02 Aug [VIDEO] Unlocking Your Church’s Potential by Carey Nieuwhof
We’re going to wrap up and just talk a little bit about you. Sometimes that’s the least comfortable conversation to have, but I want to ask you this question. I want you to think back to when you were in your early 20s. For some of you that’s like now. For some of you that’s like, “Okay, that was a few years ago.” And for some of you that’s like a decade or more or many decades ago or a lifetime ago. But, I want you to think back to when you were starting out and you first sensed a call into ministry and a joy for life.
I don’t know about you, but I’m an idealist. I love just hope, optimism, and the whole the deal. What happens is we all get a little bit older so I want to start with this question. The question is simply this, “What happened to your optimism?” What happened to your optimism? If you were to look at your optimistic nature is it stronger now than when you were 22? Is it better now than when you were 22? If you’re 22 don’t answer that, but for all the rest of us, I mean. Is your optimism higher or greater? Because what a lot of people discover is the optimism of your 20s gives way to the realism of your 30s, which gives way to dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, what? What does that give way to?
I know for me ministry was kind of a wake up into reality. I started when I was 30 years old because I had done law prior to that. Then after law I had to do seminary and that was three and half, four years, the whole deal. So, I started out in ministry when I was 30 and I started very idealistically. I had a hopeful heart. I believed that God called me into ministry. I was a young dad, a young husband, the whole deal. Some of you are there right now. I just really believed that anything was possible. I still believe that anything is possible, but ministry kind of beats you up.
I joked with Larry in the last session that I was an extrovert and then ministry beat it out of me. That is largely true. Now, I refill by being alone. When I was 30 it was a totally different game. I hated being alone. I loved being around people. People gave me energy.
But, you know, I think back to some defining moments in the first five years of my ministry. There was one couple in that little church of six people. We were just praying for growth. We hoped anybody would show up. Right? You ever get to that stage in your church where I’ll take anybody?
Well, there was a Sunday where this couple showed up. I’m going to call them Betty and John. Betty and John showed up and we were just ecstatic because you from six to eight. That’s progress. That’s amazing. We had never seen unchurched people show up at that church before. It had been a long, long, long, long time since that had happened. So, churches are small. I was doing pastoral care. It was our first year or two.
Betty and John had high needs, very, very, high needs. They were not exactly wealthy. They were on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder. They had problems. They were just sort of new grandparents. The relationship with their kids was not particularly strong. Their grandchildren had issues. They had everyday struggles with buying groceries or getting gas for their car or paying the light bill. As a little tiny church we didn’t have a lot of money, but once in a while we would buy them groceries. Or once in a while we would fill their van with gas. Or occasionally, I think there was one month where we paid their hydro bill because they just couldn’t afford it. So, we did that.
In the first four or five years of our ministry I probably spent more time with Betty and John than anybody else in the church because you know how that goes when you have higher needs, you have higher needs. So, I spent time with them trying to help them out. I did some pastoral visitation along the way. I mean Toni and I, my wife and I, we would step in to help them at times as well.
There was a day five years into our ministry, the church had started to grow and instead of six people there were maybe 150 people at our church at that point. I remember there was a moment … We were still small enough that we had a potluck lunch after church every week. We did that the first five years. And there was a day at the potluck lunch where she just stood up, grabbed her family, and she announced in front of everybody that they were leaving the church and they weren’t putting up with it anymore. And they stormed out the door. I remember chasing her down and I said, “What is going on? Betty, what is going on here?”
You know what she said to me? She said, “It’s not the same. You haven’t done enough for us.”
And I’m like, “What?” I told her, I said, “I don’t want to be rude, but I’ve done more for you and we as a church have done more for you than probably anybody else in the last five years.”
As you said, “You guys haven’t done enough for us. You don’t care about us.”
And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”
You know what? There’s no happy ending to the story. She stayed gone. They left. They never came back. 17 years later, they haven’t come back.
That did something to my heart. That did something to my outlook. That did something to my optimism. So, the next time a family in need came through our door. You know what I started to do? I started to think, “I bet you’re going to be just like Betty and John.” Right? I didn’t want to help out. I didn’t want to give them the grocery card. I didn’t want to fill their tank with gas. I just kind of got cynical about it.
Then you know what happens, right? People leave your church. At first, everybody just comes to your church because you haven’t been there long enough for people to leave. Right? People are just coming to your church and you’re like, “I’m amazing. I’m such a great leader.” Then the first people start to leave. And then, “That’s okay because we didn’t need them anyway. They’re going to Heaven. They don’t have to go on our bus.” You come up with all the ideas in your head about all the reasons.
Then you have a friend who goes. That one hurts a little bit more. Or you have an elder that you trusted and that elder leaves or goes rogue on you. Or maybe you’re like me and you had some friendships … It’s hard to make friends in the church, isn’t it? Really hard to make friend in the church because sometimes my wife would say to me, “Are we going to their place for dinner because you’re the pastor or because we’re their friends?” The answer is I don’t really know and I don’t know if you can know on this side of Heaven. I don’t know. I’ve never not been the pastor. That’s how they know so I don’t really know what their motivation is and it gets weird.
