Category Archives: Spiritual Self Care

Chronic stress is a killer

Doing the research for my upcoming book “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader,” I came across some great information about chronic stress that is really important for leaders to keep in mind. Stress researchers remind us that stress in and of itself is not bad — it’s a part of life, and it keeps us actively engaged. The problem is chronic stress — when we are overloaded and, instead of getting time for self-renewal, we continue our pace and get hit with more stress-inducing experiences.

The key for all of us is to learn to live with rhythm — to build into our lives times where we actively engage, and then other times where we back off for rest and renewal. In the Bible, the concept of Sabbath — taking a day off each week for rest — is presented as a gift, something that helps us live better. As Jesus reminds us, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27).

If you want to get a little geeky, and learn more about how stress — especially chronic stress — works, read on. This is an excerpt from the book “Brain Longevity” by Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, and it talks about what chronic stress does to our bodies and brains. Enter Dr Khalsa:

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Many people think stress is an outside force that causes them to feel tension. That’s not stress, though–it’s a “stressor.” Stress is the feeling that can result from a stressor. This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s vitally important. It means that if you don’t perceive a stressor to be stressful, then it’s not one. Some researchers define stress as any difficult situation that you can’t control.

If you can control a difficult situation, it will probably be good for your brain. It will coax your brain to make new synaptic connections between neurons, as you attempt to resolve the situation….

But if you perceive your situation as out of your control, you will be much less likely to engage these neurons in creative problem solving, and much more apt to secrete the hormones that will “cook” your brain.

Continue reading Chronic stress is a killer

Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry

I’ve noticed a theme in the lives of leaders I work with — most of whom are involved in church work: they are overwhelmed.

They are overwhelmed by the demands of church ministry, they are overwhelmed with the needs they encounter, and they are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. There is a virtual flood of ideas washing over them every week for how to do their work better, new conferences to go to, new programs to implement, and on and on. They struggle to manage their time, because there is a never-ending que of messages to respond to, emails to process, messages to prepare for, and problems to deal with.

To be clear: the issue of overwhelm is more than just about feeling busy. Busyness is not new … people have always felt busy. Remember that Henry David Thoreau felt so overwhelmed by the busyness of life that he needed to withdraw from the world and move into a cabin in the woods. He did this because life had become too hectic … and this was in the 1800s! This was before electricity, cars, planes, radio, television, the Internet, cell phones.

The problem of overwhelm in church ministry runs deeper than just full calendars and long to-do lists. This is a crucially important point, because if we misunderstand the problem, the solutions we try to solve it won’t work.

When it comes to pastors and other church leaders, I think there two bigger issues going on.

1. Overwhelming needs in the lives of people we serve

One is that leaders are faced with tremendous need and brokenness in the people they work with. It doesn’t matter what ministry setting we are in … we will find deep brokenness and dysfunction everywhere. We are as likely to encounter extreme sexual immorality in the sheltered rural community as we are in the city … drug abuse in the upper middle class community as in the working class community … relational brokenness and abuse in the suburb as in the urban core.

To put it mildly, the needs are overwhelming. Continue reading Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry

Is it Time to Remodel How We’re Living?

simplify-your-lifeI’ve been reading a lot lately about simplifying and streamlining life. One interesting book is The Not So Big Life by Susan Susanka. She is an architect, and the author of “The Not So Big House” series of books on home design. So when she talks about adapting to our increasingly overloaded lives, it’s not surprising that she uses a house analogy: “remodeling.” Here is how she opens her book:

We are facing an enormous problem in our lives today. It’s so big we can hardly see it, and it’s right in our face all day, every day. We’re all living too big lives, crammed from top to toe with activities, urgencies, and obligations that seem absolute. There’s no time to take a breath, no time to look for the source of the problem. We are almost desperate for a solution. If we stop and consider what our lives would be like if things got much faster, we might feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and futility. We just don’t have any more time to give. We’re at the end of our rope.

We need to remodel the way we are living, but not in a way that gives us more of the same kinds of space we already have; that would simply create an even bigger life. What we need is a remodeling that allows us to experience what’s already here but to experience it differently, so that it delights us rather than drives us crazy.

That’s the world we are living in, and that’s the primary challenge people in our churches are facing. People are overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the pace of life, overwhelmed with challenges of making a living, overwhelmed by the problems they are bombarded with in the media, in their neighborhoods, and in their families. They are working crazy hours, commuting to work on congested roads, and coming home to chaotic homes with spouses and children struggling to manage their own overloaded schedules.

