Pastor, don’t panic!

jasmin-sessler-egqR_zUd4NI-unsplashWe’ve been told that things will never be the same again, and they won’t. The world has shifted. Massive movements of global social tectonic force.

Destruction, disease, death, disaster. People overwhelmed, unprepared, ill-equipped, devastated, helplessness, anxious. Panic, blame, fear, and conspiracy theories. The best of governance and the ugly, narcissistic, worst from leaders. Massive loss. Lives, futures, prosperity.

So much has shut down. Businesses, bars, clubs, sports, homes, schools, churches, parks, beaches, borders, transport and travel.

Everyone is buying phones, tablets, computers, and faster internet. Life has gone online. We compete for screen time. We cry out for more bandwidth. Zoom has become the new Uber.

Learn the tech. Use the tech. Master the tech.

We’re tired. And we don’t know when or where it will all end.

Our values are being challenged. People are three dimensional, not two. We crave touch and intimacy. We weren’t meant to live in isolation. We long to be together. And yet we fear what this will mean.

And now things are changing. Lockdowns are being lifted. We are peering out the window. We’re wandering down the street. People are starting to gather.

What will happen with church?

Pastors are anxious.

We’re being told this is the single most important moment in living history. The platform has burned down. Everyone knows it. We can’t go back. We get to rewrite the script. Lose the bad. Tweak the awkward. Hang on to the good. Create the new.

Unprecedented numbers of people visiting church online. Questions being asked about the meaning of life. New opportunities. Fresh vision. Now is the time.

You’ve got one shot. One opportunity. One episode in time. One opening. One responsibility.

Pastor, don’t blow it!

So much is riding on your shoulders. Your shoulders. This is your moment. God is counting on you. Get it right. God needs you. We need you. They need you. Your family needs you. Your neighbours need you. The community needs you. Everyone needs you.

Be strong. Be resilient. Be wise. Be clear. Be balanced. Be purposeful. Set a vision. Shape your future. Lead your people. Make every word, every decision, every move, every moment count. Don’t mess it up.

Read this blog. Listen to this podcast. Subscribe to this channel. Enrol in this workshop. Come to this conference. Buys these tools. Get this coach. Read this book. Join this movement.

Grab this opportunity. It will only come once. This is a Halley’s Comet moment of momentous magnitude. Don’t waste it. Don’t let it pass. Don’t blow it.

Lead. Manage. Counsel. Preach. Zoom. Visit. Train. Envision. Equip. Empower. Empathise. Change. Maintain. Motivate.

Go harder. Go smarter. Go faster. Go deeper. Go wider.

Are you ready? On your marks. Get set. Go.

Think.

Outside the box.

Design a new box.

Break free from the traditional constraints of boxes.

Create a new box.

Look inside the box.

Look outside the box.

Open the box.

Get into the box.

Close the lid on the box.

Curl up in the box.

Close your eyes.

Gently rock from side to side.

And weep.

Pastor, you are not God. You are not the Messiah. Everything does not depend on you. This is not your one chance in 100 years to make your mark for the gospel.

You may be a shepherd, but you never cease to be a sheep. You shine a light and send a message—not as a lighthouse, but as a flickering candle.

This is not the time to be relying on your strengths, your achievements, your experience, your talents, your gifts. It is not about you. Really. It’s not. This is not your moment.

This is God’s moment.

Do you feel ill-equipped? Do you feel everyone is watching you? Do you feel the pressure of your peers? Do you feel the burden of your congregation? Do you feel the urgency of the times? Do you long to make a difference, not blow it, not crumble, not give up?

Then don’t panic! Truly, DON’T PANIC!

Come to God. See his grace. Hear his kindness. Trust him in your weakness. Listen to his voice…

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
(2 Corinthians 1:8-11)

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
(2 Corinthians 4:7-11)

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
(2 Corinthians 13:14)

Amen.

Relationship matters (Ecclesiastes 4:7-12)

Some of us are finding the forced ‘stay home’ especially difficult. When there is no one around to share life with, to encourage us, to support us, or to work together, we struggle with being alone. Isolation is not part of God’s good plan for his people. Having pronounced everything to be good in Genesis 1, God declares in the following chapter that it is not good for man to be alone. We were made for companionship. Ecclesiastes recognises the blessings of relationship with others.

Working hard and wasting our lives (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23)

One third of our lives spent at work. And they say no one looks back from their death bed and wishes they’d spent more time at the office. Why do we work, labour, and toil? And why does Ecclesiastes describe work as meaningless? At this time of crisis, with jobs on the line, massive unemployment, pay cuts, and business collapses, what are we doing it all for?

Stepping down

fiecDear friends

I’m letting you know that I will be stepping down as FIEC National Director next year. It’s been a tough decision and a while in the making.

There have been a number of new stressors this year, most significantly declining health. My health problems reached a crisis point in June, when I was trying to function with constant pain, coughing, and breathlessness. Scans and biopsies confirmed that the cancer had been growing in my lungs and pleura. My poor health, fatigue, uncertainties, and stress, are among the factors behind my decision to step down. However, it’s not just the last year—it’s been eight years of living with the effects of lung cancer.

I now have reduced physical, mental, and emotional reserves, and I need to listen to my body and make some changes. While the pain and difficulties of the cancer have been reduced through the treatment, the side effects continue to limit me. I have increased fatigue, need more sleep, and yet often don’t sleep well. My stamina and durability have declined. I am still seeking to discover my new ‘normal’, but I am aware that it must be lesser than the previous normal. While I pray regularly for healing and relief, I must factor in continuing daily chemo for the remainder of my life.

A friend said to me this week, that not only have I had to drive the ship, but I’ve had to build the ship while driving it. It’s had its challenges, but I’d take the opportunity all over again. And I will miss it—that’s for sure.

This is not to say that I intend to stop serving within FIEC. Fiona and I have developed significant and supportive relationships among pastors, wives, and churches. We enjoy being able to offer practical ministry help, mentoring, and encouragement. It’s a joy to partner with churches to spur them on. It’s been a privilege to represent FIEC, as I’ve visited colleges, spoken at conferences, and exercised wider ministry. I will share with you more of our future plans as they become clearer.

I want to thank everyone involved with FIEC for the honour of serving you over the past three years. Thank you for your faith in me as I’ve sought to pioneer this role. It’s been a privilege to serve alongside each of you. I’ve appreciated your support and your fellowship. I’ve loved the opportunity to invest in the FIEC ministry, and to encourage men and women to work together in building God’s kingdom. Visits to churches and our annual conferences have been highlights for me over my time in this role.

As I’ve said, it’s been a tough decision to step down as National Director. I am stepping down from this specific role, not from ministry. I want life to continue to be about the service of God and others, it will just take a different shape. I understand that this will be disappointing news for some—we feel the grief ourselves. We would value your prayers and encouragement at this time of change.

Wisdom in crisis

cristian-palmer-718048-unsplashIt’s some time since I’ve been out in big surf. I don’t trust myself anymore. I’m certainly not as young or fit as I like to think I was. But there have been times in the past when I’ve been dumped by large waves, tossed and turned, struggling to find my way to the surface, desperate for air, wondering if I was going to drown.

Life can be like that. We can feel so tumbled and turned that we don’t know which way is up and which way down. It’s all too hard, too scary. Crises have the capacity to disorient and destabilise. Where do we turn when our world is falling apart around us, when the ground is shifting under us, when the sky is falling in on us?

James, in the New Testament, writes to his Christian brothers and sisters, calling them to have a joyful outlook as they face their fears. A nice thought, but when the trials come, that might well be the last thought to enter our minds. The darkness closes in and we struggle to find a glimmer of light. It’s seems easier to retreat, to curl into a ball, and to hope the darkness goes away. And so we will often miss out on what God wants to do in us doing in these tough times.

