Facing Conflict and Criticism in Leadership

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I like to lead things. As a former high school English teacher, I loved to sit down in the summer and map out my curriculum for the year. Although I had state standards and department guidelines, I had quite a bit of autonomy as far as how I wanted to arrange the texts and teach the content. The decisions about how I wanted to present the information and break down the concepts were very much up to me. And I liked it that way.

However, what I didn’t like so much about leadership was the pressure I felt to make the right decisions and the pressure I felt to appease others who critiqued me on the decisions I made. My last year teaching, the week before school began, I developed painful cold sores all of over my tongue. I was that stressed about a new course I was teaching. I did make it through that year — but not without any conflicts.

Though my teaching days are past, I am relearning again through heading a ministry that leadership is hard. It brings with it all sorts of problems and conflicts. Part of the reason I felt so much pressure my last year teaching is because I didn’t feel I was adequately skilled to teach that particular course. I felt that any criticism that came would most likely be valid. Similarly, I don’t feel skilled enough to be doing what I am doing now. Because my own self-confidence is so precarious, it can feel extra-debilitating when I get criticism.

A story that I have been gleaning much from as of late is the story of David. He provides some interesting lessons in dealing with conflict as a leader:

1. Sometimes criticism comes even when we’re doing the right thing.

As I mentioned in my previous post, David was unfairly criticized by his brother when he brought supplies to the battlefield. His brother confronted him and said, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle” (1 Samuel 17:28). David had been told by his father to go to the battle and had no bad motives. The scene highlights an example that I think will happen to all of us who decide to attempt to lead or put ourselves out there in some capacity: we will get criticized even when we are making the right decisions or do what God told us to do.

This idea that sometimes another person brings up a problem “just because” has been very freeing for me personally because I am the type of personality who over-analyzes things and hyperventilates when any sort of issue is brought to my attention: I immediately assume I did something wrong. My mind goes into overdrive, and I start feeling shame and all sorts of horrible feelings even if I made the right choice. My insecurity makes me tend to believe that the people around me and second-guess myself.

One thing I found really surprising when I told other people what I felt God called me to in ministry was that some people just did not believe me. I really have no idea why I thought everyone would be on the same page as me (but, I did think that), and I was very confused and rattled when I didn’t feel others’ support. The resistance I felt made me feel like I should just quit.

If we are in that place where a spouse, close friend or another acquaintance that we respect does not believe what we are saying, it can make us hesitate and doubt the calling God has given us. However, when God chooses us and calls us for a particular task, He makes it very clear. I had multiple confirmations — through sermons, books I read, prophetic words — and God speaking directly to me.

Sure, we need to listen to feedback and advice, but we also need to really look at the place and the person this criticism is coming from. We need to ask God, “What should I be taking away from this conversation?” And just know that although it’s good to listen to others and not put ourselves up on an unreachable pedestal — some criticism we just need to throw out.

2. Sometimes the biggest critic you need to silence is yourself.

Shortly after David’s conversation with Eliab, he walked out on the battlefield in shepherd’s clothes, and took the mighty Philistine down with a stone and a slingshot. David’s approach to Goliath was much different than Goliath’s approach to him. While Goliath trusted in his size, his impressive sword, spear, and javelin, David trusted in the Lord (1 Samuel 17:45).

David put his confidence not in outward things — but in He who was within him. He was confident that God had equipped him already, and he acted like it. Because I often feel acute self-doubt, the lie that I am often tempted to believe is that I would be better at what I do if I had this trait. Or if I were more like this person. Or if I were more impressive looking. Or if I were like Goliath and respected by everyone.

Because as much as I know that I have been equipped to do the work of God, I don’t always feel that way. I fall into a trap of trying to be impressive with my skills rather than in relying on God in all situations. Because of the comments or reactions of a few, I feel extra pressure to “prove” myself. Not only do I feel torn down from the outside, I have a critic inside my head that is louder than the voices outside.

In regards to writing for this ministry, I rarely meet my own standards. And it frustrates me. I often write several versions of a post. I tear apart what I’ve written. I worry about choosing the best words and making my articles really amazing. But that is not important to God. It’s vanity, really.

I came across a piece of writing by D.L. Moody, and he says this: “The message is more important than the messenger.” Moody argues:

If God has given you a message, go and give it to the people as God has given it to you. It is a stupid thing for a man to try to be eloquent. MAKE YOUR MESSAGE AND NOT YOURSELF, the most prominent thing. Set your heart on what God has called you to do, and don’t be so foolish as to let your own difficulties or you own abilities stand in the way.

I have to agree. I can get past that critic inside of my head when I make God’s message He wants to convey through me the most important — rather than the way I convey it. God’s servants don’t need impressive displays of skill or might — the One inside of us should be the most impressive thing about us.

3. Sometimes the best reaction to conflict is to wait for God.

After David had fought Goliath, he was utilized by King Saul and sent on many more military conquests — and David was successful in every one. So much so, that Saul became jealous of David and wanted to kill him. In one particular scene, David followed Saul out of a cave, cut off a piece of his robe and then thought better of it and refused to retaliate against the murderous Saul (1 Samuel 24:1-21).

