Category Archives: Spiritual Self Care

Why “Simplifying my Life” sounds like a good idea … but probably isn’t

 I love the idea of people simplifying their lives. I read a lot of books and websites about minimalism. I know that living a complicated life is part of our problem today, and so we should simplify whatever we can.

Most of us have too much stuff and try to do too much. Simplifying can lower our stress. If we’re in recovery, simplifying life is important, because stress and chaos lead to relapse. If our lives are too full and overloaded, it only makes sense that cutting some things out and simplifying will be part of the solution. They will help us have happier, more fruitful lives.

But if simplifying becomes our ultimate goal,

we’re never going to be happy,

and we’re going to miss out

on opportunities that make life meaningful.

Anything worthwhile is likely to be stressful, time-consuming, and will complicate our lives. If simplifying and lowering our stress is our primary goal, we will have to stop doing many important things, because they make life complicated.

What do you cut?

Here’s a scenario that has played out many times in my work as a pastor: A person in the church is volunteering in a ministry and doing a great job. But they are feeling too busy and overwhelmed and feel the need to simplify their lives. Guess what is the first thing they cut out of life in order to “simplify”? Of course: their volunteer work in the church.

Meanwhile, they’re working at a job they hate, with working conditions and expectations that are out of control, and/or they are caught in demanding, dysfunctional relationships where they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to please people who are perpetually unhappy, and/or they are gone many weekends pursuing sports and other activities for their kids, and/or they’re watching a ton of TV.

But when they realize that they are too busy and stressed out, the thing they pull back from is the volunteering they do to help other people. They let go of the thing that is easiest to step away from, but it is also likely the key area that has the potential to make their lives fruitful and fulfilling.

We all know that we need to simplify our lives. The real challenge is to discern what needs to be cut and what should be kept. If you want a simple life, just sit at home and watch TV. Do the minimum for your job. Limit how much you socialize. Do minimal shopping to get the necessities of life, and then go home and relax. No responsibilities, no difficult relationships, no complications. You can have a simple life. But it would also be a boring, depressing, and spiritually empty life.

Engaging in service doesn’t simplify life, but makes it meaningful

If we really want to change the world, to leave the world a better place, we have to realize that doing so is going to be challenging and time-consuming. It is absolutely not going to simplify your life. It’s going to complicate your life.
By the way, that’s true of many important and meaningful things. Having a child will not simplify your life. Getting a pet will not simplify your life. Falling in love with someone will not simplify your life. Having a meaningful career will not simplify your life. Recovery will not simplify your life. But any one of those things might be a huge blessing and pave the way for great joy and fulfillment.
Kept in its proper place, simplicity is a key goal and value. Elevated to an extreme, simplicity is an illusion and a barrier to true fulfillment. The real issue here is: What is your priority? We need to build our lives in such a way that our key priorities get done, and we can only do this by making room in the other areas.
Only you can determine your priorities. Make sure that “having a simple life” is not the main one.

Does God want you to do something you hate doing?

 

I don’t normally respond to people who comment on my writing. I used to be diligent about this, but now I don’t have enough time. However, I’m making an exception here, because the following comment from a reader of my email newsletter raises a helpful and important distinction. The reader’s comment was about a quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. First, here’s the quote:

“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.

“Otherwise, you will live your life as a prostitute, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived. and you will not have a pleasant death.”
— Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Continue reading Does God want you to do something you hate doing?

Who is your “spiritual teacher”? Do you even need one?

“The missing element in many spiritual quests is the spiritual guide. … When a person finds out that all his efforts at self-improvement are movements around a circle, that the ego does not really intend to give itself up in surrender to the Spirit and therefore only pretends to do so, he realizes that left to himself he cannot succeed in really changing his inner center of gravity. Help is needed from some outside source if he is to free himself from such a hopeless position.”
– Paul Brunton

We use different terms for it in our various circles, but do you have a spiritual teacher, or guide? Is there someone who is helping you grow in your spiritual life by modeling that kind of life (even if imperfectly), by teaching you about it, helping answer questions, and showing you things about yourself that you might not have seen otherwise? Who is the person who helps you make sense of the deeper questions about meaning and purpose in life, who helps you sort out the problems and questions that you run into?

