By Carey Nieuwhof
When I began in leadership, I suffered from something that almost every driven, ambitious or even faithful young leader suffers from: I tied my sense of self-worth to the progress we were making as a church.
If we were growing, I felt good.
If people were happy, it made me happy.
As long as the charts moved up and to the right, I felt like I had purpose.As a young leader, for things to go poorly didn’t just mean I was doing a bad job (which might actually not always be true); it meant I really wasn’t good for much.
Don’t get me wrong. I probably never would have said that out loud.
But I felt that way.
I even had a never-stated belief for a number of years that if the church went through any decline, I would resign. I just couldn’t bear the thought of the church not doing exceptionally well under my leadership.
While there is something vaguely admirable about that, it’s only admirable in the most twisted of ways:
Resigning when things get tough makes leadership more about you than it does about the organization.
It signals to your teammates that they can only count on you in the good times.
It might mean the mission has become less important to you than your personal success.We all have to go through some tough seasons:
Seasons in which decisions didn’t translate into immediate growth.
Seasons in which decisions that were arguably good for the organization were unpopular at first.
Seasons in which hard work didn’t translate into momentum.To quit when things go bad for a season isn’t admirable. (So when can you leave, or when should you leave? I don’t think you should continue to lead an organization into prolonged ineffectiveness. In this post, I wrote about five signs that signal it’s actually time to move on. Additionally, many leaders miss out on huge growth if they leave too quickly. I write about that here.)
It takes more leadership to lead through a difficult season than it does to lead through a great season.
But it also takes a huge hit on your self-esteem if you’ve hitched your personal sense of self-worth to the progress of the organization.
So how do you decouple self-worth from progress? How do you unhitch the two so you don’t end up in a personal crisis the moment your organization hits a crisis and actually needs you to lead even more effectively?
Here are five things that have helped me.
1. Root your devotional life in Christ.
In ministry, it’s easy to confuse your work with your walk. Don’t. I try to pray about things I would pray about if I wasn’t a pastor. I read passages of the Bible I will likely never preach on (I use the One Year Bible plan on YouVersion).
2. Think of myself as a child of God first, and a pastor second.
To get into that space, just ask yourself a simple question. If you couldn’t do ministry starting tomorrow, what would be left of your Christian faith? If the answer is “much,” then you’re in good space. If not, you need to decouple your ministry from your identity. You were called because you were loved. You are not loved because you are called.
3. Have great people around you who love you for who you are.
Yes, you will always be ‘the pastor’ or ‘the leader’ to many. People will always ask you to pray at public events. But cultivate a few deep and real friendships where you’re just you. I have always refused to take on a title (I’m Carey, not Pastor Carey or Reverend Carey). One of the reasons I’ve done this is I want people to see I’m not that much different than they are. But I also need (and am fortunate to have) a few close, deep friendships where people see into me and through me and love me deeply.
4. Take the long view.
So you’re in a bad season. So what? Learn your lessons. Dust yourself off and get moving. Great leadership over time is not about going from success to success. Truly great leaders manage to find a way when it looks like there is no way. Don’t just look at tomorrow. Think about where you could be five years from now if you persevere. The sun will rise tomorrow.
5. Find a hobby.
One of the problems with ministry is it’s all encompassing. It’s hard to unhitch what you believe from what you do. So find a hobby. Take your mind off things. I bought a bike a few years ago. I write as a hobby. And even though it’s ministry of a different sort, it’s therapeutic for me.