Friends

Thoughtful woman sitting on the couch in a living room and looking sadFRIENDSHIP VS. FANSHIP

“I just don’t fit in anywhere.  I feel alone most of the time, except with my husband.  I really don’t have any friends; I don’t have time to hang out with people as friends.  We don’t really talk to any other pastors.”

I have met quite a few pastors and leaders who shared with me how alone they feel most of the time.  Honestly, this shocks me a little, because so many people are pastors and leaders in churches.  It shouldn’t be this hard; the potential friend pool is pretty big.  The body of Christ might be spread across the globe, but God designed us to be connected to each other.  Too many are feeling a little friendless!

Friendship is definitely different from popularity.  If we are honest with ourselves, most of us are interested in measuring our own popularity.  It’s a habit we started as children, evaluating how many birthday parties we got invited to or who wanted us to sit at their lunch table.  This measurement of popularity didn’t really end after Jr. High; it just morphed.  Social media provides an easy measuring system today.  I keep reasonably close tabs on all my numbers.  Hopefully it’s not just me.  There will always be people more popular than me or you.  If popularity becomes a measure of our own value, or our ministry’s value, we have navigated ourselves into truly murky waters.

For some reason, we church leaders tend to overanalyze our own popularity.  On one hand, it’s good.  Lots of people following us should mean lots of people are following Jesus.  (hopefully)  On the other hand, it’s easy to slip into Jr. High mode and feel the same way about the number of social media followers we have as we did about the number of parties we got invited to in Jr. High.  Our absorption with our own popularity is not so healthy.

I believe that a big reason that so many North American pastors feel lonely is that there has been too much emphasis on popularity and too little emphasis on friendship.

When a super cool leader is doing awesome things in their church, we want to be like them and get in their world.  It’s a similar concept to American celebrity culture.  We get consumed with the lives of popular pastors and leaders just like celebrities—how they live, what they wear, what they do for fun, how they cut their hair, what they do to grow their church. There is nothing wrong with this at all.  It’s great to be inspired by people who are doing awesome things.  We just need to be realistic—we aren’t friends with them.  This is fanship, not friendship.  Aligning with these amazing, wonderful leaders is not the same thing as friendship.  It may be a door into a real relationship, but Facebook friends do not equal real friends. (For the very few of you who had not yet realized this.)

Two women outdoors hugging and smilingQUALITY FRIENDS

We all need friends.  We find such life and strength in the God friendships of our lives.  I’m definitely not always good at being a friend, but I am learning.  I have learned by watching some people who are just really good at being a friend. I have certain friends, gifts from God, who love me—warts and all.  They have a God-given grace for me—for my weirdness, for my awkwardness, for my weaknesses.  These things don’t seem to offend them, but amuse them instead.  It doesn’t matter how badly I’ve neglected them; they stay loyal to me.  They have become part of my kingdom family, an extension of my natural family through an unwritten covenant.

The common denominator is that they are always far less concerned with what they are getting out of the relationship than they are with the well being of the person they care about.  Healthy friendships are not based on “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”  That is a good business partnership, not friendship.  Real friendships have that Christ-like quality in them where we give without keeping track of what we get back.

There is a Seinfeld episode where a “friend” of Jerry’s starts working out.  After bulking up, he outgrows an expensive suit and offers it to Jerry.  Jerry feels nervous to accept the extravagant gift and says so.  The man thinks for a moment and says that if Jerry would just take him out to dinner, it will be even.  As the episode progresses, the dinner turns into more than one dinner, and pretty soon, nothing Jerry does is enough to balance out the gift of this fancy suit.  Jerry gets fed up, and finally the relationship breaks down because of this gift.

We aren’t born knowing how to do friendship well.  Friendship is a learned skill that we have to cultivate.  It doesn’t just happen because we like a person.  I have to choose to be someone’s friend.  I can’t just be their friend because they treat me well, or they call me their friend, or because they make me feel good.  If I did, I would wind disappointed as soon as they let me down, and the relationship would be over.  Friendship is a gift that we give to people.  It’s pretty hard to turn down genuine friendship.  It doesn’t ask for anything, just offers love and acceptance.  It doesn’t require validation or time.

When our friendship depends on mutual benefit, we will always be looking for how to even the scales, and resentful when it looks like our friend is giving as much.  “An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends.”  Proverbs 18:1 NIV

Loyalty is one of the most under-rated qualities out there.  A loyal friend, who believes in you and loves you when you dumb things and cheers with you when you win, that friend is priceless.  Real friends see the real me and love me anyway.  They laugh at you, and you laugh at yourself because you feel affection from them, not scorn.  They don’t make you feel dumb or inferior.  Most of these people in my life are old friends, who have stood the test of time.  Those friends are just awesome.  You can pick up where you left off with them, like no time has passed, even if you haven’t seen them for a few years.

