Choose “Next Time” Over “If Only”

Earlier this week, I blogged about the The Pain of Discipline vs. the Pain of Regret. The pain of discipline is future-oriented, while the pain of regret is past-oriented.

Another way to think about it is with the two terms “next time” and if only” (this idea isn’t original with me; I just don’t remember where I heard it or read it). “If only” is the pain of regret. “If only I would have (fill in the blank).” A better course of action is to say, “Next time, I will (fill in the blank).” “Next time” lays out a path of discipline for the future.

In my experience over the last five months, I’ve certainly been tempted to think, “If only.” If only I would have rested more. If only I would have not ignored the earlier warning signs.

I remember intentionally thinking, at times, “I can’t dwell on ‘if only’; I have to focus on ‘next time.'” That’s why I came up with 3 Steps I’m Taking to Manage Stress Better in the beginning. I just needed a plan, some course of action that helped me see a light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn’t a perfect or a complete plan, but it was a start in the right direction!

You may certainly need to reflect on the past to see where you’ve missed the mark or where you’ve gone off-course. But don’t dwell on it to the point where it paralyzes you. Come up with a plan for the future, for next time.

What will you do next time? Start on it immediately. It’s the path of discipline. And remember, the pain of discipline is a lot better than the pain of regret!

The Pain of Discipline vs. the Pain of Regret

Yesterday, Gary Thompson posted on Twitter

The pain of discipline is not as great as the pain of regret.

The statement both resonates with me and challenges me. In terms of taking care of your health, a similar idea is expressed in the statement, “Prevention is the best medicine.” Better to be disciplined on the front end than to live with regret on the back end.

I’m fairly disciplined, but I’m more disciplined in some areas than in others. Areas where I’ve done fairly well include time with God, time with family, exercise, and (especially nowadays) nutrition (all to varying degrees and seasons). I’ve been pretty disciplined with my education, personal growth, as well as my ministry. But I’ve struggled in other areas, such as rest and play, which is a major reason for hitting the wall. I am presently trying to become more disciplined in these areas to avoid future regret!

So, wherever you are today, choose the path of discipline over the path of regret!

Hitting the Wall

Recently, I wrote a post on Wayne Cordeiro’s book, Leading on Empty. Cordeiro writes, “Sooner or later every long-distance runner encounters the wall. Regardless of how well-trained the athlete, he will meet it one day, and he will meet it head on (34).”

Well, I believe I hit the wall five months ago, on June 14, 2012. I’ve alluded to it here and there over the last few months: 3 Steps I’m Taking to Manage Stress Better, Engage & Disengage, Songs for the Valley, Secrets From the Treadmill, Simple Techniques to Manage Stress, The Discipline of Replenishment, as well as Leading on Empty.

Five months ago, I experienced heart palpitations, which was followed by an increased heart rate that lasted for several days, and for two out of the first three weeks. My elevated heart rate was mostly in the 90s to low 100s (technically, “normal” is 60-100, but it didn’t feel normal!). Fortunately, those first three weeks happened to be followed by two weeks of vacation, which helped. Since then, I’ve had some bouts of an increased heart rate, but it has been less and less over time.

One of the first things I thought about, at first, was Wayne Cordeiro’s experience, which is why I read his book. The problem, as Cordeiro and others discuss, is that you can only live on adrenaline (a stress hormone) so long without encountering problems. So, as I’ve been discovering through lots of soul-searching over the last few months, I need to make some changes in order to get away from my reliance on adrenaline.

Incidentally, I was also in the middle of the latest HealthMiles challenge where I was doing 30,000 steps/day. Before the latest challenge, I had completed five 4-week challenges over a four-year period, doing 30,000 steps per day everyday of the challenges. I’ve since learned that doing too much exercise actually increases levels of cortisol, another stress hormone (while light to moderate exercise reduces the stress hormone).

Cordeiro’s book talks about the need to increase your level of serotonin (healthy chemicals) so that you don’t have to live on adrenaline (stress hormones). Basically, as I understand it, you increase your serotonin by doing things that replenish you and “fill your tank.” You can also increase serotonin by eating well. Overall, I’ve done pretty well in the area of nutrition, but still need to improve other areas (rest, play, etc.). Cordeiro points out that rebuilding serotonin levels is a slow process!

While I certainly have not enjoyed this ordeal, once I fully recover and get beyond this wall, I will be grateful to God for the wake-up call, and for the opportunity to live healthier so that I can be more prepared to finish well!