Softened, Saul’s reaction was to return home. This was not the last time he tried to kill David, but we learn that David’s approach was very wise. He did cut off a piece of Saul’s robe, but he then restrained himself. Although his men urged David to kill Saul right then and there, David did not feel that the Lord had delivered Saul into his hands. Therefore, he chose to use self-control and put the situation in the Lord’s hands. And certainly, his self-control was called upon again as Saul pursued him one more time (1 Samuel 26:1-14). But in both instances, David respected that Saul was the Lord’s anointed and would not put a hand against him.

It’s tempting to retaliate when we get in situations where people don’t believe us or come against us. I know I have certainly felt the need to do that and have succumbed at times to launching counter-attacks.

However, once more we can learn from David here in his exchange from Saul. David never demanded that people recognize his God-anointing. He just accepted that God had appointed him and didn’t need any other commission. He treated Saul well even when Saul came against him. He was content to wait for God’s timing in his rise to kingship.

Not only that — he waited for the Lord’s vindication of his situation. Even though he had ample opportunity to “take matters into his own hands” and get rid of Saul and all of the conflict he caused, he waited instead for the Lord to take care of it.

While it can be very hurtful to not have the support we want moving into our ministry or call — and there are times we need to confront or have a discussion with a person, it is essential that we not repay “evil for evil” (Romans 12:17). We should wait for God to move. We should wait even when circumstances seem against us, and it appears that what God has said will not come to pass.

Dealing With Future Conflict and Criticism

Conflict is normal. As Brené Brown notes, we should reserve a chair for our critics in our arena. Rather than hope they don’t show up, we should just expect them to be there.

I told God a few years ago that I didn’t think it was “normal” how much conflict was in my life after I said “yes” to following him away from my former career. Not too long after that conversation, I “happened” to open my Bible to the story of Paul. I read about all the churches that had problems with him. Leaders who called him to trial for no other reason than he was testifying about Jesus. Conflicts he had with people just about everywhere he went.

I told God, “All right. I see your point.”

None of us should walk around with the attitude of “I am always right and you’re always wrong.” But it is freeing to know that there are times when conflict comes even when we are acting in ways we should.

In some cases, we should consider it an indication that we are right where we need to be.

Our strength doesn’t come from the support of others or our own abilities — the fact that He has asked us to do what we are doing should give us the confidence to face both critics outside and within. As Brown notes, we may not have a choice about the critics that show up — but we do have a choice as to the criticism we accept.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to write music lyrics (that no one has ever seen) and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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When You Feel Insecure as a Leader

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For the longest time, I asked God to give me a ministry. It was driving me crazy when I left teaching that I ended up in a desert season where I didn’t have any sort of project or outlet for my creativity. Once up to my eyeballs in paperwork, lesson planning, meetings, and grading, I found myself staring at a blank schedule when I became a stay-at-home mom. The only things on it were the monotonous tasks associated with mothering my then infant son and toddler daughter.

Don’t get me wrong — motherhood is a noble job, and I know that some stay-at-home moms feel called to do just that, but I was itching to get back into the workforce almost the moment I left it. I wanted God to plant me into a ministry and give me another career. I didn’t want to wake up to another day of naptimes and bottle feedings. Another day of living in the same T-shirt and spit-up stained sweats.

When it dawned on me that God wanted me to start my own ministry blog (a prospect that scared the heck out of me), I found it to be way harder that I thought it would be. Most days I tell Him that someone else could do a better job. There are people who are better writers, better speakers, better administrators. People who know about SEO and WordPress plugins and social media. People who know more about blogging and write posts with no anxiety whatsoever. People who don’t have to potty-train reluctant little boys while trying to simultaneously revise paragraphs and look up commentary for verses.

But I keep coming back to the same idea that God chose me for this. And because He chose me, I have a choice — to embrace this calling or hide.

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When I get conflict-ridden emails to answer, look at ways to grow the ministry and then look at my lack of funds and know-how, stare at blank paper asking God what I need to say in a meeting, I sometimes want to run away.

The bottom line is I don’t feel like a good-enough, equipped-enough leader. I’m barely surviving most days. But a story that has inspired me lately is the one of David because he was the least likely on the planet to lead Israel, but he is the one God chose.

There are a few things we can learn about combatting our own insecurities in leadership from David’s story:

1. Good leaders get their confidence from God’s acceptance of them.

David was the least significant of all the brothers in his family. He was out tending sheep when Samuel stopped by to anoint the next king. No one in his family saw that he had the potential to be the next great king, but God did.

Surprisingly, David didn’t seem put off by the fact that no one in his family believed he was fit for leadership. He seemed to just take the anointing in stride and then go back to tending sheep. He accepted the Lord’s promotion of him even when no one else other than Samuel believed him equipped for the job.

