Although an important virtue of a leader, resilience is a characteristic every disciple of Christ is called to cultivate. James encourages his readers, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance’ (James 1:2).
I learned lessons in leadership from playing rugby. One of them was that fitness in sport is about recovery rate. Fitness is not just how fast you run and how hard you tackle once, it’s repeating that over and over again in pressure situations
Resilience is the capacity to recover and go again; to bounce back from tough times, from extended periods of work and pressure which we can all face seasonally in life. Marathon runners talk about hitting the wall during a race. There was a season in the ministry of the Apostle Paul where he hit the wall and wondered if he could carry on. He describes the experience in 2 Corinthians as so severe that he ‘despaired of life itself’ (2 Cor. 1:8).
Yet, out of that crucible of suffering, in which Paul felt his vulnerability so keenly, he discovered the power of the God who raises the dead. This wasn’t the first or last time that the great Apostle led with a limp and encountered God in the pain. Towards the end of his letter to the church in Corinth he sums it all up in that counterintuitive statement: ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12:10).
It is this willingness of Paul to confess his vulnerability that is one of the reasons for his resilience. Not for Paul the projection of some omnicompetent, invincible super-pastor. He tells it the way it is, ‘In our hearts we felt the sentence of death.’ Whatever was going on for Paul, it wasn’t just physical, it was internal and psychological. In modern therapeutic terms, we’d probably say that Paul was suffering from burnout or nervous exhaustion. He was having a major panic attack.
Sharing our story
Leaders, like Paul, who are willing to share stories of failure can be rare yet our churches need authentic leaders. ‘I don’t want you to be uninformed’, he says to the church at Corinth. ‘I’m going to tell you all about my troubles.’ That may not be what some of his prayer supporters and financial backers wanted to hear. Paul had his critics in this church. For many, he didn’t have the right leadership credentials, certainly not as far as the expectations of Greek culture were concerned. Leaders aren’t supposed to suffer with physical or emotional vulnerability. If they do, they don’t broadcast it. Paul took a risk in telling his story honestly and publicly.
There is great value in the power of shared experiences of pressure. Resilience in Christian leadership isn’t built by pretending things are fine when they aren’t. Living in denial is not going to help anyone, neither ourselves or those who look to us to lead with credibility. People can tell when we’re bluffing.
The capacity to endure is generated by facing those tough realities, sometimes by admitting that such circumstances have knocked us down, but that by God’s grace we’re back on our feet to tell the tale. Our leadership stories, at least mine, are not of scaling walls in a single bound or fixing every problem with ease, but of blood, sweat and tears and lonely self-doubt.
Boasting of our weaknesses
In the world of church today, we can be like Paul’s opponents in Corinth, unhelpfully influenced by the stereotype of ‘muscular Christianity’, in which real leaders have to be relentless warriors not wimps. In the online, digital world of influencers, leaders are encouraged to promote themselves on social media platforms, listing their achievements, the book deals and conference engagements, the latest podcast or video short. Yet, when Paul tells his story later in the letter, he says, ‘If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness’ (2 Cor. 11:30).
At the outset of his correspondence, this energetic, driven leader admits to an experience of weakness that overwhelmed and broke him. Paul uses the phrase ‘under great pressure’ (2 Cor. 1:8), to talk about his symptoms. This is how a Greek speaker would describe a boat weighed down with cargo – ‘I was carrying too much on board and I sank.’
In even more dramatic language, in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul writes of fighting with wild beasts in Ephesus. Does he mean that literally? Or is it a metaphor for those inner difficulties, fears and insecurities which often seem to have plagued him through life?
Was this time in the province of Asia one of his ‘thorn in the flesh’ experiences? We don’t know for certain but we do know that he suffered beyond his ability to endure and he doesn’t mind who knows about it.
Four summers ago I developed what turned out to be a particularly violent throat infection which wiped me out for the best part of a month and meant the cancellation of a holiday. Not only was I in no fit state to travel, I was in no position to return to work. In nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry, no doctor has ever had to sign me off on the sick for a single day, let alone a month for what he called post-viral tiredness. Yet, the physical weakness was only part of it. For the first time I can remember, I was not able to manage the normal fears, anxieties and difficulties which are par for the course in Christian leadership in particular.
We all live with pressures, some of us more than others, and every so often those pressures mount. This time around I began to experience what I thought was something only other people did, nervous exhaustion. Deep, relentless, overwhelming anxiety. To the extent that, like Paul, I felt I was drowning beneath the weight of it all. Perhaps the better word to describe my symptoms was suffocating.
Sometimes you may think, ‘Can I be a real Christian and yet be victim to such doubts and fears?’ ‘Can I really be a believer in Jesus and battle with these insecurities, anxieties and despair even of life itself?’ Take it from the Apostle Paul and from me, you absolutely can.
Leaders who are tasked with the sometimes unenviable role of giving the impression that everything is ok in the church when they feel the opposite, need to have the courage to be honest and authentic about what’s really going on. We are not to deny those pressures and push down the fears but admit to them. It may well be that in sharing the experiences of our very vulnerability, those we lead will find them a source of strength and encouragement.
The way of the cross
Like Paul we follow a crucified Saviour not a superhero. The way of the cross is the example of what it means to know God and be a resilient disciple of Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suffered in a Nazi concentration camp for his commitment to Christ, made the famous comment about the nature of faith in his book, The Cost of Discipleship: ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’
That can often be the experience of Christian leaders. We serve from a position of cross-carrying weakness. Yet this is the kite mark of genuine authenticity. More than that, it’s where the source of our resilience is found. For when we are pinned to Christ, we encounter not just the fellowship of his suffering but the power of his resurrection.
It takes an exceptionally brave missionary or pastor to compose a prayer letter that catalogues their difficulties, which admits that no one has been converted since the last time they wrote and that they actually feel like quitting. Yet I suspect such honesty would be something with which the Apostle Paul could very easily identify.