By Samuel R. Chand
Our secrets will kill us. They will haunt our dreams, cloud our plans, and distort our relationships. We may harbor secrets because the truth about a single evil past act or a continuing bad habit is too shameful to tell, or we may keep our secrets hidden because we don’t have any real friends who will genuinely listen. Either way, we remain alone, isolated, and desperate to stay hidden.
Kill us? you might object. Surely it’s not that serious. Sometimes it is. When leaders have no place to vent their frustrations and no one to understand their pain, they internalize all the hurt, fear, confusion, and anger. Some experience severe physiological problems that can result in prolonged disease and premature death. And others give up completely. Suicide can become an attractive alternative for leaders who can’t see any light in their future. They feel utter isolation and abject hopelessness. When I need gas for my car, I go to a gas station. When I need food, I go to a grocery store or restaurant. Every leader needs to ask: “Who is filling my emotional tank? Who is giving me the sustenance of hope, joy, and understanding?”
Leaders in business, nonprofits, and churches desperately need to find someone who has no agenda except to listen without judging and love without any strings attached. The existential angst of hopelessness and despair can only be addressed in community—close relationships with at least one, preferably a few, who genuinely cares for us. Nothing less will do.
Almost three out of four pastors say they regularly think of leaving the ministry, many because they don’t have a single close friend. Only a few have been loners all their lives. Most of them had wonderful, meaningful connections in the past, but something happened: people moved away, the stress of the job sucked the time and life out of one or the other or both, people got too busy and stopped calling and having coffee, a simple misunderstanding grew into an irreparable schism, or betrayal shattered a trusted bond. Whatever the cause, most pastors have no one to lean on, no safety valve, no understanding ear, and no shoulder to cry on.
Pain can only be effectively managed in a trusting, affirming, honest community—not necessarily a large community, but at least a few people who genuinely understand. Most leaders have to endure seasonal storms that last for a while and then subside. For pastors, however, the storms never stop. The torrents keep coming. Without a strong, supportive community, pastors wither away under the pressure. Consider the following questions:
- Who in your life “gets you” and doesn’t think you’re weak or strange when you wrestle with the complexities of your role?
- Who listens to you without feeling compelled to give you advice?
- Who asks second and third questions to draw you out instead of giving pat answers, simple prescriptions, and easy formulas?
- Who is your safe haven so you can be completely honest and open?
- Who fills your spiritual and emotional gas tank?
The answer to these questions identifies your pain partner—a most cherished friend. In my consulting, I strive to be a safe person with whom people can honestly share their pain.
Stressed-out people are fragile, brittle, and prickly. They aren’t usually the most patient people, but keeping friends requires the trait of bearing with people when they are annoying, difficult, and defensive—people just like us! We need wisdom to know when to call a friend on his foolishness and when to let it slide. If it’s a recurring problem or one that can cause irreparable harm, we need to step in and speak up and then bear with our friend while he processes what we’ve said. But more often we need to let mildly offensive words evaporate in the warmth of our love and understanding. If God nicked us for every foolish, selfish, or offensive thing we thought or said, we’d never have a minute to think about anything else. God bears with us all day, every day. His Spirit very carefully picks the moments to convict us. We should do the same with our friends. A lot of the time, we just need to shut up and be supportive. That’s bearing with those who are hurt, brittle, or annoying.
We need to invest our hearts and our time in rebuilding a relationship that has been broken. And if we’re friends long enough, misunderstanding and conflict are inevitable. Healing doesn’t just happen. In the human body, red blood cells constantly carry nutrients to every part of the body, and when there’s a sickness or a wound, the white cells rush the body’s healing properties to the site. We invest in the friendship by focusing now on what’s good and admirable about our friend—instead of clobbering him in our hearts like we did before we starting the healing process. Remember what brought laughter and meaning before the break. Camp out there again, and see if the fires are rekindled.
When we’re in pain, the last thing we may want to do is pick up the phone and call someone to ask for help. Everything in us screams, “Hide! Don’t be vulnerable! Protect yourself at all costs!” That voice sounds reasonable, but it leads to further isolation, misery, and despair.
When you’re in trouble, don’t wait. Pick up the phone. Call someone and ask for help. It’s essential for your mental and emotional health, and it’s necessary for you to be the leader, spouse, and parent you want to be.
 Anugrah Kumar, “Nearly 3 in 4 Pastors Regularly Consider Leaving due to Stress, Study Finds,” Christian Post, June 21, 2014, www.christianpost.com/news/nearly-3-in-4-pastors-regularly-consider-leaving-due-to-stress-study-finds-121973.
This article is excerpted from Chapter 9 in Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth by Samuel R. Chand.
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