When a Leader Spirals Downward

An aviation term called a death spiral describes what can happen to a plane in nighttime or poor flying conditions when a pilot loses his sense of the plane’s horizontal orientation. The plane can begin to spin uncontrollable. Unless the pilot pulls out, he can spiral out of control and crash. In ministry, leaders can often get caught in a similar downward spiral mentally, physically, emotionally, or relationally. When that happens, what can we do to pull out of it? The prophet Jonah illustrates what contributes to a downward spiral and what we must do to pull out of one.

In Jonah 4, Jonah finally relented and obeyed God’s call on his life to preach to the ancient city of Nineveh. The city then repented and turned to God. And yet, Jonah wasn’t happy. He spiraled downward. His response gives us clues to what can cause a downward spiral in ourselves.

What can cause a downward spiral?

1. Prolonged stress. Jonah had almost drowned, was stuck in the belly of a big fish for three days, traveled over a month to Nineveh, and had just finished a stressful and extended time of preaching. He was tired and near burnout. The same can happen to a leader after prolonged and intense ministry. Such stress can set the stage for the beginning of a downward spiral.

2. Self focus. In the original language in Jonah 4 he used ‘I’ and ‘my’ 9 times. After the people repented, which Jonah didn’t really want, he turned inward and felt justified for his intense anger at God. Turning inward facilities a downward spiral. When we turn deeply inward and ruminate and rehearse what we don’t like that is happening to us, it exacerbates a spiral.

3. Cutting off from others. After Jonah’s preaching, his anger drove him to cut himself off from the Ninevites and from God. He left the city in a huff instead of staying there to help the people understand more about God. Often when in a downward spiral, we pull away from the very people we need to be around.

4. Disproportionate emotions. Jonah got angry at God for not destroying the Ninevites yet was deliriously happy about a plant that provided him shade. Emotional responses that are out of proportion to what precipitated them often signal we are in a downward spiral, whether it’s being overly glad or overly angry about something insignificant.

5. Distorted thinking. Jonah was not thinking clearly based on his unhealthy response to God’s work in Nineveh. When in a downward spiral our negative emotions get amplified and clear thinking gets skewed.

6. Justifying bad behavior. When God questioned Jonah about his behavior, he justified it with a defensive attitude. When we’re well into a downward spiral, it’s easy to justify poor decisions.

So, when a leader finds himself in a downward spiral, what can he or she do? Consider these six choices that can help us pull out of a downward spiral.

1. Practice gratefulness. Jonah showed no gratefulness for God’s delivering him from death nor from God’s bringing repentance to the Ninevites. Gratefulness could have benefitted him in many ways as science is now revealing.

Gratefulnes can…

  • help you become more other-centered.
  • give you more energy.
  • help you sleep better.
  • make you physically feel better (it increases several ‘feel good’ brain chemicals).
  • help you become less materialistic. Jesus said, “‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20.35)
  • help combat negativity and the negative emotions that follow.

2. Become other focused. It would have behooved Jonah to be joyful over what God did in Nineveh rather than turning his eyes on his anger and disappointment.

3. Ask yourself well-placed questions. God asked Jonah three questions, not because God didn’t know the answers. Rather, He asked Jonah the questions to prompt him toward healthy introspection. Unfortunately, Jonah never looked inside but simply reacted and fed his downward spiral.

4. Get into community. When we pull away from others, it contributes to a downward spiral because we can lose perspective in our own negative thought stream. However, when we are with others who care about us, they can give us fresh perspective and help us when we really need it. In fact, when we associate with others who care about us, our brain releases oxytocin which bonds us to them and makes us feel better.

5. Do something constructive. For Jonah, the best thing for him would have been to go back into the city to minister to these newly changed people. To pull out of a downward spiral, brain studies show that simply making a decision can dampen our negative emotional centers and help us think more clearly.

6. Rest. One of the best ways to pull of out a spiral is to simply slow down, rest, and take care of ourselves. Jesus reminded us of this in Mark 6.31. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

Have you ever been in a downward spiral? What has helped you pull out?

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When You’re in the Belly of a Big Fish

Jonah, one of Scriptures most interesting characters, finds himself in the belly of a big faith after he ran from God. Sometimes crisis, pain, and difficulty can feel like we’re stuck in the same place Jonah found himself. So what do we do? I believe Jonah 2 (a prayer he prayed while in the big fish three days) gives us some insight.

First, what might it look like for you to be in the belly of a fish?

  • You are losing your job and there are no jobs on the horizon.
  • You hate your job but can’t get out.
  • Your marriage is on the rocks.
  • Your teens are walking down a very dark path.
  • Your church seems like it’s going nowhere and things look hopeless.
  • You never seem to have enough money to pay your bills (or pay the church bills if you’re a pastor).
  • You just got a bad doctor’s report.

Can we learn anything during those times? R. T. Kendall believes we can. He writes, “The belly of the fish is not a happy place to live, but it is a good place to learn.”[1]

So, what does Jonah teach us about what to do when we are in the belly of a fish, in a difficult situation, crisis, or pain.

