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.”


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.


Mental Illness in the Church: Making Sense of why Some People and Situations are so Perplexing

mental illnessI served for 15 years as a pastor in several church settings, then spent five years in the counseling world, and now I’m back in the church / pastoring world again. One thing I’ve taken back into the church world from my counseling experience is an understanding that undiagnosed mental illness plays a big role in all-too-many “problem situations” and “problem people” in churches today.

I’ve seen people get by with outrageously manipulative behavior in churches, because pastors and fellow church members are trying to be “nice.” At the same time, I’ve also seen an amazing lack of compassion for people who struggle with things like depression or ADHD, because people expect them to “snap out of it.”

I believe that many pastors struggle to know how to deal with certain difficult situations, and more training and understanding of mental illness could help them. They are trying to be godly and compassionate, but they may actually be making problems worse by the way they give attention to — and therefore reinforce — dysfunctional patterns. Or else they might ignore people altogether because they don’t know how to deal with them.

In learning about mental disorders and how to help people move past them, we can learn excellent ways of communicating, interpreting, and relating with others. This is not just about helping people who have a mental illness; this is about helping people with emotional struggles as a whole, something which we can all benefit from. The steps needed to help someone who has been clinically diagnosed with Narcisstic Personality Disorder, for instance, are steps that would greatly assist anyone with strong insecurities in general.

Real “church” happens when people come together, without barriers amongst one another, to grow with God. When there are “problem people” who cause strife and anxiety, this interrupts the cohesion needed for a healthy church to function. Asking these people to leave the church, before making a serious effort to help them, is not what God calls us to do. Ignoring these people and their needs means the problem persists and the church is not able to do what it is supposed to. Learning the characteristics of these mental disorders and using this knowledge to help others is what we must do to create and preserve a good church.

Here is a quick primer with an overview of some of the mental disorders that show up in churches. The descriptions of these disorders have been created by mixing and blending the language from a variety of sources (identified at the end of this article).

Relatively Common Mental Disorders in Churches

ADHD or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder – is a condition characterized by serious difficulties with attention and hyperactivity. The challenges brought on by ADHD vary from difficulty focusing on simple conversations to excessively losing track of details at work. Symptoms according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health include:

– Being easily distracted, missing details, forgetting things, and frequently switching from one activity to another
– Having difficulty maintaining focus on one task
– Becoming bored with a task after only a few minutes, unless doing something enjoyable
– Having difficulty focusing attention on organizing and completing a task, learning something new, or trouble completing and turning in homework assignments

The vast majority of people exhibit these behaviors to some extent. Some medical professionals are concerned this disorder is being overdiagnosed because of how common the symptoms are. The key distinction is that people with ADHD experience these issues to such a degree that it seriously and consistently hinders their ability to engage in day-to-day life.

Bipolar disorder or bipolar affective disorder – Also known as manic–depressive disorder or manic depression – bipolar disorder is a condition in which common emotions are magnified to an unhealthy and destructive level. Those with bipolar disorder go in and out of a state known as “mania”- periods of frenzied high energy- and will typically experience depression as well.

At the lowest degree, people with bipolar disorder can be energetic and excitable, and may sometimes be highly productive. In more severe cases, individuals are erratic and impulsive, often making bad decisions because of unrealistic ideas about themselves and the world around them. At the highest level, individuals can experience psychosis, in which they hold very distorted beliefs about the world.

A common symptom of bipolar disorder is to wildly swing between periods of mania and depression, with these phases lasting anywhere from days to months. In some cases, both of these states are experienced at the same time, hence the term “manic depression”.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) – a condition characterized by instability, recklessness and impulsiveness in relationships, behavior, self-image, and moods. People with BPD typically can’t stand being alone, but their relationships with others are very dramatic and stressful. They behave recklessly and can tend to: abuse drugs, have unsafe sex, go on manic shopping sprees, etc. Sometimes people with BPD will hurt themselves, or attempt suicide.

People with BPD have extreme mood swings, feeling very confident or positive one day and then very negative the next. Despite these mood swings, people with this disorder usually feel consistently empty and angry.

BPD usually develops during adolescence and early adulthood, often in response to early life trauma or deprivation. This can make it difficult to spot early on, because of how tumultuous that phase of life can be in the first place.

Depression / major depressive disorder (MDD) – People with clinical depression feel bad, in every way. They lose confidence, feel “trapped” or hopeless, lack direction in day to day activities and overall life decisions, and feel consistently drained and tired. They lose interest in activities they used to find very enjoyable, and stop acquiring new skills or hobbies.

