I know too many church leaders, particularly pastors (in both big churches and small) who are leading a church but are not really a part of the church. They are the up front presence behind the pulpit or on the stage, but when it comes to actually doing life with people in the pews, they are absent. They are not in a small group in the church. They have few friends within the church. These pastors are leading their churches, but are not really a part of their churches.
The isolation, seclusion and loneliness only mimic what is happening all across our Western world. Look at the numbers. Thirty-five percent of Americans report they are “chronically lonely.” Only 8% of Americans report having conversations with their neighbors in the last year. Another report found that 25% of Americans say they have “zero confidants.” Multiple studies have tied loneliness to heart disease, dementia, depression and anxiety. One study found that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. After numerous studies, researcher George Gallup concluded, “Americans are among the loneliest people in the world.”
God is calling us to live differently. Both at the beginning of creation and at the beginning of the church, Scripture reminds that we are better together! As church leaders, we need to live in togetherness and lead in togetherness.
In a culture that encourages a very individualistic approach to life, the general sense of loneliness is exponentially heightened in the life of a church leader and his family. In his book, Pastors at Risk, Chuck Wickman talks about the impact of isolation and loneliness on the pastor and his family. He explains that pastors often feel a deep sense of isolation from others—an inability to connect in significant relationships that bring balance and health. This is due, at least in part, to the distance between pastor and parishioners that we often let define our role. Add to that the care-giving functions of pastoral ministry, and the pastor can be left depleted and unavailable emotionally.
So, how to do we end up so lonely in a crowded church? Let me give you at least three reasons.
1. Individualism. The same thing that made us think we could plant a church often keeps us from being a part of that church. After the French sociologist Tocqueville traveled through America in 1831, he consequently identified “rugged individualism” as the defining American trait. Now almost 200 years later, that “rugged individualism” has contributed to our independence and unmatched entrepreneurship. But it has also created a quiet desperation of loneliness. To live in togetherness, you have to give up—not all, but some—of your autonomy. You have to come under the accountability of other people. To live in togetherness with a church, you have to commit, which means you sometimes miss out on other options. You can’t just do whatever you want, whenever you want, and still live in togetherness.
2. Idealism. A second reason I think we avoid living together with our churches is idealism. We get into the ministry with a beautiful vision for what the church could be and should be. It is the idealistic view that also causes some of us to shake our heads in despair and keep our distance. The reason that many of us don’t relationally commit to our churches is because of wildly unrealistic expectations. We keep expecting to find the picture-perfect small group, and it never comes. So, instead of going deep with anyone, we skim the service with everyone. Soon we have been in our churches for three, five or even 10 years or more and we have successfully grown a church, but never actually been a part of one.
3. Intimidation. Perhaps the biggest reason so many pastors are not experiencing genuine community in their churches is because of intimidation. We’re straight-up scared of intimacy. I don’t just mean those of us who are introverts. Introversion and extroversion have nothing to do with how relational somebody is. Some of the most relational people I know are high introverts. And some of the most individualistic, lonely people I know are high extroverts. We’re scared to live together with our church, because we realize that if we really commit to a community, our real self will come out. And we’re scared of that kind of vulnerability! We know to really experience community and get the most out of it means letting people know our whole selves—the good, the bad and the ugly. Deep down, we think, If people get to know me, I don’t know if they’ll really like me; I don’t even like me. We are intimidated!
Here’s the truth: If we are serious about living as followers of Jesus, we can’t follow him alone. Every Tuesday night, I gather in a home with about a dozen other people who are also trying to follow after Jesus. Often we share a meal. We always study the Bible together. We conclude every evening praying for one another. We have gone through some of life’s greatest challenges: the loss of a child; divorce; death of a parent; financial hardships; the struggle of depression and anxiety and more. We have also grown together: We have learned to love; to be generous; to serve; to fight fair and how to hold doubt and faith at the same time. I love these people and they love me. Together we can get each other through anything—in this life and into the next.
You need a group like that too. I don’t care what you call it—a missional community, small group or Sunday school class. Togetherness is not optional. Relationships are the catalyst for personal transformation. We are better together.
Some of my family’s best friends in life have come through small groups. They have helped Sue and me get through some of the rough times in our marriage. They have helped us raise our kids. They have taught us how to manage our money. They have given me an example for how to follow Jesus. We are better together.
The Tuesday night small group I described is also the one I lead. Oftentimes, I will get pushback from church leaders on the idea of leading a small group in their church. They will shake their heads and say, “I can’t do everything!” or “I train others to do that.” I agree that you can’t do everything, and I believe you should engage in leadership training. However, I encourage church leaders to follow this axiom when determining where to use their leadership gifts in the church: lead at the smallest level and at the largest level of your leadership capacity. Read that again and let it sink in.
How do you lead at the smallest level and the largest level of your leadership capacity? If you are in a small- or medium-sized church; at the smallest level, you would lead a small group and apprentice a small group leader(s) and at the largest level also lead in training a leadership resident to plant another church. You would let your high-capacity volunteers, elders and staff do everything else in-between.
In my case, I am pastoring a larger church and also leading a church planting network. So, to lead at the smallest level means I lead a small group and apprentice a small group leader, and for me to lead at the largest level means I’m apprenticing future network leaders to start church planting networks across the country and around the world. The volunteer leaders, coaches, elders and staff do everything else in-between.
Following this leadership axiom—lead at the smallest level and the largest level of your leadership capacity—helps you do the following:
1. Modeling – You lead in creating togetherness in the exact way you are asking others to do it. By leading a small group, you are showing others how to do it and modeling leadership.
2. Storytelling – By leading a small group, you will have stories to tell that will reinforce a culture of togetherness.
3. Impact – By leading a small group and, for example, helping other leaders start churches, you are showing leaders they need to continually be expanding and growing their influence by reproducing at every level.
Living in togetherness is always a part of following Jesus. It wasn’t optional for him. It wasn’t optional for the first apostles. It wasn’t optional for the first Christians, and it’s not optional for us. This community and the unity of this community are absolutely essential for accomplishing Jesus’ mission.What did you think? I know this was written for pastors, but all of need to live life in the church. Few are as plugged in as they could be. So let me know your thoughts. Let me know how you might get better plugged into your local church.