5 Ways to Respond When Life Throws you a Curveball

Curveballs in life are inevitable. Unexpected surprises can level us or become opportunities to learn. The curveball thrown to Joseph when Mary told him about her “surprise” pregnancy certainly caught Joseph off guard, quite a curveball. But the story in Matthew 1 gives us 5 insights on how to respond when life throws you a curveball.

First, a bit of background. Matthew 1 tells us that Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. Unlike engagements today, in New Testaments days when you got engaged it took a divorce to end the engagement. They were both young and looking forward to a long life together and then Mary dropped the bombshell. Not only was she pregnant, but she explained it to Joseph with a story about how the Holy Spirit brought it about, a double whammy for Joseph: his wife was pregnant and she made up some crazy story it was not because of involvement with a man…two curveballs.

Here’s what we can learn from Matthew’s account.

When life throws you a curveball…

  1. Don’t act on impulse by doing what first comes to your mind.
    • In Joseph’s case probably the first thing that came to mind was the normal protocol for adultery in the time, a public divorce. But because he loved Mary, he didn’t want to publicly shame her and mar her chances to marry to a decent guy in the future. Impulse didn’t dictate his decision. Rather, his character did.
    • Principle: Grounded people resist impulsivity. 
  2. Draw upon Christ-centered character.
    • Verse 19 paints Joseph as a righteous man. That meant that he was a good man, a compassionate man, a man of character, a man faithful to God’s commands. Rather than acting on impulse, he acted upon his deeply imbedded values. He decided that a private divorce (much like a settlement out of court) would spare Mary from disgrace.
    • Principle: Christ-formed beliefs should determine our behavior. 
  3. Face, don’t deny your fear, worry, or anger.
    • But before Joseph acted, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife (v 20). The Gospels tell us that God spoke to Joseph four times through angels. God knew that Joseph felt fear so he spoke to Joseph about it. When curveballs hit us, it’s normal to feel anger, fear, anxiety, or worry. Our fight-flight-freeze centers in our brains automatically evoke feelings that we can’t avoid. But denying or stuffing them actually makes them more intense.
    • Principle: We can’t avoid feelings but we can determine their expression. 
  4. Stand upon the bedrock fundamentals of your faith.
    • Until I studied this passage deeply did I realize how it illustrates several core fundamentals of our faith. Focusing our attention on core doctrines gives us hope and confidence when a curveball hits us. Here are four fundamentals:
      1. The Holy Spirit dwells in us to, among other things, comfort us and give us wisdom to wisely respond (v 20).
      2. The virgin birth and the incarnation encourage us that our faith is based upon supernatural, life changing truth (v 23).
      3. Salvation in Christ alone reminds us that Jesus came to a crib to go to a cross to offer us forgiveness of sins (v. 21).
      4. Fulfilled prophecy provides evidence that Jesus was who He says He was (vss 22-23).
    • Principle: Undeniable truth forms the bedrock for Christianity. 
  5. Obey God’s promptings.
    • After the dream Joseph obeyed God and took Mary as his wife. Just as God acted in unconventional ways to bring about Jesus’ conception in the womb of Mary, so sometimes we must obey in unconventional ways. Joseph did not take the expected path, divorce. Instead he went against the then current social morays to do the right thing by marrying Mary.
    • Principle: Obedience to God may take you into uncharted territory. 

This Christmas if life throws you a curveball, look to the Story. You’ll find encouragement, hope, and direction.

What would you add to this list of responses to life’s curveballs?

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Burnout: How to Dig Out

From time to time every leader and pastor and person faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.

  1. Recognize the symptoms
    • Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
      • The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
      • You consistently sleep poorly.
      • You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
      • You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
      • You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
  2. Rest
    • After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
  3. Re-visit
    • Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
  4. Re-orient
    • The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.

If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?

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10 Indicators You Have no Margin in your Life

Although I posted this recently, it’s worth a re-read. In Richard Swenson’s seminal book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, he defines margin this way. Margin is the space between our load and our limits.

He says it is related to our reserves and resilience. He calls it a buffer, a place where we can recharge our batteries, and a space where we can focus on what matters most. I highly recommend the book. Unfortunately, those in ministry often lack margin. Here are 10 signs that may indicate you lack margin and 5 steps to gain more of it.

  1. I’m always mentally and physically exhausted.
  2. Small things more easily get under my skin. I can’t turn my anxious thoughts off.
  3. I don’t seem to have the joy for ministry I once did.
  4. I count down the days until my day off. Yet even on my day off I’m still anxiously thinking about ministry stuff.
  5. Those who love me most tell me to slow down yet I always have a comeback excuse.
  6. I often worry about what others think of my performance.
  7. I too easily take things personally.
  8. I find that I can’t focus as well as I once did.
  9. I get easily distracted and try to multi-task more often.
  10. My devotional times with God are mostly dry.

If a few of these are consistently true of you, you may need more margin in your life.

If that’s so, what should you do?

When I’ve found myself with little margin, it hasn’t been easy to change things, but these steps have helped.

  1. Admit that you life is too full and that it’s not good, pleasing to God, or healthy for you.
  2. Learn the art of mindfulness, being aware of and in the present moment without being harsh on yourself or worrying about what happened yesterday or fretting about what might happen tomorrow. Meditate on the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
  3. Take a day off, really. Turn off your phone and don’t check email. Do something that refreshes your soul.
  4. Turn your mind off earlier in the day than you do now. Perhaps you need to decrease night meetings. Maybe you need to establish hard stops for those evening meetings.
  5. Remind your self that if you don’t take care of you, you can’t take care of others.

