We don’t necessarily need to feel bad for leaders about these stresses. And we don’t need to try and entirely avoid them. In large part, they come with the job. Take any role of public leadership, and you’re automatically assuming some of these stresses.
It would be good, though, for people to be aware of those stresses. People in public leadership roles need to be aware of them. They need to recognize some of what they’re signing up for when they’re signing up for a visible leadership role. They need to be aware of some of the ways they can handle these extra stresses without being over-burdened and burning out.
The rest of us need to be aware of these, too. I think even the most well-intentioned among us don’t realize how much unneeded stress we place on our leaders at times. And we don’t recognize some of the ways we can support them and shield them from hazards to their health and continuing career.
PUBLIC LEADERSHIP’S PERILS
I have a friend named Wayne who is in a high-up position of leadership and management in an engineering group. I would guess he makes important decisions on a regular basis. I would guess that he’s pretty good at his job, given the position his company has trusted him with.
Never once have I critiqued one of Wayne’s decisions at his job. I don’t expect I ever will. He’s an engineer, and I’m not. I didn’t go to school for engineering. I don’t understand how it all works. I lack enough training and understanding to tell you whether Wayne is doing a good job or not. In fact, I would guess that Wayne’s job performance is rarely, if ever, critiqued by anyone outside those who work for his company. The work he does and the decisions he makes just aren’t readily available for critique to the general public.
Compare that to a very different profession. Compare it to a college football coach. Nearly all of us would say that we also lack training in the intricacies of coaching football. If I had been made head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide last year (the national champs, for those unaware), I’m pretty sure they would have gone winless. I watch a lot of football. I love football. But I’m no football coach.
That doesn’t stop me from getting up and screaming (yes, really, it embarrasses my wife and I should stop) when a 3rd down call is a bust. I yell because I can’t believe the coach made the decision he made. I yell because I have this sense that I have a better idea of what should have been done than the coach had. And of course, I have the benefit of yelling after the play is over. The calls to the talk-shows afterward are inevitable. “Why didn’t you _____ instead? What were you thinking?” We’ve developed a phrase for this sort of after-the-fact second guessing: “Monday Morning Quarterbacking.”
Several years ago, I had a pastor friend from Georgia who was going through a crisis. He had come under heavy scrutiny for decisions he made years before (and some decisions that others had made — but as the phrase goes, “the buck stops here”). He couldn’t ever seem to get past that scrutiny. People continued to talk about what he had done, what he should have done, and all the perceived mistakes throughout. And it opened the floodgates for them to evaluate every new thing he did or didn’t do. At one point, he intimated that it had become nothing more than a job for him. He had lost any drive and passion. He had resigned himself to being criticized for whatever he did or didn’t do, and he didn’t have the energy to keep dealing with it. He had started having unusual health problems crop up, too.
I called another friend — a pastor who specializes in counseling — and explained the situation, looking for help.
“When was the last time your friend took a sabbatical?” he asked.
Well, never… He had taken some two-week vacations. Did that count?
“Your friend needs a sabbatical,” he urged. “He’s been doing this for over 20 years with no break. You’ve got to understand — this isn’t like other positions. For over 20 years, he has been in a position that comes with constant scrutiny. He’s had a spotlight on him for most of his adult life, and almost everyone around him thinks they’re qualified to pass judgment on what he’s doing. And a lot of them think they’re justified in passing that judgment. People can go for a long time like that when things are going well, even though it’s still not healthy. But when things go badly, you get this. It’s not natural and it’s not healthy to be under such a spotlight for so long without ever having a break. He needs a break. Soon.”
And to give a little extra emphasis, he added, “If he doesn’t find a way to get a sabbatical or get out entirely, I think he’s in real danger here. As in, he could be dead soon. The body starts to react against this kind of stress. You’re seeing that with the health problems. At best, he’ll be nothing more than dead weight.”
SOME QUESTIONS FOR LEADERS
Are you in a public leadership position? Whether it’s coaching or pastoring or just serving as the chairperson of your housing association, I’d imagine you can relate to some of the above. When is the last time you took a break?
