The Journey Blog

Reflections on the art of leading

Places of Safety: Culture-shaping Practice #3


A pastor and his wife sit at our dinner table after sharing a home cooked meal and a glass of wine. They tell the story of a church member whose situation looms large in their church and touches others in leadership there. It does so in a way that means there is no one in the church with whom this couple can safely, and appropriately, process or discuss what offering leadership in this context will require....

Where does a couple like this go for help as they seek to offer loving leadership in their church?

As a leader, how can you see your own leadership blind spots in the midst of trying to lead? The reality is, no one can. We are not able to coach ourselves honestly and effectively as leaders. Its the same reason that a wise physician doesn't try to be her own doctor.

We've learned that every pastor needs a pastor. Every leader needs a coach.

The situation described above is just one example of how pastors and their spouses need a place of safety and trust: a place to reflect and process, to learn and grow. They need a place where they aren't "on" as Leader. The pastor's spouse needs a safe place, too, where others understand the unique, often troubling, challenges of ministry that put demands and pressure on the marriage, family, and friendships as no other profession does.

Pastors often feel that there is no place they go where they are not expected to lead, have the answers, set the schedule, keep time, open in prayer, be the expert, always know the verse, and how to fix whatever is wrong. If it isn't actually expected of them, they often expect it of themselves. Pastors tell us it's exhausting.

Being out of role, requires being within a safe, loving, bold community, among those who know their world, among people they can trust with their questions, and struggles—their unadorned selves. They need a community of peers who love them enough to challenge them when they are bluffing or boasting. As someone said, "Alone I'm a train wreck. With other men, I'm strong."

This is not so that the pastor can act up, or act out. It is being in a place to receive.

Pastors need this, but rarely have it. Who do they trust? As one pastor's spouse said,

Even though we have great friends in the church, I can’t tell my good friends, ‘Oh yeah, there are lots of times when my husband feels like packing up and moving out of this church.’ *

Where do pastors find support and accountability before a struggle becomes a ministry derailment? Where are those who have the time, and gifts, to pastor the pastor and how can we mobilize them to meet this need?

The research shows that for pastors to endure, something other than professional training is needed. As important as those skills are, they do not help pastors avoid being crippled by cynicism and sin, or to have a healthy marriage. Even the best seminaries can attempt no more than a cursory preparation for navigating conflict with emotional intelligence, or to discern and respond appropriately to invisible cultural biases in the church, to manage the budget, and staff, yet these tasks will consume most of the pastors time.

Simple as it may seem, sustainable ministry comes from cultivating a set of life giving, and culture-changing practices where learning and growth can happen, but where spiritual vitality is central.

Here are five practices that foster thriving pastors:

Give up the hero-leader myth. Join a collaborative community. Create an environment of safety and trust. Seek out mentors and peer learning. Discover spiritual direction and formation in relational context.

* A Pastors Summit Participant, quoted in Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving in Ministry, by Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie.