The woes of modern church leadership

Shaun King the founder of cutting edge, 700 plus congregation of Atlanta’s Courageous Church created a stir in September when he stood down stating “I have pushed as hard and far as my mind, body, and spirit can healthily go before crashing”. He had tried to transition the church to a emergent style missional church and it killed him. My stomach churns as I read the story that his wife Rai told on her blog.

2 years into it, after 300+ sermons, who knows how many songs, people coming, people going, stressful lead team meetings, raising money from outside sources because the people who attended the church didn’t actually give enough to support the church, Shaun got frustrated, a few leaders got tired and left, …

Thus Shaun had a vision for “the shift”…as it has come to be known.  After searching the scriptures and seeing Christ’s ministry for what it really was we decided we no longer wanted to participate in the spectator sport we Christians call CHURCH.  So we said, let’s stop meeting every Sunday.  Let’s instead, meet in small groups in each other’s homes.  Let’s share a meal and learn how to be true disciples of Christ.  Let’s all serve together.  Let’s have each small group belong to a cause group that addresses a need in our city. 

We talked about it, met about it, argued about it, preached about it, sang about it, and read books about it for months.  And for the most part, people were buying it.  As a matter of fact, the month before the shift, when Shaun was preaching the hows and whys of what were about to do was our highest attendance and our highest offering in all of 2011.  We thought that meant people were actually ready to be radical and courageous.  4 months later, it’s clear that what that meant was that people love HEARING about being radical and courageous.  It gets our juices flowing and makes us feel all powerful.

(We thought) let’s… create time to serve God instead of serving ourselves by getting high off of church services.  If people aren’t in church every Sunday, maybe they’ll serve instead.…FAIL!  What most people did after “the shift” is go to another church on the Sundays we didn’t meet….

Shaun and Rai fought tooth and nail to lead their congregation out of a Sunday-focused, program-oriented, volunteer-intensive all-consuming contemporary church, but after three months, 85% of the congregation wanted it back to the way it was. They both burned out and crucified themselves on the altar of ministry in the modern church and fell on their own sword. My heart goes out to them after experiencing similar pain for similar reasons when we transitioned somewhat unsuccessfully to a cell based church.

Rai went on to say

The truth of the matter is, Shaun is simply exhausted.  Pastoring people has been 10 times better than my best hopes and 100 times worse than my worst nightmares.  Unless you’ve done it, you will NEVER understand it.  It looks one way from the outside looking in, but trust me, you don’t know the half.  Pastors are the sickest, loneliest, most depressed people in church.  That’s why they have affairs, that’s why they die at the age of 42 from heart attacks and drug over doses.  That’s why every time you turn on the TV there’s a new scandal, and a fresh news story about the latest greatest to fall from grace.  Taking criticism day in and day out from people who swear up and down they know better is exhausting.  Having people leave for stupid, selfish reasons is exhausting.  The divorce rate for pastors is among the highest of any other group in the country.  Shaun and I have decided we’d like that to not be our story.

Another good pastor burns out and falls by the wayside leaving us just one more reason to wonder, is there a better way to do church?

Mindfulness – writing before exams

I’ve mentioned mindfulness a bit in this blog. I don’t practice mindfulness every day in terms of meditation, breathing, body scans etc. But I do try and practice it as a lifestyle. I try and be aware of what I’m experiencing moment to moment, not be too futuristic nor live in the past and to be aware of what’s happening inside me – my thoughts and feelings.

I try and allow my feelings to be and my thoughts to come and go without fusing with them. I try and allow my thoughts and feelings to be the actors on stage while staying in the audience. I experience the drama, but try and refrain from jumping up on stage and being part of the drama. I suppose of verge more toward the ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) strain of mindfulness than the Buddhist/yoga strain which emphasizes practice (thirty to sixty minutes a day of breathing, sitting etc.) I guess I would really like to do yoga and meditation, but I’m not disciplined enough (I wish I was because there’s no denying the evidence around the changes to the brain that takes place).

Some really interesting research recently came out of Chicago University around the affect of anxiety on performance. Researchers found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their high–stakes test scores by nearly one grade point after they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear. Interestingly, researchers showed that it wasn’t just the act of writing that inoculated students against choking; rather, specifically writing about test–related thoughts and feelings had helped.

What they found was that anxiety and stress took up “working memory” – something like RAM in a computer or CPU firepower and decreased performance. Basically this was an exercise in mindfulness. It turns an experience of stress and anxiety, into one of observing the stress and anxiety. Of noticing it, and acknowledging it (by writing it down). How does this work? It re-engages the cognitive left cerebral hemisphere which has been deactivated as brain function has descended into the more primal limbic system where flight, freeze, fight mechanisms have taken over due to the fear, anxiety and stress.

Actions of mindfulness (such as writing) are powerful and practiced consistently can produce a more peaceful, lower stress, richer life experience and the body of evidence continues to grow.

The Sadness

He emerged from the bedroom for the first time as an eleven year old with hair sticking out in unusual places and seemed a bit slow getting started for the day. I remembered that last night he’d wanted to talk but I was too tired.

After cooking his birthday dinner my head was feeling tight and I was done talking so I’d said we’d talk in the morning.

“Did you still want to talk about something this morning mate?”

“Yeah.” he said tentatively with maybe just the tiniest break in his voice. “What should I do today?”

He was obviously still raw. He’d been dobbed in for doing something he hadn’t done, then been punished for it at school despite doing his best to explain. It was his eleventh birthday and he’d been hoping for the best day ever. Now today he doesn’t want to go to school. It was his mates that dobbed him in and he didn’t know what to do about it.

He said even mum didn’t know what to do either.

Christ. If his mum didn’t know what to do what hope do I have, I wondered. She’s the relationship guru.
Tears welled up in his eyes as he sat in front of an over-filled bowl of Weet-Bix and wiped them away on the sleeves of his green woollen school jumper.

Mum had said he had lots of friends. He wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t sure either. At his age, friends come and go. Besties today, but acquaintances tomorrow. Things are fluid in primary school land. But what should he do today? I read between the lines. How could he play with his mates as if nothing happened when they stabbed him in the back yesterday? And how could he confront them and fix it? Would anything make it right?

“Do you have to do anything today?” I wondered if he had detention or any other consequences from yesterday.

“No.”

“So if you don’t have to do anything … that gives you options right? You might not actually have to do anything at all”. I explained that sometimes when I try and fix things when I’m sad or angry, I usually muck it up and make things worse.

We stand in front of the bathroom sink and brush our teeth. I put my arm around his little shoulder. I’m still thinking. I feel his sadness. Easy answers evade me. I try to talk with toothpaste in my mouth but it it’s just garble. I spit in the sink on top of his spit and say “You know what mate? It wasn’t right what happened to you yesterday… but it’s not wrong to feel sad.”

“What do you mean Dad?” He sounded open. Gotta love how inquisitive kids are.

“Well, feeling sad is just part of being human. Everyone feels sad at times. Do you remember that book we read about the boy who had anger*? Sadness is like that too. Sadness goes away if you take care of it.”

“How do I do that?”

“Well, do things that you feel like doing today to care of yourself and allow that sadness to pass away by itself. Be kind to yourself and your feelings.”

“Like maybe play with Reid instead of the others?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. He’s a good kid. Or maybe just hang out with Ella and Erica or go to the Library. Whatever makes you feel a bit better.”

Then my brain kicks in and I come up with something. “Hey I’ve got an idea. How sad are you on a scale from 1-10?” I ask.

“Umm maybe about 5…?” He said thoughtfully. Not as bad as I thought. I thought he’d put it up around seven or eight.

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do. You write down on a bit of paper what you think your sadness will be like at bedtime and I’ll write down what I think it will be and then tonight we’ll have a look and see how close we are.”

“We’re going to Ella’s for a BBQ tonight aren’t we?” he asks.

“Yep”

“So I’ll probably be happy after that.” He’s catching on.

We wander over to my study, and grab a sticky note each. He thinks, then scribbles, and sticks his note inside the front of the top drawer. I write on mine and stick it inside the drawer and slide it shut.