About a decade into our leadership we had finally, you know, because there is a couple of false starts in friendship, we had really become great friends with this series of couples. Then that went South. Some of them left the church and started stirring up trouble. I mean, these are people we vacationed with. These are people that we would get together in their house or they’d come over to our house. These are the people we barbecued with. When they start to turn on you that really hurts. You know what? A year or two after it all went down I said to people who knew the situation and knew us I’m like, “Okay, okay. I’m all about ownership. What part of this do I own?”
And they’re like, “Well, you own a lot in your life, but in this case? It really wasn’t you.”
So what happened to your optimism? Where would you say it is compared to when you started out? Because here’s what usually happens. I mean, life does this, right? But the optimism of your 20s gives way to the realism of your 30s. It’s like, “Yeah, that’s what happens. Friends leave you. Life is tough. People come. People go.”
You develop rules like if they’re really excited and this is the best church ever after their first week they’re probably going to leave the same way. Worse church ever, right? Best church ever. Worst church ever six months later. You just learn that. I’ll take the guy who sits at the back and goes, “I don’t really know.” It takes him six weeks to warm up to it and goes, “I think I like this place.” Because they’re probably going to be around in five years.
You make up all those rules, right? Which gives way to what? I turned 40 and I realized, “Ahhh, this is how people get cynical. This is why people are just like, ‘Oh. You’re just like Betty and John.’ Yeah, I’m not going to have any friends because look what happened. Look what happened.” Right? That’s what goes on.
Solomon actually said something about this. Look at this. We got a couple of quotes from the scripture. He says, “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Isn’t that inspiring. I mean, just go ahead and take a moment and Instagram that, all right, for everybody. Everything is meaningless. We went to this conference in New England and everything’s meaningless. It’s a chasing after the wind.
But he’s right. This is a guy who has everything. He’s rich. He’s got 1,000 wives. I mean that’s 1,000 complications and 700 concubines and the whole deal. He has everything. The Bible is so weird when you look at it – right – and you teach this to your children. It’s like, “Why can’t I have two …” Nevermind. Anyway.
I have seen all these things that are done under the sun. All of them meaningless, a chasing after the wind. But look at verse 18 of Ecclesiastes, chapter 1. He says, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow.” The more knowledge the more grief.
You know what happened with your optimism? You lived a little bit longer and you know more than you did when you were idealistic. You’ve seen more. You’ve experienced more than when you had all that youthful, you’ll call it now, naivete. That’s what Solomon said, “With much knowledge comes much sorrow.” Right, that idea ignorance is bliss? I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I didn’t know that people could be like this. I didn’t know that friends would turn on me. I understand that they’re going to turn on you, but I didn’t know they were going to turn on me. Right? I didn’t know any of that stuff. With much wisdom comes much sorrow. The more knowledge, the more grief.
You know what happens to all of us? It’s not that difficult to go from believing the best to assuming the worst. You begin to project your past failures on to future possibilities. You begin to think, “Okay. Yeah that one didn’t work. We tried a campus. It didn’t work so multi site is stupid.” Right? It’s not going to work. A video, we tried that. It doesn’t really work until you get a $400 camera, but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.” So, you develop all these rules and you protect yourself. You guard your heart. You over guard it. Soon you get in a place where you don’t feel anything and your heart is shriveled.
I kind of got there about 10 years ago, 11 years ago. I think there’s at some point everyone’s faith, character, and hope are tested. At some point, everyone’s faith, character, and hope get tested. If you’re not there, you will be there. So, what I’ve found, my idealism in my 20s gave way to the realism of my 30s. Then when I was 40 it kind of all hit at once. I ended up in this crisis. In many ways it was the strangest thing.
We ran this conference for a couple of years and one of the speakers for the second year we ran this conference. It was very much like this, just at our church. We had interests from coast to coast and Canada because of what was happening in our church because churches don’t grow and they certainly in our denomination don’t grow to our size, etc., etc.
So, we hosted this conference and I had a speaker. It was a guy I’d never met, but it was a friend of a friend. His name was Reggie Joiner. Reggie Joiner came up and he spoke. I brought him in. He was working at North Point at the time as a director of family ministry. I brought Reggie a couple days earlier because we were going through some more change. I wanted his opinion and we had read the seven practices of effective ministry, thought it was an amazing book. We kind of struck up a friendship. I opened up the conference and keynoted at my conference. Then Reggie spoke and he had to fly back on the Saturday to go back to North Point. He said, “Hey. Can I have a copy of your talk?”
So, I’m like, “Sure.” I gave him a CD of my talk. This sort of dates the story, but I gave him a CD. We burned one and he flew back to Atlanta.
What I didn’t know is that he played it for Andy. In a month later, they called me and said, “Hey. Do you want to speak at North Point next year at this event?”
