I have heard leadership likened to mountain climbing: Depending on the height of the mountain, the closer to the summit one climbs, the harder it gets. The air is thinner, the winds blow stronger, and the burdens rest on your shoulders more heavily as fewer people have climbed to the upper peaks.
Some who have risen to the summits of leadership may stand up, look around, and want to start crooning “It’s Lonely at the Top.” The word “lonely” however, seems to paint a darker picture of being sad or depressed because there is no one but you. And, some leaders do fall into a malaise of loneliness.
But maybe the better word here should be aloneness meaning a sense of being separate, apart, or isolated. Being alone at the summit of leadership is a reality for which many leaders are not prepared.
For women in leadership, and more specifically, women leaders serving in ministry, this can be especially true.
There are several reasons for this.
- A leader must always be ahead of her followers. She has to be leading them somewhere. As a leader steps forward, before her followers join her, she is standing alone.
- In ministry, leaders deal with people, lives, situations, hurts, and concerns that are shared with us in confidence, and a leader must hold trusted confidentiality sacred. That can be a burdensome feeling which can be weighing.
- While working as cohorts, teams, and in collaborative settings is a tried and true leadership style, in the end, the ultimate responsibility, decision, and direction must rest with one person. And sometimes those decisions are hard-made decisions that affect those whom you are leading. The proverbial buck must stop somewhere.
- Ministries and churches may have foundational and missional similarities, but their contexts, culture, and the people involved always differ significantly. When no one else serves at the same level of leadership or in a unique context, a leader can find herself thinking, “No one could really understand what I am dealing with.”
- Unique to a woman leader in ministry, as she grows to higher levels of leadership, the number of women are fewer and fewer in relation to men, and rightfully so. Many a female staff member will find herself sitting in staff meeting being the only woman at the table. As a complementarian, I do not find this to be a bad thing, but it does magnify the aloneness in leadership.
Aloneness, lonesomeness, or loneliness in leadership is not new. Consider the Old Testament leaders. Nehemiah went out to inspect the wall of Jerusalem alone (Neh 2:12-13). Joshua must have felt alone as God continually reminded Joshua that He would not leave him alone (Josh 1:9). Jonah served in Nineveh alone (Jonah 3). And Esther approached the King alone (Esth 4:15-5:2).
Even Paul, who was a leader, mentor, and risk taker, often found himself alone in leadership: This you know, that all those in Asia have turned away from me (2 Tim 1:15).
A.W. Tozer wrote: Most of the world’s greatest souls have been lonely. Loneliness seems to be one price the saint must pay for his saintliness.[i] Aloneness, however, does not have to be a negative, nor does it necessarily mean a depressing loneliness. As a woman in leadership who recognizes and feels the reality of aloneness at the leadership summit, there are lessons I have learned.
Some seasons will be harder than others. Be sure to do daily reality checks with God. Elijah felt the aloneness and, after a particularly challenging time of service, his aloneness turned to desperation, crying to God that he was the “only one left.” God had to remind him that there were still 7000 who had not kneeled to Baal (I Kgs 19). During those hard seasons when the aloneness is most magnified and the burdens are heaviest, do daily (or hourly) reality checks with God.
Daily build your spiritual foundation to be able to stand-alone with no one but God. Referring to the saint walking alone, Tozer continued, He searches for friends upon whose garments he can detect the smell of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces, and finding few or none he, like Mary of old, keeps these things in his heart. It is this very loneliness that throws him back upon God. There are days and times that it will only be you, as desperately as we want to find another to do this with. It is on those days that the firmness of the foundation upon which you have built your life and ministry will be tested. Make sure you are building as the one who is wise and not the one who is foolish.
Network when and where you can with others at similar leadership levels. This can be tricky, especially for women serving at higher leadership summits. There may be very few women serving at the same level as you. Be intentional in seeking them out and connecting with them. Attend conferences for the expressed purpose of networking with and connecting with women in ministry serving in similar ministries. This can be difficult, but it can be a lifeline.
Being alone at the leadership summit doesn’t mean you lead alone. Yes, there are moments of vision casting, decision-making, and responsibility that rest with you alone. But the execution of ministry and leadership should be done alongside others. Know when to ask for help, when to delegate, and when to pass on to another.
Don’t quit too soon. There are times that the aloneness is overwhelming and the burdens are so heavy that the desire to quit can become all too tempting. Don’t quit too soon. You just never know what God is doing in the background or what He is about to do.
There are days when I stand on the leadership summit upon which God has placed me, I look around, and the aloneness is deafening. Some days are truly lonely beyond what I ever expected. This is the cost of discipleship, the cost of following Christ, and the cost of being faithful to do what God has called me to do.
My sisters, if you have been following Christ, step by step, and find yourself on the leadership summit, I know it is a hard place to be. But, God has led you there. God has placed you there. Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (Josh 1:9).
[i] Tozer, A. W., “The Saint Must Walk Alone” in Man the Dwelling Place of God. Christian Publications, 1966, Chapter 39.