John Lee draws on his experience to help us “go the distance”
How are you going to do this for the long haul? It is possible to be a leader for many years but the people who manage it well know that they need a plan and a practice that will sustain them.
Resilience is partly about simply applying some good sense, some self- knowledge and some realism but, like everything in the life of somebody who is trying to walk as Jesus walked, it’s also about what it means to have God as your Father. Since your Father has a purpose for your life, resilience is related to your vocation. What is it that God is calling you to?
It could well be that, at some point in your life, you realized that God was calling. Maybe you discussed this with some other people and they confirmed it and you took a new step in your life. Did you keep on listening to God about this calling of yours or did you hand that responsibility over to somebody else? Maybe it was a leader or a congregation or an institution. Did you begin to let somebody else interpret what God was saying to you? Did you let them take on the role of shaping your life? Of course there is a place for submission and obedience in the life of a disciple but it God is not tired of speaking with you. God’s calling is a life long process. It is personal and powerful and it is characterised by grace and by love. God’s calls so that you can play a healthy and life-giving role in the Body of Christ.
We’d better face up to a big question about this. Jesus tells his disciples to take up their crosses if they want to follow him. We’d better be ready to lose our lives for his sake and to be the least and the servant of all. How can we obey this call while still looking after our personal resilience? There is good reason for thinking that a life following Jesus can be tough and demanding and sacrificial: Jesus’ life was all of those things but it was also a spacious life.
Jesus makes sure that he has time alone when he needs it; Jesus does not feel the need to meet every demand that the crowds make on him; Jesus pushes back against people who want his time and attention when it suits him [Yes he does!]; Jesus is not ‘nice’ and he does not care if that’s a problem; and don’t forget that [as far as we know] Jesus walked almost everywhere and so had plenty of time between the visits to the towns and villages where he taught and healed. It’s worth bearing in mind that Paul - who is not shy in telling everyone about his hard life – also had long and leisurely journeys between towns and cities. And every single person in the New Testament lived in a world without electricity where life slowed down when the sun set.
So, whatever taking up your cross may mean for you, it does not mean an over-full diary and it does not mean a lack of time for relaxation and spiritual restoration. It does mean taking responsibility for your resilience and you do that by being attentive to your vocation. If you’ve stopped listening to God’s call – start again!
Here are some practical thoughts…
Use your calendar to make space in your life.
You probably have a calendar on your phone or on your wall. It may be that your employer claims large parts of the week but you are still left with many hours over which you have much more control. You can use the calendar simply as a tool for reminding you of things you need to do, but you could also broaden its use. You could use it as a way of managing the space that can help to preserve your well-being and deepen your relationships. It is not a good sign that Christians expect their leaders to be busy – because of that they often believe that the leaders will not have time to spend with them. Some leaders even seem to believe that being too busy is a sign of virtue. It’s not. Eugene Peterson wrote that the letters addressed by marketing companies to ‘Dear Busy Pastor’ were the equivalent of ‘Dear Adulterous Husband’; in other words they named the fact that this person had lost their way and failed in their promises. So if you are too busy you are not a hero. If you brought it on yourself then you have made a mistake. To be fair over-busyness is often something that is done to us rather than something we do to ourselves. We just get tied up in the confused and frenetic wandering of the world we live in. Either way don’t mistake busyness for virtue. Do what’s in your power to move towards a more spacious life
This is part of your work as a disciple because, when you schedule space into your life, you are aligning yourself with the creation as its Creator intended it. This allows you to imitate God’s generosity in the way you treat other people because some of that space can be your gift to them. You will be available to them and your readiness to talk, to listen and to care for them will mirror ‘God with us’. Some of the space will allow you to be the creature that you are meant to be. It will belong to you and you will need it for the same reason that Jesus needed it. You are human and humans need space and rest and prayer and peace.