“Leading on Empty”

In 2006, Pastor Wayne Cordeiro gave a talk at the Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit called, Dead Leader Running. The talk struck a chord with me, at the time, and Cordeiro’s experience has stuck with me. In fact, when my ordeal began 19 weeks ago, it was one of the first things I thought of.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Cordeiro’s follow-up book, Leading on Empty, but I finally got around to reading it in the last several weeks. The book is very practical and offers tremendous help to all leaders, especially leaders who need replenishment!

Ironically, in early Methodist writings, former or retired pastors were often called “Worn-Out Preachers.” I just read a statistic this morning which revealed that only one in ten pastors will actually retire from the ministry. The reality is, all leaders need constant replenishment (see my last post, The Discipline of Replenishment).

One of the most helpful things from Cordeiro’s story is what he learned from his (Christian) psychologist about serotonin and adrenaline.

Here’s what his psychologist said …

Serotonin is a chemical like an endorphin. It’s a natural feel-good hormone. It replenishes during times of rest and then fuels you while you’re working. If, however, you continue to drive yourself without replenishing, your store of serotonin will be depleted. As a substitute, your body will be forced to replace the serotonin with adrenaline.

The problem is that adrenaline is designed for emergency use only. It’s like those doors in a restaurant that when opened cause an alarm to sound. Our problem, though, is that we use these pathways designed for emergency use only, but no alarm sounds. Not at first, anyway.

Should you continue to run on adrenaline, it will destroy your system. You will burn out sooner on the inside than you’re able to see on the outside. The fuel of adrenaline that keeps your engines running in the beginning will turn on you and destroy you in the end. (25-26)

The psychologist concludes, “The only way to finish strong will be to first replenish your system. If you don’t, prepare for a crash” (27). Cordeiro adds, “To finish strong, you must learn to rejuvenate your spirit early in your ministry” (33).

There are plenty of statistics which reveal that the physical and emotional health of pastors is in a state of trouble. No one is immune. Cordeiro contends, “Sooner or later every long-distance runner encounters the wall. Regardless of how well-trained the athlete, he will meet it one day, and he will meet it head on (34).”

Cordeiro’s discussion of depression should be helpful for those who experience depression. He lists some warning signs (60-64) …

  • Sense of hopelessness
  • Frequent tears
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Decision making comes hard
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Lowered activity levels
  • Feeling alone
  • Lack of marital attraction
  • Eating disorders
  • Aches and pains

One of the great reminders for me is the need to focus more on spiritual health than on my leadership development. While I will always work on leadership development, spiritual health must always be my top priority. I love Cordeiro’s quote of Philip Yancey …

I wonder how much more effective our churches would be if we made the pastor’s spiritual health—not the pastor’s efficiency—our number one priority. (69)

Cordeiro goes in-depth on seven hard-learned lessons (113-143), but I’ll simply list them here …

  1. Do not overproduce.
  2. Steward your energy.
  3. Rest well.
  4. Exercise your way to recovery.
  5. Eating your way to a good life.
  6. Recharge daily.
  7. Fight for your family.

One of the most helpful parts of the book for me was Cordeiro’s discussion of daily, weekly, and monthly (or seasonal) activities. He lists prayer, exercise, planning, reading, and devotions as daily activities, in addition to a weekly sabbath. He also suggests a monthly personal retreat day. Joleen and I have done a monthly personal retreat day on occasion, but not in recent years. I can see the value of adding it back to our lives!

Perhaps the most important part of the book for me, though, is the challenge to discover what fills you and what drains you. Cordeiro says, “You need to know the difference” (89). He also admits, “The busier I became, the less time I had for activities that replenished me” (90). He goes on to warn, “You can get along for a while with ‘more drain that fill,’ but it will eventually catch up with you” (90).

Well, there’s a lot more in the book. But these are some of the highlights that impacted me the most. I hope it’s helpful to you!

The Discipline of Replenishment

Recently, I reviewed one of Bill Hybels’ talks from the 2011 Willow Creek Association Global Leadership Summit. In the talk, Hybels mentions the “discipline of replenishment.” Because of where I’m at right now, the phrase struck a chord.

Hybels says every leader needs to practice the discipline of replenishment. Otherwise, you’ll burn out.

While this phrase is new to me, it’s an issue I’ve been addressing lately. In recent months, I’ve written 3 Steps I’m Taking to Manage Stress Better. I’ve talked about engaging and disengaging. I’ve listed some Songs for the Valley. I’ve reflected on the book, Secrets From the Treadmill. And, I’ve listed Simple Techniques to Manage Stress.

