Reflections on Depression

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 have been a significant number of people suffering depression in my pastoral care over the years.  I can only pray that God will make it up to them for the ham-fisted way I’ve gone 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.

Leadership in Anxious Times Pt3

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:

  1. Remain calm: prayerfully lean into God to receive his peace
  2. Communicate: frequently, accessibly, consistently and interactively
  3. 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.

Leadership in Anxious Times Pt2

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.

2. Communicate

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.

Leadership in Anxious Times Pt1

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[1], Peter Steinke helpfully lists the principal ways in which anxiety affects human functioning:

  • decreases our capacity to learn
  • replaces curiosity with a demand for certainty 
  • stiffens our position over against another’s
  • interrupts concentration (everything takes longer)
  • 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.


[1] Steinke, Peter L., Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon: Alban, 2006) p.8-9

Financing Missional Experiments

In the beginning it all seemed so obviously a ‘God-thing’ that it would have been faithless to doubt that all necessary material provision would follow. Commitments were made, bridges were burned, the adventure began. Now you are well into your missional experiment. There are signs of progress, small yet significant. But the fact is it’s getting hard to make ends meet.

You took the financial planning side of things seriously. You knew that any worthwhile plan has to address the issue of money:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish’.” (Luke 14:28-30)

You counted the cost but, as always, things changed. Unforeseen and uncontrollable variables. You’ve reined in expenses as far as possible – there is no ‘fat’ left anywhere. To keep the experiment alive, you simply have to look again at the income side of the ledger.

And that’s when you think, ‘How on earth did Jesus do it?’ Jesus and his band of disciples kept things pretty simple, but they still had costs that had to be covered. He drew on four key income streams. 

  • User pays – Jesus sent the disciples out without protection, luggage, food, money or change of clothes or shoes so that they had to rely on hospitality.  

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He told them: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town.” (Luke 9:1-4)

  • Key supporters – Jesus and his journeying community were substantially supported by a group of women who had significant financial resources. In addition, Jesus relied on support bases in Capernaum in the North and in Bethany (the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus) near Jerusalem in the South. 

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8:1-3)

  • Common purse – Each of the disciples came with various means at their disposal. It appears that they pooled their resources, with Judas Iscariot as the treasurer. 

Judas was keeper of the money bag. (John 12:6)

Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. (John 13:29)

  • Windfall provision – There were times when Jesus wanted to do more in ministry than he could afford to do, such as wanting to feed the five thousand. He trusted in his Father’s provision. On another occasion he was caught short financially over a much more mundane matter – tax. Even when questions could have been raised about the validity of this obligation Jesus did not shirk it. 

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes–from their own sons or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matt 17:24-27)

Considering these might spark some ideas that you could try.

  • Many of us love the idea of offering our ministry to others at no cost to them as a demonstration of God’s grace. But Jesus had no difficulty receiving hospitality from people like Zacchaeus who he was trying to reach, and he recommended his disciples to do the same when they went preaching and healing. When Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink, putting himself in the position of needing her assistance opened up an opportunity for a spiritual conversation. The people you seek to serve may be put off by your self-sufficiency and disarmed by your need of their help. 
  • You most likely already have a few people who have been prepared to back you, some of them financially. Keep them in touch with your missional experiment as Jesus did with the women; involve them in what you’re doing. In the past I have been unwilling to approach people close to me for financial help for fear of damaging our relationship. It’s wrong to badger people for money, but being open about your needs can, in fact, strengthen the relationship and possibly lead to significant personal growth. I discovered that my sense of dignity was too much tied to being self-sufficient. Becoming poorer for the sake of mission and being honest about that broke my pride, taught me how to ask for help and turned out to share the joy of mission with a wider group.
  • Just how the Twelve pooled their resources is not entirely clear. It’s hard to imagine Jesus being extortionate about it but he clearly had no trouble with members of his cohort chipping in to make the whole thing work. If you have started to build a team, don’t be afraid to ask key team members to make similar material sacrifices to the ones you have made for the sake of the missional experiment. Do this without coercion and always provide a way for people to be involved in a less intense fashion without stepping up to this level of financial commitment – Jesus had the 70 as well as the Twelve.
  • Peter was told to go about his usual work, and expect a windfall that would meet both his need and his Master’s. What we’re looking at here is the miraculous way in which God can bring along financial resources at just the right time to meet a specific need. Windfalls do happen and, when they do, be ready to recognize it as God’s provision for mission rather than an opportunity to splurge. Here is a reminder to bring our financial needs to the Lord in prayer. It might seem terribly obvious, but are you praying specifically and steadily for the material needs of your missional experiment?