People who are overwhelmed are looking for help — they are searching for direction, encouragement, and insights about how to navigate  the world of stress and overwhelm. On amazon.com, for example, you can find 777 books on “simplifying your life.” A search on google for the phrase, “simplifying your life” creates 2,470,000 results. People are looking for help.

People struggling with overwhelm come to churches, hoping to experience peace and strength there, and hoping to hear wisdom from spiritual teachers about living well in the face of busyness and stress.

And what do they find?

All too often, people find that, instead of offering a place of refuge from the epidemic of stress and overwhelm, churches are just another place that adds to it. They find leaders who themselves are stressed out and overwhelmed. They find leaders who can offer no genuine wisdom for how to live differently, because they are as harassed and rushed and anxious as their parishioners (and in some cases more so). So people are really lost … they are like sheep without a shepherd.

My study and the writing project of “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader” is based on belief that this issue gets to the heart of our integrity as a church. We promise that people can experience an “abundant life” (as Jesus promises in John 10:10), a life where we experience joy and peace, even in the midst of the ups and downs of our fallen existence. But if we can’t live that ourselves … if our lives are as burdened, anxious, and stressed-out as anyone else’s … then why should anyone listen to us?

Overcoming overwhelm is not just a good idea for pastors. It’s not just something optional we can try to implement that will help us feel happier. It is essential for us to learn to live differently, so we can help people in our churches to live differently. It is the need of the hour.

If we fail to subdue the three-headed monster of busyness, anxiety, and stress in our own lives — we have no credibility in trying to help others deal with this issue.

And make no mistake, this is one of the essential issues of our time. Failing here, we fail everywhere.

I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m not claiming to have mastered this myself. It’s an ongoing priority in my life to balance an active and engaged life with a heart that is serene, joyful, open, and loving. If people come to church and find the pastors are stressed out, anxious, overwhelmed, and resentful … they will filter the teaching that comes from the lips of these pastors. There will be part of them that realizes that these pastors are not able to help them with one of their greatest sources of pain.

What addiction and recovery taught me about “believing in God”

The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines belief as: “A state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” The experience of addiction messes this up for Christians, whether they want to admit it or not. They say that they “trust God” to help them be happy in life, and to help them overcome their addiction … but somehow this “faith” doesn’t seem to be working. Why not?

My experience of addiction and recovery has forced me to admit that professing to believe something doesn’t mean I really believe it. It has forced me to be attentive to situations where what I observe and experience in “real life” don’t fit with the set of beliefs I espouse.

beleiveComing to believe is a process

In 12 Step language, recovery is a process where people “come to believe” in a Higher Power who can help them overcome their addiction. It’s not assumed that anybody is doing this when they start. It’s a process … and it takes time. And for people who come into this process with a set of beliefs about a “Higher Power” already established, the scary reality is that part of their problem is likely that some of those “beliefs” are inaccurate and destructive.

Religious people hate hearing this. They want to think that their spiritual life is all fine, just the way it is. In fact, they think that recovery should be easier for them than for “non-religious” or “non-Christian” people … because they have the spiritual part all figured out already. But what if they don’t?

Suppose I believe that God is a magic fairy and that if I ever get into a big problem, I can spin around in a circle four times and say “help me help me help me fairy God” … and then all my problems will be solved. I am very earnest and sincere about this … and I go to a church that teaches this as the correct interpretation and application of the Bible’s promises about prayer.

But then suppose I come into a recovery program with my life in a shambles and my addiction raging out of control … but I still have this belief about God and the spiritual life. It should be obvious that the magic fairy prayer beliefs need to go. They aren’t working … and in fact are keeping me from doing the things that would work.

Look honestly

So when we go into recovery, it’s wise to go into the process holding our “beliefs” loosely. Maybe our beliefs are wrong. Maybe our beliefs about who God is, and how God relates to us, are more a part of the problem for us than part of the solution. Maybe some of these beliefs reflect the dysfunction of the family members, church life, and traumatic experiences that shaped us in early life.

To me this is part of the genius of 12 Step recovery. By keeping the God language vague and recognizing that “coming to believe” is a process, 12 Step recovery offers Christians a golden opportunity to ask themselves important questions about their spiritual life.

The irony

I find it sad and ironic that this aspect of recovery — the recognition that our spiritual beliefs need to be looked at and will likely undergo some changes — is the great wisdom of the 12 Steps but is also the reason why so many Christians don’t like the 12 Steps.