Similarly, when Mary learned from the angel that she would become pregnant with child, she accepted the Lord’s assignment in bearing Jesus (granted, she didn’t have much choice as to what happened inside of her body), but she did have a choice as to her attitude towards the situation. She said “yes” to God with these words: “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true” (Luke 1:38 — NLT).

I’d love to say that I have been as accepting as David and Mary of the Lord’s assignment for me, but I haven’t. I’ve wanted the assignment to be different. I’ve asked Him not to make me write about the parts of my story I don’t want to share. And I’ve wanted others to see immediately the calling He has had for me. But what I can learn from David and Mary is that God calls things before they are (Romans 4:17 — NKJV). I need to accept what He has said of me because He has said it.

2. Good leaders don’t let others derail them from their God-appointed task.

A few years ago, when I was begging God to let me do something for Him, I had forgotten all the conflict and opposition that comes with leadership. Leaders have to make decisions that are not always well-received or popular. As you may have guessed from my last point, I like people to understand me. Because of this, I feel inside a need to defend myself, to justify my actions when people don’t agree with me, but another leadership quality I can learn from David is that he didn’t allow the misunderstanding of others to derail him.

We see in David’s story after he was anointed king that he was instructed by his father to bring supplies to the battlefield. (Yes, David still lived at home for a time even after he was anointed king.) The Israelites were fighting the Philistines, and David did as his father instructed and brought cheese and bread to the battle lines.

His older brother, perhaps a bit peeved about David’s recent anointing, said, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down here only to watch the battle” (1 Samuel 17:28). Talk about major injustice! Major misunderstanding! David had been told to go by his father. He had no ill motives, yet his brother assumed he did.

David, seeing right through his brother’s jealousy, responded: “Now what have I done? Can’t I even speak?” (v. 29). By his words, we see his rejection of Eliab’s critique. Because, as the Reformation Study Bible points out, Eliab’s words contradicted what God had already said about David. Note, earlier, God defined David as a person after His own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). And, when Samuel anointed David, God made it clear that He looks not at what man looks at but the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). And He clearly found David’s pleasing.

David wisely chose not to allow his brother’s cut-down to change his mind about who God had called him to be. In fact, right after this conversation, David went and asked Saul if he could go out and fight Goliath.

As it turns out, David had a Goliath in his own family to conquer before he ever made it to the battlefield.

People will say things that go against what God has told us — and many of us believe those words over God’s. As commentator Matthew Henry notes:

Those that undertake great and public services must not think it strange if they be discountenanced and opposed by those from whom they had reason to expect support and assistance; but must humbly go on with their work, in the face not only of their enemies’ threats, but of their friends’ slights and suspicions.

I have not been like David in my own transition into leadership. The second that criticism comes, self-doubt and insecurity set in. The solid rock I feel myself standing on feels shaky, crumbling. Maybe I am not the person for this job. What if I fail? Did God really tell me to start this? Maybe others are right. I need to quit. I can’t do this anymore.

When moments like these come, my mind races. And I feel panic and anxiety. God, don’t make me do this any longer! But God, through the story of David, has been reassuring me to not give up. To keep going and see myself as a leader because He has said it is so. The only person that needs to accept that other than Him is me.

I have to believe it for myself.

David models for us how to not allow others’ voices to drown out God’s calling on our lives. It’s good to listen to feedback and gain advice, but not if the advice counters what God has said is so. It’s easy to lose confidence as a leader based on what others believe or say about us unless we continually keep in view the foundation of our confidence: Him.

I haven’t lost my fear or insecurity in this process, but I’m making the decision to ask God for strength to face my Goliaths and depend on Him when I don’t feel like I can possibly do what He has asked of me.

What about you? Has God called you into a position that feels a little too big for you, and you feel like maybe your heard Him wrong? Tell us in the comment box below about a struggle or leadership problem you are facing.

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to write music lyrics (that no one has ever seen) and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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My Biggest Assignment in Christian Ministry

assignment When I launched my blog a few months ago, I received positive response from a series of articles. Excited about the feedback, I voiced these words to a circle friends, “It is totally worth it to me if I helped someone.”

A wise friend stopped me after the conversation and pulled me aside to tell me that she writes for God’s pleasure and no one else’s. I thought about that for a moment and had to agree with her. Before her comment, I had started thinking of posts that would draw more favorable reaction, topics I could talk about that would appeal to readers. But I had to stop myself.

It is totally worth it to me if I please God. Even though I very much want to help others with the content of my blog, I write the posts that God gives me and directs me to write. I know they will help people, but I must do it not for my readers but for my audience of one: Him.

I can’t let my desire to attract readers and grow a ministry distract or divert me from what God tells me to do. An important observation that Oswald Chambers makes about Christian service is this:

The great dominant note is not the needs of men, but the command of Jesus.

My motivation for what I’m doing is because He told me to and no other reason. If I orient myself instead solely around the needs of others, I’m bound to get burned out, frustrated and irritated. I’m also bound to get caught up in self-worship and set myself up as the object of others’ worship rather than just the conduit God uses to channel their worship to Him.

Paul was very careful to always point his ministry back to Jesus. When a crowd started to worship him and Barnabas for healing, he “tore his clothes” and declared, “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you” (Acts 14:15).

