In the UK, no other Christian training institute takes mentor training more seriously than Cliff College, located in the beautiful Peak District National Park in Derbyshire. I have the great privilege of facilitating their week-long mentor training intensive 9-13 May 2022. Could you join us for this residential course? You can find out more here.
Participants gain a Cliff College Certificate by completing the required assessment work following the teaching week. Successful students will be invited to the Cliff College graduation ceremony. Students can choose not to do the assessment work by auditing the short course. This short course also serves as an entry qualification to the Postgraduate Certificate in Mission (Christian Mentoring) at Cliff College.
Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) is known as the father of social psychology. His thinking gave rise to so many processes we take for granted today such as action research, change process theory and sensitivity training. He coined the term ‘group dynamics’, did ground-breaking work in analysing organizational culture and gave us the psychological equationB = ƒ(P, E), meaning that human behaviour is a function of the person in their environment. That seems obvious now, but it took Lewin to make it clear.
Perhaps the most useful thing Lewin came up with for mentoring is his ‘Force Field Analysis’, a tool that I use all the time in mentoring sessions in an informal, unstructured way and occasionally as a formal exercise. The FFA provides a framework for identifying the factors that influence a situation:
factors that drive movement toward a goal – ‘helping forces’
factors that block movement toward a goal – ‘hindering forces’
Lewin originally designed this for use in social situations and corporate environments, but it’s also very helpful when working with individuals who have identified a goal for themselves and now need to figure out the practical steps they might take to realise that goal. Lewin noticed that people tend to focus on individual aspects of a situation rather than seeing things as a whole.
The genius of the FFA is that it draws people to consider all the forces already at play in their situation as they seek to make progress. We are never at a standing start as we address our goals; things are already in motion. And the FFA calls people to consider not only what they have going for them, and not only what they are up against, but all of those things together. I have developed a list of the sorts of forces that mentorees and I commonly identify:
gifts, skills, experience, education/qualifications, other strengths and weaknesses, stage of life, health
motivations, desires, passions, fears, sense of identity
graces of the Holy Spirit, gifts fruit, empowerment, the Scriptures, prophetic words, healing AND ALSOthe works of the enemy, falsehood, discouragement, destructive thinking
people’s actions, attitudes, words, needs, demands, generosity, support or otherwise, the nature of relationships with family, friends and associates
social expectations, attitudes and mores, opportunities/opposition based on gender, ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, social status
financial, housing, location, tools and equipment
Once the forces are identified – and there may be dozens of forces at play – it’s then on to the second step of the FFA. In this step a person considers what practical steps they may be able to take to strengthen the ‘helping forces’ and to overcome the ‘hindering forces’. This step can take quite a while and should not be rushed. But if you’ve ever struggled with the options generation stage of the GROW model, you’ll appreciate how helpful the FFA is in providing a framework for coming up with a wide range of possible actions. It’s like brainstorming on steroids!
In practical terms for mentoring sessions, the final step in using the FFA is to whittle all those possible actions down to a very short list of action steps that a mentoree commits to implement in the period before their next mentoring appointment.
If you already use something like this, I’d love you to comment on what you’ve discovered and what tips you’d have for mentors. If you haven’t come across this before I encourage you to give it a try next time you have a mentoree who needs to decide what they are going to do to make progress towards their goals.
Considering all three dimensions of time – past, present, future – there is benefit in engaging deeply with each dimension
The past. We learn from past experience or, if we don’t, as the saying goes, we are destined to repeat it. In particular, reflecting on what God has done builds a firm foundation for faith, anchored in God’s Word, in historical fact and our own experience. In mentoring, we commonly engage in this through ‘telling our stories’ somewhere near the beginning of a mentoring partnership.
The present. The benefits of being fully present in the moment are well known, not least of which is the fact that here and now is the place of agency; we cannot change the past nor can we control the future, but in the present moment we can choose to respond faithfully to God’s grace.
The future. Very few things come into being fully developed. Life is full of unrealised, positive possibilities that may be grasped through purposeful, focussed action. Furthermore, setbacks do not have to be the end of the story. Amid a world of brokenness, God holds out hope of renewal and restoration yet to come.
It is this future aspect of time I want to address here. As mentors, in working to help others develop a more adequate grasp of their lives we may find our mentorees neglect to consider the future perspective at critical points, or their consideration of the future may be skewed in unhelpful ways. Why does consideration of future perspective sometimes fail? There are, of course, many possible reasons – laziness, poor judgement, wrong information. But I think the most common causes in our current circumstances are anxiety, worry and fear. These emotional responses flood the nervous system with adrenaline which closes up thinking processes, reducing flexibility, withdrawing generosity and shortening time horizons. With careful preparation, mentors might be able to help their clients overcome these limiting ways of thinking and develop a healthy future perspective.
Biblical encouragements and warnings
As a practitioner of Christian mentoring I find it significant that Christianity has a strong future orientation. The overarching metanarrative is that creation is broken but God is in the business of restoring all things, and this vision will be realised in the age to come, into which he invites us through faith in Jesus. Jesus gives us great encouragement to consider the future not only in the age to come but in the present age as well. For example, in Lk 14 he tells parables about setting goals for construction and combat. But in Mt 6:34 he also gives us a warning: when we think about the future we should avoid doing so with a mindset of worry. Rather we should have a mindset of seeking God’s rule and of faith and trust. Further, James warns us in Jas 4 not to think about the future with the kind of presumption that becomes arrogance. Rather, consideration of the future should stimulate our desire to seek God’s will.
Applicability to mentoring
Calling attention to and strengthening future perspective in mentoring is useful for both correcting a deficit and developing an asset – the deficit of problematic attitudes to the future and the asset of having an attitude towards the future that harnesses the transformative power of God-given hope.
Calling attention to possibly problematic attitudes to the future is relevant where
A mentoree seems overly worried about things in the future
A mentoree seems overly naïve or arrogant about the future
A mentoree seems not to be paying attention to future consequences
Calling attention to the future to harness transformational power emphasises
Hope of God’s intervention
Spirit-inspired imagination of what might be possible
Strengthening resolve to do difficult things with future rewards
A grasp of the transcendental, age-to-come future that answers the big ‘why?’ questions
Future creation – working toward a preferred future
In order to take hold of positive future possibilities, a person must overcome explicit or implicit deterministic ways of thinking. Determinism insists that the future already exists; that it is locked in and unalterable, and that no decisions or actions on our part will make any difference to our fate or the fate of those around us. Without getting into the deep philosophical and theological debate around this, it’s fair to say that the Christian position is that today’s choices do make a difference to tomorrow’s outcomes and that we are called to join with God in his redemptive work.
A considerable body of research exists on what is called ‘time perspective theory’ with applications in psychology, adolescent development, education, sociology, cultural studies and more. Enhancing future time perspective has been shown to promote focus, prioritisation and goal-setting with beneficial effects on motivation and perseverance. Dozens of studies have proved the strategic value of clearly identifying a preferred future. A key insight for mentors is that future orientation is required to move from a problem focus to a solution focus.
None of us has a crystal ball but we do live in a world where the laws of cause and effect (VUCA notwithstanding) allow for a measure of predictability, provided we think about it. With serious consideration of the future we may develop and benefit from ‘early hindsight’.
Commonly neglected aspect of Christian ethics. Later, the critique may be, ‘What were they thinking?!’
Avoiding the trap of unintended consequences.
Action-consequence analysis is one of the three major approaches to ethics, along with principle-based (or Kantian) ethics and character-based (or Aristotelian) ethics.
Values clarification and prioritising. Holding to one value may not seem worth it when we consider the likely negative impact on another value in the future.
Drawing attention to the future helps with:
Delayed gratification, self-restraint, capacity to wait, patience
Strengthening hope, expectancy dimension of faith
Joy of anticipation
Peace – coming to terms with as yet unresolved matters
In the first instance, mentors can begin to promote a healthy future perspective by crafting questions that stir up curiosity about the future. Here are some examples to start your thinking:
Questions for creating a preferred future
What do you have in your life today that you would like to be part of your future?
If you were free of distractions, where would you be in 5 years’ time?
If you had a year to live, with full capacities for the first 11 months, what would you do?
What hope is God stirring in your heart about your service for him?
Questions for discerning a likely future
If present patterns continue, what will be the outcomes one year from now?
How is person X likely to respond if you do as you intend?
Is there any reason this will work out differently than it has in the past?
Which of your assumptions about the future are most/least reliable?
Beyond questions like these, there are also certain exercises that may help a mentoree start to get in touch with the future.
Up-close, a significant challenge or aspiration can feel overwhelming and result in procrastination or not taking sufficient action. When you ‘stand’ or visualize yourself in the future however, a greater sense of possibility is generated that builds deeper certainty and commitment leading to sustainable action.
It is always in our best interest to be in connection with our vision. Vision is not simply a memory, but a living and specific awareness of your intention. It is a conscious integration of mind and heart and the best starting point for a complex ambition that requires learning and collaboration. It allows you to utilize all of your talents and capabilities, both explicit and implicit, and opens your awareness to emergent and unexpected resources and support.
When you practice the exercise below, be sure to see your vision as fully compete, if anything were possible and be sure to put yourself in the picture.
Be in a reflective, relaxed and open state with pad and pen nearby.
It is now the year 2024 (or three years from the present)
You (and your team) have completed or made significant and tangible progress in realizing your vision or meeting your challenge. You are thrilled. You (and your team) have been asked to describe or tell the story of just how you achieved your goals. See your vision as fully complete, as if anything were possible, and put yourself in the picture.
Answer as many of the following questions as possible or that make sense:
What were the milestones that were met throughout these three years?
What obstacles were overcome and unanticipated problems were resolved?
What enabled you to be successful?
What were the specific factors that were crucial to your success (tangible and intangible)?
What did you need to learn along the way about yourself, working with others and how to influence the larger system?
Who did you look to for support?
What enabled you to accomplish this (as a team)?
How did you know you were on track/off track?
How often did you monitor your progress?
How does it feel to be successful?
Are you surprised that you made it? If not, why/ why not?
What advice would you give to someone considering taking on a similar challenge?
This is a solution-focussed therapy technique used to help people imagine a tangible future they can work towards. The exercise asks people to imagine, however fantastical it may be in their particular circumstances, that their life has already dramatically changed for the better. So instead of focusing exclusively on how insoluble their problem is, and how difficult life is because of it, it switches attention to what will happen after the problem is dealt with – focusing on the desired future rather than the undesired present. It jumps right over the mechanics of how, exactly, the problem will be solved into the mechanics of how will they live when it is solved. It’s a neat and rather fun way of bypassing rigid constraints, black and white thinking, and unshakeable beliefs that “things can’t possibly change!”