I’m fully grown up now, I think.  I don’t have as much social time as I did in my teens and twenties.  When I do, my first instinct is to spend time with well-established friendships because I love them, and it’s a guaranteed easy and fun time.  I really have to intentionally make room in my life for new friends now, where when I was younger, it came quite naturally.  I don’t want my world to shrink in.  I want it to get bigger, to have a generous heart.  I want to add to my friends, not stagnate.  For us to connect with new friends, it’s going to take some extra thought!

My goal is to make at least two new, real friends a year.  I meet all kinds of people, so that’s no problem.  I don’t just want new contacts or new acquaintances; I want to be a friend to more people.  I tell myself this:

 Choose to reach out to the people you like.

Don’t feel awkward about pursuing them.

Keep pursuing, and choose not to feel rejected by what looks like the brush-off.

It takes time for people to get to know you enough to love you, so be patient.

PRACTICE THE ART OF MAKING NEW FRIENDS

For us to make new friends requires that we take the initiative.  I can’t sit around expecting people to suddenly spark an interest in me.  I have to be a friend first before I will have a new friend.  Here’s what I have been thinking about when it comes to making new friends.

1.  Friends are interested in each other and what they are doing.

The people in my world best at relationships intentionally make time regularly to check in on people, even when they are not involved in their everyday life.  I’m not great at this, but I’m working on it.  These amazing people don’t get so consumed by themselves and their own schedules that they forget about the people they love.  They make time to think about and pray for friends.  The age of the selfie and numbering social media connections has made friendship very self-focused in general.  True friendship is externally focused, not inward.  Friends are interested and ask questions.

2. Friends don’t pull away, funky and awkward, when their friend’s star is rising.  They don’t compete.

Friends promote each other because they are excited about each other’s wins.  I’ve seen friendships that got weird when one of them experienced greater success.  The other person just couldn’t seem to get their head around the inequality of their situations.  Without realizing it, they had been racing the other person.  When their friend won, the other got sour.  Jealousy is the enemy of friendship.  Sometimes we allow resentment of our friend’s blessing to rob the joy in the relationship.  Unnecessary competition is not worth a precious friendship!

Friends challenge each other, but they don’t compete.  The Klitchko brothers are two heavyweight Ukrainian boxers who were a big deal in the last ten years.  (My husband is into boxing, so I have picked up a few things over the years.)  They are probably the best two heavyweights out there, and both hold major belts, or at least they used to.  (You fight over belts in boxing.  I might be more into it if they fought over shoes, but whatever.)  These two brothers decided years ago that they would never box each other.  If they were any random two men, it would be a natural paring for a great fight. Because these two are brothers, they don’t fight each other.  They refused to let anything divide them.

“Iron sharpens iron,” means that we can be challenged by our friends’ successes and become better.  If we disengage from relationship because we feel weird suddenly, then we miss out on the sharpening.

3. Friends lean in during the tough times.

Friends lean in during crisis.  Lean in, even when your friend is pulling away.  When I feel embarrassed or hurt, I just want to want to crawl in a hole and disappear.  It’s human nature.  Sometimes people push friends away because something is going on in their world.  Those are the times we need to apply some grace and patience and just keep reaching for them.  Lean in and love them anyway.  Real friends pray for each other, in the good times and in the bad.

My husband’s best friends have leaned in with real support during his hardest moments.  One of them told him, “Some people are going to spank you, and sometimes you do need it.  Some people will love you and be for you, no matter what.  I choose to be that friend.”  That’s the kind of friend I want to be!  “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Proverbs 17:17

4.  Friends make time for fun

Friends have fun together.  Fun creates memories, and memories connect us forever with shared history.  I’m convinced that if adults will prioritize fun in their lives, they will experience more deep and meaningful relationships.  Friends make time for each other.  Life is more than the tyranny of the urgent and important.  We need a little silly in our lives, and people to laugh with.

5.  Friends don’t let anything divide them.  They work through issues like family does.

Sometimes we make far too big a deal about accidental snubs.  It amazes me how very small issues can sour an entire friendship permanently.  We should be quick to let it go, yes, but be sure you actually can let it go and aren’t just burying it.  If you can’t let it go, have a chat about it!  It’s worth the pain of that conversation to save a friendship.  Little issues have a way of resurrecting just when you thought you let it all go.  You can be honest, without being hurtful.  Real friends speak the truth in love.  “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiples kisses.” Proverbs 27:6

6. Friends are loyal, even when they aren’t sure their loyalty is reciprocated.

Loyalty means you don’t giggle at someone else’s misfortune, or tell anyone when your friend’s life is going badly.  Loyalty means that you check in with people, even when they are sucking your energy away with their problems.  Friends don’t talk about each other in a negative way, and don’t listen to someone else spill about them.  Friends come to terms with each other’s weaknesses without judgment.

