Leading Yourself Through Difficult and Painful Times

Like David, you can find your strength in the Lord your God.
Like David, you can find your strength in the Lord your God. (Flickr )

"But David encouraged himself in the Lord his God" (1 Sam. 30:6b).

Last year, I snapped out of a six-year battle with grief and depression. There! I said it! My church in general never knew, so it would be easy for me to never mention it beyond the ones who did. But I hope doing so will help others.

Church leadership at every level is, at some point, accompanied by personal pain. It's the nature of leading people where they've never gone before. Outward pressures take their toll on the leader. Soon the fierce enemies of grief, fear, anger, resentment, bitterness and depression begin to erode our emotional health.

A Season of Pain

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I became the pastor of Midway Church in 1996. Beginning in 2005, I led the church on a six-year transition from a traditional model to a culturally connected missional model aimed to reaching the young adults and multiple ethnic groups in our community. It was a difficult transition. The loss of relationships with people who left due to not believing in the new vision was painful.

The economic meltdown of 2008-2010 made the transition even more difficult. The church faced budget cuts and downsizing of staff while I faced the threat of personal bankruptcy. It took a massive toll on my inner self. And the feelings of loss were just getting started.

In 2011, both our daughters became engaged and married. In 2012, my father died. In 2013, my executive pastor was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. That same week my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died 10 weeks later, just a year after my father's death.

In 2014, I reached the age of 50. In 2015, my favorite horse of all time died. For 15 years we had explored and learned together. In 2016, my executive pastor died after his three-year battle with cancer. I hired another executive pastor, Dan Hall, who had been serving as my leadership coach for a year. We were just getting started together when a blood clot moved from his leg to his lung. He collapsed, damaging his spinal cord when he fell, and has been paralyzed from the neck down since.

The weariness of leading people through change combined with the deep losses I experienced took me to a place of pain I'd never experienced and into a darkness where it was difficult to see the future.

The Road Back

Last September, on the return flight after my first visit with Dan at the spinal center, something snapped in my inner self. I came out of my six-year battle with grief and depression. Other than a direct work of God, I have no explanation, but it really ended that quickly. I started dreaming about the future again and re-engaged to make it happen.

Like David, I found strength in the Lord my God.

I'm thankful for the help and patience of my wife, family, church staff and a couple of friends who could tolerate me. They saw me at my worst yet remained faithful and loyal. I'm thankful to God for restoring and renewing my spirit. There are many things and people who helped me, but near the top of the list is the process of emotional transition William Bridges explains in his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. It helped me prepare for the journey ahead, and as any leader knows, it's harder to lead anyone—including yourself—if you don't know where you're going. I hope you will find it helpful to spend some time examining each stage in depth:

The End—It's all about grief. It's a hard principle to embrace, but Bridges states, "Every new beginning begins with an end." It's important to end each stage well.

The Wilderness—It's all about chaos. Just like the Hebrews who left Egypt to reach the promised land, there's a point when we just want things to be back the way they used to be. It's at this stage people can become self-destructive.

The New Beginning—It's all about adventure. During the first two stages a person is focused on the past, but in the third stage the person begins to dream and focus on a brighter future.

I'm thankful to be learning and leading at my best again. And as you face challenges of your own, I pray that you can lead yourself into an adventurous future.

Todd Wright has journeyed with the people of Midway Church in Carrollton, Georgia, for nearly 20 years, during which time he has served as lead pastor. He has provided leadership training in the U.S. and 15 countries in Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe and South America. Todd is on the teaching faculty of Global Focus Inc. and the International Leadership Institute.

For the original article, visit lifeway.com/pastors.

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