Church Leadership Doesn’t Have to Be So Lonely…or So Toxic

Church Leadership Doesn’t Have to Be So Lonely…or So Toxic September 21, 2023

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Pastoral ministry doesn’t have to be so lonely / Photo by Matt Sclarandis on Unsplash

I totally understand if you’ve moved on from Alexander Lang’s blog post “Departure: Why I Left the Church” already. But for those who are still thinking about it—or who are open to thinking about it a little more—I have a few more thoughts. Last week I wondered: What is a pastor, really? I suggested that pastors can make preaching less exhausting, and that they let go of their 24/7 sense of responsibility. This week, I’m exploring a couple different but related ideas: Church leadership doesn’t have to be so lonely…or so toxic.

Lang’s post has me wondering: What makes for a non-toxic church? What makes for a strong faith community? How do we carry one another’s burdens together? What role does a pastor play in this? And how can we make church leadership a place where people are supported and thriving?

In other words: How can pastors and parishioners work together to build healthier faith communities?

Two main thoughts for today (building off of thoughts “1” and “2” from last week):

3) Let’s make pastoral ministry about building community.

In his blog post, Lang reflects on what it’s like to carry so much personal information that so many people share with him. 

“Irrespective of how I learned their story,” he writes, “I carry that history wherever I go. Whenever I see them, they know that I know intimate details about their lives; details that are rarely shared with others. “ 

This may be a gift. It can also feel like a burden.

But it strikes me as the kind of burden that does not need to be carried alone. The kind that should not be carried alone.

I find myself wondering: Are these details really “rarely shared with others”? How does Lang know this? 

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What if a pastor wasn’t meant to be a secret-keeper, but to help build community? / Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

And if he knows this because people tell him—because they say “I’m going to tell you something I haven’t told anyone before,” or something along those lines—then perhaps part of a pastor’s job is to encourage these people to tell others. To encourage them to build and strengthen their social support systems. 

When a parishioner shares a secret with a pastor, perhaps the pastor can say something like this: 

Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I wonder what it would be like for you to choose a couple trusted friends or family members in your life to share this with as well. Sharing with a couple friends might help these friends know you more fully and support you through this difficult time. 

I know it can be hard to share. But it’s also such a gift when we’re open with one another about the hard things in our lives. It’s how we deepen relationships with each other. Could you and I maybe brainstorm a few people you’d feel safe telling this to, and how you might want to tell them?

Personally, as a parishioner, I don’t really want my pastors to function as individual secret-keepers for all the different individuals in a community. I do want pastors to encourage us all to build a strong community with one another. I want church leaders to help make the community a safe place to share our struggles with others, and to learn to care for one another well.

(This feels related to the idea, from last week, that pastors do not need to be “on” 24/7. Ideally, our communities are made up of lots of people who can support one another. And pastors can set boundaries.) 

Of course it’s exhausting to be every individual’s secret-keeper. 

But the relationship between pastors and parishioners doesn’t have to be like that. Church doesn’t have to be like that. Pastors can provide leadership to help make it not like that. 

4) Let’s make church boards less toxic.

Lang goes on to write about one church member, a politician, who didn’t want to join the church board because he felt that “church boards were too cutthroat.” 

Lang reflects, “This man worked at the highest levels of state government and he felt politics were less toxic than volunteering for a leadership role on the board of his local church.”

Yikes. That’s a strong statement. As Lang intends it to be. 

And I hope it’s a statement that sparks self-reflection for church leaders and church communities alike. I hope it sparks self-reflection for pastors—who, although many things are outside their control, surely have some sort of influence on their church’s leadership culture.

I have to believe that it’s possible for a church board to not be “toxic.” I have to believe there are church boards that are not “cutthroat.” 

Sure, all leadership teams have their issues. Their tensions. Their disagreements. Their stressful moments.

But that doesn’t mean that church leadership teams can’t be, on the balance, healthy places to make decisions and work through issues. 

I don’t have all the answers as to what that looks like. (And it likely looks different for each community.)

But I do think it involves leaders asking themselves—and one another—some crucial questions. For example:

  • How do church staff, board members, and other volunteer leaders experience their roles? How do they experience their colleagues? Their supervisors? Our community as a whole?
  • Are there any patterns of communication, decision-making, relationship-building, etc. that people are experiencing as “toxic”? How can we talk about these things? How can we learn healthier ways of relating to one another?
  • Are there any ways we operate that people are experiencing as “cutthroat”? How can we be kinder to one another?

As people often say, no church is perfect. Of course. But that doesn’t mean we can’t grow together. That doesn’t mean we can’t become healthier, together.

We can have the hard conversations that just might, by God’s grace, help us become healthier. This is what I hope for, as I read Lang’s post and reflect on what church communities are—and what they could be. 

So, pastor and parishioner alike—let’s build strong communities together, where we feel safe to share the things that are difficult to share. Let’s carry those burdens together. And let’s figure out how to build non-toxic church boards and leadership teams. All of this may be difficult, but it is doable. 

Church leadership is many difficult things. But it doesn’t have to be so lonely. And it doesn’t have to be so toxic. Let’s make it less toxic, together.

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