1. Pray.

Verse 1 tells us that from inside the fish he prayed. Unfortunately, we often pray after we’ve tried every thing else. James counsels us to pray in James 5.13.  Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray.

2. Don’t stuff your emotion, suppress your pain, or pretend all is ok. 

Sometimes leaders fail to admit to others or themselves that things really are bad because doing so might us look weak. So, we stuff our emotions, over spiritualize, or busy ourselves to push the pain away. Jonah didn’t do that, though. He graphically describes his situation with words like these: distress, grave, currents swirling, waves and breakers sweeping over him, banished from his sight, engulfed, seaweed wrapped around his head, barred in forever, in the pit, life ebbing away.

Instead of stuffing, one way we can actually dampen painful emotions is to label them, put a name on them. Learn more in this post about dealing with painful emotions.

At the same time we must admit our painful emotions, we must not go to the other extreme and ruminate, replay, and constantly rehearse the difficult situation. Doing so will actually amp them up.

3. Stay hopeful by redirecting your thinking.

As Jonah recounts how difficult things have been, he shifts mental gears with the phrase, “But you (God).” In fact, the Bible often describes God intervening for his people with this phrase, But God. Stories about Noah, Joseph, Joshua, David, and Paul describe But God moments in their lives when the Lord rescued them.

When you’re in the belly, don’t deny the reality of the difficulty. And instead of rehearsing and ruminating, redirect your thinking to the But God’s in Scripture and in your life.

4. Remove any God substitutes.

In verse 8 Jonah talks about worthless idols, probably referring the pagan sailors who were in the boat and who practiced idolatry. For believers today, we can get easily get attached to subtle idols and false gods in our lives. Idols and false gods look different to different people.

Some people drive in their gods.

Some people live in their gods.

Some people live with their gods.

Some people work for their gods.

Some people serve in the gods (their church or their ministry).

The problem with all these gods is what my daughter Tiffany and I discovered several years ago when we took the Hollywood backstage tour in California. The tour involved riding a tram that drove by many familiar houses and buildings used in the movies and TV shows. However, the guide explained that all the sets were facades, false fronts. There was nothing behind them but junk.

Those sets parallel false gods and idols in our own lives. They promise to fill our hearts and give us life, happiness and joy, but they don’t stand up to the rigors of real life. They are all false fronts.

When in the belly of a big fish we often think about what’s truly most important. If you’re in the belly, use this time to root out and discard any God substitutes.

When you’ve been in the belly of a big fish, what life lessons did you learn?

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[1] Smith, B. K., & Page, F. S. (1995). Amos, Obadiah, Jonah (Vol. 19B, p. 241). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

What Effective Pastors Must Prioritize

I’ve been a pastor almost 39 years and I’ve made lots of mistakes. But as I’ve grown wiser, I’ve learned that if I prioritize a few key choices, my life and leadership dramatically improve and my ministry becomes more effective. Here are three key choices I encourage every pastor to prioritize.

Priorities for every pastor

1. Place sermon prep time at the top of your list.

Whether you preach or teach regularly, unless you calendar when you prep your messages, you will likely shortchange adequate prep time. I’ve been doing it for decades now, but I still need 15 plus hours each week to craft a message. I calendar my study time in the mornings when my mind is freshest. In this post I delve more deeply into sermon prep time. 

2. Craft messages that included three essential components.

  • Build them around a strong Biblical basis. Make sure your messages are rooted in God’s Word.
  • Always include clear application. This is where you connect the then and there to the here and now. People will remember your teaching better when they can apply to their lives what you say. It’s called self-referential learning. Stuff sticks in our brains when it’s self-referential.
  • Keep in mind techniques to help your listener pay attention. Only what gets paid attention to gets learned. And if the church people don’t pay attention to your messages, they won’t make much of a difference in their lives. In this post I suggest 5 brain-savvy ways to help people pay attention to your sermons. 

3. Keep yourself healthy.

Ministry leaders who prevail prioritize their health. And the arenas of health include your body, your relationships, your mind, your emotions, and your soul. To keep healthy in these areas requires we make these choices.

  • Eat healthy.
  • Exercise at least 3 times a week.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Keep short relational accounts with others. Deal with conflict sooner than later.
  • Challenge and stretch your mind by learning new things, even outside your ministry role.
  • Process your emotional pain.
  • Spend time with God every day, excluding sermon prep time.

As I’ve prioritized these three areas, ministry has become much more fulfilling.

What other areas do you believe pastors should prioritize so they stay sharp and effective?

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When We Run from God: 7 Insights from One who Did

The book of Jonah is quite revealing. The book describes the prophet Jonah’s call by God to preach to the city of Nineveh (a quintessential sin city of antiquity). Jonah initially ran from His call. As a result he spent three days in a big fish before God got his attention and Jonah decided to obey Him. Jonah 1 reveals these 7 interesting life lessons when we run from God.

