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.

Leadership Communities Teleseminar Recording – The Strategy for Maximizing your Spiritual Leadership

isolatedLeadership Communities…. What they are. How they work. And why they can help you.

In this informative free teleseminar, program director Mark Brouwer will talk about what the new “Leadership Community Groups” are. He will describe the program, and explain how the groups work, and why they are life-changing for leaders who participate.

These Leadership Community Groups will be starting in the Fall of 2013, and are built on the foundation of a series of pastor support and coaching groups that Mark Brouwer has been leading since 2008.

Note: this teleseminar has already taken place. You can get a recording of it for free! Sign up using the form at the link below:

–Sign up Here–

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

Facing the epidemic of suicide

suicide_imageToday there are growing numbers of suicides — especially among military veterans. I just came across a great article from Jennifer Michael Hecht in The American Scholar about suicide. It’s written from a secular, scholarly, but wise perspective. It’s so well-written that I’m doing to quote some sections at length. Here are some excerpts:

Today’s military faces a tremendous crisis. We are losing more soldiers to suicide than to combat. Some of this is attributable to PTSD—posttraumatic stress disorder—but a recent Pentagon study covering the years 2008 through 2011 showed that some 52 percent of those who committed suicide had never been deployed to a combat zone. Last year, military personnel killed themselves at a rate of about one a day. Veterans are killing themselves at a rate of almost one every hour, about 22 a day. Recently the rise in military suicide was so extreme that it made the front page of The New York Times and the cover of Time magazine. The rate is higher this year than it was at this point last year.

The suicide rate is also escalating in the U.S. population at large: 10 years ago it shocked observers by reaching 30,000 a year. Now it is almost 40,000. Around the world and in the United States there are more suicides than murders. For those under 40 years of age, it is one of the top three killers. For older people it is one of the top 10, though their rate of suicide is the highest (other diseases begin to compete for numbers). Women attempt suicide more, but men succeed more often—probably because they have greater access to guns, which is one of the surest methods.

In the civilian population matching the demographics of the military (considering age, sex, and race), between 2002 and 2009 (the latest year for which we have reliable numbers) the suicide rate increased by 15 percent. According to Pentagon numbers, the military suicide rate in the same period increased by 80 percent. Even this disparity may understate the problem, since the Pentagon counts as active duty people who were active for only a few days in a given year, making the rate far lower than it would be if officials counted people who were active for at least six months, for instance.

Why this rash of suicides?

Many soldier suicides come in response to a bad situation: a broken marriage, a financial crisis, legal trouble,  or some other reversal. A recent Pentagon study showed that about half of military suicides had experienced a failed marriage, frequently just months before the victims killed themselves. Another report showed that most suicides occurred in people under the age of 25. Family and friends who have lost someone to suicide often report that the person had legal or financial troubles, or both; that they were struggling with drugs or alcohol; that they came back from the war deeply changed; or that they were frustrated at not being deployed.

By and large, people kill themselves today for the same reasons Ajax (a figure in Greek Mythology that she references earlier in the article) does: because life can be disappointing, unfair, and painful, and we often respond by doing things that make us feel ashamed in the morning. The extent of the misery Ajax experiences is in large part because, as a great hero, he expects so much of himself. These days we expect a lot. We live in a culture that makes us all want to be special, and the math on that will never add up. We all feel terribly let down sometimes.

What to do about this rash of suicide?

If someone is besieged by suicidal thoughts, it is important that he get help from a mental health professional. Talk therapy can work, bringing real insight. Antidepressants can take the edge off the pain as a person figures out her life. But we can also draw on the inner resolve of the individual, and on the history of ideas.

To save our future selves from suicide, we have to do some work now. Boot camp and additional training get a soldier ready for war. In situations where most people would freeze and give up or run away, soldiers are trained to fight the fight and try to get out alive. People do not often speak of it, but the inner life of soldiers and civilians alike can be so brutal that it too requires training in advance of a crisis. We need a boot camp of the heart and of the psyche.