    After all, Jesus did say something about loving yourself.

What has helped you gain better margin?

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4 Signs Decision Fatigue is Degrading your Decisions

When we think about fatigue, we usually think of physical tiredness…we worked too hard in the yard, we didn’t sleep well the night before, or we’re working too many hours. Fatigue certainly includes those causes, but for many Christian leaders, or anybody for that matter, another kind of fatigue can rob our energy and diminish life and leadership effectiveness. It’s called decision fatigue. It refers to how the quality of our decisions degrades after a long string of successive decisions. In other words, the more decisions you make, the more the quality of those decisions declines.

Judges make less favorable decisions later in the day and decision fatigue even affects consumer choices. So what might indicate that your decisions are affected by decision fatigue?

I’ve learned the effects of decision fatigue by experience.

Five years ago I began a new ministry as lead pastor of West Park Church in London, Ontario. It’s been a great ministry but I faced a staff shortage at that time. As a result, almost every staff person reported to me which required me to make many more decision about ministry than I normally would. During the first year and a half,  decision fatigue sometimes affected me.

Four indicators decision fatigue may be degrading the quality of your decisions. 

  1. You make quick, impulsive decisions you later regret you made. This happens because you want to quickly get one more thing off your plate and the quick decision seems to solve the problem. However the real problem may be making the decision too quickly without sufficient information you need to make the best one.
  2. You needlessly delay decisions. This is the counterpoint to the impulsive decision. When we get mentally tired, we can easily put off a decision that needs to made now. Sometimes I’d move an email into another folder that still required a decision from me that I could have easily made right then. By doing so I actually doubled the time I spent making the decision because I still had to read the email again to make the decision. By doing so, I took up two chunks of time and two chunks of mental energy.
  3. You send thoughtless, terse emails. I probably get 150 plus emails a day, many of them requiring a decision from me at some level. I’ve found that when I’ve had to make multiple decisions during the day, toward the end of the day I’m tempted to not think as clearly before I send an email. This post points out common email errors.
  4. You get mad when someone asks you for a decision. When this happens our mental chatter sounds like this. “Great, one more decision I have to make for somebody else!” The term ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control diminishes over time when we we have already exerted lots of self control. Toward the end of the day or a week when a leader has had to make too many decisions, he may find himself losing his cool more easily, flying off the handle, or saying thing things he shouldn’t.

As you look at the number of decision you are making, to what degree does decision fatigue affect you?

P.S. My upcoming book being released March 5 helps us deal with this challenge. It’s called Holy Noticing: The Bible, Your Brain, and the Mindful Space Between Moments. You can read more about it and get a free e-book here.

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When the Ministry Honeymoon Wears Off

The ‘honeymoon’ concept dates as far back as the 5th century. After getting married, a newlywed couple would often drink lots of mead, a honey-based alcoholic drink thought to have aphrodisiac properties. So, their inebriation made everything between the two early on appear overly positive. And then when they got sober they faced reality. In a similar way, when we take a new job or assume a new ministry role in a church (paid or volunteer), the honeymoon effect can mask the realities of this new role. So what do we do when the ministry honeymoon wears off? I suggest five ideas that may help.

First, what might be some signs that your ministry honeymoon is over?

  1. You may hear more rumblings and criticism than you did when you first came to your new church.
  2. People may become more overt in their criticism. In one church I delivered a message series with which a small group took issue. They boycotted the series.
  3. Mental fatigue may give way to chronic negative thinking. When we start in a new ministry, we bring dreams, excitement, and anticipation that all will go well. When things don’t go as planned, you may find yourself dwelling more on the negative rather than on the good things happening. This leads to mental fatigue which in turn leads to more negative thinking. This negative thinking loop is called rumination.
  4. You may question the decision you made to move into the new ministry role. You may begin to have second thoughts. “Did I make the right move?”

If you believe your honeymoon is ending, consider implementing these simple ideas to help you move forward.

  1. Remind yourself that it’s part of a natural ministry cycle for every honeymoon to end. Jesus also had a honeymoon (great crowds, Hosannahs on Palm Sunday, etc.) and even though He led perfectly, His ended. Yet, it had to end for resurrection to begin.
  2. Stay hopeful. When a marriage couple’s honeymoon ends, it gives them an opportunity to truly love each other. If they are both committed to the marriage, their love will deepen. When your ministry honeymoon ends, you have the opportunity to deepen your love for those in your ministry and in your church.
  3. Remember, it’s seldom as bad as you may think. Our brains are wired to focus on the negative. It’s called the negativity bias. We have five times more brain circuits dedicated to focus on the negative in contrast to those dedicated to the positive. Guard against catastrophizing like Chicken Little mistakenly did when he yelled, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” The sky probably isn’t really falling in your ministry.
  4. Don’t cut off your critics. This post unpacks the important principle that distancing ourselves from our critics often backfires and makes things worse. Don’t ignore and dismiss your critics yet don’t let them use you as a punching bag.
  5. Don’t get defensive. Defensiveness only complicates matters. This post suggests 5 ways to avoid defensiveness.

So, enjoy your honeymoon while you have it. But when it ends, embrace the new ministry phase that offers great new opportunities for growth and learning. 

What has helped you weather the ministry honeymoon?

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