7.   Friends relax together.

You have nothing to prove.  You don’t have to be perfect to be respected, and you don’t have to have it all together to be loved.

8.  Friends are sisters of the heart.

“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs 19:24

My relationship with my sister is one of my deepest and oldest friendships.  It amazes me how when she hurts, I seem to feel it intensely.  It’s not my hurt; it’s hers, but I feel it just like I feel my own.  We have a heart connection.  When she is joyful, I feel what she feels.  I am connected to her wellbeing, invested in her happiness.  Sisters of the heart carry the weight together.  What happens to her affects me, for good or bad.  I’m invested in her life, not disconnected or impartial.

I think this is what real friendship is at it’s core: to be so connected that we are unable stand by and watch our friends hurt, or be okay with their loneliness or their need.  We feel pride in their success, and excited by their joy.  We are invested in who they are.  I believe this kind of relationship is what God designed us for.

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Mean Girls and Modesty

LAY OFF THE LADIES

Business Woman #425I still cringe a little bit inside, remembering.  I was in my mid-twenties and single again.  I’d dropped a few pounds, having lost my appetite for a while after my husband died.  I went into my office and found a note that had been slipped under the door.  As I opened it and began to understand its contents, I could feel a flush creep up my neck.  It was from one of the young ladies in the church.  She had written to express her disapproval of a pair of pants I’d worn to church recently.  I knew the ones she was talking about.  They were new, and I really liked them.  They were a touch on the small side, but it was the last pair in the store.  They were sort of the pants version of a mermaid dress—black, silky fabric, tight on the top, then flaring out just above the knees down to the floor.  This girl thought these pants were too tight, and apparently, when I sat down, the top of my panties had been visible in the back.  She informed me that as a pastor, I really should set a better example.  I was horrified and deeply embarrassed.  I had never intended to look seductive.  I just liked the pants, but apparently my motives and my qualifications to be a pastor were somehow in question because of my choice.  Needless to say, the pants bit the dust.

Over the years, I’ve chatted with a number of girls serving in church who have been rebuked so harshly over their clothes they almost quit.  I have a beautiful young friend in her early twenties.  She and her husband are youth pastors with an adorable little boy, and she is also her pastor’s daughter.  I was surprised when she told me that for a while she considered not being in ministry at all.  After some probing, I discovered that in her first year of ministry, she had endured three hours of harsh rebuking in a meeting with six of the women of her church.  She is one of the most gentle, sweet and gracious people you will ever meet.  She told me that she essentially was called a slut for wearing leggings on stage and showing the shape of her backside in a youth meeting.  She was so embarrassed and hurt by the attack on her motives and the attack on her credibility that she almost called it quits before she even got started.  I have beautiful friends in ministry who get fierce criticism for the way they look on their social media profiles.  These women get picked on relentlessly, especially if they posted any modeling photos.

No one criticizes men about what they wear.  I’ve never heard any man get seriously rebuked for immodesty, and some of the pants they wear these days are tighter than their wife’s.  Weirdly enough, in every story I’ve heard, a woman did the rebuking.  Men tend to get the blame for all this—we can’t cause our brothers to stumble—but it’s really the ladies that get most bothered by this, not men.  The truth is that men don’t tend to even notice what we are wearing.  They look at and admire a beautiful woman, regardless of what she wears.  My husband doesn’t know the difference between a skirt and a dress any more than he knows the difference between leggings and skinny pants.  It does not register in his brain what I’m wearing at all unless I call his attention to it to ask his opinion.  Then he just gets really confused, stalls, and tries to leave the room as soon as he can safely escape.  He has no idea!

Let’s call this for what it really is—a mean girls attack.  This kind of criticism is rooted in a religious spirit and in jealousy.  Religion starts wars—not helpful.  God hasn’t called anyone to be the official humbler of other people.  If you don’t feel good about yourself, making someone else feel small isn’t going to help anyone feel better.  You just wind up feeling worse because now you feel like a jerk too.  Girls, let’s just decide to be bigger than this kind of meanness.  Chill out, and be kind to our pretty girls.  They are going to be attractive in whatever they wear.  They can’t help it!  If you feel resentful of that, ask yourself why.