At the risk of ending on a negative note, it’s important to address the scenario in which the finances don’t come in and you can no longer pay the bills. Take it on the chin, friends. Make the call to close things down promptly and with dignity. This is how it is with experiments: some work and some don’t. There are no guarantees of ‘success’, whatever that is. One thing is for sure – we must not stop engaging in bold experiments that run the risk of going broke. Huge value can come from ventures that look like financial failures but actually plant seeds of the kingdom that will bring returns in years to come. 

Pressures Faced by Christian Leaders

Leadership in any field of endeavour brings pressure. However, leadership in the context of Christian organisations – and in being a leader for Christ in a secular organisational context – carries with it a peculiar set of stressors especially in respect of demands, limitations, rewards, trauma, relationships and idealisation. Mentors need a detailed understanding of these aspects of context in order to help Christian leaders build effective and relevant strategies for resilience and sustainability. I have posted elsewhere about those strategies; this post is about understanding context.

Demands

Are not all positions of leadership demanding? Construction managers, school principals, politicians and bank executives may all put a great deal of effort into their work. But the tasks they perform and the outcomes expected as a result of their efforts are usually not nearly so varied as those faced by leaders of Christian communities, especially pastors. The range of skills required is, I believe, rivalled only by parenthood. Being required to rapidly switch between various task categories – from strategic planning to sermon preparation to grief counselling to performing a wedding to leading a new believer to Christ, for example – places enormous demands on Christian leaders on a daily basis.

At the same time, other people within the organisational context will have differing expectations of how the leader should allocate their time between these tasks, and differing ideas about which strategic outcomes should take priority. In secular leadership contexts, the leader is only required to meet the expectations of the person or group in authority over them. It’s more complex for the Christian leader. Not only must they satisfy the human authority over them, they have a deeper sense of accountability to Christ. The expectations of these two authorities may not always align. In addition, the Christian paradigm of servant leadership requires leaders to take seriously the expectations of those they lead, and these may be so varied and contradictory that the leader is placed in an impossible situation.

The weight and diversity of all these demands are not easily shrugged off. Few leadership roles are so intimately entwined with deeply held spiritual values, sense of identity and eternal destiny. Christian leaders care so profoundly about the work they do that the inevitable consequences of not being able to meet every demand are serious indeed. Without resilience, this stressor alone can lead to the end of effective ministry.

Limitations 

In order to deliver expected outcomes leaders must have access to the means to make things happen – authority, respect, financial and material resources, channels of communication, agreed procedures and so on. It is these very things that are so often in short supply in Christian organisations. 

Wherever volunteers make up a large proportion of the workforce the leader in a situation of relative powerlessness. This is the case in most churches, charities and mission agencies. In order to facilitate the attainment of organisation goals the leader requires cooperation from people who may not feel any obligation to play their part or keep their commitments. This is a serious limitation because volunteers feel free to change their minds at any moment with little or no negative consequences for themselves. Christian leaders are expected to endure these events with understanding, grace and leniency. One cannot freely use the usual sanctions of dismissal, demotion and exclusion which are available to leaders of employed workers or volunteers in a secular context.

Authority and respect work differently in a Christian context. The leader may have positional authority, but this is not sufficient to lead through difficult circumstances. Every Christian also has a direct line of communication through prayer to the ‘higher authority’ of God. If the leader should suggest something stretching, those they lead may appeal to the ‘higher authority’, thus limiting the leader’s ability to get things achieved quickly. This requires the Christian leader to work more slowly, building trust and respect with followers, establishing their own spiritual authority as one who may be relied upon to accurately represent the will of the ‘higher authority’. Even accepting this accountability as appropriate in the kingdom of God, it does create a leadership limitation that can be stressful.