The ideal is for people to feel the answer to the miracle question – to experience it and not just to think about it. This helps to make the imagined future more real to them, and not just a theoretical construct. So rather than getting someone to answer straight away, get them to ‘go inside’ for a few moments and really ‘see and feel’ the miracle. Ask them to imagine the answer rather than tell you in words. The miracle question can be worded slightly differently depending on the particular context. Here is one example:
Imagine this: tonight, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and the problem that prompted you to talk to me today is solved! But because this happens while you are sleeping, you have no way of knowing that there was an overnight miracle that solved the problem. So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, what might be the small changes that will make you say to yourself, ‘Wow, something must have happened—the problem is gone!’? How does it feel to be in this new place?
When you’ve given them some time to carry out this process, you can ask your mentoree to tell you in detail what they have noticed and imagined. The response provides the image of a future possibility:
Clarifying deep desires
Identifying points of motivation
No exercise is appropriate in every circumstance. If a mentoree is grieving the passing of a loved one or struggling with an adverse medical diagnosis, this exercise is NOT the one to use.
Letter from My Future Self
You are probably aware of the oft-used exercise of having a person write a letter to their future selves. It’s a fun exercise that helps a person capture what they believe is essential and valuable not just for the moment but for the long-term. And you might have thought about what you would say to your younger self if you travel back in time and give them the benefit of your experience. You’d sure have a valuable perspective to share if this were possible! This exercise has you imagining yourself 10 years from now (or 20 if you’re really bold) writing back to your present self. It’s designed to help you extract yourself from the details of your present day-to-day life, to get up above that to discern what is truly lasting and what is temporary; what is valuable and what is cheap; what is real and what is illusion.
Allow yourself plenty of time for this exercise. You might even wish to have a few stabs at it until you’re satisfied.
You’re 10 (or 20) years older now and you’re writing to yourself in 2021.
Write a paragraph for each of the following prompts:
Open with a greeting, acknowledging what is going on for your younger self. Express how you feel about that and give some affirmation.
What is life for you now as your older self?
What was important in making it that way?
Who are you grateful to?
What has surprised you along the way?
Give yourself some advice; what to give more attention, what to let go of, a bit of wisdom
From your future perspective, suggest a positive next step to take in 2021
When we take action, there are consequences; and when we don’t take action, there are consequences. Either way, things happen. These may be good or bad for us, and good or bad for other people. While we often focus on ourselves, the effects on others can be significant.
We often pay closer attention to consequences that happen in the short term, where there is clear cause and effect between actions and what happens as a result. Consequences may also happen further out into the future, and perhaps with less clear causal relationship. An important point about this matrix is that it highlights considerations that we often do not realize we are making. Often, all we think about is ‘What will happen if I do?’, ‘What will happen in the short term?’ and ‘What will I gain from this?’ By making this unconscious process conscious, we can make and influence better decisions.
Work through each of the questions allowing time to move freely between them.
If I do…
If I don’t…
What will happen?
What will happen if I do?
What will happen if I don’t?
What won’t happen?
What won’t happen if I do?
What won’t happen if I don’t?
When considering consequences in each quadrant, this sub-matrix may prompt insight.
Mentoring partnerships don’t always work out. It’s possible for this to not be the fault of either party, it’s just that things didn’t click relationally or circumstances suddenly shifted. It happens. But there are some very common reasons why mentoring becomes disappointing from the mentoree’s point of view and several of these are avoidable. Every mentor who desires to serve their mentorees well needs to keep an eye on these factors to make sure they are not falling into bad practices.
I’ve listened to hundreds of mentorees reflect on their experience and these are the top six reasons they identify as those that cause mentoring to fail.
Too much telling, not enough asking and listening. Although this varies somewhat according to culture, the vast majority of mentorees do not come to a session with their mentor looking for a lecture. If they want to get expert input on a topic, they will find a podcast for that. The mentoring session is a special place where they can find an interactive conversation and they don’t have to apologise for being the centre of attention.
Mismatched expectations. This starts with the word ‘mentoring’. People understand different things by this term and, let’s be honest, it really can take many different forms (see my post on ‘Modes of Mentoring’). Investing time at the outset to clarify and align expectations will pay huge dividends.
Haphazard connections. Without appropriate planning and scheduling to set up mentoring sessions at regular intervals, mentoring conversations tend to only take place when there is some sort of trigger event – usually a negative one. That does not lay a good foundation for working together positively towards the growth and development of the mentoree.
Lack of depth. This might be experienced as a disappointing level of emotional rapport, intellectual engagement or spiritual discernment, or even a combination of those things. It’s an error for the mentor to always keep things bright and breezy in an attempt to make mentoring sessions an enjoyable experience. Equally, it’s self-defeating for mentorees to only share at a surface level, staying in ‘safe’ territory. It’s vital for mentoring partnerships to get out of the shallows and ‘swim in deep water’, always with the proviso that you call for help if you start to drown!
Poor continuity. This can happen when a mentor fails to keep track of the mentoree’s story and does not pick up on things from previous conversations. It’s frustrating for a mentoree to have to repeat the background to their circumstances, and disappointing if their mentor does not remember a significant point from the previous session. But mentorees can also contribute to the problem if they don’t do the hard work of identifying the key issues they wish to grapple with and stick with those issues even when it gets difficult.
