Category Archives: Spiritual Self Care

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

When does looking become lusting?

When does a look become lust? Where is line that separates normal, healthy, God-given sexual response from sinful, destructive lust?

Christians generally focus on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:27-28 as the standard for moral purity: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So if this is our goal, we need to be clear about what it actually means to “look at a person lustfully.”

Let’s say you go to a restaurant. You look over to your left, and notice someone at the next table who is very attractive. Maybe they are dressed provocatively. You look at them, and their attractiveness registers in your mind. You might even notice something about their body that is attractive or alluring.

Is that lust? When does awareness and/or sexual attraction cross the line into lust? Continue reading When does looking become lusting?

Guarding Against Emotional Affairs

An emotional affair happens when a person invests too much emotional energy with someone outside their marriage, and in turn receives too much emotional support and companionship from that relationship. How much is “too much?” There aren’t black and white rules for when a relationship moves from innocent friendship to an emotional affair … but there are patterns, and signs to watch for. In an emotional affair, people often feel closer to each other than their spouses, and often experience increasing sexual tension.

In fact, emotional affairs are often the gateway leading to Continue reading Guarding Against Emotional Affairs

On the danger of pedestals – Part 2

Recently I wrote about the danger of people in churches projecting idealized images onto their pastors. This is not only unhelpful for the people, it’s dangerous and damaging for the leader. (See part 1 of this series here). So now the question is, what can we do about it? What is the answer?

Humanity. Let the leader be human.

Continue reading On the danger of pedestals – Part 2

On the Danger of Pedestals – part 1

As an ordained minister and the senior pastor of two churches, I know from experience that pedestals are dangerous. People often come into the church with a powerful mixture of expectations and illusions about what an uber-spiritual person should be. They may assume the pastor will embody that. This is a problem when we let them down – when they see how we fall short of the ideal that they created in their minds.

But it’s maybe an even bigger problem when they don’t see our flaws, because they don’t want to see our flaws, and we get too good at hiding them. Most of the people in our churches want to see us in a good light, because this reinforces their faith … the leader of their spiritual community can serve to validate the power of that faith. I think it is rare that anyone Continue reading On the Danger of Pedestals – part 1

Relating without manipulating: overcoming codependence

There’s a new article on our companion site sexualsanity.com about the topic of manipulation-free relationships. It starts out by saying:

Without understanding our motives, we can easily lapse into behavior aimed at manipulating others. We can do this by passive-aggressively punishing them, or doing things that seem kind and sweet as a way of getting them to respond to us in a certain way.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Sulking is a means of letting others know we are displeased and forcing them to attempt to win our approval.
  • Flattery is a false expression of approval that we don’t really feel – giving others good strokes for our own purpose.
  • Withholding deserved praise is a means of putting others down, something we’re likely to do because of our jealousy.

Read the full article here

Practicing Acceptance

Recovery has provided me with many lessons about leadership. One principle of recovery challenges the focus of leadership in many church settings: namely … it teaches us to look at ourselves instead of trying to fix others. We can’t waste time trying to change other people, we can only change ourselves.

I find that really refreshing. I am trying to let go of my need to fix everybody … I am just trying to love them.

But if we can’t fix the people around us, how can we live with them? By practicing acceptance.

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous emphasizes that we cannot find serenity until we accept things and people as they are. This is hard for many of us, for many reasons.

As Christians, we often struggle to accept people who disagree with us, or who have different standards of behavior. We worry that if we accept someone just as they are, then we are endorsing their moral and spiritual choices. If we want to help them grow or change, we feel we need to withhold acceptance. But that’s not true. In fact, it’s just the opposite. When we withhold acceptance – from others or from ourselves – we create conflict and lose the opportunity to stimulate positive change.

Carl Jung said, “We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.”

We can accept someone without approving or agreeing with what they do. The reality is that we can’t change them – or control their behavior – anyway. All we can control is our own responses to them.

Our lack of acceptance creates stress and tension in relationships. It also cuts us off from many blessings.

I had a friend from one of the 12 Step programs who was needing more support. I recommended a certain group to him. When he attended the group, he was dismayed because some of the members had a different approach to sobriety than he did. Rather than adopt a “live and let live” approach, and seek to learn from this other program and find the help he needed, he chose to go into a critical, judgmental mode, and refused to participate in the group any longer. He couldn’t get over his disagreement with how they approached recovery – and so lost the opportunity to get support and help he really needed.

Serenity comes when we concentrate on the attitudes we need to change instead of how the world around us needs to change. When we focus on another person’s negative qualities, those qualities grow larger. So why not focus instead on the good qualities?

Our serenity will grow as we develop reasonable, appropriate expectations of others. Remember that everyone is a work in progress. No one is perfect.  Can we accept them – and ourselves – even in the midst of that imperfection?