Relationships grow through healthy conflict, but growing through conflict has become a lost art. We need to learn to view and engage in necessary conflict as Jesus did, “full of grace and truth.” How do we do it?
Ten years ago this week I started my first full-time job as a pastor at Cape Christian Fellowship, here in SW Florida. At the time, I thought it was going to be a short detour before completing my education and moving on to fulfill other dreams.
God had a different idea. Instead, we fell in love with this church and embraced God’s call to put down deep roots in this city. I came in with great confidence, and a perfectly polished “philosophy of ministry” that had received an “A” and was ready to be field-tested. Ha!
The months and years ahead would be a time of great undoing. There were moments when I agreed wholeheartedly with critics and thought, “It’s hopeless.” Yet it’s at the place called “bitterness” (Exodus 15:22-26) where we truly meet Jehovah Raphe, God our healer. It’s at that place of undoing, that place when we’re searching for fresh springs of water and finding none —that’s where discouragement and self-pity turn into a living faith and the miracles start to happen.
As I think back over these last ten years, here are a few things I’ve learned that I didn’t know or fully appreciate when I started…
1. LOVE people!
Love people, not according to what they deserve or how you feel about them, but as Jesus has loved you. Elevate others above yourself, give away the credit, be long-suffering when they disappoint you, and don’t allow yourself to become jaded or put up walls when they bite you…keep loving!
No matter what you do, love people!
2. Peaceful presence!
Maintain a peaceful presence in the face of uncertainty and crisis. Leaders are thermostats, not thermometers —your ability to move from an anxious to a peaceful presence will help displace the toxic emotions that plague groups.
3. Grow through conflict!
Become an expert in conflict transformation. Never be defensive. Die to yourself. Pride is the ultimate defeater of spiritual growth and insidiously masquerades in the name of truth. A humble posture and peace-making skills are requirements for Christian leadership.
4. Establish a productive and life-giving rhythm!
Be highly intentional and proactive with your time. Find a model that works with your personality and be disciplined within it. Keep a Sabbath, schedule retreats, and know yourself well enough to know when you need to withdraw to a mountaintop. Advance in the stages of prayer and maintain a posture of receptivity to the Holy Spirit, living Coram Deo (before the face of God).
5. Live a life worth imitating!
Leadership is undeniably biographical. Make sure you embody well what you want to see in those you lead. No program or system can compare to a vision that has fully captured a leader’s heart. It’s highly contagious! You don’t need to separate your devotional and teaching life, just insist on being the first student of everything you teach. Practically, a life worth imitating also includes being a contagious optimist and an active listener.
6. Spend a lot of time with just a few people and include time for non-Christians!
The internal needs of a church can become all consuming. If you give your time to the tyranny of the urgent or to whoever knocks first, you won’t experience much fulfillment. Follow Jesus’s model with people (3-12-72) and make sure you’re personally participating in the Great Commission and leading people to Jesus. If it’s been a long time since you’ve led someone to faith in Christ, make it a matter of prayer and thoughtful reflection.
7. Lean into the pain!
Sam Chand once said that one’s leadership potential is in direct proportion to their threshold of pain. Here’s why: Growth requires change, change requires loss, and loss requires pain. We hit painful walls that force a self-inventory: is it worth it? Can we endure? We either decide it’s not worth it or we press through and allow “perseverance to finish its work.” (James 1:3) This is immensely helpful and highly encouraging when you hit those moments when everything in you wants to run away. Resist the desire to be accepted and understood by everyone, find the hard truth in even the most malicious personal attacks and criticisms, and refuse to make major decisions when you’re in a pit. That’s where the gold comes from!
8. Be accountable!
Leadership can be lonely if you let it be. Bring everything into the light, confess your sins, and invite some trustworthy friends to hold you accountable to specific areas of concern.
9. Be gracious with yourself!
God is gracious with you! Accept yourself as the Scriptures teach and reject envy, self-loathing, and introspection so that you can ultimately forget yourself and get on with the work of Jesus. Grace is God’s currency, it simply means “gift.” It’s the root word for forgiveness, talent, and gratitude. Give and receive it all the time, especially when it’s hard.
Why nine, not ten?
Ten just feels too neat, too tied off. In reality, things are never exactly as they should be. Resources are limited, expectations go unmet, and it just doesn’t play out like you imagined it in your head or drew it on the whiteboard. Nevertheless, Jesus builds His church! …Sometimes through us, sometimes despite us, but never according to our power, always by His Spirit!
We tend to view the commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” (Exodus 20:12) as being intended for children, but the primary audience here is adults caring for aging parents.
Providing loving care certainly falls under the category of honoring, right? Sounds pretty simple. Mom or dad need help —we should help. Then why is it that many of us struggle less with helping complete strangers than we do our parents?
