Are you a Contented Leader? 3 Keys May Help

My dad loves putting jigsaw puzzles together. I don’t. And I especially dislike doing them when you get to the end and find that a piece is missing. A missing jigsaw puzzle pictures the elusive something that leaders sometimes feel that we believe if we had ‘it’ we could truly be content. For a pastor it might be a larger church. For an entrepreneur it might be that winning business idea. For the CEO or president of a company it might be reaching that next sale’s milestone. It’s different for us all. Unfortunately, we often think if we attain ‘it,’ all will be well. That’s simply not true. One of the world’s greatest leaders, the Apostle Paul, gives us us keen insight on this perplexing  issue of contentment.

While awaiting trial in a prison in Rome, Paul wrote a letter to the church in the city of Phillipi. Although life was not going well, he wrote these amazing words.

10 I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.  11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Phil 4.10-13, NIV)

From this short passage, three insights about contentment stand out.

Insight 1. This side of heaven, perfect contentment will always elude us.

The apostle Paul had given up a cushy life as a rising Jewish leader after his dramatic conversion. After his conversion, life didn’t go well much of the time. Likewise, when we trust Christ, He does not promise us an eternal spring. Paul even points to a nagging sense of “something-just-isn’t-quite-right” in 2 Corinthians 5.1-3

 1 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down—when we die and leave these bodies—we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands.  2 We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long for the day when we will put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing.  3 For we will not be spirits without bodies, but we will put on new heavenly bodies.  4 Our dying bodies make us groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and have no bodies at all. We want to slip into our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by everlasting life. (NLT)

Because earth this is not a believer’s real home, we will groan and sigh and long for a better place. Because heaven is our home, we will never find perfect contentment here. This world cannot meet our deepest needs and longings. More money will not meet our deepest needs. Bigger and better stuff will not take all our heart longings and aches away. A a bigger church or a banner sales year won’t cut it either. This side of heaven, we will always deal with a linger sense of discontentment.

As Martin Luther said,

 “Next to faith, this is the highest art: to be content in the calling in which God has placed you. I have not learned it yet.” (“Martin Luther–The Early Years,” Christian History, no. 34.

Contentment often means we must deal with the tension of feeling content in our circumstances yet not feeling content because we long for something better. God designed us that way.

Insight 2. In the meantime, don’t waste your discontentment 

In verse 11 Paul writes that he had to learn to be content. His learning suggests three implications.

1. The measure of contentment we can experience is a choice we make.

2. Contentment doesn’t come instinctively. We don’t mysteriously drift into it.

3. Developing contentment is not a passive experience. To learn implies we must engage and direct our minds toward something.

I believe we learn to be content when circumstances bring our discontentment to the surface and then as we yield that discontentment to God, He brings us to a new state of contentment, until the next new challenge surfaces discontentment. Then we repeat the process of learning once again.

We don’t learn contentment from a book or a blog. We learn it through life’s experiences.

Even when Paul was in prison, he was learning contentment. In the short book of Philippeans he even used the word ‘joy’ 16 times.

Insight 3. Tend to your soul.

He mentions learn again in verse 12 but it’s a different word. The Greeks used this word to describe being instructed or initiated into a secret society. Through his learning he had been initiated into this secret of contentment. In this case the initiation rites were the lessons taught by both trial and prosperity. Through that process, he discovered by experience the secret of being content. He then writes in verse 12, I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Verse 12 doesn’t mean, for example, that I as a pastor of a church of 700 will see my church grow to 7,000 next year because “I can do everything.” Rather, He promises us that true contentment in any circumstance only comes through Himself. And as we tend to matters of our heart, our relationship with Him, He can bring a measure of contentment to us in the middle of difficult or disappointing  circumstances.

Jesus doesn’t promise never ending ministry success, every year a banner year, or freedom from difficulty. Neither does he promise cheery emotions every day. Rather He will give us what we need to face any circumstance that could keep us discontented.

So, as leaders lead, we must live in a world of discontentment and at the same time ever growing contentment.

What has helped you learn to be more contented as a leader?

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Leaders who Last: Is This the Reason Why?

Some leaders last. Some don’t. Why? Did God endow certain leaders with extra leadership moxie? Did they inherit the leadership gene? Were they in the right place at the right time? Was their ability to last due to good parents? Perhaps all these factors do play a part. However, I believe that one factor in particular determines how well leaders last. Perhaps you will agree. (adapted with permission from People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership).

I believe the key for prevailing leaders lies in clarity of and commitment to their core values.

Do this exercise right now. Quickly, without thinking much, answer this question.

