Several years ago, I was having the same conversation I’ve had countless times, this time with a young woman I was mentoring on my team. She was trying to navigate where she fit best. She is one of those talented people that can carry a variety of different roles with ease. She felt torn between different parts of the church. “Should I do youth ministry? Worship ministry? Missions? Women’s ministry?” She felt like she needed to choose one area, or that she should know the specific thing God was calling her to do. She felt a little lost. After several hours of conversation, I can remember her looking at me with frustrated envy in her eyes. “How are you so certain of what you are supposed to be doing?” she asked me.
Google is interesting for two reasons. Not only does Google always know the answers to the very random questions I pose every few hours, but Google also knows what every one else is wondering. When I enter the search string, “what is my calling,” Google suggest these similar search strings:
“what is my calling from God quiz”
“what is my true calling quiz”
“what is my calling quiz”
“what is my calling test”
“what is my calling in life”
I was a little startled by the idea that we are searching for an online quiz and its computer-generated answers to discover our calling. The kinds of quizzes that float around Facebook tend to be fairly inconsequential. I’m sucked in occasionally, but usually end of a little disgusted at myself for bothering. The results are less than earth shattering. Are we really so desperate for direction that we need a quiz to figure it out for us? I guess we are.
Many people have written great stuff about how to figure out your calling. Casey Treat wrote a great book called, Fulfilling Your God-Given Destiny. If we can find the sweet spot between what we are good at; what we are passionate about; what we have worked hard to master; and what smart people in our lives have identified as something we have potential in; then I think we will find something resembling a calling.
This article dives into this idea a little further if you have absolutely no idea what you are supposed to do with your life.
You may be saying, yes, Anna, I get all that. But what does God want me to do?
WHERE DOES GOD SPEAK TO YOU?
There are things that I do that feel so right. This is a hard idea to describe, but when I am doing them, I sense God in it. I think Jacob experienced something similar. “Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God. Jacob called the place where God had talked with him Bethel.” (Genesis 35:1, 15 NIV)
Jacob had this place, Bethel, where he knew he could go and would always hear from God. God speaks to us in certain places. We feel a sense of rightness there that can’t be explained, except that they are our Bethel. Bethel literally means, “house of God.” Our Bethel will always be in a local church. As we connect ourselves to the community there, God speaks to us and puts his purpose in our hands.
God literally appeared to Jacob and spoke to him audibly, but that doesn’t happen to many people. People frequently have a hard time hearing God speak to them personally. Jesus is a master of subtlety. To hear him, you have to be paying very close attention. “For God does speak—now one way, now another—though no one perceives it.” (Job 33:14 NIV)
God speaks to us in a variety of ways. Sometimes God speaks through the wisdom of a trusted leader or pastor. Sometimes he speaks through dreams. Sometimes he speaks directly to the deepest part of our identity. It’s the part of us that doesn’t use words; it just knows. Some refer to that place as their “knower.” We have this unexplainable certainty that compels us. Most often he speaks to me through the Bible. I’ll be reading along, and all of a sudden, a scripture lights up on the page. In this deep inner place, a connection is made, and it’s like the lights have turned on around that scripture and how it applies to my life.
If we look for this prompting, we will find it. It can’t be found through a sense of urgency or ambition. It’s found in the quiet urgings of rightness.
IT’S MORE PARTNERSHIP THAN SLAVERY
Some people are afraid to discover God’s calling for their lives. Years ago, Scott Wesley Brown wrote a funny song you may remember, “Please Don’t Send Me to Africa.”
Please don’t send me to Africa
I don’t think I’ve got what it takes
I’m just a man. I’m not a Tarzan
I don’t like lions, gorillas or snakes
I’ll serve you here in suburbia
In my comfortable middle class life
But please don’t send me out into the bush
Where the natives are restless at night
This song, as silly as it is, exaggerates what many of us have worried about. It’s normal to worry a bit. If we let God into the driver’s seat, will he make us do things we really don’t want to do? Will we be obligated to do boring things with boring people?
When we give our lives to Christ, we are set free. We no longer have any obligations, no debts. Freedom in Christ is real freedom. It doesn’t mean that right and wrong go away. It just changes our status. We go from being slaves of sin to sons of God.
I discovered the PBS series, Downton Abbey, last year some time. It’s this fairly addicting show about British nobility during the turn of the century. The show follows the lives of a wealthy Earl’s family and their servants. There is a very firm line dividing the two classes of people. The servants have very structured lives, and do whatever the family asks them to do. The lord and ladies do pretty much whatever they feel like at any given time.
It’s a similar thing with Jesus. When we receive Christ, we are adopted into his family. Our family status has been elevated; we are now sons and daughters of God. We have the privileges and the authority that sons and daughters have. The closer we get to Jesus, the more freedom we have, not the less. God is not an autocrat, dictating our every move. God is a loving Father who empowers us to do great things for his house.
Moses had this kind of relationship with God. God asked Moses to do certain things: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’” Moses asked God to do certain things: “Moses cried out to the Lord about the frogs he had brought on Pharaoh.And the Lord did what Moses asked.” (Exodus 8:1, 12-13 NIV) It’s enough to make you wonder, who is in charge here? Moses received his mission from God, and then it became a partnership. Sometimes God was doing the directing, and sometimes Moses was doing the directing. Both God and Moses were working toward the same end: freedom for the Jewish people.
If we will pick up the mission that Jesus has given us, we have quite a bit of freedom in how that unfolds. All we have to do is ask.
YOU GET A SAY – JUST ASK!
“Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:5-10 NIV)
Do you have something that you want to do? Try asking. Apparently Jesus responds to shameless audacity!
It’s worth noting that the request that got answered was not self-focused. This request was for help to be able to meet someone else’s need. As divine nobility, we have both great privilege and great responsibility. Jesus’s Great Commission was all about reaching out to the world around us. If our dreams have lots of “I want” in them, then maybe it’s time to broaden their scope a little.
DO WHAT YOU CAN RIGHT NOW WITH WHAT YOU HAVE
Some of us have some pretty definite ideas of what we want to do, but it seems so far off that it’s discouraging. What then? The sinful woman who anointed Jesus was in this state.
No one sets out in life to be known as “the sinful woman.” Her dreams had been long since trampled. I’m sure no one was more disappointed than she was by her own behavior and the results. There just wasn’t enough time to turn it around; she had lived a lifetime already. She was trapped by her own reputation, and she had no one to blame but herself.
Maybe she felt like leaving it all behind and joining the crowd that followed Jesus around but was afraid she would damage the Jesus’s reputation by her presence. Maybe she was too ashamed. Maybe she was too proud and worried about what the people who followed Jesus would say about her.
After some thought, she decided to give Jesus a moment, a memory. She took an expensive jar of perfume, and crashed a dinner party. She found Jesus at the table, and poured it on him there. It must have been a dramatic moment; an unforgettable moment. This is what Jesus said. “She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14: 8-9 NIV)
She did what she could do, right now, with what she had. For Jesus, that was more than enough. Our calling may have complicated dreams and future plans, but sometimes our calling is in a moment, in a single act. What can I do right now, with what I have in my hand? If we will just do that, we will gain the pleasure of our Father. So often we over-complicate things when God is calling us to the simple, faithful acts of serving his people. As we serve people, we serve Jesus. Let’s not overlook the power and significance in these small moments.
Questions to consider:
* What can I do with the time, talent, ability, and resource I have right now?
* What gives me a yes in my spirit when I get involved?
* Am I waiting for God to open a door when God is on the other side, waiting for me to knock?
In the fourteen years that I helped put together church services for Family Christian Center, we did some crazy out-there stuff. Trying to describe to new friends what my role was like is almost comical. People listen to me talk about the animals and their excretions, the Thriller zombies, and shooting arrows into screens and their first reaction is usually to laugh. Some of the risks we have taken paid off with highly effective services, and some have made for great stories later. HA! Brooke, our fourteen-year-old, travels with us now after growing up at Family Christian Center. For her, all these things that sound extreme to others are just normal life. In her world, it’s just how you do church. If you don’t have a city bus on stage, miniature horses, or human torches, she’s a little bored. At least blow something up! It sounds over the top, but she is growing up to a new normal in church life.
Everyone who grows up in church or gets saved in church has an idea of what they believe church should be like. Usually it is very connected to the first spiritual experience we had in church. The atmosphere where we first felt a God connection often defines our preferences for the rest of our lives. We get resistant to anyone who tries to change what we enjoyed so much. Sometimes it’s the number of songs being sung, or the length or content of the preaching that we get hung up on. Interestingly enough, however, what seems traditional to you today was radically new to someone else in the previous generation!