EPILOGUE

It’s 10.30 pm as we pull into the driveway. I smell like chops and sausages. The kids are exhausted from their swim and I just want them in bed. I check on the little one. She’s not happy that she can’t find the ripped off hem from her comfort blankie so she’s sooking. I threaten that I’ll find it and confiscate it if she doesn’t stop. She stops.

The middle one has made a hammock by hanging his doona on the underside of the top bunk. He’s curled up inside it looking like a possum in it’s mother’s pouch.  I’m too tired to care. He hands over his MP3 player that he’s not allowed to listen to because he hasn’t been focussing at school and is distracting others – according to the teacher who rang me while I was at work today.

The newly eleven year old has disappeared. He’s the responsible one. Doesn’t need checking on. I lift the lid on the fish tank and sprinkle some food in. I just want to go to bed. Dad’s arriving tomorrow … house is in a mess…. radiator in the Hilux needs replacing…. Then I remember the sadness.

The eldest appears. He’s remembered too.

“Dad! My sadness – It’s gone. It’s a zero!” This was better than expected. I feel happy – proud too.

“That’s great mate. Let’s check our numbers” I say.

He pulls his out first. It’s a three. Now my turn. A two. Happily, we were both cautiously wrong.

His problem hasn’t been fixed, but like dark clouds scudding across blue skies, the sadness has been allowed to pass and maybe, just maybe the problem isn’t as big as it first appeared to be either.

 

*Anh's Anger is by Gail Silver and published by Parallax Press.

The Return of Anxiety

I’m home alone this morning. I love being alone. No one talks to me. Being a Myers Briggs iNtuitive, my inner world is really important to me. My wife has taken the kids to church. She’s started going again and the kids love it. I think one of the reasons she’s going is because she’s back on antidepressants so she can manage ok. This time she says she’s going to take them daily until she’s better (my fingers are crossed).

I have struggled for a few months with anxiety. I recently did my 09-10 tax and had a blowout. I was threatening to whack the kids and yelling at them. I was in such a state I was reaching for the beer to try and calm down. I’m not sure how long the anxiety has been simmering, but I didn’t become aware of it until June when I organised a mindfulness seminar. After the two day training I felt really anxious. At times I was sucking deep breaths and the knot was back in the stomach. I wondered how a mindfulness seminar could make me anxious, but I realised after a bit that it had just increased my awareness of what was happening inside me.

There was a little bit of denial that was going on too. I wanted to believe that I was better and was fooling myself into ignoring what was happening in my body.

The”why” took me a lot longer to figure out. Work was fine. My home duties were going smoothly. Parenting was all good. I’m still not going to church so there’s some cognitive dissonance still rattling around down there but I don’t think that’s causing any anxiety. Then I realized what it was.

I was getting to a point of hyper-vigilance with my wife. She was erupting on a regular basis and becoming really tense. Seemingly out of the blue she would crack the shits and start riding the kids. While this would make me tense and increase the heartbeat I wouldn’t get involved lest the wrath be turned on me. I figured the kids could absorb it. There were times that I’d chipped in a thought and received a full dose. I even recorded one of them on my iPhone and it’s frightening. So her anxiety, was causing my anxiety. I was walking on egg-shells afraid of her anger and what she could say. It’s not very tough, but if I’m honest, this is what was happening on an emotional level (the brains more primal limbic system) – not a cognitive one.

It’s really odd how she couldn’t see it though. Even a few weeks ago she was insisting that I wasn’t well and that I needed to go back on medication and get treatment. She felt that I was the problem. But somewhere along the line she’s been able to get some space and get in touch with what’s happening inside her and realise that she’s not well. She has used antidepressants before but pops them like Panadol. The problem with this is that it calms her down, but it’s only after an episode of lashing out and spinning out of control which isn’t much good for us. She’s never followed the psych’s recommendation of being on them for a solid period of time while engaging in talking therapy to unpack what’s going on.

But this time she says she’ll do it. So far, so good. And my anxiety has almost all but disappeared. I’m not vigilant or wary of her anymore – which is a good thing in a marriage! I feel in the main part happy again and calm. Now I only feel anxiety in “normal” stressful situations (meeting a tax deadline, running late for an appointment – that sort of thing). I’m still hyper sensitive to stress where I react to the stress and stress about stress, but I’m working on that. As I say, the only way to make a marriage work is if each one owns their own shit.