And I’m like, “What?” because I’ve been tracking with North Point online for about five years from the dial up days of the internet and been fascinated about what was happening. Sure enough, in 2006 I got flown into North Point. Reggie and I worked on our talk together, my talk. He introduced me to Andy and some of the stuff that was going on there. They invited us into a strategic partnership, which they were starting. That was great. I mean, and you know this, to be invited by Andy Stanley and Reggie Joiner to speak at North Point at this conference that’s like winning the Super Bowl. It’s like winning the lottery when you’re a pastor.
I still remember, it was May of 2006. They flew my wife, my sons down. We spend the better part of a week there. I still remember being on the East stage of the auditorium. They gave me my belt pack and my belt pack said “Andy” on it. Talk about intimidating, okay.
I get out there and in the very front row, sitting right there, Reggie Joiner and Andy Stanley and my family. I’ve got to give this talk to 2,500 people and Andy Stanley is in the front row. I had practiced for a long time. I was 40, 41 years old. That day I did okay. According to my wife, she said it was the talk of my life. I love peaking at 40. I was awesome. I was like, “You can never do better than that. You’ll never do better than that.” So, I peaked at 40 and here we are all these years later.
Anyway, I gave a talk. People still talk about that talk if they were in the room. It’s just whatever. God was on it. I was at the top, the fastest growing churches in our denomination, one of the largest. I’d just spoke at North Point in front of 2,500 people. Andy Stanley is in the front row and it couldn’t be better.
I got home and we got off the plane and it’s like I fell off a cliff. You know people had been telling me all through my 30s, “You’re going to burn out. You’re going to burn out.” Because I’m A type and I’m driven and I’m all about stuff. I had come to the edge of burn out before, but burn out kind of works like this. All right. Some of you have burnt out. Some of you are wondering am I burning out? I don’t know. If you haven’t, this is how it works. If you get close to the edge of burnout. It feels like this. You get right to the edge and I had been there a couple times in my 30s, but if you don’t burnout you can always pull yourself back. It’s like, “I’m going to take a vacation. I’m going to get a good nights sleep. I’m going to take a break. I’ll take a day off.” I was always able to pull myself back.
But, when I got off the plane from North Point, I’m high. It doesn’t get a lot better than that. It was like I fell off a cliff. When you actually fall off a cliff there’s nothing to grab onto. You can’t pull yourself back if you’re actually burning out. The definition is you lose control.
I fell into a pit. I don’t have a depressive personality, but I fell into a pit that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I didn’t know what to do. I’ve been seeing a counselor for a number of years and we were working through some issues I had. I’m a performance addict. Everything has to be better. Everything has to be up into the right. What happened with that. It was just like a perfect storm of a decade of ministry and some life issues and me not getting enough sleep, working too hard, and the whole deal. But right after that epoch, when everything’s going so well I just fell off a cliff. That summer of 2006 was horrible, horrible.
If I’d gone to the doctor and said, “Could you diagnose me?”
He would’ve said, “Yes. You’re clinically depressed.” and that’s not my personality.
I got out of bed every day, but I had lost all my motivation. I lost all my joy. I heart felt dead. I couldn’t experience anything like if a friend had a baby I wasn’t happy. If somebody died I wasn’t really sad. You know when you’re burned out your emotions don’t work. Right? It’s like your driving through the Great Plains of the prairies. It’s just flat. I felt down. I got afraid of people. I remember going to small group with my wife. I’m 6’2″. She’s 5’3″. She’s half my weight. She’s just so petite. I would hide behind her because I didn’t want to talk to anybody. That’s what happened and it was horrible.
Finally, I took three weeks off and I thought, “Okay, that’s going to make it better. I’m just going to get some sleep and everything.” It didn’t make it better. In August, I said to our elders, I called a special meeting and I said, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I’m broken. There is something inside me that’s just broken. I think it’s burnout, but I don’t even know what that is. I don’t know how I got here.”
They said, “Well do you want to …” They said, “Do you want a Sabbatical?”
I said, “No. I’m not going to take a Sabbatical because if I leave I know I’m never coming back. I just need to find some way to claw my way back into ministry. I don’t feel released from my call. I just don’t know what to do and I burned out.” If you’ve been there, it’s horrible. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
I had amazing people around me who prayed for me and who believed in me in the darkest night of my soul. It got to the point where I’d listened to enough [inaudible 00:19:12] to know about midlife crisis and so on and so forth. I just thought, “Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t quit your job. Don’t buy a sports car.” I didn’t cheat on my wife. I didn’t quit my job. I really regret not buying a sports car. That would’ve been amazing. It’s still a life goal. All these years later I haven’t done it, but maybe at some point I will. That’d be a lot of fun.
So, I didn’t do any of those things, but it was hard to get back. It was hard to get back. After about four or five months I had my first day where I thought, “Ah, I think I feel something.” I was continuing to go to counseling. I could perform my job, but it was brutal.