Inconsequential conversations. How will everyday life be different for the mentoree as a result of a mentoring session? If it’s hard to answer that question, chances are the mentoring partnership is heading for a fail. Consequences may come in several forms. Sometimes it’s a particular action step that the mentoree decides to carry out. Or it might be a new way of seeing their situation, an insight, a fresh approach. Or it might be some encouragement that the mentoree receives, an inner strengthening or release of a burden. Pleasant catch-ups without consequences become a boring waste of time.
Much of the responsibility for avoiding these pitfalls rests on the shoulders of mentors. But mentorees also must realise that they could be contributing to the very factors that make the mentoring partnership unsatisfying for them. Perhaps you could use this short list as a conversation starter in your next mentoring session.
Comparing mentoring women (of which I do a little) and mentoring men (of which I do a lot) I have found a great deal to be similar. Many issues are common to our shared humanity and mentoring processes tend to be more or less effective according to a range of factors of which gender is only one. Mentoring partnerships vary because of both the mentor’s and the mentoree’s age, personality, life experience, ethnicity, theological convictions, education and many other factors.
However, insofar as gender does, to some extent, influence a mentoring partnership, these are the items I have observed are more common in terms of content, and more effective in terms of process, when dealing with men. Bear in mind that I am writing as a male; the experience may be different for female mentors of men.
1. Content of mentoring conversations
Maturity: transition from ‘lad’ to ‘man’ – this issue can persist well into mid-life
Categories of maturity
Being appropriately assertive
Taking on responsibility
Capacity for reflection
Wise prioritisation of values
Readiness to laugh at oneself
Key exercise: In the matter of X, a lad would… but a mature man would…
Richard Rohr’s 5 truths that a man needs to grasp:
Life is hard
You are going to die
You are not that important
You are not in control
Your life is not about you
Performance vs personhood
What am I cut out to do?
What could I achieve / have I achieved?
What could I acquire / have I acquired?
What are my key character qualities?
What sort of person have I become?
Who am I becoming?
Work / life balance
Source of significance
The attraction of the locus of competency
Relationships (as applicable)
Husband / father
Son / brother
Sexuality and gender
Acknowledging sexuality without letting it dominate
Pornography and other forms of fake intimacy
Caution interacting with women in the post-#MeToo context
Understanding maleness beyond the stereotypes
2. Processes used in mentoring conversations
Foundation of mutual respect
Clarity of purpose
Intensity: intellectually and emotionally
Continuity of themes
Going beyond reflective exercises
Accurate, intentional follow up
Use of mentoring tools – four simple examples
A win, a slip, a worry, a possibility, a decision, a truth
Imagine your mentoree comes to you and says something like: “I have these things I need to get done and I’m struggling to get there. I’d really find it helpful if you could hold me accountable on these tasks and projects.”
Sometimes the exercise of accountability in mentoring relates to external givens; standards that your mentoree is required to adhere to by an authority structure. In that case they might ask you to keep them honest on those matters. But in this case your mentoree is asking you to help them achieve goals that they have set themselves and which, hopefully, they believe God is calling them to.
If you’re like me, with an understanding that Christian mentoring is primarily about who you are rather than what you do, you might wonder if it would be valid to get into this sort of accountability over specific actions. Bear in mind that there are four elements in play with a mentoree’s formation: desire, identity, thinking and action. Jesus called attention to these when he affirmed the greatest commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. And while he certainly taught a kingdom ethic that placed priority on the condition and orientation of the human heart – the ‘who you are’ piece – it’s also true that action has a shaping effect on the heart. That is to say that behaviour emerges from character and character is formed by behaviour. ‘Being’ and ‘doing’ is a two-way street. So, I suggest it is valid for mentors to get into accountability over specific actions and behaviours as a mechanism for getting at character formation.
Another question that might occur to you in response to this approach from your mentoree is what they are hoping is going to happen by getting you involved in their desire to get things done. What difference will it make to include these matters in your mentoring conversations? In his classic book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey presents a grid for analysing the tasks that people deal with, categorising them according to their importance and urgency. Relatively less important tasks fall into quadrants 3 (more urgent) and 4 (less urgent). Important tasks that are also urgent fall into quadrant 1 while important tasks that are not urgent fall into quadrant 2. Covey’s observation is that people at work attend to things according to their urgency rather than their importance, and when relaxing deal only with less-important matters. This leads to the neglect of quadrant 2. In mentoring I find that when people seek accountability on tasks, they are most often dealing with quadrant 2 – more-important, less-urgent matters. What the mentoree is trying to do – consciously or unconsciously – is to bump their problematic tasks from quadrant 2 to quadrant 1. Applying the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ (a type of reactivity in which individuals modify an aspect of their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed), your involvement increases the urgency. And that’s useful.
If you decide to go ahead and help your mentoree in the way they are asking you’ll need to exercise caution around the five chief ways that accountability can go wrong in mentoring:
Controlling. In the scenario I presented, at least the mentoree is taking the initiative to come up with the points of accountability. It would be truly horrible if you, as the mentor, were to say, “You know what’s wrong with you? You’re not getting stuff done. I’m going to give you some homework and I’ll be checking in next time to make sure you’ve done it.” But even with the mentoree putting things on the table it’s possible to go at it too hard and end up like a drill sergeant. Healthy checking in maintains interest without intimidation.