I come from an evangelical, Bible-based Christian denomination, and I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like the 12 steps because of the language in Steps 2 and 3. They won’t go to a 12-step program which talks about a “Higher Power,” and “God as you understand God”. They want to go to a Christian program, which specifically talks about Jesus Christ. They see 12 Step spiritual vagueness as a threat, and assume that if Jesus isn’t mentioned by name in the steps, that somehow He will be ignored in the process of recovery.

I have come to a place where I see this broad, non-specific language about a higher power as a good thing. I was a pastor for many years. I had concrete beliefs about God, and devoted my life to studying this belief. I had the impression that I understood the pure, unadulterated image of God and that I was giving the “true gospel.” But at the same time I was struggling with addiction.

After being in recovery 12 years, I’ve come to a place where I see things differently now.  I see how important the language in this step really is. This language allows people of all spiritual backgrounds to be able to take part in the 12 step program, but it also forces those who already have a belief in God to really dissect that belief and figure out what might have been missing in the first place.

The 12 steps asks us to turn our lives over to God as we understand God. If we don’t understand who God is, how can we in any meaningful way turn our lives over to God?

The great news

Here’s the great news: it’s okay to do this step by step, and it’s okay to do this imperfectly, knowing that “more will be revealed” as we continue the recovery process. As we continue the recovery journey, we will “come to believe” in new and deeper ways, and thus “turn our will and our lives” over to the care of this God in new and deeper ways.

The work of spiritual care

spiritual-direction3The work of spiritual leadership includes providing spiritual care … what people used to call “The Care of Souls.” This care involves ministering to people in the crisis times of life, but it’s much more than that. It is also about helping people grow spiritually. It’s about equipping them to go through the normal ups and downs of life. Helping them navigate through life as it unfolds.

In this regard, I think the care of souls is similar to the work of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction, though a very historic practice, seems to be coming into its own as a special discipline these days, with special schools, workshops, and certification programs. Formerly known mostly in Roman Catholic circles, it’s now being practiced in a variety of Protestant settings as well.

David Scheuneman describes spiritual direction like this:

“Generally speaking, spiritual direction refers to a relationship in which one person assists another’s spiritual development. It takes various flavors, sometimes called spiritual friendship, mentoring, guidance or counseling, depending on the context. It can be formal or informal, professional or casual.”

I’m familiar with the work of spiritual direction – having worked with spiritual directors during several periods of my life. I hope it’s not a slight to them to suggest that their work is what many pastors have done since the time of the early church … and it’s something that pastors could be doing today. I find that many pastors want to do this kind of work … in fact providing this kind of spiritual care to people is what attracts many people into ministry. But not many pastors are doing it, for reasons I’ll get to later in this article.

What’s helpful about envisioning our ministry in terms of providing soul care and support to people is that this is full-orbed ministry. In other words, we’re talking about something that is more than just crisis care, and it’s more than just helping people with the “spiritual” parts of their lives.

I’d like to quote at length from Thomas Keating on the work of spiritual directors. Notice the psychological sophistication as he describes the issues people need to address in spiritual direction. Keating is not simply telling us to encourage people to pray and read their Bibles more.

“Any sign that you are upset is an invitation to ask yourself why you are upset and not project the blame on another person or the situation. Even if they are to blame, it won’t do you any good until you solve the real problem which resides in you. The fundamental work of the spiritual director is to encourage and guide people to submit to the divine therapy which allows the unconscious emotional material of early life that led to the drive for security, esteem and affection, and power symbols in the culture to be evacuated.

“Each of us has a significant dose of the human condition. In Catholic theology we call it the consequences of Original Sin. We come into the world not knowing what true happiness is but needing it; not knowing what true affection is but needing it; not knowing what true freedom is, but needing it. We bring with us into adult life the way we as children coped with impossible situations, either through repression of feeling or by compensatory programs for happiness that could not possibly work. The stronger those needs, the more frustration when they were not fulfilled.

“Into this universal human situation Jesus comes saying, “repent” which means “change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.” Human happiness is found in the growth of unconditional love. The work of spiritual direction is to help us to become aware of the obstacles to divine love and the free circulation of that love within us. This requires the cultivation of a non-possessive attitude toward ourselves and other people. Gradually we learn that God is the true security, God truly loves us and with this love, we can make it even if no one else seems to care.”

I don’t know about you, but I love to work with people at that deep level of human experience. But I don’t really find that I do it very much as a pastor … and I know I’m not alone. Few pastors today really get into this kind of deep soul work with their parishoners. In fact, I believe that one of the reasons for the growth of “spiritual direction” in Protestant settings is that in our churches today, pastors aren’t able to offer this level of care to people in their churches.