Beyond the moment of crisis, people do not want to die of suicide any more than the person who freezes up in a firefight wants to die in battle—they are both just overwhelmed and undertrained. The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that suicide is always a matter of taking oneself by surprise, a rushing of one’s own defenses. Like other defenses, those against suicide can be strengthened. Abundant data show us that the suicidal impulse can be of remarkably short duration. The mood passes. One study followed up on 515 people saved from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge more than 20 years earlier and found that only between five and seven percent actually went on to end their own lives. Other studies have shown that an overwhelming number of people who have attempted suicide are unambiguously glad they did not die.

An untrained person experiencing profound disappointment or depression may let the part of him that wants to die win the day. Any of us might get to a place where the sliver of ourselves that wants to die is in control for a while. Don’t let it happen. Inculcate into your very being the idea that killing yourself is not an option. This is work everyone should do. Those who have never felt intense inner pain should not scoff at its power. As the 17th-century doctor Robert Burton wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “Hope, ye miserable. Ye happy, take heed.” Everyone suffers; no one escapes. When the bad time comes, it will feel like it is never going to end. But it will. We must think it through now so that the training against suicide kicks in and saves our life and the lives of our fellows.

People considering suicide should keep in mind how it will affect others

As Hecht points out, suicide not only really hurts the people around us by causing them grief and guilt, it also creates a situation where the people we leave behind are much more likely themselves to commit suicide:

The reason I say “the lives of our fellows” is that one of the principal predictors of suicide is knowing someone who has committed suicide. We influence each other to an extraordinary degree. Parents who kill themselves leave behind children who are three times as likely to kill themselves as children who make it to age 18 with living parents. It’s not just parents. According to sociological studies, one suicide in a community very often leads to a rise in suicides by people who knew the deceased, or knew of him, or felt themselves like him in some way, especially with regard to age, sex, and occupation. In my new book, Stay, I compile a large number of studies showing that suicidal contagion is real. It shouldn’t surprise us, because studies have shown that with weight, smoking, recycling, and other choices, people do what they think the people around them are doing. Even with choices as permanent as getting tattoos or having a third child, people follow each other. After one suicide, the suicide rate in a given area increases. It happens at schools; it happens within professions; it happens after a celebrity suicide; and it is happening in the military right now.

Because of this phenomenon, suicide is also homicide—you take somebody with you. When you take your own life, you normalize suicide for people who liked you and who are like you. Once the numbers reach a critical mass, as they have in the military today, it is a massacre. We have to take better care of each other by insisting on sparing ourselves in periods of emotional agony. What I want to tell our soldiers and veterans is this: If you want your buddies to live, you have to find a way to live, too. Living through your misery is a colossal gift to the community. You may now or someday feel as if you are useless, as if the world would be better off without you. But that is wrong. You may have made some mistakes, even some terrible mistakes, but you would do even more damage—immeasurable damage—if you were to kill yourself. It is not an option.

True, someone cannot simply decide not to feel miserable, or just choose not to have suicidal thoughts, but people can choose not to go through with it. Consider, for example, that the powerful cultural taboo against suicide for women with small children corresponds to a low suicide rate for such women. They are no less depressed—50 to 80 percent of women experience some postpartum “blues,” and between 10 and 15 percent suffer from postpartum depression. Nothing suggests that they have fewer suicidal thoughts, but they resist them. If women can do this for their children, then soldiers can do it for their comrades, their families, and their own future selves.

It takes courage to live through feelings of despair

Many great minds in history have spoken of the courage required to stay alive. It may seem like a very different kind of courage than what war requires, but similarities exist. In some cases, courage on the battlefield is observed by many others and can lead to a medal, but even on the battlefield the greatest courage is often witnessed by only a few other people. An act of heroism can nevertheless be deeply satisfying. The courage to live through suicidal feelings and stay alive will not earn a medal, but it will bring the respect of those close to you and may well bring tremendous satisfaction.

And beyond satisfaction, it can bring wisdom. Most people feel at times that they have dug themselves into a hole out of which they cannot climb. No one wants to be humbled in this way, but it is an essential ripening. From military heroes, leaders we admire, and deep thinkers of all kinds, we hear over and over that real knowledge comes from pain. Living through inner pain is how we lose our arrogance, our selfishness, and our ignorance. It is how we acquire gentleness and a sense of responsibility, maturity, and the capacity for leadership.