  • What core values and convictions guide your life and ministry? If you haven’t memorized them, go to the document on your computer or in a file where you’ve listed them. 

Were you able to easily recall them? Were they fuzzy or hard to locate? Or was this the first time you’ve even considered what they were? When I say values, I don’t mean the essential values every follower of Jesus should embrace, like keeping the Ten Commandments, obeying the Golden Rule or living out Jesus’ great command and Great Commission.

Rather I’m speaking about more nuanced ones that capture the essence of the real you.

Such values so infuse our soul that nothing external can cause us to compromise them. Granted, they might be aspirational, ones not yet fully developed. Nevertheless, they describe the authentic, Christ-honoring you to which you aspire.

It’s like the difference between a compass and a gyrocompass. A compass points to true north because it relies on magnetic north—unless, that is, you bring a magnet close to it. Even a small magnet can cause a compass to give wrong directions. A magnet external to it affects the north arrow so that it gives a false reading. Metaphorically, the magnet makes it compromise. For some so-called values, all it takes is criticism or the oppositional voice of a significant board member (an external force) to cause a leader to compromise. However, a gyrocompass is a device used on ships that is a compass “plus” so that a magnet can’t cause it to give a false reading.

Samson was a leader with simple “compass” values. As a Nazarite, he had made a vow (swore to a list of “values”) to avoid certain behaviors. Usually in that day a person’s joy and a desire to set himself apart for God prompted such a vow. In his case, however, it was prophesied that he would be a Nazarite from birth (Judg 13: 5). But from the very beginning Samson found it difficult to live up to those values. He became involved with three different Philistine women, one ultimately leading to his downfall.

Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima write,

“Samson had a deep need to please others. It was very hard for him to disappoint anyone. In fact it was nearly impossible for him to say ‘No’ even when saying yes was in his best interest and ultimately was self-destructive.” (McIntosh and Samuel Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of LeadershipGrand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007, Kindle ebook, loc. 1176.

When something (or someone) exerted pressure on his values, his compass didn’t keep him fixed on his true north.

Our true inner values, our gyrocompass values, play a very significant role in how well we last in our leadership.

Do you agree? Why or why not?

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From People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership (Kindle Locations 1278-1297). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition by Dr. Charles Stone

10 Ways Leaders Build Trust

If a leader wants to lead well and successfully, he or she must build trust with those around him or her. Without trust, teams won’t thrive or even survive. I believe we leaders must prioritize building trust with and among those we lead and serve. Consider these 10 ways to build trust with your teams.

  1. Speak truth, but always in love.
    • Eph. 4.15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
    • Don’t spin and don’t flatter. Tell the truth, but don’t use a bat to do it. Jim Carrey starred in a movie several years ago called Liar Liar. He always spoke the truth but with no love, consideration or respect.
    • One of the most successful ways to deplete people’s trust accounts is to send angry emails. Don’t do that. See my blog here about misusing email.
  2. Golden rule trust.
    • The golden rule says, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” (Matt. 7.12)
    • In other words, give trust to others and they will give it to you. If you don’t trust others, don’t expect them to trust you. Trust gets reciprocated. You want trust, you have to extend it to others
    • Biblically rooted trust does not mean blind trust. Stephen M. R.  Covey calls it smart trust. There must be some credibility and history before you give full trust. I recommend his book Smart Trust.
    • Smart trust means that you have a propensity to trust and that you extend and inspire trust in others.
  3. Risk transparency.
    • People don’t trust what they don’t see. Trust requires humility in that you give part of yourself to others so that you actually give the power to them to potentially hurt or disappoint you. Banish hidden agendas. Don’t make things appear what they are not. Be willing to admit your failures and struggles.
  4. Go the extra mile to right wrongs.
    • Don’t cover up. Don’t make excuses. Own your own failures. You will build trust in others when you admit it when you were wrong.
  5. Give credit where credit is due. 
    • Practice Matthew 18 by dealing with conflict 1-1 first. Don’t let others con you into their conflict when they aren’t willing to apply Matthew 18.
  6. Be accountable.
    • God gives more opportunity and responsibility to those who have proved themselves trustworthy.
      • “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’ (Luke 19.17)
    • Hold yourself accountable and responsible. Don’t blame others when you should take responsibility.
  7. Do what say you will do.
    • Behave in ways that builds trust in others. Show up the same way every day. Don’t be mad at everybody one day and happy as the lark the next day. Be consistent.
    • … those who fear the LORD…keeps his oath even when it hurts… (Ps 15.4)
    • … show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2.10)
    • Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. (1 Cor. 4.2)
  8. Practice authentic empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside the shoes of another, feel his emotions, and see life from his perspective. When you seek to truly empathize, it creates safety.
    • One of the Old Testament words for trust (batach) has a meaning of “careless.” When you trust your spouse or someone else, you feel so safe that you are careless—or free of concern—with him or her. You don’t have to hide who you are or be self-protective (from Focus on the Family).
  9. Seek understanding before being understood. In other words learn to truly listen.
    • My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…. (James 1.19)
    • The more we know each other and truly listen, the more we can understand why others do what they do.
    • Listen to understand, not build your case, not to reply, not to find loopholes in the other person’s argument or viewpoint, not to correct them, but listen to first understand.
  10. What would you add as a tenth?