The term “depression” is imprecise and sometimes used to describe a low mood, or general unhappiness. Diagnosable depression runs deeper, and therapists distinguish problematic depression in two categories:

Major Depressive Disorder is not simply “feeling bad”. It is a mental condition tied directly to a neurological dysfunction. When affected with clinical depression, the brain has significantly less neurotransmitter activity. This means the brain’s neurons aren’t communicating with each other as much as they typically should. This is why depression affects so many aspects of a person’s life; the entire brain is slowed down. Clinical depression can last anywhere from months to years.

Histrionic personality disorder (HPD) – This disorder is characterized by an excessive and inappropriate need for approval. People with HPD are highly emotional and constantly seek attention from others. This tends to result in overly dramatic, energetic, and/or flirtatious behavior that ends up hurting them and the people around them.

People with HPD often are initially perceived as happy and enthusiastic. But they are, in fact, deeply troubled, with an extreme need for attention and validation from others. In the majority of cases, this disorder is found in people with above-average appearance, and it affects four times more women than men. People with HPD have strong feelings of dependency, are apt to make inappropriate scenes, and exaggerate their feelings and actions.

(Of the disorders mentioned so far, HPD is probably the least common in churches. I mention it, however, because it seems to show up in pastors of large churches more often than you’d think.)

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) – This is a disorder in which a person is constantly grappling with insecurities related to vanity, personal self-worth, and power. Because of these insecurities, the person puts on a false – and excessive – display of arrogance, disrespect and/or superiority over others.

People with NPD often act in ways that are similar to those who are very confident and secure with themselves. The difference between the two is the underlying root of these behaviors. A healthy, confident person acts the way she does because she truly believes in herself; a narcissist will act overly confident because she does not believe in herself at all. Narcissists have a low self-esteem, and since they compensate for this by belittling or demonstrating superiority over others, they are unable to handle even the slightest criticism.

Less common Mental Disorders in Churches

Paranoid personality disorder (PPD) – Paranoia is characterized by a long-standing and all-encompassing distrust of other people. Those affected will habitually interpret the intentions of others as insulting, malicious, or otherwise threatening. This applies to serious life choices made by others, and to things as small as off-handed comments and remarks.

People with PPD have an unusual way of relating to the world. On the one hand they never acknowledge the irrationality of their unjustified suspicions, but at the same time they do not lose touch with reality completely. Instead, they have a warped view of the world, as they constantly go through life searching for any validation for their fears and distrust. They do not open up and confide with others for fear of rejection or betrayal, even if they have someone who has proven to be very trustworthy. They are simply unable to not be suspicious. If left untreated, these individuals will build up unwarranted resentments and anger for an excessive length of time.

Schizophrenia – This disorder is characterized by a breakdown of thought processes into incoherence and irrationality. Schizophrenics often have hallucinations. These typically manifest themselves as imaginary voices, but visual hallucinations have been observed as well. More common is delusional thinking and perceptions about the world. These delusions frequently concern the person’s safety and imagined threats.

Over a long enough time-span, schizophrenics will experience disorganized thinking and speech. This breakdown ranges from losing one’s train of thought, to the extreme cases of “word salad,” in which a person will simply blurt out random words with no connection of meaning or structure. It is common to see social withdrawl, decreased motivation and ambitions, degradation of hygiene, and impaired judgment in schizophrenics. Emotional capacity starts to waver as well. The individual might have unusual or inappropriate emotional responses to events and developments in life, or have difficulty processing and feeling emotions altogether.



American Psychiatric Association (psychiatry.org)
American Psychological Association (apa.org)
Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.com)
Psychology Today (psychologytoday.org)

Teleseminar interview with Jim Herrington on leadership, church systems, and spiritual vitality

Date: Tuesday, July 23

Time:  2pm Central

Like any gathering of people, a church is a complex system with many elements connected in interdependent relationships. Without seeing the way this system is built, spiritual leaders are left in the dark when it comes to effectively organizing and moving their church in a positive direction.


Jim Herrington has been a pastor since he was 19, serving congregations in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and a Masters in Education. He is the Founding Executive of Mission Houston, a non-profit that seeks to revitalize the spiritual health of greater Houston. He does quite of bit of church consulting and training of leaders, including working on the “Ridder Process” — a church consultation process. Jim is also the author of the excellent leadership book “The Leader’s Journey”.