The form of church services themselves has changed dramatically throughout history. In the Old Testament, God spent entire books of the Bible explaining in great detail exactly how he wanted his people to worship him. He gave them specific instructions about everything, from the ceremonies to the size of the room and the decorations, with no room for personal freedom or creativity at all in the expression of it. As the years went along, it become more and more apparent that it just wasn’t working. Throughout the books of prophecy, God expressed his dissatisfaction with the way people were worshipping. They did the rituals well enough, but their heart wasn’t in it. God wanted more.
THE IRRELEVANT DEBATE
When Jesus came, something incredible happened to the way humanity interacts with divinity. There is a fascinating conversation that Jesus had with a Samaritan woman that changed the way we do church forever. It reversed everything that humans understood about the way God wanted to be worshipped. Jesus began this conversation with some small talk and then abruptly switched gears by reading this woman’s mail and telling her he knew about her checkered past. After she got over her surprise, she took advantage of the moment to ask what for her was a very pressing question.
“19 The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’ 21 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’” (John 4:19-24)
This is an over-simplified explanation of a complicated history, but I think it will help you understand the premise for her question. Bear with me for a moment. Moses made the Tabernacle per God’s request when the Jews wandered the desert for forty years. It was a portable church venue essentially—a tent. Whenever they stopped for a few days, the Tabernacle was set up, and when it was time to leave, it all packed up and came with. Once they settled in what is now Israel, the Tabernacle was permanently set up on Mount Gerazim because there was no longer any need to move it around. The Jews would go up this mountain to worship God. When David came to power generations later, he built himself an impressive palace in Jerusalem. He felt guilty that he had such a nice place and God still lived in this old tent. He decided to built a temple, which his son, Solomon, wound up building. After they finished the temple, they moved the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the presence of God, from the tent on Mount Gerazim to the new temple. Some of the Jews were very offended by this move. After all, their ancestors had been worshipping on that mountain for generations! They believed that the change was wrong. These Jews continued to worship on Mount Gerazim, even after the ark was no longer there. They became known as the Samaritans, and this difference of religious opinion divided them for hundreds of years from the Jews who worshipped in the Temple. What this Samaritan woman was asking was this: Since you, Jesus, seem to be in God’s inner circle, please resolve this debate once and for all and tell us what God wants!
Jesus’s response was incredibly radical. He told the Samaritan woman that she was asking the wrong question. God couldn’t care less where they worshipped. What really mattered to God was the authenticity of the heart behind the worship. Jesus was saying that for the first time in the history of humanity, the form did not matter anymore. This was a complete change! The focus of worship was no longer on ritual and tradition, but based on emotional and spiritual connection first before any spiritual expression. Jesus was saying that the way you worship, the mechanics of it, is irrelevant. God had been given form and procedure for thousands of years, but what he really wanted was something that was heartfelt, not just a duty. God wanted people who would worship him from their spirit, or from the very essence of their identity, and they would worship truthfully, authentically. He changed the paradigm of the way worship would happen forever! In essence, as long as our services are leading people toward connection with an genuine God moment, pretty much anything goes. There is no formula, no set anything!
That day, something fundamentally changed about the way we connect to God. It went from thousands of years of sameness to several thousand years of never the same. Since that conversation, church worship has been consistently changing so that it always reflects a fresh creative expression of our hearts toward him. Every generation since then has done church a little bit differently. Today, the expressions of Christian worship all across the world are incredibly diverse. Islam is the opposite. No matter where a Muslim is in the world, they worship the same way. They face Mecca, get down on their knees and pray five times a day—same prayers, same locations, the same way. Jews are still caught up in form. I read an article recently about how the Jews have been sneaking up onto the Temple mount to pray recently. The third holiest Muslim site, a giant mosque, occupies that space currently. They are willing to risk their lives trying to honor their worship tradition.
CHANGE IN CHURCH
It’s human to love our traditions. Christians can easily get so caught up in what is familiar that it can become a lid to our creativity. Instead of a foundation to grow on, it becomes a lid. Even in the most creative environments, we easily get comfortable in what we have always known, connected to the ritual of doing things the way we have always done them. It is possible to be so captivated by our history that we miss the freedom that we have to create fresh moments that help our people truly connect in worship. To Jesus, the benchmark for quality services is that people have authentic God-connection moments. We have no guarantees that what worked ten years ago is still going to work today. Every new generation will worship God a little bit differently.
As a young pianist, my teacher emphasized to me that good practice establishes strong neural pathways. The more I play a song correctly, the easier it is to do it the same way the next time. The upside of this is that it gets easier to play it well. The downside is that change becomes more and more difficult if I am playing something wrong. My family listened to me play a song over and over and over and they would get incredibly sick of hearing that song. If people are listening to the same song over and over, they get burnt out on it after a few months.
Churches that want to provide quality experiences for their people spend enormous amounts of time, energy and resources getting it right. Our teams practice carefully to give the best experience we know how to do. Some of us have gotten really good at it! Unfortunately, if we do church the same way every week, the same two things happen. The first is that we will find it harder and harder to change the way we get together corporately, and the second is that people begin to disconnect from their experience because it feels stale and overplayed. If we allow this to happen, we will miss the new generation. Bands that have been successful over many years learned how to reinvent themselves again and again. Most artists aren’t able to do this and have a few years in the sun, then fade back into obscurity. If we don’t intentionally reinvent the way we do church, particularly for well-established, older churches, we will wind up in the same boat.
Dying churches are full of older people and shrinking every year as they die. It’s essential that we build change into our church cultures. It’s very easy to slip into the habit of making decisions based on what we know will work, what we know our teams can pull off to minimize risk. The bigger and older we get, the harder church leaders find change to be because of fear of losing what has been built over many years of hard work. We find comfort in our routines, and what was once radical has become traditional.
So what needs to change? Some things shouldn’t change at all. Keep certain things central. The apostles devoted themselves to doctrine. We have to make sure we are getting it right. It really bothers me that there are some GenX leaders are moving away from the idea of the Bible being inspired. We don’t adapt the truths of the gospel around popular opinion. Right and wrong, sin and salvation, the cross and resurrection, the Holy Spirit and his power, the truth of the Bible—these things are foundational. The Sundays we build are only as strong as we build these foundations.
THE MILLENIALS ARE COMING
We have to watch this generation carefully to learn how they connect. I’ve done some research and some personal observation to arrive at some thoughts about the value systems of Millenials, but these are certainly up for debate. Purely to prime the pump of your thinking and to get the conversation going, here are my thoughts about what is valuable to Millenials, or GenY.
Connection to the past: Millenials tend to get excited about old buildings being revived, old instruments revived, or old clothing revived. Hipster culture has reconnected to folk music roots. Churches are taking old cathedrals and renovating and reviving them. Vintage instruments are wildly popular. Reviving old furniture or homes is huge—there are multiple reality shows about this. Millenials have a value for legacy and history as a point of personal identity. Perhaps this is because of the homogenization of the cultures of the world.
Value for environmental responsibility: We can’t ignore this as a church. Millenials value this responsibility as significantly as they value fiscal responsibility or family responsibility. This translates in to recycle bins in church, or community gardens and local markets in church parking lots, or composting in church kitchens.
Life is less compartmentalized: Most people take their work with them wherever they go. They take work to church, and they take home to work, building communities together that do life together on a broad spectrum. We don’t go on vacation with the neighbors anymore; we go on vacation with work friends, with the community we connect with that has shared values and interests—and there is a little community for every interest under the sun. The Millenials are mowing the parks of Detroit. This should be a government responsibility, but they don’t have a problem crossing over this line. As the church, we have to figure out how to make church less a Sunday event and more integrated into people’s daily habits.
Intimacy and community: In a digital age where we are connected to hundreds shallowly online, Millenials crave the intimacy of face-to-face personal relationship. Their relationships have been reduced to a like button. They desire genuine connection instead of anonymity. They love being part of a team where everyone is comfortable with each other, not a stiff hierarchy where people are in competition all the time
Millenials aren’t interested in stereotypes: They do cultural mash-ups all the time in music, in fashion, in art, and in relationships. We can’t be afraid to cross all kinds of cultural barriers and be inclusive.
Honesty: Millenials hate pretension or fakiness. No one has everything a hundred percent together, and authenticity matters, They don’t like being impressed or schmoozed, and can smell an agenda a mile away. If we want them to come to our church, we can’t pretend we like them. We have to actually like them! They don’t like feeling pressured into community, It has to happen organically, because people have something in common and genuinely like each other and want to share their lives. Shared interest connect groups have been pretty successful for this reason.