Some circles use the language of “discipling,” others spiritual direction, still others “shepherding” or pastoring, and others spiritual teacher or master. In Jesus’ time, serious spiritual students had “rabbis” or “teachers.”

Ever since coming back into church ministry in 2011, after going through a time of spiritual disillusionment and then renewal, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the role of the pastor in churches and in people’s spiritual lives. I’ve come to believe that, all too often, what churches look for from their pastors, does not really encompass this role (of “spiritual teacher”).

Churches look for pastors to do three things: (a) provide teaching from the Bible in the form of sermons (b) provide leadership for the church organization, and (c) be available and compassionate in crisis situations, like hospitalizations or deaths. Depending on the congregation, (a) and (b) are sometimes switched in order of priority, and (c) is usually a distant third.

The role of spiritual teacher (or “discipler” to use the language some use in Christian circles) doesn’t really fit here. The “teaching” part of being a spiritual teacher — at least as I’m thinking of the term — is more than just preaching. It’s not about simply presenting concepts (like a preacher does from the pulpit) … it’s about helping people apply those concepts to their lives. If the church numbers in the hundreds or thousands, there’s no way the pastor can have enough interaction with people in the church to know what’s going on in their lives and help them with their questions and challenges.

Here’s my concern: If the pastor is not fulfilling this role, who is? Most pastors I know will say, “I’m not able to provide that kind of personal attention and care to each person in my church … that’s why we have small groups. People get that kind of care in their small groups.”

But do they really?

Let’s assume a church is divided into active small group Bible studies, or support groups. Can the small group leaders — who have other jobs, and often get very little training or preparation for their role as small group leaders — really fill this role of being spiritual teachers for people in their groups?

I’m sure that sometimes they do … but usually not. Usually the leader’s role is more that of facilitator or host. Plus, small groups shift around so much, and fizzle out so often, that the percentage of church attendees with a long term relationship in a small group — let alone one with a small group leader who functions as a spiritual teacher for them — is rare indeed.

I’m not sure what to think about this … and I really do want to know what others think. Do you think this is a problem? Do people even want to have someone who functions as a spiritual teacher in their lives? Or is it enough to have a pastor who is more of a figure-head and example at a distance? I’d love to know if it’s just me who thinks this role is really needed.

 

Free Teleseminar: Changing the World Without Wrecking Your Life: a blueprint for overcoming stress and anxiety

 

If you are seeking to do important work in the world, but feel overwhelmed by it, this is for you. If you are challenged by anxiety and stress, and struggle to balance your service with the rest of your life, this is for you. If you want to lower your stress level without lowering your performance level, this is for you.

What: Free Teleseminar / Webinar  (you can access audio only by phone, or also see video)

When: Wednesday, June 7

Time: 7:00pm – 8:30pm (central time)

(REGISTER HERE – OR AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE)

Here’s what you will learn:

Continue reading Free Teleseminar: Changing the World Without Wrecking Your Life: a blueprint for overcoming stress and anxiety

Are you ‘losing your faith’ or is your faith being refined?

 

Just over a decade ago I began a journey, disillusioned by my experiences with “church” and the type of Christian faith and practice it advocated. I was a pastor, and thus a spokesperson for this brand: through teaching, preaching, and counseling. The crisis for me came in having to admit that what I had been taught — and was teaching — wasn’t really working in my own life. The faith and spiritual practices weren’t adequate to deal with the struggles and challenges of my life, or in coming to terms with the traumas of my past.

On a leave of absence from my ministry position, I committed myself to face — with “ruthless honesty” — the spiritual questions I had been unwilling and/or unable to face when I was preaching and leading a church.

It’s not my intent to chronicle this journey: there have been many twists and turns, and it’s still ongoing. But what’s important to say is this: What has emerged is not a story about faith that was lost, but rather a faith that has been refined. What is emerging is something that is — I think — deeper, more real, and more precious.

My observation is that many people go through similar process in their experience of recovery. And now that I’m back working as a pastor, I’m also seeing many people go through a similar process of spiritual transformation that starts out looking more like spiritual disillusionment, doubt, and/or “giving up on church.”

It feels like the end of something, but it could be the beginning of something better.

Your tribe does not have exclusive rights to “Being a Christian”

I am learning that following Jesus is a multi-faceted process, and that “Christianity” is a much larger tent than I had realized. I fell into the error of assuming that what I had experienced and learned was “the Christian faith,” and when I saw its failings and inconsistencies, I assumed that the only alternative was to dismiss the Christian faith as a whole.