We will be discussing the lessons Jim has learned in the many years he has spent working as a pastor, and his knowledge of how churches work well and succeed. Jim will elaborate on church systems, and how understanding these systems is key to leading a church effectively.  We will talk about how we can preserve our own emotional well-being in the stressful role as a pastor. Jim has also developed a process called Faith Walking, which is a way of approaching your relationship with God with integrity, obedience, and realistic intentions.


To register — fill out the form below:

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Jim Herrington on church systems, effective leadership, and maintaining spiritual vitality

Tuesday, July 23

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Lead but remember that the world doesn’t revolve around you

biggerleaderBeware of of the “great man / great woman” image of leadership. Leaders don’t lead because they are better / stronger / wiser / more spiritual than others in the organization. Leaders lead because they accept a certain role and exhibit certain skills.

I just read an interesting article by Jurgen Apolo about what he calls “Egocentric Leadership.” I’m going to quote it at length here, because it’s really helpful. (Note that he uses “leading” and “managing” interchangeably.)


I just finished reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and I didn’t like it. Yes, the message about team formation was quite good, and the model was interesting. But I hated the story. It describes a management team of immature managers, who all seem to be behaving like children. But behold… there is a new and wise CEO who is able to herd them all in the right direction, with a gentle but firm hand. Install a smart and experienced CEO, et voilá… Problem solved…

It’s the same with Good to Great, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, The One Minute Manager, and many others. They all assume that the organization is a ship full of lemmings, who are all in desperate need to be led. And that leadership is to be executed by the top lemming, of course.

It’s no wonder such books sell like cupcakes among everyone who enjoys feeling superior to other workers. It satisfies their needs for status and power. Another name would be egocentric leadership.

Now, don’t get me wrong! There are plenty of good ideas and good intentions among the authors of these books. That’s why I call it management 2.0: Nice ideas, bad implementation

Most “superiors” have no idea how to do the jobs of their “subordinates”. Peter Drucker already wrote this ages ago:

Knowledge workers are not subordinates; they are “associates.” For, once beyond the apprentice stage, knowledge workers must know more about their job than their boss does—or else they are no good at all. In fact, that they know more about their job than anybody else in the organization is part of the definition of knowledge workers.

– Peter F. Drucker, Management

[Great management] is the understanding that an organization is a social complex system of knowledge workers. Taking care of the system is just another specialization, just like development, testing, and marketing. Someone has to do it. But nobody is anyone else’s superior. We’re all in it together.

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).

Overcoming Codependence

Many people struggle with their relationships. Our acting out kept us from nurturing many relationships, and damaged – or even destroyed – others. But there’s more to this story. It’s also possible that what brought us to addictive behaviors in the first place was that our relationships weren’t what they needed to be. We felt alienated from people. We felt insecure around people. Maybe we weren’t sure how to relate honestly with people when we had conflict.

There’s an interesting chapter in Charlotte Kasl’s book “Women, Sex, and Addiction,” which talks about codependence and how it often goes hand in hand with addiction. Codependence is a word with many different definitions, but generally it refers to an over-dependence on maintaining a relationship, or keeping someone happy, even at the expense of our own well-being.

If we are going to recover from destructive relationships we need to live in truth. We need to stop doing things just to please someone else. We need to let ourselves know what we really know, say what we need to say, and do what we need to do. If we aren’t willing to live in truth in this way, our emotional and spiritual well-being is compromised.

But how do we live in truth? Here is a list of principles and practices:

1. To live in truth listen to your heart as well as others’

If we were insecure as kids, if we were told we were dumb, if our opinion or input never seemed to matter, chances are we developed a mindset of not valuing what we think, feel, and know. We grow to distrust ourselves, and look to someone else to validate us. We deny what we think, what we see, and what we experience if it contradicts what other people tell us.

To overcome this, we need to remember that we may not always be right, but neither are we always wrong. We need to remember that no one else knows exactly all that we know, and our insights are important. We need to start recognizing – and valuing – ourselves and our opinions.

To do this we take time out periodically to stop, slow ourselves down, and ask ourselves some questions:

  • What do I feel?
  • What do I know?
  • What do I want?

Obviously, there are times in everyone’s life when the answers to these questions are not clear. Sometimes we’re not sure. But if we rarely know the answers to these questions, or if we never even stop to consider the questions, it means that we are out of touch with ourselves. In that state, it’s hard to relate in a meaningful way to others, because we aren’t bringing a perspective of our own to share.

