photo: r. nial bradshaw, Creative Commons

photo: r. nial bradshaw, Creative Commons

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve been totally in over my head. Have you ever felt this way? Maybe you have young kids at home, or you’re newly married, or you’ve just planted a church or started at a new ministry position. Maybe you’ve done more than one of these things at once (no wonder you feel overwhelmed).

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the few times I’ve been in over my head, it’s this: it’s going to be okay.

It doesn’t seem like it will, but it will.

From a cultural standpoint, we seem conflicted on this issue.

We talk about things like “work-life-balance,” rest, and making sure you don’t over-extend yourself. We talk about boundaries. Yet at the same time, it is culturally expected that each of us be “busy”. When someone asks, “how you are doing?” what’s your response? My guess is, nine times out of ten, you say: “Busy.”

For most of us, our busy-ness is a status symbol.

As Christians, there can be a bit of a tension, too. I’ve written before about how important it is for new pastors or young pastors to pace themselves early in their ministry position (or they won’t make it). Scripture commands us to Sabbath, and I can state from experience, that practice is extremely important.

And yet, if that is the case, it brings to mind a question for those of us who have committed ourselves to full-time ministry:

How do we find ourselves “in over our heads” so often? 

And what are we supposed to do when we get there?

I think these are two really good questions, and they bring us to a great place. Because the answers to these questions demonstrate that there isn’t an inherent conflict between the notion that we need pace ourselves as leaders, and that it’s okay to be in over your head.

In fact, I think God leads us to these “in-over-our-head” moments, in some ways, to teach us how to pace ourselves and to show us we’re not in control.

Two things I would say to someone who is in over their head right now.

 

  1. There’s a good chance you’re in exactly the right place. I can’t say that for certain, because I don’t know you or your circumstance (sometimes God uses overwhelming circumstances to tell us it’s time for a change). But I believe God often uses overwhelming circumstances to draw closer to him. When you’re in over your head, your tendency will be to think, “something has to change about this situation,” or “I can’t believe I’m here… this was such a mistake.” But have you ever considered that this might be exactly where God wants you? What is God saying to you in this season? Don’t worry about fixing your circumstance. Worry about looking to Him.
  2. It’s going to be okay. It never seems like it at the time, but it’s true. No matter what challenge you’re facing, God can get you through it. No matter what failure, what disappointment, what obstacle—God is bigger. He is able to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine. When the task is too big for us, that gives God a chance to show it isn’t too big for him. Instead of getting defeated, get ready. Expect a miracle. He’s about to do something great.

The Bible has dozens of verses about what to do when you’re in over your head (search your Bible app for the word “worry”) but one of my favorite verses goes like this:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?… But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” —Matthew 25, 26 & 33 (emphasis mine) 

I just love that part about seeking first the Kingdom.

When you’re in over your head, don’t worry about fixing the problem, just worry about seeking Jesus.

Whatever it is you’re worried about—

If it’s money for your church, or money for your family; if it’s a mistake you made that hurt someone else, or a mistake someone else made that hurt you; no matter how you feel like you’re “in over your head” you don’t have to worry.

God is bigger. God is all-powerful. God is on your side.

God has got you.

photo: Hamed Saber, Creative Commons

photo: Hamed Saber, Creative Commons

When most people think of great leaders, they get a certain picture in their minds (I know I do). It’s this vision of perfect confidence and grace. There’s a winning smile, a spotlight and the sound of applause in the background. It’s no wonder, with this concept of leadership, most of us are desperate to be leaders.

But it seems to me there are several aspects of leadership that tend to go unnoticed. These are the less attractive qualities of leadership, that many of us would like to leave out. But they are an equally important part of leadership.

Here are four that come to mind right away.

1. Great leaders often don’t get the credit.

For one reason or another, great leaders often don’t get the credit for their efforts, their great ideas, or their creativity. In fact, I would say that some of the greatest leaders I know and have worked with are focused much more on getting others the credit than they are on getting credit themselves.

This, I believe, is essential for a great leader.

They want others to win more than they want themselves to win. They see it as their task to equip and inspire those around them.

2. Great leaders receive as much criticism as praise.

From the outside looking in, you might not think this is the case. It can be easy to feel jealous of a leader who writes a book or leads a church because he or she is receiving all kinds of praise for their hard work and creative genius. But you have to know that, behind the scenes, leaders receive almost as much criticism as praise.

It makes me think of the phrase, “where there is smoke, there’s fire.” I can almost guarantee the same is true here: where there is praise, there is criticism.

When people feel strongly about something in one direction (“I love your new book. It completely changed my life. My marriage wouldn’t have survived without it.”) there are bound to be people who feel strongly in the opposite direction (“Your book was full of arrogance and ignorance. I wish you wouldn’t have written it. What a waste of paper.”)

Leaders have to learn to deal with both praise and criticism—each of which can inspire arrogance or humility, depending on how they are handled.