What is that? I think there are three reasons for this — two obvious, and one not-so-obvious:

1. There’s not enough time to do it

This is the most obvious reason why pastors don’t do the work of deep spiritual care. We are too busy with other things, and our churches are too big to allow adequate time to devote to this work. It’s not scaleable … there aren’t enough hours in a week for a pastor to offer this kind of care to people in churches with hundreds, let alone thousands, of people.

It takes time to hear someone’s story, to learn enough about their life that you’re able to make sense of the complex questions and struggles they are working through. Who has time for doing that, when there are so many other church tasks that need to be done? (More on that in a minute.)

2. We’re not trained for it

Doing the work of spiritual direction well is an art and a skill, and it takes training. Many of us have been trained by seminaries that prepared us to be theologians and preachers, with a couple of pastoral care classes thrown in to help us deal with marital conflict and death. To get into the deeper issues of someone’s life would move into the category of “counseling” … something that most pastors are not trained to do.

In fact, I would suggest that not only are pastors not trained to do counseling, they are trained not to do counseling! Do you see the difference? In books, seminars, and conferences over the years, the message drummed into my head as a pastor has been: “Meet with someone once or twice about an issue or question … but don’t establish a long term counseling relationship. If they need more than that, refer them to a trained therapist. Let counselors do the counseling.”

This advice makes good sense from a strategic perspective, and seems consistent with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 that the role of spiritual leaders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor / teachers) is “to equip God’s people” for works of service. In other words, we aren’t the ones who are supposed to be doing the ministry, we are equipping other people to it. We are called not to be shepherds, but to be ranchers … to help equip people in the church do the shepherding.

I don’t know. Look around at the church in America these days. I think what’s happening is that there’s not much shepherding going on by anybody. And so now we’re professionalizing it, and sending people people to spiritual directors. Is this really what we should be doing?

3. We struggle to balance providing soul care to people with the demands of “running the church organization”

I have also found that it can be a challenge for a pastor to care for people on that level, when the pastor is also charged with the responsibility of building the ministry of the church. There have been times when my task of building the church’s ministry seemed to clash with the task of caring for the souls of people who were volunteering to serve in various capacities. Sometimes what they needed was to stop serving in those positions, because they were getting burned out, or needed time to heal from another life crisis. This is to say nothing of the challenge of how to balance my time — as the church gets larger and more complex, providing leadership to it takes increasing time and attention.

So what do we do about this?

I will be the first to admit that this article is more about me venting and thinking out loud than it is about providing a clear-cut solution. Here’s some ideas:

1. Implement the Richard Baxter model of one on one visits with all members of the church as part of the lead pastor’s job. Richard Baxter, in the book “The Reformed Pastor” described his approach to this issue, which involved a plan and almost fantatical devotion to a system of annual “church visits” that he would do with members of his congregation. I remember reading the book and wondering how meaningful those kinds of visits would be today … it seemed like he was mostly spending that time preaching to them and challenging them to be more devoted. Not sure this would work for me today, but you’ve got to give him credit for creating a plan and doing it. In that book he (rightly) emphasizes that life-change is not the automatic result of listening to a bunch of sermons.

2. Keep churches small enough so the pastor is able to devote time to providing this kind of soul care to church members. I’m not sure what to do about the fact that people seem to like big churches. This would mean doing things — like more strategic church planting by hiving off members — to actually keep the size of churches down. Can churches afford to do this? Pastors and church buildings are expensive.

3. Figure out ways of providing this kind of soul care to groups of people, rather than simply doing it one on one. This is actually happening in the spiritual direction movement, where people are establishing “group spiritual direction.” I know that some people might struggle to share all the things going on in their lives in a group context … they might prefer to talk one on one about some “touchy subjects.” But strategically, doing things in groups would make this much more powerful, as the leader would be able to reach many more people within the limits of his or her time.

4. Figure out ways of better equipping and training leaders within the church to do this kind of soul care. In other words, get more people who are gifted and trained to provide spiritual direction. Make this a mainstream part of the church’s life. I have one reservation about this — I find that people have a desire to be able to connect with the person doing teaching in the church. In other words, it’s helpful if you can combine the work of teaching with this kind of care.

Pope Francis on the need for community

Pope Francis was quoted as follows in a USA Today article, reporting on his most recent interview. This interview was carried out in Italian on behalf of La Civiltà Cattolica, America and other major Jesuit journals. America arranged for the translation into English. The interview made news because of his comments about the Church’s statements about abortion and gay marriage … but this jewel came out in another part of the interview.

