Leading through these uncertain times feels familiar. I don’t like it.
In my socially separated circles, 2008 is best known for the recession caused by the housing market crash and the Phillies winning the world series. The latter brought me great joy in the midst of chaos and heartbreak. The former didn’t even make my list of challenging circumstances. While most pastors were wrestling with the financial fallout and challenges that were affecting their churches and the people they loved and shepherded, I was walking through the most difficult year of my life. It was a year that would crush me as I was trying to figure out how to lead in a brand new ministry capacity in the midst of personal tragedy.
Late in 2007, my mom had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She fought hard and the treatments kept her from losing ground until the turn of the new year. Though I didn’t want to admit it in the moment, the beginning of 2008 marked the beginning of her decline. Things would get progressively worse in unimaginable ways.
I was on a winter retreat with a number of students and leaders on March 1st 2008, when my dad called me unexpectedly. I could hear the quiver in his voice and right away knew something was terribly wrong. My instant reflex was to assume that my mother had passed away. Instead, my father told me that my youngest brother, 19 years old, had been in a car accident. I could feel my gut turn. Somehow I knew the answer to my next question before I even asked it. My brother Caleb didn’t make it. He was gone. I was crushed, broken, destroyed.
Somehow words in the English language struggle to capture the human experience in moments like those. My world had been turned upside down. Two weeks later on March 14th, my mother passed away. Our family was forever altered. The “normal” we loved, had even taken for granted was forever ripped from us. We would never be the same. Three months after my mom and brother passed into eternity I took the baton my father, and his congregation, handed me and began my role as the Lead Pastor of Grace Free Church.
All of a sudden I found myself trying to lead change and shepherd people while struggling on a personal level like I had never struggled before. I was stretched past my emotional limits and my leadership skill set was far too underdeveloped for the challenges that year would present.
Leading through the pain and disruption I was experiencing was a mess.
Last Monday, March 30th, 2020, I was finishing preparations for a sermon I was to preach the next day. I preach sermons on a Tuesday now, so they can be produced for online services on Sunday. What a strange turn of events. As I sat alone in my kitchen, emotionally and physically exhausted, grief overwhelmed me again and I wept. It was a different kind of grieving but it was grieving all the same. I was grieving all that has changed in these last few months. All that will continue to change over the next few months. It was the first time I had wept since COVID-19 changed our word. That moment felt strangely familiar. Too many nights in 2008 I sat alone after the world had fallen to sleep and wept. As I sat there and reflected on the past two weeks something else felt all too familiar. The last few weeks had felt like what it felt like leading through 2008.
When I say parts of leading now, in this new world forever altered by a virus, feel familiar, I know many of you can relate. You likely have stories of leading through trials and loss and difficult circumstances. It is a commonality I wish none of us shared, just as I wish none of us have to lead through the difficult circumstances we will be faced with in the upcoming months as we work toward a new normal. I don’t have a lot to offer from my leadership experiences in 2008, except some lessons I learned the hard way, struggling and often failing as people looked to me for direction. I am also keenly aware that there are those who have led far better than I ever could through much greater and darker trials. They likely have more wisdom to add to our current circumstances than I ever could. But maybe the lessons I learned and am trying to remind myself may be of some encouragement to you.
What I experienced in my walk with Jesus and in my own leadership development that year has been extremely valuable to me over the years. Now, in what seems like familiar waters, I find myself calling these lessons to mind and to heart again. So, I thought I would share them with you.
GRACE IS SUFFICIENT
Talk about a year full of leadership blunders. That was it. As I reflect I shudder at the naiveté and inexperience I displayed in my brand new leadership roll. It was a year where the thorn in my side felt more like a sword. There were times I was so distracted and angry. But I learned that God still uses broken leaders. He can work through our mistakes. He can make His power known through our weaknesses. That is something we all know but it encourages me to live in it as a leader.
You don’t have to come up with the idea that saves your church or makes a drastic impact in your community. You don’t have to be perfect or have all the answers. You don’t have to know what to do right now, or tomorrow or next week. God is going to do something in you and through you, keep depending on Him and just follow His lead. Leading in difficult times is a heavy task. We need not take on the burden of trying to be the perfect and inspiring leader. God’s grace – It’s always been His grace. I am reminded to hold it close to my chest in challenging times.