If you aren’t feeling confident about yourself, and feeling a little jealous of someone, pause for a moment.  No one else’s beauty or talent diminishes how fabulous you are.  Ask God to help you see yourself the way he sees you—the apple of his eye!  Look at the right mirror, the word of God, for your true value as his prize.  “The Lord of Heaven’s Armies sent me against the nations who plundered you. For he said, ‘Anyone who harms you harms my most precious possession.’”  (Zechariah 2:8 NLT) The value that Christ places on you, just as you are, makes you infinitely valuable.  You are a creation by the ultimate designer, amazing and fabulous at every season of life!  Walk in that and extend grace and love.  We become releasing and empowering chick leaders that way, not intimidated by the influence and beauty of other girls on our team.  Let’s celebrate and find personal satisfaction in the successes of the girls we lead with.  We are not competing!

MODESTY

Victorian dress
thank God this is not the standard

I’m not suggesting that we should wear whatever we please or not have expectations for how our teams dress.  Modesty absolutely matters.  What we look like shapes people’s perception of who we are, so we have to pay close attention to it if we are being good stewards of our leadership influence.  Modesty is certainly part of this equation.

Some of us carry roles where we do have to make sure that what the team is wearing is not offensive to people.  If you do have to have to address a clothing malfunction, try this approach instead of a rebuke.  Don’t make a big deal and pull them off into an office and close the door.  Just make it light, and humor always helps.  “Hey I know that you would want to know—when you bend over to pick up your water bottle on stage, the church is getting an eyeful of the girls.  I’ve got some double-sided tape.  It does wonders!  I can help tape you up a bit.”  This conversation comes from a place of support rather than an attack.  Focus on a quick solution and skip the lecture about setting an example, or the evils of a temptress.  It’s so much easier to receive when your motives and credibility aren’t being called into question.

 Everyone, however, has their own opinions about what is modest.  It’s 100% subjective.

I had a funny conversation with an American missionary friend of mine who recently married an Indian man.  She had to think about modesty in her wedding photos from both the American perspective and the Indian perspective.  In America, showing your arms is pretty much fair game just about universally, and showing your calves is also acceptable to most.  In India, modesty means cover the arms and cover the legs to the ankle, but a bare midriff is totally cool.  In western society, midriff is definitely off-limits for modesty!  The definitions of modesty are cultural, not Biblical.  In Bible times, showing your hair was immodest.

For me the bottom line is this: don’t show the line in your bottom.  (I know, groan.)  I don’t want my appearance to be a distraction to the message I am communicating.  I want people to think about Jesus when they listen to me.  A necklace or earrings that clank against my microphone, a flapping belt, running eye makeup, or exposed body parts all can be a distraction.  The Bible says that God expects us to be modest.  “And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing” (1 Timothy 2:9 NLT) God doesn’t define what that is.  He left that up to culture.

Not only are there societal expectations for modesty, but every church culture has different standards.  Our ability to dress appropriately and decently is entirely hinged on our ability to read the culture we are in.  I don’t normally wear a long skirt to church, but when I’m visiting some churches, I do.  In those church cultures, to wear pants or a long skirt would be such a distraction that people couldn’t focus on Jesus.  In those environments, I have to let go of my preferences about fashion to be received.  I’m not more Godly by wearing a long skirt in those churches; I’m simply being respectful of culture.

Beautiful shoppersYou will not please everyone so don’t get panicky; just do your best.  If you catch some criticism about an outfit, don’t take it to heart.  Make sure you guard your heart about these things and don’t internalize the criticism.  Roll with the punches and apologize, thanking them for bringing it to your attention.  You didn’t mean to offend them in the first place, so there is no point to offending them further by getting defensive, but end the conversation quickly.  You don’t owe them an explanation.  Then deliberately forget about it.  If you get this conversation frequently, chances are you aren’t reading your culture well enough.

After many awkward conversations and embarrassing moments, I’ve developed some basic modesty guidelines for myself in leadership environments.  I’m not suggesting what works for me will work for everyone, but we do all need to think it through.  Mine are something like this:  If I wear tight bottoms, I wear a loose top.  If I wear a tight top, I go loose on bottom.  If I’m wearing leggings, then I always wear a long shirt.  Keep all the important girl creases covered, especially on stage.  I always wear sleeves on stage.  I put a cami under delicate fabrics because what looks opaque in the bedroom light can suddenly be see-through under powerful stage lights.  It’s safer to wear tights or leggings with an above the knee skirt.  I keep the underwear covered as much as possible.  I support the jiggly bits because great undergarments make us look our best.

