Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Leadership”

A fraudulent vocation

I recently attended a pastors retreat where the speaker stated, “Ours is a fraudulent vocation.”

That was eye-popping statement. If the speaker didn’t have my attention before, he certainly had me now.

He went on to explain that our fraudulent vocation is rooted in the fact that vocational ministry is always in crisis. We constantly feel the friction of lack of resources, not enough dependable leaders, and people who struggle with their commitments.

Going deeper, our vocational crisis stems from our faith being based on crises. This is true in a general sense. Christ came to save sinners. That’s crisis enough.

But a deeper level, we pastors know our personal faith is a faith of crises. We know our own sin (hopefully we are honest about that). We know our inconsistencies and hypocrisies. We know our inadequacies when it comes to leadership.

I spent substantial portions of my first pastorate fearing people would eventually figure out I was a fraud–that I really didn’t know what I was doing.

I wasn’t trying to deceive people by covering up some heinous sin. Rather I was keenly aware I didn’t know how to fix the problems and challenges presented to me in pastoral ministry.

  • I had no magical answers that would take away the pain of a couple’s deteriorating marriage.
  • I didn’t have any  proven formulas to give parents dealing with rebellious kids.
  • As much as I prayed, I never found effective strategies to reach un-churched people in our community, most of whom had zero interest in our catchy vision statement or ministry slogan.
  • While counseling and encouraging parishioners to live victorious Christian lives, I found I struggled with a lot of the same temptations and challenges as they. I experienced relapses  my thought-life, struggled with basing my sense of worth by my bank account, and had teenage children who bucked my authority and slept through church.

The reality of the fraudulent vocation still nips at my heels. My anxiety surrounding my inadequacy spikes at times.

I am learning to accept that this is the norm, both of ministry vocation and the Christian life in general. Author Jamie Blaine observes, “What people claim corporately and believe privately are two very different things. Everybody’s wrecked behind the scenes. We’re all struggling and faking it somewhere along the way, praying no one finds out how messed up we truly are.”

Furthermore, this is a tenet of New Testament faith. Jesus was clear that he didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners. Paul wasn’t shy in acknowledging that he was chief among sinners. It’s in our weakness that God’s grace and power are at their strongest.

I wonder how much I believe this.

I catch myself measuring my value, worth and meritocracy on how well I behave–how good of a job I do in getting my act together. I grade my pastoral legitimacy on how creatively hip my messages are and how seamless my organizational skills appear.

I find myself resisting my need to rely on grace. While Paul’s words, “I will boast about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me,” inspire me, as does Henri Nouwen’s phrase “wounded healer,” actually being weak and wounded chafes my ego.

Perhaps that’s the real fraud of how we do our Christian life in general, and ministry in particular.

Leading by presence

This week I presented a parenting workshop for an area church. The group was comprised primarily of parents of teens.

In my preparation I was again impressed with the impact and genius of the incarnation.

As parents, particularly parents of teens, we know we’re in over our heads. We’re desperate for answers. We want to believe there is a formula, some technique, that will solve our problems, relieve our fears, answer our questions and guarantee desired results.

We demand it.

This confirms our infatuation with knowledge. We assume effective living is a matter of getting the right information and mastering the right techniques. Knowing guarantees success.

I’m sure most parents attend workshops like mine hoping to find that missing piece of information that will seal the deal for them. Surely one more seminar will turn the key.

Seasoned parents discover parenting isn’t primarily about knowledge. While information can be quite helpful, information alone doesn’t equate to effectiveness.

Parenting is primarily about presence. Who we are as people, as parents, carries far greater impact than what we know.

We are the greatest asset we can offer our kids. (Unfortunately, if we don’t learn to manage ourselves well, we can be a great liability instead.)

The same is true in ministry.

Our impact on others is rooted in our presence.

We see this in the incarnation. God manifests himself not by sending information. Salvation, in its multi-layered richness, is not accomplished by formulas.

God accomplishes it through the incarnation–God becoming flesh and living among us.

He is present.

Parenting, ministry and any relationship is about incarnation. God is alive and present in us. We in turn are present with others.

Our primary and most significant impact on others isn’t in what we know. It doesn’t come by transferring information.

Our greatest impact is our presence–being present and accounted for.



The “both/and” of ministry

I had the privilege this week to present to a group of leaders of a campus ministry. The room was full of up-and-coming talented leaders in their 20’s and 30’s. There were a few of us in our 40’s and 50’s.

The room was full of amazing stories of people who’ve been radically changed by Jesus and who are passionate about using their talents to reach others. I was humbled.

