Church Leadership: Lonely Road or Shared Journey?

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Is it lonely at the top? An increasing number of pastors are saying that it doesn’t have to be. Through peer group learning, they’re discovering that leadership can be better when it is experienced as a shared journey.

There is little doubt that a pastor’s place in the congregation can be isolating. A pastor’s position in the church limits his or her access to the social and spiritual support network that other church members take for granted. Indeed, a pastor’s need for confidentiality in dealing with members and issues in the congregation can prevent him or her from sharing feelings, frustrations and burdens—even with spouses or friends.

“Leadership has often been identified as a lonely road,” says Rev. Henry Kranenburg, pastor of Immanuel Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Hamilton, Ontario. But Kranenburg’s recent experiences as part of a pastors’ peer learning group have taught him otherwise. Kranenburg and a number of his colleagues formed a peer group, Leading the Large Multigenerational Missional Church, to share challenges, best practices and to foster mutual support and learning.

“Our time together as a peer group identified the value of a shared journey of encouragement, support, discovery, prayer, failure, learning, debate and disagreement,” says Kranenburg. “Doing this in a safe setting allowed for us to collectively work through things and individually apply them to our particular settings.”

According to Kranenburg, he and his peers have discovered that leadership is more than just getting the job done, it is about learning and growth. “We rediscovered that good leadership accomplishes the tasks assigned, but better leadership is that which is challenged and grows in a safe peer setting.”

Breaking the Isolation
Kranenburg has seen firsthand how peer groups can break down the walls that isolate pastors. “The camaraderie and the times of prayer at our retreats helped us recognize that, in many ways, we deal with the same issues,” says Kranenburg. “Our challenges are not unique or peculiar to our particular church or style of ministry.”

Peer learning reminds pastors that they are part of a community. “Peer learning groups help fight against lone-ranger styles of ministry that can lead to unhealthy styles of leadership or the burnout and frustration that can come at times,” says Kranenburg. That’s an important consideration, given that statistics show that one in five pastors suffer serious stress or burnout.

Like Kranenburg, Rev. Ken Krause has come to appreciate the value of peer learning. Krause, pastor of Newton CRC in Iowa, is relatively new to the ministry and is serving his first church. His peer group has been especially important to him and his congregation. Krause’s group brings together a number of pastors whose churches are facing transitions. “We wanted to encourage each other to continue working toward excellence in ministry and to develop ideas toward transitioning our churches to become more missions-focused ministries,” Krause says.

More Tools in the Ministry Toolbox
Peer groups have multiplied both learning and skills for Krause and his colleagues. “Peer groups give you the ability to synergize,” says Krause. “People bring to the group different gifts and different ideas. We’re always bringing a book to share with the group or talking about struggles or challenges. Even through our informal conversations, we learn so much from each other.”

Krause also values the mentoring that has taken place as part of his peer group involvement. “We have a broad range of experience and abilities within our group, and so there is mentoring for the younger pastors and renewal for the more experienced ones,” he says.

Rev. Craig Broek serves a smaller, established church in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He recently helped form a peer group,Fellowship and Formation, for CRC pastors who share an interest in leadership development. “Developing as leaders doesn’t mean that we’ll avoid conflict or other difficult circumstances but it does give us a few more tools in the toolbox to help understand those situations and help us to prepare for, react to, and lead through them,” says Broek. “Pastors lead whether they want to or not,” he says. “If we aren’t trained for leadership or developing our skills, we fall into bad habits very easily and the whole organization suffers as a result.”

Accountability and Support
An important part of leadership is accountability, and peer groups offer that as well. In Broek’s peer group, accountability extends to activities like personal devotions. “One of those activities is the commitment to the spiritual discipline of reading the Bible every day and journaling our observations,” Broek says. “In our peer group, we’re using the method laid out by author and pastor Wayne Cordeiro, which prescribes four steps in the acrostic of SOAP (Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer).”

Next on their group’s agenda, Broek and his peers plan to attend a leadership conference together, to strengthen relationships and trust within the group while growing in their skills as leaders of missions-focused churches.

For Broek, however, the most important outcome of his peer group involvement has been the support and encouragement he receives from the other pastors. It reminds him that he is not alone. “The ability to listen and encourage each other in our individual ministry situations has been the greatest blessing so far,” says Broek. “To know that at least once a month we have a group of people with whom we can vent and know that they will understand and be helpful is a great blessing.”

Kranenburg’s group has also experienced the blessings that come from peer support. “Praying for each other, and having others pray for us, was very significant because it not only addressed the spiritual nature of our task and work and being, but it also allowed for a connection with others at a level that doesn’t happen so easily within the congregation or council,” Kranenburg says.

Avoiding Tunnel Vision
“When leadership development is pursued in a right way, I believe it helps leaders fight against the tunnel vision of their own particular style,” says Kranenburg. His peer group learning has taught him to embrace differing perspectives on ministry and differing ways of accomplishing tasks. “Peer groups help pastors learn that the value of working together is in being challenged to think outside of one’s normal paradigm and to ask why another approach would or would not be helpful. It leads not only to creative process, but to an increased focus on what the problem or challenge really is and how we might address its resolution.” 

Finally, what is true about leadership for pastors is also true for the church. Travelling the road of leadership together is so much better than taking the lonely road. “Leadership is not just about me leading,” Kranenburg says, “Leadership is about training and delegating the work to those with gifts and always planning and preparing for those who will need to replace them or pick up new areas of ministry.”

Church Leaders’ Reading List

  • Building Leaders: Blueprints for Developing Leadership at Every Level of Your Church by Aubrey Malphurs and Will Mancini
  • The Divine Mentor – Growing Your Faith as You Sit at the Feet of the Savior by Wayne Cordeiro
  • When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box by John Ortberg
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