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Does Your Emotional Force Field Attract or Push Others Away?

In Miss Pickens’s third-grade class at Glen Oaks Elementary School in Fairfield, Alabama, I performed the first of many science experiments. As a full-fledged geek, I looked forward to those experiment days. One day Miss Pickens gave each of us a small, rectangular magnet about the size of a stick of gum, a sheet of white paper and a small container filled with metal filings. She told us to place the magnet on our wooden desks and then place the paper over it. Then she instructed us to slowly pour the metal filings on the paper. Magically, the metal filings clumped into semi-circular shapes at each end of the magnet. She then explained that those filings aligned themselves with the unseen magnetic force fields radiating from each end of the magnet. Thus I learned about the concept of force fields. In the same way every leader and pastor carries with him or her their own emotional force fields.

You’ve probably met people that carry around a magnetic, attracting one. My wife does. She loves people, and people immediately sense that. They feel drawn to her because her personality and caring persona invite interaction. One the other hand, I’ve known people that carry around an emotional field that pushes people away. It doesn’t take much interaction for me to feel uncomfortable or even repelled by such people.

Neuroscience describes a process called theory of mind that enables us, to some extent, to intuit the emotional and mental state of somebody else. When we notice someone’s body language and eye movements, we subconsciously can sense his emotional state and whether he is for or against us. Although not foolproof, this ability helps us pick up on subtle cues from others and “read” their emotional force field, whether it draws us to them or pushes us away.

An episode in the book of Ruth illustrates the idea of force fields.

When the women in Bethlehem first saw Naomi years after she had left with her husband, they were shocked at what they sensed in her. Her name, which meant “pleasant,” no longer described her countenance. Instead, her losses in the previous decade had led left their mark, and the women immediately sensed it. No longer “pleasant,” she asked them to call her Mara, which means “bitter­­ness” (Ruth 1: 19-20).

In a similar fashion, I would often sense the mode of a leader in a former church (I’ll call him Jake), simply by looking at him. He would sometimes come into a meeting with an emotional field that screamed, “I’m in a bad mood, and I’m going to resist everything you say.” His entire persona telegraphed his adversarial mood.

In contrast, I recall another leader in a former church that always carried an emotional field that said, “Charles, I am for you and with you. I support you.”

When we step into another’s emotional field, it does affect us. We often function in unhealthy ways in response to these fields. When I sensed the adversarial leader’s mood (Jake), I would often subconsciously tense up. My anxiety level would rise, and I would put myself on guard for fear of being hurt in some way. As a result, I could not think as clearly and would easily become defensive.

On the other hand, when I sensed the other leader’s affirmative mood, I felt safe. I could be myself, listen and be fully present for her.

This experience parallels how the poles of magnets either repel or attract each other. Difficult church conditions often give rise to repelling emotional fields that can cause conflict, personality clashes and distance. When we find ourselves in these adversarial fields, we must draw deeply from our spiritual resources, as Nehemiah did that we see in the book named after him.

Instead of disconnecting, powering up or reacting, we must stay calmly connected to that person. Our responses significantly affect the emotional fields of others in a positive or a negative way. When we keep our cool in the face of conflict, we think more clearly and can actually moderate the person’s or the group’s overall anxiety.

Consider Canada geese, for example. When I lived in Chicago, I’d often jog in the fall near a field packed with resting geese. When I ran near them, inevitably one would crane its neck, look at me and stand up, which caused the rest of the flock to do the same in a ripple effect. The one goose’s “anxiety” fed the others’. But after I ran by (unless for fun I ran at them), that initial goose would lower its neck and sit down, which cued the rest of the flock to follow. Its anxiety, or lack of it, affected the entire flock.