My tendency is to want the praise and want the spotlight. But God wants me to worry about pleasing Him alone. I need only look at the ministry of Jesus to discover what boundaries I need to set up in my relationship and ministry endeavors to ensure that I do just that.

Jesus Practiced Self-Care

Although it may appear like an illogical place to start, one of the best ways I can serve others best in ministry is by first taking care of myself. A guest blogger I had post several months ago wisely noted that we need to apply the oxygen mask to our face first before we can assist others with theirs. She was speaking in the context of motherhood, but the same can be true in a ministry sense as well.

The oxygen mask I need in ministry is time spent alone with God.

Serving on a worship team a few years back, I was totally unprepared for the spiritual attack that came against me on the weeks I would sing. I assumed that since I was ministering to the body of Christ that I would have some sort of special grace and protection — and God does protect those who serve Him. However, I had more than a normal amount of appliances break down within a few month span; instances where my children contracted strange illnesses; foreboding thoughts and moments waking up afraid at night; and situations where conflict would break out despite my best attempts to be peaceable with others.

I collapsed under the weight of the spiritual hurricane like a cheap tent. I was a complete wreck. I didn’t realize I had to prepare for spiritual battle by immersing myself daily in the Word and communion with Him.

The same has been true of my blog writing. The attack has come in the form of fear and doubt every time I write a post. Ugly thoughts invade my mind: No one is going to read this. You’re not a good writer. Why can’t you sound like this other writer? You probably didn’t hear God right. Are you sure you understood that verse?

The onslaughts are real and exhausting and make me want to close down my site and hide from the internet. They make me cry out to God, “Where are you, Lord? Why is this happening to me? This isn’t normal!” And I think that serving God can’t or shouldn’t possibly be this hard. But it is. I wish my Christian walk only consisted of those graceful moments sitting in my Grandma’s church watching sunlight beam through stain glassed windows casting patterns of bright color on the floor, the choir singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” — Luke 5:16

Jesus modeled how to combat the pressure and conflict He experienced as a public figure in ministry by going into the wilderness alone to pray. Jesus made Himself available to the masses, but He also was intentional about the time He spent in solitude.

He knew the importance of drawing boundaries around Himself. He didn’t apologize or make excuses for the times He slipped away from the crowds. He knew that He had to spend time with God to carry out God’s will — to know the words to say and have the energy to meet the demands of those who continually pressed in on Him. As commentator Adam Clarke observes:

A man can give nothing unless he receive it; and no man can be successful in the ministry who does not constantly depend upon God, for the excellence of the power is all from him.

Others’ Expectations Can’t Trump God’s

Not only do I need to make time for solitude; I need to set clear boundaries so the needs of others don’t distract me from what God has asked me to do. For a long time, I thought that being a Christian meant being nice to everyone, and I mistakenly equated nice with doing what other people wanted me to do even if it meant that I had to suppress how I really felt about a situation inside.

However, Jesus never put others’ wants above His Father’s commands. Note what He says when He is teaching a crowd and someone informs him that his mother and brothers are waiting outside to speak with him:

Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? (Matthew 12:48)

Ouch! Jesus is painfully forthright here. Jesus clearly wants everyone to know that there is “no tie of relationship more sacred than spiritual relationship” (John Calvin commentary). Although we are not told why His mother needed Him, she clearly felt that the matter was urgent enough to interrupt His teaching to get to Him. He, however, lets the informant know that His Father’s work cannot be interrupted, and He gives His reply in the hearing of all listening to make a lesson out of the incident.

Jesus’s answer demonstrates how I am to handle those persistent matters that press in on me each day as I decide what tasks to invest my time in. Jesus doesn’t intend for me to starve all of the relationships in my life and spend every waking hour working on ministry projects. However, serving God means putting Him above the other relationships or other obligations in my life. That means that I may have to disappoint other people at times or do things that aren’t always comfortable for me.

Several years ago, in a different season as a new, scared young mom, I held my daughter out of the nursery on Wednesday night services up until the time she was seven months old because I was afraid that she would get sick if I put her in with other babies, and I would have to call off work. I had watched other co-workers provoke irritated responses from superiors when they had to leave early or call in sick to tend to sick little ones.

Petrified of disappointing my administration at my job but very much wanting to get back into Wednesday night choir practice, I didn’t know what to do. As I was trying to come up with a solution while walking the hall of the church one night, I felt the Lord very clearly speak to me and say, “Carol, you are putting your daughter above me.”

Whoa! I felt for sure that God would admire me for being a protective mother, but I learned that God was asking me to obey Him and get back into singing in that season without letting the expectations of my work or my own self-generated expectations about being a good mom take precedence over what God was asking me to do. (Rest assured that there are certainly times God asks us to set aside time just to mother, but for that particular time He had called me to another role as well.)

