On Pain and Healing

Rich&Anna
Rich and I circa 2001

WHEN RICH DIED

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.

BABY STEPS

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)

John&Anna2010
John and I a few years back

The Purple Velvet Hammer

TheVelvetHammer

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.

But let those who love Him be like the sun

When it comes out in full strength.

 Judges 5:31 NKJV

 

Girls, we can be both strong and sweet!

Why Getting Paid by Your Church Doesn’t Make Serving Easier

When I was a little girl, I watched the woman who played the piano on stage and the ladies who led worship and knew that’s what I wanted to do.  Before I even knew that you needed money to live, I wanted the church to be my profession.  I started serving in church as a little girl in the children’s choir, and I never looked back.  For all of us who love the church and have been serving and leading for years, joining a church staff seems like a natural next step.  What could be better than spending all our professional time building what we love and serving Jesus with our lives?

It’s hard to consider getting paid cash money to do something awesome as a bad thing, but sometimes, the money doesn’t make your serving easier, but harder.  I have been privileged to chat with many people who have taken ministry jobs for the first time, and without fail, after the honeymoon is over, there is a transitional season that isn’t easy.  In fact, sometimes it’s so rough that people don’t make it.  I know more than one person who has come on and off their church’s staff multiple times because the transition was so difficult that they didn’t make it the first time around!

There are unique challenges for churches both from hiring from the inside and hiring from the outside.  When I first started in full-time ministry fifteen years ago, it required a move half-way across the country.  My husband was a college buddy of the pastor’s son, so we were an outside hire, not an inside hire.  Most churches would prefer to be able to hire one of their own if they can.  People we have gone the journey with and built trust and culture with slip so naturally into staff roles.  There is an easy dynamic of trust that happens when a church hires one of its own.  There are, however, inevitably some important mental transitions that we have to navigate if we accept a staff position at our own church.

These are some of these challenging thoughts that new staff, hired from within their church, will likely have to grapple with.  I have come across these struggles in leaders who answered the call to ministry both at home and in the churches that we work with. They are challenging and might give you pause if being hired by your church has been your goal.

1. A loss of freedom and control: the transition from, “I control the level of my serve;” to “My participation is mandated.”

2. A potential loss of morale: the transition from, “I get to; I want to;” to “I have to.”

3. A change in relationship: the transition from, “You’re my pastor;” to “You’re my boss.”

4. A loss in finances: the transition from, “If I could just get paid to do ministry, life would be just amazing;” to “What?! This is how much I’m getting paid to do this much work?”

5. An increase in responsibility: the transition from, “I’m a supporter;” to “I’m responsible.”

6. A loss of confidence: the transition from, “I’m the best volunteer we have; I rock this;” to “I’m super green, unsure of myself, and intimidated by successful leaders who are now my peers.”

7. An increase in pressure: the transition from, “I get celebrated as a volunteer;” to “I have to celebrate volunteers that I need, but I don’t feel celebrated.  In fact, I feel pressure now from my leader like I’m not good enough.”

8. An increase in frustration: the transition from, “Everything this church does is fantastic;” to “Can I get a little help around here??”

9. A decrease in sanctuary: the transition from, “This is my happy place;” to “This is a demanding place.”

10. A shift in motivation: the transition from, “I serve Jesus because he died for me;” to “Jesus is my career.”

(This one is subtle, but WAY important in how we view church.  When your sense of professional accomplishment depends on the church, it’s easy to let our motives slip from where it all began if we are not vigilantly guarding our heart.)

11. A loss of personal value: the transition from, “I feel valued and respected in my career by my pastor;” to “I feel owned and less valued because I work for you.”

All of the people I have talked to who joined their church’s staff have felt at least one of these things in the transitional season.  That season can last differing amounts of time for different people.  None of these feelings or thoughts of themselves are shameful, and none of them are disqualifiers if you have felt them.  They do, however, require that we process through them with Jesus and with our pastors.  If we let these thoughts and feelings fester, they will cause us to do and say things that will disqualify us.  Ministry is not easy.  Many, many pastors don’t survive it.  If we will work through these challenges and pop out the other side, things do get much better!  There is nothing more fulfilling than doing full-time ministry if we are called to it!