I remember there was a turnaround point where … I’ll just say this because this happens to people. I’m not a suicidal person, but in August of that year it was so dark and I was so tired I thought the best thing I could probably do is just take my car and drive it really fast into a cement wall and end it. I remember one day I was pulling off the highway and I had those thoughts. Then I thought, “Carey, wait a minute. All this is in your head. You have a wife who loves you. You have sons who look up to you. You got a church that’s amazing, cares about you, elders who are standing behind you, and God who loves you. You’re stupid enough that if you actually tried to do that you probably wouldn’t kill yourself. You’re not that skilled. You’d probably end up maimed for the rest of your life and unable to walk. There’s nothing wrong. There’s nothing objectively wrong.” That was the beginning of the slow turnaround.
It took a year to get back to about 80%. It took another year to get to about 90%. On the outside if you came to see me you wouldn’t have though anything was wrong. I preached. I remember the first Sunday back in August, I preached. I still was feeling horrible. People who knew, and not a lot of people knew, were like, “Man, you knocked it out of the park.”
And I’m like, “You should live in here.” It doesn’t feel that way. But after about a year it as 80%. After about two years it was 90%. It took until five years until I had 100%.
I remember years 3, 4, 5 I kept saying to my friends that I was tracking with. They’d say, “How you doing?”
I’d say, “I feel like there’s 10% missing.” I miss that part of me, but I knew if went back to normal … Like if you go back to normal, normal landed me burned out at 40. I couldn’t go back to normal because by patterns weren’t healthy enough. My emotional wasn’t healthy enough for me to actually get to a point where I was going to be better. So, I had find a new normal. I had to find a new normal.
If you’ve ever burned out you know what I’m talking about. Some of you are there right now and maybe that’s why you’re here right now. Maybe that’s why God brought you here because you don’t have to live that way. When I’ve run into people in burnout when I first talked about this a few years because of course when you’re burnout you can’t really help anybody. But, when you get to the other side and learn a few things and you actually feel healthy and joy. I’m 52. I just turned 52 this month. I’ve never felt more energy, more joy, more stable, more any of that than I have in my life. I’m incredibly hopefully and optimistic and excited about the future. But, a decade ago I wasn’t there at all.
I find at some point your faith, your character, and your hope get tested. Maybe yours is being tested now and if it’s not, thank God.
When I first started talking about this a few years ago, I said, I started [inaudible 00:23:10] saying, “Hey, if you’re under 40 this isn’t going to mean anything, you know. Just squirrel the notes away one day and if you ever run into this.” Because I thought it was a 40 and up issue. I remember the first time I gave the talk there were 1,000 people in the room and had this line up of people most of whom were in their 20s. They said, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no. That cynicism, that burnout, oh, no, no, no, no. That’s happening to me. I think this is a human issue. It’s not an age issue.
What happens when your faith, character, and hope get tested? Well, I think there are four options.
The first option is you quit because your faith, character, and everything get tested. So, option number one is quit. That’s what happens. Right? If you did the seminary route maybe one of your professors said, “Look around you. Look to your left. Look to your right. Only one of you is going to be here and finish in ministry when you’re 50, 60, 70 years old.” That’s what happening. Think about the people that you graduated with.
And hey, if God releases you from your calling by all means do not do ministry. You should only do this if you’re truly called to it. But, a lot of the people I know, I don’t think their calling expired. I think they expired. I think that’s happens. You just quit. You’re like, “I can’t do one more year. I can’t do one more series. I can’t do one more church. I can’t do one more decade of this. I just have to get out.”
We all have our fantasy jobs. Right? When I was burning out I had these things I would rather do. One of my dream jobs was stacking boxes at Wal-Mart. I was like, “If I could just stack boxes at Wal-Mart.” So, you take a box and you move it and it just stays there. Then you get another box and you move it and it just stays there because nothing in ministry stays put. Right? Nothing. It’s like, “I fixed this person and now they’re broken again. This person was staying and now they’ve left. I just want to be a box stacker.” I’d tell my wife about it and she’d say you really are crazy.
But, anyway, I was going to quit. And you have all these jobs. I can do marketing. I can sell cars and I’ll have sports car. Right? You can do anything, but God hadn’t released me of my calling.
In fact, I had a seminary professor who said to me one day … It was the most … Again, I said this morning I don’t have a lot of supernatural experiences, but I think this is one of them where were just in an evangelism class and we’re outside the class on a break like we would be on a day like today. We’re standing the hallway and I think we’re talking about the Blue Jays and the weather. Right? The Toronto Blue Jays, we both like baseball. In the middle of this most casual conversation. He looks me in the eye. He puts his hand on my shoulder and he says, “Carey, God is going to use you, but before he uses you He’s going to break you.” Then, just back to, “Yeah, so it’s supposed to be sunny on Friday, right?” What? What?
I never forgot that. Every time if there is a fender bender in the parking lot it’s like, “Oh, Lord is the breaking?” ‘Cause if God’s going to break you, you want it to be gentle. It’s like oh, the roast burnt. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s it, but I think this was the breaking. It almost broke me and that’s what happened.
If God’s released you from your calling by all means go. But, I think in most cases he hasn’t released you from your calling. It hasn’t expired, it just kind of you expired. That was an option I didn’t want to pursue was to quit if God hadn’t released me from my calling, but it happens.
