Defeating the Demons of Discouragement

Somebody once said there are two things in life we can’t avoid, taxes and death. I’d like to add a third, discouragement. Church leader or not, you will face it. It’s an inevitable part of life. Several years ago I dealt with a bout of it. Here’s what happened and some suggestions on what to do when it hits you.

It all began Monday even after we had a good day at church the day prior. We had baptized a dozen people, another half dozen indicated they had trusted Christ, and we began Alpha with a bang.

But, when I got the stats back from Sunday’s service, I got bummed out. A not-so-good attendance and a very poor offering pushed me into discouragement. I’ve been doing well lately to not allow low Sunday statistics to affect me. This time, however, I didn’t do so well. It didn’t help that on that particular Thursday night my alma mater, GA Tech, got plastered by Miami on national TV.

I found, however, that three small choices helped me dig out of my funk. I take great comfort that King David lifted himself out of a serious bout of discouragement when he “encouraged himself in the Lord his God,” (1 Samuel 30.6). I believe that small choices that may not seem overtly spiritual can become ways we can encourage ourselves in the Lord.

Here are the three.

  • Break up your routine. One week my wife and my daughter were going to make a run to our local super Wal-Mart and they asked if I wanted to go. My first inclination was, ‘no.’ But after a moment’s reflection, I said, “sure.” Usually I’ll just sit at the man bench at the check-out line. You know, those benches or chairs where guys sit to be very bored while their wives shop … one of those. This time, however, I decided I’d go to the books area and browse. When I did, I picked up the Guinness Book of World Records and had few laughs. I saw, among other things, a picture of a guy who holds the world record in piercings (yuk) and a picture of another guy in India with the world’s longest ear hairs at 7 inches (gross). This little break, albeit odd, helped get my mind off my discouragement.
  • Pamper yourself. For a guy, I know this may sound odd. I don’t mean you have to get a pedicure (unless you like them). Here’s how I pampered myself. At the time I swam at a local indoor pool three times a week and usually went back home to grab some breakfast. I’m was on a very tight budget (as most pastors are) so I didn’t eat out much. But that morning, I decided I’d go through the drive-thru and get some breakfast at McDonalds to treat myself. I spent $2.10 for a sausage biscuit and an egg McMuffin (sans the egg). After I slathered each with grape jelly, I enjoyed this small treat. This small ‘self-care’ gesture encouraged me
  • Do something outrageously fun. At that time on Tuesday nights I’ve gone to my musical improv class. Yep, it’s like the old TV show, ‘Whose Line is it Anyway.” I had great fun in these classes. As a pastor I was a bit of a novelty to my classmates. Comedy turns blue so often, but when I put my clean twist on things, my classmate usually laughed. When I drove home that night, I feel like I’ve made a jumbo deposit into my soul.

So, the next time you face discouragement, give these ideas a try. Break your routine. Pamper yourself. Maybe even join an improv class.

____

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How to Encourage Church People to Make a Pastor’s Job Joyful

As a pastor for over 35 years, I’ve experienced the ups and downs ministry brings. Sometimes it seems like I’m on an emotional high after a baptism service, a breakthrough elders’ meeting, or a powerful worship service. Other times I’ve had to battle thoughts of giving up when I receive several critical emails in one week, a staff member is consistently underperforming and I need to confront him, or when it seems like the ministry has hit a lid. However, I believe one thing makes a pastor’s job most joyful. See if you agree.

In the most intimate of the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letters, Philippians, he gives us a clue to what can make a pastor’s job most joyful. He writes this phrase in Philippians 2.16 … in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.

William Barclay explains the meaning of this verse when he says that Paul uses a term for an athlete who trains. No athlete wants his training to fail. He wants to win the race for which he’s training. So, Paul prays that he may not be like an athlete whose training and effort have gone for nothing. For him the greatest prize in life was to know that through him others had come to know and to love and to serve Jesus Christ. [Barclay, W. (Ed.). (1975). The letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (electronic ed., pp. 45–46). Philadelphia: The Westminster John Knox Press.]

In other words, when Paul came to the end of his life, he would not want his sacrifice and service to have been a waste. He is telling the church at Philippi that they bring him the greatest joy when they love God and love others well.