FINDING YOUR LOOK IS NOT FINDING YOUR IDENTITY

Stressed business womanAmerican culture has had some had some traditional expectations about what pastors’ wives and female church leaders should wear.  They aren’t especially cute.  They tended to either cover every possible inch of skin in the least flattering way possible, or put us in a suit so we blend in with the dudes.  If you like either of these two looks and feel like yourself wearing them, bravo!  For you, dressing for church is officially easy.  For most girls in leadership, finding our personal style is not so simple, and we usually feel quite a bit of pressure about getting it right.  I like a variety of styles, and I wear all of them because I like the clothes, not because I’m trying to look like anyone in particular.  We don’t have to stick to a fashion stereotype like urban, hipster, bohemian, or sporty because it’s our look.  Personal style comes from knowing what we like and what we don’t.

Our identity is established through far more than what we look like.  Our preferences determine our personal style, but our style is not our identity.  Who we are primarily is the inward person.  We don’t build our identity from the outside in, but from the inside out.  When we build strong, healthy, confident souls, it shows up on our outsides.  That’s why the Bible tells us that makeovers for the inside matter far more than the outside.  “Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.”  (1 Peter 3:3-4 NLT)  This kind of loveliness does not decrease with age, just ripens!  Our value does not come from our appearance, and the way we look does not change God’s love for us.  If we don’t find our identity in our appearance, then it’s easy to change it to adapt to new cultures and new seasons in life.  “I want women…in humility before God, not primping before a mirror or chasing the latest fashions but doing something beautiful for God and becoming beautiful doing it.” (I Timothy 2:10 MSG)

We all have days when we just feel dissatisfied with what’s in the mirror.  Those are the days when we have to lean on our God identity, laugh a little bit, and throw our hands up in the air.  A smile on our face is the most beauty-enhancing accessory we have!

DRESSING FOR LEADERSHIP & THE PLATFORM

Happy employeeGod sees my heart and motives and judges me according to the real, inner me.  People are different though.  They can’t see my insides, so I have to make sure that my outsides reflect what is going on inside my heart.  “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 NIV)  What we look like matters when it comes to leadership.

 We show respect to the people we serve when we put thought into what we look like.  If you don’t feel comfortable putting outfits together, get a girlfriend who is good to help style you.  Don’t be resistant, just do it so you can look your best!  Even if you aren’t an onstage person, you meet people every week, making a first impression.  People make decisions about whether you are followable literally in seconds.  We attract people who look like us because the way we look makes them feel comfortable.

If you don’t have a strong sense of personal style, start by dressing like the people you want to attract.  If your community is full of sharp professionals, then you should probably have a selection of professional and business casual clothes.  If your community has lots of fashion-conscious young adults, then pay attention to the trends.  Classic, tailored clothing is always in style if you aren’t confident wearing the trends or can’t afford to purchase new trends frequently.  As much as our deal-hunting hearts love to buy cheap cute stuff, a few good pieces look better for much longer than a bunch of cheap trendy clothes.  They look better on you too.  Accessories can change up the look if you get bored wearing the same stuff.

When I pick an outfit for the platform I want to feel good about how I look.  A good follow-up question is, will this outfit help me connect with people or cause them to disconnect?  When it comes to the platform, we need to value people’s respect over their admiration.  That’s a tough call for us girls to make, because we love to be admired.  Leadership has a different goal.  When ministry is self-centered, it needs admiration.  We are more than entertainers.  We want people to receive Jesus through what we say or do.  We have to earn people’s respect for them to be willing to receive from us.  Earning respect starts with the visual picture we create.  If adapting your personal style for leadership is a hard ask, think about what Paul said.  “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Corinthians 9:22 NIV)  Paul was willing to change his style in different environments to make it easier for people to receive his ministry.  He recognized that when people’s eternal salvation is at stake, it’s well worth the personal cost of adjusting.

Dressing to stand on a platform in church is different than dressing for an office or a night out with the girls or hubs.  Being uncomfortable in your clothes on stage is the worst.  You need to be able to move freely if you are talking or singing.  A jacket that constricts your arm movement, or a skirt that restricts your leg movement becomes a nagging distraction.  Heels help us look good, heels that are so high you can’t move without watching where you are putting your feet look awkward.  You want to be thinking about the people you are talking to, not about staying upright or how badly your feet are hurting.  Makeup helps people see the expressions on our face. There are factors on stage that you don’t have to deal with in normal life.

When you are comfortable and confident on stage, you make everyone in the room feel comfortable. That is ultimately the goal. We want people feel comfortable enough to receive us. Then we can connect them to Jesus.

Instagram, Self-torture, Measuring Tape, and Pineapples

INSTAGRAM AND MENTAL SELF-MUTILATION

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!