group but my calling seems to be unique among the pastor’s wives & I’m not sure how much to trust them.  Any advice?  I sure would appreciate it.

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From Ben on August 28, 2010

I can feel your pain. As a youth pastor I am going through this now. My denomination doesn’t have a regional, district, or national youth ministry that I can make work with other youth pastors. My church is an older crowd at 35 I’m the youngest member in my church. The youth group was established a year ago and I had many issues with starting the group. I’m a single man so I don’t even have a wife to share my pains and in the end its just me.

The Sr Pastor is new to ministry, so I spend time helping him (I was a Sr. Pastor once and really fell the calling to work more with youth). Not to mention I get a lot of other responsibilities added because there really is no one else to do some of these things.

I find myself at times questioning myself, my methods, my walk, and seeing if I can be doing things better. I’m a volunteer youth pastor in this small church and as with everyone else finances are a struggle. So I can’t even afford to go to one of the retreats to recharge. All I do is pray to God and I find my strength in Him. This article really helps to know I’m not alone.

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From Mike Farnsley on September 01, 2010

As a nearly 24-year-old guy in his 3rd year of ministry, I desperately needed to hear this. Thanks for the reminder.

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From Darrell on September 08, 2010

I have been involved with youth ministry in every shape from children’s sunday school class to high school….single’s and young couples….for 20 plus years…I have my “Pauls” over the years and have been a “Paul” but it is true we never outgrow the need for a “Paul” or even a “Jonathan” to walk with us….the key is praying to God to meet our need and allow Him to us even when we are in that “lonely” season. The enemy would love to devour us during that time. David hid in a cave, Elijah ran from Jezebel….but God always provides what we need. Yes, most people don’t understand or care to understand the ministry of “pouring out” our live into others, but God is with us always with us…..

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From Ben on September 08, 2010

I agree. We need to endure and know that God has a plan and is always beside us and He will supply for us.

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From Josh Yates on September 09, 2010

Wow…I sit here in tears as I read this article.  I feel like that State Farm Insurance commercial, saying “I’m SO there.”  I’ve been in youth ministry for 12 years (7 of those at my current ministry) and this has been true of me for many of those years.  It is true of me right now.  I am at a non-denominational church and do there are not any pastor coalitions where people get together.  It seems as though all the churches are on separate islands in our area.  Ultimately, it’s good to hear that I’m not alone…and I’m “normal.”  (A relative term for a youth pastor, but still normal.)  I’m praying that God will guide me in this.  He has never failed me…but people have.  That’s definitely when it gets lonely.  It’s been a tough year…God bless you guys…

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From Matt W. on September 09, 2010

I really feel you.. I am have been doing youth programs (coaching) for 15 years and I just took over the youth group at church. And now I understand… The neglecting to your family is the huge part. Also the same time too the youth! So how do you balance all of that and your calendar… Please share with me on that…

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From Leanne on September 16, 2010

To Angela Stephens,

I can understand your situation. I’ve not been in it specifically, but I’ve had a husband in full time ministry and I personally have a youth ministry education and a calling myself. We do Ministry “together” although I’m not paid nor on staff. I say this to say look for other youth pastors wives.  They all may not be just wives.  Some of us are in the trenches with our husbands but we don’t get the position, the title, the pay, etc. However our passion runs just as deep.  Not all pastors wives are that way, but there may be some out there.

When I didn’t have anyone nearby that I could meet up with, I had a friend I went to school with who was in full time ministry.  We set a time when we could talk on the phone. She lived in Michigan, I lived in Iowa. But we needed someone to talk to who understood.  I’ve had only a few of these jewels close by and then we end up moving so we’re all spread out now. So I’ve just kept in touch with them in whatever way I could.

Look outside the church too.  Look at a non-profit or some other position that maybe a woman holds.  As we do, we can at least sympathize with you and be a good sounding board. If it is a strong woman of faith, they will be able to relate.
Good luck in your search.

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From sam on September 17, 2010

I found this article so encouraging…It was like a ,,breath of fresh air”...

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From CT on September 17, 2010

Wow. I definitely needed to hear this. I’m new to youth ministry and not only does my marriage feel the strain (his friends at church seem to be my biggest critics, he gets roped into volunteering, etc…) but I’m so lonely right now I can’t even explain. I was so glad to hear that I’m not alone!!!