Our view of suicide is skewed today because of our tendency to expect that life should always be easy and happy

The way we talk about suicide today is off balance. We are so caught up in the language of illness that we end up stigmatizing misery, when in fact misery is a part of everyone’s life. As a nation, we take millions of pills to deal with our sadness, yet we strive to seem fine all the time, such that everyone ends up alone with his or her struggles. We read and write about all sorts of weakness and heartache, but the stories are almost all recovery tales. We are willing to talk about it when it’s over, but while people are at their lowest points they are often isolated by shame about their troubles. We need at least to know that inner pain is common and always has been.

Closing thoughts:

We need to think these issues through and take a stand now so that when we are feeling anguish, we have a commitment to avoid taking our own lives. We need to know that suicide is wrong. We need to read it, and hear it, and speak it, one-on-one and in gatherings.

Ideas are never the whole story: people face biological depression, cataclysmic financial loss, maddening drug addiction, and awful luck in love. To fix the national problem of suicide, among soldiers and civilians, we need better access to mental health care and a better economy. But ideas do matter.

History and philosophy indicate that people can gain strength from knowing of the suffering of heroes, historical and mythical. When we are miserable, it is hard to remember anything positive, so we have to memorize some things before those moments come. Life is meaningful, and it is meaningful for reasons to which we do not always have access, because of our youth or because of our mood. Trust the wisdom of the ages and wait for greater knowledge and better times. Life will raise us up again. Practice having some faith in it.

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.

 

Bullying – on the playground and in the pew

bullyWe’re paying more attention these days to the subject of bullying. Maybe we’re just more sensitive these days, but more likely it’s because the problem is getting worse. Kids’ participation in social media means that they are exposed to more of their peers, and therefore more bullies. Not only that, but the dynamics of electronic communication lend themselves to bullying. (If you don’t believe me, just observe the “discussions” that happen in blogs and message boards for a while … notice how the level of discourse quickly devolves into name calling and snarky comments.)

Bullying doesn’t just happen among kids … adults do it too. In fact, some would argue that kids are doing it more these days because it’s being modeled more these days by people like us. This is really sad when you think about it … especially when you think about it happening in church.

And it does happen in church, doesn’t it? Does it ever! I see it a lot. Sometimes people lash out because of insecurity, sometimes because of fear, sometimes simply because of pride and a desire for power. Sometimes people use bullying tactics under the guise of exercising spiritual authority.

You’ve maybe heard the story of kids who are playing outside, while their moms is working in the house with a window open. She hears them yelling and name calling, and decides she has to intervene. She calls out the window: “What are you kids doing?” One of them responds: “It’s okay mom, we’re just playing church.”

Ouch!

Dr. Louise Hart on Bullying

There’s a great article in a recent Hazelden newsletter about bullying, which is an excerpt from Dr Hart’s new book on the subject. I’m going to quote it at length here, because she does such a great job at describing the characteristics of bullies and their victims. As you read this, see if you can identify any of this in behaviors you see in your church:

Characteristics of Bullies
Bullying refers to words or actions expressed to gain power over another person, as in the saying “Might makes right.” This urge to dominate, to be superior, underlies child abuse, date rape, domestic violence, workplace violence, and hate crimes. The need to dominate contributes to the imbalance of power.

Bullies can be characterized in a number of ways:

  • aggressive bullies who are hot-tempered, strong, impulsive, and confident
  • passive bullies who are insecure and have personal problems; they tend to follow the lead of aggressive bullies
  • bully-victims who have been bullied, then bully others
  • pure bullies who are well adjusted but just enjoy dominating others

Some bullies are children who themselves have been bullied, although that’s not true for all. For some, bullying might be a way of dealing with situations at home that they’re having trouble coping with. For others, they may have poor social skills or learning disabilities, making it hard to fit in with other kids; for these children, bullying provides a sense of control to satisfy their own sense of powerlessness.