High value for personal freedom: They want the flexibility to do life uniquely their way. Whether it’s in creative expression or in a work environment, micromanagement is the life sucker. Google is the gold standard for work environments. If we want to lead young high performers serving in our church, we have to give them some space. They want to get the job done well their own way.
Cause-driven work: Millenials want to know that what they are doing is a piece of a larger, important work for humanity. They want to know why their work matters, beyond just bringing home a paycheck. Hair salons are more commonly hosting free makeovers for underprivileged high school proms. Restaurant owners contribute to community gardens where people can collectively grow fresh produce to give away to anyone who needs it. Journalists tell stories that expose injustices to inspire change. The “social entrepreneur” is a new industry according to Forbes magazine, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.
Smaller venues: Apparently the American shopping mall is in decline. Outdoor village-like environments that feel like shopping at boutiques in the city are on the rise. Millenials find connecting and doing life difficult in giant environments. Huge venues for one-off events will never go away, but more intimate environments appeal. They don’t like being crammed into a crowd or standing in a long line or sitting right next to (touching) a stranger. Milllenials are building smaller venue multi-campus churches with a great community feel, many services and many options.
Financial responsibility: This generation has grown up in the great recession. They have seen the credit crunch and are far more wary of debt. They saw their baby boomer parents be under water in their home loans, owing more than their property was worth. They are less willing to take on multi-million dollar building loans or pay a higher cost per square foot for a larger auditorium. Openness about financial decisions is of much higher value. This doesn’t mean they want to control the way their church is spending money, just that they don’t like secretiveness.
Increased value for quality hand craftsmanship: Millenials appreciate things that are not just mass-produced. Pinterest and Etsy have boomed. For a season, churches felt very corporate, and looked like business buildings. I think that the churches of tomorrow will reflect this value for craftsmanship. I’ve seen it in things like hand-carved beautiful wooden pulpits and guitar stands, or handcrafted lighting fixtures in church lobbies.
If these qualities are part of this generation, then we have to think through our systems and presentations from this perspective. I’m not suggesting that we all need to grow beards and wear vintage Doc Martins. We just have to think about our methods through these value systems, and reexamine our processes. If Millenials don’t enjoy feeling pressured into an assimilation system, then maybe we should look at how we word our communication to new guests, or how frequently we are communicating to them. Is it too heavy? Does it feel like we genuinely want relationship with them, or is it overly formal and generic?
RETHINKING TO CONNECT BETTER
We need to rethink things. If we don’t purposefully change by taking risks in areas we don’t understand well, we will stagnate. It’s not about being cool and trendy. We have to learn how to make the gospel come to life for every new generation. Statistics have been telling us for quite some time that the vast majority of Christians made their decision to follow Christ as a young person. This means that the most important God experiences in church are happening in the lives of young people. They are important because they are the first of a lifetime of moments. As the church, we must prioritize and design these moments and design around young people.
What’s tricky is that currently the baby boomers are for the most part leading the church. To reach young people requires the older generation to let go of their preferences and their ideas about what is cool, and yield style and method to younger preferences. Boomers, don’t get resentful about this. I am GenX, looking between Boomers and Millenials. It won’t be many years before the kids in children’s ministry will be telling me what is cool. Give those Millenials thirty years, and it will be their turn to yield their preferences! It is the way Jesus set up the church—each subsequent generation must change.
Just as significantly, we need the older generations. Boomers have the leadership experience, the skills, and the emotional maturity that churches desperately need. Just because we are changing does not eliminate the place that older generations have in the church. Every part is valuable. Don’t feel excluded or discarded because of the changes that need to happen. Making space for the preferences of a younger generation does not eliminate our ability to participate in or to lead the process. It just means that we reinvent our contribution.
We love our traditions and routines because they feel comfortable and familiar, like an old warm fuzzy blanket in front of a fire on a cold night. They aren’t bad! It’s just that no one else wants to curl up under your ratty old blanket with you! It is your blanket, unique to you. Traditions are the same way. We can’t expect someone else to love them. It’s incumbent on the older generations to be willing to change and give way to the styles and methods of the younger generation. My husband John says when he was younger, his mentors were twenty years older, but now they are twenty years younger. As leaders, church isn’t for us. It’s our opportunity to present Jesus to others.
Don’t be resentful, because give them twenty years and they will be in the same boat. We can choose to love what’s fresh because it keeps us young. More than that, it keeps our heart’s connection to Jesus fresh and active. Let’s have a yes in our heart to whatever new thing our pastor wants to try. Let’s keep measuring what we are doing, watching carefully for when systems are getting stale. Sometimes more than a patch of a new leader is required, and we need an overhaul because that process just isn’t working any more. We have no guarantee that because something is working now it will always work.
Above all, let’s ask God to give us his heart toward people. The Bible says that Jesus looked at people and felt compassion. He can keep us focused on reaching others rather than our own preferences. If we get our head up long enough to watch people, culture, and trends, we will get genuinely interested. People know when it’s real! Let’s build teams that have inclusive spirits, reaching for new people and new ideas.
I don’t often talk about my experiences when Rich, my first husband, died. It has not been for a lack of dear, sweet people who ask me about it. In the months and years after his passing, I have found myself tongue-tied again and again, retreating into private grief. I felt awkward over my halting responses to their questions, which seemed to come off as aloof, or weirdly breezy, or even (to the intrusively inquisitive) chilly.
The real truth of the matter is that for a time after his death, accessing that emotion was, to understate it, overwhelming. If you have ever been playing in the surf and a rouge wave caught you, flipped you over, and you were lost, unable to find up or down, that’s kind of what I felt like. Engaging my emotions about it felt like I was drowning, desperate for a breath, pounded by waves of pain, disoriented and confused. When we experience pain, we are all pretty much at our most narcissistic. Just keeping your chin above water, simple survival, takes total focus. A chat about it with someone over coffee somehow felt so trivial, for a while.
Rich and I had been married for two years. I loved him very much. Those had been two fantastic years leading our youth ministry in a suburb of Chicago, at Family Christian Center. Things were booming, and we were just getting started. We had so many plans, and it all appeared to be unfolding ahead of schedule.
Rich was an amazing guy. He was tall and extremely charismatic. He was the kind of guy who made everything he was involved in fun. He was funny and witty, quick on his feet with a tease. He was talented, a great performer in anything he did on stage. He was creative, inspiring, and a strong leader. He was very good-looking, athletic, with a great voice, bright blue eyes and an easy smile. He was also very young. He was just eighteen when he started leading our youth ministry. Young men a few years older than him called him, “Dad,” which was kind of weird, but I guess it made them feel like they had someone in the world.
To celebrate our second anniversary, we headed out on a road trip for a few days. When it came time to head home, Rich decided he wanted to leave in the evening and drive all night to get home in plenty of time for our youth meeting the next evening. I felt a little twinge of anxiety about the choice, but neither of us had any idea just how foolish this decision would be. I took the first shift driving while he rested in the back seat, and then we traded off.
When I woke, the car was tumbling for what felt like an eternity. I braced myself and held on until it came to rest upside down. When I looked over to the driver’s seat, it was empty. A flood of anxiety and adrenaline rushed through me as I unbuckled my seatbelt, dropped into the broken glass and debris, and crawled out a half-crushed window frame. There he was, maybe fifty feet away, in a little heap, on the pavement.
The next few hours are very much a blur for me still. I remember paramedics coming and hovering over him for what felt like an eternity, and them strapping me down to a gurney and whisking me off to the nearest hospital. I remember the half-whispered conversation of the EMT’s in my ambulance, who looked at me with sad eyes. I waited in an intensive care unit with a room full of strangers, still strapped down, until a kindly doctor came and told me, with tears in his eyes, that Rich didn’t make it. I don’t remember much of that day after that besides the pain that welled up inside me, overwhelming in ways I had never known before. It echoes in me still today as I write this, so many years later.
As much as I felt alone in that moment, I wasn’t unique in my brokenness. Pretty much all of us have or will carry the weight of intense mental and emotional pain in our own stories. If you have faced deep pain, my story may have brought up echoes of your own emotions too. I don’t mean to be cruel by reminding you of those painful days, but we all limp a little bit from places that have been wounded in our hearts. We are all at varying points of healing from those traumas.
I know people who have been through very difficult situations and are still controlled by their pain, years later. A wound becomes a state of emotional or mental ill health when things get infected with things like bitterness and fear. It’s so easy to get stuck in anger, bitterness, or depression. In the crisis, your brain wants to do everything it can to turn off that pain. It’s tempting to just avoid thinking about the pain and hope it goes away. Pain we don’t deal with winds up controlling our lives.