After a year or two of drifting, I began to see that things are much more nuanced than I had been led to believe. I discovered that there are many people like me, with the same questions and reservations about the version of Christianity I had. What they did … and what I’m doing … is living out a different expression of Christianity.

So one of the things that’s emerging for me is a deeper appreciation for what I would consider to be the mystical core of the Christian faith. That is, the mysterious connection between the human and divine. That is, the experience of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” that Paul talks about in I Corinthians.

In his excellent book “Answering the Contemplative Call” Carl McColman writes this:

“We need to be like Mary of Nazareth, offering ourselves up so that our very bodies can offer hospitality to Christ. Like Mary and Martha of Bethany, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, like Simon the leper, we are invited to receive God?—?within us. This is not a mental game, as if we just have to think, ‘God is inside me,’ to make it so. After all, God is everywhere, so God is already inside you (and me, and everyone else) whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.

“Therefore the key is to learn how to recognize God’s presence, and, in recognizing that presence, choose to embrace it, respond to it, and love it. And the only reason to love God’s presence is because we love God.”

What I’m finding is that this mystical heart was missing for me. Make no mistake, I was certainly taught about the importance of having a “relationship with God,” and the need for having daily “quiet time.” But this was basically set aside time to read and study the Bible, and then pray. And of course “prayer” was essentially an act of speaking to God in my mind and asking Him to do things for me and for other people. Then I would get confused and disappointed because so often God would not do the things I was asking Him to do.

This is a process

I think there is so much more going on … so many more depths available in our spiritual life. There is an essential internal work, where I focus on God’s activity of bringing healing and insight and strength to my heart. That is the essence of it: the experience of inner transformation. This is what the Bible calls “sanctification:” the ongoing process of having my own ego laid aside, and the divine nature of the Spirit emerge and live out more fully in my being.

This is what was going on in Jesus’ life when he spent that 40 days in the desert, and when he would go off to lonely places in the night, and in early mornings to pray. He didn’t just sit and make lists of things he wanted from the Father. There was some kind of internal shaping going on. And this internal shaping is at the heart of the experience we can have as Christians. This experience relates to a set of beliefs that we espouse, but it goes much deeper.

I’ve been a Christian for decades, and it’s astonishing for me to realize how much is there that for all these years I just missed. Maybe the mystical core wasn’t being taught in the circles I was in, or maybe it was there, and I wasn’t listening.

These days, I’m listening.

 

More spiritual doesn’t always mean more peaceful

In writing the book “Not so Overwhelmed: changing the world without wrecking your life” I’ve been struck by the presence of paradox in so many aspects of the spiritual life. As a Christian leader I’m focusing the book on spiritually minded people who want to do good in the world.

But here’s the question: Do you want to not be overwhelmed, or do you want to do good in the world?

“Wanting to do good in the world” is often what puts us in situations where we feel overwhelmed. The solution for being overwhelmed might seem to be “cut back and do less” … but on the other hand, isn’t doing things to change the world our goal? Somehow we’ve got to deal with this tension: The Bible promises that followers of Jesus will have a “peace that passes understanding”, yet sometimes following God’s call into serving others brings more challenges, not less.

One of the dangers along the spiritual path is viewing God’s work in our lives primarily — and even exclusively — as a healing journey. Pushed to the extreme, this archetype can create the expectation that the purpose of God’s work in our lives is to make

the hard things in our lives easier, to make the painful things go away. It doesn’t always work like this.

As I say later in the book, rather than make our lives easier, simpler, and more comfortable, sometimes following our calling and being open to God’s work our lives makes things harder and more complicated.

Author Belden Lane writes about the insights we can gain from ancient monks, nomads, and pilgrims living in the desert. This collected body of wisdom is often referred to as “desert spirituality.” Desert spirituality is focused on having a meaningful spiritual life even in the midst of challenges and hardship. Here’s what Lane writes:

“My fear is that much of what we call ‘spirituality’ today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. … It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its readers from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.

“One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”

The paradox here is that being followers of Jesus actually does make our lives better, easier, more full. We do experience the “peace that passes understanding.” At the same time, being followers of Jesus sometimes takes us into desert places, hard places. It helps us overcome overwhelm, and in contributes to overwhelm in its own way.