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From Adam on September 17, 2010

Pretty sure I am reading this article at yet another low point in my current ministry assignment.  I’ve had nearly 2 “craptacular” years at the church I serve as full-time youth pastor. From nearly being punched in the foyer following a morning worship service a year ago to my only youth workers/best friends at the church tell me they are leaving the church. I’ve never been more lonely, frustrated, depressed, and at a loss of what to do next. Over the past 2 years I’ve gone from 25-30 students to 4 students at our last mid-week activity. The church continues to have good families leave and most tell me it is not because of the student ministry. It has to do with stories and situations to long to detail here. Not sure how a youth pastor can succeed when he consistently watches good families leave the church. After spending nearly 13 years in full-time student ministry I’ve never been more lonely as a leader!

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From Ben on September 18, 2010

Hi Adam

I just wanted to say hang in there. I’m kinda in your shoes but from a different angle. My church had no youth or families (with the exception of a single mother). When I became the youth pastor we had none. it has been a struggle to do things but over the year God has worked. I have never built a youth group from the ground up but that’s what’s happening. I have had to go back to old standard books to remember what to do. God may be moving you in a new direction. Things will change for you and remember God is always in control.

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From tim on September 20, 2010

I was never so lonely as I was at my last church.  Part of that was because of the location of the church, out in the middle of nowhere (literally).  The town was 4000, closest Wal-mart was 30 miles, closest airport was 4 hours of solid highway driving.  There were only 350 students in the local school (7th-12th) of which 140 came to my youth group.  I was the only youth pastor in the town, with the next closest being 30 miles away.  And I was lonely.  I had a Senior who was only worried about what was going on on his computer, and who was worried only for what his friends thought of the church.
I had no close friends.  We hardly ever was asked to come over to eat at anyone’s house.  My wife was judged all the time.  And because I was the only youth pastor in town, it seemed as if I was expected to fix all the problems in the town concerning the youth.
I’m no longer at that church.  I was let go because the best friends of the Senior said that I said something two years ago that upset them.  The nephew of the best friends became the Interim Youth Pastor.  You can put it together.
Thank you Brian Berry for the article.  It was an encouragment to me and to my wife.  That when we are serving in youth ministry, we can be very lonely even though people think we are the life of the party. 
To my ministry Brothers and Sisters out there, remember why you are serving. There are students out there looking for the love that a Youth Pastor can bring.
Sorry for the length…maybe I just needed to get some things off my chest.

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From Jonathan on September 21, 2010

Thanks for this.  I’m glad to know I’m not alone.  I am very lonely for the reasons you listed in your article.  There are a lot of friends youth pastors have at church, but ultimately—I’m the youth pastor.  I’m expected to handle life differently.  I’m still on staff regardless of a friendship, so it’s tough.  What’s worse is that I’m not married and I don’t even have a wife with whom to talk about stuff… when I go home alone, I’m really alone.  I have my parents, for whom I’m thankful, but friends nearby—eh, not really.

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From Claudia on September 21, 2010

Thanks for all your sharings. I feel your loneliness, I’m one of you and thought that I was alone in this. It seems we are all in the same boat here and not alone anymore; we have each other.

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From Cristine on September 22, 2010

Wow, driving to ‘work’ today, I was just overwhelmed with guilt for feeling ‘lonely’.  I am blessed to be around so many great people of God, but lately as I minister, I just wish that I had a place to ‘let go’ and be real about what i am really thinking and feeling in my faith walk.  Thank you for writing this article.  I am praying for y’all today.

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From Marty on September 28, 2010

I have no words to tell you how meaningful this article is.  For all the times I’ve sat in my living room, or office, and cried because my friends live over 2-3 hours away, or because it seems like no one around here is interested in a relationship with my family, or because I feel guility for feeling lonely….it’s good to know other people struggle with this issue too.  I wish we could all get together and encourage one another, just as this article talks about.  This is why I enjoy NYWC so much.