When Christians truly love God and others, it minimizes crabbiness, critical spirits, and nitpicky preferences. It prompts believers to willing give of their time, talent, and treasures. More people extend grace when things don’t go their way in the church. And, by the way, the opposite should hold true as well. When we pastors love God and love others well, we extend those same graces to people in our churches.

So how can we encourage our church to make our job joyful and in doing so fulfill Hebrews 13. 17 which says, Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery? (Message) Consider these suggestions.

1. Model the behavior and attitude you hope those in your church will live out. We can’t live by another standard. Neither can we expect others to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves.

2. At appropriate times (not when you’re mad at somebody), include this concept in your teaching and preaching. When I taught Philippians 2 it26 made it natural to broach the topic.

3. Tell stories of church people who live out godly character and conduct. People emulate what you publicly honor.

4. Thank people when they live out the values that bring you joy. Express it privately and publicly.

What has brought you the greatest joy in ministry? How can you encourage church people to do it more, without becoming self-serving?

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4 Ways to Become a More Grateful Leader

Ministry challenges can often rob our joy. Mounting problems, unhappy people, and never ending ministry demands often leave us with little emotional reserve to appreciate the good. What do we do when that happens? While not sticking our head in the sand about our problems, how can we bring joy back into our leadership? I believe becoming more grateful can help…a lot. Consider these 4 ways to become a more grateful leader.

1. Realize the practical benefits gratefulness brings.

Recent research has shown multiple benefits of gratefulness (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Benefits include these.

  • You will feel better about life in general.
  • You will be more optimistic and experience more positive emotions.
  • You will be less likely to be depressed.
  • You will physical feel better.
  • You will be more likely to help others.

2. Practice the discipline of metacognition.

Metacognition is the term for thinking about what you are thinking about. Often we are unaware that incessant chatter and mental rumination about problems replays in our minds, like a scene in a dvd that’s stuck a loop. When that happens, negative thinking can snowball so that we lose perspective and only see the negative. However, when we consciously make ourselves aware of that video playing on our mind (periodically check in on our thinking), we can stop the problem tape and ‘reinsert’ a gratitude tape.

The Apostle Paul wisely points this out in Philippians 4.8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

3. Re-frame problems as learning opportunities or as ways that God can work.

As the old adage goes, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. We can’t avoid problems in ministry. But we do have the choice on how we choose to perceive them. When we gratefully re-frame a problem as an opportunity for God to work, it can motivate us to focus on solutions. And creating solutions gives the brain something it loves, certainty. Creating action plans and goals to solve a problem gives us a burst of the feel good neurotransmitter, dopamine, which helps motivate us toward further action.

4. Keep a journal of blessings.

In one study (Korb, 2012) researchers asked participants to keep a daily journal of what they were grateful for. They asked another group to write about what annoyed them. The group who recorded what they were grateful for showed greater determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared to the other group. So, journaling what you are grateful for is a proven way to increase gratefulness.

What has helped you become a more grateful leader?

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Sources:

  • Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2), pp.377–389.
  • Korb,A. (2012) The Grateful Brain 

8 Benefits of Silence and Solitude in a Leader’s Life

We leaders live in a world that bombards us with incessant visual stimuli and noise. And it’s easy to become addicted to such noise without even realizing it. Our so called time saving technology such as smart phones and high speed internet access relentlessly remind us that we can get more done in less time so we have more time to get even more done. As a result we are addicted not only to noise, but to hurry. As John Ortberg writes, “Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.”[1] Leaders desperately need what the ancients called silence and solitude to help us lead at our best. I suggest 8 benefits of building this discipline into your life.

John Ortberg tells a delightful story in Leadership Journal that describes how a pastor or a leader’s life can sometimes get out of whack.

Some time ago, a newspaper in Tacoma, Washington, carried the story of Tattoo the basset hound. Tattoo didn’t intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut his leash in the car door and took off for a drive with Tattoo still outside the vehicle, he had no choice.

Motorcycle officer Terry Filbert noticed a passing vehicle with something dragging behind it, “the basset hound picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could.” He chased the car to a stop, and Tattoo was rescued, but not before the dog had reached a speed of 20-25 miles per hour, rolling over several times.

Leaders often live like Tattoo, our days mark by picking them up and putting them down as fast as we can.

