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.

Reflections on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela: Pt 1

I committed to walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela on an impulse. A friend casually asked if I would be interested in walking it with him one day. Immediately, without thinking it through, I was hooked and determined to make it happen. This is not normal behaviour for me. Although I still can’t fully explain it, I think there was something of a tug from the Holy Spirit involved. Yes, there was an appeal to my sense of adventure, but the Camino is not just any old walking trail. This is a bona fide pilgrimage– one of the big three that date back to medieval times: Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. So perhaps I was also motivated by my love of history and connecting with ancient practices of discipleship. And yet I knew in some visceral way that my urge to go on pilgrimage was far more than an educational history excursion. It was to do with working out how I would follow Jesus right here, right now.

Getting ready to go took me two years. I’m sure others could manage to get themselves organised more quickly but that’s how it was for me. Those two years form the boundary between my ministry in the past and my ministry in the future. It’s been two years of realigning myself to a new call, and the Camino was to be a pivotal moment in that transition. When getting ready for a major pilgrimage, there are four major areas of preparation to be attended to. I’ll go through them one by one because each of these areas has direct relevance to disciplines and practices that may sustain and develop a missional life in our communities. I won’t tediously spell out specific applications of implied principles but I encourage you to make the connections that relate to your particular context.

Firstly, you have to prepare your schedule. That means clearing the necessary time in your diary. In my case that was five weeks – not an easy task! And it involves researching and planning your route. There are several Camino pathways. They all end in Santiago de Compostela but you can start in many different places. I ended up choosing to walk the 800-kilometre Camino Frances route, which starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. John Brierley’s Pilgrim’s Guidewas very helpful in planning daily stages. Preparing your schedule builds anticipation and resolve. As your imagination gets fired up you start enjoying the journey before you have even taken one step.

Secondly, you have to prepare your kit. I was not at all experienced in outdoor pursuits and had very little of the necessary gear. On pilgrimage, when you’re carrying everything on your back, you don’t want to be lugging stuff you don’t really need. And you want whatever you do take to be efficient, light, strong, durable, multi-purpose and easy to use/wear. Some obvious life lessons to be drawn from that. My biggest surprise in this area was to realise the usefulness of walking poles. In my vanity, I thought they looked a bit silly and a bit unnecessary for an able-bodied man, so I almost didn’t buy a pair. That would have been a serious mistake.

Thirdly, you have to prepare your body. I had only a basic level of fitness when I decided to walk the Camino, so my body needed some serious training. My schedule for the Camino required me to walk an average of 27 kilometres each day. The first time I tried walking that distance in one go in training I really hurt myself. There was so much to learn about hydration, stretching, massage, blister prevention and so on. I began walking 5 kilometres daily in the boots I intended to wear on the Camino. I built this up to 10 kilometres per day over the course of a year, with the occasional longer walk. By the time I headed to Spain I was confident I had done the necessary preparation. I was wrong. Three days into the Camino I was in a lot of pain with dreadful blisters. If not for the help of the Spanish woman who ran one of the albergues I don’t know what I’d have done.

Fourthly, you have to prepare your soul. Well, maybe you don’t haveto. But if you want to approach the Camino as a pilgrimage and not just a long walk, some soul work is crucial. My processes for preparation were reading, praying and conversations. I devoured several books to get in touch with the issues. Martin Robinson’s Sacred Places, Pilgrim Paths is full of fabulous quotes arranged around some thoughtfully crafted themes. In terms of soul preparation I was especially grateful for Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey. I can’t recommend that book highly enough. I also read through Exodus and spent many hours meditating on Psalm 84. My prayers centred on the question of what God wanted to do in me over the month I was away. Early on I was keen to be prepared to witness to others on the Camino but I became convinced this was not the first matter on God’s agenda. My soul work in prayer was to get to a place of receptivity. Conversations with a few people who had walked pilgrimages were useful, mostly for dispelling romantic expectations of Damascus Road experiences! 

