Are you an aspiring Superman?
I’m not talking about pulling on a pair of blue tights and a red cape and putting a fancy “S” on your chest. I’m talking about an attitude: “I am self-sufficient,” “I need no one else,” or “I will show no weakness or admit any inadequacy.” These betray the presence of the Superman Syndrome—that particular peril for pastors who go it alone.
Funny thing is, I’ve rarely seen anyone lose ground by admitting inadequacy or weakness. The best professors I ever had said, “I don’t know, Chuck, but when we come back together I’ll try to have that answer for you.” I deeply respect that attitude in a person. Kids acknowledge weakness all the time and never feel as if they’ve lost face.
As pastors, we set ourselves up for letting people down when we pose as Superman. I remember a young believer in our church who gushed, “I don’t know of anybody I admire as much as I do you.”
“Stop right there,” I interrupted. “I appreciate your admiration, but always remember: When it comes to one another on this earth, never put anyone on a pedestal.”
“I never thought about that before,” she replied.
“Only one person deserves to be on a pedestal, and He’ll never fall off. That’s Jesus. You can respect me,” I continued, “but please don’t put me in that place where I’m sure to let you down.”
By the way . . . have you heard what the mother ape said to her baby ape? “Watch out about climbing on those high poles. The higher you get, the more they’re gonna see your rump.” Remember, when you’re up high, you’re a big target. You’re on display. So it’s essential to say, “I can’t handle this myself.” Or, “I need you guys right now.” Didn’t Jesus do this at Gethsemane?
As 2 Corinthians 2:16 asks, “Who is adequate for these things?” Obviously, the appropriate attitude is to embrace this fact: We are not self-sufficient. We need other people. It’s wise for us to ask for help. We should never leave the impression that we don a cape and tights.
Let’s get practical. Ask for help! Hardly a day passes that I don’t ask someone to assist me in doing something. Also, make sure that when someone helps with a project, that person gets the credit. If a guy comes up with a great idea, and the whole church applauds it, let the people know it was his idea. Why leave any other impression?
Admit weaknesses and failures. Acknowledge your own fallibility. Don’t buy in to the Superman Syndrome. You can’t carry the weight of the whole world on your shoulders. Someone else already has that distinction.
In my 80 plus years on earth—more than 50 of them in ministry—I have made a trade. It’s been a wonderful trade. I’ve traded youth for truth. And I wouldn’t be years younger if I could make it happen.
I think more than anything else, it is the hardship, it is the difficulty, it is the dead-end street that shapes us. It is the trial that occurs that makes us into the individuals God wants us to be (if the attitude is right and the learning is still on a willing curve). It’s how we react, how we respond to the pains and the struggles.
For some, it’s the bankruptcies, the injustice committed against us, the disappointments, the criticisms, and sometimes even the divorce that just rocked us back on our heels, turns us around, gets our attention . . . and puts us into an orbit we would never have otherwise entered.
My short thought this week: God didn’t always use the things I planned or the things I had hoped for in life, but He used the serendipities—the results of those surprises that leveled me—to turn my life in the direction He wanted it to go.
I wouldn’t trade how old I am or the experiences I’ve gone through or the heartaches and disappointments I’ve endured. Nor should you. Because all of it has worked together in God’s plan.
I had the privilege of being mentored by a man who is now gone. I became one of the first interns on the staff with Ray Stedman at Peninsula Bible Church. And I saw in Ray something I had not seen modeled in many pastors . . . an authentic life.
Ray was just who he was. I saw it work.
- I saw a man who was not defensive, who could laugh at himself, who had fun in life and yet was as good a thinker on his feet in question/answer sessions as I’d ever seen.
- I saw a man who could love the homosexual and at the same time do an excellent biblical presentation on the sin of homosexuality.
- I saw a man who had a room in his life for a wayward child.
- I saw a man who hardly traveled alone, no matter where he went, and always had someone younger with him.
One of the secrets of building character in the lives of others is taking time for those younger than you. Those who are longing for the qualities and the character that have made you who you are. Ray did this for me.
No matter how significant you may become, no matter how well known your name, no matter how important your work, no matter your salary, no matter what your reputation may be, you must allow yourself to become who you are.
I’m not a formula guy, but this simple little formula has worked for me throughout my adult life: Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are.
The greatest gift you can give to your congregation, to your family, to whomever—as the Lord continues to work in your life—is who you are. I have a good friend who says it this way, “We are not who we are, we are not even who we think we are. We are who we think other people think we are.” (Read that again.) And if you’re in that world no wonder you have such struggles with character!