PROTECT YOUR FAMILY
My wife would tell you that I became emotionally unavailable during that year. I am ashamed to admit it, but she was right. Thank God for her – she is the hero of our home. It is scary to think about what would have happened to our young family had it not been for her protection. She protected what was most important while I had emotionally checked out. It wasn’t intentional, I was just destroyed on the inside, emotionally exhausting myself at work and thought it easier to turn inward and close myself off from the people who loved me the most.
I wish I would have engaged at home on a deeper level. I should have focused on home first and work second. I should have taken more time off. I should have cast off the self inflicted pressure to prove myself to a congregation that wasn’t asking me to prove myself. I would have healed faster and I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my grief. It is a reminder for me now to pay attention to home. To be present, to talk and share fears and hopes. I’m not always great at it but I hope I am getting better.
I am trying to take more days off. To check out of work more and to check in at home often. What I really needed to learn that first year was to protect my home by making it my first priority. In difficult stretches it is easy to spend all of your emotional energy helping everyone else and then be empty and worn out when you get home. Through all of this change and chaos, lead in such a way that you bring your family through these difficult times well first. Then bring your church and community through it.
PLAN TO PROCESS AND GRIEVE
Grieving is such a tough thing to talk about. I would never tell you how to grieve, but I will tell you that you need to create space to process our current circumstances and grieve what has been lost. The last two weeks I worked hard to lead well, inspire others and share hope with our community. When I couldn’t do it anymore because I was being stretched too thin, I escaped to physical labor around the house. It wasn’t until the tears started flowing in my kitchen that I realized I hadn’t spent any time processing my own feelings and grieving my own loss of normalcy. I need to create space to be still and to process my feelings like David did so well in the Psalms. As a leader walking through difficult times practicing the heart David displayed in Psalm 13, for example, can be a powerful and freeing spiritual discipline. Most importantly is keeps us connecting to the one who sustains us as we press on. God is close to the broken hearted and I need Him close as I lead through the months ahead.
One of my brothers went to see a grief counselor after the loss of our youngest brother and mom. I didn’t. I wish I had. I made a ton of excuses that year as I avoided talking to anyone about what I was going through. The excuses I used probably sound familiar. I don’t have enough time. My congregation needs me. My community needs me. I’ll get to it after this crisis is over. I have friends. I have pastors. I’m fine. This is normal.
But it wasn’t normal, and I wasn’t fine. I should have made time, it would have helped my congregation and community to talk about things I couldn’t say to my friends and even my pastors. What I realized about grief counseling didn’t really hit me until we started offering some programs for grieving individuals as a church. People need more tools to deal with pain. Especially when they are leading through pain. I need more tools to deal with pain and loss. Counselors, Crisis Management Professionals and other experts have tools that can help us grow as individuals and tools that will help us lead well through difficult times.
By God’s grace, I got this one right. One for five isn’t bad right?!?!?! It is so important to be transparent all the time about your journey. I love how transparent scripture is. We see it all and it all points us to the hope we share in Jesus Christ. I have felt the pull to hide my own struggles from the people I lead. It is easier to share an impersonal illustration that may get a laugh or two than it is to share a personal story of struggle and eventual hope in Jesus.
But the world isn’t looking for plastic platitudes, they want to see something real, something that will give them real hope and real strength. Some of the best moments of 2008 came from God working through transparent conversations about death and life that I had with individuals who were secretly searching or struggling themselves. We have nothing to fear and as people of the Way, our stories ultimately point to a much better story. A story the world so desperately needs to hear and see. The story of Jesus Christ, the cross and the empty tomb.
It feels weird writing this post, but it also feels better. Somehow it is good to remind myself, out loud or in print, of these lessons I hold so dear. Two thousand and eight didn’t last forever and neither will this. There is only one forever and we will be spending that forever in eternal bliss with God through faith in Christ. Until then, God is moving. He will bring a new normal, he will heal us and grow us and make us more like Christ. Until then I hope and pray we can take care of ourselves and each other as we lead a movement of Christ followers through challenging times and see the kingdom expand like we haven’t seen in our lifetime.