LIGHTING THE LAMP
In the book of Matthew, Jesus used a metaphor that underlines why it’s so important that we get healed:
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:21-23 NIV)
In this verse’s metaphor, eyes represent the way that we view the world around us. My worldview will major on either the good things around me or the bad. If my soul is unhealthy because it’s been wounded, my perspective becomes damaged, distorting what I believe about my life. A wounded soul is constantly distracted by what is negative and painful.
The Message paraphrase puts it this way. “If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!” Unhealthy perspectives come from wounds we have experienced. Living with hurt impacts everything in our lives. We will see darkness wherever we look, not because darkness is truly there, but because that is all we can see. In other words, the world around us just looks bleak and lacking, because we have lost the ability to see past our own pain. In order for us to accurately see the world around us, we have to be healed from these kinds of traumas.
If we are functioning in a ministry leadership role, it’s even more essential that we prioritize the process of getting healthy again. Our perspectives don’t just affect our own lives, but the lives of everyone we lead. We will always reproduce what looks like us. If we don’t get healing from our own pain, we will reproduce hurt and wounded people in our churches. A leader’s healthy soul is essential for leading healthy teams.
In my travels, I meet so many amazing pastors and leaders. It’s heartbreaking and alarming to me how many have carried deep wounds and hurts for years and years. Many beautiful faithful people have continued to lead while wounded for so long, sensing the need and feeling compassionate about their people, but have not been able to lead with joy because of their internal deficit. Leadership becomes a burden, and their gaze is drawn toward the dark and weak parts of the church instead of taking pride in the strong and good places.
When our soul is healthy, we have strong vision—seeing far ahead. We can move our focus away from simple survival, which is all about just getting through the next hour, the next day. We are able to adjust our focus farther ahead, dreaming again.
The night I got home from the hospital after Rich died, I made a challenging, deliberate faith decision to believe the best about God’s plan for my life and to trust his goodness. Making that decision didn’t magically make the pain go away overnight. Healing is a process that takes a while. Just like recovering from a major physical injury takes time, getting healthy emotionally is usually not instantaneous. I definitely didn’t do everything right as I struggled to process it all. I made more than my fair share of mistakes. My journey hasn’t been easy, but it has been a healing one. Now, twelve years later, I have identified some benchmarks along the way that may help you move forward if you have faced significant pain. Answering each of these areas was a step forward toward healing.
1. Engage the process of healing by facing the pain.
For a while, every morning I would wake up and feel uneasy for a few seconds, trying to remember why things didn’t feel right. Then it would all come flooding back to me and I would just feel sick. When enough days of this go by, you really just want to be done with it all. Obviously, no one wants to live with pain. We all look for a way to escape overwhelming pain. Some people run toward things like alcohol or risky living to try and forget. For me it was probably more keeping myself busy, avoiding being alone, avoid talking about it or thinking about it. I disengaged from my emotions completely for a while, I think.
The brain has some amazing protective mechanisms and will forget trauma for years, probably because it’s too overwhelming to cope with. I’ve met women who were abused as children who didn’t remember until they were middle aged. If we live with unhealed pain long enough, we get numb to its existence. We get so used to our own dysfunction and pain that it becomes normal, and we don’t even realize it’s still broken. If some time has passed since the trauma, there may be a process of self-awareness that is required for us to even see clearly what needs healing.
I’m a pianist. When I was a teenager, I managed to smash my own thumb in the car door. It was blinding pain. It hurt so bad I was absolutely convinced in that instant that I had damaged it beyond repair. Because I am an avoider, I couldn’t even muster up the courage to look at my own thumb. I had my dad look at it, proclaim that it would not need amputation, and bandage it up. I didn’t look under the bandage for days. This was not the smartest thing I ever did. If I never look at my injuries, don’t clean them out and give them fresh bandages regularly, they will get infected. Cleaning out an infected wound is super-painful, but it has to be done. As we lift the bandage and cleanse the scab, we feel the pain of the injury again, but this time it is a healing pain.
We have to learn the difference between healing pain and injury pain. It may hurt for us to address it now, but the next time it needs cleaning, it’s going to hurt a little less as it heals. I had to allow God to expose some of those painful places in me, again and again, and let him clean them out—memories, attitudes, fears, anger—all of it. If we don’t do this, our soul gets infected with bitterness. It was painful and was always tear-filled, but the Holy Spirit would always be right there to soothe me with a measurable, tangible sense of his loving presence. I knew those moments, as painful as they were, were healing.
“If your heart is broken, you’ll find God right there; if you’re kicked in the gut, he’ll help you catch your breath. Disciples so often get into trouble; still, God is there every time.” (Psalm 34:18, 19 MSG)
We can’t afford to absorb the pain into our identity, saying to ourselves that it will always be this way. We are not designed to live with pain all the time. Don’t resign yourself to it for the rest of your life. We get hurt, but we don’t have to stay hurt. Healing is available to us all in Jesus.
2. Don’t ignore the questions or the anger.
I tried for a while to make sense of sheer nonsense. There was no discernible divine purpose behind Rich’s death. It just happened. But because we all want a why so that we can assign blame somewhere, in my case, it usually wound up on Rich himself. He made the choice to drive all night, despite being advised differently. I couldn’t get away from the nagging irrational thought that maybe he had a choice in the matter about his death, that somehow, God gave him a choice in that moment and he chose to go to heaven instead of stay with me. I felt abandoned, left with his responsibilities.
It took me a while to be able to express what I was feeling into any kind of coherent thought, but this was an important step for me. I had to choose to forgive Rich. Several times. I wrote him letters telling him how mad I was. I had to say out loud into the air multiple times, feeling super foolish, “I forgive you.” Sometimes I had to forgive God. Sometimes I had to forgive myself for not demanding that we wait until morning to drive home, or for not holding his hand as he died. To be honest, I had to forgive myself the most times, because that last one really cut me up. Even discovering that he died as soon as he landed headfirst on that asphalt road didn’t help, because the truth is I just wasn’t brave enough to face whatever was happening on that road.
Allow God to expose the painful places; don’t hide them.
If we don’t let go of our anger through forgiveness, it turns to bitterness. Bitterness poisons our healing. Keloid scars aren’t cute. They are wounds that haven’t healed just right. Raw skin has covered over the injury, but it’s built up thick scar tissue. They are big, red, puffy, raised, sensitive scars. Bitterness produces keloid scars on our soul that are sensitive to being touched, always reminding us about what happened to us. If we allow them to stay, they are repelling. We become hostile, angry, prickly people, and we wind up alone.
We have all met people who get stuck in bitterness. There are two types of them—protestors, who angrily lash out at anyone who tries to help, and victims, who feel entitled by their loss. They leech onto people physically and emotionally, flashing their pain like a credit card. Both types will wear you out after a while.
Too often, our flesh wants to run away from the presence of God when we are locked up with soul scars, when what is required for healing is the opposite. If you have gotten to that point, it takes the oil of the Holy Spirit rubbed into our soul repeatedly to soften those scars back down. “When I was upset and beside myself, you calmed me down and cheered me up.” (Psalm 94:12-19 MSG) In these Holy Spirit sessions, we have to let ourselves get soft before him. We get vulnerable and honest with ourselves and with Jesus. His presence is always healing. If we ask him to help carry our pain, he will. He went to the cross so that he could.
Psalm 40: 1-3 “I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from the deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip. He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God.”
3. Let a wise leader take the steering wheel for a while.
When we are hurting, especially us girls run right toward the relationships that make us feel the most valuable and the least alone. These relationships don’t always bring the best out of us. All our good decision-making ability goes out the window in the face of our need. This often means we get involved with people who aren’t God’s best for us, which result in guilty feelings. We go from feeling bad to worse when guilt adds to our pain. The pressure of pain brings the real me to the surface, and that’s not a pleasant mirror. I dealt with both the pain of my loss and the pain of being disappointed in myself because as much as I wanted to, I frequently didn’t make the right choice. I’m so grateful that God does not stand with his finger pointed in judgment.
I have several different pastor friends who have had nasty religious people tell them that the reason their child got terribly ill or they faced a major crisis was because of sin in their life, and they were getting what they deserved—the judgment of God. Shut those people out of your life; they don’t know what the heck they are talking about. Did we do something to deserve this? In the search for answers, we may feel like because of past mistakes, maybe we are getting what we deserved. When you feel that way, you tend to hang back, feeling undeserving of God’s help. The thing is, God doesn’t look at our pain that way. The gospels tell us repeatedly that Jesus looked at hurting people and the first thing he felt was compassion. If we will bring our failure to him, he gently scoops away the sin, the issues, and the attitudes. Jesus holds us close with forgiveness, and carries us higher. “God is sheer mercy and grace. He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve, nor pay us back in full for our wrongs.” (Psalm 103:8-12)
When you’re trying to figure out whom to process with, please, don’t run away from church, run toward it. Don’t disconnect from real kingdom relationships. Especially as leaders, we tend to feel like we need to have it all together to serve in church, but it’s just not true! We feel this internal pressure to be strong around both the people we are leading and the people we are following, so we often isolate ourselves when we are hurting. It’s one of the biggest lies the devil spreads. God designed us to be a part of a community. He looked at Adam alone and said, “It’s not good!”
