7 Ways Leaders can Navigate the Pain of Rejection

Rejection. The sound of the word itself even sounds ominous. If you’ve been a pastor or church leader for any length of time, chances are you’ve felt the dagger of rejection. It may have come intentionally through a serious conflict with a leader who didn’t like or support you. It may have come more subtly when someone quietly leaves your church and the scuttlebutt was that they left because they “weren’t getting fed.” The source doesn’t matter. It still hurts. When it inevitable does come, what can we do? In this post I suggest 7 ways to navigate the pain of rejection.

How Leaders Can Navigate the Pain of Rejection… 

  1. Recognize that you’ve not sinned because you feel hurt. Our brain registers physical pain primarily in two areas of the brain, the insula, which lies deep in our brain, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which lies between our brain’s thinking center and our emotional center. And guess what? Social pain such as rejection registers in the same places. So, rejection actually physically hurts. It’s an automatic response to rejection that God wired into our bodies. So, the bad feelings you experience from rejection don’t mean you’re a weak leader or a sinful person.
  2. When rejected, admit the pain you feel. Don’t ignore or stuff your emotions. The phrase, “Grown men don’t cry,” implies that a guy should not allow himself to show his ‘soft’ emotions. The problem is, it’s self-defeating. When we stuff or suppress our emotions, it actually makes our painful emotions more intense internally. However, it’s scientifically proven that when we name our painful emotions, we actually lessen their intensity.
  3. Journal your feelings. Many counselors recommend something called ‘writing therapy,’ a fancy term for journaling. When we feel rejected, journaling our painful feelings can take the sting out of them. Akin to writing therapy is something called ‘talk therapy.’ Again, it’s a fancy term for sharing you pain with others. It’s helpful to find a safe friend to process your feelings when rejected. In this post I share several qualities to look for in a safe friend.
  4. Refuse to base your identity on your ability to make 100% of the people happy 100% of the time. A temptation every ministry leader faces is to keep people happy 100% of the time. Trying to do that will kill you. We certainly don’t want to intentionally make people mad. But some people will never be pleased, no matter what you do. Jesus, the perfect leader, didn’t please everyone. In fact, John records this uber rejection of Jesus. From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6.66, NIV)
  5. Don’t magnify the pain by rejecting the rejector in return. It’s tempting to cut your rejectors off by rejecting them. When we do, we only exacerbate our pain. I once had a guy who did his best to convince the board that I was not the right pastor for the church. The board fully backed me. He left. A few months later I saw him in a store and had a choice. Would I walk down another aisle to avoid him, or would I walk toward him and try to shake his hand? I made the latter choice. I walked over, reached out my hand, and said, “Hi.” He glared at me and walked by without shaking my hand. Poor guy. He was a bitter dude. In such cases, apply the words Peter gave us about Jesus’ response to rejection. 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. (I Pt 2.23, NIV)
  6. Step back to keep or regain perspective. When rejection stings, our perspective can quickly become cloudy. We can easily extrapolate the rejection in our minds and assume that many other people feel the same way or will do the same thing (i.e., I wonder who else is leaving the church?). Remember, a rejection by one person is…rejection by one person. Such rejection seldom reflects the viewpoints of others. So, guard against the proverbial, “blowing things out of proportion.”
  7. If it’s a serious rejection, get professional help. Sometimes rejection is such a deep blow that we can’t navigate it on our own with a good cry or coffee with a friend. You may need professional help. Losing a job, losing a vote of confidence from your board, or significant numbers of people leaving your ministry probably qualify as significant rejections. Don’t feel ashamed to seek professional help. If you break an arm, you’ll see a doctor. If your heart gets broken, find a wise counselor to help bring healing.

Sometimes we’d rather experience physical pain that social pain, for good reason. Our brains are wired to recall the emotional pain of past rejection, but not past physical pain. So, rejection potentially carries a long lasting impact on our souls. Don’t take it lightly. Deal with it sooner that later.

What has helped you deal with rejection in ministry?

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14 Questions Pastors should Avoid if they Fear Vulnerability

Some time back I read an incredible book – Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Dr. Brene Brown. I highly recommend it. Her TED talk on this subject has garnered over 30,000,000 views. She strikes a chord for leaders about risking vulnerability. As a pastor vulnerability is scary and carries risks with which we must practice care when being vulnerable. As risky as it is, Dr. Brown says it’s a key to what she calls wholehearted living, what I’d called a Spirit-filled life. She says we live in a culture of scarcity and poses 14 questions in her book (p. 27) in three categories that caused me to reflect deeply about my family, my ministry, and my world. I’ve quoted some here and paraphrased others.

14 really scary questions about vulnerability…

As you read them, what is God saying to you about your family, your life, and your ministry?