My fragile resilience aka easily cracked

Since I posted about feelings of happiness beginning to emerge late last year, these have continued to be more frequent occurrences. My son and I hiked to the highest peak in our state a few weeks ago and covered some 30km during the 2 night walk and it was exhilarating.

I catch myself feeling happy from time to time and bask in the feeling like the warmth of the sun emerging from clouds. I try and appreciate and savor the feelings, knowing that emotions are just like the sun on a cloudy day. The warmth comes and goes almost unpredictably. And I’m ok with that. If I can practice my mindfulness, I’ll be even better at observing and relishing those emotions when they come.

Happiness aside, my mood is generally one of being fairly neutral-contented. I’d say this is what I experience around 80% of the time. The rest of the time is divided between happy and sad. Who knows, this might be the case for a large portion of the population.

I think the thing that concerns me most at the moment, is my fragile resilience. I crack easily.

Honestly, it doesn’t take much to make me crack. A couple of weeks ago, I’d gone for three weeks without doing any pleasurable activities – fishing and the like. I had to help my father with an emergency on the farm so I flew over there to do that. I’d been cutting wood for winter, and I don’t really have a babysitter that’s easily organised like I did last year (a high schooler living around the corner from us has now gone to live with her boyfriend).

It was doing my head in and I’d started to crack the sads. I was getting irritable and frayed. My head space was narrowing. I finally got sick of it all, threw the kayak on top and left the next morning having asked my wife to come home early to meet the kids off the bus. I put in a big day on the water for only one fish, but still enjoyed it. On arriving home late around 8pm, I came home to chaos. The dishes were lying around, pots and pans and food were left out, and my wife was watching  TV. I was dismayed – I could feel my heart sinking into my socks. And that’s where I lost it.

I accused my wife of taking advantage of me. She knew I had the next day off so basically she’d done the bare minimum – feeding the kids and putting them to bed – and now I was left with the mess. It felt like going fishing for the day was a pointless waste of time, because it meant I’d be paying for it by having to deal with what appeared to me at the time to be an overwhelming mess. Of course it wasn’t, but to me it looked like it. On top of that I felt she wasn’t really pulling her weight.

If my resilience had been better, maybe I would have looked at it differently. I could have thanked her for coming home early and for at least feeding the kids and putting them to bed. I could have rolled up my sleeves and probably got it done in an hour. But I ended up blowing my fuse, giving her both barrels and storming off to bed, thinking how pointless it was to make the effort to do something to improve my wellbeing.

Three nights ago my wife, under the guise of “open communication which is good for our marriage” expressed that she still feels hurt that she’s not a Facebook friend of mine. She went on to say that I should friend her and that it would be a public display of our love which is so important to her. She wonders what other women think when they see that I haven’t friended her. She told me that if I consulted a marriage counselor about friending my wife on Facebook they would be amazed to find I hadn’t. I told her I didn’t give a toss what marriage counselors had to say about Facebook.

I read between the lines (right or wrong) and heard the same old tapes that always play along the lines of “if you really loved me, you would __________” which I’ve been hearing for the last 18 years. I told her to build a bridge and get over it. I told her to deal with her insecurities and to forget what anyone else thought. The language was brightly colored. I explained that I’m sick of her trying to change me, and that she can either accept me for who and what I am today, or not, the choice was hers. Just don’t try and change me.

If I had been more resilient, perhaps I could have acknowledged that she was feeling hurt and been understooding, and let it be. Or maybe that would have been just too professional and clinical. Maybe she should be telling someone else how hurt she is….

Needless to say, we haven’t been talking the last few days. Like my friend said “isn’t it worth going the extra mile to get the silent treatment?”

It’s frustrating that my resilience is so low, that if anything emotionally challenging arises, I just seem to crack so easily. My mood plummets again and stays low, until like a tug of war, I manage to pull it up again, and recover. I hope I get stronger. Self care is challenging.