The second option is moral failure. All of a sudden when you go through a dark night of the soul you understand because you know you love your wife, but you can’t feel that. Everything else looks more attractive. I’ve sat with guys who have gone through moral failure. By the grace of God, I haven’t. But, I’ve talked to guys who have been through moral failure. I remember there was one guy had a growing church. It was 400 people, which again in our country is a big church. Everybody was talking about him. He was the talk of the town. Then, word comes out when the church is at its zenith that he is sleeping with his assistant. Of course, he has to resign. His ministry and the church shrinks down to less than half of what it was. He shows up in the back row of our church just to go to church on Sunday. I took him out for lunch and I asked him, “Why did you do it?” You know, I’m a 30 year old leader trying to talk to this 45 year old who did this. I’m like, “Why did you do it?”
Do you know what he told me? The pressure was so great and I didn’t have the courage to quit. This was just easier. A bad answer, but a true answer.
I didn’t want to leave that legacy for my sons or my wife or my church. All these unchurched people coming to church and it’s like, “Oh, I told you he was corrupt. I told you this is how all churches go. I told you, you couldn’t trust these people.” You just give cynics a field day when that happens and I didn’t want that to be my story because I don’t think that’s God’s will for my life or my wife or my family, let alone my church family. So, you can fail, moral failure.
Another possibility, and I saw this in epidemic proportion when I was a young pastor, is what I call “just stay”. You stay. You’re not optimistic anymore. You’re not hopeful. You don’t really have any vision, but what else are you going to do with your life, right?
You don’t have any skills. You’re a pastor. What else are you going to do, right? It’s like seriously, I’ve kind of pigeon held … I gave up law a long time ago. What else? I can’t dig ditches. To quote Jesus. What am I going to do? So, I’ll just stay.
I saw so many guys in their 50s and 60s when I was a young pastor phoning it in. They were just waiting until their number came up and the pension plan, as small as it was, could pay their rent and they were done. I vowed I would never be that kind of leader. At 31, 32 I was like, “There’s no way I’m ever doing that.” I saw it in law.
You see it in industry. You see it in factories. I got a friend who told me a decade before he retired … He’s still not retired … It is this day in this year that is my retirement. He just stay. He’s like, “Oh well, just another day at the office.” But, your passion is gone, your life is gone, your hope is gone, and your joy is gone.
I didn’t want to be one of those guys. I said I would quit before I became one of those because that’s not fair to the church. That’s not fair to your team. That’s not fair to God if you’re just going to stay.
So, there is a fourth option. I didn’t want to quit. I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to stay. So, is there another options? This is a hard one to figure out. This is the narrow road. This is the one that’s really hard to get to, but I think it’s the best option. That’s simply what I call “thrive”. Is it possible after you’ve burned out, before you’ve burned out, without burning out. What are the conditions for thriving? How do leaders thrive? I thought, “You know what? I want that to be my story.” It took me years to figure out how to get there, but now six years on the other side, eleven years on the other side, six years on the side of full recovery, what I call full recovery, and eleven years on the other side of burnout, I feel like I’m thriving. I fell like, wow, that joy, that optimism, that hope, and that passion they’re not only back. They’re different. They’re better. They’re rooted in more solid things. They’re not just based on whether everything is up and to the right. There’s a joy in life. There’s a peace in my relationships. There’s a hope in the mission ahead of us. Is it really possible to thrive. I think it is possible to thrive.
Now, what is it about leaders who thrive, because I became a student of leadership in this last decade, and I’m saying why is it? Look at Larry. He’s on a plane back to California right now, but there’s a guy whose done this for 37 years. He hasn’t had a moral failure … Who actually has more hope. His biggest regret is he can’t do a 30 year plan because then he’s going to be 95 years old. Right? I mean he’s said that publicly, “I wish I could do a 30 year plan. I’m probably not at the point of my life where I can.” You meet those 70, 80 year old leader and they’ve got more excitement about the future than they memories of the past.
How do you become one of those? I remember watching some PBS documentary once and there was some literally bespectacled professor, all right. He’s got the tweed jacket. He’s got the bow tie. He’s got spectacles, not glasses and he’s sitting upright in his chair being interviewed on some historical documentary. They’re asking him about his field of research and he says with this lilt in his voice, “Well, that’s a fascinating question because we’re doing research and we’re beginning to think that it might be X.”
And I’m like, “Wow. You’re 80 years old. You’re still doing research and you’re beginning to think it might be like …” I want to be that guy when he’s 80 years old. Whatever he’s drinking, I’m drinking it. Whatever he’s doing, I’m doing it. I want to be that guy.
I want to be pioneering new thoughts, new ideas because the problem with cynics is that they know. The problem with cynics is like, “Oh, we know, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Cynics don’t care. That guy is curious and he’s open and he’s like … Oh, I want to be there.
When you really crystallize it, this is my conclusion: Leaders who thrive, who really thrive, see life for what it really is and keep their heart fully engaged. It’s a doubled billed definition.