SHAME

  • Is my self worth tied to achievement, productivity, or compliance?
  • Do I use the threat of belittling or ridicule to keep people in line?
  • Are put-downs and name-calling rampant?
  • Are blaming and finger pointing norms?
  • Am I guilty of favoritism?
  • Am I a perfectionist?

COMPARISON

  • Has my creativity been suffocated?
  • Do I constantly compare and rank myself against others?
  • Are people in my family or church held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions?
  • Is there an ideal way of being or one form of talent that is used to measure everyone else’s worth?

DISENGAGEMENT

  • Is everyone struggling to be seen and heard?
  • Are people afraid to take risks or try new things?
  • Does it feel as if no one is really paying attention or listening?
  • Is it easier to stay quiet than share stories, experiences, and ideas?

As you read these, what question really resonated with you?

What question would you add to this list?

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When Leaders Get Hooked on Being Right

You’ve been wrestling with a ministry challenge and you believe you’ve found the right answer. At the next board meeting you share your idea and one board member begins to voice opposition. Because you feel so strongly that you’re right you begin to raise your voice, talk faster, and talk over others who want to engage in the conversation. Tension escalates. Anger rises. You think, “How dare they think I’m wrong. I know I’m right.” What happens in those types of meetings? Why do they tend to go south? And what’s a leader to do when this happens more often than not? What do you do when you are hooked on being right?

hooked

If this has ever happened to you, a small almond shaped structure called the amygdala has hijacked your brain. Located deep inside our brains, it (there are actually two of them) causes our fight-fight-freeze-appease response to danger.

So when you felt threatened from a board member’s pushback, your emotional side takes over. And when that happens, the part of our brain that helps you think clearly, respond wisely, and listen carefully, the prefrontal cortex right behind your forehead, gets shut down. You react emotionally rather than thoughtfully. And when you get too pushy, you probably put the other people’s brains in the same fight-fight-freeze-appease mode which increases their resistance to your idea.

Unfortunately, many pastors and leaders get stuck in this unhealthy mode. They are driven to be right, avoid appearing wrong, or even appease others. As a result, too much of the stress hormone, cortisol, courses through their bodies and brains and puts them in a state of chronic stress. Too much cortisol over long periods of time harms our hearts, decreases our creativity and memory, and actually kills brain cells.

When that happens, what can we do?

  • Evaluate whether or not you are under chronic stress. If you often feel anxious, react easily, people-please too much, or have difficulty concentrating, your amygdala may be controlling you instead of the Holy Spirit. Your body may be telling you that you need a cortisol break. Ask a close friend or a counselor to help you determine if you’re under chronic stress. Even better, ask them if they feels like you always need to be right. Of course, you may not even need anyone to tell you that. You may already know it. A good dose of self-honesty will go a long way toward healing. If you are under chronic stress, create a plan to lessen your stress.
  • Remind yourself that God is in control. When the brain experiences uncertainty, (i.e., Will the board approve my idea?) it feels threatened. When we feel threatened, our emotional side driven by the amygdala tends to take over. Yet, God is the most certain Reality in the universe and He tells us to have faith in Him. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Heb. 11.1, NIV) Even with the uncertainty that comes with leadership, we can rely on God’s steadfastness certainty and His Spirit can override our human tendency to become fearful when things seem uncertain.
  • Learn to listen more empathetically (i.e., when you present your idea to your board). Empathy, being able to step inside another’s shoes, is a key competency for successful pastors and leaders. One study even showed that empathetic doctors got sued less than non-empathetic ones (Ambady, 2002). It doesn’t mean that you don’t hold to your convictions. It does mean, however, that you try to listen with your heart. Empathy, kindness, and caring can actually help activate the trust hormone, oxytocin. When that happens, when others feel that you care and that you really listen, they will endear themselves more to you and to your leadership.

So, if you have to get hooked on something, don’t get hooked on being right about your ideas, but about being right with others and with the Lord.

What behaviors have you seen in leaders who are hooked on being right?

Here’s another great blog posting on the subject by Judith Glasser.

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References:

Ambady, N. (2002) Surgeons’ tone of voice: A clue to malpractice history. Available from: [Accessed 27 March 2013].

Disapproval in the Church: What a Pastor can Do

Serving as a pastor brings many joys as well as headaches and hurts. One of the biggest hurts comes when others disapprove of us. Neuroscientists have discovered that a disapproving look from a person physically hurts. A disapproving facial expression stirs up the flight-fight part of our brain and heightens anxiety, even more than an angry facial expression does. I’ve experienced those disapproving looks and have learned how to cope with disapproval.

When the emotional part of our brain (the limbic system) takes over, we lose the ability to think clearly and lead well. When that happens, these behaviors surface.