Exactly what makes walking the Camino de Santiago so impactful is hard to express. Part of it has to do with being away from the myriad of annoying little details that complicate normal daily existence. A decision has to be made about how ‘in touch’ one wants to be on pilgrimage. It’s a very personal matter, with no right or wrong. Apart from a phone call to my wife every few days, I chose to switch off all my devices – no phone, iPod or computer, no Facebook, Twitter or email – and I was very glad of that choice. Life became very simple on the Camino. It gave space to think, space to talk with others without the pressure of time or agenda, space to simply be. Another source of the deep impact is the earthiness of the experience. Walking is an effective way to get connected to a landscape and the people and culture embedded within that landscape. It’s a very different experience than travelling in a car or bus or train. And, of course, when walking significant distances you become very aware of your body – both the pain and the strength – which is an experience that gets pretty earthy. Engaging in pilgrimage as a deeply spiritual exercise is a powerful antidote to Gnosticism.

Walking through Spain on this pilgrim path creates wonderful memories, but the deeper value of it is in the personal transformation that takes place. No doubt this is slightly different for everyone who does the Camino, with, perhaps, some common threads here and there. What was the personal transformation that happened in me? I need to be a bit careful here because it’s too early to tell whether, in fact, I have undergone personal change or have simply become aware of areas of my life that are in need of transformation. I hope that at least a start has been made in certain aspects of my character. So, at the risk of setting myself up, I’ll have a shot at naming them. Something in me is shifting in terms of patience, perseverance, tolerance and acceptance of others, gratitude for simple things and resisting drivenness so I can manage my energy levels wisely. I cannot transform myself in these areas through the effort of will, but God’s Spirit can change me. The Camino has focussed my attention so that I am now tuned in to cooperate with his power at work on those things. It’s the process Paul was talking about in Colossians 1:29.

Super-stressed? Try a reset

When super-stressed at work, try a 5-minute ‘reset’. Five stages, one minute each:

1. Stop – listen to your breathing or, if you prefer to walk, feel the rhythm of your footsteps.

2. Imagine yourself coming into God’s presence. You must put down all the things you are carrying and empty your pockets of everything. In your imagination (or literally!) take off your footwear.

3. Hear Him say your name and see Him look straight into your eyes.

4. Hear Him say, ‘I am with you.’ Take the full minute to really hear this.

5. Hear Him say, ‘I am giving you…’ Listen for what it is that He is giving you.

Five minutes is up, you are reset, time to return to work in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Context for Understanding Christian Mentoring

Where does the word ‘mentoring’ come from? What is the history of this discipline? Is it a Biblical thing? People seem to mean different things when they talk about mentoring. Is there more than one kind of Christian mentoring?

Keith Farmer recently invited me to present a session at his ‘Passing the Baton’ seminars providing some background and context for understanding Christian mentoring in terms of history, Biblical basis and varieties of approach. Click on the link below to find a PDF of that Powerpoint presentation.

Context for Understanding Mentoring

Intentionality: A Critical Factor for Effective Mentoring

When someone comments to me that their mentoring partnership is not going so well the first thing I investigate is the level of intentionality. In my experience, low levels of intentionality are the most common cause of unsatisfying mentoring. With inadequate intention, mentoring sessions tend to meander along without ever actually getting anywhere. The times together in conversation may be pleasant enough but end up as a bland, boring waste of time for people who were hoping for more.

But what is this ‘intentionality’? In practical detail, what does this rather broad term mean, precisely? I suggest we can unpack intentionality into four elements: clarity, structure, intensity and continuity.

  1. Clarity

In an intentional mentoring partnership both the mentor and mentoree will be able to clearly express in a few words why they meet together. They will both have the same understanding of the process they are following and how they will go about it. This is especially important in a process like mentoring where there exist such varied definitions and understandings of what this discipline is all about.

Intentionality in mentoring may be enhanced by clearing up fuzzy or misaligned notions of the purpose and methodologies that the partners will pursue together and keeping these sharp at each regular review of the partnership.

  1. Structure

This element of intentionality has to do with arrangements. It includes planning appointments in advance with starting and finishing times and working out a place to meet or what form of telecommunication will be used. It will involve settling questions of costs, what level of accessibility is appropriate, who is responsible for taking initiative, mutual expectations, confidentiality and privacy.