You see life for what it really is. You’re not naïve. You’re not stupid. You know that people like Betty and John come to your church, they leave, and there’s no happy ending. You know that sometimes you trust somebody, you bring them over, and bring them into the inner circle and it doesn’t always work out well. You see life for what it really is. You know that everybody that comes to your church is not going to stay at your church forever. You know every staff member you hire isn’t going to work out perfectly the way it does in your dreams. You know that every day is not going to be a good day.
You see life for what it really is and you keep your heart fully engaged because what I wanted to do when I burned out, when I was 40 years old, is my heart was already feeling dead and I wanted to put it in a concrete vault. Nobody’s getting in again. I’m not trusting any people. I’m not trusting any leaders.
My wife said, “We need some new friends.”
I’m like, “I don’t need friends. I don’t need friends. I don’t want to seen anybody. I don’t want anyone over at house. I don’t want to go to anyone’s house. I’m fine. I’m done with friends.”
Do you ever feel that way? It’s hard. But, that’s a mistake. That’s how you become cynical. That’s how you become jaded. That’s how just kind of limp through life and how you lose your passion. I had to learn, okay, I want to see life for what it really is. I’m not stupid. I’m not naïve, but I want to keep my heart fully engaged. I’ve got to hope again. I’ve got to believe again. I’ve got to trust again. That means that sometimes I’ve got to be friends with somebody and it was probably a bad call. It will hurt and I have to allow myself to get hurt. That means that not everybody who joins my team is going to be on my team forever, but I’ve got to engage my heart. It means I have to be open. It means that amazing things start to happen. Your heart starts to be supple again. When you’re supposed to be happy, guess what? You’re happy. When you’re supposed to be sad because something bad happened, you start to be sad. Your heart starts to work again.
Leaders who thrive see life for what it really is. This is the real deal. But, you keep your heart fully engaged. Isn’t that what Jesus modeled? He knew the depths, this is in the Gospel of John. He knew the state of the heart of people. He knew how dark the human heart was, but he kept his fully engaged. Jesus loved til the very, very end.
I think leaders who thrive, if you think about people like Larry and others who are now decades into their ministry … I used to think, “Well, you know, if I was in San Diego that would work out that way, too.” Right? We have all these reason why it worked out for them and it’s not working out for you.
You know what I really believe, just thinking about this over the last number of years? I don’t think leaders who thrive are more gifted or competent than other leaders. They’re not more gifted or competent.
In fact, when you get around them you realize they have the same limits you do and I do. They make mistakes from time to time. Are they gifted? Are they competent? Absolutely, but I’ve met a lot of very gifted, very competent people who either burned out, got cynical, or took themselves out. There’s a lot of gifted and confident people.
I don’t think the people who make it in leadership and who thrive are necessarily inherently more gifted or confident. They simply overcame the temptations and the difficulties others did not because when you sit down with top leaders … I do a podcast. I have an opportunity to sit down with a lot of great leaders, some of the very best in the church today … You really hear their story, they’ve been hurt. They’ve been trampled on. They’ve been betrayed. They’ve had stuff go South. Not everything is up and to the right. But, they just overcame the temptations and the difficulties that took other people down. It’s not like they had it easier. They saw life for what it really is. They kept their hearts fully engaged. They decided not to quit. They decided not to fail. They decided not to put in time. They said, “I’m going to figure out what it is to thrive.”
So, I want to ask you as we wrap up today, how are you really? How’s it going really, for real? Just answer this for you. Truthfully, how are you really?
Start to think about it through different categories. Think about it this way. How are you spiritually? The last time you sang at church were you mouthing the words or were you meaning the words? Is it like, “I think that’s something I used to believe.” It’s not that you’ve really stopped believing intellectually. Of course, you still believe in intellectually. You just don’t feel it anymore and it’s been a long time since anything felt like a worship service to you. You kind of going through the motions.
When you read your Bible, if you read your Bible, is it reading you or are you checking boxes? What about the scripture? Is it alive? What about your prayer life?
If you stopped ministry tomorrow, what would be left of your faith? That’s a challenge I always give to my staff and I always give to myself. If I stopped this tomorrow, if a text message at the end says, “It’s all over. You’re fired from Connexus. There’s no more ministry. We’ve canceled your podcast. You’ll never speak anywhere again. All your contracts are done. You’re finished.” What’s my relationship with God look like tomorrow or is that what it was really all about? He loves you because you’re you. You got into this because he loves you and you loved him. Remember that? Remember that? That’s what it was about. So, how’s it going spiritually? Sometimes the answer isn’t that great.
How’s it going emotionally? That’s where I really got off the rails in my 30s. I made some false agreements early in my life. I’d confused approval with love and performance with love. Then it becomes this sink hole emotionally.
I would finish preaching on a Sunday morning and I’d say to my wife, Toni, I’d be like, “So, how was it?”
And she’d be like, “Oh, it was good.”
I’m like, “No, no, no. Good? Like what kind of good? Wasn’t it great? Don’t tell me Andy Stanley was great and I was good. That’s bad because we were on Andy. All right. Was it has good as him or was it as good as her?”
Eventually, she’s just like, “What do need?”
I’m like, “I don’t know what I need, but I need it.” It’s a sink hole.
