Some time ago, former Pastor and Evangelical leader Rob Bell articulated a painful reality for leaders:
Leadership is “death by a thousand paper cuts.”
These metaphorical papercuts are the seemingly insignificant nicks that we occur along our leadership journey, but they add up over time. And they sting.
It’s one little scratch here. Another there. All of a sudden you realize you’re bleeding out very, very slowly.
And if you’ve led anything for some time, you’ve probably received a few of them already.
What are these papercuts? They can come in the form of a backhanded compliment that you receive after giving what you hoped was an inspiring sermon: “Pastor, your sermons aren’t nearly half bad as they used to be!” It’s the family that praised you two months ago that has now left your church for the big one down the road. Or, it’s the death of a vision you carried for some time.
So how do you deal with these inevitable wounds? Through my leadership role, I have felt these cuts and learned two important lessons that have aided me:
1. Figure out what you’re feeling
The ability to read your own emotions is an elusive, but vital skill in leadership, one that is difficult for a number of reasons:
First, life in the West doesn’t cultivate emotional reflection. The fast pace doesn’t enable us the time to self-reflect. We continue to work hard to pay mortgages, drive kids to soccer and try to go on dates with our spouses. If it’s not the pace, it’s the incessant noise coming from our devices: text messages, Facebook notifications and the six o’clock news.
Second, the personality of a typical leader doesn’t help either. We are often driven, passionate and focused on the future. It’s difficult to think about what has happened in light of what still needs to happen. Who has time to process when Sunday is coming?
Third, I don’t think being a male makes this easier. It could be just me, but it seems that emotional articulation comes easier to females than males. Most guys only know three emotions: hungry, tired and angry (when your team loses).
Finally, the journey in and down can be a scary one too. It’s the same eerie feeling you get when you know you have to dig out the Christmas decorations from the crawl space; it’s dark, cramped and worst of all, you don’t know what you will find.
Our feelings are indicators of how we are actually doing internally. And for some, the temptation is to remain numb. It seems to be easier – and less terrifying—this way.
For these reasons, it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern how you are actually feeling. But it is important.
Behind every papercut is a story, and in every story, there are often painful emotions.
Take time to fight against yourself and your culture to make some sense of your inner life.
2. What will you do with these feelings?
Once you’ve labeled your feelings, what do you do with them?
The ways in which you deal with the papercuts (disappointment, failure, insecurity, and fear etc.) will either release you to long-term ministry health or will disintegrate your integrity, leadership, and family.
Here are some unhealthy ways leaders deal with emotions:
First, the temptation is to medicate ourselves to cope. It does not matter your track record, upbringing, education, tenure or zeal – no one is immune.
Some favorite medications of Christian leaders are the misuse of power, unhealthy sexual appetites, pornography, substance abuse, food and escapism (usually some form of slothfulness).
Second, we start to vilify everyone we perceive is against us. It can get wearisome, always being defensive. In order to regain some control, we go on the offensive by creating false narratives about the people we interact with.
The good news is that although difficult and painful, each papercut is actually an invitation to make the gospel functional in your life. These painful reminders serve us as they speak of our re-occurring need for grace.
Grace is the cure. It aids the healing of your leadership pain. In His grace, God will meet you in your area of struggle and disappointment and speak words of life, reassurance, and hope.
So, when that power family leaves your church, you are reminded that these people were never yours to begin with. You realize once again that the Kingdom is bigger than your church’s address.
When that backhanded compliment comes, you see again how your identity cannot be rooted in your work.
Or when your vision dies, you get let go, the finances are in the red, the Elders turn on you, the conflict is too much, the desired change is rejected, the church plant fails, the staff member leaves, the church floods, your preaching is terrible, you aren’t seeing the growth you want…
…you see again that you are in much need of grace.
I wish I had this all figured out as I still struggle to understand how I am actually doing. But I realized a while ago that if I didn’t lead myself intentionally in this area, my default is to drift to being alive and busy, but feeling dead.
So, I have tried to do the following:
• Send out a monthly prayer letter to trusted friends. I outline what has happened, what is coming up and ways to pray for me, my family and ministry.
• I take one Friday a month for prayer, reflection, journaling, and dreaming.
• I have friends who keep me accountable and ask me hard questions.
• I desire to lead authentically with those around me; I try not to portray something, someone or somewhere that I am not.
Deciding to bring your papercuts to Jesus doesn’t overwrite them or dilute them; rather we meet Jesus in the midst of them. Often, it is in these moments when He becomes more real to us than ever before.
And if you’re a Christian leader, what more could you want or need?
Do you need some help in this area? I’d be excited to explore a coaching relationship with you.