Ever wonder how you’ll make it through the next year of ministry? Or month? Or week? Here’s how to lead when you’re traveling through personal darkness.
A friend of mine is an international speaker, and he often jokes about not having a “real” job. I first met him some 20 years ago, and he impressed me so much that I decided I, too, wanted to be a professional speaker. I mean, how difficult could it be to open your mouth and flap your lips in front of hundreds of people? He made it look so easy, yet I discovered how much work was really involved — and how looks can be deceiving.
My friend spent years refining his speeches, polishing his programs, and practicing to the point of near perfection. And no matter what was going on in his life or how he felt, the show went on. Through the years, I’ve held many roles in leadership and did develop a speaking career, although nothing that would hold a candle to my friend’s accomplishments. Whether I was speaking on stage or leading a team, I realized that the lights were on and everyone was watching… no matter what. When you’re a leader, you’re a leader 24/7.
You probably feel the same way in your role… it looked so easy! Then you jumped into the deep end of the children’s ministry pool and have been treading water ever since, trying desperately not to drown. Welcome to the world of leadership!
The Leader’s Reality
It’s not just your imagination: Everyone really is looking to you as a leader. And it can feel as though you don’t have the latitude for the occasional bad day or room for a personal issue. And let’s be honest, our culture expects leaders to keep their personal lives at home because they have no place at work. The reality is that our work comes home with us — and our problems at home come to work. We’re human and we all have issues like everyone else. But leaders are expected to simply press on through their trials. Why?
The Leader’s Creed
A scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan with Tom Hanks resonates with leaders. It’s the one where the Captain, played by Hanks, breaks down after years of stuffing emotions from the awful war — the things he’s seen, the things he’s done. He finally falls apart… all alone. A few scenes earlier, the Captain’s troops had asked him why they never saw him in a bad mood. He responded by saying that leaders don’t complain down the line — they go up the chain of command. But what he didn’t mention was that those up the chain of command really don’t want to hear about it. So the reality, as we see so dramatically played out on film, is that leaders often have no one to turn to; they tend to suffer silently and alone.
Your leadership role challenges you every day as you struggle to balance guiding and directing team members while ministering and mentoring a wide scope of people of varying ages. On top of that, you likely have your own responsibilities to attend to. So what happens when your personal life hits a speed bump… or completely and utterly crashes?
I’ve been there, and I want you to know I understand how isolating it feels. But I also want to suggest this: “I’ve met the enemy, and it is me.” Unfortunately, the very things that make us good leaders (strong will, determination, dedication to serving, and so on) can also make us lousy at dealing with personal issues. We “suck it up,” take it like a pro, and press on — or at least that’s what I did, because I really didn’t know any other way.
The Lonely Road
During my dark days (I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I was going through almost all major stress factors at once while trying to maintain my career), I spent a lot of energy putting on my happy face. In fact, most people had no clue as to what I was going through. Sadly, I thought that was a badge of honor at the time. The less people knew about how horrible my life really was, the more in control I thought I was. In addition, I think I used leading as a way to hide from my personal life. We can often pour ourselves into our role in hopes that “home stuff” will sort itself out. Then days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. When we avoid the hard stuff, time doesn’t heal — it only compounds the fracture.
But how does one learn to cope? My parents certainly didn’t sit me down and say, “Hey, honey, when your life falls apart one day, here’s how to get through it.” I don’t think I’m alone in that. Our education and training doesn’t address it either, so we have to make smarter decisions. And by doing so, we actually become better leaders.
The Journey Through Darkness
I discovered that by not sharing with at least one close, trusted friend, I was preventing God from working through my trials. I believe God uses our prayers and others’ prayers to accomplish his will. And I don’t believe that God desires his servants to burn up in a ball of flames. We’re no good to God’s kingdom and purposes when we’re so dry we have nothing left to give.
How did I learn this? When my life unraveled to the point where I could no longer hide it (and believe me, yours will too if you don’t address it), a friend of mine called me and read me the riot act. She said I’d denied her the ability to be a friend and sister in Christ. She couldn’t pray for what she didn’t know. Ouch.
That’s not to say you should dump your burdens on your team. But you must be wise and seek the ear of someone who cares. Just having someone listen to your challenges can make a difference in the weight of your troubles. It may not change them, but knowing someone is praying for you will give you that extra strength to keep going — which you must do. Jesus is the best example of a leader that I know, and even he was overwhelmed minutes before fulfilling his purpose. But nonetheless, he pressed on toward the goal — but not without first asking his Father for help.
• Find a friend. Select someone you trust who has your best interests in mind — and who isn’t on your team. This person may be your spouse, a peer, family member, or small group friend. Don’t exclude counselors and consultants; they can be excellent sounding boards with objective insights and feedback. And, pray. Rely on God as your closest friend and adviser. In the midst of darkness, that may be easier said than done. But know this: God is nearer to you in your darkest hour than you can imagine. Rely on and draw strength from him.
• Keep a journal. It takes a lot of energy to press on through dark days. It isn’t easy; I won’t lie to you. But one thing that’s often helped me is journaling. Oh my, I would never want a single person to read some of my entries because they’re raw, but I’ve learned that God can handle it… and he loves me anyway. Journaling has helped me release my anger, shed my doubts, and let go of my fears. And after I do, all that remains is God’s light and with it, peace. Granted, my peace may only last until the next crisis, but I’ll take what I can get. Don’t have a journal? Get started with the Jesus-Centered Journal.
The Facts About Stress
Personal crises of all shapes, colors, and sizes can be boiled down to one word: stress. It’s a small word, but it packs one powerful punch. Whether you’re moving into a new home, balancing the kids’ schedules, experiencing marital problems, dealing with a death in the family or — fill in the blank — you’re experiencing stress. And our bodies respond to all stresses, whether they’re happy occasions, negative situations, or simply realities of life such as the alarm clock or deadlines. A chemical reaction kicks in when we’re excited, bothered, worried, or anxious. And when we don’t do anything to alleviate this reaction, our bodies get sick from the inside out.
• Know the symptoms. Restless nights, headaches, backaches, stomachaches, and a myriad of other ailments can be signs that you aren’t managing your stress in a healthy manner. And if you find yourself in search of food, alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to help you cope, you could be on the brink of burnout. To continue to be an effective leader, you must carve out time for yourself. Even if it’s only 10 minutes to sit and breathe, it can make a difference. Jesus took time away from his disciples because he knew he needed to fill his own cup to pour himself into others. It isn’t being selfish; it’s being prudent.
• Know the prevention. Just as I prepare each day by looking at my to-do list, I now include evaluating my life stresses. Ask yourself, What’s going on with my spouse? kids? friends? family? church? By determining what’ll take energy from you today, you can plan accordingly to include activities that’ll fill your cup. These activities are different for everyone. For me, I need two things: lots of exercise and plenty of sleep. When those two things are in balance, I stand a chance of properly handling my stress. If either is forsaken, I’m weakened and vulnerable to my stress, and it may rear its ugly head.
An Opportunity to Shine
Remember, all eyes are on you. Rather than a burden, this reality provides an opportunity to be a great example to those you serve with. As a society, we’re slowly improving when it comes to recognizing that we need balance — but we still generally live in ways that are out of balance. People need leaders who are striving to balance life. You don’t have to be perfect, but by practicing stress and life management, you can have a more positive impact on people, be a greater influence, and hopefully keep your sanity and health in the process.