Hurry and noise and incessant busyness are enemies of a healthy spiritual life.

I can attest to that. Yet, God does not want us to be controlled by nor conform to the noisy, hurried life that our culture and churches often push us towards. Some of the greatest spiritual leaders and influencers of the past said much about this practice.

Henri Nowen, who taught at Harvard, Yale and Notre Dame, and wrote 20 books said, “Without (silence and solitude) it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.”[2] He also wrote, “It is a good discipline to wonder in each new situation if people wouldn’t be better served by our silence than by our words.”
 (The Way of the Heart)

The late Dallas Willard wrote, “(this one) is generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life, and it must be returned to again and again as that life develops.”[3]

Blaise Pascal, the scientist and Christian thinker of the 1600’s wrote, “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they are unable to stay quietly in their own room.”[4]

Austin Phelps, a pastor in the 1800’s noted, “It has been said that no great work in literature or in science was ever wrought by a man who did not love solitude. We may lay it down as an elemental principle of religion, that no large growth in holiness was ever gained by one who did not take time to be often long alone with God.”[5]

The Bible also speaks often on silence and solitude.

  • There is. . . a time to be silent … (Ecc 3.7)
  • Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. (Ecc 5.2)
  • Be still, and know that I am God…” (Ps 46.10)
  • Moses and Paul, some of the most recognized figures in history were transformed in times of extended solitude.
  • Jesus lived in a world of inner solitude and frequently experienced outer solitude. He was busy but was never in a hurry. Silence and solitude was Jesus place of strength.
    • Before he began his public ministry he spent 40 days in silence and solitude. (Lk 4)
    • Before he chose the 12, (He) spent the night praying to God.(Lk 6)
    • When he heard of John the Baptist’s death …he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. (Matt 14.13)
    • After feeding 5000 …He went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone. (Mt 14.23)
    • He often… withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Lk 5.16)

Before I suggest 8 benefits, here’s a quick definition of each, as they are both cousins to each other. They both go hand in hand and without silence, solitude has little effect. In essence they are practices of NOT doing something–not interacting with society and people–withdrawing from human contact, voice, noise, phone, tv, radio, newspaper, etc… for a few minutes or a few days. The following definitions combine thoughts of Dallas Willard, John Ortberg, and Richard Foster. When I speak of silence and solitude below, I will speak of them as one thing.

  • Solitude: The practice of temporarily being absent from other people (in isolation or anonymity) and other things so that you can be present with God. Its not loneliness nor is it getting away from people just because we don’t like them. It’s more about what we do with our bodies.
  • Silence: The practice of voluntarily and temporarily abstaining from speaking so that certain spiritual goals might be sought. It’s about what we do with our tongues, what we say.

Silence and solitude is a tool God uses to restore our souls by breaking engagements with the world. It is really more of a state of heart than a place. Granted, it does include awayness from others, but as you mature you can even be in a huge crowd and experience the rejuvenating power it offers. On the other hand you can become a hermit and never experience its power.

Here are 8 practical benefits of silence and solitude.

1. It (they) break the power of hurry, our addiction to a ‘have-to-do-this’ mentality.

 Willard explains it this way. The person who is capable of doing nothing might be capable of refraining from doing the wrong thing. And then perhaps he or she would be better able to do the right thing.[6]

It helps create an inner space for us to become aware of what we are doing and are about to do.

2. It helps renew our souls. 

Francis de Sales who in the late 1500’s developed sign language to teach deaf about God wrote, “There is no clock, no matter how good it may be, that doesn’t need resetting and rewinding twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. In addition, at least once a year it must be taken apart to remove the dirt clogging it, straighten out bent parts, and repair those worn out. In like manner, every morning and evening a man who reallly takes care of his heart must rewind it for God’s service . . . Moreover, he must often reflect on his conditon in order to reform and improve it. Finally, at least once a year he must take it apart and examine every piece in detail, that is every affection and passion, in order to repair whatever defects there may be.[7]

The Bible speaks pointedly to this idea.

  • Be silent before the Lord God! (Zeph 1.7)
  • My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be shaken. (Ps 62.5-6)
  • For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said, ‘In repentance and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength.’ (Is 30.15)

3. It reminds us that life will still go on without us

It interrupts the cycle of constantly having to manage things and be in control. It breaks us from a sense of being indispensable.