2. To live in truth, give no advice

For many of us, our sense of well-being is tied to, even dependent upon, another person. We care so much for that person, and so little for ourselves, that we over-focus on them. Our mind is constantly humming with plans to help that person, plans to change that person, how that person’s life could be better. The natural consequence is that we want to offer suggestions to that person about how they could improve.

Resist this urge.

Advice – particularly unsolicited advice – is rarely well received, and hardly ever acted upon. Before we give someone else advice, no matter how helpful or well-intentioned, we should ask ourselves:

“What do I need to do for me?”
“What do I want them to do that I really need to do for myself?”

It’s hard for advice-giving and real intimacy to coexist. Advice-giving puts one person in the position of authority. “This is how things really are, and this is what you need to do.” Instead of being in it together, one person is knowledgeable and dominant, the other is ignorant and subservient.


3. To live in truth, ask for no advice

One of the ways codependent people keep themselves small and others big is to ask for advice. It’s one thing to talk about questions and decisions with friends, in an effort to get a broader perspective. But by asking people what they think we should do changes the dynamic in an unhealthy way.

Also, it’s one thing to seek out a professional or expert in a given area, again as a way of gathering helpful information. But stop short of asking “What should I do?” Good therapists, pastors, and life coaches will not take that bait. If you ask “what should I do?” and the therapist tells you, now you are no longer responsible. If you proceed with their recommendation, you’re just doing what you’re told. If it doesn’t work out well, then you can blame the therapist for giving you bad advice.

That’s not helpful! It’s your life, and you are responsible to live it and choose wisely.

The next time you are tempted to ask someone for advice, stop yourself. Pray about the decision. Look within, asking “What do I really know to be true?” “What do I really want?”

As Christians we believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within us. When we are spiritually mature and emotionally congruent, we are in touch with divine guidance in such as way as to experience something as a deep, inner knowing. We can’t always explain it, but “we know that we know” it. Having this inner knowing is very empowering.

If we pray and search within for a sense of knowing what we need or what to do … and nothing comes to mind … then what? Go for a walk, go to bed and sleep on it. Trust that the answer — or at least as much as we need to know of the answer — will become clear.

This can be hard for some of us who feel the need for certainty and clarity in all situations. Life is not like that. There are times things are not clear, and we simply must take the step we believe is wisest … the one that is the “next right thing.” Don’t be tempted at this point to seek the false sense of certainty that comes from trading your sense of self for the advice of others.

4. To live in truth don’t try to fix other peoples’ feelings

Colossians 3:13 tells us to “bear with one another,” and this can be really hard to do. “Bearing with one another” means that we care for and support one another in the good and bad times. It can be hard to bear with someone when they are dealing with intense emotions.

I work with a lot of men who really struggle to do this with their wives. When their wife is really angry, or really sad, they don’t know how to handle it. I suspect that it’s also hard for many wives to do too. I certainly know that it’s hard as a parent to do this with our kids.

What do you do when someone you love – spouse, friend, child – is upset? I mean really upset. Really angry, or really sad?

Many of us get very uncomfortable in that situation. Think about the logic of this progression: If we don’t feel okay and secure about ourselves – then we will tend to over-rely on some other person(s) to help us feel okay about ourselves and about life. So then, if that person who is our rock and source of security is really struggling, if that person is really sad, or (God forbid) if that person is mad at us … we have a hard time dealing with it.

If we’re not in touch with our emotions, chances are we’re afraid of our emotions. And if we’re afraid of our emotions, we’ll be afraid of other peoples’ emotions too. So what we often do is – instead of listening to them, instead of just being with them in their sorrow – we try to snap them out of it. We try to smooth things over. As Charlotte Kasl says, we “quash other peoples’ anger and expressions of strong feelings because we are afraid of our own.”

There’s an important line between comforting someone, and trying to shut them down. We cross that line when we are uncomfortable with their sadness and we just try to shut them down. We cross that line when we try to tell people not to feel something, by saying things like:

  • “It’s not that bad”
  • “Stop crying”
  • “You should be happy”

One of the ways that we bear with one another when someone is really distressed and upset is this: we let them be upset. We don’t try to get them to calm down, we don’t try to “fix it,” or get defensive.

Learning this was a turning point in my relationship with my wife Charlene. For a long time in our marriage, if she was upset, I would want to fix it right away. Often her being upset would make me sad and stressed out. I generally assumed that if she was sad or angry, it was because of something I had done, or hadn’t done.