Neglectful. The opposite failure is to be weak in the exercise of accountability, either forgetting to raise the matters you’ve been asked to check in on, or choosing to avoid the topics because you’re afraid of embarrassing the mentoree or appearing too tough. In both of these ways you let your mentoree down. It’s not being faithful to your role.
Vague. Accountability needs sharp focus to be healthy. First, you’ll need clear, specific agreement on intended actions, or it won’t be possible to celebrate success or to properly investigate why a person didn’t follow through. Second, you’ll need to ask precise questions about the matters for accountability, not merely hint at them.
Off-target. Beware of ‘accountability drift’, where you are tempted to ask whether the person did the thing you thought they should do rather than the action they actually committed to. Accurately capture the points of accountability nominated by your mentoree in written form and don’t simply rely on either your memory or your mentoree’s.
Inflexible. Don’t keep hammering away at the same accountability questions without doing some tweaking. Mentoring conversations offer an opportunity to continually grow and develop understanding of how God is working in a person’s life. Accountability must not remain tethered to the insights that were available at a particular moment in time. Reflection on unfolding circumstances will normally require adaptation on points of accountability.
Once you’ve made sure you’re engaging in accountability positively from your position as mentor, what are the things to look out for in your mentoree? Here are eight factors that might hinder them from getting things done and some suggestions about what you can do to help overcome those obstacles.
Overwhelmed. If your mentoree is attempting too many things at once, suggest they use Dave Allen’s ‘4Ds’ exercise – Do, Delegate, Delay, Dump. Urge them to consider what else they could take out of their ‘Do’ bucket and put in another bucket to reduce the load.
Over-ambitious. Do you sense they are trying to run before they can walk? Ask questions about how a complex task could be broken down into smaller steps or a high standard of excellence could be attained gradually by starting with modest improvements.
Defeated. A history of past failures can set a person up to feel beaten before they begin. Pay attention to what is different this time. If there’s not much different, consider what fresh factors could be injected to tip the balance.
Disorganised. Is your mentoree lacking a plan or unfamiliar with the mechanics of personal organisation? Could they be helped by keeping a diary, making lists, setting reminders, having a weekly planning session, or rearranging regular commitments?
Distracted. If their time and energy has not been going into the things they want to get done, where has it been going? Help them to recognise the things that distract them and the early warning signs when this is happening. Then help them design strategies for staying on track.
Unsupported. Is your mentoree trying to get difficult things done without backup? Or are they lacking the proper resources? Ask what tools or materials would help in getting the job done. Would brief contacts to/from you between sessions provide crucial encouragement? Could an extra person besides you come alongside to lend a hand at key moments?
Unimaginative. Has your mentoree run out of creative ideas for getting a project finished? Try stimulating their imagination with brainstorming, recommended reading, introductions to resourceful contacts of yours, telling stories of related scenarios, suggested pathways for online research, right brain activities like visualisation and artistic expression.
Unmotivated. What if your mentoree says, “I don’t want to do that anymore”? If the flame of motivation has been totally extinguished, you’re probably done with that point of accountability. But if there is a tiny spark of motivation remaining you might fan it into flame by going back to the beginning and reviewing the reasons why they thought this action was a good idea in the first place.
The exercise of accountability for tasks and projects is a wonderful gift to offer someone when it truly helps them to love God with all their strength. Then it is not just about getting things done; it’s about practical, obedient cooperation with God’s transformative work and seeing His vision for that person’s life realised.
I was sitting in a seminar about depression when it occurred to me that what the speaker was describing was precisely what I had been experiencing for some months. That was an unexpected and significant realisation for me. I had known something was wrong but it needed someone skilled to connect the dots for me. It was like a light coming on.
Until then I had some pretty ill-informed ideas about depression. I had been taught that depression was internalised anger and I believed that any medication for depression was just mood-altering stuff that was probably a way of avoiding dealing with the real issues. There had been a significant number of people suffering depression in my pastoral care over the years previous to this light-bulb moment. I can only pray that God will make it up to them for the ham-fisted way I went about advising and praying for these folk.
Just before I realised I was in depression I was disappointed in myself over the way I had come to have little energy or enthusiasm for spiritual disciplines. My habit had been to keep a daily journal, read some scripture and part of some other devotional book and pray at certain times each day. All this went by the board. Feelings of guilt rose up, but I couldn’t be bothered to respond to them. I just felt flat. While thinking I could cut corners in my inner life and probably get away with it for a while I tried harder than ever to kick-start myself into ministry activity. Everything was a real effort, even the things I normally enjoyed doing. All I really wanted to do was escape from people and sleep. Preaching was especially difficult.
I remember one Sunday morning I went down to my office early to go over my sermon. I felt really down, but was sure that what I had to say was right and important. As I prayed it through I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I had no idea what was happening, but guessed that I must be really moved by my topic “Redeemed By the Son”. Thinking that I had got the tears out of my system I got up to preach, but the tears came again, stronger than ever. I tried very hard to control myself but couldn’t. In the end I gave it up and someone else closed the service. Some people thought that “the Spirit was really moving on me” or that I had been convicted of something or was moved by compassion for the unredeemed in their plight. There were some very creative interpretations! The sad thing is that no-one actually asked me what I thought was going on. I could not have told them but it would have been nice if they had listened instead of assuming from the beginning that they knew what was going on. That’s another story. I spent a couple of days reflecting on it and concluded that I was in trouble emotionally and had better back off. A few days later I found myself in Archibald Hart’s seminar about personal growth for ministers, and his talk on depression. Great timing! I read his book, ‘Dark Clouds, Silver Linings’ and found it tremendously helpful.
