3 reasons leaders need community

And 3 excuses to reject if you don’t have one

November 6, 2019

“It’s lonely at the top.”

I hear that often from pastors, CEOs, and others carrying the heavy weight of leadership in their organizations. The truth behind that phrase was brought to life in The State of Pastors, Barna Group and Pepperdine University’s recent whole-life assessment of U.S. pastors. The study found that more than 50% of pastors have struggled with depression, and 75% are more likely to feel mental or emotional exhaustion, compared to 55% of all employed adults. 

A pastor myself, my heart breaks when I read about tragedies such as pastors dying by suicide, which seems to happen too regularly. Even more common are the stories of prominent pastors who are caught in unrepentant patterns of sin, with consequences that extend to the flocks they were supposed to shepherd. Along with the loneliness and depression many faithful leaders face, such stories serve as urgent warnings of the dire consequences of leading in isolation.

If you don’t want to be “lonely at the top,” you need people who truly know you and are actively engaged in caring for your well-being. Like all of God’s people, leaders are called to live in intimate relationship with others (Prov. 13:20; 27:5-6; 27:17). This is much more than taking time to talk shop with other respected leaders. It’s about surrounding yourself with a circle of trustworthy, godly friends who pursue one another relationally; confess sin to one another continually; and encourage, admonish, and pray for one another constantly.

Your inner circle must know where you are vulnerable and “prone to leave the God you love” so they can help fortify you as you follow Christ. Here are a few reasons why great leaders should have an inner circle and some excuses that you should reject if you don’t have one.

3 reasons leaders need an inner circle

1. Jesus had an inner circle.

There’s never been a better leader than Jesus. And was often alone, but never lonely. If we are committed to following Christ’s example, we won’t live or lead alone. 

There was only one time Jesus was isolated and alone, and it was when he was bearing the sins of the world on the cross. Apart from that moment of separation, he walked in perfect unity with and in obedience to the Father, and that included him walking in authenticity and deep community with other men. Jesus was alone with sin so you don’t have to be. 

Among the first things Jesus did in his earthly ministry was appoint 12 disciples, “so that they might be with him” (Mark 3:14). He was not above asking for human help even as he entirely depended on the Father. When Jesus was most tested, he was most vulnerable with his inner circle, repeatedly informing them of his condition and asking them to be with him and pray for him (Matt. 26:36-46). 

Leaders who are informed by God’s Word and heed the counsel of other godly people become stronger and more effective in their God-given role.

Wise men pursue solitude, but fools isolate. Jesus did not isolate, and if you do, you won’t be like him or lead well for long.

2. Our hearts are sick.

As fallen humans, we often fail to see our blindspots, especially if we have position and power. 

The world needs those who speak truth to power, and the powerful need others who speak truth to them. David knew this and prayed, “Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness,” and asked that he would see correction and care from others as “oil for my head” (Psa. 141:5). 

The more fans you have, the greater your need is for true friends who will speak out when they observe inauthenticity, sin, and selfishness taking root. Our hearts are prone to deceit (Jer. 17:9), and our flesh naturally withdraws from correction. Yet, Scripture states, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov. 18:1). 

The longer a healthy leader serves, the more he should seek sharpening and correction from his inner circle, because he knows what is at stake.

3. The enemy is at the gate.

A few years ago, I was speaking on a panel with a well-known Christian leader. When asked if he had an inner circle, he replied: “You should tell some things to everyone, a few things to someone, and everything to no one.” The crowd was noticeably impressed by the tweetable quip. I waited, and seeing there was going to be no further comment by him or others, I said, “I love the way that rolls off the tongue, but while that comment was pithy, it is entirely unsupported by Scripture.” 

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we are better off living isolated and telling everything to no one. Sadly, the person who shared the “advice” was living by it, and shortly thereafter lost his ministry and family because of the temptations and destructive choices he was hiding from those around him.

We have an enemy, “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Over and over, God’s Word likens us to sheep—a pack animal in need of both our Shepherd and each other. If you’re a lone sheep hanging out amid the wolves, you’re not a stud. You’re next.

3 excuses to reject 

1. There’s no one I can trust.

Many leaders don’t have an inner circle because they claim they can’t find people they can trust. While the Bible warns believers to be discerning about who they lock arms with (Prov. 13:20; 1 Cor. 15:33; 2 Cor. 6:14), it also makes clear that “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). The elders I serve with at Watermark fill that role in my life. We invest hours each week not only talking about how we can shepherd the flock God has entrusted to us, but especially shepherding, admonishing, and encouraging one another. I’m blessed to have them in my life.

Seek out a group of friends who are convinced they can play a significant role in your life and are unimpressed by who you are and what you have accomplished. If you’re struggling to trust your fellow elders and leaders, ask yourself this: If I can’t trust the hearts of those I lead with, why am I willing to ask others to trust and follow them? 

2. I’m too busy.

When you say you’re too busy to spend time in biblical community with other faithful leaders, what you’re really saying is, “I’m too busy to care for my soul.” Proverbs 24:30-34 describes a once-fruitful vineyard surrounded by a stone wall. Neglected by its owner, the vineyard becomes overgrown with thistles and nettles. The passage ends by saying, “Poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” Those verses remind us that a time will come when it is too late to remedy the neglect of your soul. 

There are few things more important than taking the time to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7) with encouragement and support from those you trust. Your strength as a leader depends on it. If you’re too busy to live in authentic relationships with others, you might be busy doing too many of the wrong things.

3. I’m using my power to maintain power (though you might not know it).

When was the last time someone called you out or held you accountable? In a recent staff meeting, a dialogue with another staff member became laborious, and my tone became harsh. Almost immediately, another member of the staff graciously pointed out how the way I responded was inconsistent with what he knew to be true of my heart’s desire to honor others as God’s man.

Thankfully, because I pray with David the words of Psa. 141:5, and because I am surrounded by strong friends who love me (Prov. 27:5-6), I was able to accept the admonishment of a faithful friend, immediately acknowledge my fleshly response, and seek the forgiveness of the one I addressed. Grace-giving, humility, relational courage, forgiveness, and repentance are constantly modeled by those in my inner circle, and I am a better man for it.

If you’ve surrounded yourself with “yes men” (or “yes women”), there is a good chance you are using your power to maintain your power. Super fans will not confront you when you fail to “render true judgments” or “show kindness and mercy” (Zech. 7:9). Too many senior leaders rise to the level where they only spend time with those who revere them—people who will never tell them the truth because they don’t want to lose their pay or their place in the leader’s court. Kings without a strong court often become jesters and rule over others as the Gentiles do (Matt. 20:25). Wise men have trusted counselors who faithfully wound them until they are more faithful men.

Leaders who are informed by God’s Word and heed the counsel of other godly people become stronger and more effective in their God-given role. But the benefit does not stop there. Because you are a leader, others in your organization will follow. Only when we faithfully avail ourselves of all the resources God offers, including the humility to heed the counsel of others, can we say with integrity, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor.11:1).

Leadership matters like nothing else. To my fellow leaders in the Church, I beg you to care for your soul by inviting others in to admonish, encourage, and strengthen you as you do the essential work of leading others to Christ. The stakes are too high to try to do it alone.

Todd Wagner

Todd Wagner is Senior Pastor and Elder at Watermark Community Church, and the author of Come and See: Everything You Ever Wanted in the One Place You Would Never Look.  Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24