It’s no simple matter to find joy in the context of suffering and pain. It takes real wisdom to see the broader context and the deeper reality. So many time over the past few years, I’ve sat in a dentist chair while needles and probes and high speed drills have gone to work in my gums and teeth. It can be hard to focus on the ‘greater good’ when your gums are being stretched to splitting point and a high speed pain delivery device is doing its stuff. But there is a greater good. There is a genuine joy to be found in the midst of the suffering. The pain is short-term but the gain is long-term. And I need wisdom to remember this.

James writes into the the context of suffering…

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
(James 1:2-5)

So often we lack wisdom. We can’t see the bigger picture. We are overcome by the circumstances we are facing, and joy seems an impossible dream, let alone a present experience. And into this crisis we are called to ask God for help.

It’s not humanly possible to find joy in the midst of all pain and suffering. Don’t waste your energy trying to lift yourself up by your shoelaces, to conjure up enough faith to carry on, to convince yourself that it will all work out fine. But do ask God for wisdom. The great promise is that God will give wisdom to those who ask him. He will. It’s a promise. This doesn’t mean you will necessarily feel wise, but God promises to give you wisdom all the same.

If…

That’s right, there is a proviso.

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
(James 1:6-8)

When you ask God for wisdom, be willing to receive it. Don’t be secretly working out your alternatives for when God doesn’t seem to give it. Don’t go through the facade of praying that God will give you his wisdom, but always planning to rely on everything else to get you through. These verses don’t mean that you have to be 100% sure of God, or that there is no place for confusion or fear. This isn’t about the power of positive spiritual thinking, or ‘name it and claim it’ word/faith mysticism. What they are saying is don’t be double-minded. You can’t have a bet each way. You need to come to God and rely on him to equip you with what you need. You can depend upon God. You don’t need your back up plan. That will only turn you away from God and keep you from his wisdom.

So if you struggle to see the greater good, if you can’t find the path to joy, if everything is overwhelming, then pray. Ask God to graciously open your eyes. Ask him to ease the pain in your heart and to find solace in him. Seek his supernatural help to keep on trusting in Him.

“Father God, please give me wisdom to see the unseen, to remember that you are at work in all things, to know deeply that you will never leave me nor forsake me, to grasp that there is real hope, to feel your comforting presence, to be reminded of your deep, costly, generous love in Jesus, and to keep my faith in you, now and for the future.”

Resilience – A Spiritual Project

resilienceResilience and burnout are big issues in work and ministry at present. In the field of Christian ministry the statistics of burnout seem alarmingly high and the focus on building resilience is both urgent and important. Kirsten Burkett has provided a great service by sharing her research into these areas in her latest book Resilience: A Spiritual Project. This isn’t a popular level book. For a start it’s published by The Latimer Trust, as the 84th of their brief academic studies. While only being 46 pages in length, it includes another 9 pages of bibliography, comprising mainly of academic journal articles. But don’t let these things put you off. Resilience: A Spiritual Project is compact, yet thorough, and I found it engaging and easy to read. While much of her book is surveying and summarising findings in the literature, Dr Birkett draws us to practical conclusions with profound pastoral implications.

Dr Birkett writes as an experienced researcher, academic, author, and teacher. However, she does this in sync with her experience of grappling with burnout herself, and with an eye to equipping men and women in pastoral ministry. She understands the particular dangers and threats for those engaged in a profession where resilience is needed to fuel perseverance and endurance. Most profoundly, Dr Birkett draws on the wisdom of the research to argue that resilience ‘can be learned’ and ‘people can be trained against future stress’ (p17). She is also careful to emphasise that resilience is not a cure all. Sometimes people are simply tired and need to slow down, rest, or take time out. Other times people are overwhelmed by sadness, grief, or trauma, and just need time to weep and mourn. However, she writes:

If we keep resilience in perspective, as ways of helping healthy people stay healthy and of helping ill people recover, it seems to be an extremely useful construct. Human beings are resilient — we could hardly have survived this long otherwise. (p25)

Dr Birkett demonstrates in her book that there are significant overlaps between resilience research and Christian spirituality. Many features identified in the literature as important in building resilience, find expression in biblical expressions of Christian faith in action. She examines the following areas:

  • Adversity leads to strength
  • Sense of meaning and purpose
  • Transcendence
  • Hope and optimism and positive emotions
  • Altruism
  • Self-efficacy: God efficacy
  • Forgiveness
  • Social network

If you have a good understanding of the life of a Christian then you will hear the resonance already.

We believe that God works to strengthen and transform his people through adversity. Suffering is not to be sought after, but it is to be expected. ‘What people need, it seems, is not a stress-free life, but the framework to treat stress well; to use it as a stimulus for growth, rather than buckling under it’ (p33).

We believe that we have been created for a purpose, essentially for Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16). We are not the product of chance and time. There is meaning, purpose, significance, and eternity. We may not always understand our suffering but God, in his wisdom, uses it to produce good (Romans 8:18,28).

We believe, not in some external transcendent force, but in a God who is accessible and invites us to come to him in our times of need. God has come to us in the incarnation of Jesus. God dwells in and among his people by his Spirit. We have access to God through the death and resurrection of his Son, and so we are invited to come before him in prayer, and present our requests to him rather than staying isolated in our anxiety.

We believe there is good reason for hope. Our faith is built on hope in the promises of God. God has shown he is faithful in Christ Jesus and because of this we can have joy even in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 1:3-7).

We have deep reason to love others. We did nothing to deserve it, but God has loved us, at enormous cost, through the atoning death of Jesus. This leads to a purposeful altruism, motivated by God’s work in and through us. At the heart of this is power and willingness to forgive those who have wronged us. We can shed our anger and avoid bitterness.

We believe, not in self-efficacy, but in the efficacy of God. There is honesty in Christian understanding that we are not equal to all tasks. We don’t need to be demoralised by our continual sub-par performances. We’re not required to grow super powers. Our sovereign God knows our needs and will accomplish his purposes for our good. This is stress-relieving.

We believe that God has given us a community. We are adopted into his family and called to love our brothers and sisters. Hospitality and care are part of the fabric of our relationships.

You see, in other words, God is in the business of building resilience in his people. How then should we train Christian ministers for resilience? Dr Birkett nails it with her insight:

It would seem we do so by training them to be Christian. (p38)

Read that again! Building resilience comes from Christian discipleship.

Building resilience in Christian leaders isn’t simply the domain of Christian psychologists, as important and as helpful as they can be. It should be the fruit of putting a deepening understanding of God and his ways into practice. It should come as we soak ourselves in the Scriptures and turn to God in prayer. Resilience should be the outworking of good doctrine and faith working itself out in love. There are no silver bullets, no secret elixirs, when it comes to avoiding burnout. But, as God’s children, we have a Father in heaven who knows us, loves us, guides us, equips us, heals us, and sustains us. Let’s turn to him in our hour of need.

Resilience: A Spiritual Project is a word in season.

R U OK?

IMG_1281Today is ‘Keep a low profile’ day. Well, I expect it will be for many. It’s actually R U OK day – a day to remind us all that it’s important to look out for one another. The trouble is that many will cringe if the only time people care for them is on a designated day. Every day is a good day to ask R U OK. So let’s slow down sufficiently to keep an eye out for each other.

I know a good number of my friends aren’t OK. Life sucks sometimes, and sometimes often. I get this. Sometimes life feels like the walls are closing in on me and I need help to see the big picture.

So if you’re not OK, please reach out.