What we often see in leaders is that when they don’t get this kind of break, the stresses lead them down a few common paths: depression, sexual infidelity, oversensitivity, marital stress, impulsiveness, constant feelings of inadequacy, grasping for more power and prestige… Any of that sound familiar?
Have you ever noticed how so many coaches walk away from a job (or are fired) and say, “I’m just going to take a little time off…” There’s a sense that they need some time out of that limelight. After that, many of them come back with a renewed energy. But it’s not uncommon to see them take some time off to breathe, to be refreshed.
Is it possible you might consider stepping down from that public leadership position? Perhaps it’s to do something different for a while, with a plan to come back to a similar position later.
Have you considered a sabbatical?
Beginning in July, my family and I are taking a year-long sabbatical. Much of what I’ve said above gives explanation for it. It was time to get away from public leadership and scrutiny for a while. Not because I’ve had it particularly bad, but because I started to see that even in my relatively good experience, I don’t think it’s healthy for me to continue under these stresses without a break. See a bit more about what we’re doing at our sabbatical year blog.
Perhaps you can’t take a year-long sabbatical. [Don’t be too quick to say that — consider your options and pray about it; read a bit about our experience on our sabbaticalyear site.] Can you consider a 6- to 8-week sabbatical? I think 6 weeks is bare minimum. Frankly, I’m unconvinced it’s enough. But it’s something. And for that time, no work-related goals. This isn’t an extended planning or research retreat. Your only work-related goal is to be renewed. And your only work-related contact — e-mail, phone, etc. — is… none. Seriously. None. Unless in case of extreme emergency. Perhaps not even then. You need to set up some serious boundaries. And if you’re not capable of doing that (highly likely if you haven’t ever done this before), you need the people around you to set up some boundaries for you.
SOME ENCOURAGEMENT FOR CONGREGATIONS
I hope you’ll be mindful of these stresses. They come with the territory, and I’m not asking you to feel sorry for your pastors. I am asking that you be considerate and proactive, though. Some of the difficulty with public leadership is that everything seems so easy to critique in hindsight and what should have been done so obvious. (Just like that 3rd down call at the football game.) But there’s a lot that goes into all of this that isn’t seen. Many of the decisions aren’t as obvious and straight-forward as we might expect.
I’ve watched pastors take criticism and abuse for months and years after something that didn’t go well. Rarely is it constructive. It’s usually just a re-hashing of criticism that seems like it may never end. And when we see someone bringing those critiques, there’s some terrible part of the human disposition that causes us to pile on, to start adding all of our own critiques and abuse.
Do you see any of this happening where you are? Criticisms that never seem to go away? A sort of piling on where people get together and talk about all of their leader’s faults and mistakes? Maybe you think it’s constructive — helping remind someone of previous mistakes so they don’t make them again. Maybe it’s therapeutic for you to share the personal pain you’ve felt from past decisions and mistakes. But if this is something that keeps being dragged back out, I would venture that it’s not really constructive. Think of a mistake you made a couple years ago. Would it be helpful if different people in different ways continued to bring that old mistake to your attention each week? Not really helpful, is it?
Some churches in my area have become known as pastor-killers. They chew people up and spit them out. If they don’t like something about someone, they pound away until that person can’t take it anymore and leaves. If your goal in criticizing and complaining is to drive someone away… frankly, I wish you’d leave the church. I wish someone would run you out. You’re giving us a bad name, and your behavior has nothing to do with the example of Christ. I’d prefer you stop calling yourself a Christian and associating yourself with the church. There’s just no place for that kind of behavior here. I’d love to see those churches that are known as pastor-killers be shut down. I think we’d be better off trying to start fresh than trying to revive a group that has so hardened its hearts that they have become abusive. Maybe then we can go back after those people as sinners who need to repent and hear the gospel. But let’s drop the charade that considers them upstanding Christian people.
For those of you who really want the best for your pastors, how can you protect them from some of these things? Is there a place for you to make it clear to people that your church community won’t tolerate any abusive criticism? Is there a place for you to provide some space out of the limelight for your pastor? See the above on sabbatical. Could you help make/force that to happen? How can you be aware of the relatively unique stresses that are placed on your pastors, and how can you work to protect their health? If you make their health your goal, I can almost assure you that the health of your own congregation will improve with it.