Depending on the clear understanding of the purpose and methodologies of a particular mentoring partnership (discussed above) it might also be helpful to specify key themes to be regularly addressed in mentoring conversations and the outcomes desired by the mentoree.

The structure of an intentional mentoring partnership does not have to be rigid, but it does need to be agreed and have some measure of stability and predictability. With a higher level of intentionality these structural items may be documented in a written covenant.

  1. Intensity

Two kinds of intensity underpin intentionality in mentoring: mental intensity and emotional intensity.

Mental intensity sticks with difficult, complex questions and resists the tendency to shrug them off when it all gets a bit puzzling. It takes hard work and serious concentration to both figure out what’s really going on and to craft a positive, creative response. It can be awkward to deal with the silence that comes when a deep question has you stumped. However, without this element of intentionality, mentoring conversations only ever deal with the obvious and superficial which is clearly going to get pretty tedious.

Emotional intensity is the preparedness to press on with a topic that stirs up strong feelings. Intentionality in mentoring is sometimes blunted by the desire to keep things bright and breezy and pleasant. Yet breakthroughs in personal growth are often attended by emotional responses – sadness, fear, anger and sometimes great elation. It should not be the aim to provoke emotional reactions but if they should emerge then both mentor and mentoree express intentionality by staying with the process.

  1. Continuity

The final element of intentionality deals with connecting mentoring sessions into an ongoing, coherent conversation. While there may be real benefit in a stand-alone conversation that opens up a fresh understanding in that moment, much more is possible when conversations are linked together over time.

Intentional mentoring sessions will refer back to previous sessions to draw on a range of related insights and weave them into a rich appreciation of the interconnectedness of all that is going on in the life of the mentoree. In addition, an intentional approach will cast forward to the next session, setting up points of accountability that greatly enhance traction for change.

Maintaining continuity in this way will usually involve keeping written notes. Perhaps this is not necessary where both mentor and mentoree have outstanding memories. But that runs the risk of little gems of insight being forgotten and points of accountability drifting or being unintentionally revised.

An important caution

It’s true that lack of intentionality can render a mentoring partnership ineffective and disappointing. But it’s also true that you can drive intentionality too hard.

  • You can make things so clear and defined that it becomes clinical and soulless
  • Structure can be overdone to the point that it becomes inflexible and stifling
  • Mental and emotional intensity taken too far can be frightening and invasive
  • Continuity over-emphasised can descend into fastidious legalism

As a mentor, if you drive intentionality too hard you will cause your mentoree to recoil and either shut down or withdraw from mentoring. To assess the appropriate level of intentionality many factors will need to be considered: the person’s age and maturity, pressures of life they are dealing with at the time, their experience of mentoring, the level of personal security they exhibit and so on.

However, the most important factor in my view is the level of trust between mentor and mentoree. In practice this means that you should take your time to build trust into the relationship before discussing lifting the mentoring partnership to greater levels of intentionality, always be open and transparent about this kind of shift and only move forward with informed agreement from your mentoree.

Resilience Factors: Learning How to Bounce Back

In my work as a mentor of Christian leaders I regularly find myself in conversations with extraordinarily able people who are struggling with low energy levels as a result of becoming emotionally drained. Of course, this is not a condition experienced only by Christian leaders – any one of us can become emotionally drained. Yet I would contend that the nature of leaders’ roles within Christian organisations exposes them to vocational hazards beyond the normal range that not only bring them to exhaustion but also tax their ability to bounce back. This has made the matter of resilience for Christian leaders one of the most critical issues for sustainable ministry and ministry today.

Even if you agree with this assessment of the special stresses and strains experienced by Christian leaders, you may still be wondering about the most constructive ways to address the problem. Nobody I know is perfectly resilient, but some leaders I’ve mentored do seem to do better than others. What can be learned from them?

Drawing from observations I have made and linking them with insights from the Bible, I want to suggest ten factors conducive to personal resilience. These factors could be developed in the context of a mentoring partnership, or applied in some other process of support for leaders. I want to stress that the resilient leaders I have in mind were not immune to becoming emotionally drained. The point is that when they did become drained, they were able to bounce back in a relatively short period of time to a state of energy, hope and joy, making their ministries healthy and sustainable.