Well said Monsignor!

popefrancis.001

Working with our natural rhythms instead of against them

four_seasons_by_nalmesLife has seasons and rhythms. Trying to go through life — through a year, a month, a week, or even a day — in a steady-state of energy expense and activity doesn’t work. There are times we are ON and times we are OFF. Times of expansion, and times of contraction. Times to push, and times to regroup.

In a garden, there are times of planting, growth, harvest … and also time for the ground to lie fallow.

Trying to fight these rhythms is foolish. It is like trying to surf between waves, instead of waiting to ride the waves. By the end of the day you’ve worn yourself out, and you wouldn’t have ridden the board much either.

Ignoring rhythms

Sometimes as leaders we create problems for ourselves, because we ignore rhythms, and try to push at the wrong times. The classic example — ignored by too many pastors — is that of Sabbath. We work for six days, and devote one to rest and spiritual renewal. At least most of us do, most of the time. Ignoring this rhythm has put many leaders in a bad place.

I recently read an article by Douglas Rushkoff about the tendency today for people to ignore rhythms in fields of work like technology and media, where there is relentless pressure to keep producing and not let up. He points out that, while our bodies are tuned to a natural rhythm, many ignore this today and try to match our human rhythms to machines which have no rhythm. A computer can do any task at any time, and it’s processing ability never changes. But humans aren’t like that, we have cycles and seasons. Listen to several paragraphs drawn from the article:

“While our technologies may be evolving as fast as we can imagine new ones, we humans and our culture evolved over millennia and are slower to adapt. The body is based on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different clocks, syncing to everything from the sun and moon to levels of violence and available water. We can’t simply declare noon to be midnight and expect our body to conform to the new scheme as if it were a Google Calendar resetting to a new time zone. Neither can we force our businesses to conform to an always-on ethos when the people we work with and for are still obeying a more deeply embedded temporal scheme.”

“Instead of offloading time-intensive tasks to our machines, we attempt to match the speed of our network connections. Thanks to the Internet, we travel more on business not less, we work at all hours on demand, and spend our free time answering email or tending to our social networks. Staring into screens, we are less attuned to light of day and the physiological rhythms of our housemates and co-workers. We are more likely to accept the digital clock’s illusion that all time is equivalent and interchangeable. But it isn’t.”

“This is the digital trap: Instead of teaching our technologies to conform to our own innate rhythms, we strive to become more compatible with our machines’ timeless nature.”

“Imagine, instead of trying to ride roughshod over these cycles, actually using or even exploiting recent discoveries about our common neurochemical responses to [them].”

Good stuff to think about. What do you think?

What leaders can learn from Diana Nyad

DianaNyadOver the weekend, when you and I were eating hamburgers from the grill and watching TV, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. What makes this even more impressive is that she is 64 years old, and this was her fifth try (her first attempt was in 1978). She swam 110 miles in 53 hours, through the Florida Straits, notorious for its strong currents, sharks and swarms of stinging jellyfish. Amazing!

You can read the NY Times article about her trip here. Also, I’ve included a video at the end of this article of her super-inspiring TED talk — from a few years ago (after an unsuccessful attempt … and prior to another unsuccessful attempt) — that talks about her motivation, and some of the personal struggles that such an undertaking involves.

When she completed her swim on Monday, here’s what she said:

“I have three messages…

One is we should never, ever give up.

Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams.

Three is it looks like a solitary sport but it takes a team.”

Never Give Up

Each of these three lessons is worth reflecting on, but I’d like to emphasize the first, especially as it relates to leadership. Never, ever give up. Anything worth doing is hard. Anything worth doing will take more time, effort, and money than you expect. Anything worth doing will likely involve setbacks and times of discouragement.

I read an interesting book on this subject last year called “The 10x Rule: The only difference between success and failure“. Essentially, the message of the book is that when we embark on some project or important task, we should assume that it will take ten times as long, ten times as much money, and ten times as much work as we expect. The author was an entrepreneur, so he focused on starting new companies and other business projects. It applies to leadership in any setting.

As a church planter who’s started two churches, and now pastors a new church started three years before I came here, I can testify that this truth applies in the spiritual world as well … it’s always way harder than you think.

I’m not sure if I would say it’s ten times as much work, time, etc … but certainly three or four times as much. More than double, for sure. Most of us tend to be optimists, and most of us are naive about all the things that can go wrong. When engaging in challenging tasks, we are often surprised and dismayed by the resistance and obstacles that need to be overcome. Keep going. Don’t give up.