After accepting that I was in depression, that the form of depression I was experiencing was a normal reaction to loss and that it was meant to be a time for healing, I relaxed about my condition, deciding to let the depression take its course. And God, far from pestering me about not putting enough effort into prayer and Bible reading, seemed to be very understanding. I felt loved by him totally and unconditionally. He was watching over me, giving me time to grieve and to adjust. This could be a risky way to relate to God long term, but it was just right for that period.
Words from Psalms 42 and 43 rang true for me:
Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him,
My Saviour and my God.
This expresses well the inner conversation that was going on within me. I was indeed asking myself the question, ‘Why are you downcast?’ I needed to figure out what losses had contributed to my condition so I could bring them to God for comfort and healing. And I was reminding myself to rely on God and look forward to the day when I could once again praise him with heartfelt emotion. I was a long way from feeling any spiritual vitality at that point, but I clung to the hope that it would come back again in time.
Hart wrote about how one sort of depression was a reaction to loss. This was what I could relate to. Over the previous year and a half I had two of my colleagues in ministry leave the church – one had caused tremendous difficulties for me before he left, the other was a very good friend and a great loss to the church and to me personally. Several other friends and supporters had left the church, almost all of them to take up ministries in other places. This was what we had been empowering them for, and I should have been delighted and fulfilled, but it just hurt to say goodbye.
With all these folk leaving extra responsibility was falling on me. As a consequence I had to decline an invitation to serve a term as President of our denomination. Even though it would have taken considerable time, I would have enjoyed both the role and the recognition and honour that came with it. It was my choice, but I’d had several influential members of the church suggest I should pull out, putting considerable pressure on me. I still think it was the right move under the circumstances, but I was disappointed that others did not appreciate the sacrifice I was making. Perhaps it should not have been as big a deal for me as it was.
Another other loss I was dealing with was less specific yet it saddened me profoundly. It was a sense I had that God was saying “It’s over”. What this meant to me was that the golden era of growth, creativity and community impact that my church had been experiencing for ten years had come to an end. I cried many tears over the thought that the church I had loved and benefitted from so much would never be the same again. All churches go through these cycles, and I knew that it was necessary for old things to pass away so that new things could come. But this knowledge did not comfort me.
Although it seems a bit silly I also felt in all of this a loss of youth. As I was approaching 40 years of age it could be said that I’d lost my youth some time before. Well, that may be true, but these were honestly the thoughts that were in my head as I considered the losses which had contributed to my reactive depression.
The turning point came when I read Philippians 3:7-10 with this new concept of depression being linked to loss. “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Those words helped me more than I can express. I’d read them many times and preached them too, but Hart’s book gave me a new lens to see them through. I talked about these things with some close friends and that was a great help. They acted as my counsellors, listening and asking good questions.
My time of depression became a time of rich learning. Not only did I come to understand more clearly what depression is, I began to identify with my fellow-sufferers. I learned not to be demanding of others or myself when depression comes but to be gentle and patient. The lesson was reinforced for me that I should not assume I know what is going on for someone before I have thoroughly listened to him or her. I learned to watch out for warning signs in myself and to take seriously the concerns of those closest to me. Above all, I learned in a fresh and deep way about the beauty of God’s grace, kindness and understanding.
Effective leadership is always shaped by context. One of the features of our present Covid-19 context is the presence of a raised degree of anxiety in society in general and in Christian communities. By considering the impacts of anxiety on human behaviour, we can identify particular leadership initiatives called for by the current situation. In the first two blogs in this series I listed three of these initiatives:
Remain calm: prayerfully lean into God to receive his peace
Communicate: frequently, accessibly, consistently and interactively
Engage emotionally: acknowledge feelings before moving to facts and decisions
Now I want to turn to aspects of leadership that relate to vision and strategy. Anxiety causes our field of vision to contract. Pressure and stress cause us to close up in various ways, becoming absorbed by short-term, inward-looking technical activity. We tend to pay greater attention to:
Immediate circumstances rather than the long-term outlook
Inward concerns closer to home rather than an outward, other-centred focus
Presenting issues rather than quiet, underlying realities
In anxious times, an effective leader will push back against these tendencies with three strategic emphases.
4. Positive Future Outlook
In many parts of the world the spread of Covid-19 has become overwhelming. Every news item is somehow related to the virus. It threatens to completely fill our field of vision so that everything else is blocked out. Future thinking drops off the radar; all there is, is now and it’s crushing. If there is any thought of the future it is tinged with a fearful expectation of doom and gloom. Anxious people either go inside their shell or start to engage in frantic, short-term activity to secure a quick fix.
It’s instructive to consider how Jesus responded to the intense pressure and stress of his imminent crucifixion. While the disciples show signs of anxiety, Jesus remains calm, communicates extensively over the Passover meal, engages emotionally and takes a long-term view. He tells the disciples that he is laying his life down and will take it up again. He flags that he expects to eat the Passover with them once again when it finds its fulfilment in the kingdom of God. For the joy set before him he endured the cross. Jesus pushes out the time horizon to see beyond the present crisis and thereby stays strong in hope. With good leadership, uncertainty can be fertile ground for hope.