1. Running from God may indicate bitterness or unforgiveness toward another. 

Jonah ran from God because he hated Israel’s archenemy, the Assyrians where Nineveh was located. He couldn’t stomach their receiving forgiveness from God.

2. You can run from God but you can’t hide from him.

Jonah thought he’d get as far away from Israel as possible by taking a boat and fleeing 2500 miles in the opposite direction to Spain. But, even though Jonah knew that God was all knowing, he still tried to hide on a trip in a boat.

3. God never gives up on you.

When Jonah bought a one way ticket to Spain, God could have written him off and chosen someone else to preach to the Ninevites. He didn’t. He pursed Jonah.

4. God allows the storms of life for our benefit.

God sent the storm not to punish Jonah, but as an intervention. Jonah needed to be saved from himself and the storm (and the fish that swallowed him) were God’s tools for Jonah’s benefit.

5. When you run, others often get hurt.

When Jonah was on the boat, the boat and every innocent sailor was in danger of losing his own life because of Jonah’s disobedience. Although we may think we can sin and nobody else get hurt, inevitably somebody else gets hurt. We never truly disobey God in isolation.

6. The longer you run from God, the worse the storm will get.

As the storm arose, the men cast lots, an ancient way to divine God’s will, to determine who was causing the ‘gods’ to get angry and cause the storm. The lots fell to Jonah as the source. He could have repented then but didn’t. The storm got worse and worse. Often when we run from God, we dig a deeper and deeper hole.

7. Your sin can never outstrip God’s grace.

Although not every time we sin does God still offer us the same opportunities, in this case God kept pursuing Jonah. He sent the storm and a big fish. And Jonah survived them both. The rest of the book describes many other examples when God extended grace to Jonah. We can never sin, disobey, and run from God so far that his grace can’t forgive and restore, if we are willing.

What other lessons have you seen in yourself or others who run from God?

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Are these a Pastor’s 5 Greatest Fears?

If you are human, you have secret fears. I don’t mean ones like fear of snakes or fear of heights, but deeper ones. You may have never verbalized them to anyone. Perhaps they have burrowed themselves deep into your subconscious. Perhaps they’ve become like a shadow that dogs your every step. Perhaps they’re no big deal. However you’d classify yours, I believe we all carry them. And pastors deal with them as well. Although I’ve not based my list below on science or surveys, I believe they capture several fears pastors often face.

A pastor’s 5 greatest fears (not in any special order):

1. What if my ministry is insignificant? In writing my second book (Five Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, IVP, 2010, ), I included a quote by David Goetz that captures this fear well.

I often sat in the studies of both small-church pastors and mega-church pastors, listening to their stories, their hopes, their plans for significance. I deduced, albeit unscientifically, that often clergymen in midlife had worse crises of limits than did other professionals. Religious professionals went into the ministry for the significance, to make an impact, called by God to make a difference with their lives. But when you re fifty-three and serving a congregation of 250, you know, finally, you’ll never achieve the large-church immortality symbol, the glory that was promised to you. That can be a dark moment-or a dark couple of years. (Kindle e-book loc 1919).

2. What if I really mess up?

One of the rising stars in the Baptist world in the 80’s and 90’s in the US, Joel Gregory, rose to what was then the pinnacle of the Baptist world to pastor First Baptist Church of Dallas, TX and succeed W. A. Criswell. However, two years later he resigned, his marriage failed, and he sold cemetery plots to make a living. His remarkable journey (nicely chronicled here), however, led him to a place of redemption and he is now a respected preaching professor at Baylor.

3. When if people leave my church because they are upset?

I know of no pastor who has every led a church where 100% of the people stayed. Some leave for good reasons. Some don’t. And often the pastor is the last one to hear they left. When that happens, it hurts, notwithstanding the good feelings that come from ‘blessed subtractions.’

4. What if I can’t make the people happy?

In my third book (People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership), I surveyed over 2000 pastors and discovered that from 79%-91% of pastors self admitted that people pleasing affected their ministry to some extent. This common temptation is even wired into our brains. Social rejection lights up the same regions of the brain that physical pain does so when we know someone is not pleased with our performance, it actually hurts.

5. What if the people really knew my deepest struggles?

Acceptable struggles like overwork or eating too much usually don’t affect how church people see you. But, what about pastors who struggle with secret jealousies of more successful pastors, lust, or feeling that they often ‘fake it’ on Sundays. If the people knew their deepest struggles, what would they think? What would their boards think? What would those who hold them in high regard think?

The Bible says we are broken people. That’s what makes grace so good. God extends his unmerited love and mercy to us to restore, remake, and remold us. Salvation freed us from the penalty of sin. His Spirit is freeing us from the power of sin. Yet, it won’t be until heaven until we are freed from the very presence of sins, including our deepest fears.

Perhaps we should admit our deepest fears to the Lord and to a close, safe friend who can help us face them and conquer them with the Spirit’s power. In this post you can learn what to look for in a safe friend.

What would you add to this list?

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