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galations 1:10)

What my biggest assignment truly entails is being a daughter of the King and letting my service to others flow out of that secure place I find when I put my relationship with Him first. Although I have other important jobs that I am called to — mom, blogger, friend, wife, sister — when I keep my eyes fixed on Him, He helps me prioritize and balance the demands in my life so that I don’t end up sidetracked or overwhelmed.

Because when I fillet open my motives, lay them bare like a fish on a carving board, what lies underneath my desire to have glowing feedback to my writing and ministry is me. My desire to look good. And my job is actually to make Him look good. Yes, I am called to lay down my life for others, but I am called to lay down my life for Him first.

And His approval of me must be more important than the fleeting words of those around me.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to write music lyrics (that no one has ever seen) and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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The God Who Opens Doors

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Facebook is my frenemy.

My friend when I have zinger lines to post up, witty comments or pictures of my kids in their matching Christmas outfits. My enemy when I have thoughts I really shouldn’t share at such lightning speed through cyberspace.

The other week I got myself in a situation. I read an article circulating Facebook about anxiety and fired away a response and posted it. Except after I did I realized that my words were really angry. Anxiety sufferers probably thought I was aiming my gunfire at them.

I wasn’t.

What I thought generated my feverish rant was the view in the article that anxiety is just part of some people — when my own view is that Jesus can help people with anxiety. But there was actually a different reason that article made me angry.

The article reminded me of a situation launching into ministry where I experienced anxiety. Not just a little stomach upset or increased heart rate. A situation where I felt such bad anxiety that my temperature rose to that of a menopausal woman. Where I felt sweat breaking out all over my body and my breaths getting short and choppy. Where I felt me retreating inside of myself like the zoom-in focus of a lens — me, getting smaller and smaller until I was just a little dot hiding inside me. Shaking.

A situation where I couldn’t succeed. Where every place I turned there was a brick wall blocking my path. A situation where I couldn’t make the people around me happy even though I worked my most charismatic personality traits and desperately tried. (Key word: desperately.)

A situation that made me want to make good on a vow I made as a young woman to never let anyone hurt me again.

So, even though I typed up a series of rapid-fire words aimed at people with anxiety needing to get it together, I was really typing a series of words against the people who helped to trigger the anxiety.

I immediately felt God’s conviction afterwards. I didn’t even realize what I was doing until God showed me. God isn’t underhanded. He doesn’t want me to secretly swipe at people. He wants me to directly confront situations or people that hurt me and then let Him heal me.

Consider Hannah, a woman in the Old Testament who had every reason to lash out words of hatred and bitterness. Hannah was barren. She was one of two wives of Elkanah, and even though she was his favorite, she couldn’t bear sons for him like Peninnah, his other wife. Peninnah taunted her year in and year out, but nowhere does it say that Hannah retaliated. In fact, Hannah did just the opposite. She went to the Lord with her grief.

In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. (1 Samuel 1:10)

Some important things I can learn from Hannah:

1. She didn’t cover over her pain.

She wept loudly and often. In front of her husband. At the temple (to the point that the priest asked her if she was drunk). She didn’t hide the fact that her situation hurt her.

2. She didn’t use her pain as an excuse for wrong action.

She was devastated by her situation to the point that she didn’t even want to eat, but she did not use that to fuel revenge or bitter action against her rival.

The Bible says that God was the One who closed Hannah’s womb (1 Samuel 1:5). Peninnah aggravated a difficult situation, but it was the Lord who put Hannah in the situation she was in! That is a hard verse for me to read personally because I want to believe that God would never allow me to feel pain, but He clearly allowed Hannah to suffer for a time. In a particular instance in the last few years as I struggled to make sense of my circumstances, I cried out to God one day, “I don’t even know what I am fighting against.”

And I felt like the Lord told me, “Carol, you are fighting against Me.”

I was stunned. Why would God fight against me when He was the One who told me to pursue the direction I did? I don’t know all the reasons, but I do know that He has had a plan for me that has been totally different than I thought it would be. I have wanted my destiny to open up in my way and my timing, but God has not operated on my agenda. He has been more concerned about my refining and preparation than just allowing me to get what I want. He has closed the doors I have so badly wanted Him to open.

What we must observe in the story of Hannah is that although God sealed off Hannah’s womb, He enabled her later to become pregnant. Further in the passage it says, “Elkanah made love to his wife, and the Lord remembered her” (1 Samuel 1: 19). The very situation that is closed to me now may be open to me later in the future. And then there can be no doubt Whom I can give the glory to. As the Reformation Study Bible indicates: The Lord is sovereign over my situations and can intervene in circumstances and turn them in my favor.

I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)

As this passage suggests, God brings blessing and calamity into our lives. He is not capable of sin (the word “evil” most commentaries cite as meaning punishment for sin or affliction), but He allows adversity to come in our lives. Not only that, He puts us in situations specifically where we will experience hardship at times. One of Satan’s best tricks is to get us to turn on others in those moments and spend energy nursing hurts that get us totally sidetracked from the calling God has for us.

What we can learn from Hannah is that when we are in those tough situations where we feel and know that we are wrestling God Himself we need to recognize His sovereignty — acknowledge that while He may be the One who has brought a trial into our life, He is the One who can also remove it. He’s not only the God who seals off opportunities that come our way, He’s the God who opens doors.