Because there are wounds.
Walking out this commandment becomes complicated when the relationship with our parents is strained or broken. We see our parent’s failures as we emerge into adulthood. Things we didn’t notice as children, things we couldn’t have made sense of, now become a source of inner turmoil. Often we’re still grappling with unresolved issues —asking questions like, “How could she have?” or “How could he not have?” well into adulthood.
It can feel like a complicated layer of confusion and guilt as we struggle with the tension of honoring our parents while acknowledging their brokenness.
When it’s Personal
It was my mother.
I went through a period a few years ago when I started to deconstruct my childhood and judge my mother for her failings.
Withheld affection. Isolation. Words.
At first, I tried to ignore it. “Nothing good comes from digging up the past.” But I started to connect some dots between present struggles and childhood deficits. It’s sort of like the saying, “Once you know some things, you can’t un-know them.”
The pain was there, and something needed to happen if the layers were going to stop piling up. Realization. Judgment. Detachment.
For a while I kept the relationship between us mostly surface, but that wasn’t the answer. Detachment was just a temporary detour from the pain. The only true solution was to forgive my mother while also receiving forgiveness for my own judgments.
This required God’s grace.
The truth is, my mother did an incredible job in light her own upbringing. My childhood was nothing like hers. There were 11 or 12 spouses between her biological parents and she didn’t spend much time with any of them. She was treated as a nuisance and grew up fending for herself. She met my dad at a bar and the news of my existence came as quite the surprise. Throughout my childhood, my mother sacrificed almost everything to give my brother and I what she never had growing up. Her gifts weren’t time and affection, but rather opportunities and possessions. No one had ever loved her. No one taught her to love. But what she had to give, she gave generously.
Forgiveness (charisomai) is a form of grace (charis), and when grace takes hold of our hearts, empathy is a natural result.
Forgiveness was a lengthy process for both of us that included dusting off painful memories, acknowledging truth, repenting and expressing sorrow, and connecting with suppressed grief. It wasn’t fun or easy, but it was well worth the pain because it restored our relationship. We couldn’t believe the difference once we cleared out the minefield.
Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to restoration. Restoration requires a degree of humility to be able to listen well, put another above oneself, and extend grace. The great news is that forgiveness doesn’t require restoration. You can choose to forgive as an act of your will and allow God to fill you with His grace and heal the effects of sin.
But restoration is worth the risk of failure whenever it’s possible. My mom and I had a pretty dismal track record with conflict resolution. Healing family relationships is tricky because of the lengthy history involved and patterns and roles that become so deeply ingrained in us. It’s easier to tip toe around a minefield than risk detonating one in an attempt to clear the field.
What my mother and I found however, was that God used the conflict to grow us. Our default tendency is to ignore the past and/or to judge our parents harshly for their shortcomings. For us, risking the pain of conflict was well worth the tremendous healing that awaited us on the other side.
Recently, one of our mentors held a public tribute for her aging father. She gathered family members and friends for a living eulogy. It made me think of how I’m going to honor my parents in the days ahead. Honor holds several dimensions, but one of them is certainly blessing.
What would it take for you to bless your parents? How will you choose to honor them? If you haven’t done it yet, a great place to start is a forgiveness process where you learn to neither minimize childhood pain nor judge your parents for their shortcomings. And if there’s the slightest chance for restoration, it’s worth the risk.
This is my tribute to my mother,
“You decided early on to protect us from the brokenness in our family legacy. We were going to thrive in ways you were never able to. You made sure of it. You were our first line of defense, and the coach who constantly called out our best. You never stopped fighting for us. We never knew a day when we felt what you felt most days as a child, ‘I have to fend for myself.’ We were always able to risk because we knew you and dad built a home that would always catch us.
The more clearly I see the past, the more grateful I am for you. You have been refined in the fire like gold and we are the beneficiaries. A Liberian peace activist once defined Ubuntu as the recognition that “I am who I am because of who we are.” You’ve changed our family legacy into a story of redemptive grace where God’s love is made visible. And for who you are, not just what you’ve done, we honor you!”
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. – Romans 5:3-4 Continue Reading…
I’m bracing myself right now. Somehow, my daughter’s 12th birthday has catapulted us light years ahead into uncharted territory. We’re now planning her 13th birthday and the changes are coming too fast. Don’t get me wrong– I’m happy about it all, I just wish we could slow everything down a bit.
We’ve been researching how to help her celebrate and step confidently into this new chapter of life. In Stasi Eldredge’s book, “Becoming Myself,” she describes how some friends called their daughter into womanhood with a special ceremony attended by family and friends.
I love this!
First, they kept the ceremony a secret. Continue Reading…