Learning instead of quitting

Diana Nyad tried – and failed – four times to complete this quest. Each time she was discouraged, and wondered if it was time to give up. Especially as she was getting older, I’m sure it must have been tempting to let go of the dream. But instead she learned from each of her attempts, and kept trying.

On one of her attempts, she was derailed by jellyfish stinging her face. She was eventually taken out of the water with swelling that raised serious concerns for her health. Instead of giving up, she developed a special mask to protect her face on subsequent trips. One time she was derailed by the currents pulling her off course. She adjusted to that in future trips as well, by having the lead boat establish the direction for her.

I love that tenacity, and want to see it more in my own life, and in the settings where I work (mostly in churches, and mostly with pastors). Let’s be honest: it’s not always there. In fact, in some settings we see just the opposite … people using their spiritual ideas as a reason (excuse?) to give up when things get hard.

This is simply spiritualizing laziness. Some people assume that “if God is in it” … then it’s going to be easy. If some project encounters setbacks, they rush to second guess the project, trying to read the circumstances like people trying read tea leaves in a cup, to discern if they are “doing God’s will” or “running ahead of God.”

Just shut up and do what you are called on to do. Nobody said it was going to be easy. And if, in the end, it turns out that it wasn’t what God wanted you to do, then that will become clear as time goes on. In other words, don’t take difficulties and challenges as spiritual signs that you’re off-track. Difficulties and challenges are just part of life … and part of leadership in any endeavor. “God’s blessing” doesn’t function like an umbrella to keep you from getting wet.

How I’m putting this into practice

Right now I’m in the process of writing a book, and establishing a network of Leadership Communities. I am hoping to make peer support and coaching groups available to a wide variety of pastors, and help them grow their leadership. It’s not always easy. People wonder “Is this going to work?” “Will pastors actually take the time to participate in these groups?” I think they will. I’m going to keep going, excited by the good response I have from pastors, and looking forward to these groups starting up.

Diana Nyad has a lot to teach all of us. Make adjustments as needed. Take setbacks as feedback to learn from, and alter your course accordingly. But keep going.

 

Here’s Nyad giving a TED talk about extreme swimming. Like everything else about her, it’s inspiring (especially when you realize that this talk was given prior to one of her failed attempts.

 

Why People Get So Mad at Pastors

angry-kidby Wayne Cordiero and Francis Chan

A friend of mine recently changed careers after being in pastoral ministry for nearly a decade. I asked him how his new job was going. “Really well,” he said. “These days, people get mad at me only once or twice a year. When I was in pastoral ministry, it seemed like someone was mad at me every other day.”

I understood. I can still see the parents of a teenager, in my office crying because their son was walking down the wrong path. They were desperate for help, expecting and even demanding that I intervene in their son’s life. “Why doesn’t this church offer a better youth group?” they screamed.

I remember an angry keyboardist, frustrated that our church’s worship team was not using him “to his full potential.” He expected a prominent role in the worship service, and his expectations were not being met. “I really think the worship here should better utilize people,” he said.

I can picture a man offering to donate computer equipment to the church “but only if it was going to be well used.” Another man gave $65,000 to the church but kept pulling on invisible strings, demanding that it be used as he directed. Three weeks later, after sleepless nights of wrestling with his demands and threats, I had our accountant write a check for $65,000, and I gave it back to the demanding donor.

These frontline stories of pastoral work are endless. How do we handle people’s expectations, learn to get over them or live with them, or even learn from them? There are times when we even sense that these expectations come from God. What do we do then?

The key is to learn to listen to God and to let our vision flow from there. This often involves developing some thick skin, while still keeping our sensitivity to the real pain and needs of people. Every effective leader must learn to live with the very people who frustrate them until they no longer do. When you become a leader, you can never again get angry in public. The challenge is to stay balanced when criticized, to avoid taking the criticism personally yet to avoid becoming calloused or cynical. We are called to a paradox of personalities: sensitive but not easily offended, empathetic but not weak, flexible and yet filled with convictions.

(Editor [Mark Brouwer] comment: this is a strongly worded paragraph — especially the statement that “when you become a leader, you can never again get angry in public.” I’m not sure I agree with the “never again” part. Jesus got angry publicly.  Let’s agree that we need to be careful, especially about displaying anger in a defensive way … in other words, when we are angry about how we are being treated.)

You’re not making me happy

The common theme running through all of the stories I related can be summed up best in a single word—disappointment. That’s the root of all these unwarranted expectations, criticisms, and crises. Someone wants help and is not getting the help they want; someone needs a problem solved and the problem is not going away; someone is hurting and not getting any relief. It can all be summed up by the feeling of disappointment.

