Monday, September 9, 2013

Encouragement During Difficult Times

I walked down the spacious, comfortable hallways of the mega-church we were visiting. I was wearing my letter sweater, the one with the huge capital "F" on the front. The "F" was invisible to the human eye, but I was sure that most people could see it just as clearly as I did. "F"..."FAILURE!"

Amazingly, I was "wearing" my letter sweater on the very trip that was supposed to help our church recover from a train wreck. Months earlier, we were shocked by a series of events that left our church wondering if we were about to die. Most of our vibrant, young leaders had left to help start their own new church that seemed to mushroom in size overnight. In the meantime, those left with us were in pain, often angry and frustrated by what had happened to us. It was during the ugly aftermath of that perfect storm that I tried to gather some key leaders to trek off to a large, effective church so we could learn and re-calibrate our ecclesiological GPS (God Positioning System). Full of hope, leaders sacrificed time and money to board a plane and fly off to the midwest.

When we got there, the initial excitement about what we saw quickly morphed into frustration. Why wasn't our church more like that one? What had happened to cause us to fall apart so catastrophically? Surely we could recover more quickly than we were. The conversation kept progressing with increased tension. Finally, one of our young leaders -- a good friend -- pointed out the problem as he saw it. The problem, he explained, was that I wasn't a good leader. Though his words cut to the core of my being, I wondered if was right.

I tossed and turned that night, waking to the new day with more emotional pain than I could handle. As the morning progressed, I found myself walking down the spacious, comfortable hallways of the mega-church we were visiting. The invisible "F" on the front of that sweater felt like a flashing neon sign that everyone around me could see.

You might wonder why I took time to recall those painful days in my life. It's because that was the season when I discovered my need to keep a file. (No, it's not a file of information about leaders who have hurt me. With joy, I tell you that the young leader who hurt me so badly on that trip came to me right after we got home and sincerely apologized. We survived those relational rapids, friendship intact.) The file I keep is called "Encouragement During Difficult Times." It was during that same season of pain that I was blessed with many letters and cards from people I respect. They shared hope from the Scripture, reminders of ways I had helped them, and words of thanks for my work. One pastor who has a reputation of being insensitive and hard on others, sent me a long letter in which he expressed appreciation for me and the exhortation not to give up.

I keep my file and regularly add things to it. From time to time, I hit an emotional wall. While we have never again experienced a train wreck like the one I just described, leading ministry is hard work and fraught with challenges. When I feel like giving up or at least like screaming, I pull out that trusty file folder.

It isn't by accident that Thanksgiving is part of a healthy prayer life. God designed us to be at our best when we live with an attitude of gratitude. That gratitude begins with our relationship with Him, but it must extend to how we live every day. More about it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Can't join us? Catch the podcast here.