Beyond Blue  1300 224 636

Lifeline  13 11 14

(Original artwork by Liam)

Decluttering the inbox

No Junk Mail copyI’ve spent much of the past couple of days in bed due to my three weekly chemo malaise and I feel like I’ve achieved something worthwhile—I’ve decluttered my inbox. More than simply getting hundreds of emails down to a small handful, I’ve systematically unsubscribed to dozens of regular newsletters, blogs, advertisements, and junk that fill my box every day. I have no idea how I ended up collecting many of these emails. Some were an impulse click. Some were a good idea at the time, but are no longer relevant. One or two I’ve changed the frequency from daily to weekly or monthly. People keep telling us that too much information—which often corresponds to too many emails—can’t be be doing us any good. I’m looking forward to a simpler eLife!

Crazy Busy

crazybusyI read this book some months back and was intending to review it immediately. But then something happened—I got crazy busy! I took on a new ministry role and pretty soon I had a full diary, began skipping exercise, let my good eating habits go, kept myself awake at night thinking about things, and couldn’t even find time to finish a summary/review of what is a fairly short and simple book.

Crazy Busy: a (mercifully) short book about a (really) big problem is a book for Christian leaders that was always destined to be a best-seller. I’ve yet to meet a pastor who doesn’t cry ‘busy’. To be honest, it’s rare to meet anyone these days who doesn’t lay claim to being crazy busy. Busyness is epidemic in our fast-paced, technologically-advanced, opportunity-laden, affluent, western societies. All the ridiculous promises for the future—that we will have so much time on our hands that we won’t know what to do with it—were just that: ridiculous promises. In fact, in some circles busyness is worn as a badge of honour. Unless someone is busy they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

De Young warns of the dangers of busyness…

But if the strain is mental—as is the case for most jobs and for most of us—the negative impact on the body can be huge. So don’t ignore the physical danger of busyness. Just remember the most serious threats are spiritual. When we are crazy busy, we put our souls at risk. The challenge is not merely to make a few bad habits go away. The challenge is not to let our spiritual lives slip away. The dangers are serious, and they are growing. And few of us are as safe as we may think. (p26)

Busyness can blind us to problems that are deep and destructive. Our lives can become joyless as we struggle to keep up with all the demands. It can rob our hearts of the opportunities to reflect, learn, and grow. Discontent can eat away at us as we envy the time, opportunities, and ‘freedoms’ of others. Busyness can cover up deeper problems within our souls. Having our diaries and planners crammed full does not equate to faithfulness or fruitfulness. It only means you are busy, just like everyone else. And like everyone else, your joy, your heart, and your soul are in danger. (p32)

Crazy Busy offers seven diagnoses to consider in understanding the depth of our problems with busyness. The first of these is pride. He strings a list of ‘P’ words together to make his point. These include people-pleasing, proving ourselves, seeking pity, poor planning, a need for power, the problem of perfectionism, seeking prestige, and more. De Young has found one simple question helps him to assess whether pride lies behind his busyness…

Am I trying to do good, or make myself look good? (p39)

The second diagnosis has to do with obligation. Are we trying to do what God doesn’t expect us to do? We need to be reminded often that we are not the Christ; that the gospel is great news of joy—not a demand of all that must be done; that care is not the same as do; that we have different gifts and different callings; that the church is a body with many parts; that prayer is something positive and practical we can do; and that even Jesus didn’t do it all. Above all, we need to remember that it’s not up to us to keep the universe going—God has that covered.

De Young’s third diagnosis focuses on mission creep. He reminds us of the importance of setting and sticking to priorities. Jesus recognised that there were so many good things he could do, but he would not let the good get in the way of his number one priorities. Jesus was not ultimately driven by the needs or the approval of others. He was focused on his divine mission. Not that we are on a mission from God in the same vein as Jesus, but the point is that if Jesus had to set and stick to priorities, then so must we. We simply cannot do everything and nor should we try.

Fourthly, we are warned to stop freaking out about our kids. He reminds us that it’s harder to ruin our kids than we think and it’s impossible to guarantee their future successes. In trying to do more and more for our kids we may be increasing the build up of stress in our lives and theirs. De Young refers to a Galinsky survey of more than thousand children in grades three to twelve. He asked the kids what was one thing they would change about the way their parents’ work was affecting them.

The kids rarely wished for more time with their parents, but much to the parents’ surprise, they wished their parents were less tired and less stressed.  (p70)

The fifth diagnosis looks at the impact of the screen and technology. De Young confesses that he used to roll his eyes about technophiles, until he became one!

Now I have a blog, a Facebook Page, a Twitter handle, a Bluetooth headset, an iPhone, an iPad, wifi at work and at home, cable TV, a Wii, a Blu-ray player, multiple email accounts, and unlimited texting. (p78)

We’re warned to take seriously the threat of addiction to all our devices. Multiple lines of instant communication can be a continual distraction to achieving anything productive. Our busyness makes us more prone to descending into trivia and mindlessly tuning out in front of the TV or the internet. It’s hard to be alone when we are ‘on call’ all the time—and being alone is important. We need to ask the hard questions about whether our new technologies are making our lives simpler, or more complicated. What steps should we take to ensure that such things remain our servants and don’t become our masters?

Diagnosis number six reminds us of the necessity of rest. God’s design was that we work and we rest. The danger these days is that we blur these two. Life becomes overwhelming because our days and weeks and years lack rhythm. We take work home with us. Our phones and lap tops are part work/part pleasure. We give lip service to the idea of day off, but we’re never totally on or off. (I confess this is my struggle.) De Young reminds us that we need to work hard just to rest. Breaks need to be planned. Unscheduled time needs to be scheduled. The rhythms of work and rest need planning. (p98)

The final diagnosis is a surprise one. We are busy because we are supposed to be busy. We’re too quick to assume that life was intended to be easy, comfortable, relaxed, calm. The reality is that we are sinful beings living in a complex world. We should expect to struggle with tiredness, illness, confusion, complex relationships, burdens and busyness. Sometimes our problem lies not with the circumstances but with our attitudes to them. We’re caught out, confused, and we don’t know how to respond.

The antidote to busyness of soul is not sloth and indifference. The antidote is rest, rhythm, death to pride, acceptance of our own finitude, and trust in the providence of God. (p102)

De Young’s answer is to point us to Jesus. We are encouraged to spend time ‘at his feet’ listening to his words. We’re called to devote ourselves to the Word of God and prayer. The problem is, when I hear this, it can sound like another busyness burden to add to all the others. And so I need to be reminded that it is God’s word that refocuses and refreshes me. It is through prayer that I can unload my burdens and anxieties upon God. Beginning the day with God helps me to keep perspective. To Do lists, difficult conversations, meetings, preparation and planning, sermons, studies, and everything else, need to be seen from the perspective that only God’s word can provide—eternity. And so I will learn again to humbly ask for God’s wisdom, grace, and strength, to do what he would have me do, for his glory.

Growing yourself up

GYUThis book takes me back a quarter of a century to my times as a social worker. In the final year of my BSW degree, I focused primarily on studying family therapy and the writings of Murray Bowen were very influential. I loved this stuff. It was so helpful to see people as part of a family system and to explore the influences and impact of relationships, family members, experiences, and expectations. One time we saw an adolescent boy for counselling. He had been acting out at school and finding a multitude of ways to get into trouble. It wasn’t until we met with his family and discovered that his father had become dependent on a kidney dialysis machine, that we were able to begin understanding and helping him. It wasn’t his problem alone–it was a family problem.

I enjoyed reading through this book and discovered many insights relevant to my circumstances. I know others have found much benefit in this material, but one or two have commented to me that they’ve found it hard going, like entering another world with its own vocal and jargon. Perhaps, my earlier training made this book easier.