My assignment was to speak about how we manage our “self” in ministry. I covered a variety of issues, ranging from what makes a “self” and how our sense of self impacts others. I explored the importance of learning to recognize and work with the “stuff” of our lives that often surfaces and complicates how our “self” interacts with other “selves” when doing this thing called “ministry.”

I invited these leaders to consider the areas of their lives that might hamstring their ministries. I wasn’t speaking about obvious sin.

My experience teaches me that what most often snags us are those events in life that give us negative, false messages that become our definitions of self. Family of origin patterns, trauma, disappointments and failures carry with them messages that determine what we believe to be true about us. We then live and minister out of those assumptions.

Baxter Kruger calls these beliefs the “I am nots.” They include:

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I’m not worthy.
  • I’m not adequate.
  • I’m not loved.
  • I’m not loveable.
  • I’m not safe or secure.

These beliefs penetrate and season all aspects of life. Our task is to acknowledge their presence and recognize how they influence the way we relate to others. Failing to do so creates problematic and self-defeating patterns in our ministry.

Unhealed wounds tend to wound others.

While inviting Jesus to work in these areas brings change and hope, I pointed out that some of these beliefs can stick around and challenge us throughout our lifetime. Some of the 20-somethings found this a bit disturbing.

Doesn’t Jesus deliver us from all these self-limiting issues?

Won’t their continued presence keep us from being able to minister effectively?

Paul’s experience indicates that the answer to both questions is “no.”

Like so many areas of life, it’s not an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and.”

Here’s what Paul says about doing ministry with our weaknesses:

“Even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God . . . to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)


Presence, gifts and courage

I recently participated in an interactive seminar. One activity involved participants verbalizing the gifts and strengths we observed in each other. A couple of insights surfaced for me.

First, there is a power of presence that we carry with us. My first impulse was to dismiss what my fellow attendees were saying about me. After all,  we’d only known each other for a few days. But as the group members identified strengths and gifts they observed in me, almost everyone named the same traits.

These were the same qualities others who have known me for a long time, who know me best, identify. They also happen to be the characteristics I have recognized as being my personal strengths.

The ones I identified in them, likewise resonated with familiar themes in their lives.

This affirms what I’ve heard discussed in other settings. We carry a sense of presence. Who we are radiates through us. Our very being impacts others, for good or bad.

We can’t hide it.

This has huge implications as leaders. We lead more by presence than we do our technical prowess or performance skills, as important as those are in their own right.

The second insight has to do with ownership of my gifts and strengths. On the heels of my impulse to dismiss the feedback, was my reluctance to allow others affirm me in this manner. It was uncomfortable and a bit embarrassing.

But as I stayed with the process, I realized the truth of something C. S. Lewis once stated. To dismiss the talents God has given us is not humility, it is cowardice.

Maybe my discomfort isn’t because I’m humble. Maybe it’s because I’m afraid to step up and own who I am. Afraid to take responsibility to utilize the gifts God has invested in me. Afraid to offer my presence and my gifts to a world of need.

I don’t want to be THAT man.

Combining these two truths, God’s calling is for me to courageously be present with others, owning and giving expression to the gifts He’s entrusted to me.

Self-management and leadership

In the 30-plus years I’ve been involved in ministry, I’ve heard a lot about what makes a good leader. Vision, passion, enthusiasm, speaking and organizational skills are standard fare in the discussion.

More and more, however, attention is being focused on emotional intelligence. Abundant research indicates that EI determines leadership effectiveness and success more than intellectual and technical skills.

Emotional intelligence is the capacity to regulate emotionality in stressful situations and maintain interpersonal relationships. Daniel Goleman identifies four competencies of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, empathy and social skill.

It seems self-management is particularly important for ministry leaders.

Self-management encompasses more skills than I can cover in this blog. It’s the ability to regulate and control one’s emotions effectively.

Goleman states, “Self-regulation, which is like an ongoing inner conversation, frees us from being prisoners of our feelings. People engaged in such a conversation feel bad moods and emotional impulses just as everyone else does, but they find ways to control them and even to channel them in useful ways.”

It’s importance is emphasized in the adage, “The primary task of a leader is to manage him/herself, over managing others.”

Self-management is particularly crucial in times of upset, whether in times of heightened stress and anxiety, sadness or anger. Effective leaders have the capacity to calm themselves in such occasions, a process known as self-soothing.

Self-soothing allows the leader to maintain a calm, non-anxious, non-reactive and well-defined position in the heat of the moment. This empowers them to respond rather than react, to address the situation with their best and clearest thinking.