3. Great leaders don’t always feel ready.

When God calls a leader to do something, the leader responds—regardless of if he or she feels equipped or ready. You’ve heard it said, “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.” Do you believe this? Do you believe it enough to step out in faith and be a leader, even when you don’t feel ready?

Some of the best leaders I’ve known in my life are willing to act before they feel totally prepared, before they know exactly where they’re going.

Their faith in God far exceeds their faith in themselves.

4. Great leaders are likeable (even when people hate them). 

This might seem like an oxymoron, but let me explain. Great leaders always act like likeable people, even when people hate them. In other words, even when people criticize them or their leadership skills, they are still generous people, they still celebrate with those who are rejoicing, and mourn with those who are mourning.

They still respond to hatred with love.

In fact, this might be one of the most difficult roles of a leader—to lead even those who are reluctant or angry, to lead those who are bitter or mean. The leader loves and cares to lead these people as much as the ones who willingly follow. It’s not easy, but it’s the role of a leader.

What do you see as some unexpected qualities of a leader?

photo: Jason Rutel, Creative Commons

photo: Jason Rutel, Creative Commons

With Easter Sunday quickly approaching, pastors everywhere are in overdrive, making sure everything is ready and praying furiously for the first time visitors who will inevitably walk in their doors on Sunday morning.

This is such an exciting time of year.

Jesus is risen! We are so excited to celebrate one of the most exciting traditions of our faith and even more excited to invite others to discover the truth and life we’ve found. It is truly an amazing time to be a pastor.

At the same time, Easter is also a stressful time to be a pastor—can you agree? Other than maybe Christmas, there isn’t another time of year where there is more pressure to have a perfect Sunday service, to break attendance records, and to think of new and creative ways to get people in the doors.

To avoid unnecessary pressure this Easter, and just to make it through the holiday with your sanity in tact—here are five things every pastor should keep in mind.

1. It’s not your responsibility to save anyone.

I know we all know this, but it can be easy to forget, especially around special services. Jesus is in charge of souls, and you’re in charge of only what Jesus has entrusted you with. This will look different for each pastor, but in prayer and reflection, ask God to make it clear to you what is your responsibility this Easter and what isn’t.

Who should you talk to? Who do you need to pray with? How should you prepare for your message? Do you need more study or more quiet? Do you need to work more hours or fewer?

If you’re feeling pressure to make sure everyone understands the message or that every first time visitor comes back—take a deep breath.

Take to God what is God’s. Own only the task he has entrusted you with.

2. Put your best foot forward—but be yourself.

Some churches make elaborate changes to their services for Easter morning in order to impress visitors. I’ve heard of churches serving food or coffee for the first time, giving away gift cards, or hiring a performance-style band. There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of these things, but just remember to “be yourself” as a church.

Think of it like a first date. Of course, you want to put your best foot forward. You want to dress to impress.

But there’s no need to have plastic surgery before you go on a first date. If your date isn’t going to like you as you are, you probably don’t want to keep dating them anyway. As you prepare, keep this in mind: put your best foot forward, but be yourself.

3. The Gospel will be caught as much as taught.

Most churches focus a great deal on the presentation of the Gospel message from stage, and of course that is important. But equally as important is the way the Gospel message is lived out, from the minute guests walk in the door to the minute they walk out.

Are they greeted warmly? Is the atmosphere open and accepting? Are their kids cared for gently and kindly? Talk to your leaders and volunteers about their responsibility in preaching the Gospel message, even if they never set foot on a stage.

4. This is not their “only opportunity” to meet Jesus.

It can be easy to feel like this is the only opportunity first-time visitors have to meet Jesus, but thinking like this will distract you from your responsibility. It might be true that first-time visitors only step foot in a church once each year, but Scripture also says that all of creation speaks of its creator.

God loves your first-time visitors even more than you do.

Play your role. Let Him do the rest.

5. The rest of your church is here, too.

Don’t forget about the rest of your church body on Easter Sunday. You are still shepherding them, guiding them, discipling them. They are still entrusted to your care. Don’t allow the “hype” of Easter Sunday to derail you from the work God has called you to do with them—the long, faithful work that leads to lasting change.

Some visitors from Easter will come back, and when they do, they’ll be glad you care about them beyond just getting them in the building.

You care about who they are becoming as well.

photo: Igor Grushevskiy, Creative Commons

photo: Igor Grushevskiy, Creative Commons

It seems to me, the response to pastors is often one of two extremes. It is either:

1) hyper-critical and condemning
OR
2) full of undying praise and admiration.

I’ve thought most often about how damaging the first can be, but it occurred to me recently that praising your pastor can actually be kind of dangerous as well. An attitude of unquestioning praise for the human strength of your pastor actually sets him or her up for failure.

So how can you respond instead? Well, I’m glad you asked.

I think the key word is this: support

Instead of praising your pastor for every little thing he or she does (pastors make many mistakes) try adopting a stance of support behind the overall mission and vision of your pastor—behind the effort he or she puts forth to bring about the mission and vision of your church.