We need help to process our thoughts and feelings correctly. Usually we need to talk to a counselor or our pastor to get our thinking right. I was not healthy enough to make good decisions on my own. God put my pastor in my life specifically for that season. Amazingly, she had lost her first husband to cancer at the exact same age I did, years before! He will put wisdom in our path if we will open our eyes to see it and access it. In that season, I invited her input in my world about pretty much every area of my life. I needed someone healthy taking the wheel for me for a while, just like I would if I was sick in the hospital and needed my family to take care of things for me. For deep traumas that have wounded us for many years, we can’t allow our pride or insecurity to keep us from getting professional counseling. Let’s just get the help we need!
4. Find new purpose in God’s house.
With Rich gone, so much of my life plan was suddenly down the toilet. Up to that point, I was really more of a support to Rich’s ministry than anything on my own. Without him, I had to figure out who I was going to be and what I was going to do.
Ministry probably saved me, really. Somewhere around six thousand people attended Rich’s funeral and wake. For hours, I watched thousands of hurting people walk past his casket. There was no way I could claim some kind of exclusive stake to grieving Rich. I was clearly not unique in my loss. Seeing those people every week for the months that followed kept my gaze up. It would have been so easy to give into the navel-gazing and bury myself in pain for a few years, but I felt such a sense of responsibility. These were my kids too, and they were hurting, so I did the best that I could to help them.
I think that one of God’s favorite roles is to ride in on a white horse as our knight in shining armor, the Savior, there to save the day. Jesus loves us so much that he gives us the chance to get in on that feeling. He lets us taste that joy when he uses us to help someone else—an extension of his body, part of the church. Seeing everyone else’s challenges helps us understand that we aren’t alone in our suffering.
God didn’t restore to Job all he had lost until he prayed for his friends. “After Job had interceded for his friends, God restored his fortune–and then doubled it!” (Job 42:10) I believe something happens on the inside of us when we do something to ease someone else’s suffering. A little bit of our own pain recedes, and God puts healing in its place.
When we are looking for purpose, we will find it in the house of God. Pain does not disqualify us from the ability to serve someone else’s need.
5. Face your fears about the future.
For a long time, I refused to make any life or ministry plans. It felt too risky, and I just didn’t have any heart for dreaming. Life didn’t appear to be full of possibilities. All I could do was keep going with what I was already doing. The future was one big scary blank.
There is a landfill next to the neighborhood I used to live in. Several years ago, they closed it and covered it over with a layer of plastic and dirt. Eventually, they built a lovely city park over the top of that dump. You wouldn’t know today that it is a landfill except for the pipe vents that pop up out of the ground in a few places.
I used to enjoy a great running route that would take me about four miles around the neighborhood and would finish up on a track through this park before getting back home. The last leg of the run took me right past the dump vents, down into a little depression between the man-made hill and the road. During the summer, at least once a week, they open those vents to let off the funk that has built up underground as everything decomposes. When the vents were open, the last half-mile home was just awful. The gasses would collect down in that little hollow, and choke me with their foulness as I tried to run past. I felt like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. My tired body would tell me to slow down or stop, but slowing down just meant the noxious vapors would overwhelm me. My only real option was to speed up to get past this little valley and be home.
“Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.” (Psalm 23:4)
When we go through these horrible valleys, the only way out is to keep going! Don’t slow down; don’t stop, just keeping moving forward. You will get through this season, and it will hurt less and less. What a beautiful promise, that we are not alone, even when we feel alone! “Oh, blessed be God! He didn’t go off and leave us. He didn’t abandon us defenseless, helpless as a rabbit in a pack of snarling dogs.” (Psalm 124:6 MSG)
God intends good for us, whether we see it today or not. When I look backward, I see his hand on my life so clearly. We can trust that his plan will bring us to a good place. When I was trying to wrap my mind around a new future, I thought about this verse frequently. “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil. Plans to give you a hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) When I couldn’t dream for myself, God dreamed for me. He had a better plan for me than I could conceive of.
How do we access it? Decide to trust God every day and dream again. “Be brave. Be strong. Don’t give up. Expect God to get here soon.” (Psalm 31:24) Surrender to his process. Let his healing love cover over the injustice of what happened to you. His love is bigger than what shouldn’t have happened. Decide to believe that he can restore what was lost. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NKJV)
Four years after Rich died, God worked through my dear friend and pastor, Kent Munsey, to set me up on a date with John Morgan. That night changed my life. John is warm and affectionate, absolutely hilarious, and very strong. He made my life so much fun! God knew he was exactly what I would need! We got married a few months later. I didn’t see it coming, and I couldn’t have planned it, but God’s plan for us was better than I could have dreamed on my own. God healed my heart and replaced pain with a whole lot of joy. He’s just that good! I got three gorgeous stepdaughters in the bargain, all of them amazing, loving girls. I am living proof that “God places the lonely in families.” (Psalm 68:6 NLT)
For us who lead in church, it’s not how well we can put together a church service, or how well we can deliver our gift that matters most. What people remember isn’t likely to be the points of the messages we preach. They will remember the way that we live, and the way that we navigated the hardest moments of our lives. People need to know how to face and get past their difficulties, and they need hope that it’s possible to get to the other side and be whole. Let’s not hesitate to show them the path. “Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say.” (Matthew 7:16-18 MSG)
My husband is a boxing and MMA fan. This means that from time to time, to be a loving wife, I am subjected to a few hours of wincing and mild nausea. Every so often, there will be a pair of girls who jump into the cage and try to tear each other apart. It just feels awkward to watch them going at it—sensitive body parts flashing across the camera in between blood sprays, swinging hair and swelling faces. I do not enjoy it.
I’m not the only one. Female fighters aren’t really embraced by womankind. Fighting is not really a feminine characteristic, unless its in defense of your babies. Most girly images are soft and gentle and sweet. Femininity and confrontation just seem to be an uneasy marriage.
Whether it’s a friendship that is going sour or a team member that is sliding further away from their commitment, we all face potential confrontations at some point or another. We have two choices. Walk away, or have the awkward and costly conversation. Most of us girls lean away from smell of a fight and want to back away slowly. The tension in those conversations is stressful and unpleasant, and we don’t want to make things worse than they already are.
It can be tricky finding the sweet spot between being a pushover and being a b****.
In Judges four, the Bible described two women who went to battle. The first was Deborah, a judge in Israel. In Deborah’s time, the people began to have a defeatist attitude. They had been defeated by Jabin, king of the Canaanites, and as victims of these circumstances, their warriors began to be half-hearted and lazy. They did not even attempt to defend what they had, much less move forward. Deborah stood up as a prophet and rallied an army to go and win back their independence. She literally went into battle with the guys, but she was still fully female. She is referred to as a mother in Israel, not as Xena, the warrior princess.
The Bible describes four things that Deborah did as a foundation for her leadership. We can use these principles today to help us find the right balance between strength and sweetness.
In the time of Shamgar son of Anath,
and in the time of Jael,
Public roads were abandoned,
travelers went by backroads.
Warriors became fat and sloppy,
no fight left in them.
Then you, Deborah, rose up;
you got up, a mother in Israel.
God chose new leaders,
who then fought at the gates.
—Judges 5:6-8 MSG
Be willing to mother more than your own gorgeous rugrats.
The Bible says Deborah rose up as a mother in Israel. She got involved in people’s lives at the level a mother would. Deborah spent somewhere around 30-40 years sitting under a palm tree nearly every day, available to chat with people and help decide their disputes. Mothers are involved—loving, looking after, training and directing. They get incredible joy out of their children’s successes, and are willing to sacrifice for them.
For us to lead well, we have to be as involved as a mom is in people’s lives and be willing to be accessible. The level of our confrontation needs to be at the level of connection we have to people. As a leader, I have to be able to recognize at what level I’m leading an individual and moderate my confrontation to the level of my leadership. If someone is distantly connected to me, the tension of heavy confrontation is going to tear the fragile threads that connect us. For someone else that is in my world daily and I’ve invested heavily in, the complex web of our relationship can handle more pressure. It takes time and investment to earn people’s trust.
Let God rise up new leaders around you.