Effectively calming oneself in challenging circumstances is a developmental task introduced early in life. It’s why we introduce pacifiers to babies. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that adults, including ministry leaders, have mastered it.

The importance of self-management becomes obvious when:

  • The church board resolutely opposes and resists the pastor’s proposed ministry plans.
  • Group members become critical of the leader. The more viscous and unfair the criticism, the more need for self-management.
  • A crisis explodes on the scene–a fire destroys the facility, a death of a prominent member, a leader has a moral fall.

As the leader focuses on managing her/himself and practices self-soothing, it lowers the collective level of anxiety. Trust, security and respect prevail. As the leader practices self-management, others will have the space to follow suit.

Jason Mraz sings about self-management in his song, Details in the Fabric:

Calm down
Deep breaths
And get yourself dressed instead
Of running around
And pulling on your threads
And breaking yourself up

If it’s a broken part, replace it
If it’s a broken arm, then brace it
If it’s a broken heart, then face it

And hold your own
Know your name
And go your own way
Hold your own
Know your name
And go your own way

Leading with temptations

In preparing for a message on the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness (Matthew 4), I came across Phil Yancey’s observation in The Jesus I Never Knew. Yancey notes that Jesus was alone during his stay in the wilderness. There were no eyewitnesses.

So how did Matthew (and Luke) gain access to the recorded conversation between Jesus and Satan?

Apparently Jesus disclosed the experience to his disciples.

This is a remarkable display of transparency on Jesus’ part. Here is the God-man, Lord of the universe, talking about  his most intimate, vulnerable struggles with his followers.

Who among us are comfortable to talk about our temptation with others even in the most general terms. When was the last time you heard anything remotely similar at a church service?

“Please pray for me. I am really being tempted with strong physical appetites, to show off my special rank in God’s kingdom, and the lust for power and control over the whole world.”

I for one can’t remember such a confession. I’m sure I’ve never heard a pastor or church leader make such disclosures.

For Jesus to admit he was tempted in these areas demonstrates extraordinary courage and unconventional leadership. He apparently was comfortable enough in his own skin and in his relationship with his Father to humbly and honestly and freely talk of his unique battles for his soul.

This opens up all kinds of possible conversations.

Specifically, what are the lessons and considerations concerning leadership?

  • What do we do as leaders and pastors with our temptations?
  • How open should we be in discussing them?
  • With whom?
  • What are the potential consequences and outcomes of such transparency?
  • What are the consequences and outcomes of never discussing our temptations?

Miscellaneous thoughts

Have a few miscellaneous thoughts floating around. Here goes:
1. I’ve been pondering the fact that the Bible was written to communities of believers. The original recipients of the Scripture heard it as a community, interpreted it as a community, and made application as a community. Yet I’m a product of a culture that elevates the individual and personal. I typically read the Bible alone, attempting to find the meaning for me, and figuring out how I’m going to apply it.  I don’t know that this is all bad, but I do question my approach. I mean, if the Bible were written for a community, what am I missing when I read and process it as an individual? I’ve wondered how I can shift to a more communal approach to the reading and understanding of Scripture.  In that musing, it dawned on me that maybe a good (and obvious) start is to read it in and with a community. We don’t do this very much. We evangelicals might be most guilty of this. For all our talk of reverence of the Bible, esteeming it as the “Word of God,” many (most?) of our churches spend very little time actually reading the Bible as part of our church services. Our liturgy seldom includes public reading and responding to Bible passages. What reference that is given is usually relegated to a verse or two sprinkled throughout the pastor’s sermon. Even then, Scripture is used to support what the pastor is saying, more so than the pastor reflecting on what the Bible is saying. The Bible is dissected into fragments and phrases, leaving it very vulnerable to forced meaning. It seems to me that to truly respect and honor the Scripture as God’s Word, we need to read whole passages and let the message come to us, allowing it to shape and form us. This seems to be preferred over the popular approach of us speaking and forcing the Bible (and only chosen portions at that) to support what we already want to say.

2. I’ve set in a couple of meetings recently where church leaders expressed their frustration over the commitment and involvement level of the congregation. Most of the frustration revolves around tying to get people to volunteer for the positions of lay ministry needed to carry on the structure of the church. Church people are as affected by consumerism as the rest of our population. Plus they stretch themselves to the limit with work demands and involving their kids in as many extracurricular activities (mostly sports) as they can. It’s the American way. The result is that folks don’t value putting energy into old paradigms of church structures. I came out of these meetings feeling depressed and discouraged. This brings to mind Jesus’ teaching about trying to put new wine into old wine skins. I came away doubting if we’ll ever be able to effectively motivate people to fill these positions. I have a hunch we church leaders and the congregations will be perpetually frustrated if we keep trying to do so. Perhaps we need to find new structures that are culturally relevant. I’m not sure what that looks like, and I wish I were smart enough to figure it out.

