Pastors and leaders spend a lot of time with people—leading meetings, grabbing coffee, responding to messages. And yet with all this connection, they are often socially isolated, with their interior lives largely unknown. Some feel relationally full, yet upon deeper reflection, they find they don’t have any true friends. As our culture experiences a loneliness epidemic, leaders are no exception. And this leadership loneliness profoundly harms their ministries as well as their own lives.
True friendship is one of the missing ingredients for sustaining a ministry that flourishes.
What Happens to Friendless Leaders
What happens to leaders without true friends? We’re finding out, and it isn’t good. Leadership without friendship is dangerous. We see isolated leaders burn out and unaccountable leaders disqualified.
Burnout is an increasing problem among pastors and leaders. We rightly celebrate the recovery of holistic thinking about health—we all need to eat well, exercise regularly, sleep enough, and engage with God through his word and prayer. Yet true friendship remains one of the most needed yet neglected fortifications against discouragement and burnout. Frodo couldn’t complete his mission without his companions and neither can we.
Why? Friends give outside perspective on our lives and jobs. As we share our burdens, they help shoulder them. When criticism surrounds us, they convince us we aren’t crazy. When we feel discouraged, they give hope. When we’re uncertain about the future, they give counsel. They stay in our corner, cheering us on in the good fight of faith. They’re also a sheer pleasure to spend time with.
Another problem is moral failure. We’ve seen the headlines: another spiritual leader removed for infidelity or abuse of power. Very often these leaders lacked true accountability—both formal and through friendship. I’ve heard some speak candidly of their isolation. No one really knew what was going on. No one really knew their sins or struggles. One leader said he only realized after his fall just how much he needed, yet neglected, forging real friendship.
All leaders need at least one trustworthy companion who knows their soul, who knows their temptations, and who freely speaks the truth in love. A friend who will meet to pray, confess sin, and hope in Christ. A friend who delivers the hard words from a gentle heart, even if that means guiding a leader to step away from ministry.
The Top Doesn’t Always Have to Be Lonely
Leaders face challenges that lead them further into isolation or loneliness.
Many people consider their leaders exceptional—they’re gifted with exemplary character or competency. That’s fine, but not when leaders start thinking that being exceptional makes them an exception—as though they don’t need transparent relationships like everyone else.
Some leaders wrongly assume that if they show transparency, if they open up about their weaknesses, people won’t respect them. They believe that leaders should not be friends with people in their church or organization. In an attempt to maintain influence, they lock the door to their interior lives.
Other ministry leaders are so conversationally self-sacrificial that conversations end up only one-way. They are good at asking questions and drawing people out, but they never open up about themselves. They carry other people’s burdens, but they don’t let others carry theirs.
Leaders also must make unpopular decisions. Some people regard them differently because of their role. Leaders sometimes wonder: Do they like me as a person or just for my position?
These and other reasons mean we’ll experience some moments of loneliness at the top.
The Greatest Leaders
But this doesn’t have to be the norm. It wasn’t for the greatest leaders in the Bible.
King David and Jonathan shared a deep and affectionate relationship (1 Sam. 18:1–3). The apostle Paul enjoyed thick relationships and he always traveled with a team. At the end of his life, he twice requested his friend and partner Timothy to visit him (2 Tim. 4:9).
Jesus led his disciples, yet he also called them his friends (John 15:13–17). And even within the group of twelve, he had Peter, James, and especially John. He also formed friendships within the outer circles of his followers. He loved his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha (11:5, 11)—and even visited Lazarus’ tomb with tears (11:35–36).
He didn’t just schedule meetings or review tasks and goals. He shared his heart and he relaxed around a table with his followers. He led them and he befriended them.
Breaking the Pattern of Leadership Loneliness
So, how do we make progress here?
First, remember that you are a human being before you are a leader. The God who eternally exists in a triune fellowship of effusive love made you in his image, and therefore he made you for the deepest of relationships. You don’t move beyond this when you become a leader. If anything, the burdens you carry require all-the-more relational depth.
Second, recognize that you are a church member before you are a ministry leader. The church that you serve is first the church to which you belong. The ministry you lead is first the ministry of which you are a part. You need the burden-bearing ministry you teach everyone else to pursue. You need the community you call everyone else to seek. You need to transparent relationships you implore everyone else to find.
Third, share your leadership with a team. Serve with an eldership, staff team, or ministry team. Raise up leaders and cultivate friendship among them. Share meals, model transparency, be the first to confess your weaknesses, suffering, and sin. Saturate your relationships with honor, affirmation, and encouragement.
Fourth, meet regularly with a friend over a meal or coffee. When you get together, share the climate of your soul. Talk about your affections for God and your greatest temptations. Share your struggles and your encouragements. Invite frank questions. Promise to always respond to rebuke with gratefulness. If you’re married, pursue friendship with your spouse, who should ideally be your closest (but not your only) friend.
Fifth, open your home for hospitality. Don’t think of your home as exclusively a refuge from ministry, but also as a place for relationships. For example, schedule Wednesday evenings to have different people over for dinner or dessert. You don’t need to impress them with entertainment in a large home; you just need to impress upon them your sincerity.
The Leader’s Leader
Jesus is our greatest leader, and he is also our truest friend. Every leader must acknowledge the ultimacy of Jesus’ authority. We submit to him as our king. Yet this king also counts you as his friend. He died for you as a friend. He loved you to the end. He lets you all the way in.
When Paul’s friends abandoned him, the Lord stood by him and strengthened him (2 Tim. 4:16–17). Even the loneliest of leaders need not ever be alone. Jesus is the pastor’s great friend. With him at our side, we step into our day befriending others as he has befriended us.
Drew Hunter (MA, Wheaton College) is the teaching pastor at Zionsville Fellowship in Zionsville, Indiana. He previously served as a minister for young adults at Grace Church of DuPage and taught religious studies at College of DuPage. Drew and his wife, Christina, live in Zionsville, Indiana, and have four children.