Stress-inducing limitations also exist around shortage of resources. Passionate Christian groups with vision are constantly biting off more than they can chew. Leaders responsible for delivering on the vision get caught in the resulting pressure. In addition, churches are notoriously poor at communication across their membership and often lack clear, agreed ways and means for decisions to be put into effect. All these limitations tend to create frustration. Without resilience, these frustrations can lead to anger, depression and worse.

Rewards 

As I mentor Christian leaders I will regularly recommend they take up a hobby in which they can bring a physical project to completion in a relatively short period of time. The satisfaction they gain from getting something finished can be a rare feeling. This is because in the work of ministry results are usually long-term, delayed and may be intangible. It’s very easy to feel as if you’re getting nowhere when in fact the hidden groundwork is being laid for significant progress that will be revealed many years hence. In the meantime, it requires resilience to press on.

Few people will go into Christian leadership in order to get rich. Those who do will either be disappointed or will turn into unscrupulous wolves in sheep’s clothing, unworthy to represent Christ. Although the vast majority of Christian leaders know that they could earn more money doing something else, they carry on in their calling because they do not place material prosperity at the top of their list of values. Nevertheless, income stress is a significant factor in the adversity faced by Christian leaders. Resilience helps to keep this disadvantage within a wider frame of reference in which its all worth it.

Trauma 

Pastors, in particular, are exposed to trauma far more regularly than most people. Only emergency services workers such as paramedics have a comparable experience in terms of the regularity of exposure. In the case of pastors, they are dealing with people in trauma with whom they have an ongoing relationship, so the impact of vicarious trauma is intensified. Talking and praying with someone whose life has been shattered is in itself a shattering experience. It takes both time and resilience to come through these pastoral encounters in a positive state. 

Beyond the traumatic human interactions that may leave a Christian leader depleted, opposition from hostile spiritual forces is also experienced by Christian leaders. We should not make more of this than is warranted; this is not a point upon which to become fixated or about which to be intimidated. But spiritual warfare is real and Christian leaders are prime targets of the enemy of our soul. Being attacked on a spiritual level is very unpleasant indeed. It can occur in ways that are hard to identify and leave a leader wondering what on earth could be wrong with them to be in such a poor state. With the benefit of strategies for resilience in place it is entirely possible for Christian leaders to come through such episodes stronger, wiser and more confident than ever and utterly overturn the intent of the enemy.

Relationships 

As a direct result of their calling, Christian leaders may undergo the distress of loneliness and social isolation. Numerous factors contribute to this outcome. For example, busyness of work at times when potential friends are socialising, entrenched ideas of clergy/laity distinction, role conflicts within Christian community, geographical mobility, and the experience of working cross-culturally and away from one’s native environment. 

One of the more difficult factors to overcome is being stereotyped according to one’s leadership role in a particular organisation. In ordinary social conversations with strangers, Christian leaders become quite creative in answering the question, “So, what do you do for a living?” This is because a straight, clear answer is likely to cause a negative reaction from people who are antagonistic to institutional Christianity – and there are a growing number of those people out there. It can be quite wearing when you are regularly not taken for who you are but are categorised according to your role. It requires resilience to keep approaching social situations with openness and good humour.

Idealisation 

On the other side of the coin, within Christian community, being stereotyped according to one’s role can take a different tone. Those who follow a Christian leader may have unrealistic, idealised expectations of sainthood, or of the leader being their best friend, or of the leader having all the answers. To be placed on a pedestal in this way amounts to being set up to be a disappointment. No leader can live up to these lofty ideals, but one may be reticent to ‘pop the bubble’ of naivety for fear of suffering a backlash.

Appointed to a position of leadership, a person then represents their organisation in relevant circles. In secular settings, a leader usually knows when they are ‘on duty’ and when they may simply be a private citizen. Christian leaders are never off duty. They represent their organisation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In this respect they undergo the same level of scrutiny as politicians. Though that scrutiny may not be as widely covered in the media as that of politicians it is nevertheless equally as judgemental and eager to catch out the leader in the slightest deviation from ideal expectations.