Character will not emerge from a phony life, which is all the more reason to go back to that word that so characterized Ray’s life: authentic.
Know who you are, accept who you are, be who you are. That’s really it in a nutshell.
When is the last time you thought about the character quality of sensibility? As pastors, we’re charged with the task, remember? “The overseer must be . . . sensible” (Titus 1:7-8).
Sophron is the term. It has in mind “thinking appropriately.” It means you’re not given to extremes. You’re able to see between the lines and apply some common sense.
We have some funny ducks in the Christian ranks . . . some real nutty people. Howard Hendricks said, “Where there’s light, there’s bugs.” It’s really true! They’re usually people who have big, thick Bibles and notebooks full of notes on everybody from Allen to Zuck. I mean, they’ve got all of this information, yet haven’t won a person to Christ in 50 years. They’re out of balance. And there’s another group that believes “a miracle a day keeps the devil away.” They drive up and see a parking place at Nordstrom’s and they think it’s a MIRACLE! And they tell their friends about it. It’s not a miracle . . . it’s just that a car wasn’t there. Pull in, park. Get a life!
We can fall into that kind of extremism when there’s not somebody near us jerking on our coattails telling us we’re getting kind of nutty. Some people even see faces of Jesus in an enchilada! That’s a lack of sensibility.
I want to share with you a terrific piece Rick Reilly wrote for a graduation class. He offers some very sensible advice to athletes that are going to jump into the pro ranks and make a lot of dough. You’re gonna love this. (Go ahead, read it here.)
I want to say stuff like that to every one of the CEOs I meet. Every one of the hot shots who made it by the grace of God. And every one of us senior pastors.
Don’t forget to tingle every once in a while. Don’t forget to cry over the joy of good health, and the freedom of living in your country, and the thrill of studying the Word, and the privilege of anybody sitting and listening when you talk.
Let’s stay sensible.
I like to remind us pastors that we have no special powers in ourselves. That’s a major misconception. Our adequacy comes from God . . . and God alone.
Another misconception is that those in the ministry don’t struggle with everyday problems. To set that straight, let’s consider 2 Corinthians 4:8–9:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:8–9)
Afflicted. Perplexed. Persecuted. Struck down. These terms reflect the struggles common to all of us in ministry. Under stress, confused, pursued, rejected—Paul (and every servant of God since his day) understands what it means to endure the constant blast of problems in those and other categories. In fact, it is in the crucible that the servant learns to release his or her way for God’s way. Servants do indeed struggle with daily difficulties . . . and we pastors are no exception.
A final misconception goes like this: Christian leaders are protected against subtle dangers. To correct this error, we need to read verses 10–11:
[We are] always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:10–11)
How true! Those of us who serve God and others “carry about in the body” signs of death—dangers and perils that are undeniable. Subtle and silent, these dangers lurk in the most unexpected places, pleading for satisfaction. The true servant is vulnerable. When the servant stumbles into these traps, it isn’t long before he or she is completely ensnared. And have you noticed? It seldom happens fast or boldly. Usually, it comes on the scene in another garb entirely, appearing to be anything but dangerous.
So let’s not be misled, fellow servants of God, no matter how useful, godly, unselfish, and admirable you think you are. We are every bit as human and subject to the perils of life as any other person on earth.
This week I’m posting my thoughts to you via video.
In 2013, I delivered a message during the Dallas Seminary chapel during which I shared some seminal insights on “The Rewards of a Life of Integrity.”
Those of us engaged in ministry cannot afford to sidestep this Christlike quality. And we certainly don’t want to miss the rewards of cultivating it.
Despite the pessimistic headlines announcing that the family is an endangered species, I refuse to sigh and give up hope. Who says “endangered” means doomed? If we’re ingenious enough to preserve the bison, the whooping crane, and the humpbacked whale, I’m convinced we can preserve the family. The “want to” is certainly there with a lot of us—especially us preachers.
Professor Nick Stinnett launched a fascinating study some years ago. All sorts of questions were asked to families from many backgrounds, cultures, and countries. His research represented a wide swath of the families of humanity. The goal? Very simply, to discover what makes families strong.
Dr. Stinnett writes of his findings:
All together, we studied 3,000 families and collected a lot of information. But when we analyzed it all, we found six main qualities in strong families. Strong families:
- are committed to the family,
- spend time together,
- have good family communication,
- express appreciation to each other,
- share a spiritual commitment,
- are able to solve problems in a crisis.
Look back over that list. There is enough there to fill out your preaching calendar for the rest of the year! When I first came across this information, I used it not only as the basis for a miniseries of pulpit messages on the family, but I also posted that list in my home. It became the topic of numerous conversations among the Swindoll tribe! I would suggest you try the same experiment with your family.
