Carey Nieuwhof: Prepared for the Challenge—Part 2

Helping church leaders overcome the seven greatest challenges of leadership.

Don’t miss part one of our interview with Carey Nieuwhof, thought leader, podcast host, blogger, author, speaker and founding pastor of Connexus Church, a large multisite congregation in Ontario, Canada. In his latest book, Didn’t See it Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences, Nieuwhof speaks to new and seasoned leaders alike about the challenges each one is sure to experience. He draws up a plan for how to prevent them if they have yet to arise, and how to deal with them if they’ve already become a problem. In part one of the interview, Nieuwhof talked about how he overcame his own personal struggle with burnout. Here, he breaks down some of the challenges he highlights in his book and offers practical advice for dealing with them effectively—or avoiding them altogether. “We think [these challenges are] inevitable,” he says of church leaders. “They’re not. My hope is that as people grow older, each decade brings more hope, more joy and more celebration, so that their 70-year-old-self is more expectant, joyful and optimistic than their 30-year-old self. I think that’s more than possible.”

Why are church leaders uniquely affected by burnout? Certainly, people in all professions experience it, but what is it about leading others on mission for Christ that causes so many church leaders to be affected?

It really is a big problem, isn’t it? A few reasons I think. First, we talk about spiritual health in the church, but often that doesn’t include emotional health. Through my 30s, I wasn’t very emotionally healthy. I was a performance addict, believing I was only as good as my latest results. I did not have my workaholism under control, and I wasn’t taking good care of my body and mind by getting enough sleep, exercise or rest. I also had no hobbies. That alone is enough to drive someone into malaise or burnout, but add rapid growth into the mix and you have a mean cocktail. A lot of us think that as long as we’re doing things for Jesus, it’s wonderful, even if what we’re doing isn’t fundamentally healthy.

On a very practical level, it’s not just large-church leaders who burn out; it’s small-church leaders too. A lot of that comes from the expectation of both the congregation and the pastor that the pastor will do everything—visitation, pastoral care, leading teams, preaching and leading worship, Bible studies, and everything else. First of all, that’s profoundly unbiblical. The gifts of God reside in the people of God, not just in the leader. And second, that’s a recipe for disaster for everyone. It creates an unhealthy co-dependency, and it just doesn’t scale. You’ll never grow sustainably beyond 200 people in average attendance unless you learn to develop and release teams and give yourself some rest, focusing on the area of your strengths.

Of course, I didn’t really understand most of that on a deep level until after I burned out. But now it’s pretty clear.

Challenges often sneak up on us so subtly that we don’t notice them until they’re a serious problem. In a culture that encourages us to work at breakneck speed, it might be hard to slow down enough to actually pay attention and recognize the signs while they’re still manageable. That’s especially difficult for leaders, who are often type A hard drivers. How do we fix that?

Driven people really struggle with this, so I get how hard it can be to unplug. After I burned out, I knew I had to find a new normal, and over the years I’ve summarized it in a single sentence I repeat to myself almost daily: Live in a way today that will help you thrive tomorrow.

For me, that means getting enough sleep every night, doing less to accomplish more, integrating a morning time of solitude, prayer, Bible reading and reflection. It means that every day I need to live in a way that will help me not just survive, but thrive tomorrow—emotionally, spiritually, physically, relationally and financially. I drill down on that to a level that means my phone has been on “do not disturb” pretty much 24 hours a day for two years now (I catch up with the world when I decide to catch up).

Ironically, taking more time off, resting, caring for myself, establishing a good exercise routine, cultivating life-giving relationships and saying “no” more often have led me to handle a lot more than I was when I was running around at 100 miles an hour with my hair on fire. Our church is almost three times the size it was before I burned out.

Now I write books, travel, speak, podcast, and write a regular blog, and I have more down time.

It really is a better way to live. And it involves taking God’s principles and directives much more seriously than trying to run the world single-handedly, which a lot of church leaders do.

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You wrote: “There have been sobering accounts recently of more than a few large-church pastors who struggled with pride. Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociologist, made a great point about why pride is a particular issue for church leaders: ‘My sense is that many of the celebrity religious leaders are well aware of and intentionally attempt to guard themselves against sexual and financial temptations. But they forget that pride comes before a fall.’” Though we all struggle with pride at one time or another, some church leaders have a particularly tough time with it. For them, where does pride come from? And how can they quash it when it’s so cunning, and they’re busy guarding against other more tangible sins?

Scott Thumma is right. Although pride is deadly, it seems like a more “acceptable” sin than an affair, embezzlement or addiction. While there are certainly church leaders who would fit a classic definition of narcissism, the problem of pride runs deeper than that. As I’ve thought through pride in my own life, I’ve come to define pride as an obsession with self.

Although I think most of us have narcissistic moments, for me the deeper struggle with pride stems from insecurity. And I think insecurity is more rampant in ministry than narcissism is. Insecure leaders are just as obsessed with themselves as narcissists. Insecure leaders feel threatened by having smart people around them, tend to hog the spotlight because they don’t want others outperforming them, and will hang on to power too long because their identity isn’t secure. So, for me, as I overcame my insecurities, I got a better handle on pride.