We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. We live in a fallen world, and it makes sense that if life is not working as it is supposed to work, people would turn to the church to relieve that sense of disappointment, to get help. Yet the reality is that neither a church nor a pastor can satisfy every person’s disappointment.

I have known pastors who fall into this trap all too often. They wrongly believe that it is their job to make people happy. So they run themselves ragged trying to cater to the needs of people, or they push their staff to do this. It may sound strange, but there is a sense in which I can truthfully say that the church does not exist to help people. Our job is not to solve their problems or alleviate their disappointments. The primary reason the church exists is to worship God and to point people to Christ, the ultimate solution to their problems. Our work should draw attention to the one who has saved us, the one who has given us hope in place of our disappointment.

We do ourselves a disservice any time we position ourselves as the ultimate answer to people’s problems.

In our well-meaning attempts to promote Christianity as the answer to everything, we sometimes overpromise when we present the gospel. We want churches to be happy places, so we end each service on a high note, giving the impression that happy feelings always come from church. Or we want to help everybody we meet, so we have churches filled with broad spectrums of ministries for every conceivable need, but we end up doing many things poorly rather than fewer things well. The answer to all of this is to strip down the gospel to its essence: mankind getting right with a holy God.

With that in mind, we may need to help people understand the following truths if we want to help them develop realistic, healthy expectations about the church and the role and abilities of those in leadership:

  • Church will not always make you feel comfortable.
  • Church will not be the answer to your every need.
  • You will sometimes not like what happens at church.
  • You might leave a service unhappy once in a while, particularly if you are seeing yourself in light of God’s righteousness.
  • If you are a single person, going to church will not guarantee you a spouse.
  • Going to church will not guarantee that your children will not rebel.
  • Going to church is not the answer to all your financial problems.
  • You might not get along with everybody you meet at church.

Disappointment with God

If the ultimate solution to the disappointments our people experience is pointing them to Christ, letting him be the Great Physician in their lives, then once we have done this, disappointment takes on a different nuance. Now, if people are disappointed, they are ultimately disappointed with God.

For the teenager’s parents crying in my office, so sad that their son is walking the wrong path, so desperate for help from the church, so expectant and even demanding that I intervene, the one who has really disappointed them is God. They prayed about the situation. They begged God to intervene. So where is God? He is the one they are upset with.

When people come to us with their frustration, sharing their pain and disappointment with us, we need to dig beneath the layer of the immediate concern. When those parents are crying in my office (and I am crying with them), what they are ultimately expressing is that they are frustrated that God allows people to make bad choices—in this case, their son.

The real work of a pastor is not to try to solve their problems, particularly when pathways to immediate solutions have already been suggested and are not being heeded. The answer is not to ratchet up the youth program, or to drop everything and help chase a rebellious teenage son, or to lock him in his room until he turns 30.

Rather, the real work of a pastor is to help give the parents a clearer sense of who God is, that God is good no matter what they are experiencing right now, that he desperately loves their son even to the point of allowing him to make poor choices. The real work of a pastor is to help people come to grips with God’s goodness, even though we often do not understand his ways.

Picture the angry keyboardist, so frustrated that our church’s worship team was not using him to his full potential, so hurt his expectations are not being met—his real disappointment is with God. Did the keyboardist not ask God to give him a greater ministry on the worship team? Why did God say no?

The wise church leader does not immediately cater to this man’s demands and promise that he will be used more regularly on the worship team if that is not the best option. The wise leader will help this man see a righteous God contrasted with the prideful heart of man. Again, the ultimate work of a pastor is not to assuage this man’s disappointment and solve his scheduling problem or his need to be in greater demand as a musician. It is to offer him a clearer sense of the character of God.

An Invitation to Lament

When you encounter people’s unreasonable expectations of you as a leader, one very practical and biblical response is something we find modeled in the Psalms and in the ministry of Jeremiah and throughout much of the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament.

This response to disappointment, to unanswered questions and unresolved tension, to the pain and suffering people bring to us is inviting them to lament.

This means that when a person comes to you, and the problem cannot be solved, you point them to Jesus and invite them to honestly pour out their heart to the Lord. We know that God is the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3). When we lament, we acknowledge that God is good and sovereign, yet life is not as we would like it to be.

We find validation for our grieving in our lamentation. We learn that our emotions are permitted, that it is right to express them, even when those emotions include anger at injustice. The biblical form of lamenting allows people to feel and express the discomfort and disappointment they experience living in an imperfect world.