This space will need to be defended and I’ve found some guidelines helpful. Firstly be suspicious of guilt. Jesus came to deal with guilt and so when somebody tries to guilt you into an activity you can reasonably ask yourself if this is a good idea. On the whole, when I have agreed to something out of guilt, I have ended up bored or frustrated and it’s rarely been worthwhile. Secondly space is easier to defend when it has a name in the calendar [admin, travel, prep time, whatever]. Not only does this help to explain your actions to other people, it also helps you to track how much space is helpful in your routine. Thirdly have some rules for yourself; these will be personal but they can reflect the way you work - a couple of mine are Never fill the space left by a cancelled meeting and Don’t have more than three evening meetings in a week.
Above all bear in mind that too busy is TOO busy. Nothing healthy in nature is too busy. It is as busy as it needs to be. That is the intention of the creator.
Look after your Energy
Your calendar may well be broken up into hour long slots. This may give you the impression that you should aim to manage your time. In fact your calendar may be more useful as a way of managing your energy. When a meal with friends or my family goes beyond 9.00pm I’m fine; when a Church Council meeting goes beyond 9.00pm I am desperate and sometimes rude. Energy and time are related but it’s complicated. You know what energises you and what drains you; you can’t always have your own way, but your resilience will benefit if you can use your calendar to reflect your energy levels.
Start some fights [Confront what needs to be confronted]
When it is unresolved, conflict can be a huge drain on our resilience. It’s tempting to leave low-level conflict alone; often because the effort of addressing it and the potential gains don’t seem proportionate. However it is worth considering whether the most helpful approach is to consciously head towards conflict. You may be more likely to engage positively with the people involved if you initiate a healthy confrontation in your own time. In those circumstances you will have the energy, you will be able to plan your approach and the outcome that you are aiming for, you’ll be able to recruit some appropriate support and you’ll be able to approach the situation from a stance of prayer.
The road to exhaustion is paved with good intentions
Your resilience is probably not challenged mostly by malicious people with destructive plans but by well-intentioned people who want to do good. Often this means that managing your energy and time is not about conquering your enemies but about disappointing your friends. You will, of course, be able to set some priorities but, at some point, you will have to neglect something worthwhile. Unless you face this you will risk neglecting the people in our life who are there for you unconditionally. It’s helpful to be up-front about this. In my parish ministry I was clear that I would not normally make routine hospital visits. I went if I was requested to go but, generally speaking, if I came to see you it was likely that you were nearing the end of your life! This meant that the visits from church members rather than the vicar represented the love and care of the community.
Honesty and transparency are really important here. Leaders are put on pedestals by church communities and it’s important to step down regularly. If we don’t, we give a false impression of our capabilities and our capacity. Most dangerously we begin to believe that we are indispensible. Too much will be expected of us and asked from us. Those who could be doing what we don’t have the ability, energy or time to do will be deprived of the opportunity. We will be exhausted, they will be frustrated and the Kingdom of God will be ill-served.
Take a look at where you feel that you are just scraping by. These could be tasks that you do well enough on for nobody to complain. What would happen if you stopped doing those things? Is there somebody who would step in and do them much more effectively and with greater joy? If you are playing somebody else’s role in the Body of Christ you are contributing to the problem not the solution [1 Corinthians 12]
Love your over-busy leaders but don’t imitate them
I’ve worked for several people who were over-busy. They taught me a great deal and I’m grateful to them but, if I had imitated their schedule, I would not have managed to stay in full time ministry for the long term. If you have an over-busy leader in your life then do pray for them and care for them. You will want to help them as far as you can, and that’s appropriate compassion, but the long-term answer to their problem is probably not for you to try to relieve them of some of their work load. Nobody helps an alcoholic by drinking their whisky. For your leader and for you the healthiest way is for you both to be attentive to God’s call on each of you.
Prioritise community building over institutional expectations
Chances are that you are somebody who wants to begin some thing new. It may be that you are working with people who have responsibilities within the institutional life of the church. The institutional church is by no means opposed the kind of innovation you may be working towards [it may well be helping to finance it!], but it’s worth remembering that there are no human institutions in the Kingdom of Heaven but there will be human community in harmony with the Trinity. If you are a pioneer at heart you will probably find your resilience sustained by sharing in the growth of community rather than gaining status within an institution.
Jesus purpose was to bring life to the full. His call will be to take up your cross but at the same time it is a call towards life not self destruction. This means that while your resilience is your responsibility it is also part of your obedience to God’s call on you.