At this point, my basic strategy of replenishment includes …

  • Time with God (prayer, Scripture, journaling)
  • Exercise
  • Rest
  • Play
  • Reading & Personal Growth
  • Diet & Nutrition

What do you do to replenish yourself? How do you practice the discipline of replenishment? Let me know in the comments below!

Simple Techniques to Manage Stress

In June, I wrote about 3 Steps I’m Taking to Manage Stress Better. One step was to call a heath coach. I called a health coach (available through our health insurance) several weeks ago, and specifically discussed techniques to relax and lower stress levels. Here are some of the things we talked about …

  • Exercise
  • Journal
  • Drink orange juice
  • Chew gum
  • Take deep breaths
  • Laugh
  • Organize your home (reduce clutter)

You can find other techniques to manage stress by searching online. Here’s one article from WebMD.

I was already practicing some of these things (exercising, journaling occasionally, drinking orange juice), but some of them can easily be added or improved. For example, at times in my life, I have exercised too heavy (heavy exercise actually increases stress levels in the body, while light/moderate exercise reduces stress levels).

Over the last several weeks, I have also researched foods that help fight stress naturally by reducing stress levels and/or increasing healthy chemicals in the body. WebMD has a good basic list here.

I have made some simple but dramatic changes to my diet. One of the most significant changes is dramatically reducing sugar in my diet (I’ve had to because sugar has acted as a trigger that increases my heart rate). The American Heart Association recommends daily maximums of 36 grams for men and 24 grams for women (that’s not a lot!). While I’ve had to reduce sugar in my diet out of necessity, it has been a good a change.

None of this is a quick fix, but these changes are worth making!

Well, I still plan to write a more detailed post about the last three months, but I want to make sure it’s clearly in the rearview mirror first!

“Secrets From the Treadmill”

I recently finished reading Secrets From the Treadmill by Pete Briscoe and Patricia Hickman. The book spent several years on my reading pile (I picked it up during my D.Min. days at Asbury), but I decided to finally get to it when I realized I needed to manage stress better. I took it with me on vacation over the summer.

I like what the authors state early on, that the goal is not really to live a “balanced life” …

We do not argue for a life of all rest. We’re not even purporting a life of balance. We don’t believe the Bible calls us to a balanced life—try to find one biblical character who lived one. We are not to rest seven days and trust God to pay the bills. Neither are we to work three and a half days and rest three and a half. God doesn’t call us to a mathematically tidy life. God calls us to a life of imitation and rhythm. (25)

The book deals a lot with sabbath. The authors remind us, “The Sabbath was designed for us” (42).

The foundational principle of the Sabbath as far as Jesus was concerned is that it is extraordinarily flexible. It was designed for us—for me. That means I need to determine the best way for me to find rest, solitude, connection with God, and peace of mind. (42)

When we fill the gaps with more stuff and more activity, peace and creativity diminish. But …

A strange thing happens when we take some time to rest—God floods our minds with creative and Spirit-led ideas. … Prioritizing rest allows us to be a recipient of the Lord’s ministry in our lives. (83)

The authors also argue for simplicity and minimalism, stating …

When our lives, minds, souls, and schedules are full of so many fillers, we become incapable of recognizing the happiness found in minimalism. (159) … Wherever we find simplicity we also discover contentment. (160)

Prioritizing rest will always e a challenge in this life. The authors talk about living in Saturday.

Saturday represents the gap between faith and fulfillment. Saturday is the bridge between what we believe and what we will one day see at his appearing. The disciples had an advantage over us in that they physically spent three years with Jesus. We have an advantage over them in that we know Easter happened. But they had to live in Saturday until their eyes met him again face-to-face. We also must live in a Saturday’s wait until our eyes meet him face-to-face. (175-176)

So, we live in Saturday. There, we must discover God’s rest in the busyness of life!

Songs for the Valley

I love listening to music, especially worship music. Songs have always played an important role in my journey. See Songs for Leaders.

More recently, as I’ve been trying to manage stress better, some songs have been ministering to me.

The first song is “Steady My Heart” by Kari Jobe. Of course, the song has a practical application for me because I’ve had trouble over the last several weeks with an increased heart rate. But it’s certainly a great song, spiritually.

“Steady My Heart” begins …

Wish it could be easy. Why is life so messy. Why is pain a part of us? There are days I feel like nothing ever goes right. Sometimes it just hurts so much. But you’re here, you’re real. I know I can trust you, even when it hurts, even when it’s hard, even when it all just falls apart. I will run to you, cause I know that you are lover of my soul, healer of my scars. You steady my heart. You steady my heart.