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From Erika on October 05, 2010

I was searching for some kind of hope today when I found this.  I really believe it was God that I saw it when I did.  Things have been really hopeless lately…at least they feel that way.  I began my youth ministry nearly 10 years ago, so full of fire.  I had friends and dreams and determination and such a burning call to reach teens for Jesus.  Little by little, my friends backslid, my family moved far away, and too many moves just made it so hard to connect.  Recently, when my husband lost his job, I lost my home, my church family and my best friend moved away to take a new ministry position.  I am a married woman with 2 small children, called to a ministry that is barely breathing in a church that is hoping for a God-sized miracle in their youth group, and I’ve been homeless living with family for nearly a year.  I miss my friends.  I miss my fire and faith.  I’m alone. I’m so afraid.  Outwardly, I smile and play the happy church cheerleader.  But I’m curling into a ball inside screaming and screaming for Someone to rescue me, and someone to care about me.

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From janet on October 07, 2010

I love what I do serving God at my youth ministry, I have been c\volunteering for the past five years now I am about to turn 22 and I work full time and go to school and me and my boyfriend plan to get married next year ( he is also a youth leader). I feel that I want to continue helping and I absolutley enjoy serving God in this area and one day I want to open a rehabilation center for teenagers.It’s just so much different now than before because Im older now and I have more responsibilities than before…sometimes I feel lonely and like an outsider sometimes I cant make it to meetings and events and I feel that everybody else thinks that Im unintrested but I am no. I love what I do!

I really need prayer and ask God for direction!

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From Catherine on October 11, 2010

Dear Angela Stephens,

I get what it is to be different.  I’m the only female youth pastor in my state denomination.

Things I’ve done:  keep going to the youth pastor events, even when awkward at first.  Eventually good people take a risk and reach out.  These are fellow ministers of the gospel after-all.

Next, I have two other women I’ve met through college I meet with each month for prayer, studying a book and sometimes just offloading.  Our ministry circumstances aren’t exactly the same, but in some ways that’s helped us learn and not to compete.

Future: I’m planning of seeking out a pastoral retreat group in another state.  I’ve heard they’re a good group and are walking the path I’m trying to clear.

Finally, [this is where the profound wisdom should go] only I don’t have it today.  Today was a tough day.  I’m just trusting that God’s sustenance, the support of others and the privilege of ministry will be enough.  For me and for you.

God bless.

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From Brandi on January 02, 2011

Dear Angela,

Oh girl I feel your pain!  I have been in youth ministry for 8 years and Director of Student Ministries for the past 4 years at the age of 27.  Being a woman in full-time ministry is hard, especially when you’re leading a ministry.  Youth ministry is tough enough, but sometimes being a woman makes it a little harder.  I understand what you are going through. I don’t really have anyone here who I can talk to or voice my frustrations or hardships with.  I am the only woman in my area that I know of who is in this position.  We once had a family that visited our church and didn’t stay because they couldn’t believe there was a woman in charge of the youth ministry.  Sometime the only thing that keeps me going is walking into youth group on a Friday night and seeing how excited the kids are to be there. I encourage you to stay strong and know that I will be praying for you.

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From Jamie Starrett on May 12, 2011

I feel you.  Finding friends in a ministry postiion can be tough.  I have been in my student ministry for 13 years and have seen the church split and grow.  I lost a ton of friends and leaders during those times.  I had to go outside the church to some college buddies to talk to and just do life with.  They did not know people in the church and the just let me talk.  I hope this helps Youth Ministry Resources

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From Eric P on March 14, 2012

I was in Brian’s youth group when he first started and he made it seems so much fun. I remember he took me out to Taco Bell once and listened to me pour out my heart to him and my tears in my chalupa. He was there to encourage, but we never really considered what encouraged him. 15 years later, I’ve been running youth groups and it’s really easy to become discouraged. This has reminded me that I do have those close confidants who understand ministry and the toll it can take. I should treasure those more than I do. Thanks, Brian!

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From Angela on March 14, 2012

I have really appreciated the feedback and discussion here.  It’s been 2 years since I posted my initial post. Since that time, my husband and I have moved churches.  I am still the Director of Student Ministries and he is the pastor.  However, I also am working full time at another church where I am the Preschool Director Mon-Fri.  This has actually benefited me b/c now I have an older pastor outside of my church that I share, pray, and can be open with.  I don’t feel judged & love his patient spirit.  I have a weekly Bible study with him and one other staff member and it is in this Bible study that we have helped one another get through some pretty difficult times.  We have cried and poured our souls out together.  It is exactly what I needed & God was in control the whole time.

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