You’ve probably heard that saying, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” That speaks to a way of living that is like a thermometer … you just reflect emotionally whatever the other person is doing. If they’re up, you’re up. If they’re down, you’re down. And that’s how Charlene and I related together.

At some point I started learning to separate myself. If she was sad or angry – it might not be about me. If it was about me – and it was something I could do something about … obviously then it would be my job to do that. But if it was not about me, if was not something I could fix … then the most important thing I could do would be to just listen and be there. I didn’t have to solve it. I didn’t have to get all bent out of shape to help her “snap out of it.” I could just be there for her … and sometimes it was helpful just give her some space to work things out.

5. To live in truth learn to gripe at the right time

Some of us grew up in homes where we didn’t get heard. If we had things that were bothering us – making us sad or angry – and we tried to give voice to them, we got shut down. Maybe we grew up in a home where only one parent could be angry. Or maybe it was super-Christian, and if we were sad we got a Bible verse and sermon thrown at us. Or maybe our parents were caught up in their own problems – or maybe just gone – and so we had to fend for ourselves, and we learned to do that by just shutting down.

So in those kinds of situations, we don’t learn how to deal with the things that bother us. Now as adults, when something ticks us off, or makes us sad, or fearful — we haven’t learned how to deal with it in a healthy way. So we try to suppress those feelings. We minimize how bad something is, or we just deny that something bothers us.

But of course it doesn’t go away … and eventually it comes out in some dysfunctional way. Often the way it works is that we find someone else to gripe to. So something – or someone – is bothering us and making us angry, but we aren’t able to admit to ourselves that it bothers us. Or maybe we do know that it bothers us, but we don’t dare say anything.

Then we have a chance when we’re talking to someone else … and we then have our BMW sessions. You know what BMW sessions are? It’s an acronym I learned in coaching school. It stands for “bitch, moan, and whine.” It’s a gripe session.

Healthy people gripe just like everyone else. The only people who don’t need to gripe are the people who have perfect lives. So if there are things going on that make you mad, sad, or stressed, you’ve got to find a way to deal with that.

So here’s the question: when is the right time to gripe? The answer is (almost always) NOW. Codependent people are always telling you what they were feeling yesterday. How they were mad yesterday – usually at someone else – and instead of dealing with it then, with that person … they are now sharing it with you. The difference between healthy and unhealthy is a matter of when and where.

It’s okay to let someone see your anger. And the best way to do this is to name it, to be honest about it: “I’m angry that you are late again to our meeting.” or “It makes me angry that when we talk, we seem to spend most of the time talking about your kids. It makes me feel jealous and bad about my own family.” You don’t have to go on and on … just be open, and then you can move on.

One qualification: Sometimes it may be necessary to hold on to gripes for a short time, and not deal directly with the person who is frustrating us. This is the case if it’s not a safe person, or if it’s a relationship where you have a pattern of fighting a lot. It may not be a safe or wise thing to deal with it in that moment … but the general principle still applies:

As soon as you can …. as close to “in the moment” as you can … get the gripe out of your system.

Think of it like food that you eat. If you have some food that is bad, and hard to digest … imagine that it doesn’t get digested in your stomach … and it goes to your intestine and stays there. It’s too big to go through your system, but you haven’t digested it yet, so it just stays stuck in your intestine.

That undigested material is going to be toxic to your system. It’s going to mess you up in all kinds of ways. You’ve got to find a way to get that back into your stomach and digest it … then you can move on.

That’s how it is with having things that bother us. We’ve got to digest those things. We’ve got to find ways of processing them so that we let them go. If we don’t, they’ll stay within, and become more and more toxic.

6. To live in truth stop telling stories that could be titled: “What he/she did to me.”

Telling these kinds of stories keeps us in the victim role. And when we stay in the victim role, then it’s also easy for the person who is the perpetrator to stay in that role.

When we tell stories to other people about what this or that person did to us, instead of focusing on what we did, and what we allowed, and what choices we made — it just reinforces our powerlessness and dysfunction.

Let’s be honest: when someone tells the “What he did to me story” — what’s the goal? The goal is to get the hearer to say “Wow he’s really a jerk!” Isn’t that right? It’s a way to get validation for yourself … get some sympathy, some recognition, some reinforcement.

Rather than create the energy for change – and solutions for change, you’re just reinforcing the dysfunction of the relationship … you can repeat this pattern of feeling superior because of how bad he treats you, and then you might even talk to other people about it, and feel even better.