We just have to be very sure that God has called us, and to be very real with ourselves about the demands of the lifestyle.  Regular heart checks and motive checks are vital.  If our ministry motive is to build our personal profile or make our mark in history, we will wind up as ministry road kill.  These motives will cause us to fall, and our hearts to be trampled, if we don’t keep love for Jesus and his heart for his people at the center of what we do.

Many of the most effective leaders I know are also volunteers.  It doesn’t take a church check with your name on it to make your contribution valuable, and it doesn’t take a staff title to validate your ministry.  The apostle Paul worked many times without pay and maintained his business as a tentmaker, and he never viewed pay as any measure of his ministerial success.

“7 For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. We certainly had the right to ask you to feed us, but we wanted to give you an example to follow.” 1 Thessalonians 3:7-9 NLT

For all of you who are volunteering the equivalent of a part-time job or even a full-time job, bravo!  You inspire and encourage so many, even if you don’t hear it often.  There are significant rewards for the level of service you give.  I am one hundred percent convinced that when we make God’s kingdom a priority, he will make certain that our needs are more than met.  I volunteered thirty hours a week all through my teenage years.  God made sure that I got scholarships I didn’t deserve to more than pay for my college education.  I am so grateful!

I’m sure you are living in a blessed place because of your serve.  Those blessings may or may not be overt, but you can see them if you look for them.

“31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” Matthew 6:31,33 NKJV

When we make a priority of building God’s house, he will build our house!

When Things are Bananas, Focus on the Fruit

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!

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!

Balancing the Scales: Ministry and Family

Figuring out how to be both a good mom and a good leader has been a challenging journey for me. I made a calculated change to my lifestyle last spring when I resigned from my staff role at church after twelve-plus years. My husband John and I now travel full-time together with our youngest and the only one left at home, Brooke, who is fourteen. We put her into an online homeschool program so that she could travel with us. She’s at an age when I really have to be tuned in. Lucky for me, she is a total joy. I love the intimacy of our life on the road together as a family.

Brooke told us recently that she is enjoying the fact that she sees me more than once a week now. It took me aback for a minute, because she has never complained about my schedule. The reality was that we did have seasons when our schedules were so divergent that I didn’t see her for days at a time. I think I was subconsciously sort of hoping that she didn’t notice. No such luck. On the other end of the spectrum, when taking time away from ministry for family, I felt the weight of my responsibilities, especially when it meant missing a major event.

One of the most frequently asked questions I get asked by girls in church leadership is, “How do I balance ministry and my family?” I can’t give anyone an easy answer, because the balance is different for everyone, and it varies from season to season. Sometimes the demands of our families or our ministries make us lean a little in one direction. Unfortunately, neither side is going to take the other as a good excuse for my lack of attention if I live out of balance continuously. It’s always going to be a little bit messy, and we just have to be okay with that. Every now and then we may reach that perfect state of Zen where we feel like both are in balance and happy. Enjoy it while it lasts. What works one year may not work the next. It’s a continual adjustment. If we are aware and tuned in to both sides, however, we can teeter-totter on the scale between the two demands as needed.

Where family is concerned, the absolute must-dos have to be customized to the kid. Gary Chapman wrote an important book called, The Five Love Languages. If you aren’t familiar with it, check it out. Gary developed a little online quiz that kids can take so parents can figure out what their child’s love language is. If kids aren’t receiving love in their preferred “language,” they are going to feel disconnected. Moms have to know what is important to their kid and deliver on that.

Kids who are involved in our ministry are going to feel far more connected to us. Can they do something to help out? It might be a really simple job like making copies or sorting things, but it will help them feel like they matter. Ministry has some significant benefits. Our kids get access to things that other kids don’t. Don’t be shy about giving them opportunities, access to green rooms, or access to relationships with great people. When our kids are connected to the fun parts of ministry, they are far less inclined to be resentful about our involvement.