Jenny Brown has built heavily on the work of Bowen in her excellent book, Growing Yourself Up. You could probably describe this as a ‘self help’ book, but with a difference. It’s about helping the reader to gain an increased sense of ‘self’ to enable them to enjoy better relationships with others. We grow into personal maturity as we learn to more clearly differentiate ourselves from others so that we develop healthy personal relationships. This book draws on family systems theory to help us understand who we are in the light of, and distinct from, our relationships with others. Our families of origin have a profound impact on who we are—how we think and act and speak.

Brown’s underlying conviction is that it’s never too late for any of us do do some more growing up. Greater emotional maturity is at the heart of this goal.

This book starts with the big question: Are you willing to take a fresh look at your own maturity gaps, instead of declaring that another needs to ‘grow up’?  (p8)

Growing Yourself Up helps us to see and understand the immature part that that we are playing in our relationships with others. Instead of pointing the blame, we are helped to see our own contribution to the problems and impasses we find ourselves caught up in. Unlike much recent psychotherapy which focuses on finding our inner child, this approach is about growing our inner adult in all areas of our relationships. Moving beyond childhood to adulthood can be expressed by the following attributes:

  1. Have your feelings without letting them dominate; tolerate delayed gratification
  2. Work on inner guidelines; refrain from blaming
  3. Accept people with different views; keep connected
  4. Be responsible for solving our own problems
  5. Hold onto your principles
  6. See the bigger picture of reactions and counter-reactions  (p17-19)

It takes time to work through these things. We need to learn about ourselves in relationship with others. We need to learn not to let our emotions dominate our thinking. We need to learn how to take control of our anxieties. This is all part of growing our inner adult—slowly.

Relationships—close relationships, while remaining a distinct self—are at the core of adult maturity. Our experiences of relationship from our earliest times vary along a continuum of feeling isolated and abandoned, through to feeling inseparable or smothered by others. We are helped to understand more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of our previous experiences of relationships—especially those in our family of origin—and how they impact our decision making in the present.

This book takes us through various key life stages, circumstances, and changes. It looks at the threats to and opportunities for growing in maturity. Such areas include leaving home, single adulthood, marriage, sex, parenting, work, facing setbacks such as separation or divorce, midlife, ageing, empty nests, retirement, old age, and facing death. Pretty well covers it really! In all these situations there are issues to face in our quest to grow into adult-maturity. This book helps us to understand our part in navigating these changes and stages wisely.

One section in this book, I found particularly helpful deals with the temptation to triangulate our relationships, especially in situations of conflict. This is one of the major threats to adult maturity. A relationship triangle is where the tensions between two people are relieved by escaping to a third party. (p44) This may serve to dissipate tension and help families and groups to manage, but it also results in issues not being addressed and often placing the third person is a vary awkward position. It’s helpful to examine how we might have been (or currently be) involved in such triangles, and why. Such triangles are very common and universally unhelpful for dealing with conflict and tensions in families, churches, teams, and a range of relationships.

This is the type of book that you benefit from reading through completely and then returning to digest the most relevant sections in more detail. As a pastor who deals with people all the time, I found this book offering many helpful insights. It is especially important to understand people in the context of their relationships. And it’s in these relationships that we grow ourselves up.

Margin

marginMargin: Restoring emotional, physical, financial, and time reserves to overloaded lives by Richard Swenson is an important book for anyone who is living in the red zone. If hearing the word ‘stress’ makes you stressed; if hearing the word ‘workaholic’ makes you defensive; if you’re worried about burnout; if you’re always on edge; if you’d prefer to hide in a corner than talk with people; if your credit card never gets paid off; if your children’s sporting and social calendar controls your life; if you’re never on top of what needs to get done and everything seems to be getting more and more out of control; if you never have enough time… then you should probably make time to read Margin.

Swenson argues that overload is a modern western epidemic. People are exhausted, hurt, anxious, and fatigued. Our bodies and our relationships are suffering. We can’t keep up with the demands of life. He describes this as losing our margin—the space that exists between ourselves and our limits. Margin is what we desperately need to regain.

The pain of progress, stress, and overload

Progress is normality for twenty first century Westerners. And we work on the assumption that progress is by definition good. We’re often blinded to the negative personal, relational, and environmental consequences of progress. So often progress sabotages margin, leads to increased stress, has unforeseen negative consequences, and overlooks areas of life that we should value more highly.

Most modern progress has been in:

  • the physical environment (wealth, technology, health—the material world)
  • the cognitive environment (knowledge, information, education—the intellectual world)

Most of our pain has been in:

  • the social environment (family, friends, etc)
  • the emotional environment (feelings, attitudes—our psychological world)
  • the spiritual environment (eternal, transcendent, etc)

Human beings have physical, mental, emotional and financial limits. Progress keeps putting us on a collision course with these limits. When we move beyond our limits we move beyond our margin into overload. We need to live with an awareness of our limits. If we live within our limits, then we create margins that help us to function in healthy and sustainable ways.

Change in my lifetime has been exponential, and continues to be so. This leads to unprecedented levels of stress. If we’re overstressed then we have two options: stress reduction and stress management. Stress reduction takes courage. It may require rearranging our lives: changing jobs, living on smaller incomes, learning to say no. Stress management is about learning how to handle our responses to stressors by taking a dose of margin.

Many of us live in the world of overload. Activity overload, change overload, choice overload, commitment overload, debt overload, decision overload, expectation overload, fatigue overload, hurry overload, information overload, media overload, noise overload, people overload, possession overload, technology overload, traffic overload, work overload (using the word ‘overload overload!). We tend to believe ‘one more thing won’t hurt’—until it does. Chronic overloading has a bad impact on our spiritual, emotional and relational lives. We need to learn what our limits are, and to respect them.

Margin

There is an African saying about those from the West. They say: ‘You have watches—we have time!’ They enjoy margin. Life for many is lived at a slower pace. Things are more deliberate. There’s more time for friends and family and neighbours. Progress has taken this kind of margin away from us. 

While agreeing that margin is a good thing, many would say it’s a luxury or unrealistic. Overload is the new normal and it takes too much work to change it. Swenson writes that to be healthy we need margin in at least four areas: emotional energy, physical energy, time, and finances. Emotionally, we have rarely been so stressed, so alone, exhausted in spirit. Physically, we are over-fed, under-active, and sleep-deprived. Time-wise, we are busy and worn-out. Financially, with live beyond our means in times of extraordinary widespread personal debt.

Margin in emotional energy

Of the four areas we need margin, margin in emotional energy is paramount.

Emotional overload saps our strength, paralyzes our resolve, and maximizes our vulnerability, leaving the door open for even further margin erosion.  (p79)

When we are emotionally resilient, we can deal with much that comes our way. When it’s lacking, it makes everything else more difficult. So if we find our emotional energy has evaporated, how can we get it back? Dr Swenson offers fourteen prescriptions:

  1. Cultivate social supports
    Good friends are good medicine. We should intentionally seek out relationships that refresh, with people who care for and understand us.
  2. Pet a surrogate
    Pets are capable of bonding, are loyal, and often affectionate. Except for cats—just saying!
  3. Reconcile relationships
    Broken relationships are a razor across the artery of the spirit.
    (p87) Reconciliation is powerful and health enhancing.
  4. Serve one another
    If you do regular volunteer work then you will increase your life expectancy, as well as your joy in life.
  5. Rest
    Escape. Relax. Sleep in. Take a nap. Unplug (turn off) the phone. Try setting aside time regularly for quiet and rest.
  6. Laugh
    Apparently people who laugh often heal faster. I’ll have to try it!
  7. Cry
    If you laugh hard enough you will! Crying contributes to emotional restoration.
  8. Create appropriate boundaries
    Learn to say ‘no’.
  9. Envision a better future
    We all must have a purpose bigger than ourselves that we can live for. We must have something we can believe in, something we can give ourselves to. (p91)
  10. Offer thanks
    We all have much to be thankful for. Grumbling drains. Gratitude fills.
  11. Grant grace
    Stop judging people. You’re adding burdens to your back. Lighten both your loads.
  12. Be rich in faith
    The most vital ingredient of resilience is faith. (p93)
  13. Hold fast to hope
    Hope fosters physical and emotional health. Real hope is not naive optimism.
  14. Above all, love
    Receive it and then give it away.

