Pastoral Self Preservation

Dear Pastors and Ministry Leaders,

I’m pretty adept at self-preservation—building walls to protect myself. These walls often prevent me from disclosing too much, from entering deeper relationships, from bringing challenge to others, from succeeding in certain areas because of fear, anxiety or trying to prove something.  And I’m not alone.

Prior to studying for my MA in Biblical Studies, I decided to enter a MA program specializing in Marriage and Family Therapy at Azusa Pacific University. To prepare myself, I took a number of undergraduate classes in counseling and psychology. I quickly learned about the many walls people put up to protect themselves. And I became more aware of the walls I had built to protect myself.

I built walls to keep people out, and I built walls that prevented me from fully opening up to God. The irony, of course, is that walls mean nothing to God—he sees right through them. This doesn’t, however, prevent us from attempting to build them.

A few years ago, I needed to bring high challenge to a few people I worked with. I asked my peers to pray about the situation, asking them to ask God to give me clarity and courage. I was in a leadership training session and brought the topic up on more than one occasion. At one point the leadership consultant turned to me and said, “Rick, we all believe you know what you need to do. What is preventing you from moving forward?” Then he brought out the GiANT tool “SELF PRESERVATION” to emphasize his question.

“Here are three questions you may want to consider,” he said, “Let’s start with the first. What are you afraid of losing?”

It was a good question. I knew the answer, but I didn’t want to admit it. After a few moments I said, “I’m afraid when I bring this challenge, they won’t like me anymore. I am afraid of losing relationship.” This admission was the start to seeing the situation differently. In striving to be a healthy leader, I could focus on being liked, or I could focus on leading leaders. My healthy leadership goal is to be liked by those I lead; reality reminds me I may not be liked by everyone and that’s OK; I still need to lead.

Self-preservation is something we all face. Let me share a few self-preservation statements I’ve heard from pastors and ministry leaders over the years.

  • If I train this person, he/she will end up taking my job and I’m not ready to retire.
  • I don’t need to train anyone, we are a small congregation and I don’t need any other leaders.
  • I spent three years working with someone who ended up leaving the congregation and serving at another church.
  • New leaders make too many mistakes. It’s better if I just do things myself.
  • I really don’t have anything to offer another person.
  • Truth be told, I feel unqualified to lead, so how can I help others lead? They will soon see how much I don’t know.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Walls are easy to build, and we may have multiple walls. Let’s briefly look at all three questions and the impending result.

What am I afraid of losing?

I was afraid if I brought challenge I wouldn’t be liked as much. Guess what? That’s true some of the time. At other times, however, relationships have deepened as a result of bringing challenge. Some people get offended when you bring challenge; others are grateful. I learned a long time ago that taking offense is a choice. For me to take offense requires me to conclude your intent was to offend me. Even if that is the case, grace should cover even intended offenses. To build healthy leadership teams, it is sometimes vital for leaders to bring challenge. The GCI mantra is High Support, High Challenge, Grace Always.

If you train someone who ends up being more qualified than you, God bless you. That’s true leadership – coupled with humility and grace. That doesn’t mean that person will take your job. But when the time comes for you to turn over the reins, you can rest assured your congregation will be led by a healthy leader. If you train someone and they leave and serve another congregation or denomination, you’ve still blessed the body of Christ. And again, God bless you for it.

What am I trying to hide?

Most of us spend a lot of time hiding our insecurities and fear of failure. I’ve never met a current denominational leader who believed he or she was perfect for the job. All of us feel inadequate and insecure on our own, and we thank God we are not on our own. Jesus is the head of the church, and the perfectly healthy leader. The Holy Spirit continually teaches and guides us. Healthy leadership includes knowing our limitations and finding others who can help fill in the gaps. All of us have brothers and sisters who help make us look good; that’s the sign of a healthy team.

Give your insecurities over to Christ. Acknowledge your mistakes and failures – learn from them. Let others learn from their failures. When they do, they likely won’t make the mistake again.

What am I trying to prove? To whom?

Years after my father had died, I found myself still trying to prove my worth to him. Because I grew up in a non-affirming household, I found myself constantly seeking approval and affirmation. Over the years I’d been told by several that I would never be in pastoral ministry. Sometimes I find myself wanting to prove to the nay-sayers that I made it. These are unhealthy self-preservation tools that not only prevent me from being a good leader, but also keep me from developing some good relationships. When my focus is on self-preservation, my focus is on me. See the problem?

