Vested in Our Leaders: The Center for Church Leadership
By Alan Ahlgrim
Many pastors lead growing ministries and have hundreds or even thousands of social media friends, yet they have no one other than their wife who really understands them and is truly devoted to them. A recent survey found that less than 25 percent of Christian men have a close male friend; for pastors the percentage is even smaller: less than 5 percent.
The isolated leader is a vulnerable leader!Isolation is the devil’s tool to discourage and dishearten those in vital roles.We all are weak and vulnerable at times. The pressures of life, especially life in ministry, take a heavy toll. Unrelenting responsibility, unfair criticism, and sheer weariness of body and soul often leave us feeling overwhelmed. Every leader knows what this feels like, but to find understanding, we must go to others who have experienced similar things. Few people truly understand the unique challenges of pastors—except other pastors.
In my role as director of soul care covenant groups at the Center for Church Leadership, and previously as director of pastor care and leadership development at Blessing Ranch (New Port Richey, Florida), I have had the opportunity to help leaders through a process of rejuvenation, renewal, and discovery. Many pastors struggle, wondering if anyone is safe, really, to talk with. Soul care covenant groups provide pastors with the opportunity to connect, with both head and heart, in a safe, confidential, collegial, joyful, fun environment.
When we as pastors share only our successes, we continue to feel alone, but when we share our struggles, we become brothers and discover we are not alone after all. Henri Nouwen, a university professor and writer (now deceased), said he felt alone for years:“Notwithstanding all the praise I was receiving while speaking about community, I didn’t feel that I truly belonged to anyone.”
The Need for Soul Care
Some who talk about community the most enjoy it the least . . . why is that? It doesn’t take long for local church leaders to learn that sharing openly can be a dangerous thing. While we may teach well publicly, it doesn’t mean we are doing well personally.
At the close of the first session of a recent soul care covenant group, one pastor said, “In 54 years, I never really felt like I belonged, but now I do!”What made the difference? It was a deep dive into a safe community of soul care—a place where he and a few others got away for an in-depth, agenda-free, head and heart conversation.
Sermons and seminars can be helpful, but transformation requires far more. Transformation must happen on purpose, over time, in community. That’s why the Center for Church Leadership is so invested in leadership health. CCL offers resources, seminars, coaching, monthly roundtable discussions, and three-year covenant groups. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. We know not everyone is ready or able to jump into every opportunity available, but we seek to be ready whenever church leaders are!
We all have a lot to learn about soul care.This we do know . . . heart work is hard work and soul work is not only slow work but shared work! We don’t become healthy by living life alone. We were created for community. Genesis 2:18 says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” And it’s definitely not good for leaders to feel alone. Sadly, many do. That is a crushing burden.
What if we actually followed the ministry and mentoring model of Jesus? Every Christian leader is committed to making disciples. That’s why we’re on an endless search for the best materials and newest systems to assist in growing others. Unfortunately, transformational growth is not merely a matter of more and better information. It’s not just a head thing, it’s a heart thing!
Going Small, Going Strong, Going Slow
Only when we move from “head land” to “heart land” do we see true maturity take place. This is a lifelong journey that requires going small, going strong, and going slow.
Going Small—Jesus was in a small group! He sometimes taught multitudes and in local synagogues and homes, it’s true, but he spent most of his time in quiet places investing in a dozen or fewer disciples. Do we really think we can improve on Jesus’ strategy? Sadly, most of us do. As one soul care recipient recently said, “If Jesus were to launch his ministry today, would he seek out the 12 biggest platforms or [would he seek] 12 men he could invest in so they could invest in others to change the world? We already know the answer to that!” We all need a band of brothers who are not set on “fixing” us, but rather who seek to enlighten and liberate us.