Margin in physical energy

Australia has become the nation of obesity. The book speaks about Americans, but Aussies have a greater problem. We’re overweight, lacking in energy, and addicted to the wrong things. Our bodies only work properly when cared for, fuelled properly, rested regularly, and serviced occasionally. We’re more vulnerable to the effects of stress when our energy reserves are low. The keys to physical margin are sleep, exercise, and nutrition.

Prescriptions for restoring margin in physical energy:

  1. Take personal responsibility
    Changing habits is difficult, but necessary to create margin. Surround yourself with others who will help you to break out of the old patterns of thinking and living.
  2. Value sleep
    Develop healthy sleeping patterns. Don’t push on having less than you know you need and don’t oversleep. Try to develop good routines. Take naps occasionally if you need to. If you eat and exercise better, then you’ll likely sleep better too.
  3. Eat well
    Cut the junk food, eat healthy, and drink plenty of water.
  4. Exercise
    Exercise your heart. Build your muscles. Increase your stamina. Improve your flexibility. Do it regularly, but don’t overdo it.

Margin in Time

We live busy lives. We speak of having no time, losing time, borrowing time, being out of time, and trying to find the time. We’re constantly filling all our time and need to create margins.

With smart phones, laptop computers and wireless internet, some people are always in work time and need to learn how to margin time to rest. In creating a margin of time we must allow time for ourselves, our families, our friendships, and God. Again this means learning to say ‘no’, to make priorities and honour them. Some things need to drop out of our lives—we can just keep adding.

We need to relearn the value of simplicity and contentment instead of continuously desiring the latest and greatest. We should probably turn the television off and find other things to do. Maybe surfing the internet isn’t the best alternative. We should stop living in the frantic and urgent, and devote more to the long-term and important. We should focus less on how much we do and evaluate what is best to do. Let’s stop and reflect, enjoy what we do, and learn from it.

Create buffer zones, plan free time. Ask yourself—do you have time for the unplanned and unexpected? Stop being so busy and plan to make yourself available.

Margin in Finances

Our world is in economic crisis. We can’t keep on living beyond our means and expect things to keep getting better and better. This is true globally, nationally, and personally. Creating financial margin has obvious benefits. Lowering expenses below our incomes decreases stress and pressure. Having margin gives us opportunity to contribute to the needs of others.

Some people are in deep trouble financially. Swenson offers some suggestions for restoring financial margin, and here is my summary:

  1. Don’t allow economics to be your primary measure in life
  2. Be willing to part with the culture in its quest for more and more things
  3. Live within your means
  4. Discipline your desires and redefine your needs
  5. Decrease spending and increase saving
  6. Make a budget
  7. Cut up your credit cards
  8. Limit your mortgage
  9. Resist impulse buying
  10. Depreciate things and appreciate people
  11. Learn to lend and give away your things
  12. Forget fashion
  13. Do without
  14. Remember what you have belongs to God

Increasing my margin

Creating margin is a helpful way of describing how to ‘underload’ our overloaded lives. We need to create margin. Margin for people, margin for ourselves, margin to think and plan, margin to refresh, margin to stay out of debt, and more. My problem is I’ve so often closed that margin.

I remember looking at my timetable one day and realising that I’d booked meetings back to back all day. There was no time to plan before meetings, reflect after meetings, or travel between meetings. As the day went on I’d get further behind and I’d finish the day exhausted. No doubt the latter meetings weren’t as helpful as the earlier ones. So I began slotting in longer times for my meetings to allow time to catch my breath, think over what was coming up, jot notes afterwards, pray about what I was doing, and to allow for travel from one meeting to another.

This afternoon I attended a farewell event for a fellow pastor in Canberra. It was a wonderful tribute to the work of God in and through this man and his family. One thing stood out among the many praises showered on this man—he always has time for people. Ministers are infamous for putting out the vibe of busyness, so it was exciting to hear of a friend who has broken the mould. Would that this be me and many others I know.

Busyness is not cool. It’s not a virtue. It’s not a sign of how important, indispensable or valuable we are. It’s more often an indicator that we haven’t managed to effectively prioritise or manage our time. It probably means we’re dominated by the urgent rather than the important. And it certainly means we need to create margin in our lives.

Serving without sinking

serving_sinkingOver the past year or so, I’ve read and reread a great many books on Christian leadership and service. This new book is seriously one of the most important books I’ve read. It is deeply, simply, and accurately theological. This makes it rich indeed. It’s not about technique or skill. It’s not about looking after yourself, so you last the distance without burning out. Serving without Sinking by John Hindley is liberating and empowering because it points above all to God’s grace in Jesus. It honours Christ by focusing on him, rather than you and I. It’s a thoroughly Biblical mindset that critiques and reshapes our whole perspective on Christian service. Instead of beginning with our service of Christ, it reminds us of these important words in Mark 10:45 that Jesus came first to serve us:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

If we’re finding Christian service a burden, if we’re miserable and joyless, then Hindley suggests we examine our motives for service.

It could be we have a wrong view of God. If we’re serving Jesus so as to be good enough for him, or to get something from him, or to repay Jesus in some way, then we have forgotten the heart of the good news. Jesus came to serve us. This is his free gift to us. We don’t have to measure up, earn our way, or repay the debt. Relationship with God through Jesus is a free gift to be received joyfully.

We might also have a wrong view of people. Perhaps we’re serving to impress others, to receive their thanks or praise, or so that we feel like we are accepted and belong.

Joyless service could also stem from a wrong view of ourselves. Maybe we feel we are indispensable, that somehow Jesus needs us if he is going to be able to accomplish his purposes. Alternatively, we might be feeling like we don’t need Jesus. We’ve become activists who do things on our own, rather than praying for God to be at work in and through us.

Serving without Sinking shifts the attention away from us and puts it back on Jesus.

The counter-intuitive truth I’ve come to realise—the truth that prompted me to write this book—is that the only way to get our service of Jesus right is to realise that supremely, we don’t serve him. He serves us. (p45)

The truth that Jesus came to serve us, to give his life to ransom us for God, means we’ve been given free access to God. It doesn’t depend on our performance and because of this we are liberated to serve in joyful response.

The truth that we have been reconciled to Jesus leads us to serve him, not because we have to or need to, but because we are his friends. This is not about duty, or obligation, or simply obedience—it’s about relationship.

The truth that we have been united with Christ as his bride, draws us into the intimacy of relationship with him. He has sacrificed everything for us and is preparing us for eternity. Jesus is working through our service of him to get us ready for that great day when we will be fully joined with him.

The truth that we’ve been adopted into God’s family as sons, with full inheritance rights, to join in the family business, means we have the privilege of working with God. He doesn’t need us to help him, but he loves us doing so.

Grasping these truths refocuses our Christian service. It opens the door to rediscovering the joy and freedom that come through the gospel. It takes the heat off us. If the Christian life is reduced to our service of God then we will fail miserably. But if we take hold of God’s promises then we cannot fail. Jesus has done it all.