I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. (Revelation 3:8)

As Pastor Dick Woodward says in a devotional about God’s supremacy, God will often put us in difficult circumstances because “He wants us to learn that He is our only hope and our only help as we live for Him in this world.”

Woodward’s assertion has been true in my own trying experiences the last four years: God is after my dependence on Him. My complete emptying of self to embrace His version of me. Is this difficult for me to swallow? Yes. Do I like it? No.

Hannah bore her long-awaited son in due time, and after he was born she sang this song of praise: “For the Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed” (1 Samuel 2:3). I believe that the Lord blessed Hannah the way He did because she went to Him with her deepest pain and acknowledged Him as the only One who could transform her impossible tragedy into a story of beauty.

I don’t have to resort to sniper attacks from behind a computer screen. As Hannah’s story reminds me, God knows, and even if I suffer a little while in the process of reaching all He has for me, He will take care to see that His promises are fulfilled in me.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to write music lyrics (that no one has ever seen) and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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The Blessing of Failure in Ministry

 

rain Christian singer and songwriter Laura Story poses the following questions in her song “Blessings”:

What if your blessings come through raindrops? What if you healing comes through tears? What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you’re near?”

For the last few years, I have learned what it means to receive blessings wrapped in a package of pain. Shortly after I quit teaching and launched into the journey of ministry, I entered a period of my life where my abilities and talents came up short, our money dried up, and the ministry I felt called to did not open up for me. This chaos unfolded in several ways.

A month after I left the education field, I gave birth to our son; he was colicky and had reflux. For quite some time, I slept two hours a night and woke up to face an intensive day of caring for a newborn and two-year-old. The savings fund that was supposed to last for the first year depleted within three months after I quit teaching. We had some expensive repairs on two sets of air conditioning coils that came up to the cost of a few thousand dollars. That and the cost of the new baby’s hospital bills ate away at the amount we had set aside.

Before I knew it, I was in line at the school district office to pick up my cashed out retirement fund just so we could afford to live. To add to the mix, we left our home church campus (where we had been established for ten years) to help launch a new church campus. I mourned the loss of relationships, the choir community I had grown to love, and all the amenities and benefits of a bigger campus. The ministry that I had felt called to in music — didn’t exactly happen like I had pre-written in my own script.

Rather than step into a key position in music in the new campus — I was disappointed to find that I was not really part of the actual band, but more a secondary singer they rotated in occasionally. All of the new changes, the loss of identity with my change in job and our change in church campus brought me to a dark place. I started having a relapse of emotional issues that I hadn’t felt since college. Anxiety and depression. I thought my way out was just to try harder. But with each attempt I made to get things going, make things happen — I experienced more failure.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my experience is one that is not uncommon — particularly for those called to serve in a specific capacity in ministry. Streams in the Desert, a devotional with a collection of excerpts from various authors, gives many stories of individuals stumbling through the desert after a season of relative prosperity, experiencing confusion and darkness right after God gives them a directive to go. In one particular excerpt from Soul Food, the author explains:

At certain times and places, God will build a mysterious wall around us. He will take away all the supports we customarily lean on, and will remove our ordinary ways of doing things. God will close us off to something divine, completely new and unexpected, and that cannot be understood by examining our previous circumstances. We will be in a place we do not know what is happening, where God is cutting the cloth of our lives by a new pattern, and thus where He causes us to look to Him.”

In yet another excerpt from Streams in the Desert, Frances Ridley Havergal explains a situation that closely paralleled mine when she was called to a ministry and then found no opening for several years. She recalls the situation, saying:

Once when I thought the door was being thrown open for me to enter the literary field with a great opportunity, it was just as quickly shut … The year was 1860, and I did not come out of my shell of isolation with my book Ministry of Song until 1869. By then I saw the distinct wisdom of having been kept waiting for nine years in the shade … He often withholds our enjoyment and awareness of our progress, because He knows best what will actually ripen and further His work in us.”

A Dream About Gifts

About two years into the process of transitioning into ministry, I had a dream about gifts. In the dream, my sister was a post mistress and was driving through her route, delivering Christmas packages. She was in a hurry to get through her round and was not carefully placing the packages in the mailboxes, but throwing them haphazardly in yards as she went. She stopped in front of the house of one particular woman. After repeating her pattern of tossing a package, the woman came up to the vehicle and insisted that the post office take back the package, return it to the sender, re-send it in the proper manner and place it carefully in her mailbox. She did not want the gift unless it was sent to her in the way that she thought it should be sent.

I woke up from the dream, and I felt God’s whisper: Carol, what difference does it make how the package is delivered if it ends up being a gift? 

Obviously, I was the cantankerous woman in the dream. I didn’t want a gift delivered in a package of suffering. I didn’t think a package of suffering was any kind of gift at all.