Characteristics of Targets
Any child can be bullied, but there are often some common characteristics of targets:

  • passive victims who are anxious, fearful, and socially withdrawn (sometimes with good reason), making them appear vulnerable.
  • Experts have named many types of passive victims, such as: –vicarious victims who feel vulnerable, sympathetic, and guilty when there is bullying around them –false victims who feel they are being bullied, even when they are not –perpetual victims who have been bullied so much that it becomes part of their psyche
  • provocative victims who arouse negative responses from those
  • around them
  • bully-victims (see above)

 

School Principle Ron DeBoer writing about bullying

Another great article on bullying just came out in The Banner, written by school principle Ron DeBoer. Listen to his recommendation for  how schools need to deal with this:

Schools need to develop deliberate strategies to both prevent and respond to bullying. Schools need to communicate clearly to parents that no forms of bullying will be tolerated; they need policies and processes with escalating consequences for bullies. That may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often adults in a position to respond to bullying don’t acknowledge it as anything other than a teenage rite of passage.

Good stuff. I agree completely. But it also makes me think: WHAT ABOUT CHURCHES?

Read DeBoer’s paragraph again … and this time substitute “churches” for schools. Do you agree? Do you think that churches need to take more of a stand against bullying in all its forms? I do.

Stepping up our commitment to fight bullying

I’m working on a book right now about Overloaded Leaders. One of the reason for pastors being overloaded is that they get burdened by dealing with conflict … including conflict that is directed at them. One of the important — but often overlooked — tasks of church leaders is to protect the community of the church. The church needs to be a place that is safe and loving. When people violate standards of love by gossiping, criticizing, name-calling, and general intimidation … it’s time to step in.

We can talk more about “How” and “When” to step in later. But right now the most important issue is this: do we agree that it’s an important issue? Do we agree that it is our job to protect community health? Are we willing to make that an important part of our task as leaders?

If pastors agree to this, then the next step is to ensure that they are not alone in that conviction. This needs the ownership and commitment of boards and councils (which are, unfortunately, often the places where we see bullying behaviors in churches!). Deal with that by teaching, intelligent confrontation (when necessary), and sometimes just holding on until some destructive “leaders” end their terms on the board. Then, when the church leadership can be united in its commitment to healthy relationships — and no tolerance for bullying in the church — then the community can be much stronger, more united, and more fruitful in ministry.

 

The sociology of friendship, groups, and church size

Small groups (like home Bible studies, Care Groups, and the like) have an upper size limit of 10-15, depending on the people involved. The reason is obvious, and it’s pure sociology. We can only relate meaningfully to a small group of people. Beyond that size, relational dynamics get too complex and we naturally sub-divide into smaller “groups within the group”.

Churches without associate program staff rarely grown beyond 200. The reasons are more complex, but sociology also plays a big role.

Listen to what John Agno has to say about the sociology of groups, and think about what this means for churches:

According to “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, to be someone’s best friend requires a minimum investment of time. More than that, it takes emotional energy. Caring about someone deeply is exhausting. At a certain point, at somewhere between 10 to 15 people, we begin to overload. Mostly, it’s a question of our available time and energy.

For example, if you belong to a group of twenty people, there are 190 two-way relationships to keep track of: 19 involving yourself and 171 involving the rest of the group. That’s a twentyfold increase in the amount of information processing needed to ‘know’ the other members of the group. Even a relatively small increase in the size of a group, creates a significant additional social and intellectual burden.

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. To have more than 150 people in a group reduces the ability of each member to be sufficiently familiar with each other that they can work together as a functional unit.

Above 150, you have to impose complicated hierarchies and rules to command loyalty and cohesion. Below 150, it is possible to achieve these same goals informally based upon personal loyalties and direct person-to-person contacts.

When things get larger than 150, people become strangers to one another. When your group gets bigger than 150, you begin to get two or three sub-groups or clans within the larger group. Above 150 people, there begins to be structural impediments to the ability of the group to agree and act with one voice.

How the 150 number applies to churches gets complicated, because church size is also heavily affected by facility space, the nature of the church programs and organizational structure, and the leadership and communication skills of the pastor. If nothing else, it’s helpful to keep in mind that people gravitate to a medium sized “communities” (ranging from 40-75) in churches, regardless of the worship attendance of the church. This is because people probably have 50 to 100 people outside the church who already play a key role in their lives … and if the social limit of most people is about 150, that leaves space for 40-75.

Interesting.

What you do is important. I want to help you keep doing it.