My top resilience factors, in no particular order, are these:

  1. Supportive relationships of love, trust and encouragement

Resilient leaders typically are not loners. They put energy into developing friendships in the good times that become a lifeline when things get tough. Their families are able to be supportive and understanding when the leader is emotionally unavailable for brief periods because they have been well-loved.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

  1. Wise care of one’s physical health

The state of our physical body has a powerful effect on our emotional and spiritual well-being. Even leaders who freely acknowledge this truth may still fail to eat properly, exercise regularly, get adequate sleep or take their annual leave when it is due. Looking after one’s physical health is a vital early step to foster resilience.

In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves. Psalm 127:2

  1. A metanarrative that provides a basis for hope

With an immediate and vibrant sense of the big picture, the over-arching story, resilient leaders are able to put short-term ‘hits’ and even medium-term frustrations into perspective. This must be more than propositional theology; resilience requires an instinctive reassurance that God is good, ever-present, and that he is ultimately in control.

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord ’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:21-23

  1. Positive role models

When it’s hard to bounce back to an energised state positive role models can help leaders in two ways. Firstly, talking with or reflecting upon the life of someone who has gone before and successfully handled similar pressures may suggest alternative ways of dealing with a dispiriting situation that would not otherwise come to mind. Secondly, feelings of defeat and hopelessness about one’s own predicament may be overcome by reflecting on the positive outcomes experienced by others who have walked a difficult path.

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Hebrews 13:7

  1. Realistic assessment of and confidence in one’s abilities and strengths

Well-intentioned attempts at encouragement received by leaders (not to mention their own inclination to pride) can leave them with an inflated idea of their capacities, thus setting them up for disappointment, disillusionment and a sense of failure to live up to what they had believed was their potential. On the other hand, a mistaken belief that one lack the necessary capacity to address current challenges chokes off resilience. Self-awareness developed through honest feedback and critical reflection provides a better basis for resilience.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Romans 12:3

  1. Willingness to develop and draw on others’ strengths

Resilient leaders love to be part of a team and share responsibility with others. Those who have an over-developed sense of responsibility get into the habit of assuming they have to make every decision and do everything themselves. That is a sure recipe for becoming exhausted and staying that way. Preparing others to share the load and allowing them to do so gives a wise leader the chance to recover their own energy.

But how can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you. Deuteronomy 1:12-13

  1. Self-restraint to manage strong feelings and impulses

Leaders who have lost their energy are not in the best frame of mind to make great decisions. In difficult circumstances fear may rise up and lead to irrational catastrophising. Leadership instincts may be skewed by powerful emotions, or the complete lack of them. Impulsive or panicky leadership actions intended to end a painful situation can actually make things worse and prolong the difficulty. Those leaders who school themselves in self-restraint can exercise the necessary patience to resist unwise ‘knee-jerk’ solutions.

Do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret —it leads only to evil. Psalm 37:7-8

  1. Capacity to construct and implement realistic plans

After receiving devastating news that brought him undone emotionally, Nehemiah mourned in prayer for days on end. After working through his strong feelings he was able to bounce back and find his feet in leadership partly by developing a detailed plan, moving the focus of his attention from problem to practical solution. His strategy was ready to swing into action the moment the opportunity arose.

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” Nehemiah 2:4-5

  1. Engaging regularly in reflective practice

This resilience factor is a process item that catalyses some of the factors above and helps to break the trap of negative thinking patterns. Reflective practices may be personal – meditation, retreating and journalling are examples – or relational, such as mentoring conversations or psychotherapy. Christian reflective practices stimulate hope because they affirm the presence and power of God in the midst of difficult circumstances and draw attention toward his goodness and grace.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8

  1. Humility before God

Resilience may be thwarted by an overblown sense of entitlement such as that handed to us by a consumerist culture. Some leaders get stuck in a low-energy state wondering how the adversity they suffer could have happened to them. Deep inside they believe they deserve better and feel wronged by those they lead, by their team, by ‘the system’ or even by God himself. Resilience rises up from humility that accepts that hardship and loss are part and parcel of leading in Christ’s name.