With all these pressures, and others not listed here, it’s no surprise that people in Christian ministry do, from time to time, come to a point of depletion. At those times, they need to draw on their resilience, and develop it further to maintain a faithful response to God’s call to his service. Although the specific challenges may have varied across centuries and between cultural contexts, God’s servants have always required resilience to come through adversity in a positive condition.

Alternatives to Resilience

In the face of adversity, alternatives to resilience do exist. One may surrender to adversity, seek to avoid it, or attempt to crush it. Let’s consider each of these alternatives in turn.

Surrendering to adversity is a sadly common response. It represents a naïve belief that, since suffering is an intrinsic element of faithful ministry in Jesus’ name (which is true, by the way), this means that all Christ’s servants will, in this life at least, be crushed, in some way ‘crucified’ as he was (which, I contend, is not true). Christ does not call us into his service with the intention that we should be ground into the dust. As Paul says in 2 Cor 4:8-9 we may expect to be “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” For those who surrender to adversity, resilience is seen as an unrealistic goal.

Seeking to avoid adversity is an understandable response from some who have observed other Christian leaders being demoralised and damaged by their ministry. They say, “That is not going to happen to me.” This mindset places inordinate emphasis on having rigid boundaries to protect one’s self and family. Such leaders will invest time and effort into ministry, but only up to the point where things become painful or distressing. This leads to a timid approach to leadership, a self-protective ‘safe mode’ which, at its worst, finds the leader saying ‘no’ to the Lord, refusing to pay the price of leadership in the moments of greatest demand and winding up with a crisis of integrity. For those who seek to avoid adversity, resilience is not necessary because they believe depletion can be dodged.

Attempting to crush adversity is the aggressive approach, using either raw power or wily manipulation – or both – to batter down any force that comes against the leader. There are both typical male and typical female versions of this posture. I have mentored leaders in difficult circumstances who have been told by others that they simply need to toughen up and push back at what is assailing them. However, by hiding all weakness, turning every kind of adversity into a contest and attempting to win every battle through ferocious domination, a leader can come to represent a kind of leadership that is far from the model Jesus adopted. For those who seek to crush adversity, resilience is for losers and they plan to win.

Becoming resilient is a far better option in the face of adversity than becoming crushed, timid or aggressive. It is a way that accepts adversity as part of the story, but not the whole and not the part that characterises one’s life. It is a way that is hopeful and courageous and can afford to take risks and pay the cost of leadership because of confidence in the Lord’s power to restore us. It is a way that is ‘gentle and humble in heart’ as Jesus was, and approaches leadership as an exercise in grace and truth rather than one of power and domination.

Meditation on Mission: Luke 10

This exercise is written for activists in mission who have a hard time retreating and being still, yet nevertheless genuinely affirm the value of stopping to reflect on Scripture and listen for the voice of the Spirit. It is a version of lectio divina. The idea is to give one short passage sustained attention, drawing deeply on the riches it has to offer. You will read Luke 10:1-12 five times slowly. Yes, that’s right – FIVE times! Don’t rush this. If you carefully think about how this text intersects with your current missional context you could easily spend a whole day working through this exercise. At the very least, allow 15 minutes for each phase; 90 minutes in total.

First Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

Front line mission is often a lonely business, but that’s not the way Jesus intends it to be. He appointed and sent disciples into mission not alone but with a companion. How encouraging it is to have someone working alongside us who has a sense of being appointed and sent by Jesus that is every bit as strong as our own. You can’t get that simply through clever recruitment. Companions in mission are given by the Lord himself. Our part is to pray to the Lord of the harvest, then keep our eyes and ears open for the answer to our prayer. Such a companion will be more than a follower who signs up to your vision; they will have their own vision derived directly from Jesus that is complementary to yours. Teamwork must have been very important to Jesus. Even though there was much work to do and insufficient workers to cover all that needed to be done, he did not compromise his teamwork strategy by sending people out singly just to cover more area. How is your mission enterprise reflecting that value?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Second Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

