An Inner Circle: Three Reasons Great Leaders Need One

Todd Wagner

“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. That study found that more than 50% of pastors have struggled with depression, and 75% are more likely to feel mental or emotional exhaustion vs. 55% of employed adults. A pastor myself, my heart broke as I read about the recent suicide of Andrew Stoecklein, an Indian Hills, California pastor. His passing and the loneliness and depression many leaders face are urgent warnings of the dire consequences of leading in isolation.

Like all of God’s people, leaders are called to live in intimate relationship with others. (Proverbs 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,

  • 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 have an inner circle and some excuses that you should reject if you don’t have one.

Three Reasons Why Leaders Need an Inner Circle

1. Jesus Had an Inner Circle

Jesus was often alone, but never lonely. There’s never been a better leader than Jesus. 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 would 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. (Matthew 26:36-46) 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

There's an old saying among common men: “A fox doesn't smell his own hole.” Sadly, fallen humanity, especially when they have position and power, doesn’t either. The world needs those who speak truth to power, and the powerful need others who speak truth to them. David knew this and prayed that the Lord would “Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me,” and He asked the Father to see correction and care from others as, “oil upon the head.” ( Psalm 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 “more deceitful than all else and [are] desperately sick.” (Jeremiah 17:9) Our flesh naturally withdraws from correction, but “he who separates himself seeks his own desire. He quarrels against all sound wisdom.” (Proverbs 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 whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 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 amidst the wolves, you’re not a stud. You’re next.

Three Excuses to Reject if You Don’t Have an Inner Circle

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 (Proverbs 13:20, 1 Corinthians 15:33, 2 Corinthians 6:14), it also makes clear that, as “iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 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, “then your poverty will come as a robber and your 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 “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 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 are 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 dialog 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. Positionally, I had the authority to shut him down or make it clear that if anyone wanted to “give me a word of advice” it would soon follow with me advising them to “take a walk.”

Thankfully, because I pray with David the words of Psalm 141:5, and because I am surrounded by strong friends who love me (Proverbs 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 “dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion.” (Zechariah 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 their court.  Kings without a strong court often become jesters and rule over others “as the Gentiles do.” (Matthew 20:15) 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, just as I also am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 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. If you don’t trust your fellow elders, then don’t ask others to.

Todd Wagner is Senior Pastor and Elder at Watermark Community Church in Dallas, Texas and the author of “Come and See.” Tweet at Todd Wagner @WordsfromWags. Watermark will host their fourth Church Leaders Conference April 2-4, 2019.

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