  • We react and act impulsively
  • We assume the worst
  • We get defensive
  • We lose our creative ability to solve problems
  • We grieve the Holy Spirit
  • We lose perspective
  • We can’t truly listen
  • We can’t think as clearly

These kinds of behaviors show their ugly selves when the emotional brain takes over. Constant disapproval, especially from significant people in your church, can evoke these behaviors.

In a previous church several years ago, the most influential lay leader there was once my number one supporter. His words, body language, and facial expression would almost always encourage me. I could count on him to lift my spirits when I was down. However, something happened in our relationship and his demeanor took a 180-degree shift. He now became my greatest disapprover.

His view of me carried significant weight because he held a very high status in the church. When our paths crossed at church and I saw his disapproval, my anxiety level shot up. When I saw those disapproving looks, a brain dynamic kicked in in the flight-fight part of my brain that dampened my ability to think most clearly so I could preach at my best and compassionately relate to others on Sundays. Essentially, I stifled the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. Initially I was not consciously aware of this dynamic.

However, as I began to learn how my brain worked when I saw a disapproving expression, I started to make these choices that helped me cope with disapproval, especially his.

  1. I consciously took notice when his physical presence evoked anxiety in me. Instead of stuffing the emotion, I named it. I would breath a prayer under my breath, “Lord, I feel anxious right now after I saw _________. Please help me cope with this tension in my heart.”
  2. I sought out a coach/counselor to help me reappraise the situation quicker. Taking a different perspective helps calm the fight-flight part of our brain. Often we need an objective person to help us see the situation clearly.
  3. When I would preach, I would look for approving faces instead of his. I purposefully did not lock eyes with him in a sermon because I knew the toll it might take on my focus while preaching.
  4. I finally met with him for breakfast, shared my concerns, and asked him how I could regain his confidence. Essentially, his view of me as a leader had changed and I could not change it back. At least I cleared the air with him. However, through this experience the Lord helped me more consistently moderate the painful distraction I often felt when I saw his disapproval.

As painful as this experience was, it became a great learning experience. Now that I know what happens in my brain when I see disapproval in someone’s face, I’ve become quicker to more proactively moderate its negative effects.

How have you managed those who disapprove of you?

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Source: Burklund, L., Eisenberger, N.I. & Lieberman, M.D. The face of rejection: Rejection sensitivity moderates dorsal anterior cingulate activate to disapproving facial expressions. Social Neuroscience, 2, pp.238-253.

Pastors Who Lack Close Friends: 5 Reasons Why

Barna Research discovered that 61% of pastors are lonely and have few close friends. The loneliest people in churches are often pastors. Why is this so?

The experts say that five key factors inhibit pastors from developing close friendships.

  • lack of formative modeling: in families of origin some weren’t close to their parents and/or their parents never modeling for them how to create intimate relationships.
  • some pastors developed a loner tendency: they’d rather be alone.
  • personality: some personalties can unintentionally push people away.
  • wounds from the past can compel some to put up walls with others.
  • fear of sharing loneliness with others: some pastors think that if people knew they struggled, hurt, or had problems, it might lessen the respect they would give and therefore hinder that pastor’s leadership effectiveness.

Number five can be very powerful. Certainly we shouldn’t publicly display all our dirty laundry, or we would diminish our influence. But actually I’ve found that when I have appropriately shared my struggles with others, most people endear themselves to me and respect me even more.

I’ll never forget a story I heard Bill Hybels share years ago in a conference. The specific details are hazy, but the impact on me remains.

On one of his study breaks he told about a Sunday night visit to a small church. After the sermon, the pastor stood before his flock and in tears shared a heartbreak he had experienced from his son. He said he felt like a failure and wasn’t sure what to do. He then closed the service. Spontaneously the people rushed to the front and surrounded him, hugged him, and wept with him. Bill then used a term to describe the scene: “the circle of brokenness.” As he drew thousands of us into this story, with misty eyes I realized that every pastor yearns for that kind of acceptance.

If fear of rejection, looking less like a pastor, or worry that you might diminish your influence keeps you from inviting safe people in, realize the danger in which you can put yourself. Without safe people, ministry can overwhelm us.

A psychologist friend of mine once explained that isolation can set up a pastor on a slippery slope toward sexual compromise. In isolation, Satan can exploit his vulnerability. He can then begin to compromise and live a secret sexual life that may ultimately lead to ministry and/or marriage failure. My friend reminded me that sin grows easiest in the darkness.

So, if you are a pastor, don’t minimize the importance of friends in the ministry and in your church. Push through your loneliness and find some friends.

What other factors have you seen that can create loneliness in pastors?

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