Going Strong—Jesus held nothing back. He shared hard truth, such as, “You must be born again,” “Follow me,” and “Go and sin no more.”Jesus dared to ask hard questions: “Do you believe that I can heal you?” “Who do you say I am?” and “Do you love me?” Jesus set the standard for saying strong stuff, including his challenge to Peter: “Away from me, Satan!” Since Jesus set the standard for sharing strong challenges, we need to be willing to follow that pattern. Strong words, however, can best be heard in the context of a strong sense of community. We don’t need a lot of people to be close to us, but we need the right people. We need to share our lives with a trusted few to experience greater depth and fulfillment.
Going Slow—Life change doesn’t happen at the speed of light, but at the slow speed of love. A person can’t speed their way into a soul-satisfying relationship with God or into a fulfilling relationship with others. We often say children spell love as T-I-M-E. Aren’t we all like that? Don’t we all crave quality attention from others, and don’t we all feel valued when they listen to us and invest in us? I know I do. I’m blessed to enjoy that with my wife, but also through several dozen others who have easy access to me. I don’t just facilitate soul care conversations and groups, I’m immersed in them. Spiritual growth can’t be microwaved like a quick snack. True growth requires marinating and then slow cooking.
Designed for More than Casual Connections and Surface Conversations
We were made to grow through disciplined community. That doesn’t happen by accident, especially for leaders. Those who lead are typically only casually connected with those they serve. That’s why leaders often starve for candid community with other leaders outside of their own ministry.
In soul care groups, we often talk about the three levels of authenticity:
- Honesty with all. (As Christ followers, we are committed to truth.)
- Transparency with some. (Discretion requires caution and sensitivity.)
- Vulnerability with few. (Full disclosure requires safety and acceptance.)
We don’t talk about holding other leaders accountable, because no one will ever be more accountable than they want to be.Instead, we talk about holding each other close. That is, we are committed to being available when we are asked. We don’t intrude or force conversations; we serve through listening and guiding. That takes time. It requires patience to allow others the freedom to think out loud, to process hurts, and to feel genuinely accepted. Another longtime minister said, “For the first time in ministry, I experienced community. My group allowed me to feel accepted and not judged.”
Stories abound of leaders feeling betrayed and burned out, and finally giving up. In a recent survey of ministers within our own fellowship, 43 percent said within the previous year they seriously considered dropping out of ministry. Discouragement is at epidemic levels. And many also struggle with serious moral issues and have even fallen into a ditch of some sort. Sadder still, some fell late in their careers. No doubt, each of them knew better. They knew the Bible. They had one or more academic degrees. They attended countless sermons and seminars . . . some taught other leaders. They were even surrounded by others who loved and cared and prayed for them! So, how did it happen? Even though they may have been “head strong” they were not “heart strong”!
A study on “finishing well” by Fuller Seminary discovered two important things.Among 100 leaders chronicled in the Bible, it was concluded only one-third finished well. The two prevailing factors were these: First, leaders failed to personally apply God’s truth in their lives and second, leaders failed to have close relationships with others who could speak into their lives. It’s not rocket science; it actually is harder than that. It’s “heart work.” As someone said, “Christian leaders don’t fall because they forget they are holy; they fall because they forget they are human.”
Theologian and scholar William Barclay observed that no one can understand the Christian faith apart from community.We see that in the geometry of the cross. The vertical axis points to a love relationship with God through Christ and the horizontal points to healthy, life-giving relationships with others in the body of Christ. No one can thrive, or even survive, in the Christian life without both. We all need that—especially leaders!
The Center for Church Leadership seeks to provide increasing access to helpful resources and also to healthy connections and community. Without healthy community, we are all more vulnerable than we could possibly know; but with healthy community, we can be prepared to finish well!
Alan Ahlgrim served as founding pastor of Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Boulder County, Colorado, from 1983 to 2013. He remains actively involved with the church that he loved and led for three decades. He now serves as director of soul care covenant groups with The Center for Church Leadership based in Cincinnati. His passion is to encourage Christian leaders to serve well and finish well by connecting them in ministry-enhancing, soul-enriching relationships.