“God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:5-7

I have resisted listing renewal by the power of the Holy Spirit as a separate item because it is of a higher order than any of these factors. In fact, the ministry of the Holy Spirit to restore our inner being is behind all that I have presented and extends well beyond it. In the end, the resilience we need as Christian leaders comes from the Lord. Yet it is good for us to remember that there are wise ways in which we can cooperate with his grace at work in our lives to run the race he has marked out for us to the very end.

 

Footnote: I have previously written on this subject in Mentoring Matters(2009). Keith Farmer has also written an excellent article to be found on the Australian Christian Mentoring Network website. Fil Anderson’s Running on Empty(2004) made an important contribution to our understanding of how Christian leaders become depleted. From an Australian perspective, Paul and Libby Whetham’s Hard to Be Holy(2000) drew on representative stories of sixty Christian leaders to put a human face on theoretical insights. Most recently Alan Craddock’s Driven to Despair (2013) offers incisive psychological and theological insights on this phenomenon particularly as it applies to Christian leaders. I commend these articles to you for further reading and note that more and more articles are appearing on this topic at the present time. You may be aware of other studies that describe how and why leaders especially struggle with resilience. I encourage you to keep researching this subject as together we seek to help those whom we mentor be more effective in their chosen vocations.

Asking Questions to Discern Emotional Health

Why ask questions about emotions?

Emotions in themselves are not susceptible to moral evaluation; they simply are what they are, neither wrong nor right. Yet it’s important to track emotions in Christian mentoring. Three reasons for this are:

  • They can be predicated on an accurate or an inaccurate reading of the circumstances that give rise to the emotion. If they come from an inaccurate reading, then those emotions may be inappropriate.
  • They are often very powerful, behind-the-scenes drivers behind our actions, our decisions and the way we perceive and relate with others, and those things do bring us into moral territory.
  • They can indicate a trajectory towards personal health and thriving or toward dysfunctional and unsustainable patterns of living.

 

In such a huge field, where do you begin?

Our human emotions are so many and varied it’s hard to know where to start to ask about a person’s emotional health. Which emotions are we trying to track?

One very popular mnemonic is ‘mad, sad, glad, scared’. If you can get a reading on these four fundamental emotions you are most of the way there to having a useful understanding of a person’s emotional health. However, I have found it helpful to add a 5thcategory of ‘keen’ to explore emotions that relate to desire, enthusiasm, passion and hope. The following questions might provide a springboard into investigating ‘mad, sad, glad, scared and keen.’

Mad

  • What has been making you cross lately?
  • When have you recently had to consciously keep your anger in check?
  • Over what things has your irritation spilled out in the last few weeks?
  • How are you responding to injustice in your circle of influence?

Sad

  • When was the last time you wept, and what was that about?
  • What losses are you dealing with at the moment?
  • Who do you know whose suffering breaks your own heart?
  • What proportion of your typical day is spent thinking sad thoughts?

Glad

  • What brings you delight?
  • Who has affirmed you recently and what did they say?
  • What is the most fun thing you’ve done in the last month?
  • What is your most satisfying recent achievement?

Scared

  • Who are you suspicious of or cannot trust?
  • Have you had any disturbing dreams lately? What were they about?
  • What do you worry might happen to members of your family?
  • How do you fear Satan might try to wreck your ministry?

Keen

  • What are you most looking forward to in the week ahead?
  • If you could manage it, what would you love to give more time to?
  • What part of your current role are you most passionate about?
  • If God gave you one wish, what would you ask for?

 

Each of the fundamental emotions we have considered – anger, sorrow, joy, fear, desire – could lead a person in a positive or a negative direction. There is such a thing as appropriate and inappropriate, helpful and unhelpful instances of each of those emotions.

Therefore, a mentor might follow up the questions above – which are non-evaluative, information-seeking questions – with openly evaluative questions such as these:

  • In what ways does your anger reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?
  • In what ways does your sorrow reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?
  • In what ways does your joy reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?
  • In what ways does your fear reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?
  • In what ways does your desire reflect God’s character and in what ways does it not?