This is not an exercise in wishful thinking or jollying people along without any foundation in the truth. When we say, ‘It’s Friday; but Sunday’s coming!’ we are appealing to the promises of God, rooted in the scripture, which are true. We can lead with a positive future outlook because God can be trusted. We don’t know what the future holds but we know who holds the future. With that reassurance we can turn back to the current circumstances, not overwhelmed by them but curious to discover the possibilities they might offer for a new imagination. So, we have not been able to gather. But what are we discovering about fresh ways of being a community of faith? Many people have lost their lives and livelihoods. But see the huge upswing of interest in spiritual and eternal matters?
Lead in such a way that pushes out the time horizon to include an expectation of the coming of the kingdom of God, just as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.
5. Outward Missional Focus
When people become anxious under stressful pressure they tend to close up by attending primarily to the things that concern themselves and those closest to them. We saw this demonstrated clearly in the panic buying that broke out in the early phase of the Covid-19 crisis. Although that particular behaviour has passed the tendency persists to prioritise personal interests over the interests of others. One person thinks everyone else should observe travel restrictions but he and his own family are exceptions. Another person is determined that her special family gathering will still go ahead – no-one needs to know. Churches become absorbed in questions of survival rather than energised by opportunities to express the love of God to those least equipped to handle this crisis.
Once again, Jesus gives us a great example here. Under the pressure of the looming cross, he notices the needs of others. He sees the disciples’ feet need washing, and does it. He speaks compassionately to the thief dying next to him. He sees his mother at the foot of his cross and cares for her, entrusting her to his best friend, John. He commits his own welfare into the hands of his Father in heaven and pours himself out for the sake of others.
The kind of Christian leadership needed in anxious times is that which draws the attention of God’s people away from their own concerns towards God’s concerns; His mission, his priorities. Too often the church has acted like a club that looks after its own interests. We must remind people that if the church is a club, it is a club that exists expressly for the benefit of those who are not yet members. Especially in a time of crisis, when people are liable to become anxious, we must expand the range of vision to see that, indeed, ‘the fields are ripe for harvest’.
6. Integrated Faith Perspective
Leaders of Christian communities have been adapting to the Covid-19 restrictions in a multitude of ways – learning how to ‘do church’ online, getting up to speed with hosting Zoom meetings, dealing with financial challenges, becoming adept at interpreting health advice and so on. There are so many instances in which the usual ways of doing things don’t work in the current environment and we’ve had to swiftly manage all that and try to keep everyone on board at the same time. Each of these adaptations has been necessary but, in a sense, they have just been scratching the surface. Dealing with urgent presenting issues could simply be an exercise in management. However, we are called to be more than managers; we are called to be leaders. The difference is dealing with things at depth, beyond how things appear on the surface.
The apostle Paul reminds us of this in his exercise of true spiritual leadership in Ephesians 6. He calls attention to the fact that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. There is more going on than appears to the eye; things that are apparent on the surface are deeply connected to the unseen spiritual realities. Our task as spiritual leaders is to bring a faith perspective to every aspect of what we do in Christian community. It’s vital that we do this not just as a superficial overlay, applying religious language to everyday practices, but in a fully integrated way that addresses how God is involved in the new ways we are finding to operate.
As my friend Nigel Coles says, “To adopt new practices, in order to adapt to a new normal, without the perspective of faith or being rooted in our life with Jesus, will simply accentuate a false sacred/secular divide. We must adapt so our practices, responses and attitudes are aligned with the character and person of Jesus Christ, so as to align ourselves with God’s purposes and the life of His spirit, expressed through our corporate life.”
I hope these six, simple leadership initiatives will prove helpful as you navigate the unsettled waters of these anxious times.
In my first blog on this topic I wrote about relating to God in prayer as the foundation for leadership in anxious times. The first leadership initiative I’m recommending is to remain calm, and prayer makes this possible. The next two initiatives on my list are about how we relate to the people who look to us for leadership.
In order to slow the spread of Covid-19, regulations have been put in place to drastically reduce physical contact between people all across society. Christian communities generally operate with significant physical contact at gatherings at which members of the group gain a sense of belonging and connection. That sense of belonging does not only come from hugging people or shaking hands; it comes from knowing what’s going on, hearing from others and relating things from our own lives. In short, communication is key to community. With the loss of gatherings, our communication must increase to compensate for that loss.
In anxious times, such communication must have four qualities in particular:
Frequent. If you used to gather weekly, it will require more than weekly communication for people to feel connected when they are anxious. Consider how you can keep people in touch every one or two days. Remember that people are being bombarded by information in this season. There’s a lot to take in. So keep communication brief and simple.
Accessible. Utilise multiple methods of communication and make it as easy as possible for people to stay in touch. Different communities have different levels of technical capacity and preferences. WhatsApp and TikTok might work well in one place while in another phone calls and letters through the post are better. Adapt to your own setting rather than try to imitate what the church down the road is doing.