How are you emotionally? The way your emotions should work is that you should be happy when other people are happy and you should be sad when other people are sad. That’s the way your emotions should work. If you’re burning out or you’re not healthy either you feel nothing or your emotions are all out of whack. Your daughter forgets to unload the dishwasher or pick up her clothes and you treat it like a nuclear meltdown. You’re like, “AHHHHHH”. One becomes an eleven. A staff member didn’t get something done and you’re like, “AHHHHHH”. Or you feel nothing. Or something really is a crisis, it’s an eleven, but you feel a two and that’s how you react.
Emotionally healthy people respond appropriately. A crisis actually is a crisis and a [noncrisis 00:41:50] isn’t. You should feel things. You should feel things. So, how are you emotionally? How are you emotionally?
How are you relationally? You know, relationships are hard in the church. They’re really difficult because you always are wearing the pastor hat or the church leader hat and do these people really like me or do they just like me because of my position? Is that why I’m invited? I don’t really know. Do you have authentic friendships? How are you doing relationally?
The other part of ministry that’s tough, particularly as your church grows, is everybody wants a slice of you. When you have six people it’s pretty easy, six pieces you know.
But when you have 3,000 people you feel like you’re being sliced to death. Then, you’re saying no to this wedding and no to that and no to this and no to that. Everybody wants to meet with you. Can we have breakfast? Can we do this and can we do that? Can I get a half hour of your time?
You know the other thing, the people who usually want to meet with you, they drain you. Don’t they? You leave some of those meetings and you’re like, “I either need a nap or a shower or a vacation and I don’t know which.” Right? Maybe I need all of the above. It’s a nap. Then a shower. Then a vacation. Right? But you’re like, “Ohhhh.” You woke up and you had so much energy. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon and you’re just like,”uggghh.” That’s what ministry is like because, guess what, you’re a helping profession. Sometimes you’re helping your staff and you’re like, “No, you’re supposed to be helping people.” But, that’s another story for another day.
You’re in a lot of draining situations. It’s give, give, give, give, give. Your life is kind of like a bank account. Right? Your life is kind of like a bank account. If the withdrawals exceed the deposits you run a deficit and eventually you go bankrupt. I was kind of relationally and emotionally bankrupt by 41 because everybody wanted a piece of me.
Well, when was the last time relationally that you got to together with friends and you laughed so hard you cried? I mean, your stomach hurt. Do you have those kind of relationships? Because I didn’t when I was 41. I do now.
When was the last time you were like, “We’re only going to get together for an hour.” And then four hours later you’re like, “Oh my gosh, what happened to all the time? Where did it go?” When was the last time you had fun?
Judging by your faces it’s been a long time. Right? But, that’s ministry. It’ll wear you out. I’m like, “Where are those life giving relationships?” Here’s a little tip. It’s a bonus point. Spend 80% of your time with the people who give you 80% of your results. Spend 80% of your time with your best leaders. The reason you don’t do that is they never ask to meet with you. Right? Who meets with you? All your problem people. The person who didn’t show up on Saturday. The person who missed their shift on Sunday. The person who’s complaining about the music for the 72nd time wants to meet with you on Monday morning. Right? Your whole day is spent with all the low performers and all the people who are the bottom 20%. Let them go to another church. There they can complain and not give and create problems. Right? You don’t need to spend your time with them. Spend your time with your best people. You’ll find it energizing. You’ll find it life giving. They’ll be amazed. They’ll be like, “Wow. You want to meet with me.”
And you’re like, “Yeah.” You’ll have a great time and suddenly you’re developing this leadership culture that’s amazing.
How are you doing relationally? How are you doing relationally?
How are you doing financially? Ministry is tough. You got in it for the money, I know. That was a mistake. Right? Every time you get criticism when you do a capital campaign I always thought … and these are things you can never tell your church. Right? But it’s like, “Oh, there you are asking for money again.”
What I want to say every time, “You realize this is not going into my bank account. You realize this actually makes me poorer because I’m giving to this campaign.” But people never get that. Right?
The source of a lot of marital breakdown and relational strife is just money. One of the best things you can do is have a financial plan. If you can just figure out where’s the line and how can we make this live. How are you doing financially? Because that stress is horrible on a family and on you. How are you doing financially?
Finally, how are you doing physically? How are you doing psychically? My first couple of years of ministry I’d put on a few pounds and I wasn’t feeling very energized so I went to my family doctor. I said, “I’m 32 years old. I’m struggling. It’s hard. I’m tired all the time and I don’t have any energy.”
He said, “Let me ask you some questions.” And he said, “Are you getting eight hours of sleep every night?”
I’m like, “No. I’ve got two kids. I’m not getting eight hours sleep. Do you know how busy my churches are?” I was like, “Do you know …”
He says, “Are you eating properly?”
I’m like, “Does Dairy Queen count? Because if it does, I’m doing awesome.”
He goes, “No. Are you eating all your vegetables?”
I was like, “Next question, next question. Okay.”
He goes, “Are you working out?”
I said, “Well, my wife works out. That’s great.”