Perhaps most importantly, don’t vent about ministry in front of the kids. If we bleed all over our kids, they are going to hate whatever got us hurt. Several years ago, I was rushing some food prep on Christmas Eve. I was under the gun because I had to get to church to play for Christmas Eve services. In my hurry to chop some onions, I sliced my hand open. It bled for over an hour before I grabbed Brooke and went to the emergency room for a quick stitch to make sure I wasn’t going to bleed all over my keyboard. It wasn’t serious and I was more annoyed by the inconvenience than anything. I didn’t realize until later how much of an impact that had on Brooke. She has brought the story up several times over the years and still gets nervous when I handle knives. Seeing me hurt traumatized her. The same is going to be true for ministry. We take bumps and bruises along the way, and if we are healthy leaders, we learn something, heal, and keep moving. We forget all about whatever the issue was once we have moved on. It’s much harder for our kids to move on if we have exposed them to our pain in the moment. For our kids to love the church, they don’t need to see every injury we take on our leadership journey.

If your spouse isn’t involved in church leadership, the same thing applies–don’t vent to him. If the only perspective our family has about ministry is what frustrates or hurts us, they are going to see it as a bad thing. I’ve been very guarded about the conversations I have around our kids, particularly where it concerns our pastors. I don’t want them to ever see pastors as anything but awesome. Pastors are major pipelines, bringing Jesus to our families. If kids feel guarded toward their pastors, they are far less likely to receive from them.

There are two sides to this scale. If we say that family is always priority and drop our ministry responsibilities at the first sight of the school calendar, we will do damage to our leadership. Both sides need consistent attention and energy to flourish. The call of God on our lives is not so narrow to make us choose either/or, but it’s both. We can be good moms and wives and be good leaders at the same time.

There are also a few must-dos on the leadership side of the scale. Consistency is critical for earning people’s respect. If we bite off more than we can successfully execute, we move backward, not forward in our leadership. Before committing, we need to think through our schedules and be realistic about family and job obligations. Commit to what can actually be accomplished well. People trust leaders that they can count on. When we engage our leadership environments or our teams, we have to come prepared. This means be on time and do the homework before arriving. If we come in disorganized, late, or without knowing our stuff, we lose leadership credibility. It’s very hard to respect someone who leads unprepared.

Girls, if we jump in and out of visible leadership roles and fail to consistently presence ourselves in leadership environments like staff meetings or leadership meetings, people will mentally sideline us to the non-essential areas of responsibility. If I don’t create a perception that I am mentally present and involved, people will assume that I don’t want to be. It’s my responsibility to create people’s perception of me. Whatever we commit to do, we have to do it consistently in order to earn respect.

If you have totally disengaged for a season because of an infant or some other reason, the way you reengage matters a great deal. I’ve seen girls who came back from an extended season out and struggled to reestablish their leadership, even when the position was waiting for them. Some came back in with an iron fist, trying to stamp their authority all over their teams. This was met with resentment and resistance. It’s much easier for everyone if we ease our way back in, with low pressure and high affirmation. Team dynamics change continually. It takes a little time to watch and learn what works differently now. Reengaging effectively requires that we relearn our awareness of the team’s morale and level of buy-in. We only learn this by listening and watching. In the early stages of reengaging, we have to ask more questions than we answer.

We don’t have to keep the lines clean between the two sides of the scale. In fact, mixing family with ministry is the best solution. The most effective female leaders I know meet with people around their kids’ schedules. They will do a ministry-based meeting on the sidelines at their kids’ games, at their house while their kids are doing homework, or at the dance studio while their kids are getting a lesson. Others set up rooms at church for their kids to work or play in next to their offices and bring them along. The Bible says a three-strand cord is not easily broken. Ministry life can lend strength to family life, and family life definitely lends strength to ministry. When ministry is our life, not an extra thing we do, it extends into every part of the way we live. Doing ministry with other families then means that we are doing life together, and the lines between family and church get very blurry. I have found this to be the best way for us.