Deborah’s leadership produced more leaders. God chose new leaders who fought in place of the old, tired ones. The people who came with us this far may not go the next leg of the journey with us. Confronting half-heartedness in old leadership is risky—those team members may not make it through the conversation. If we haven’t made room for new leadership, the thought of losing those old leaders may make us hesitate to confront where we should. Making room for new leadership and trusting new leaders isn’t easy for us.
My Chinese sister-in-law, Ying, observed to me recently that “best friend” to Americans really means, “oldest faithful friend.” We place high value on relationships that have stood the test of time. The process of building and leaning on new relationships is long hard work full of awkward conversations. Our attitude about that journey makes all the difference. We can be open and engaging, or keep our world small and insular.
Be willing to rise up and confront sloppiness.
More times than I can count, I have been up late at night, thinking or worrying about a situation that needs addressing. I can try to ignore it, but it just wriggles in the back of my brain trying to get my attention. In my early years of ministry, I relied on my husband to do the confronting for me. He would sense my distress or discomfort and would rally to my defense. The thing is, when he got involved, it never actually helped people buy into my leadership at any greater level. Those moments established his authority and his leadership—not mine, even though the conversation was with someone in my area of responsibility.
If I am going to wear the title of leader, I have to do what Deborah did, and get dirty with the conflict. It’s up to me to sort things out, as uncomfortable as it may be and as unprepared as I may feel. If we don’t confront at all, we will hesitate to give people responsibilities that really matter in case they mess it up. If we over-confront, people resist our leadership.
I frequently get asked the question, “What should I confront or not confront in my new team members?” Confront new team members and new leaders at the level of their commitment. This requires clear conversations about expectations early on, from attitudes to preparation. Tension arises when people don’t deliver on what they have committed. Deborah confronted the warriors who gave themselves permission to become fat and lazy. They were not doing what they had committed to do—defend Israel.
If someone committed ten hours and is delivering five, have a conversation about it. If they have committed to come to a rehearsal prepared, knowing their songs, and they don’t; let’s talk about it.
Be the purple velvet hammer
So how strong should we be in those conversations? How intense should we be?
Deborah leaned on the people’s commitment to God in her conversations. The way we serve reflects on our relationship with Jesus. I do not confront anyone without reminding him or her about why we serve.
I love the story of Jael, another fierce chick from Judges five.
Most blessed among women is Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite;
Blessed is she among women in tents.
25 He asked for water, she gave milk;
She brought out cream in a lordly bowl.
26 She stretched her hand to the tent peg,
Her right hand to the workmen’s hammer;
She pounded Sisera, she pierced his head,
She split and struck through his temple.
27 At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still;
At her feet he sank, he fell;
Where he sank, there he fell dead.
–Judges 5:24-27 NKJV
Jael was the purple velvet hammer. She was gentle and hospitable, and when it came time, she handled her business without any excess drama. We can be purple velvet hammers too—soft and pretty, but with an iron core. We don’t have to confront harshly or argue.
The point of confrontation is not that I’m right and you’re wrong. Good confrontation offers a truth, a tool that will help you become who you already want to be. We can be gracious in these conversations because every one of us has blind spots that need someone else’s coaching to overcome. As female leaders, our femininity can be disarming and help lower defenses so that the truth can be welcomed. We can tell people difficult truths, but with a lovely smile and a hug.
Deborah’s song encourages us to be like the sun. It’s warm, bright, and nourishing, but it’s also unrelenting and incredibly strong.
It’s inevitable. We all face seasons when life is less than peachy. Our leadership is producing nothing but lemons. All our pretty, pretty pleas for help must be lacking the cherry on top, because no one is responding. As hard as you try, you just can’t find that sweet spot; and all that hard work left you plum tired. Things are absolutely bananas!
Some time ago, I saw a funny-ish old episode of “Frasier” where the doctors Crane learn to ride bikes for the first time as adults. The brothers go to a local park to practice their new skill. Frasier is terrified of riding into hazards along the path. While he rides, he carefully focuses on the trees to make sure he doesn’t run into them. He’s so focused on them that sure enough, he rides right into exactly what he wanted to avoid! Whatever he focused on, he crashed into.
The same principle applies in life. When times are tough, what we are focused on makes all the difference. When we focus our attention and emotion on the potential hazards along the way, we crash land into the problems. Whatever we are focused on is what we are targeting. We can spend all our time running after fixing problems, and there is an endless succession of them! It leads to a terrible quality of life. When we are forced to continually react to and repair what is happening to us, we burn out.
We get through tough seasons by focusing on the right things. Jesus never called us to a life of misery! He said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30) Life is better when most of our attention is focused on building vision rather than the problems. We need to keep the problems in our peripheral vision, but keep our focus on the things that move us forward. This means putting more energy and attention into what we are doing right than what we are doing wrong. Keep your eyes on the prize!
It’s easy to define wins if we are working toward a clear vision. We can only move forward if we have a target we are aiming for. It doesn’t matter how young or how old we are—if we don’t have a vision, it’s time to do some dreaming! If the dream seems derailed, then it’s time to pick back up and focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t.
While every person needs unique goals, there is also a universal mission that Jesus gave the church collectively. Our mission is to help make new followers of Christ while we move forward on our own journey. That journey is a multi-step process and takes a lifetime to complete. Each step forward in that process is producing what the Bible calls fruit. Every decision that is a step toward Jesus is worth celebrating! It doesn’t matter how far along we are, as long as we are moving!
Fruit comes in all shapes and sizes, but it is all fruit! My fruit will not necessarily look like your fruit. This doesn’t make either kind any less valuable. Jesus didn’t curse the fig tree because it wasn’t bearing strawberries. He cursed it because it had no fruit. It can be easy to devalue the fruit we are producing because we are too familiar with it. Sometimes we look into someone else’s garden plot and see the beautiful things being produced and get overwhelmed. We’ve been in it since the beginning—planting seeds, dealing with manure, watering it, and watching slow growth. It’s a whole lot of work! The fruit that comes out the other end can be very rewarding, or disappointing, if it’s not what we were hoping for.
Harvest seasons have historically always been time for celebration and thanksgiving. We have an entire American holiday around that theme! Next time you feel a little discouraged, look for your fruit. You will find it in the place you have been working hard and investing. It is incredibly valuable to God, and it’s a reason to celebrate!
My top sixteen leadership-essential accessories that I keep with me in my handbag all the time:
(My handbag is pretty big.)
*left to right, top to bottom
1. Coverup, powder, mascara, lip color, eyeliner, and eyelash curler. You never know when you will need to stand in front of people and communicate. These things help your face stand out and look your best!
2. Hair spray. Useful for more than just hair! It also doubles as stain remover, bug spray, shoe polish, pet fur grabber (when sprayed on a cloth), run stopper, zipper stiffener, static eliminator, and lint remover.
3. Assortment of over-the-counter meds. Nervousness can kick in gut troubles of a wide variety, and being over-tired can cause headaches. When it’s Sunday and it’s game day, no one’s got time for that mess!
4. iPad & Bible app. You may prefer the paper version. I also have a small paper version that I used before the iPad days. This one is an absolute essential in church life and personal life both.
5. Planning Center app. This is the most useful app for managing church services that I have seen. I don’t know how we did church without it.
6. Starbucks Via packet. This is a backup for when there is no good coffee available and I really need to be alert. Sundays can be long days, and the Sunday afternoon nap is calling…
7. Tampon, Body/Clothing tape, & bobby pins. a. No explanation needed. b. We all have that really cute outfit that tends to slip on us. A little body tape will keep the gap between buttons closed while we wave our arms around on stage, keep the neckline above the cleavage, hold blouses over bra straps, & fix hems. Priceless. c. Quick hair repair or belt wiener fix.
8. Lip repair. After a long day of meetings where chances are I didn’t drink enough water, my lips are screaming. To keep talking, lube them up.
9. Ear buds. Put in your ear buds, throw on some worship music, and the world is suddenly miles away. When I need a break, or a moment alone with Jesus while in public, I reach for these.
10. Hand cream. This has become weirdly more necessary as I have gotten older. Shaking hands with dry hands is chafing and unpleasant. Shaking lots of hands requires hand cream.
11. Portable fragrance. Hugs are just not good when someone smells bad. We try to be like ducks on Sunday–gliding smoothly on the surface, but underneath paddling like mad. All that paddling can produce some scents that I need to address before getting up close and personal with people.
12. Superglue. There are endless uses for this. Shoe repair, small electronics repair, nail repair, clothing repair, jewelry repair.