3. I conducted a workshop for pastors and church leaders this past week on conflict resolution. A wonderful group gathered to discuss this important topic. The shared wisdom was truly enriching. Here is a synopsis of my workshop and a few pictures to go along with. If you’re interested in me presenting it to your church, leadership team or group, let me know.


Conflict is inevitable in church life, whether in the congregation, among the leadership, or both. Many tips and techniques have been developed to help us resolve conflict effectively. However, in the heat of the conflict when emotions are elevated, tips and techniques seem to go out the window. We barely remember what they are, much less how to follow them. This seminar focuses on a more fundamental and useful arena in conflict resolution—effective self-management of emotionality. Only when we maintain a calm, non-reactive and well-defined posture during conflict, can we provide real leadership during times of conflict. The presentation includes interactive learning activities as well as lecture.

Perspective on being “good enough”

Hal Runkel, in his excellent resource on parenting Scream Free Parenting, shares the following perspective:

“The most important thing she’d learned over the years was that there was no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.”   -Jill Churchill, O Magazine, May 2003

“Every now and again we talk with people who say something along these lines, ‘I get what you’re advocating. I just don’t think I can do it all the time.’ To which I say, welcome to the club. No one can. That’s not what ScreamFree Parenting is all about. If we get caught in the trap of thinking that we have to be perfect in order to be ScreamFree, then we’re missing the whole point.

“The point is to work consciously on growing yourself up, and that’s a process, not a product. Simply put, there is no such thing as perfect parenting. By beating yourself up for not being “perfectly ScreamFree”, you are limiting yourself and what you are capable of. Remember, doing something in the right direction is always better than giving up and doing nothing. Give yourself a break and know that just reading this tip today is “something” and in some small way, both your kids and you will benefit.”

What Hal says about ScreamFree, can be said of pastoring. It’s not about doing it perfectly.

Those who pressure themselves to be perfect tend to be hard to work with, are often angry at their church for not cooperating, beat themselves (and their parishioners) up, and are prone to allow discouragement overwhelm them.

They typically don’t finish well.

Rather than perfection, a much more effective and healthy goal is, as Runkel states, “to work on growing yourself up.” We can be content with being in the process.

What Churchill says about parents can be said of pastors. There is no way to be a perfect pastor. There are a million ways to be a good one.

The relevance of irrelevance

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting a conflict resolution training to a group of leaders involved in planting a new church. It was thrilling to hear their vision and feel their passion.

It took me back to my own church planting endeavor in 1988. Idealism ran high, genuineness deep. Our fledgling group was determined to create a church that powerfully impacted our community and beyond.

A few days after doing my workshop for these church-planters, I read Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. Nouwen writes:

“In hospitals, where many utter their first cry as well as their last words, ministers are often more tolerated than required. In prisons, where the human desire for liberation and freedom is most painfully felt, a chaplain feels like a guilty bystander whose words hardly move the wardens. In the cities, where children play between buildings and old people die isolated and forgotten, the protests of priests are hardly taken seriously and their demands hang in the air like rhetorical questions. Many churches decorated with words announcing salvation and new life are often little more than parlors for those who feel quite comfortable in the old life, and who are not likely to let the minister’s words change their stone hearts into furnaces where swords can be cast into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.”

I should have read Nouwen before starting a church.

But I wouldn’t have believed him back then.

I wouldn’t have understood what he was saying, either.

Looking back over the 20 years I served as pastor of the church I helped plant, I recognize Nouwen’s genius. Many times I tasted the seemingly irrelevance of the message of the Gospel and my church’s ministry.

Paul wasn’t kidding when he said the Gospel is foolishness and ministers are tossed to the scrap heap.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Many of us who pastor (at least it was the case for me) are looking for something to give us significance. We fantasize about having the kind of numbers we read of in Acts. It’s not that we actually care that much for people, but because we believe such results validate who we are and what we do.

None of us want to be irrelevant. We want to be hip. Cutting edge.

As I ponder Nouwen, I think this might be why many of us start new churches. We perceive existing churches to be out of touch, failing to make an impact, irrelevant. For sure, many have lost the pulse of culture.

But I wonder if we aren’t motivated to start new churches as a way to distance ourselves from the embarrassment of being overlooked by society. Our sense of self is too fragile to be included in that number.