He goes, “Okay. Well, I’ll tell you what.” He says, “Go home. Get eight hours of sleep at night. Eat properly and exercise.”
I’m like, “I wanted a pill. [inaudible 00:47:24] Can you just give me a pill? Isn’t there a pill that could make this better? I want a second opinion.”
But, you know what? He was right. He was right. It’s amazing what happens if sleep for eight hours a night. I slept for August 2006. I’d burnt the candle at both ends for so long. I wasn’t depressed. I mean, I did get up during the day, but I probably slept 13 hours a day. I was like a baby. I slept for 13 hours a day in August because I think sleep is basically like debt. It’s like money. You can run a deficit. Eventually it becomes a debt and at some point you have to pay your debt off. I paid off my sleep debt in August of 2006.
Since that time, I’ve been very careful not to run a deficit because I remember what burnout feels like. I don’t want to go back there so I book my flights really carefully and I don’t take … I’m very careful about when my meetings end and when they start. I make sure I try to get seven or eight hours of sleep every night. If I get a little bit tired then I’ll sleep a little bit more.
It’s amazing if you sleep seven or eight hours a night you’ll get more done than if you sleep four hours a night because your mind is sharper and your body is in tune. I produce more on the other side of burnout than I ever did in a decade on the other side of burnout than I ever did in 20 years prior to burning out. It’s amazing what you can do if you get healthy.
I’m not a big exerciser. My wife loves it. She was into the Jane Fonda tapes back in the day and the whole deal. I was always like, “Turn that off.” I hate exercising.
And the people who are like, “Oh, your endorphins …” They’re lying. Okay. They’re lying. I’ve never had my endorphins kick in.
Anyway, about 10 years ago I got a bike and I discovered that’s the only form of exercise I like. So, whatever it takes for you, because I hate exercise, but I like eating more than I like being unhealthy. So, I’ve got to find some form of exercise. Whether that’s cycling, joining a gym, Yoga, or whatever you do just find something that really challenges you and do it psychically.
Because if you’re in better shape physically, if you’re rested … Who was it? Was it John [inaudible 00:49:36] who said that 70% of discipleship is a good night’s sleep? There’s truth in that. A rested you is a better you. You’re a better parent. Right? You scream less when you’re rested. That’s true.
Here’s what’s true, crisis reveals character. If you want to know where your character is at, look at your last crisis because we always want to judge ourselves on our good days. Look at your last bad day and how did you fly off the handle. That’ll show you the low barrel stave of your character.
Because here’s why this is so important – ultimately character, not competency, determines your capacity. ‘Cause here you are developing skills for leadership, and you got a lot of insights for the course of the day, but you know what, you podcast listeners – you read books, you go to conferences, you go to events. You’re smart people. Your competent people. And you’ll buy into the lie like I did that your competency determines your capacity. It is not your competency. It’s your character. Because you know what almost took me out 11 years ago? My character. You think about all the super smart people you’ve met in ministry who got felled by a character defect. You think about athletes. Think about politicians caught in bed with somebody that they weren’t married to. Now, they don’t have a career anymore. It’s your character, not your competency that determines your capacity.
So, I’ve had to work twice as hard on my character as I have on my competency. And you know what? It pays off. I would encourage you, work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competency because you’re going to develop your competency. You’re that kind of people. Work twice as hard on your character.
Your character is your legacy. It’s what your spouse thinks of you. It’s what your kids think of you. It’s what your inner team thinks of you. It’s what your best friends think of you. It’s what your Heavenly Father thinks of you. That’s character work. That’s character work.
Here’s a question I want to leave you with today. Are you living in a way, today, that will help you thrive tomorrow? Are you living in a way today spiritually? Are you living in a way today emotionally? Relationally? Financially? Psychically? Are you living in a way today that will help you thrive, not just survive, not just be alive, but to actually thrive? Are you living in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow? If not, why not? If not, why not? What do you need to do to live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow? If you answer that question, pretty much all the other questions will answer themselves.
Let me pray for you.
Heavenly Father, I want to thank you so much for this group. I thank you so much for this day we’ve had together today. We’re heading back to our families. We’re heading back to our churches. We’re heading back to our callings.
I just want to pray for a minute for every single leader who realizes that they got caught in the headlights in this last session. For every leader who’s feeling like maybe they’re close to where I was a decade ago, who miss you, who miss you, who miss their spouses, who miss their kids, who miss themselves as they were a decade ago, 20 years ago, or 30 years ago.
God, thank you that you have never given up on us. Thank you that you love us so deeply. I thank you that, that love came to me in such a powerful way in the hour where I needed it most. I just pray if there is even a single leader here today who needed that, that you would let them know it’s not over. You love them. This isn’t the end of the story. This is just a part of the story. I pray that you would help them get the help they need, to tell a friend, to tell their spouse, to tell a doctor, to do what it takes to help them to start living in a way today that will help them thrive tomorrow.
But, above all Lord, I pray that you would help them to see that it is very possible in Christ to hope again, to believe again, and to trust again. And so, I pray that today as we close they would hear hope. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.