13. Gum or mints. Whenever I’m going to be talking closer than two feet away, this is a necessary precaution.
14. Fisherman’s Friend lozenges and Throat Coat tea. For speakers and singers, these are invaluable. When I am fighting off a cold or infection of some sort, these can help pull a little more life out of my voice.
15. Hand sanitizer. Absolutely essential for all ministry roles. Ideally sanitize after every service to keep germ-free. Pastors and leaders get sick too often from hand to hand contact.
16. Evernote. I have had multiple occasions when I had to be instant in season speaking at a meeting somewhere. Evernote keeps all my messages carefully catalogued and easily accessible when I need to pull on something I’ve done in the past. I’m always prepared when I have Evernote.
The latest apps like Picflow or Video Story sew a bunch of photos together into one Instagram slide show—perfect for your year in review. My photo stream is full of them today. I can see the 2013 highlight reel of any number of friends in snapshots. It’s funny how fantastic this makes our lives look. It’s all the best moment of the year crammed together into fifteen or twenty seconds. Even the worst year can look pretty amazing in an Instagram slide show! It’s easy to look an acquaintance’s slide show and feel a twinge of envy.
For most humans, this kind of reflection is our annual tradition as the New Year turns over. It’s time for happy memories, wishes for revisions, and plans for self-improvement. I always experience an interesting tension between regrets that I am not where I want to be and motivation for the fresh New Year. This self-reflection, however, is a bit of a slippery slope toward self-comparison. There are always others around my age and experience that are so much farther down the track than I am. Self-comparison leads to self-criticism—Get it together, Anna!
I have several friends who have had an exceptionally difficult year. Needless to say, they did not post an Insta year-end slide show. When your life is not on the upswing, this kind of New Year’s mental self-mutilation is even easier to slip into, particularly for leaders. My prayer for any of you experiencing this kind of self-torture today is grace for the journey. The Bible talks about the ups and downs we will face. Our leadership journey is going to have fantastic seasons and others that feel very lonely and difficult. Thankfully, Jesus promises to be with us at every step, and to bring us to a great place of vision and his presence.
“And how blessed all those in whom you live,
whose lives become roads you travel;
They wind through lonesome valleys, come upon brooks,
discover cool springs and pools brimming with rain!
God-traveled, these roads curve up the mountain, and
at the last turn—Zion! God in full view!”
(Psalm 84:5-7 MSG)
This season will not last forever!
USE YOUR OWN MEASURING TAPE
The path out of self-disappointment starts with a liberal application of God’s grace. As leaders, we tend to measure out God’s grace generously to those we minister to, but withhold it from ourselves. Grace for the journey gives us permission to learn from our mistakes rather than disqualify ourselves. Grace gives us permission to move at a sustainable pace rather than watch our relationships wither on the altar of our to-do list. God’s grace gives us permission to love the strengths we have rather than hate the weakness that are part of our humanity. Our journey is our own, and not comparable to anyone else’s.
As leaders, we tend to measure fruitfulness based on statistical performance, opportunities, and the perceptions around our ministry. We go through seasons when what God is building in us is bigger than what he is building through us. Those seasons when he is strengthening the foundations of our lives and building character can look barren on the outside, but they are vital for the next season. If we aren’t aware of what he is doing in our lives right now, we can spin our wheels chasing after success when just maybe, this season is designed for us to get healthy. Health produces fruit, and not the other way around.
Learning grace for the journey means learning how to measure our progress in rhythm, at the right places and the right times. Too often we measure sporadically, or use someone else’s measuring tape. Our measuring tape should be the vision and values of the ministry we serve, not the vision and values of the church whose conference we love to attend. If we measure our progress according to the vision God has called us to, then we have an accurate picture of our progress. Hillsong is called to write original worship songs that the church worldwide can worship with. If your church’s primary vision is to feed and clothe the needy in East Jahunga, then the fact that you aren’t producing original worship songs sung around the world isn’t a fail.
Too often we measure by comparing what we have built to what people we respect have built. Paul talked about our journey as a race, and it’s easy to get focused on winning by being more successful than other leaders. The kind of race we are in is more similar to a marathon. Long distance runners aren’t nearly as concerned about what place they finished the race in as whether or not they beat their PR. Their goal is to beat their personal record, to run their personal best. We are more like distance runners than sprinters. Measure against your own progress, no one else’s.
Women in particular can be guilty of measuring themselves by someone else’s measuring tape. We measure by comparing our lives to our best girl friends’ lives. We literally compare our body measurements. We tend to take our kids’ failures and successes and measure ourselves by them. Girls, your kids’ mistakes do not disqualify you any more than their successes validate you. Your kids measuring tape is not for you!
GOING IT ALONE: ALWAYS A SERIOUS MISTAKE
It’s human nature to want to withdraw from relationship with people we respect when things aren’t going so well. We don’t want them to see us vulnerable, or maybe we don’t trust them to handle us with love and acceptance. I have friends who have pulled away from good relationships in hard times. They stopped attending the conferences they used to attend, don’t reach out like they used to, and they felt hurt that no one was reaching back. It would seem foolish for me to feel hurt for something I changed, but it’s a trap many of us fall into. I have to take responsibility for my own relationships; I can’t blame someone else for my choices. If I disengage from relationship, then I will go through hard times alone.
One of the many things I love about my husband are his skills at building and maintaining friendships. He is able to genuinely and wholeheartedly celebrate the successes of his friends. Just as quickly, he gives love and support when things are going badly. Not everyone is able to do that authentically. I have been in leadership environments where people struggled to celebrate their friends’ successes. Being part of a leadership community requires that we don’t give ourselves permission to think that someone else’s progress diminishes ours or that their success makes ours smaller. If we want true friendship, we have to learn to authentically value and celebrate the progress of those we are in relationship with. The nature of true relationship and true community is that we cheer each other on, not one-upmanship.
At various moments over the years, I’ve caught myself watching someone else’s success, examining it for weaknesses. I’m not sure why, but maybe their weaknesses made their success seem more achievable. If I am cheering someone on with my mouth, but in my head looking for something to criticize, then I have made myself smaller. The same applies to you. We probably all have had to face this battle at one time or another, feeling inadequate in the face of someone else’s triumph. We have to catch ourselves at it, give ourselves some grace for the journey, and then decide to value the success wholeheartedly. After all, we win when then church globally wins. Our friends are not the competition we need to try to outdo.
PINEAPPLES AND BELL PEPPERS ARE BOTH FRUIT
Pineapples and bell peppers may be culinary opposites, but they are both fruit. Fruit comes in thousands of different shapes, sizes, color, and textures. Some are sweet, some are not. Traveling from temperate America to the tropics will give you a rapid revelation of how limited our awareness is about fruit. We tend to categorize things neatly: apple, banana, orange, grape. There are things out there that simply defy categorization.
The same is true about kingdom fruit. It looks wildly different on different ministries. We get fruitful where we put resources, leadership, and energy. What we work toward is what we produce. We have different passions, different styles, and different levels of resource that all produce churches that look and feel very different. The growth in every church environment is fruit. Fruit is found in people–numbers growth, leadership development growth, and character growth. Fruit looks different on every ministry. We are all filling different kinds of roles and answering the different kinds of needs that Jesus calls us to.
Every kind of fruit is valuable and important. Our tendency is to focus on others’ strengths but our own weaknesses, undervaluing our own fruitfulness. We have to learn how to value the fruit we can produce! We are uniquely capable of reaching specific kinds of people. The church needs what you were specifically designed to bring! Just because it doesn’t look, smell, or taste like someone else’s success doesn’t make it any less a fruit. The fact that we have the potential of producing more fruit or healthier than we are now doesn’t make the fruit we do produce any less valuable. Celebrate each step of the journey of fruitfulness.
If you have been caught in the torture of mental self-mutilation, comparing your year-in-review to someone else’s, pause here. A change of focus is required, moving from the failures to the wins. Take a deep breath in, and thank God for this year’s journey. What he has taught us has taken us a step forward toward strength, health, and purpose. No one else’s progress diminishes that strength. Eyes up, shoulders back, smile in the face of the next challenge ahead, and into 2014 we go! And good luck in East Jahunga!
Women have actually always been leading. Females may be relatively new to professional leadership environments, but leadership is nothing new to us. We’ve had to develop some serious leadership chops for parenting. Moms everywhere have had to learn how to lead.
We have used a variety of leadership skills, both great techniques and some maybe-not-so-great ones. Our mothering leadership toolbox has historically included some useful tools: bribery, (I’ll give you a cookie when we get home if you stop it now), manipulation, (it makes mommy so sad when you do that), nagging, (how many times do I have to tell you…), and the all-powerful, “because I said so!” Unfortunately, these tactics that may work reasonably well at home are resented in adult leadership environments.