Given the choice between being weak or strong, empty-handed or well-resourced, dependent or in control, most of us would naturally prefer strength, resources and taking charge. Jesus presents us with the radical challenge to engage in mission from a position of little power, having few material resources and needing to rely on the kindness and generosity of other people. This runs directly counter to the conventional wisdom of our culture about how to get things done effectively and efficiently. If we are to be representatives of the kingdom of God that is now at hand, we must be prepared to operate by its values. In this new order, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, his power is made perfect in our weakness, and the meek inherit the earth. If your mission effort seems under-resourced and lacking in profile and influence, what do you think the Lord would say to you about that?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Third Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

When Jesus sent out the seventy-two he was in Samaritan territory. This was a highly complex and difficult missional context for his Jewish disciples. It is well known that relations between Jews and Samaritans were strained to the point of hostility at that time, with faults on both sides. Middle-eastern hospitality is legendary; in this culture sharing food with visitors has been elevated to an art form of a quality encountered nowhere else on earth. But Jews tended to look down on Samaritan hospitality as ‘unclean’, and Samaritans tended to despise the superior attitude of Jews. In our passage from Luke 10, Jesus twice urged the seventy-two to eat whatever was put before them. They were not to ask questions of the food so they could judge whether or not it was ‘clean’. Jesus was restructuring their ethical framework, setting the importance and urgency of mission as a higher moral priority than scruples about dietary laws. How does Jesus’ missional imperative challenge your ethical framework?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Fourth Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

The council worker was about to renew the road sign. On the post was an old sign with faded, illegible writing. In his hand, ready to be applied to the old sign, was clear, hi-viz lettering. Neither the signpost nor the lettering alone was of much use. Only when put together did they fulfil their purpose. For Jesus, the good news of the Kingdom is both practical and propositional. He expects his disciples to both demonstrate it and declare it. The sick are to be healed and the message is to be explained in words. Missional enterprises that emphasise one element to the detriment of the other tend not to make a lasting impact and even run the risk of distorting the gospel. Words accompanying deeds enhance clarity. Deeds accompanying words enhance credibility. Of course this even-handedness is not perfectly balanced in every circumstance. Choices must be made about where to start and when one aspect or the other needs to be employed. There is no standard answer to the questions posed by such a wide range of missional contexts, but it is generally true that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Are you communicating both your knowledge and your care?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Fifth Phase – read Luke 10:1-12

When the people to whom we are sent are responsive to the message, mission is so exhilarating, so much fun. But it doesn’t always turn out that way. This is the understanding Jesus gives the seventy-two right at the beginning. Setbacks should come as no surprise to us; they are to be expected, even if we do our part faithfully and well. This passage from Luke 10 relates to a specific, short-term missional project and cannot be taken as a template for the administration of every missional enterprise. However, in this instance Jesus instructs the seventy-two to concentrate their efforts on responsive situations and to move on from those who are hostile, neither returning hostility nor compromising the message. In other circumstances it may be appropriate to persevere in a hostile situation as long as one can do so graciously and with integrity. Jesus leaves us with a final thought about our experiences of both welcome and hostility in the context of mission. The reactions we get are not about us, they are about Jesus. How might that make a difference to the way you deal with the emotional impact of acceptance and rejection of your missional efforts?

Write a short prayer of response then speak it out aloud to God.

Listen internally for what the Spirit might be communicating to you.

Invite God to carry forward his transforming work in your heart, your soul and your mind.

Sixth Phase

Summarise the insights you’ve gained from this exercise and the action you will now take in response.

Learning Contentment

In Philippians 4 Paul says he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances”. He says that what he has learned is a secret and hints that is has to do with “him who gives me strength”. Don’t you wish you could ask Paul to expand a bit? Exactly how did he learn to be content? 

A few of my recent mentoring conversations have probed this question. As a result, I’m inclined to believe that the pathway to learning contentment may well be slightly different for every person with a few themes in common. I decided to itemise the things that I think I personally need to practice to learn contentment. I offer them here simply as a thought-starter. If you want to work on your own list it will probably end up looking a bit different to mine.