A New Life and a Death of the Old

What I didn’t know at the beginning of my journey is that it takes great pain to birth a new life. I thought because I had been walking with God for a long time that I didn’t need to go through such a process, but I didn’t realize how much I relied on my own flesh patterns to make it through life. I thought that because He had called me to a ministry that His favor was on me.

I did not see floundering miserably as a sign that He might be working in me and creating the new self that would be the most effective in His kingdom. In the Old Testament, it took Jacob wrestling with God to wrench the old life from him and “fall” into the new life God had for him. He had to feel the heavy pressure of God “pressing the old life out of Him” before He could be named Israel and not Jacob (Streams in the Desert).

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ The man asked, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob,’ he answered. Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.’ ” (Genesis 22:24-26)

As author and pastor Steve McVey emphasizes in Grace Walk: “In the breaking process, God has no intention of helping you get stronger. He wants you to become so weak that He can express Himself as the strength you need in every situation.”

McVey cites Watchman Nee’s observation that the basic dilemma of the Christian servant is for the “inward man to break through the outward man.” According to Nee, the outward man is a hindrance to our Christian service and our outward man has to be “broken by the Lord so that the inward man can pass through the brokenness and come forth.”

The gift we can receive during our struggle with God is a loss of dependence on self. As McVey notes, “God cannot use a Christian to fullest potential until that person has come to the end of confidence in personal abilities.” Like Havergal and McVey attest to, I did not see the purpose of the suffering at the time nor want it for myself, but I can see as I am moving past it the distinct gift that God handed me in not allowing things to happen my way.

[For some notes from my journey on some ways to survive when you’re walking through a place of brokenness, I discuss some strategies for when you’re in the thick of not really understanding the place God has for you in ministry that may be encouraging to you.]

Related Resources: Streams in the Desert is a devotional by L.B. Cowman that specifically speaks to and encourages Christians in tough spiritual desert places. Cowman includes her own writings as well as a compilation of excerpts from well-known preachers and writers. Grace Walk by Steve McVey discusses your identity in Christ and how to best to allow God to use you. McVey shares his story of hitting rock bottom as a pastor of a church and how God used that situation to show McVey how to walk in grace in his Christian walk rather than legalism.

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to write music lyrics (that no one has ever seen) and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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Why You Don’t Have to Be Enough

I was reminded of an important lesson this Christmas.

Elsbeth with her doll dressed up in new clothes.

Elsbeth with her doll dressed up in new clothes.

A family member sent me a series of frantic emails about a present she had made for my daughter. She had sewn a collection of doll clothes but had not finished all of the items. She apologized profusely in her emails and promised to ship off the rest of the pieces to Elsbeth as soon as she finished them.

I assured her that we had absolutely no expectation and were delighted that she send anything. When Christmas arrived, my daughter unwrapped her packages and discovered over 20 beautifully hand-sewn miniature garments.

While the family member only saw the clothes she wanted to make and hadn’t been able to finish — we saw a beautiful array of carefully crafted dresses, pants and shirts. We saw finished whereas she saw incomplete.

I get like that with projects. I see what isn’t done. I see the flaws. The ends that could have been tied up. The words that I could have said. The scenario that could have enfolded but didn’t.

Particularly with Christmas this year, I found myself in a stretch of days where there were too many things to do and not enough of me to go around.

Three days before Christmas, I was hurriedly working on a blog post I wanted to have done that wasn’t quite coming together.

I was wrapping presents and orchestrating last minute holiday details. My son was running around in underpants tugging on me every few minutes to use the bathroom (as we were in full potty-training mode). My husband was on and off the couch, complaining every few minutes about his head hurting, as he had just had a skin cancer spot removed and sewn up with stitches.

Christmas Eve I learned that we would be hosting Christmas and changing all of our plans around because of an unavoidable flu situation. All of this would not have been a big deal except I needed just a little more time to get my blog post out.

So, I typed and worked, finagled and edited. I snapped at my kids a few times and sighed in exasperation when my three-year-old refused to busy himself with anything other than the sleeve of my shirt. In frustration, figuring that I would not have more time to finish the piece, I published it even though there were still a few points I wanted to fine-tune.

After doing so, I felt a little sick to my stomach. This happens when I take my eyes off Him and make everything about me.

-When I think about the fact that people judge every minutiae of my writing because I used to be an English teacher.

-When I get overly grandiose plans for my posts when simple is enough.

-When I worry that the theology of my posts is not on-point when God has told me what to say.

And then I can’t write because I feel so much pressure. I can’t possibly do it all. I can’t be an awesome wife and mother; cook nutritious meals; house-train my son; doctor my husband; pull of a fabulous holiday — and write inspiring posts and launch a ministry.

If I let it, the “not-enough” message plays, and I start thinking that maybe God should choose someone else. I am forgetting that I am not enough apart from Him — but He has made me enough. I only can do what I do through Christ (Phil. 4:13).

On my own, I am a weak, blubbering disaster. In that pressure-cooker place, I need to spend some alone time with God, read His Word, soak up His presence and talk to Him. It is only in Christ’s enough-ness that I can get past the feelings of self-doubt.

Here are some reminders when I feel like I am not enough.