4. It clears the storm of life and mind for wise decision making and planning.

Luke 6:12-13 tells us that Jesus spend time in silence and solitude when deciding whom to choose as the disciples who would travel with Him. And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles.

 5. It creates inner space to hear the voice of God.

God spoke to the prohet Elijah right after he had come from a power encounter with the Baal worshippers on Mount Carmel. He had fled because he heard that Queen Jezebel had placed a price on his head. He hid in a cave and God asked him what he was doing there. Then God told him to leave the cave and that He would speak to him. Elijah saw a storm and then wind and then an earthquake and then fire. Yet God was not in any of those. Rather, God spoke in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19.2).

We are usually surrounded by so much outer noise that it is hard to truly hear God when he is speaking to us.[8] Silence and solitude frees us from life’s preoccupations so we can hear God’s voice.

6. It allows us to disconnect from the world and deeply connect with our soul.

Henry Nouwen said, “In solitude, I get rid of my scaffolding.” And what is scaffolding? It’s the stuff we use to keep ourselves propped up be it friends, family, tv, radio, books, job, technology, work, achievement, our bank account, etc.[9]

 7. It helps us control our tongue

James 1.19 says, My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry….

Silence and solitude can free us from the tyranny we can hold over others with our words. When we are silent and yield to the advice in James, it becomes more difficult to manipulate and control the people and circumstances around us. When we practice silence we lay down the weapons of words. It often reminds us that we don’t need to say as much as we think we do. We find that God can manage situations just fine without our opinions on the subject.

 8. It helps us with the other disciplines

When we include silence an solitude it enriches prayer, Bible reading, and fasting.

What would you add to this list of benefits of silence and solitude?

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References:

[1] John Ortberg, The Life You Always Wanted, p 84

[2] Richard Foster/James Smith, Devotional Classics, p 95

[3] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, p 161

[4] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p 358

[5] Whitney, spiritual disciplines, p 194

[6] Willard, The Divine Conspiracy p 359

[7] Ortberg, The Life You Always Wanted, p 94

[8] Foster, Devotional classics, p 95

[9] Ortberg, The Life You Always Wanted, p 92

Are Your Critics Really Trying to Get Close to You

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about how to view problems in ministry and leadership through a different lens. A concept developed in the late 50’s and 60’s by a psychologist, Murray Bowen, has shed some brilliant light on the subject for me; so brilliant, in fact, that I wish I understood this concept 25 years ago. Had I learned it and applied it then, I could have saved myself a lot of grief as a pastor and as a father as I respond to critics. The concept is called family systems. Don’t let the title fool you, though. It’s not all about your immediate family. This concept has profound implications for leadership in the church.

One of the best writers on the subject, Peter Steinke, a Christian psychologist, wrote the book How Your Church Family Works. It’s a great primer on family systems that directly applies to churches.

At the core of family systems is understanding emotional process and specifically, how we manage our anxiety, a term used for any negative emotion. In one of Steinke’s chapters he writes about those who criticize us. When I read his two paragraphs I paused and said to myself, “Wow. I’ve never heard it put that way before.”

Read it below and tell me how it hits you.

Pursuit behavior is any behavior that overfocuses on another person….

By far the most difficult form of pursuit behavior to recognize is criticism. How can those who act adversarially be said to be in pursuit? We feel alienated, not close. But the criticism is characterized by overfocus. The “stinger” and the “stung” are emotionally connected. Whenever a gnawing critic gets inside our brain cells and we can’t expunge him, we are connected, even if negatively. Whenever someone gets under our skin, we are infected with anxiety. If we are reactive to a pursuer, the pursuit behavior achieves its goal: connection. Strange as it sounds, the critic wants to be close. After all, if we can’t be close through play, ecstasy, touch, and nurture, our only option to accomplish closeness is through angry outbursts, specious charges, or harsh accusations. People feel close to us when they know we are thinking about them. What we think is not as important as that we are thinking of them. We play into the hands of the criticizer when we react to their invasion rather than define ourselves to it. (p 88 of How your Church Family Works).

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

10 Ways to Respond to the Church Critic

How to Deal with Criticism