When you invite people to lament, you are acknowledging that you, as a church leader, are with them in their journey, and you empathize with what they are going through. You do not try to cheer them up. You do not try to fix all their problems. You allow them to feel the hard truth, the raw emotion of the problem or circumstance. And you point them to God.

David cried out to God. So did Jesus, who prayed with “loud cryings and tears to the one who was able to save him from distress.” God himself did this with Job. After Job had lost his family, his health, his housing, his reputation, and his livelihood, God did not wipe away every tear, at least not at first.

God did not try to make things all better. God did not offer Job any solutions to his problems. God did not crank up the ministries at the local church to help Job recover the things he had lost.

God simply pointed Job to the realities of the moment: that Job was a man, and that God was God. He allowed Job to lament, to call out in distress, and then God pointed him to facts that he could not fathom. It is perhaps the best example of pastoral ministry ever recorded.

Remember, seldom are your critics actually disappointed with you. They are usually disappointed with themselves, their lives, or God. You are simply a convenient target.

Wayne Cordeiro is founding pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, Hawaii.

How Do You Get People to Love God?

It’s hard to be a church leader. We try so hard to get people to love Jesus. And when they don’t, we ask why—again and again. Why don’t people serve more? Why don’t they give more? Why don’t they share their faith? Why do they keep looking at pornography? Why don’t they get along with each other better?

When we see shortcomings, usually our response is to work harder. Or encourage them to work harder. Maybe we can craft the perfect sermon, or perhaps in this counseling session we can say the perfect thing. (And sometimes we do need to work harder, for sure.)

But usually we need to realize a simple and yet complex truth. The ultimate work of a pastor is God’s doing. We can’t make people do anything. Paul’s commitment in Ephesians 3:14-19 is to pray harder, and to pray for a specific thing: that people would know the fullness of God, so that people can understand Christ’s love for them.

That’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. No matter how hard we work as church leaders, we will never be able to get people to love God. That work comes from God by the power of his Spirit. It’s a supernatural exchange. God grants the love. If a person does not truly understand the depths of God’s love, you will not be able to talk the person into it. This granting is something only God can do.

Imagine it this way. When my wife, Lisa, and I lived in Simi Valley, we often had people sharing our house with us. For some time, a young woman named Rochelle lived with us. She was single, and, like people in the Christian community are apt to do, Lisa and I tried as hard as we could to get Rochelle married off. Seriously—we introduced her to every single guy we could find. Rochelle didn’t mind, and it proved fun for the whole family. Even our kids prayed that Rochelle would get married.

But no matter what we did, there was no way that we could “make” any two young people fall in love with each other. Eventually, Rochelle fell in love all by herself. She’s now married, and the couple is expecting a baby.

The same idea is at work here—you can’t make anyone fall in love with Jesus, either. When it comes to Jesus and people, you can only make the introduction.

I can only tell them that God, the Creator of the world, the only God that matters, loves them deeply. More than any other human being could. God loves you so much that he gave his son to die on a cross for you. It doesn’t matter how messed up you are, how much you’ve rebelled against him, or even how indifferent you might be to matters of the cross; God still loves you deeply. Who does this? Who chooses to die in place of someone else? What an amazing God this is!

Yes, I can make this introduction, but nothing will happen until the Holy Spirit supernaturally gives a person the ability to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. He enables people to know something they can’t know. You understand God’s love in your inner being. Oh, how God loves us! And for people to understand this love, it comes only through prayer.

Prayer is the first and greatest work that we do.

—Francis Chan Reprinted by permission from Sifted, by Wayne Cordeiro and Francis Chan (Cook, 2012).

Dealing with feelings of emptiness

How many times have you heard someone say: “I just feel so empty?” Maybe they didn’t use that exact word, but that was the gist of it. Sometimes this label “emptiness” gets thrown around in talk about depression, sometimes with burnout, sometimes with relationship problems, or sometimes “mid life crisis.”

As a young pastor my reaction was to think in spiritual categories … people feel empty because they need God. But what happens when godly people still feel empty? What happens when pastors feel empty? It’s time we add another, more nuanced, way of thinking about “inner emptiness.”

Early life trauma

A common result of growing up with trauma and deprivation is what some therapists call an inability to “self sooth.” In healthy families parents model and teach their kids how to comfort themselves when they feel angry, stressed, or sad. When that doesn’t happen – especially when kids grow up with an over-abundance of stress and sadness – this is experienced as an inner emptiness that gives rise to unhealthy coping strategies later in life (including addictions, workaholism, and codependency).

This inner emptiness is a challenge for many people, and it doesn’t just go away when we grow in a relationship with God. Continue reading Dealing with feelings of emptiness