Notice the difference between these two statements:

  • Did you hear what he did to me again?
  • I feel angry with him for criticizing me in front of our friends at the party last night. I need help deciding what I need to say to him about this.

We need to set limits or understandings with our friends about this, and we also need to set limits about this in the support groups that we’re in. When we allow people to tell “what she did to me” stories, we become partners with them in their dysfunction. It’s like with addiction, we become enablers … it’s like we’re buying the drugs for them. “Oh really? Tell me about it. Oh it must be so hard for you. Oh man, what a jerk … I don’t know how you do it.” We’re not being helpful when we let people go on with those kind of stories … we’re reinforcing the victim and martyr mindset.

How about this as a guideline. The next time someone comes to you with another “what he/she did to me” story, you can say this: “I’m willing to support you if you are working to find solutions. However, I’m not willing to hear you repeatedly talk about how bad it is.”

What do you think about these principles for living in truth? Anything you would add? Let me know in the comments.

Overcoming Emotional Hurt

compassion imgWhen people have hurts and struggles in relationships, they tend to work on resolving them by focusing on forgiveness. There’s nothing wrong with forgiveness, but sometimes it’s hard to get there.

Maybe we should be talking more about compassion instead. Let me explain.

We all know that we’re supposed to forgive people who hurt us, but we get hung up on what it means and how to do it. We struggle to make sense of the jumble of emotions we still feel, even after we’ve made that seemingly momentous decision to forgive. The focus of forgiveness is often on what amounts to a quasi-legal/moral decision – to pardon someone, or “let them off the hook.” Then we often struggle to sort out what happens internally after we make that “decision to forgive.”

A Different Way

I want to suggest a different approach. If you’re struggling to let go of some hurt, forget about forgiveness for now, and instead just focus on compassion.

Webster’s defines compassion as: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is what happens whenwe focus (ie. maintain consciousness) on the suffering that someone else has experienced. This awareness then allows us to be more sympathetic towards them.

The great thing about compassion is that it doesn’t ask us to make a decision or judgment about someone, in the way that forgiveness does. All it does is help us to view other people in a new way. You might think of it as a pair of glasses, or lenses, that you put on as you view someone. The lens of compassion allows you to see other people from the vantage point of their own suffering, not just your disappointment or hurt.

Relationships Where we Need Compassion

When I work with people in recovery — whether one-on-one or in groups — we often unearth great pain from past relationships. Many people struggle to honestly face the ways in which they have been wounded by parents or siblings. It somehow feels wrong to acknowledge that. Other people have no trouble acknowledging that pain … in fact they struggle with just the opposite: they can’t let go of it. They feel a burning resentment towards the family members who hurt them.

I also see this with marriages. Many addicts struggle at some level with feelings of resentment towards their spouse, which gets mixed in with feelings of guilt and shame for how they’ve hurt them. They struggle with this mixture of feelings, and have a hard time sorting out in our minds how they can love someone, yet hurt them so deeply, and also feel sad and angry about certain aspects of the relationship.

People also struggle to come to terms with the hurts done by other people: old lovers, business partners, fellow church members, ex-friends. They’re not sure how to relate to them, or if they’re really ready to forgive them.

An Invitation for You

I invite you to set aside questions about whether you’re ready or able to forgive these people. For now, just focus on compassion. Think about how they may have been hurt in the past. Some of the suffering in their lives may be known to you, some not. The important thing is to intentionally hold these people in your mind as fully human … trying to do their best, but not having the tools to be the best parents, spouses, or friends that they want to be.

Recognize that these people were quite likely scarred by disappointments and mistreatment in their lives. It doesn’t take them off the hook, but it does enable you to bear with their failures with a little more openness.

Compassion for Yourself

While we’re at it, there is one more person you need to demonstrate compassion to: yourself. We are usually our own worst critics. The loudest voices of condemnation we hear are usually the voices in our own heads … it’s the things we are telling ourselves.

Many of us are merciless on ourselves when we slip up. Maybe we struggle with feelings of deep shame because of how our addiction has hurt other people and damaged our lives.

Forget about forgiving yourself for now. Can you at least show yourself some compassion? Can you at least remind yourself that the choices you have made were often the result of misguided coping strategies? You did the things you did not because you’re an awful person, but because you were a wounded person, looking for love and validation.

So today, have some compassion: for others, and for yourself.

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

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