Moreover, Jesus continues to serve us. He intercedes for us today. Because Jesus prays for us, we don’t have to!

So prayer, like other ways of serving, is not something we need to do—it is something we are able to do; an opportunity to enjoy, not a chore to endure. (p84)

Jesus has also served us by sending us the Holy Spirit to enable us to serve him. This is the best gift he has to give, and he gives the Spirit to each one of his followers. Through the Spirit he equips us to serve by giving us gifts. Serving is not jobs that have to be done, but gifts to be unwrapped. These gifts are not for our sake, but gifts to be enjoyed by the church body.

The Spirit of God enables us to serve God with love. Loving God is not something I will do naturally, but something God’s Spirit grows in me. We can mistakenly think that if we simply obey God, then we will love him. However, it doesn’t work this way. Love will lead to service, but not the other way round. Love makes service joyful and free. If our service of Christ has become a burden, or stopped happening, we don’t need to try to obey more. We should ask your God to send his Spirit to work in our heart so that we are captured again by his love and service of us.

Serving without Sinking is a breath of fresh air. I pray that it will reignite our desire to love God leading to joyful service of God and others. If you’re feeling despondent, battle weary, or disillusioned in Christian service—take the time to read this book. If you’re worried that your brothers or sisters are becoming like this, then grab them a copy and talk about it together. If you’re a pastor, looking for ways to thank and encourage your leaders, then invest in multiple copies of this book.

One quick word to the author:

You’ve done a good job of helping women to see how they are included in the category of ‘sons’ of God. I think you need to do something similar to help men to appreciate how they can be part of the ‘bride’ of Christ. Maybe in the second edition!

The three signs of a miserable job

3-signs-of-a-miserable-jobThe three signs of a miserable job is another helpful analysis by leadership and teams expert, Patrick Lencioni. A miserable job is the one that’s tough to get out of bed for. You dread going to work and you can’t wait to get home. It’s not about the actual work. Nor is it about the money. An executive on a seven-figure salary can be miserable, while a waitress finds great satisfaction in her work. It can be any type of job, any business, and any time. No one is immune.

There are huge economic and personal costs to this misery. It damages the individual’s physical and psychological health. It spreads through homes, families, marriages, friendships and society.

The three signs of a miserable job

Anonymity
People can’t be fulfilled in their work if they aren’t known. We all need to be understood and appreciated by someone in authority over us. People who see themselves as invisible, generic, or anonymous are not going to love their jobs.

Irrelevance
Everyone needs to know that their job is important to someone else, even if it’s just the boss. Without seeing a sense of connection between the work and satisfaction of another person or group of people, an employee will not find fulfilment.

Immeasurement
Workers need to be able to gauge for themselves their progress and level of contribution. They won’t be satisfied in their work if success depends on the whims or opinions of others. Without a tangible means for assessing success or failure, motivation eventually deteriorates as people see themselves as unable to control their own fate.

The benefits of managing for job fulfilment

Employees who find their jobs rewarding will work with more enthusiasm, passion, and commitment to quality than those who do not. They’ll develop a sense of ownership and pride in what they are doing.

There will be less staff turnover, with employees holding onto fulfilling jobs as long as they can. Fulfilled employees tend to attract other good employees, ultimately resulting in fewer costs to the organisation. The organisation will enjoy greater stability and cohesion. Being known as a satisfying place to work is a valuable point of difference with other organisations.

The obstacles to managing for job fulfilment

Sometimes employees fail to find fulfilment in their work because they put too much emphasis on getting the right amount of money or finding the ideal job. Yet even people who are paid well for doing something they love can be miserable if they feel anonymous, or irrelevant, or they don’t know if they are succeeding or not.

Sometimes the problem is the organisation. The business and its leaders are slow to see their employee dissatisfaction issues and, when they do, they focus on the wrong things. If they don’t notice until people are starting to resign, then it’s too late. Often people will not honestly state why they are leaving and issues of anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurability are left unaddressed.

In order to be the kind of leader who demonstrates genuine interest in employees and who can help people discover the relevance of their work, a person must have a level of personal confidence and emotional vulnerability. Without it, managers will often feel uncomfortable, even embarrassed, about having such simple, behavioural conversations with their employees. They will mistakenly feel more like kindergarten teachers or little league coaches delivering a simple pep talk, even though their employees  – at all levels – are yearning for just such a conversation.  (p228)

Addressing anonymity

If you feel that others on the team know and understand you as an individual, then you’re much less likely to want to leave the team. Leaders must take a personal interest in the members of their team. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you start watching the same TV shows they do or listening to their music. Simply get to know them. Take time to sit down with them and ask them about their lives. Keep it real. It must be a genuine interest. Not once off, but over and over again. Show interest and follow it up.

People want to be managed as people, not as mere workers.  (p231)

Addressing irrelevance

Why are so many athletes, rock stars, and actors living such messed up and unsatisfied lives? Lencioni believes the root cause is a subtle fear of irrelevance. He says this because it’s hard to understand how someone who earns truckloads of money doing something they love, and who gets constant attention from others, can be unhappy. And conversely how low-paid, ‘hiding in the background’ workers can be happy. The answer has to do with being needed and having an impact on the lives of others.

Human beings need to be needed. They need to know that they are helping others, not merely serving themselves. Leaders need to help employees (or volunteers) answer two questions in order to establish relevance in their jobs.

‘Who am I helping?’
For many workers, the answer will be the customers, but some people are in jobs where they don’t have direct contact with customers. It could be other employees, colleagues, or departments within the organisation, or even their own boss. Leaders can be reluctant to speak of how people’s work helps them, but most people get a great deal of satisfaction when their supervisor thanks them for what they’ve done or says how helpful and significant it has been.

How am I helping?
The answer to that question isn’t always obvious. When a room attendant at a hotel brings breakfast to a guest, he isn’t just delivering food. He’s helping a weary traveler feel a little better about having to be on the road, which can have a significant impact on their outlook on life that day.

One of the most important things that managers must do is help employees see why their work matters to someone. Even if this sounds touchy-feely to some, it is a fundamental part of human nature.  (p235)

Addressing immeasurement

Effective job measurement lies in identifying the areas that an employee can directly influence. Leaders need to see the importance of the people on their teams having clear measurement criteria. Some measurements will be behavioural in nature and may be achieved by an informal survey of customers or a by identifying behaviours that indicates satisfaction with their work. If people can’t see any clear link between their daily responsibilities and the metric they are being measured against, they lose interest, feeling unable to control their own destiny. This is why so many salespeople enjoy their jobs. They don’t depend on others to tell them whether they’ve succeeded or failed.

Taking action

How can you go about putting all this into action, depends on who you are.

If you’re a manager…

Anonymity: Do I really know my people, their family situations, their interests, or how they spend their spare time?

Irrelevance: Do they know who their work impacts, and how?

Immeasurement: Do they know how to assess their own progress or success?

Employee assessments allow people to confirm or deny the accuracy of your answers. Finally, develop a plan to overcome any inadequacies around the three signs. This could be done one on one or in a team session. Make clear what you are trying to do, so that people don’t assume ulterior motives.

If you’re an employee or looking for a job…

You can do some things to increase the odds that your job will be fulfilling. Talk with your boss (or prospective boss) about the three signs and your desire to avoid them. A good leader will take this seriously. If you’re looking for a job, ask how they show interest in employees, how the job you’re discussing has an impact on people, and how you will be measured. If you’re hearing answers that indicate anonymity, irrelevance, or immeasurement, then it might be the job to avoid.