In her book Soul of a Pilgrim, modern mystic and “urban monk” Christine Valters Paintner writes: “Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to remember a God of wilderness who calls us beyond our edges to a landscape where we might discover a passion and vitality we never knew we could experience….Developing the capacity to endure and remain open to difficult feelings is part of the movement toward spiritual maturity.”

This is not a tension that is ever resolved in this life. Following Jesus simplifies, but also complicates our lives. The work of God in our lives brings inner peace, even as this work also creates challenges of its own. Maybe the simplest — and most honest — promise we can make is this: Following Jesus will make our lives better, but not necessarily easier.

Leaders Don’t Have to be Martyrs

Leadership is hard, but we make it harder by our own missteps. Leadership is challenging, but we make things worse when we don’t honor the limits of our bodies and souls. Leadership involves making hard choices, and dealing with conflict, but we make things worse if we don’t practice self-care. Instead we wind up fatigued, reactive, short-tempered, and feeling victimized by our role.

Just because we are leaders doesn’t mean we have to be martyrs.

Leadership is hard enough … let’s not make it harder. Let’s not glorify suffering, and delude ourselves into thinking there is spiritual merit in overwork. Jesus withdrew from the crowds when he needed to, and arranged his ministry in phases of deep engagement, and times apart from the crowds and busyness. We should too.

Melodie Beattie has a great meditation in her book “The Language of Letting Go” that encourages people to let go of the martyr archetype. Listen to what she has to say:

No one likes a martyr.

How do we feel around martyrs? Guilty, angry, trapped, negative, and anxious to get away.

Somehow, many of us have developed the belief that depriving ourselves, not taking care of ourselves, being a victim, and suffering needlessly will get us what we want.

It is our job to notice our abilities, our strengths, and take care of ourselves by developing and acting on them.

It is our job to notice our pain and weariness and appropriately take care of ourselves.

It is our job to notice our deprivation, too, and begin to take steps to give ourselves abundance. It begins inside of us, by changing what we believe we deserve, by giving up our deprivation and treating ourselves the way we deserve to be treated.

Life is hard, but we don’t have to make it more difficult by neglecting ourselves. There is no glory in suffering, only suffering. Our pain will not stop when a rescuer comes, but when we take responsibility for ourselves and stop our own pain.

Today, I will be my own rescuer. I will stop waiting for someone else to work through my issues and solve my problems for me.

Some of that might ring true for you, some might not. That’s okay. Look to God for help in dealing with your challenges, but remember that God won’t magically rescue us from ourselves. We’ll get into trouble if we don’t put ourselves in places where we can receive strength and grace (ie. if we don’t take time to spend in silence, in retreat, and in supportive community.)

Nobody will put the brakes on for you. Only you can decide to slow down and cut back on your commitments. Nobody will step up to the plate for your self-care if you are not willing to make it a priority for yourself.

Of course this is not to suggest that we become lazy and self-absorbed. We will still have to work hard. We will get tired. We will face challenges. But leadership is more like an long race than a crucifixion. Except for extreme situations, it will tire you out, but not kill you.

Come down off that cross. Chances are, God isn’t calling you to be up there anyway.

Thoughts on the rise and fall of pastors

 

This is a guest post from pastor and author Scott Saulslastingleaders.com focuses on leadership in a variety of settings, but many of our readers are spiritual leaders, often pastors of churches. This article is for you. But not just for you … it’s something you should share with your church leadership board. I wrote about some these issues in an article for leadership journal about the “Friendless Pastor.” But Scott comes at it from another angle. Enter, Scott …

His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful.

But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God.

(2 Chronicles 26:15-16)

In the past year, five of my friends who are pastors have lost their ministries because of moral failure.

Five.

Most of them were widely known beyond their local contexts as authors, conference speakers, movement leaders and such. From the outside, they appeared to be at their peak.

For reasons beyond my ability to understand, God has graciously protected me from moral collapse over the years. Knowing the fragility and fickleness of my own heart, sometimes I marvel at how this could be the case. Why them and not me? Sometimes I wonder if, under different circumstances, I, too, could collapse morally. As the famous hymn goes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it…” Indeed, I feel my proneness to wander every single day.