I know that some of you who are reading this are seasoned leaders. Please post any thoughts you might add to the conversation or suggestions for ways you have found to balance the two sides of the scale or to bring them together.

The Final Frontier For Feminine Leadership

Today’s post is foundational. For anyone who has gone to Bible College or researched the topic of feminine leadership, this isn’t anything revolutionary. I am going to simply add my voice to the conversation in value and celebration of women who have stepped up to lead in the church. For anyone who hasn’t put a great deal of thought into the subject, this may be useful for building some of your confidence. I believe you girls are God-designed and incredibly valuable. The church needs you to be free to be you.

There was a time when women had heavy demands at home. My great-grandmother was a subsistence farmer’s wife in Kentucky. She had to wash clothes by hand, kill whatever animals her family was going to eat, tend a vegetable garden, can for the winter, sew clothes, and make anything they wanted to eat—scratch cooking: no frozen or pre-prepared shortcuts. This made any outside commitments somewhere between difficult and impossible. Practical inventions like the refrigerator, frozen prepared foods, decent grocery stores, dishwashers, and clothes washers have freed up an incredible amount of time around the house—hallelujah! For the first time in the history of mankind, girls are not consumed with the necessities of simple survival.

With all this new free time, the last few generations of women started looking for other ways to contribute to their communities. Women have become the backbone of the church, working hard behind the scenes. As female commitment levels and skill levels have risen, this service hasn’t always translated into visible leadership roles.

I love the church; make no mistake. I am not ranting and I’m not angry. I’m simply recognizing that in the same way we are on a spiritual journey individually; we are on a journey corporately. Jesus is continuing to refine us, and every generation is making progress! The way we express love and devotion to God corporately is very personally important to every individual. We get very comfortable with our preferences, so change can be slow.

Another example of this slow change is that American churches are still very racially segregated. According to research by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, only 8% of American churches have fewer than 80% of their dominant race. The demographic of our churches are frequently not representing the diverse communities we are part of.

Over the course of my relatively short lifetime, however, I have seen shifts in the contemporary church. An increasing number of churches value and celebrate feminine leadership more than they used to. Women carry important leadership roles in many churches. About ten percent of all the senior pastors of Protestant churches in America are women, some denominations with higher percentages and some with lower.

I have heard people say that God only raises up a woman when there is no man to do the job. Really, that statement is silly and insulting to women and to Jesus. It limits our all-powerful God down to a scenario where He can’t get his first preference–a man—but will settle for the chick. God put leadership gifts inside every effective female leader when they were born, specifically designing them to lead. Those leadership gifts are not just to lead in a secular environment, they are there for kingdom purposes.

The hesitancy in the church to cheer on our girls comes from a few key passages in the New Testament. In I Timothy 2:11-12, Paul told Timothy how women should act in church. Paul said that he did not permit women to teach or have authority over a man. The interpretation of this pair of verses laid a foundation for feminine roles in the church that has continued for thousands of years.

When we read the Bible, we are not actually reading the original words written by Paul. We read through several layers of interpretation. The first layer of interpretation is the translation from ancient Greek (a dead language) into English. There are small discrepancies between different translations based on what the Bible translators disagreed about. Some translations are very literal, and others try to convey the original thought in a modern context. The next layer we interpret through is our own personal brand of English. Words have different meanings and nuances to different people, and English is hardly an exact science. It’s continually changing. The last filter we read through is our cultural context. We read passages through the eyes of our experiences in the world today.

Some things have the same name but were very different two thousand years ago. If we don’t understand the context, some of the meaning is lost. This means that we have to be open to the very real possibility that we may not always get it right. This particular passage of Timothy is a very good example of where we need to dig a little deeper. To understand it fully, it’s useful to get some cultural backstory about women and religion.