Consistent. When using different communication platforms, ensure the messages you’re sending out convey the same content. If not, you’ll only increase anxiety when people discover that others knew something they did not. You will need to say the same thing several times before people will remember the core information. In my last blog I quoted Peter Steinke about how anxiety affects human functioning. He notes that ‘people cannot hear what is being said without distortion’ when they are anxious. Be patient and willing to repeat yourself.
Interactive. This is possibly the most important quality of communication in anxious times. Anxious people need to vent, to express what is going on for them, to ask questions, give feedback and tell their story. Make sure you don’t only engage in one-way communication. Whereas in normal times it might be sufficient to send an email or simply post information on the church website, that simply won’t cut it in anxious times. More than half of your communication as a leader should be listening. Pick up the phone. Yes, it is time-consuming, but it’s absolutely worth it. Remind people of how they can get in touch with you and emphasise your desire that they should take advantage of those pathways. In addition, think about how to foster communication between members that does not involve you and the other appointed leaders. Communication is not just a leadership issue, it’s a systemic health issue. So do all you can to help people feel connected and in touch with one another rather than isolated.
3. Engage Emotionally
When people are anxious, the rational content of their interactions decreases and the emotional content increases. Adrenalin gets pumping and people can’t think straight. Feelings rise to the surface. Logic is the first casualty of stress. The old saying, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’ is never more true than in anxious times.
The first person to engage with emotionally is yourself. You are not immune from stress and anxiety and you know that your thinking and actions are going to be impacted by what you’re experiencing in ways that may not be self-evident until you stop and consider what’s going on. Practice the self-awareness techniques that you have no doubt picked up in your leadership training – take time to reflect, listen to your body, get feedback from others, and so on.
Be gracious in your interactions with others, patiently accepting that they might not be perfectly logical or balanced in what they say. Keep in mind that you are not necessarily seeing them at their best right now. Listen carefully for the emotions that are being expressed and acknowledge them gently and sincerely. No doubt there are points of fact that need to be clarified and perhaps decisions that need to be made. You will get there more effectively if you first of all deal with the emotional content of the interaction, then move to the rational content.
In the next and final blog in this series I will share three more leadership initiatives for anxious times that relate to vision and strategy.
Uncertainty and stress due to Covid-19 in recent days are producing a pervasive anxiety throughout society.
That anxiety can look different in different people but, if you pay attention, it’s there in the excited and upbeat people as much as in those who are negative or fearful or even cynical. Anxious people act and react in ways they normally would not and that puts particular demands on leaders. Fortunately, we know quite a bit about the psychology of anxiety and that helps tremendously in planning appropriate leadership responses.
In his wonderfully insightful book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke helpfully lists the principal ways in which anxiety affects human functioning:
floods nervous system so that we cannot hear what is being said without distortion or cannot respond with clarity
simplifies ways of thinking (yes/no; either/or)
prompts a desire for a quick fix
arouses feelings of helplessness and self-doubt
leads to an array of defensive behaviours
diminishes flexibility in response to life’s challenges
creates imaginative gridlock (not being able to think of alternatives, options or new perspectives)
Does all that look familiar?
In this series of blogs, I’m going to suggest a short checklist of leadership initiatives that take into account these impacts of anxiety. You are probably already doing most of these things instinctively, but it may be helpful to have clear points to do a mental self-assessment so you can decide where you might want to give a bit more attention.
1. Remain calm.
Family therapist Edwin Friedman first coined the phrase, ‘non-anxious presence’. Pastoral ministry training will often include a reference to how important it is for a pastor to remain calm and collected in the midst of an emotionally charged situation. Of course, if you have any level of care for the people you’re dealing with it’s virtually impossible to be non-anxious. But we can, with a little focus and determination, be less-anxious, and it’s vital that we make that effort in these times.
Bear in mind that coronavirus is not the only infectious thing going around. Anxiety itself is infectious. Seeing other people around about us in a worried state tends to intensify our own unsettledness. Unless something is done to cool things down, anxiety can start to spiral out of control. As a leader the idea is to nip this in the bud. But what can you do when you have your own anxieties that are perfectly reasonable and very real? Peter Steinke says we can learn to manage our natural reactions, using the knowledge we have about how anxiety works to suppress our knee-jerk responses, choosing to be patient and proactively taking more time than usual to listen to people and observe what is happening around us and within us.
All that is excellent but as Christians we have an additional secret weapon: prayer. Leaning into God, we find a genuinely non-anxious presence. Our heavenly Father is never in a flap, never fearful, never uncertain. His calm gently seeps into our soul, bringing a sense of stability and a recovery of faith and hope. This is what Paul writes to the Philippians:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7 NIV)
At the risk of sounding super-spiritual, the ‘peace of God which transcends all understanding’ is precisely what we need when facing a pandemic. We need something supernatural to cut through the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity; something to guard our hearts from emotional disturbance and our minds from racing into imagining all kinds of scenarios that might never happen.
If it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what you’re anxious about, David’s prayer at the end of Psalm 139 can serve as a good reminder of how to approach God:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps 139:23-24 NIV)
Sounds really obvious, but how many of us have neglected serious, focussed prayer in the rush to attend to all the adaptations we have to manage? Through the practice of prayer, we can remain (relatively!) calm with a settled spirit, drawing from deep wells in order to be ready to lead God’s people in anxious times. There are five more leadership responses I want to share in the blogs which follow, but you can’t effectively implement those until you have this one in place.
 Steinke, Peter L., Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon: Alban, 2006) p.8-9