I think “supporting” your pastor, rather than “praising” him or her, will actually create a healthier leader, a healthier community, and healthier results.

Here’s what I think it looks like to give support.

1. Give them permission to make mistakes.

It is impossible to build something meaningful without making mistakes. You can’t grow a marriage that way, can’t grow a business, can’t raise children, can’t have a successful career, can’t write a book or build a house or create a life. It’s no different when it comes to leading a church. Your pastor will make mistakes.

The sooner you can know that, and choose to support them through the mistakes, the better.

When you give your pastor permission to make mistakes, you empower him or her to live out the call that’s been placed on them by God himself. And contrary to popular belief, permission to fail doesn’t minimize the sense of responsibility held by those in charge—it amplifies it.

Your pastor understands what’s at stake. He or she understands the risks, but has been called to lead fearlessly. Your support can help with that.

2. Assume positive intent.

When something happens in the community that you don’t like—assume positive intent. This is Apple’s motto. It’s how they approach all of their customers, never assuming someone is trying to cheat the system or get something they didn’t pay for, and I can’t help but think it has contributed to the company’s success.

It makes me wonder: could this approach help our churches?

When we assume positive intent from everyone on the leadership team, we prevent bitterness from building up, avoid gossip, and encourage positive feelings about those who are leading us.

This doesn’t mean you can never have a concern. It simply means assuming decisions are made from a place of care for your well-being and the well-being of the church.

3. Express opinions or concerns as that—opinions or concerns.

Don’t hesitate to express opinions or concerns, but express them as just that: opinions or concerns. If you’re going to send an e-mail, or ask for a meeting, ask yourself first if you’re going to present an opinion or a concern. The language you use will be really important.

If it’s a concern, you might say, “I saw such-and-such happen on Sunday, and it really concerned me because…”

If it’s an opinion, you might say, “I have an opinion about how such-and-such should be done. Here’s why it matters to me…”

By avoiding expressing your opinions and concerns as facts (“So-and-so needs to do this on Sunday mornings,” or “If you would only do it my way, it would work so much better”) you’ll keep your pastor’s attention open to your point of view, which actually might influence their decisions in the future.

 

Pastors, can you think of other ways people can support you?

photo: Matt Gruber, Creative Commons

photo: Matt Gruber, Creative Commons

It seems like every time we turn around, there’s another church leader admitting moral failure. On the one hand, this shouldn’t surprise us. We’re each fallen human beings, one rebellious step away from making a decision like the Prodigal Son—to do it our way instead of God’s.

At the same time, it can feel disappointing when we’ve admired someone, looked up to them, or put our trust in them and they choose to break that trust.

If you’ve never had this experience, count yourself blessed, but also know this: someone you trust will, at some point, sin in a way that hurts their witness, breaks their trust with you, and makes you question their leadership.

So how should we respond when this happens?

First, I have to say there are a few ways we should absolutely not respond. I won’t cover those here, but Rob Hoskins wrote a great post about it that I recommend you read. In this post I want to focus on positive ways to respond.

1. Faith in human leaders is misplaced faith.

We often place our trust in strong leaders, and in many ways, there’s nothing wrong with this. They’re out in front of us, leading the way, and we pay attention to what they say, as well as what they do, to help us understand how we should live.

Let me reiterate: there’s nothing wrong with this. But ultimately, our faith should be in Jesus. When we find ourselves feeling angry with a leader who falls, or bitter, or losing our faith in God altogether, we have to ask ourselves, “Was I really trusting Jesus to lead me and guide me, or was I trusting this leader?”

Earthly leaders will fail without fail. Some will fail in bigger or more public ways than others, but they will each fail. When they do, it’s a good time for us to reevaluate where we’ve truly put our faith.

Jesus will never fail, never change, never give up, and never disappoint.

2. Jesus is restorative, redemptive, and reparative.

Sometimes circumstances are so bad it feels like all is lost. In other words, it seems like this leader’s mistake has destroyed all the good, all the community, all the witness, and all the benefit his or her leadership built up. But remind yourself that God is in the business of using even our worst mistakes to his advantage.

Ask yourself how you can participate with God in bringing restoration, redemption, and reparations to this circumstance. What can you do? Where can you serve? What can you say that will bring grace and peace and truth?

How can you join God in taking what the enemy meant for evil and using it for good?

3. There’s a difference between honesty and gossip.

Of course, there will be feelings of anger, frustration, bitterness, betrayal, and disappointment. Don’t ignore these feelings or push them aside, but use discernment about where and how to process them. Finding a safe, neutral place to process these feelings will help you avoid gossip.

While you process these feelings in private, in public, focus on the positive. This doesn’t mean ignoring sin, or lying about feelings. It simply means speaking to the positive. Or, if you have nothing positive to say, choosing to say nothing at all.

This takes strong discernment to decipher the difference between “public” and “private,” to know where and what it is appropriate to share. Be in constant prayer, and community, asking God and others to demonstrate what words to use.

When in doubt, focus on what it says in Philippians 4:8: “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.”