I don’t know whether you ever completely defeat pride, but I agree with C.S. Lewis that true humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less. So, I’m working on that as I try to make room for many other leaders and try to serve rather than be served. It’s a daily battle.

Every leader is a cynic at one time or another. In the book, you say the antidote to cynicism is hope, which is found in Jesus. So Jesus is the answer. But can you paint a practical picture about how we use hope in Jesus to combat cynicism?

I really believe the Gospel is the ultimate antidote to cynicism, but you’re right: that’s like saying Jesus is the answer to everything (which of course, he is). That’s why I point leaders to curiosity. As I wrestled cynicism in my own life, I realized the cynical are never curious and the curious are never cynical. Cynics already know the answer to whatever questions you’re asking, because they’ve seen it before and it doesn’t turn out well.

Curious people are just the opposite. Faced with a problem, they ask questions rather than run to depressing answers. They engage, they probe, they wonder, and they ask why and why not. Frankly, curious people are far more fun to hang out with than cynics, too. I’ve founded as I’ve cultivated curiosity, my cynicism has receded. So be curious — way more curious than you think you should be at your stage of life.

We encourage leaders to build their competency, but the same emphasis often isn’t placed on building character. What should it look like in the church leadership space for character-building to be more of a priority? How could that be addressed more holistically?

The funny thing about character development is no one will ever pay you to do it. They’ll just fire you if you don’t do it. So, the onus really is on the individual.

For me, the foundation of character development has been three things. First, a personal daily 15–60 minutes every morning where I pray, read Scripture and confess my sin. Confession is a lost art. Nothing is anyone’s fault anymore. Someone else is to blame, and we all love to be victims or above reproach because we have so much integrity. That’s just not true, and it’s wrong.

These days I’m even pre-confessing my sins. I realized that I wake up most days assuming I’m going to have a great day and before you know it I’ve angered my wife or said something critical to a team member. I also realized I tend to act the same way day after day. So now I go through the day with God and think through where I’m going to mess up and talk to him about it. It’s helping. Tim Keller and John Piper would call that dealing with your besetting (or recurring) sins. I think that’s a good practice.

The two other things that have helped immensely are intense Christian counseling and spiritual direction. I have been through a lot of transformative Christian counseling (I still see a counselor a few times a year) and I’ve had some incredible spiritual direction over the years. Socrates was right: the unexamined life is not worth living. Calvin also perceptively said that without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God. Too many leaders don’t know themselves well enough, and that’s where character development starts.

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But as much as individuals need to own this, churches could make budget and time available to help staff and key leaders see counselors, take retreats, and commit to helping their teams live in a way today that will help them thrive tomorrow.

Social media and tech have been great outreach tools for the church. They’ve allowed pastors to better connect with people and share their lives—and Christ—with an ever-widening audience. But that comes with a temptation to disconnect from their own lives in favor of too much time in a virtual space. How can church leaders maintain an active online presence without sacrificing their relationships with those closest to them?

We should approach social media the same way Jesus told us to approach money: It makes a wonderful servant and a terrible master.

I am very active on social but try to limit my time to less than an hour a day. I do that through “batching”—writing most of my posts at once and scheduling them to go out later. Then I jump in and reply and engage during breaks in the day. I also turn off all notifications, so my phone doesn’t blow up with replies and DMs all day. That’s in addition to having my phone on “do not disturb” all day.

The other practice—and this takes practice—is not to let the negative tone or comparison game get into your head or heart. You’re not nearly as bad as your 1-star critics say you are, and you’re not nearly as good as the 5-star people think you are.

Finally, don’t engage the trolls. You won’t win. As someone once put it: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig liked it.” That’s decent advice for church leaders, both on social and in real life.

You wrote: “I have spent most of my working life among groups of people who resist change. If you want to talk to people who understand resistance to change, hang out with church leaders for a while. For some reason, North American Christians tend to cling to the past more than they want to leap into the future. The decline of both faith and church attendance during the previous decades has been significant, and the relevance of the church to the culture has suffered as well. In my view, there’s a direct correlation between the two phenomena. Yet often Christians believe that since God doesn’t change, we don’t need to either. I’ve committed my life to reversing that belief. After all, irrelevance causes us to lose the ability to speak into a culture. There has never been a more important time for the church to have a voice, yet we’re at the point of losing ours.” It’s one thing for church leaders to make the choice to keep up with culture so they can speak into it and keep church relevant. But how do they bring their congregation along with them, especially if it’s full of people who are change-averse?

[Laughs.] That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? To my mind, it’s about letting people see the why behind the what. You have to show them what’s at stake. As Simon Sinek has said, people don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.

People don’t even like to change their diet or exercise habits unless there’s some compelling reason. But one visit to the doctor and a prognosis that you have a 90 percent chance of developing diabetes and suffering kidney failure in the next 12 months unless you lose 40 pounds is decent motivation for most of us.

So, where I serve, we relentlessly focus on the why behind the what. In the early days when everyone was elderly, we talked about creating the kind of church your kids and grandkids would love to attend. These days at Connexus, where I currently serve, we have lots of kids and grandkids, so we talk about creating the kind of church your unchurched friends would love to attend. And when their friends show up and love it, that’s pretty amazing motivation to continue to change. With Gen Z now becoming adults, we have a whole new reason to keep changing.

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