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A Day Inside the Head of a Pastor

A Day Inside the Head of a Pastor
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
Ever feel like you’re two people? Or three? Sometimes when I reflect on who I am, I think I just swing from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. I’m not talking about struggling with mental health issues or being bi-polar. I have friends who are bi-polar and who struggle with mental health issues on an ongoing basis. I feel for them and I pray for them. And although I burned out at one point in ministry, for the most part, I don’t have any ongoing mental health issues. And that subject—an important one—is a very different topic. But sometimes if you get into the head of most leaders, it can feel a little strange and moody. This post is about the daily ups and downs and mood swings we all go through as leaders, and in particular, ministry leaders. Been there? One my favorite quips from Kara Powell is what she told me in this podcast interview: “Balance is something you achieve as you swing from one extreme to another.” I still smile every time I think of that quote. So true isn’t it? Knowing the pendulum swings of ministry and leadership can help you manage the pendulum swings of ministry and leadership. If you don’t understand the swings involved in leadership, you’ll be tempted to quit before you should. And you’ll likely be unnecessarily confused by the challenges of ministry. So with all that in mind, here are five mood swings I’ve experienced in ministry leadership:

1. I’m Doing an Awesome Job/I’m Doing an Awful Job

I realized early on in leadership that I’m really not the best judge of how I’m doing. For that reason, I’ve sought out feedback early and often. And yet I realize that as a leader, you’re often the last to know how you’re really doing. And your self-perception can be off. Left unchecked, I will often drift toward thinking I’m doing a better job than I am…or a worse job than I am. Neither is helpful for the team I lead. If I think I’m doing better than I am, I ignore problems I need to deal with. If I think I’m doing worse than I actually am, my discouragement can negatively impact the team. To stay somewhere in the middle is ideal. Getting formal and informal feedback from people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth is the best way to do this. So the question is…are you getting that kind of honest, real-time feedback? If not, what could you do to solicit it? The reality is that you’re not nearly as good as your best day or nearly as bad as your worst.

2. I’m Completely Overwhelmed/I’m So Bored

Leadership can be overwhelming. I have a fairly high capacity for work, but I still find myself signing up for more projects and work than I can handle in some seasons. I’m not prone to panic, but every once in a while I get that “What on earth was I thinking??” feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then…this almost always happens...once I get to the other side of all that work, I feel a letdown and I get bored, wondering whether I’m actually doing everything I should be doing. I think many A type leaders can relate. The key, of course, is to keep the challenges in balance…to load up with a healthy amount of challenge and then keep it steady. Easier said than done. But most days…I’m not bored.

3. Things Are Going Great Personally/I’m in the Ditch

Of all the journeys in ministry, the emotional journey has been the most surprising and the most challenging personally. It’s hard not to take ministry personally. Unless you really work at establishing accurate boundaries, when people leave your church, it can feel like they’re leaving you. When people criticize your message or your leadership, it can feel like they’re criticizing you.  Add to that my drive to take on big challenges, and sometimes keeping emotional balance is a weekly…if not a daily…task. After burning out 11 years ago, I’m more sensitive to it than ever. If you struggle to keep your personal journey healthy, I wrote this post about how to get off the emotional roller coaster of ministry. Hope it helps!

4. I Love the Church/I’m So Frustrated With the Church

I really love the local church. Seriously, I love it. I hear from the critics all the time (anyone who blogs does.), but they can’t deter my passion for the local church. And I love the church I serve too. Deeply. Most days, I’m thrilled with it. If you’re leading a church through change, or if your church needs to change, chances are you’ll spend more than a little time feeling frustrated by your church, and about your church. That’s understandable. Keep loving it, though. If you’ve led for a while and you’re still frustrated by your church, you might discover what I’ve discovered. That I’m not frustrated with the church nearly as much as I’m frustrated with myself. Why? Because I’m the leader. And somehow I contributed to the problem I can’t figure out how to solve. Frustrated by your church? Change what’s frustrating you and others. Frustrated by your church after you’ve led it for a long time? Then change yourself…you’re the one with whom you’re probably most frustrated.

5. Micromanagement/Abdication

Of all the pendulums that swing in my leadership, this is the one I have to manage most actively. Our church is too big for me to manage everything. Frankly, if your church is even 50 people, it should be too big for you to manage everything. And I can be a micromanager, especially in areas in which I’m passionate. I also happen to notice every little detail. Not so much in the things I create, but in the things other people create (I need other people to spot the typos in everything I write). If I decide not to micromanage, I can run to the other side of the spectrum and abdicate completely, a big sign that I’m losing interest. It’s a horribly perfect storm to create a demotivating work environment. So I check this every day. I try to make sure I micromanage less in areas of my passion and abdicate less in areas where I really have no natural passion. That makes for a much better culture: a leader who is engaged, but not controlling. Passionate, but not constantly interfering. And yes, it’s a work in progress.

What Are Your Mood Swings?

Those are five of mine. I promise you there are more. What about you? What are you always trying to manage? Scroll down and leave a comment!