How do leaders defeat despair and overwhelming stress?
Every leader knows that lump-in-the-throat, knot-in-the-stomach feeling of anxiety that are indicators of our stress level spinning out of control. Successful leaders find that the more influence they have, the higher the personal cost. It can seem like everyone wants something from them. Even an act of kindness from others can seem like veiled attempt at manipulation.
It’s not only top leaders, pastors and youth ministers who feel this way. Student leaders are also subject to this epidemic of stress found everywhere. As I work through these feelings from time to time in my own life, I have found the following five ideas helpful in breaking through the downward spiral of what is at the core, feelings of insecurity and isolation.
- Spiritual Space: Spiritual leaders often feel less-than-spiritual because there seems to be no space to re-fuel. There’s truth in the phrase “you can’t give what you don’t have,” so if you think you are fooling people, think again. Sermons, Bible studies and Christian leadership are dry and dull if the leader isn’t engaged in personal prayer and devotion, regular reading and continuing education. The church cannot afford for you to save money on continuing education – in the end this ultimately costs them your well-being and the vibrancy of the whole congregation. Did you know that most outdoor ministry sites and spiritual retreat centers (including Lutherhill in La Grange and the Cenacle Retreat House in Houston, welcome you for the price of your meals if, as a leader, you need a study or silent retreat?)
- Get outside of your head: The more you stay in one place, both mentally and physically, the more one-sided the world starts to look. That’s when priorities get warped and our internal voice starts to sabotage us. High-energy, focused people can often replace one kind of engaging activity with another to be refreshed. Read a great novel, work in the garden, take up a new exercise (yoga?), learn to fish, take up needle point, anything that takes concentration and focus to physically and mentally distract you from yourself will work. Yes, you have time for this! This kind of recreation can re-create your energy in surprising ways. I often think this is what the call to live Sabbath is all about.
- Set boundaries and stick to them: People who succeed are often too willing to subordinate everything in their lives to their quest to serve others. Once you are on that path, it is hard to slow down, so set boundaries ASAP. If it feels impossible to make this change now, look ahead to the next month and manage your life. NO ONE ELSE can do this for you. Take at least one day off a week, healthy people take off two days a week! (Hint: Jesus had to go away to pray!) Put the phone, iPad, laptop or whatever device it is that tugs at you, aside for part of each day. Give yourself 24 hours to return emails and breathe!
- Stay close to your friends and family (if they are life-giving): Those country songs aren’t lying! Love can be a powerful force if you cultivate it in your family and among friends and colleagues. Love is the root of our self-esteem and self-confidence. Emotionally needy people have a hard time loving – they are busy concentrating on themselves. But building a support system – rather than living in isolation, will help you put your problems in perspective and have your own needs met in healthy ways. Even Jesus had a small group he relied on – shouldn’t we?
- Learn to trust, even if it hurts: Trust is fundamental to relationships and it does require vulnerability. Think about Peter’s vision (Acts 10). To trust someone, we have to let go of our suspicious feelings and imagine that they have our best interest at heart. This is not easy for leaders who have been burned, but distrusting everyone leads to isolation. Take an informed risk and start trusting some people! By modeling trust in the community you will actually build a movement of trust – I have seen it happen over and over. People who encounter a trusting leader want to be trustworthy.
- Just give: Every time I depart from my to-do list to travel on a cross-cultural immersion or to have a cup of coffee with a colleague, I return renewed. Why is that? After my recent trip to Bogotá, Columbia, I realize that it is because, even though the work is piling up, my anxiety is put on pause while I am deeply present with others. When I return I can focus, knocking out work with new energy. What feels like a sacrifice of time is actually a re-set on my priorities and a renewal for my heart. I am always humbled by the struggles of others. It helps me keep my own struggles in perspective; but more than that, when I give my time (my most coveted resource) I am joining God in God’s mission in the world, and it doesn’t get better than that.
Isolation is never the answer for leaders who are productive, fulfilled and energizing others. Our self-care is our responsibility. We can easily feel locked into the patterns of our lives, but if we can’t change ourselves we will never change others, much less our church. Psychologists have long observed the human tendency to attend to the negatives. Negative emotions narrow our focus to handle an urgent challenge and positive emotions broaden our options, enabling us to play, to explore, to dream and vision more creatively – and to build human connections. As a result, people with less stress and anxiety are stronger leaders. We are called to be the best leaders we can be and it starts with leading ourselves.