The ministry of management

I have come to the realisation that all managers can – and really should – view their work as a ministry. A service to others.

By helping people find fulfillment in their work, and helping them succeed in whatever they’re doing, a manager can have a profound impact on the emotional, financial, physical, and spiritual health of workers and their families.  They can also create an environment where employees do the same for their peers, giving them a sort of ministry of their own. (p253)

Some further thoughts on working with volunteers

Much of what I do as a church leader involves working with unpaid volunteers. Lencioni’s diagnosis of the signs of a miserable job is valuable for thinking about how to encourage people to serve in a range of voluntary roles. Are our volunteers feeling recognised, valued, appreciated, and purposeful? Do they understand the importance of their contribution to the ministry of the whole church or organisation? Are they able to assess whether they are doing a good job or not? Or are they left constantly wondering if anyone notices or cares?

How do we recruit volunteers to roles within our ministry? In my experience we often stress the gaps that need filling and push people to fill places on rosters. It’s far more helpful to inspire people with the opportunities for valuable ministry. Explain the essential contribution their work will have to the ministry as a whole. Offer examples, case studies, statistics or personal testimonies. Show the outcomes when this is done well. Highlight the potential for people to use their gifts and grow.

Sometimes we equip volunteers for the work we want them to do and then leave them to do it. The team leader’s job doesn’t stop with training. It flows on into encouragement, feedback, support, and celebrations. Keep reminding people of the relevance and value of their contribution. Empower them to recruit others and play a role in training and developing people in their roles. Acknowledge their contribution publicly in the organisation. Help develop clear metrics by which people can assess the success or failure of their contribution.

If we’re experiencing a high turnover or drop out rate among our volunteers, we should take the time to assess the reasons why. It’s highly likely that people are experiencing one or more of these signs of a miserable job. Leaders would do well to put their minds to helping volunteers overcome feelings of anonymity, irrelevance and immeasurability. It could help to engage volunteers so as to better understand the factors that contribute to or overcome such feelings. This could be done ad hoc or on a regular basis. It could form the basis of a regular formal review with volunteers and teams.

Leading on empty

leading_on_emptyBurnout is a huge issue. It takes a massive toll on individuals, families, organisations and society. Leading experts in stress and burnout have identified church pastors as very high-risk candidates. Most will face these issues in their ministry. Many will face them multiple times. A disturbingly large group have already left their ministries as a result of burnout.

Wayne Cordeiro has written a helpful book on the topic, called Leading on empty: Refilling your tank and renewing your passion. A friend of mine read this book during his stress leave. I’ve since read it a couple of times and passed it on to others facing this issue.

How do you lead when you don’t feel like leading? And how do you sail through the dead waters when the wind has died down and that which was a festival now demands the intentional? When exhilaration turns to perspiration? Like pages torn out of my journal, this book chronicles my collision with burnout and my subsequent journey to a newly defined life.  (p11)

Much of this book details Cordeiro’s experience and what he has found helpful in moving beyond burnout with a renewed passion for ministry. He argues that when the first signs of burnout appear, then it’s time for a break. What are the common signs? Here are a few experienced by Cordeiro:

  • Ministry became more arduous.
  • Daily tasks seemed unending.
  • Decisions—even small ones—seemed to paralyze him.
  • Creativity began to flag and he found it easier to imitate rather than innovate.
  • People he deeply cared about became problems to be avoided.
  • Casting vision no longer stirred his soul.
  • What started as a joy, had become a drain.

His doctor explained what was happening to him physically and emotionally. Cordeiro recounts:

“You have depleted your system. Your serotonin levels are completely exhausted… Serotonin is a chemical like an endorphin. It replenishes during times of rest and then fuels you while you’re working. If, however, you continue to drive yourself without replenishing, your store of serotonin will be depleted. As a substitute your body will be forced to replace serotonin with adrenaline. The problem is that adrenaline is designed for emergency use only.”

“Serotonin can get depleted when you don’t live with a cadence that allows it to be replenished… Depression takes the place of initiative; your indecision and anxiety increases. You begin to feel a greater need for aloneness and isolation.”  (p25-26)

He was told that he needed to replace his serotonin levels. This would need to take place slowly, like trickle charging a battery. He was urged to take off six months to a year, or as long as he could manage. If he didn’t first replenish his system, he was warned to prepare for a crash. He could understand this because his RPMs were above the red line and he was unable to change gears.

Cordeiro needed to learn things the hard way. He was leading a very large, highly ‘successful’ church. His influence was wide and his responsibilities were vast. It wasn’t until he started experiencing anxiety attacks and depression that he woke to the necessity for major change. He was drowning in his feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. His faith and confidence were under attack and he lacked energy and interest in life.

It’s hard to admit to depression when you are a very public leader in ministry. The reality, however, is that it’s widespread and always has been. Such great ones as William Cowper, Charles Spurgeon, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, all struggled under its dark cloud.

Cordeiro advocates developing an early warning system. If we can see it coming then we have the opportunity to avoid much of the wreckage. Symptoms of depression that he identifies include: a sense of hopelessness; frequent tears; difficulty concentrating; decision making comes hard; irritability; insomnia; lowered activity levels; feeling alone; lack of marital attraction; eating disorders; aches and pains. In another place, he rather humorously suggests the following signs of being in the early stages of burnout or depression:

  1. One year in solitary confinement is sounding more and more like a good option.
  2. Spending time with your mother-in-law begins to be more inviting than going to work.
  3. Your ministry leader calls for the third time wondering where you have been. You consider changing your number and possibly moving.
  4. The site of a ministry volunteer sign-up sheet brings on a severe allergic reaction.
  5. You realize you are in this ministry for life, which is funny, because you feel you no longer have one.  (p65)

Having identified the issues the bulk of the book deals with how to move forward. He needed to take time out and he had to sort through issues. There was no point simply having a break and then jumping headlong into the same chaos and intensity.

A major issue was recognising the difference between a concern and a personal responsibilityConcerns are things we should pray about, and then leave them with God. If we treat them as responsibilities we end up trying to carry the world on our shoulders. Responsibilities are the things that only I can accomplish. They cannot be delegated, ignored, or dumped off onto someone else.

He pushes us to identify the top 5% of life. Cordeiro argues that 85% of what we do, anyone can do. These are the things that don’t require any expertise, and many of them can be easily delegated. 10% of what we do, someone with some training should be able to accomplish. But 5% of what I do, only I can do. This is the most important 5% for me. This 5% will determine the effectiveness of the other 95%. Now we could argue the figures, but the overall point stands. We need to work out what our 5% is, and let this get first priority.

Once we’ve identified the key areas in our 5%, they require a daily investment of our time and heart. The condition of these areas will, to a large extent, determine the state of our life. If these areas are compromised, the consequences will create a domino effect. We often fill our days with the 85% because it’s easy. We then dip into the next 10%. But during the season of burnout, even that becomes draining and we have nothing left for the crucial 5%. Sadly this will often mean that our faith, our marriage, our family, and our health are critical areas that get neglected.

Cordeiro encourages us to do as many things as possible that fill our emotional reservoir. Some activities will fill us more than drain us, and others will drain us more than fill us. We need to know the difference. The danger is the busier we get, the less time we have for activities that replenish us. He didn’t play sports because he had deadlines to meet. He didn’t read books because he had sermons to prepare. He was leading on empty, with more drain than fill.

He encourages us to make a list of the things that drained us and the things that fill us. Include at least six items in each category. Have our spouse do the same, and then share them. Help each other by encouraging each other to do what fills our tanks, and do what we can to remove or change things that drain them.