  1. I need to clearly acknowledge that God is both big and good, and do this especially in the midst of bad circumstances. God is far and away the biggest factor in the universe. If he is also good, then my posture towards the world does not need to be one of caution, fear and suspicion. Peaceful satisfaction comes from relying that our good God has things under his control.
  2. I need to receive love from others with gratitude. Discontent can make me turn in on myself, and that is self-defeating. The affection of loved ones is a great source of contentment. Even if all others fail to love me well, my heavenly Father certainly does.
  3. I need to direct my focus away from lack and towards blessing. 
  4. I need to distinguish between needs and wants and choose not to fixate on unfulfilled wants.
  5. I need to practice taking delight in beautiful things that are free. Ugliness eventually wears away at my soul; beauty restores it. I don’t need to own a beautiful thing to benefit from it. Many beautiful things are not commodities – sunsets, the laughter of small children, music, a jacaranda in full bloom, the smell of the forest after rain.
  6. I need to neutralize any sense of entitlement I might have with humility.
  7. I need to develop a sober estimate of myself, both my capacities and my limitations.
  8. I need to resist comparing myself to anyone else.
  9. I need to promptly forgive offences, both actual offences against me and things I merely perceive as offences.
  10. I need to exercise patience, taking the long view even as far as into eternity. Too much of my discontent comes from having a limited, short-term perspective.
  11. I need to practice sabbath and silence. That is, I need to stop doing and stop talking with some kind of regular frequency.
  12. I need to find my identity in Christ – the one who strengthens me.

Reflections on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: Pt 2

For the first 24 days of the Camino I read slowly through the gospel of Luke, one chapter per day. I expected that my different context would cause me to come to the text from a different angle. But I was not prepared for the degree to which this was the case. It was as if I had never read this gospel before; there were new insights and perspectives popping out at me every day. The most impactful and enduring of these was a fresh appreciation of how direct Jesus was in his dealings with people. There was no beating about the bush. He was, as we sometimes say, “in people’s faces”, with challenge, confrontation, even provocation. To my middle class, western sensitivities he seemed a bit rude at times – lacking in tact. Yet I felt drawn (and disturbed!) to consider how I might emulate this aspect of Jesus character. That was not a comfortable thought at all.

At the same time I was reflecting on the conversations I was having with people along the road and being convicted by the Holy Spirit about my tendency to be judgemental of others. Later I shared this with one of my friends in the UK and she said, “Rick, that can’t be right. I’ve never known you to be judgemental.” Well, that just shows how cleverly I hide my inner thoughts. But there’s no pulling the wool over God’s eyes. He sees it all very clearly. Anyway, being challenged about being less judgemental and more direct at the same time put me in a bit of a tangle. I realised that my way of being more direct with people usually involved a dose of being judgemental along with it. And I could work on being less judgemental, but that would usually result in me being less direct as well. I can see that Jesus was both non-judgemental and direct at the same time, but I don’t see that in me. Plenty of room for growth then! Then I realised this is simply a restatement of John 1:14, that Jesus came full of grace (of which non-judgement is a part) and truth (of which directness is a part). This has been a personal paradigm for ministry practice and character development for me for well over ten years. Here I am STILL working on it! Lord, help me to make some progress.

I was able to have spiritual conversations with others doing the Camino every single day, and several times each day. This is not my normal experience in day-to-day life. I would think I’m doing well if I have a spiritual conversation with a stranger once per week. Why was it such a rich time of deep conversation? There are several factors. Firstly, the Camino de Santiago is consistently presented as a spiritual pilgrimage, both by those who offer support services for pilgrims and also in the literature. Over a thousand years of history lies behind this walk, and those who follow the route can’t help but be affected by that history of religious devotion. Secondly, physical pilgrimage – taking a long walk – is a very apt metaphor for the inner journey of spiritual seeking that is common to all human beings at some point in their lives. These first two factors, taken together, explain why pilgrims will routinely ask one another, “Why are you walking?” The question makes perfect sense and drives immediately to the inner journey for which the outer journey is a symbol.

