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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.