Emotional Language

I’ve noticed that my nine year old son often gets negative and frustrated. He regularly comes home from school irritated and saying things like “I hate school, I have no friends, the teacher is unfair” and other broad sweeping generalizations. Some days he tells me he doesn’t want to go to school, and once he told me he’d like to die. He can also get quite angry with his little brother and sister at times too. Sometimes he seems to have so much pent-up emotion that it’s obvious, he really has no idea what to do with it. He’s feeling it, but it’s overwhelming him.

There are two scary things about his moods and mindset when things don’t go the way he expects. The first is that he seems to be very much like me when he’s frustrated. I guess that’s understandable. We inevitably reproduce who we are in our kids – good and bad. When he’s looking like mini-me, you’ve no idea how much that presses the buttons of his mother. The second, is that I think he, being the eldest has been exposed to the conflict in our marriage the most in terms of his awareness of what’s going on. The venom, the arguments, the freeze-outs and stonewalling, the simmering tension, I think, has taken its toll on him.

It’s obvious that he, like me, doesn’t seem to know how to handle his emotions. It’s really only in the last few years, I’ve been coming to grips with my emotions, so I’m trying to pass this on to him, so he doesn’t end up like me.

An emotional language, is the ability to identify and describe your feelings. Women are naturally good at this. Their ability to describe how they’re feeling is much more nuanced than men, because they’ve had more practice for a lot longer. Ask a man how he feels about something, he might say “I feel good about it” or “I don’t feel too good about that”. Hardly specific or useful.

Last night, I helped my son journal his emotions. He’d had a bad day at school. I asked, how did you feel? Angry, irritated, frustrated, sad, annoyed, disappointed? I’m trying to give him an ability to accurately name his emotions. Then I asked what he was thinking when he had those feelings. “It’s not fair, we weren’t told about the changes, I wanted to do something different”. I’m trying to help him see the connection between thoughts and feelings, so that eventually he’ll learn to challenge his thoughts, to try and lift negative emotions. I asked him what were some alternative thoughts and we brainstormed together.

I asked him how long those negative feelings lasted and what changed them. I’m hoping to teach him mindfulness, where he’s aware of his feelings in the moment, and he’s grounded and is aware when negative emotions are fading. I want him to get to know the things that lift his emotions so he can be more strategic about using those things.

Finally I want him to understand that emotions rise and fall over the course of a day, or a week. We have low emotions and high emotions all the time. I helped him to see that his mood was good around tea time and afterward – so he doesn’t globalise and say “the whole day was bad because of what the teacher did this morning”.

Emotions go up and down depending on how we view the events of the day as they unfold. Being grounded and aware of them and being able to name them is the art of mindfulness. Challenging our views and thoughts about certain events can help manage our emotions. Knowing those things that can boost or lift our emotions is important, and you can only discover them by being mindful. Also realizing that emotions come and go and that experiencing a full range of emotions is part of the richness of the human experience keeps what we’re experiencing in the moment in perspective. Our current mood won’t last.

I hope that by teaching him a nuanced emotional language, that it will become part of a toolbox that strengthens his resilience and well being. The alternative to having a good emotional language, is denial and suppression and those tricks failed me miserably. I hope he can avoid the mental illness that I’ve experienced.

Another One Bites The Dust

Recently I met with a friend I’ve had on Facebook for a while and managed to catch up with him while visiting his city… He’s a great guy, I think we have a lot in common. We spent a few hours over lunch sharing experiences. To be honest, I did feel a little bit sick in the pit of my stomach when he shared his story because it was a bit close to home for me.

This former pastor is a really intelligent, educated, inspiring, cutting-edge young man with a young family, and loads of leadership and gifting. He was installed by the guys from  Soul Survivor when they were in his country.

Recently he messaged me his story… here it is.

My journey with depression
The last few months, depression has got a lot of publicity. Here in Australia, depression among men is something you hear about. There is an organization called beyond blue that helps men with depression. Recently a politician came out and told his story with depression. Then I met with a former pastor who suffers from depression. These things caused me to think about about my experience with depression, so I thought I would write about it…

I have never been prone to being depressed…..in fact, I was always the sort of person who was pretty happy go lucky and if anything, I would get angry, not depressed. Throughout my years at work in the IT industry, there were stressful times but I would never use the word depressed to describe how I felt.