1. Extend myself grace.

In “Leave Room for Grace & Find Your True Voice,” blogger and author Bonnie Gray reminds me to extend myself grace.

I start getting tense and freeze up when I don’t give any allowance for making mistakes. When I go into a project with the mindset of “I’m going to do my best” vs. “It has to be perfect,” I feel more relaxed, and I do a lot better in that mode than rigid-stressed-everything-has-to-be-perfect mode.

When I write because I feel inspired and have something to say opposed to when I write to be impressive or significant, I do a whole lot better.

2. Make it about Him and not about me.

I ‘d love to say that I do this, but I sometimes (OK, all the time) have the tendency to make everything about me. I have had the same message delivered to me in a variety of ways the last few weeks: Make it about Him. I heard a sermon on it a few weeks ago, and then I read two other posts written by blogger and Proverbs 31 contributor Amy Carroll (“I Can’t Do Everything” and “Controlling Your Nerves: Part 3″) about times where she learned that important truth.

When I focus on me, I feel a ton of pressure.

I have been talking about launching a self-worth ministry for a few years now, and I feel an absolute crushing weight when I contemplate the sheer enormity of it. All of my experience, my training as a teacher, is not enough. I need Him. The task He has asked of me is impossible without Him.

I remember feeling stressed when I posted my first article. I told some friends at my mom group, “This is too big for me. There’s just me behind this.” After the group session, I went out to the playground with my son, and I felt God say to me, “No, Carol, there’s me.”

Sitting on a park bench with fall leaves curling around me, I got a picture of God standing behind me. And I remembered this is God’s project, not mine.

3. Accept that I don’t have to know everything. I just have to know the One who does.

Another source of pressure for me in launching a blog is that I feel like I have to know everything. And I don’t. I have two years of Bible school, a lifetime as a Christian in the church, a little training as a Hope minister, and a degree in English — but I still don’t know everything.

I get into the trap of feeling that I have to have a neat, pat answer at the end of each article I write, but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I have unanswered questions.

And, that’s OK. Truthfully, the articles that minister to me the most aren’t always the ones that provide a 3-step formula or the ultra-profound observation. As Gray notes in “Leave Room for Grace,” your words can liberate others not because “you have the answer, but because you know their questions.”

Sometimes we have advice to give, but other times we can just voice our struggles and minister to others because our sharing helps people to know someone else is going through the same difficulty.

I feel that because I am starting a ministry, I can’t have doubts, or fears — I have to have it all together, and I don’t. I am human, and I sometimes expect myself not to be. I want to negate that I am fragile. I have to remind myself what God says in 2 Cor. 4:7 (NLT):

We now have this light shining in our hears, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.”

He still wants to use me even though I fail, fall down, and fail some more.

4. Realize that God is not limited by my failures. 

If I really think about it, me worrying about messing up is sort of silly and prideful because it’s assuming God is limited by me. And He’s not. Sure, I want to write effective posts, but God doesn’t need my feeble efforts to work in people’s hearts.

Several years ago, I sang in the choir at another church service. The pastor’s sermon was quite an oratorical wonder, but it was hard for me to follow all of the dramatic dips and turns of his message. Just as I was thinking that the service had been a failure, I was surprised when the pastor closed with a moving story and hordes of people came flocking to the altar for ministry. I felt a very strong presence of the Lord enter the sanctuary, and I started getting a little teary in the choir loft.

Despite what I considered to be a dry sermon delivered with more of a focus on the delivery than a connection with the listeners, this man still was used mightily by God. I have to remember this when I engage in writing. My tendency is to worry about the effectiveness of every sentence.

While I do want to be faithful and present the gospel in an accurate manner, God can speak through my words, but He can also speak beyond and outside my words. He’s not limited by me, and that reality frees me up to do the best I can in communicating His message.

Even if my writing isn’t as articulate as I want, He can still use it to reach someone.


Thinking back to just a few days ago, it wasn’t until I got alone with God and asked for help that things started turning around.

Christmas turned out to be a lovely day. My brother and sister-in-law came over and helped with the preparations. A fire crackled cheerfully in the fireplace. My children occupied themselves with their new toys and didn’t fight like they normally do. My turkey cooked to perfection in record time.

I laughed and played games with family members; we stayed up late into Christmas night reminiscing about memories.

The tight knot of anxiety in my stomach eased as the day wore on.

In reflecting over my almost emotional meltdown, I know that there will be times ahead in 2015 when I come to that place of “not enough.” But when I do, like the Hillsong song says, I want to say, “Christ is Enough.”

When I am tempted to think about my imperfection, I want to instead think about Christ’s perfection.

Like the apostle Paul, I want to say of my hardships:

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Cor. 12:9)

Here’s why you don’t have to be enough — through Christ you already are!

Blessings as you enter a new year!

Related Bible Verses:

John 12:49,50: “For I do not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken … So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”

John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

Philippians 4:13: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Proverbs 16: 3: “Depend on the Lord in whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.”

 

 

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to write music lyrics (that no one has ever seen) and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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