Then preach it.
I want to ask you four questions that only you can answer:
- Do you give the people in your congregation the freedom to be who they are?
- Do you let others go, or do you smother them and control them?
- Are you cultivating spontaneous, creative, celebrants—or fearful captives?
- Do you encourage, build up, and affirm those to whom you minister?
These four questions really boil down to one:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?
It’s time to take off the gloves, rip off the masks, knock off the rationalizations, and face the truth head-on.
Is the ministry you’re leading the result of your own flesh, energized by your own gifts and strengths? Are you relying on your charisma to pull it off? Do you often have a hidden agenda?
How about your motive? With a captive audience hanging on to your words and following your ministry (and your Tweets) with unquestioned loyalty, do you exploit them . . . do you use your power for your own purposes? Is the enhancement of your image of major importance to you, or can you honestly say that your work is directed and empowered by the Spirit of God?
Again, I ask you:
Are you one who models and ministers grace?
I spent the first ten years of my marriage trying to make Cynthia into me. I can’t think of many things worse on earth than a female Chuck. And I’ll be honest, it almost broke us apart. We didn’t separate though, because she stayed and stuck it out.
I’ll never forget when Cynthia said to me, “I don’t want you to keep telling people we’re ‘partners’ because we’re not partners. I bear your children and I cook your meals, and I clean the house, but I’m not a partner.” Then she added, “You’ve never accepted me for who I really am.” I said, “Yes, I have.” She said, “No you haven’t.” I said, “YES, I have.” She said, “NO, you haven’t!” And I got louder and she got louder, and she finally walks away in tears. And I was left with the dishes. While doing those dishes I thought, She’s right.
We began a process that took four years to break that habit in me. It involved some serious counseling that we both sought . . . and it was very helpful. It just about wiped me out, though, realizing how true her criticism was. I did very little encouraging back then. I had picked the people I liked, and those were the ones I spent time with. The others I just used.
It was years later at a gathering with some friends from our radio program that someone asked Cynthia, “Why don’t you say some things about the broadcast?” She walked up and said, “The best part about this is that Chuck and I are in this as partners.” In that wonderful moment her statement brought a knot in my throat. She hadn’t said that word, since she had said it to me on that cold kitchen floor many years before. I finally came to realize the importance of accepting my wife.
I often remember Peter’s words to us as husbands, and how our lives at home affect our effectiveness as pastors. I’ve emphasized the result of obeying Peter’s words: “Live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).
She has a different temperament than you and a different way of thinking. Most wives do, you know; that’s why the marriage works. I invite you to make a serious study of the fourteenth chapter of Romans. It sets forth an absence of legalism. It underscores the enjoyment of freedom, the appreciation of diversity, a non-controlling lifestyle. It’s all about accepting people as they are . . . and it also applies at home.
I’ve often found it easier to be more accepting and encouraging of the people in our congregation than my own wife. Maybe it’s the same for you too.
“So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).
Let me apply this verse by paraphrasing it this way: Pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of your children rather than creating division by tearing them down with criticism.
Are you tearing down your kids with your words? The desire for them to be strong, well-mannered, and successful children can be a strong one. In fact, too strong. You may be focused only on fixing what’s wrong, usually by pointing it out. And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, what’s wrong is they are not meeting our expectations for what we think they should be. You played sports, so your boy should. You were Phi Beta Kappa; therefore, your child should be. You had a vibrant social life, so your daughter should. You’re musical, so your son should be, too. You’re in the ministry, so . . . (you finish the sentence).
Perhaps you have one child who’s a natural with the baseball, which pleases you because you love baseball. You share evenings together playing catch in the backyard. Then along comes another. He can’t catch, he can’t throw, and he wants to go back inside to read or listen to music. The temptation is to favor the child who is most like you and subject the one who isn’t to negative comparisons. But neither favoritism nor holding one sibling out as an example for the others will alter what God ordained for each child. (Remember Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph? Talk about dysfunction!)
Some kids love sports. Some are a whiz with puzzles and math. Some are messy and artistic and messy (they go together)! Some are structured and meticulous organizers. Some are dedicated students, while others barely squeeze by academically. Why? Because God made them that way. But if we’re not careful, we’ll see their God-ordained interests and temperaments as flaws to be fixed. We might even go so far as to make their differences rebellious issues to be disciplined, rather than hidden strengths to be developed.
Allow me to repeat my opening principle: Pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of your children rather than creating division by tearing them down with criticism.
How’s life in your home? Are you a builder?