In 2005 I went into full time ministry and took on the role of pastor in the church where I grew up in. I went into minstry with hope and a sense of adventure. It was as if this is what I have been preparing for my whole life. The church was going through a bad patch and we were in a sort of crisi mode. Still, I had faith and a lot of energy. I had a vision to bring change and to see a church that was full of grace and love.

Maybe I was foolish. But I felt that God had called me to this. About a year into the role, it became apparent that a lot of people, especially the leaders, were not comfortable with the changes that were happening. I also had a shift in my perspective and theology. A lot of things that we were doing did not make sense to me and I was challenging a lot of the mindsets of people. The leaders who had asked me to come and lead had initially said that they wanted change too, but it became apparent that at the heart of things, they were not ready for it (some of my previous postings refer to these things).

A lot of my energy was wasted on silly debates like whether I should wear short sleeves to church, I was too informal over the “pulpit”…etc As a side note, is the fucking “pulpit” even biblical? This just resulted in me having bouts of feeling “down”. It started with me feeling down most sunday evenings. Initially I played this down to mere tiredness. And maybe there as some of that. Usually by mid day Monday, I would start feeling better.

BUt as time wore on, the feeling would stay longer. Even extend till Tuesday evening. Then it got worse. I begun to have thoughts of death…of killing myself. That was the only way out of where I was. The depression also started to happen on Friday’s as opposed to sundays. It was then a whole week thing.

At this stage, a good friend recommended me to see a counselor. This guy specialised in treating pastors and full time ministers who are burnt out. I had a hard time accpeting I was burnt out cause I had only been in full time role for a year. But the counselor heped me see that my burn out had begun earlier when I was serving in a voluntary capacity. In a follow up session with my wife, he basically said that we had gone through a traumatic exprience and his recommendation was that we not be in ministry at all.

It was a shock and a relief at the same time. But when I went to the elders with this news, they just did not believe it and asked for a written analysis. I saw that the church could not cope with this and out of a sense of duty, I persevered and went on serving in the church. The insight and help of my counselor helped me cope with depression for while. I also had a few friends around who helped me.

But after a few months, the depression was back again, this time worse. Instead of just being down, I would react with anger…..I was angry at the staff, at the people in church and at my family. Another friend highly recommended that I take time off work. I said ok and that I would look at taking a break in a few months as we had things coming up in church…but 3 different people all said that I would not last that long…so I took a month off work when the church was about to have a camp. I just could not bring myself to be at a camp where people had expectations on me. Again the leaders did not understand and did not take it well. But this time, I just did it anyway.

God did a work in my life in that month off. I learned to be a child again. Learned to accept God’s love and favor as a gift. Learned to enjoy life again. I came back with a renewed hope and vision. I started to teach on the things I had learned….on who God is, on authenticity and vulnerability. A lot of people responded well….but there were also others who did not. Bottom line, the core leaders wanted a different sort of church. Our perspectives and theology were so different. They did not see it. They kept insisting that we wanted the same things…….but we did not. A few months later, I had anther major disagreement with the leaders over how we treated our staff. I did not react angrily as I had in the past. I appealed to them calmly. But after that I realised that I just did not have the energy to go on. After all I had been through and what God had done in me, I still could not hack it. I resigned from ministry. I was heartbroken to do it, but I felt I had to.

Today, more than a year after I resigned, I do not really struggle with depression anymore. Perhaps a lot of it was down to the work related in the church. Maybe God had also healed me to a certain extent. But I have been scarred by my time in ministry. I now work in the IT line again. Have moved countries to get away from the church……..but my sense of confidence and faith has taken a great battering. My self esteem is very low. And I still have a lot of unresolved anger…….especially at the church system….and the people who propagate the system. I find myself at times having such a sense of hopelessness. Someone commented that I still have the energy to work full time…..yes, and for that I am grateful. But a lot of it is driven by the need to care for my family. In so many ways I was not ready to be back in full time employment. But I took it as a means of escaping the church situation back home. Will I ever recover? Will I ever have a sense of faith and hope and joy again? Will I ever return to church????? I dont know for sure…..but for now, it does not feel as if it will happen. I am just another pastor who has been beaten by the church system