And I think there were other conditions, not general ones like the two I’ve mentioned but particular ones relating to my experience, which helped me to have so many spiritual conversations. I was practising being non-judgemental. I’m sure that opened some doors. I was not seeking to ‘sell’ my point of view. I was having genuine, mutual interactions with people whose stories and perspectives were of real interest to me. At the same time I was prepared to ask fairly blunt questions of others. You could call it being nosey, but my conversation partners were up for it. It was as if they had been longing for someone to open up these lines of discussion. Further, I was trying to be as honest and vulnerable as I could about my own uncertainties and frailties. I was not saying, “I’m a Christian and have it all together and wouldn’t you like to be like me?” Finally, I was trying out some different language. If I had said, “You know, God really loves you”, that would have been dismissed as religious claptrap. Instead I tried saying things like, “The universe is a friendly place, don’t you think?” I found this engaged people far more readily and we would be away into an interesting chat within seconds.

The people who were so open to have spiritual conversations with me on the Camino, had only days before been in another setting and undoubtedly were not nearly so open to have those conversations. On the Camino the right conditions were created that put people in the sort of headspace (heartspace?) in which they were ready to talk. Now I’m asking myself if those conditions can be replicated away from the Camino. The first two factors above – the environment that reflects a history of devotion and participation in the powerful metaphor of walking – cannot be readily reproduced in daily life. However, I do think that if I am non-judgemental, have a respectful, listening stance, take the chance to ask probing questions, am willing to be vulnerable and carefully choose my language to use interesting turns of phrase that avoid religious jargon – if I do these things, then perhaps I might have more Camino-type conversations in my daily life.

Arriving into Santiago 30 days after setting out, my feelings were mixed. My heart was yearning to be with my family and friends once again, and yet I had come to love the road. There was a sense of accomplishment, but that was swallowed up by the prospect of a new beginning in which I wanted to weave the best of my pilgrimage experience into my everyday way of life. I went to the midday Mass they hold for pilgrims at the Cathedral. I was touched by the hospitality shown to me and all the other non-Catholics there. Technically, I don’t think they are supposed to offer communion to us, but they don’t ask questions and all are invited. I didn’t participate. Not because of any problem between the Lord and me or because of any negativity toward Catholicism on my part. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was not yet finished.

With a few days up my sleeve, I took the bus out to the coastal village Finisterre, a place name which means, ‘the end of the earth’. In medieval days pilgrims would burn their clothes at Finisterre in a cleansing ritual. Those threads were probably so dirty, worn out and flea-ridden that’s all they were good for! These days many pilgrims still burn something they have worn on the Camino, or leave it behind under a rock when the weather is so cold, windy and wet that they can’t get a fire started (which is often). The most common items burned or left behind are shoes/boots. That might be less about cleansing and more about exacting revenge for the pain that footwear has inflicted. Glorious weather prevailed the day I was there and as I sat on a rock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, I experienced a sense of being initiated into the next season of my ministry. The transition of two years was complete, and I stood up released from the past and ready for the future.

Arriving back into Santiago on a Sunday morning, I had a few hours left before my flight back to the UK. I had just enough time to attend a service at the Baptist Church near the bus terminal. What a delight to gather with this small but lively bunch of disciples! It was their first service in their brand new facility and the place was full of joy. On my way inside I saw their sign, which reads, ‘Iglesia Bautista: Jesus Es El Camino’(Baptist Church: Jesus Is The Way). I was hugged and kissed and fussed over and had multiple invitations for lunch even before the meeting began. Six adults who had been baptized the day before were welcomed into membership. I had just enough Spanish to get the gist of the preaching – a message about living hospitably. When it came time for communion I was eager to celebrate the end of my Camino with these folks with whom I share the same passion for living on The Way.

Not everyone can go on physical pilgrimage. But if you can possibly manage it, I encourage you to give it consideration. Of course, the heart of Christian pilgrimage is not essentially a matter of geography but a matter of walking with Jesus. Yet I have found that getting out on the road has opened up a fresh imagination for that journey of divine companionship.