The solution to getting past this wall of self-preservation is knowing who we are in Christ. My real identity is child of God, and the same is true of you. You are a beloved child of God because of who he is, not because of what you’ve done. You are chosen, adopted and loved because of a Father who loves you, not because you have to prove anything to him or anyone else.

What walls have you put up? What are you afraid of losing? What are you trying to hide? What are you trying to prove? To whom? Asking and answering these questions from time to time helps us break down the walls of self-preservation, enabling us to build deeper relationships and influence leaders.

And if you really want a challenge, ask other leaders in your faith community to help you acknowledge and face your walls of self-preservation.

Breaking down the walls,

Rick Shallenberger
GCI Equipper Editor-Publisher and US Regional Director

10 thoughts on “Pastoral Self Preservation”

  1. “Taking offense is a choice” True, as implied in the article, some offenses are ‘perceived’ and at other times, they can be ‘intentional’. The implication is that both the ‘sender’ and the ‘receiver’ could be correct fifty percent of the time. The word of God in Proverbs 18:19 (MSG) says, “A brother offended is harder to win over than a fortified city, And contentions [separating families] are like bars of a castle”. This verse tells me that great care by the ‘sender’ should be taken to avoid such conflicts. In my work as a counselor and school psychologist, telling a person who was offended ‘I’m sorry that you chose to be offended’ , is like putting a cast on a broken leg, when in fact, the heart is shattered. Proverbs reminds us how difficult and harmful offenses are and that let’s not assume that only the ‘receiver’ builds walls. I feel it is especially incumbent upon the ‘sender, and as well as upon the ‘receiver’ to move toward authentic no-fault reconciliation.

  2. Great article Rick!

    It is a blessing to be reminded that we are joining Jesus in the work He is already doing and that we are not trying to fill some monthly quota. Having come from a background in factory work where the quota mentality (meeting production requirement efficiently) determined your level of success, I have had that mindset ingrained into my mind for many years. It remained even after I entered ministry.

    When I find myself filling out monthly reports, I have had to seriously work on changing my mindset from one of “I am inadequate to the task and they are checking up on me.” to one of “this is a high challenge, high support environment and I am being encouraged in many ways to deepen my relationship with Christ so that I may be faithful in the calling, no matter what the result may be.”

    I am reminded of the “success” of the prophet Jeremiah’s calling. From a purely human perspective of what determines success, we do not see his mission as having been successful. Yet in spite of what we would consider failings, he remained faithful to what God directed him to do and in that, he succeeded to be an example of faithfulness in adversity. In God’s eyes, due to his faithfulness, he was a great success.

    This article reminds me to seek God’s direction, answer the call faithfully and let the Holy Spirit determine the results instead of me seeking to prove myself to Him. I am joining Him in His mission and not the other way around. Thank you for being the willing vessel to deliver this reminder.

  3. Thanks Rick, i may use this excellent material as a segment for processing and reflection in a leadership retreat.
    Great stuff!
    Eugene

  4. Thank you for following the Holy Spirit’s prompting and sharing these encouraging and inspiring words. You are a blessing to everyone who reads this.

  5. Thanks Rick! My wife, Faye, has told me that my sermons that have the greatest impact are those in which I use one of my many faults and my process in overcoming as an example of encouragement. That is a type of sacrifice and you did that for our sake (in this article). How can we not love you for it!

  6. Rick, after reading all the other comments, I decided to write the rest of what I wanted to share. Upon intensely studying one of the “Your Included” videos with Dr. Stephen Seamands, I prepared a sermon series on being “RYDLD”. God is Relational, Yielding, Deferring, Loving, and Delighting. (Very similar to Greg’s “REAL”). Applying RYDLD to my marriage is huge and has a major impact on those we come into contact with. Applying it to my teaching and coaching made my students open up about many things in their personal lives (such as cutting) wanting to learn, etc., their parents were endeared to me and trusted me, my fellow faculty were greatly encouraged and my principal became like a son to me. Your article is a result of being in the RYDLD state! Thanks again and keep it up.
    Love you brother,
    Tony

  7. RICK UPON READING THE OUESTION YOU PERPOSE MY COMMENT IS I FEEL LIKE THE HOLY SPIRITIS TALKING TO ME , WHAT YOU ARE SPEAKING ABOUT HIT HOME THANKS A LOT .

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