I attended college at an aeronautical university, which means I spent time brushing shoulders with a unique breed. Literally, I went to school with NASA interns and rocket scientists. My alma mater has one of the highest percentages of international students in the nation. Despite my colleagues’ bright minds and tremendously diverse backgrounds, however, I began to notice a theme of need.
A school like mine has an atypical amount of club involvement because, well, it wasn’t exactly the Greek system crowd. My club of choice, after being invited personally and repeatedly by two jaunty and entertaining fellow nerds, was a Christian club. This group of faith-oriented students spent lots of time outdoors: hiking, biking, cliff-jumping, camping, and, along the way, talking about God and what it means to follow Jesus.
In an uncommon and surprising way, these hikes and adventures led to a true, rich, and deeply connected community. Common goals were the soil, and conversation was the fodder. The result: a deep love for and authentic commitment to one another’s lives. Yet even with this deep connection, the theme of need became evident.
Each year, as students would graduate and go on to be pilots, engineers, and space physicists, our Christian club would gather for a year-end banquet. Our campus pastor, Kevin, would bring each graduate to the front of the room and speak about each of them, one by one. Kevin’s remarks were the kind that could come only from a pastor who knew each of his sheep thoroughly and had spent hours in prayer for each one’s unique journey.
Next, other students could comment on the graduating student’s impact on their lives. In closing, the graduates would share a few thoughts. In a room full of muscles and testosterone (and a very small number of highly regarded females) one would be astounded at the level of openness and love shared by these students. Through abundant tears and broken, quivering, and choppy expressions of gratitude, the theme of need resurfaced.
Isaac was a bright and entertaining Hawaiian who was studying electrical engineering. Blithe, confident, and seemingly carefree, Isaac was fun to be around. Yet, in his moment at the year-end banquet, Isaac was a humble man, gulping back a tsunami of emotion while barely making eye contact with a student named Jonathan.
Semester after semester, Jonathan helped Isaac get through his classes, equation by four-hour equation. Isaac sobbed as he said, “I needed help . . . and Jonathan helped me. It’s because of Jonathan that I’m graduating today.” There was not a dry eye in the room.
Next, it was Jamie’s turn. Jamie was quirky and eccentric, and consequently, had a tough time making friends. Phil did not. Phil ran around campus with multicolored hair and wore pajama pants to class. Phil couldn’t be ignored—he was a student government representative, loud, and hilarious, with a roaring laugh.
One day, as Jamie tells the story, Phil saw Jamie eating alone in the cafeteria. Unaware of his own presumptuousness, Phil sat right across from Jamie and began asking him questions about his life. When Phil got up from that lunch, Jamie felt like he had a friend. Through heartfelt tears and surrounded by friends, Jamie said, “I needed a friend and Phil befriended me.”
Fast-forward seven years. I now serve in vocational ministry at the largest church in northern Nevada. We have experienced tremendous blessing and favor from the Lord. Our senior pastor is exactly the kind of leader you want to work for: positive, driven, hopeful, prayerful, and excited. He’s a visionary. Our leadership staff is uncommonly cohesive.
We work hard, play hard, and laugh a lot. The members of our church have a good feeling about the leadership, and the leadership enjoys a great deal of favor and friendship from the congregants. I can honestly say it is the most fulfilling and fun job I’ve ever had.
And yet, several months ago I started to experience ministry fatigue. It wasn’t quite burnout, but the telltale signs of isolation and depression certainly indicated I needed to slow down and get back to the basics.
I found myself quite out of sorts. I was used to being there for people who needed me. As pastors and leaders, we’re accustomed to being needed. In this season of depletion and recuperation, I found I needed others. I wasn’t used to asking for help, or much of anything. But now I found myself in need, and I wasn’t sure how to react.
In this time of vulnerability, I remembered those year-end banquets back in college. I remembered how people’s needs brought them together. An individual’s need was the ingredient that brought strength and depth to friendships.
As a leader in a large church, I have many friendships, few of which run very deep. Perhaps I have not allowed myself to need others. As a high-achieving, hard-working, driven, positive leader, perhaps I have not taken the time to allow myself a chance to slow down and need others.
I’m not talking about codependency or mothering, but something that is very human. It is the simple, God-given need each of us has for others. It is the need to be known and the need to be loved. Yet, especially as church leaders, if we do not allow ourselves to need others, we may end up lacking the very depth of relationship we urge others to find in small groups and other ministries.
The Art of Need
It is uncomfortable, but I am learning the art of need. I consider it an exercise in humility, and I am hoping that through it my relationships will be strengthened. I am also hopeful my journey will serve as an example to others of what can happen when we leader types admit and embrace our need for others.
I recently met with a small group of friends for an informal Bible study. I surveyed the six other faces in the circle of those who are supposed to be my closest friends. I realized I do not know many of them as well as I ought. I also realized that, for as many years as we have been friends, most of them do not know me very well either. And it’s my fault.
At that study, I confessed to these ladies that I need them. Many tears flowed—it was painful to admit—yet I have this feeling that one day, maybe years from now, I will find myself closer than ever with some of them because I let them in to my need. I stopped being a leader and a pastor and I allowed myself to simply be a person, needs and all.
Jessica Vana serves as resource director with Summit Christian Church in Sparks, Nevada.