Who’s Caring for Your Leadership Health?

By David Branker, Chief of Staff – Office of the President, OneHope

Healthy leadership is increasingly used beyond physical health to include mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being in the lives of leaders in faith-based communities. In her recent book, Holy Friendships: Nurturing Relationships that Sustain Pastors and Leaders, Dr. Victoria White writes, “Within many Christian institutions, I observe the ready assumption that ‘sustainability’ means financial viability. While financial viability is one aspect of an institution’s sustainability, it is not the most essential factor for nurturing a healthy and robust institutional life. An institution cannot thrive if its leaders are not healthy.” So, harried pastors and Christian leaders trying to keep their churches and institutions afloat should consider how they can invest in their sustainability. Have you invited your board or eldership into this space? 

Throughout the years, we have witnessed countless beloved leaders of our generation fall due to some scandal or moral failure. I’m sure you already have in your mind the name of a great leader who started incredible ministries and touched the lives of millions but did not finish well, leaving countless people confused and heartbroken. These occurrences never get easier to process or understand. Still, as a student of governance, especially regarding healthy, accountable communities, I believe the role of governance in these failures has been under-examined. In essence, I believe that healthy governance and board leadership can be life-giving and offer an invaluable gift—to care for the well-being and flourishing of the leader in the same way they care for the organization’s well-being.

Perhaps a better form of progressive governance would have benefited and quite possibly avoided disaster if these two macro principles had been employed:

  1. A healthy intentional evolution from founder’s governance to sustainable, collaborative governance. With the growth of these movements, a healthy transitional passing of not just the leadership baton but the governance structure from catalytic personality to an expanding community of leadership and accountability could have done a better job of saving these leaders from themselves. Creating an active, involved, and forthright “eldership” culture, particularly in the nondenominational space, is desperately needed to model a healthy transition.

  2. A structural, relational accountability that overlaps formal legal governance is not a fail-safe but the healthiest means to nurture healthy accountability. Inviting and embracing disciplined, consistent, and influential authorities in our lives that are not siloed but enmeshed with legal governance brings a balance of accountable and relational authorities together in a healthy ecosystem.

Truth be told, we can ignore all the systems and structures established to protect us from our worst inclinations and go off the rails and do what we want, but we would have to break through multiple relational and structural roadblocks to get there, and even then, the church or institution would be sustained. Many organizations wrestle with the practical implications of what can be done to support the health of their leaders, recognizing that healthy leaders lead healthy institutions. Pastors and ministry leaders need a transparent, authentic, and biblical community and the humility to embrace the gift of submission and accountability to guard their souls against their own proclivities.

Before sin and brokenness entered the world, God looked at the man He created in the safety of the garden and said, “It is not good that he is alone.” From the beginning, God has promoted an alternative, flatter, more egalitarian, less lonely, communal, mutually owned structure for leadership. He said from the beginning that it is not good for man to be alone; He made His covenant with a family—the children of Israel; He instructed His patriarchies, prophets, and judges to be mutually accountable to one another; He predicted that their desire for monarchy would lead to destruction, His Son would not accept any earthly rulership role, nor did He appoint any dynastic entitlements. He did not leave behind an organizational flow chart; He left a community.

When examining life-giving governance, one must first consider its most perfect example: the Trinity. We were each created under God, who models mutual accountability within the Trinity. The Father points to the Son, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17 NIV). The Son points to the Father, saying, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19 NIV). The Son then points to the Holy Spirit, saying, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever” (John 14:16 NIV). Finally, the Son follows the leading of the Holy Spirit. Each is continually pointing toward the other. God the Father, Son, and Spirit modeling a loving, mutually accountable expression of shared leadership and in whose image we were created and fashioned to flourish.

When we talk about leaders throughout history who have been successful and admired, we cannot forget that they did not do it alone. Yes, each leader brings unique skills and gifts, but no successful leader does anything without a team. This is true in sports, business, and in ministry. We need each other because most of the best decisions are made in the context of accountable communities in which different perspectives can sharpen those decisions. We must be mindful of the temptation to take on an increasingly disproportionate part of the burden of ministry. The greater the burden, the stronger the community is needed to share it. 

Dr. White also unpacks what she calls “holy friendships,” which are sacred and point us toward living a life that honors God in all our spaces. They’re different from just casual friendships; these are people that understand the journey we’ve been on. So, who in your world serves as a sacred friend that you can include in the ministry decisions you make daily in and day out? These people can be included in your governance structures because a board is not just fulfilling a social contract or charitable status; a life-giving board is there to help you and your ministry finish well.

One thing I admire about Rob Hoskins is that he’s invited his board to care for his well-being, his marriage, and his family. He said, “A strong cultural value for OneHope is that as individuals, we live our private and public lives with integrity, purity, and righteousness. I am so grateful for the life-giving governance of our ministry board that loves my wife and me enough to care and support my integrity and well-being as a whole person.”

The board added a presidential care committee, which comprises these sacred friendships who care for him, his marriage, his family, and the rhythm of his ongoing ministry engagement to ensure that they are protecting his wellness for the long haul. This was not imposed upon him but fashioned and invited by him because he understands that we weren’t created to be self-defined superheroes. We were made to flourish in a loving, transparent community.

Leaders need overlapping sacred friends who can understand the complexities and their unique context to help them make good decisions in light of that. As you think about your ministry calendar, who watches over its impact on your marriage and kids? As you think about your responsibilities in different seasons of your life, who speaks to the need for greater capacity or better margins? As you think about finishing well, who can you discuss all of the aspects of your calling that can cross that finish line alongside you?

Having at least one to two overlapping relationships can help you decide your needs for ongoing sustainability across the different aspects of your life. Again, this is an invitation to self-reflection and examination in the hopes that we all consider ways to help us finish our race well. As you reflect on these principles personally and with your ministry, remember that you don’t have to figure it out alone. Why don’t you pull together some people you trust from different spaces and invite a conversation to see their ideas about life-giving governance? Not just to help you have a better ministry, but to ultimately have a healthy life.

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