How Leaders Go Numb

Sam Rainer

December 17, 2013

I’ve had a few dramatic stumbles when I stand quickly, only to realize one of my legs has mysteriously fallen asleep. The numbness makes it feel like the leg has suddenly gone missing, only to give sharp tingling reminders that it indeed is still there.

A foot, arm, or leg falls asleep because of too much pressure over a period of time. This pressure cuts off nerves and arteries, and signals stop going to the brain. The asleep member is still there; it’s just not communicating anymore. And it goes numb.

Perhaps you have served with—or under—a leader who fell flat, who didn’t connect and left a numbing effect on followers. Detachment from followers is the main way leaders go numb. They stop circulating among followers. They are cut off from the body.

In the church, numb pastors are especially dangerous. It means they are separated from the congregation. You cannot lead from a distance. You cannot lead without communicating. You cannot lead without knowing how individual members of the body are interacting.

What happens with numb leaders?

  • Numb leaders stop caring about the feelings of followers. “I don’t care what you think. I’m the leader.”
  • Numb leaders stop having friendly conversations just to catch up. “I can’t talk to you right now because you’re not part of my long-term objectives.”
  • Numb leaders stop seeing joy in little victories. “That’s great, but I’ve got better ways in which to invest my time.”
  • Numb leaders stop solving general problems and start blaming specific individuals. “Who’s responsible for this mistake? Do we need to fire someone?”
  • Numb leaders stop serving. “I’m in charge. Why do I have to do this?”

Tyrants say these things. Numb leaders think them.

And the longer you are detached, then the more painful waking up will be. The longer you are asleep, then the more intense the wake-up process. You’ll have to fight through that pins and needles feeling, shake yourself, and start circulating again.

Because to remain detached is to die. Slowly. Painlessly numb.

13 comments on “How Leaders Go Numb”

  1. Dave Shrein says:

    “I can’t talk to you right now because you’re not part of my long-term objectives.” This is one numbness of a leader that I feel like I’ve experienced numerous times. It usually takes the form of “I need something now so I’m calling, pretending I’m interested in your life.” I’m not an idiot. I can see it when it’s happening. My only wish is that I never do this to another.

  2. Jay Griffin says:

    This are good points, but I was looking for the answer to the title of the article “How”. How does this happen to leaders or why does this happen? The pressure?

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Jay – Great question. Detachment from followers is how leaders become numb. Why this happens would be a great subject for another post. My personal opinion is that this detachment happens more often because of laziness and not pressure. Clearly, leaders–especially senior leaders–have more people observing their performance, which does add pressure. But that’s the nature of leadership. If you can’t handle that pressure, then you’re probably not the best person for that leadership role. However, even in low pressure leadership roles, detachment still happens. And I believe it’s due to the easiness of putting up barriers from followers. Some leaders simply do not want to do the hard work of serving alongside followers. Trying to lead from a distance is much easier than leading shoulder-to-shoulder.

      1. Shawn says:

        Thanks for this article and this note on “how leaders become numb.”

        I can see some numbness settling into my own leadership, and I’d suggest that some of the issue has been a poor balance of delegating/allowing others to lead, which then allows me to distance myself which can happen in an unhealthy way. I’m sure, as much as I hate to admit it, laziness plays into it as well.

  3. Don Mingo says:

    Sam, just not so sure these words are right on the bubble here. I do appreciate them, pls don’t get me wrong, but are there not times that a pastor should cold shoulder members who whether by intent or not dump such dissension into the church dynamic by being offended at nothing?

    Honest question. After twenty-two years in Africa I came back to the States in part to help care for ailing parents who both past away last year. I accepted the pastorship of an almost bankrupt 80 year old church averaging 225 with a history of dissension, running pastors off, and a 2.5 million dollar debt.

    Today, debt is down to $800,000 – in just four years! – and we are pushing towards 400 in a town of 12,000. People are finally starting to come to Christ as new people come into the building.

    My struggle? I call them the Gang of Thirty! Every week one of them are in my office taking issue with me, making it personal, and most of the time Sam my only crime is that I am the pastor. Couple cases:

    – Joe, not real name, stormed into the church as first service started reaching out to shake my hand just about taking my arm off at the shoulder, “I’ve got a complaint!” My reply, “Joe, service has started.” The next morning he called and I encouraged him to take it to the elders. He refused coming into the office the next day while I was not here and excoriated two staff members. His complaint? He doesn’t like our putting on Trunk – n – Treat where this year we had 160 volunteers and 1500 people on the parking lot for Halloween. So, Joe left the church, called everyone of the Gang of Thirty – and the problem – you guessed it – this pastor!

    – Last night, a woman comes into my office whose husband has been a problem here for years, and continues to be a problem for this pastor and the five pastors before me the last ten years, she states, “You didn’t sign the Christmas card you sent us! We don’t read unsigned letters! We know you meant to hurt us!” lol

    So, here is my point . . . it’s an honest question or consideration . . . how can one not become numb? And, in fact I have chosen inside to give these people a permanent time out. They are leaving, must leave, pls leave the church. Their problem – they don’t get their own way.

    So, while I am very friendly most of the time, happy to talk, submissive to the elder board, I do however distances myself from some even alienating them. Yes I think, “I can’t talk to you right now” . . . but it’s most because – “You are a problem in this church, care only about yourself, leave a wake of destruction in your path, and I don’t have capacity nor desire to walk that journey with you.”

    Sometimes I think, “I don’t care what this person is thinking because they are clueless have been clueless will continue to be clueless, and are clueless that they only live for their own agenda.”

    Through self examination I realize that I am a strong personality, but I am a loving person as well. I would describe myself as a strong loving leader who has some people in my world who can speak to that issue in my life.

    Also, I find American Evangelical Christianity to be so much about nothing when compared to the needs for the Gospel in Africa that I really struggle with the petty trivial stuff that eats the American Church up alive. These things I realize . . .

    Just some thoughts,

    Thanks for the article Sam – it was a good think through for me! I do take it to heart.

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Don –

      I appreciate your comments. There are always cases of individuals in the church that are, shall we say, a bit of a thorn in a pastor’s side. First, it is upon the leader to help guide the whole church while also figuring out what to do with “the gang of thirty.” Second, I welcome dissension in the church (every leader in every organization should), but when it is hurtful to the body, then you need to work through a process of church discipline. That’s not being numb, just biblical. My post is more for the general follower, that everyday person in the pew. You cannot become numb to him or her. You’ve got to work alongside them. And when you focus your efforts on them, then the issues with the gangs of thirty tend to be less painful.

      1. Don Mingo says:


        Would you please expand a bit on welcoming dissension?



        1. Sam Rainer says:

          Sure thing. Any church that squelches differing views than that of leadership is bound to suffer from lack of the creativity, lack of diversity, and lack of trust. And I define dissension as a difference of opinion. When dissension becomes conflict is when it hurts the church.

    2. Chuck says:

      not to make lite of it, but “Gang of Thirty” out of 400, not bad odds. Not only that but you have added 200. Don’t know you but looks like you are doing good works there. Know it is hard but don’t let 7% get you. Look at it this way. You have gone from 200 to 400, just maybe how you have dealt with those 30 is one of the reasons why. By the way, I always get on Sam’s case.

      1. Don says:


        Very good point! Thanks for your kind encouraging words!

      2. Sam Rainer says:

        And everyone knows that without you Chuck, the roof would cave in out our church… literally 😉

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