That’s how it works in churches and organizations. It travels from person to person in groups. If a pastor or leader brings his anxiety into a staff meeting (or a church service), it likely causes everybody else’s anxiety to rise as well. Likewise, if he relates to others with calm instead of anxious­ness, they mirror his calmness. As Margaret Marcuson writes,

“When a leader is clear, calm, and confident, people find their own confidence increased, and they are more likely to follow.”  (Leaders Who Last, Kindle loc. 815)

Calmly connecting does not mean we never get emotional or show passion. Nor does it imply we should become best friends with our critics. Roberta Gilbert explains it this way:

“If the leader can make a more frequent contact with difficult people (notwithstanding the fact that we all want to distance from them) they will often settle down. These contacts don’t have to be large amounts of time, they simply need to take place. And, sometimes, they don’t need to be about issues. Contact simply needs to be made.” (Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems Make a Difference, Falls Church, VA: Leading Systems Press, 2009, p. 136)

So managing our emotional force fields is key to leading well.

How has your emotional force field, whether positive or negative, affected those you lead?

Taken by permission from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 2003-2029). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Emotionally Anxious Leaders: 8 Signs

My dad was an electrical engineer and filled his shop in our basement with the most amazing gizmos. Transistors, capacitors, transformers, electrical tools and every conceivable gadget lined the shelves and entertained me for hours. My favorite gadget was a neon sign transformer. A transformer is a device that either steps up or steps down current. The metal green box in a yard down your street or the cylindrical container on a telephone pole near your house is a transformer that steps down high-voltage power to 220 volts that comes into your house. So what does a transformer have to to with an emotionally anxious leader? Read on.

With my dad’s neon sign transformer, I made what is called a Jacob’s ladder. I attached two three-foot wires to the leads on each side, and bent the wires into a V. When I plugged it in, a multi-thousand volt spark started at the bottom of the V and arced to the top. In this case, the transformer stepped up the household current to over two thousand volts. My Jacob’s ladder created lots of really cool sparks that appealed to my geekish interests. And I got shocked by it only once.

A leader is like a transformer. By his responses, he can either defuse an emotional setting like a heated board meeting or can act like a step-up transformer by reacting and increasing anxiety, thus causing lots of not-so-cool sparks, as we leaders often do. Through a calm presence with emotional people, a leader can act like an emotional step-down transformer, decreasing the group’s anxiety by letting it pass through him without getting zapped.

Sometimes as leaders, however, we can characterize emotionality and anxiety one-dimensionally as defensiveness. But chronic anxiety, the low level anxiety we seem to never shake, fuels emotionality and shows up in eight ways that I call “the eight Fs of chronic anxiety.” It manifests itself differently in different people. As you read the list below, consider which F tempts you the most.

  • Fight: emotionally reacting and becoming defensive (how we usually describe emotionality)
  • Flee: emotionally or physically cutting off from others in anxious situations
  • Freeze: not knowing what to do, thus not taking a position; offering no opinion and/ or staying neutral when you should take a position
  • Fuse: losing your identity by glomming on to others’ wants and desires, compromising convictions, seeking unity at all costs and/ or trying to force everybody to be one big, happy family
  • Fixate: easily getting triangled into unhealthy relationships and conflict
  • Fix: overperforming to fix somebody else’s problems or doing for others what they should do for themselves
  • Flounder: becoming passive, underperforming, or giving up
  • Feed/ fornicate/ finances: inappropriately yielding to base impulses by turning to food, illicit sex/ pornography or inappropriate use of money

When we are tempted to deal with our anxiety with one of the 8 F’s, we must look to Jesus.

Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions. He wept when he heard that Lazarus had died. He became angry at the temple moneychangers. He felt a heavy heart in the garden of Gethsemane. Yet his behavior reflected anything but anxious reactivity.

Jesus’ response to his enemies throughout his trial and crucifixion, as 1 Peter 2: 23 illustrates, continues to amaze me.

“When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”

Every time I recall this verse, I stand in awe. Although Jesus possessed God’s power to destroy his detractors, he didn’t. Rather, he leaned into his heavenly Father to respond appropriately to hardship. Likewise, as we lean into our heavenly Father, he gives us what we need to say no to reactivity and dealing with our anxiety in unhealthy and sinful ways.

The Bible tells us that the Lord has given us everything we need to live a godly life. Second Peter 1: 3 is so powerful as it encourages us with these words.

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

God has crafted our bodies and brains, our souls and minds, and our regenerated hearts with the capability to cool our emotions in the midst of emotionality. Acting calmly when tempted to do otherwise glorifies him.

What has helped you deal with anxiety that ministry often brings?

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Used by permission. Stone, Charles (2014-01-01). People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership (Kindle Locations 2415-2432). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.