The song ends …

I’m not gonna worry. I know that you got me right inside the palm of your hand.

It’s a great reminder!

Another song that’s been on my heart and mind lately is “This Is the Day” by Phil Wickham. The song speaks of a new beginning …

This is the day when the lost are found. This is the day for a new beginning. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. Oh, can you hear? All the angels are singing, this is the day, the day when life begins.

I’ve long said every follower of Jesus needs to know “Blessed Be Your Name” by Matt Redman. All of the words are good, but this part has been on my mind most of late …

Every blessing you pour out, I’ll turn back to praise. When the darkness closes in, Lord, still I will say, Blessed be the name of the Lord. Blessed be your name. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Blessed be your glorious name.

The song also asserts …

You give and take away. You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, Lord, blessed be your name.

One other song I’ve been listening to a lot lately is “All I Am” by Phil Wickham. It’s a song of surrender, and surrender in especially important in dark valleys. Again, all of the words are good, but I especially love the opening lines …

Take these hands, I know they’re empty, but with you they can be used for beauty in your perfect plan. All I am is yours. Take these feet, I know they stumble, but you use the weak. You use the humble, so please use me. All I am is Yours.

The chorus adds …

I give you all my life, I’m letting it go. A living sacrifice, no longer my own. All I am is yours. All I am is yours.

Thank God for music that inspires and encourages!

What songs encourage and challenge you in your walk with God?

Engage & Disengage

The phrase, “Engage and disengage,” has been part of my vocabulary since I first heard it during orientation weekend for Asbury Theological Seminary’s D.Min. program back in January 2004. The phrase came from Dr. Anthony Headley.

The idea is, our lives must include rest, as well as work. We must not only engage (work), but also disengage (rest).

In recent weeks, particularly during vacation a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been reflecting on this idea. There’s a rhythm to engaging and disengaging. It’s the rhythm God instituted in creation — work six days, then rest. Sabbath provides opportunity to disengage.

It’s also a rhythm Jesus modeled. The gospels are full of stories showing Jesus engaging, but they also reveal examples of Jesus disengaging. I’ve always loved Luke 5.16 …

But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.

Jesus modeled both engaging and disengaging.

So, I’ve known this phrase for the past eight years, and I’ve known the importance of disengaging, but I’m learning that disengaging is something I need to do better. I’ve realized recently that typically, even when I disengage, I’m often still engaging. For example, if I take a break, I might take a break with a book or my iPad. Basically, even though I’m taking a “break,” I’m still engaging. This is what led to the first two items in my post, 3 Steps I’m Taking to Manage Stress Better, to rest more and to play more (especially with my kids).

So, these days, I’m working on developing the practice of disengaging. The funny thing is, disengaging (i.e., living according to God’s rhythm) makes us more effective when we are engaging!

God’s Crushings

Last month, I wrote 3 Steps I’m Taking to Manage Stress Better (one additional step was the vacation that ended yesterday). In the days ahead, I will be writing more about my experiences and learnings over the last five weeks, starting with this one.

This morning, while praying, I remembered listening to Chuck Swindoll’s talk at Catalyst 2009 (via DVD) sometime last year. I listened to it again today, and took the following notes.

Swindoll spoke at Catalyst, a leadership conference for young leaders. Every year, they honor a seasoned leader. In 2009, they honored Chuck Swindoll. In his talk, Swindoll offered wisdom from his fifty years in ministry and leadership.

Swindoll talked about listening to a preacher (Allan Redpath) in chapel when he was student at Dallas Theological Seminary around fifty years ago. One statement has stuck with Swindoll through the years …

When God wants to do an impossible task, he takes an impossible person, and crushes him (or her).

In reflecting on God’s crushings, Swindoll challenged young leaders …

Leave room in your life for the crushings, because that’s part of the curriculum that very few people will tell you about. That’s part of the plan of God that will equip you to do what he will have you to do as you carry out his work, his way.

Further, Swindoll noted …

Rarely does God bring a person out of youth and immediately trust that individual with a vast sense of leadership. It takes crushing. It takes time. It takes disappointments. It takes failure.

Later in the message, Swindoll stated that “brokenness and failure are necessary” in our formation as leaders.

Well, Swindoll is right. This is part of the leadership journey few talk about. And for good reason. It’s not the most enjoyable part of the journey!

For more on this idea, see my post, It Takes 20 Years to Make a Sermon.