We probably need to restructure our lives. This is needed if we’re to last for the long haul. This includes changing our behaviours, and most likely also our motivations, habits and subconscious patterns. Cordeiro started making these changes, but he was impatient, and crashed badly. Out of this collapse he draws seven lessons:

Lesson One: Do Not Overproduce
He had to learn that he could say “no” or “come back tomorrow.” He didn’t have to be available 24/7. He could take time to recharge. 

Lesson Two: Steward Your Energy
A leader’s greatest asset is not necessarily time. It is energy and this is not unlimited. A person with energy may be able to accomplish more in four hours than one without energy can in four days.

Lesson Three: Rest Well, My Friend
We are most vulnerable to depression from burnout when we are totally fatigued and overtired. One of the very first steps in reversing depression and regaining a sense of resilience is rest. (p122)
Schedule rests in before your calendar fills up. Rest is not an afterthought; it has to be a primary responsibility. It brings a rhythm back to life and a cadence that makes life sustainable. (p125)
Lead out of a place of rest and you will be able to put your heart into everything God asks of you. Without rest you are leading on empty. (p128)

Cordeiro makes a very helpful suggestion about how we view our days. Think of them beginning the night before. This way you begin each day with rest. Your day starts when you go to sleep. Rest begins your new day, not coffee. (p129)

Lesson Four: Exercise Your Way to Recovery
Exercise is important for both physical and mental health. It can help with recovery from depression. Consistency is more important than how much you do or how hard you work each time.

Lesson Five: Eating Your Way to a Good Life
What you eat is related to how you feel. Dietary changes
can bring psychological as well as physiological changes.

Lesson Six: Recharge Daily
Cordeiro recharges every day during his daily devotions. God’s word and prayer fills his inner tank, so he is able to reserve adequate time and energy for his family and his life.

Lesson Seven: Fight For Your Family
Too many have sacrificed marital harmony and family on the altar of success. It’s not worth it. (p140)

Leading on Empty stresses the importance of living intentionally. The key to living intentionally is to imagine your ideal future and write down. Also write down your most important relationships, that need to remain healthy regardless of how you feel or what happens: your relationship with Christ and your spouse and family. Writing things down gives you something to come back to, and helps keep you from basing your life on how you feel in the moment. It also helps you keep focused on hope for the future.

Living an intentional life requires consistent monitoring and assessment. It requires restructuring our days in order to live intentionally. A healthy life cadence will contribute to being a healthy pastor or leader. Cordeiro suggests a rhythm, or life cadence, that he tries to maintain:

Daily
Being at home. He tries to avoid being out three nights in a row, and refuses to be gone four. He also commits to doing some things every day, even if it is a small amount: Devotions, exercise, planning his time, and reading. 

Weekly
He takes a day off every week, and fills it with things that fill his tank.

Seasonal
He takes a monthly
Personal Retreat Day, to get refocused on God’s agenda. This personal retreat day has proven to be very helpful. It’s a day out of the office where he can get the scattered pieces of his life back in order, and spend some prolonged time with God. It won’t happen if you don’t plan for it and schedule it, so write it down on your calendar! He also makes a priority of renewing relationships by such things as keeping birthdays and holidays special, and celebrating often. 

Seasons of Life
After seven years of ministry, he takes a three month sabbatical to get renewed. Taking a sabbatical, or long service leave, provides the opportunity for a complete break, refreshment, renewal and refocus. The best time to organise this is when you start out and agree to a contract.

The first time I read this book, I needed to. It was just prior to our long service leave and I was feeling the strain of many years in ministry, some tense and difficult times, seeking to mediate and navigate some big tensions between others, working long hours, not looking after my physical health, going without sleep, and more. I found it a breath of fresh air. Interestingly, I caught up with a distant colleague shortly afterwards and discovered that he’d also been reading the same book to help him progress past burnout. This book isn’t the final word on the topic, but I believe it makes a very helpful contribution. Ideally, it will be read early in people’s working lives and ministries, and assist them in establishing good priorities and practises. If not, then it’s not too late to pick it up and read now.

Going the distance

goingthedistanceGoing the distance: How to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry by Peter Brain is an important book for people in pastoral ministry. We should probably read it more than once! I read it years ago, when it was first published. It inspired me to make significant changes to my life and ministry and to encourage others to do the same. I remember inviting Peter to visit Canberra and lead 50 or more local ministers through his. We all found this time very confronting and useful. However, I also need to confess that some things need to be learned over and over. I’ve read this book for a second time over the past couple of days and I’ve kept finding areas where I’ve dropped the ball. Repeated mistakes that I should have dealt with. And fresh ideas to share with others.

Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that much of the encouragement to self-care, aimed at me as a pastor, is equally relevant to self-care for me as a cancer patient! Keeping fit, getting enough sleep, not feeding the adrenaline-stress cycle, investing in my family and friendships, taking time out, working well and relaxing equally well, spending time in God’s word and prayer, recognising the factors that lead to depression, enjoying a healthy sexual relationship with my wife, making holidays count, being willing to say ‘no’ so that my ‘yes’ means more, relying on God’s strength. These things are relevant for all people, not simply for pastors. But the problems come when pastors, like myself, assume that we are larger than life! When we think we can function differently to every one else. When we ignore the warning signs, we will eventually crash.

This book is a helpful road map for guiding us to avoid the pitfalls and dangers and disasters that will come our way, especially (but not exclusively) in pastoral ministry. If our lives are especially busy and draining, and if they revolve around caring for people, then we need to take these warnings seriously. Especially if we think we’re indispensable, or worse still, if we function as though we’re the Messiah, that no one can do without, then we’re in serious danger. Overall, this is a very good road map. It’s worth consulting many times on the journey. It’s worth spending time with others, looking at it together, and planning what steps to take next.

This book draws heavily on the work of one of Peter Brain’s teachers, Dr Arch Hart from Fuller Theological Seminary in the US. Hart has written a number of influential books, including Adrenaline and Stress and Coping with Depression in the Ministry and other Helping Professions. I remember my mother sending me Hart’s book on stress very early in my ministry, but I was too busy to read it! (I’m only semi-joking.) I put it aside, along with so many other helpful resources, because I didn’t have any problems and there were too many pressing things to be done. And there’s the problem! Straight and simple. We too often put off what’s important and replace it with the urgent. Eventually we can’t cope with the urgent or the important and we’ve become casualties of burnout.

Various statistics relating to the burnout of pastors are quoted in this book. It doesn’t matter whose stats we read, they’re always alarmingly high. Too many casualties. Too many avoidable tragedies. I can testify to having felt burnt out a number of times throughout my ministry. On one occasion a few years back, numerous people were asking me to consider a different ministry role, but I couldn’t even consider it because I knew at that time I’d have nothing to offer. It was then that I realised some things badly needed to change, and we took long service leave to recharge and try to sort them out.

Peter argues that the signs of burnout can be either friend or foe. It all depends on what response we make to the signs. If we ignore them, we’re headed for serious trouble. If we see the symptoms, and recognise them for what they are, then there’s real hope ahead. We have the opportunity to realign, take some better paths, and push on. I believe this experience will probably happen many times throughout a pastor’s ministry. Each time we should embrace it early, as an opportunity for change and growth.

If you’re involved in pastoral ministry or a ‘people-focused helping-profession’ of some sort, then I recommend you read and keep referring to this book. If you’ve never read it and you suspect that you may be at risk of crashing, then please get hold of a copy and read it. But also speak with someone you trust about your situation and how you’re feeling. This is a good book to read with some friends or colleagues. You can share what you learn, talk it through practically, relate it to your own situations, and agree to support and pray for each other. It will be worth the encroachment into your busy life. I promise!

Time for some self-care. I’m off to bed. 🙂