Think You’re Tough Enough?

I recently met a friend for coffee. As we talked, my friend said, “I’m burned out.”

This happened to me several years ago, when I was planting a church in San Diego. It was exhilarating and exhausting. It was tough, long, and slow work, filled with challenges, obstacles, and still many incredible blessings. Eventually, I burned out.

I burned out for many reasons—unhealthy church systems, unhealthy personal and professional self-leadership, overwork, and poor stress management, among other reasons. I also realized I lacked resilience. This started me down a path of curiosity and interest, for no other reason than to understand my own personal patterns and how I could become a better leader when confronted with challenges.

My starting place was a bit self-critical—I kept thinking maybe I’m not tough enough; maybe I’m not good enough; maybe God didn’t really call me into ministry; somehow, I must have just gotten this all wrong. But, then, I began to ask instead how I could become a more resilient leader. I began wondering what practices I could employ to be a healthy, more effective leader. And, beyond that, how could I help others become the best leaders they can be? Eventually, I even focused part of my doctoral research on leadership development and, specifically, on how churches can develop leaders to be adaptive, resilient, and prepared for the challenges that confront us.

Let me ask, how do you respond when you’re up against your limits?

Do you push through and persevere, or do you shrink back and walk away from the challenge? In different circumstances, either option might be the appropriate response!

It is often said that being a leader means bearing down, gritting through, getting tougher, harder, and pushing all emotion aside. But I’m not so sure.

Here are a couple examples of how this plays out. First, think about athletes. The old model of toughness says you need to be hard-nosed, grind every day, be tough, gritty, play through the pain. At all costs, persevere. For some this may work, but for most it leads to injuries, disappointment, and burnout. Similarly, consider parenting styles. In the 1960s, psychologist Diana Baumrind observed parenting styles were classified according to two factors—parents’ responsiveness or their demanding style. On the one hand, if a parent is too responsive, a child may lack resilience. But, parenting that is too demanding—as in non-nurturing, controlling, and authoritarian—fails to produce resilience as well. In ministry, being tough has often meant developing thick skin. I’ve even been known to say we need a “Teflon exterior.”

What’s the result? Unfortunately, we can confuse toughness with thick skin, fearing nothing, constraining emotion, hiding signs of vulnerability, and sometimes even being callous or stoic.

This model might work for some. But, for most of us, it doesn’t and only produces burnout, fatigue, overwork, and unhealthy systems. So, what should we do differently? Stay tuned. We’ll look at that next week…

Rev. Dr. Joshua Clough serves as Location Pastor for Resurrection Overland Park. Joshua also partners with our ShareChurch team as Director of the ShareChurch Academy to provide practical leadership resources to pastors and other leaders. Joshua completed his doctorate in Practical Theology and Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. He runs marathons, ultra-marathons, and because he grew up in Seattle, drinks a lot of coffee.