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, and many of its early traditions about worship were borrowed from Jewish worship. In Paul and Timothy’s day, church services were modeled after Jewish synagogue meetings. Women sat on the second floor balcony behind a screen, and the men were down on the main floor, leading the proceedings. In Jewish-style services, there was not one teacher who lectured while everyone else listened as is common today. A man would get up and read a scripture, then the gentlemen in the room would all comment and debate about the application or interpretation of that scripture. The word translated “teach” in I Timothy 2:11 literally meant “to converse” because this was the way teaching happened—interactively.

In Timothy’s church, the women were so interested in what was happening that they were jumping in on the discussion from their second floor window. Paul said that was a no-no, and there is an important reason why he said no. According to Jewish scholars, men and women were separated because it’s easier to focus on God when you aren’t distracted by the pretty ladies. By keeping the men and women separate, the Jews distanced themselves from the sexuality of Roman religious ceremonies.

When Romans would go to the temple of the goddess Aphrodite to worship, it certainly was nothing like the church services we attend today. Pilgrims would worship by having sex with a priestess in the temple. These women were “temple prostitutes” who had dedicated their lives to the service of the goddess. Temple festivals were giant orgies. Once the deed was done, the worship was finished.

This craziness was the cultural climate when Paul was writing to Timothy. Women’s roles in pagan religions were scandalous to say the least. Wives and mothers worked hard to distance themselves from the temple priestesses. They could not even hang out in public without bringing shame on their families. This is why Paul made such a strong stance for Christian women at the time. For women to just engage the conversation at church would have taken the fledgling church over the edge into disrepute. The more a woman appeared to lead, the more she was perceived like the temple priestesses.

The way people worship is deeply ritualistic and habitual. The churches in Thyatyra and Pergamum struggled to keep pagan influences out. These churches had been established in non-Jewish cities, and they had very strong roots in popular religions of the era. The Christian church had allowed some of the pagan worship expressions to creep into their services when John wrote his prophetic correction to them in the book of Revelations. This was exactly what Paul was guarding against in his warning to Timothy.

Today, chances are we deal with some fewer occasions of women in ministry gaining the reputation of prostitutes than in Paul’s day.

If you peek around the cultural context of the day, what Paul taught about women was a very different thing. Galatians 3:28 “For there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus put things back in order the way they were meant to be in the garden of Eden. Male and female were created as two halves of the same whole, interdependent.

Today, we don’t have to worry about looking like temple prostitutes when we lead. (In case you were worried.) If our cultural context permits women to serve in leadership roles, then by all means, let’s step into our God-designed place! God would not give us the talents, abilities, and grace to fill leadership roles if he had not intended us to fit there. In different communities, this is accepted differently. We cannot force our way into opportunities. Leadership is only leadership when people are willingly following. We earn followership and respect by rocking the responsibilities in our hand now.

Paul’s instruction toward women in leadership in Timothy is actually a great leadership principle when you drill down a little farther and don’t just get stuck there or ignore the verse. The word translated “authority” in I Timothy 2:11 has a larger definition than just that one word. This kind of authority is egocentric, domineering, and harsh. That word originally meant, “one who kills others or himself with his own hand.” Paul encouraged women not to try and fight for their right to lead with a harsh, domineering fist.

This is not about the rights of women all over the world. This is not about our opportunity to make a name for ourselves or to get ahead. Ministry is fundamentally the willingness to serve. If we have a grace to lead, it should be strong, invitational and inspirational rather than harsh and demanding. Simply put, if over half of the church female, and many have leadership gifts, there are significant numbers of God-designed leaders holding back. If we are not faithful with God has put in our hands and in our hearts, then the kingdom of God suffers.

The church needs girls who are passionate about Jesus and passionate about building his church to rise up and lead. I, for one, am cheering you on!

When Mommying Isn’t the Best Way

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!)

When He Isn’t As Into Church As She Is

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.