Because of these mothering habits, many women find it difficult to figure out how to get what they need out of people without resorting to this style of leadership. Unfortunately, men resent it, and women hate it. Almost everyone already has a mother. Few need or want another naggy one. One of the biggest challenges facing women leaders is learning how to lead as a woman without mothering.
Effective female leaders inspire rather than demand. When we lead from vision, inviting people to build something great with us rather than railroading people, the teams we build are much healthier and happier. This type of leadership takes more time, because it requires us to show people the big picture while we ask them for specific tasks. Women wear many different hats and carry a variety of roles. In our busy lifestyles, with so many demands, we tend to breeze over the big picture because of time constraints.
Leading through inspiration means I am helping my teammates see how the unique task I am asking for connects to the greater cause, the reason why. People are inspired when they understand how partnering with a greater cause gives our lives greater purpose and significance. It may be a repetitious or boring task, but it is vitally important, and we explain why. Inspired people will work harder and more creatively than loyal people. We don’t have to bribe, manipulate, nag, or demand in order to get the job done!
I’m definitely not suggesting that we need to abandon our girlyness to become better leaders. Some women try to mask their femininity to fit into the masculine leadership culture. We will wear suits, pull back our hair and pretend we have no emotions to fit in. Women will intentionally behave more gruffly to be “one of the guys.” This may feel like an easier way to connect, but it is not necessary getting better results.
The fact that we are different gives us an edge. We are unique! It is what makes us stand out in the crowd. Not only that, our femininity is disarming to men and we can use it to break down walls. Our emotion makes us more intuitively empathic leaders. If we will manage it well, it’s an asset, not a liability. They key is for us to manage our emotion instead of our emotion managing us.
There is a very wide range between Gloria Steinem-style leadership and Princess Catherine-style leadership, but somewhere in the middle is probably the healthy place to fall. God made us feminine, and we can be well-respected and inspirational without surrendering our strength or our sense of style. We are all different, and leadership will look different on our various personalities and styles. The best expression of leadership is going to come out of the most authentic, best version of ourselves.
Everyone buys into a leader at a different rate. Not everyone is universally behind you, just because you got a job or a role. This doesn’t mean that those people are against you and should be viewed squinty-eyed with suspicion. Followership is not black and white, it’s a gradient that is different for every individual and can change in different life seasons.
If you are mothering instead of leading, you may be leaning on the negative tools of the trade to get folks in line who aren’t 100% all-in yet. Usually, this gets greeted with push-back and resentment. Give it some time. We have work to do to get people to follow us at greater levels. It takes a long time–months to years, even!–to earn the leadership respect of high-capacity people, but it’s well worth the effort.
Everyone is on a journey and is at a different point in engaging our leadership. Making “because I said so” demands on men who are early on their followership journey with us will send them backwards. Using other tools, like listening, smiling, engaging, sharing the wins, and gratitude, will coax them forward. Above all, inspire rather than demand. This moves people towards us instead of away from us.
The love and loyalty that moms have for their kids is always appropriate in leadership. Great leaders see potential in their team members and believe in them when they don’t believe in themselves, just like great moms do. To all the awesome moms of this world–we need you and value you. (Shout out to my mom!)
My dad called me today about a sticky situation. One of the young women who leads in our church is having marriage trouble, and not the infidelity kind or the abuse kind, but more of a respect issue. She’s been growing in her leadership and her personal identity through the last ten years, went to college and got a degree, and has morphed from a timid, shy girl to the strong, confident woman she is now. Her husband doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Now that she knows herself, she knows what she wants from her marriage, and he evidently is not delivering that. Poor guy, he’s gone through a hard couple of years and felt the effects of our shrinking economy, etc, and furthermore, he sits on the sidelines at church, involved in nothing and is apparently perfectly satisfied to simply attend.
Churches are dominated by women, many of whom have spouses who don’t attend church or are not saved. This same trend is moving into leadership levels as well. I have three girlfriends I’ve thinking about after that conversation today. They are in ministry roles in different churches. They are super passionate about serving Jesus and building his kingdom, and both have great leadership strength, but their husbands, though they love Jesus, do not share the same passion for building His church because of various life experiences. It seems like they are always struggling with their husbands apathy. Whenever there is a project or a decision to be made that requires a little bit more of them, their husbands don’t cheer them on. I have sat over coffee with these girls and watched tears roll down their cheeks as they communicated the pain they felt over their very loved husband being so distant from serving in God’s house as they should be. Their husbands all have different reasons for it, and some quite understandable, but in the end its all the same.
I’ve seen women through the years whose response that unequal passion was different. Some women will shelf that call and drive inside them thinking that submission is a holy and godly route, and that they need to defer to their spouses wishes as to how they spend their time and energies, which just drives me nuts. Here’s my issue with that thinking–God clearly wants to be first priority in his life. He asks us to show our worship by offering our lives as “living sacrifices”. That means time, money, heart, passion–the works! How could God, who asks for nothing less than our all, say okay, I get it. The man in your life wants you to slow down and take his priorities on over mine, so that’s cool. He’s more important. NO WAY! I just don’t believe that God’s definition of submission includes putting your husband before God. The original language speaks of submission as a loving deference. Its the same unselfishness that is required for any mature adult relationship to survive long-term. Submission does not mean losing one’s identity in the desires and priorities of someone else. These women die a little on the inside every day I think, and have deep resentments toward their husbands-all in the name of their attempts to be obedient to a very misunderstood Bible verse.
Some women respond by creating separate lives from their husbands. It seems like some of them successfully navigate this and it works okay, but for others, the gulf deepens between husband and wife and there is a break in relationship. This seems like an enormous sacrifice that God is not asking for. God is FOR successful marriages! I have another friend who lives this balancing act between ministry life and married life, doing her best to side-step crises by compromising when her marriage seems in imminent danger. She lives essentially at the mercy of her husbands threats, and when he threatens, she has to drop everything to rescue the situation. This scenario just breaks my heart. How do you choose every day between two things you love? How unfair for her husband to force the choice! In my mind, it’s like being forced to choose which of your two children you love the most. It’s simply not possible!
The best possible scenario is one like mine where both partners are equally invested and there is shared passion and interest. Unfortunately, the statistics don’t favor this arrangement.
Here’s the thing that I can’t get my head around. In today’s circles, a man’s leadership in the church is not hampered by the wife’s level of leadership or involvement. Why does it seem like my dear friends are limited in their opportunities because of their husband disengaged attitude? Is it a road block in their own mind or is it an unspoken expectation that women let their husbands lead, and wherever they are leading is the right direction?
So back to my original conversation with Dad–what to advise? Should she back off of her church commitments and be whoever he wants her to be, or should he change? And after her ten years of development, would it be possible for him to catch up? In my experience, the most fundamental need of a man is to feel respected. Is it possible for her to respect a man who is not as bought into church life and the kingdom of God as she is? I am concerned. I feel a mysterious pressure from I don’t know where to advise her to back off and make her marriage the priority because God is for marriage. But on the other end, I feel a conviction that backing off from building God’s kingdom is always the wrong choice!
I believe the right answer, in spite of the pressure I feel, is for her to show leadership and step up to the plate in her household as an equal partner. The best picture of life as God intended is Adam and Eve in the garden. Eve was made from his rib, from his side, created to stand next to him as an equal. When mankind fell, this arrangement fell apart. Jesus died to redeem us from the fall and to put womankind back where they belong…at the side of men. Men need women to be complete. It’s interesting that in the news this week they have been discussing how men have run our financial industry since its inception and have made such a mess of Wall Street that now, companies are realizing that women are the missing element and are hiring women to lead in that environment! This precious lady has a God-designed purpose to live out. How horrible would it be for her to live her whole life trying to please her husband but never to have pleased God by finishing her assignment.
Women need to learn to lead sideways. This means inspiring their husbands to serve God, not nag them. Women need to stand with grace and strength as examples to their husbands of how to love God, not wilt and cringe. Women need to live with joy and peace in their homes and not attempt to manipulate their husbands into doing the right thing. When we are at peace with ourselves and know who we are in Christ, we are irresistible to men! Power struggles are not necessary when you know who you are. Leading sideways means clearly communicating our desires, our thoughts and feelings, and our expectations without making assumptions about what he should already know. Leading sideways means being willing to have the risky conversations without getting defensive or escalating. This also means leading with strength in church without feeling guilty or feeling insecure because he isn’t there with us.
I believe that we can never underestimate the importance of two things. One, prayer absolutely changes things. And two, ladies, if you have that leadership itch in you, be VERY careful about who you marry. Warm fuzzies and attraction aren’t going to make the journey.