A cool, hipster church that preaches the “real Gospel” is just what the doctor orders.

I was pretty convinced we were such a church when we got started in the late 80’s. We were “doing it right.” Once pagan, unchurched folks heard about us, they’d be knocking our door down.

The bubble began bursting within the first year of our existence. I ran into one such unchurched pagan in our neighborhood convenience store. I happened to know he was struggling in his marriage  (his wife had told me she wasn’t happy with how things were going).

I smugly invited him to our next service, assuming he’d eagerly respond. He would soon realize my incredibly generous offer to fix him.

Instead, he matter-of-factly stated loud enough for everyone in the store to hear, “No. I’m not interested in your church. Why would I want to go there?”

Being irrelevant, unimportant and overlooked is the lot of pastoral ministry. But that’s okay. It’s by our Master’s design.

It’s in the foolishness, pain, suffering, rejection, irrelevance, and loneliness that Jesus shows up. Salvation and healing come incognito. Redemption and restoration manifest through our nothingness.

It’s the way of Jesus.

Readjusting Our Focus in Ministry

Here is an article of mine on marriage and ministry that was recently published in the Gateway District (Foursquare) newsletter.

Readjusting Our Focus in Ministry

Marital Stress

Marriage and ministry—the numbers aren’t exactly encouraging.

  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouse and that ministry has a negative effect on their marriage.
  • 33% say that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 50% of pastors’ marriages end in divorce.
  • 80% of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession.
  • More than half of ministers’ wives say the most destructive event that has occurred in their marriage and family was the day they entered the ministry.

These statistics, gleaned from research by The Barna Group, Focus on the Family, and Maranatha Life, speak to the challenges of the pastor’s marriage.

While lay people may be surprised by the numbers, I doubt those of us involved in ministry are. While the church is idealized as being the body of Christ, congregational life can be toxic for the pastor’s marriage.

Maintaining an effective marital relationship is difficult enough. Adding the stressors of pastoral work can make it overwhelming.

When seeking solutions to the troublesome combination of ministry and marriage, we often misplace the focus of our energies. We tend to blame our church, difficult congregants, or the nature of the ministry profession. Misdirection can sound like:

  • “If only church members would stop encroaching on our family time, our spouse would quit nagging us about our priorities, and we would quit arguing.”
  • “Ministry demands make it so we never get to “clock-off.” If we could just get a different job, then we could actually have a vacation like normal couples do.”
  • “If that council member would just stop criticizing our every decision, we would cease being a grouch at home.”

While these factors contribute to our problems, blaming them won’t help.  Blaming only guarantees we will stay stuck in the problem.

When seeking to improve the ministry-marriage interplay we need to embrace the reciprocal nature of relationships. The other party continues to treat us the way they do because we cooperate with them. We often respond to them in such a way that elicits more of the same treatment—the kind we say we don’t like.

For example, we complain that a council member is a controlling bully. Yet we continue to acquiesce to their demands in an effort to avoid their anger. Our response becomes just as much part of the problem as their behavior.

To bring about change, we must focus on our part of the problem. The only leverage of change we have is to take personal responsibility and begin acting and responding differently.

Early in our pastorate, we had a high-maintenance couple who lived crisis-to-crisis. Whenever a predicament arose they would call us, expecting us to drop everything and come to their rescue.

We worked hard to live up to their expectations. We were constantly at their house mediating their latest conflict. We nearly always left them better than we found them. We were their heroes.

Over time their demands began to wear on us. Our private conversations revolved around them. Their stuff became our stuff. It began to affect our own marital interactions.

Slowly we began to realize this couple was not our problem. Our problem was us. We weren’t strong enough to say “no” to their demands. Our identity and sense of self hinged on being their rescuers.

Once we addressed our contribution to this pattern, we began to respond to them more appropriately. We learned to set boundaries and to not cave to their expectations. The ministry became less invasive to our marriage, and our marital happiness increased.

To effectively improve our marriages in the midst of ministry pressures, we will benefit from asking ourselves new kinds of questions:

  • Why does this situation impact our marriage negatively while others don’t?
  • What underlying insecurities, anxieties and unresolved problems does this situation stir up in our personal lives and in our marriage relationship?
  • Does this parishioner or church situation remind either one of us of family of origin issues that are painfully familiar?
  • How have we taught our church people to treat us when they are in this situation? How have we cooperated with them in this interaction pattern?
  • Do we know other ministry couples who have faced similar church problems and yet they seem to thrive in their marriage? What are they doing that we can learn from?

Such a shift toward self-management is an important first step in creating desired change.

Jeff King

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