When I was a seminary student, an older, seasoned pastor spoke in a chapel service and said,“Some of you are very gifted. You aspire to do great things in ministry one day. God have mercy on you.” Eighteen years later, I am beginning to understand what he meant by that.

And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.

(Jeremiah 45:5)

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist “Prince of Preachers,” once told his students that if they could be happy doing something besides ministry, they should do it. I’m sure there were several reasons why Spurgeon gave this advice. But the reason his advice makes sense to me is because…

Being a pastor is hard.

One day in my mid-twenties, while studying to become a pastor, I came across a suicide note published in the local newspaper…written by a pastor, which included this excerpt:

God forgive me for not being any stronger than I am. But when a minister becomes clinically depressed, there are very few places where he can turn to for help…it feels as if I’m sinking farther and farther into a downward spiral of depression. I feel like a drowning man, trying frantically to lift up my head to take just one more breath. But one way or another, I know I am going down.

The writer was a promising young pastor—still in his thirties—of a large “resource” church in Saint Louis, Missouri. Having secretly battled depression for a long time, and having sought help through Scripture reading, prayer, therapy, and medication, his will to claw through yet another day was gone. In his darkest hour, the young promising pastor decided he would rather join the angels than continue facing demons for years to come.

Some of those “demons,” it turned out, were high-powered members of his church, whose expectations of him were impossibly high. More on this in a moment. But first…

Not many months after this man’s tragic suicide, another pastor, also from Saint Louis, asphyxiated himself to death because a similar, secret depression.

As an aspiring pastor myself, the news of these two pastor suicides rocked my world. How could these men—both gifted pastors who believed in Jesus, preached grace, and comforted others with gospel hope—end up losing hope for themselves?

As the stories of these pastors became more public, it became clear that both of them shared an all-too common reality for pastors. Both had allowed themselves Continue reading Thoughts on the rise and fall of pastors

What about pastors in recovery?

Anyone living in our culture today is vulnerable to addiction — including pastors. And anyone struggling with addiction needs recovery — including pastors. But recovery is hard for pastors; harder than it needs to be.

Recovery is hard for pastors for many reasons. Because of their position as spiritual leaders, pastors have a hard time admitting to problems in their lives, and reaching out for help. This is partly the result of pride, but it’s also the result of the system we have created in the church today. Pastors aren’t stupid: they realize that being too open about their problems — or open to the wrong people — could get them fired.

So they don’t get the help they need. And more often than not, when they do seek help, they do so in secret, and their fear and shame about discovery often hamper their recovery efforts.

Leadership Journal recently published a great article by Amy Simpson on Pastors in Recovery. She did a lot of research for this article, including reaching out to me, and I’m grateful to be included in the article. There is a lot of good stuff in this article!

Continue reading What about pastors in recovery?

How to help someone who’s struggling with sexual compulsion, but is not a sex addict

Over the years in my work with sexual strugglers, it became clear that there is a spectrum of struggle … some people simply fight a battle with sexual temptation (and periodically lose), while others would fall into the category of sexual addicts. The line between the two is not always clear — it’s more like a spectrum, not a simple either/or — and many people struggle to honestly face the extent of their problem.

I have come to call this group of people — who fall repeatedly into sexual temptation, but don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for addiction — “sexual strugglers.” Often people in this category don’t have the patterns of emotional and sexual trauma from early life, and they don’t give evidence of other problematic addictive behaviors. But for some reason, they still struggle with behaviors around sex — often related to Internet pornography.

I believe that sexual strugglers need to focus on four things. I wrote an article about his on my sexualsanity.com website. I’ll include a link to the article, but just FYI here is the list of four things that people need to focus on:

  1. Vigilance – Recognizing that this is an ongoing issue that won’t go away, and continuing to pay attention to dangers
  2. Boundaries – Establishing limits and “bottom lines,” and identifying the places and situations where you get into trouble. Then finding ways to minimize or avoid them.
  3. Support – Creating a network of friends who (a) know the whole truth about your struggle, (b) are willing to help you in it, and (c) you enjoy being with.
  4. Emotional Awareness – Being attentive to your emotional states, and finding healthy ways of caring for yourself (so you don’t find yourself sad, resentful, and/or anxious and looking for unhealthy ways of coping … ie. acting out).

Click here for the full article