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Three Things John Told Me …

(Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

I hit the road en route to a business conference a few weeks back, and just before I lost phone service due to a mountainous area, I received a text.

“Have you heard that John died this morning?” 

I was not prepared for this. There were quite a few questions I had for John, a few situations I desperately wanted to discuss with him. Now he was gone.

John was a remarkable man who had walked with me through the darkest season of my life—helped me find my way, explained to me what was happening, and very graciously helped me understand how I got here.  

I first walked into his office nearly seven years ago. After asking a few probing questions and getting a sense of the state of my life, he calmly stated, “I’ve seen a hundred men like you. If you don’t make a radical change, I’m afraid I’ll be visiting you in the ICU of the hospital after a heart attack or something worse.” 

The comforting fact at that moment was a sense of being seen, being known, and not being alone.  

And now he was gone. And I felt alone. Again. 

‘WHEN YOU GET THROUGH THIS …’

Seven months after I first walked into John’s office, my D-day came. And of course, John was there. I’m not sure his words to me that day registered deeply, but I did find them in my notes upon review and the hope they had offered did sink in deeply then. 

Some of the first words out of his mouth were, “When you get through this….” When … so this wasn’t the end. There was life after this. Light again after the darkness. 

Take a moment to reflect on your biggest challenge, that seemingly impossible situation that currently consumes you. You need to hear the words, “When you get through this …!” 

But John didn’t stop there. He continued and chose his words very carefully. “When you get through this, (and notice I said when, not if) you will lead the most effective years of your life (and notice I said effective, not productive).” 

Of course, there were other essential criteria to this statement. I had to take the time to learn what could be learned from this experience, or the appropriate lifestyle changes would never occur. 

Difficult situations and failures are prime opportunities to learn very powerful lessons but only if we take the time to reflect on them. 

To reflect well requires being in a rested state because being frantic and overwhelmed really do not contribute to healthy reflection. 

The gift in my situation was that there was nothing I could do but sit on the porch, drink iced tea, and rest—and eventually, with the help of professionals and friends, reflect on how I got here and what needed to change, going forward. 

It seemed, especially at first, as though I had been racing down the highway at 120 mph and was suddenly run off the exit ramp straight into a cul-de-sac. But John’s words gave me hope that there was life after this. 

And while it would need to look quite different, it could still be “the most effective years of my life.”

About a year ago, I read this quote to my wife, and she responded, “I think you’re there. I think you are far more effective than before.” 

If you are in a hard place, take heart. Your current difficulty can forge in you what it takes to be more effective even if you have to slow down, trim back and do far fewer things than you did in the peak energy years of your life. When you get through this ….

‘IF YOU HAD LEARNED TO LISTEN …’

This line from John were probably the hardest-hitting words that John said to me. 

My wife and I were in his office together discussing how I got to this place of an emotional crash, a state of burnout that took me out of business and public roles for months. It hit hard. 

At first, I couldn’t believe what I heard him say, but he repeated it so I wouldn’t miss it. And likely some of you need to hear it, too. Here it is. 

“If you had learned to listen to your wife, you wouldn’t be here.” 

Let’s be honest. He could have waited to say it to me until we were alone when my wife wasn’t sitting right there beside me. 

Nope. That’s not how John rolled. He was a straight shooter who never minced his words; however, I never doubted his deep love and concern for my well-being. If he believed it was in my best interest, he would say it and do so with great clarity.

Let’s unpack this a bit. Each of us is surrounded by people who care deeply about us—even love us, want our best. But the narrative we have running through our heads sometimes doesn’t allow us to believe these people really care about us. That they want us to flourish. That it’s fine to be a finite human, make mistakes, be wrong, and make appropriate changes. 

Most folks like me, who walk into these personally created crisis zones, have people around us who have tried to point out our weaknesses and the patterns of life that have the potential to destroy us. 

I had a friend who served with me on a nonprofit board that I chaired. Very kindly, he spoke to me about the lack of margin I had in my life and warned me that it could be a dangerous zone.  

He gave me a book on the subject, with his concerns written inside the front cover. I read the book and thought it was very insightful and changed … nothing. 

My wife had repeatedly expressed her concern about my health, the pace of my life, and my seeming inability to say “no” to important things.

Are you listening? Are you listening to your spouse to your friends to your peers? Really listening, hearing what they say, asking clarifying questions to be sure you understand, and then taking their concerns into consideration and making important adjustments? 

Are you listening to me, right now? 

For many people in very difficult circumstances, it can be truly said, “If you had learned to listen, you wouldn’t be here today.” Listen. Listen well. You must learn to listen.

‘I’VE BEEN WAITING UNTIL I BELIEVED YOU TRUSTED ME ENOUGH …’

Somehow, in spite of the drastic upset I had experienced, I still assumed that with an extended period of rest, some minor adjustments, and the support of a great team, I would return to the life I had previously known. 

I was the senior pastor of a church, the owner and CEO of a business, chairman of two nonprofit boards, father to seven, husband to one, and grandfather to a growing tribe. I would be wiser, more self-aware, with the increased ability to set some important boundaries to protect my priorities and manage my energy. 

About 18 months after my D-day, we were discussing my progress (and lack thereof) with some trusted friends. One observant friend noticed I was regaining my energy in business but continued struggling in my role at church. Another confirmed that he had noticed the same. 

Several weeks later I discussed this with a mentor, who suggested I go to John for some counsel. This became another D-day.

As I explained to John what my friends were telling me and asked him for help to sort it out, he spoke these words that are now etched in my memory. “I’ve been waiting until I believed you trusted me to tell you. You can’t do both. You can’t remain senior pastor and CEO. Both bring an inescapable weight. You’ll have to choose between the two, and now I think you know what the choice is.” 

It was that very day that I wrote my first draft requesting to be released from my role at the church. Within two months it was granted. 

I’d like to say a few words here about “ministry.”  

Sometimes we see being directly involved in church work as a higher and nobler calling than being a Christian farmer, a businessman, or a housewife. We miss opportunities for ministry and witness that are in these less obvious positions of Christian service.  

My first position of service to the church involved keeping the family business going so that my father, a Beachy bishop, could be involved in more formal church work. Later on, I taught Sunday school and Bible school and then led congregational singing and a youth choir.  

My role moved to serving as a teacher, deacon, and then as a pastor and (at the time of my burnout) lead pastor of a relatively large church. How would I best serve the Lord now, at this stage of life and with the limitations I was learning that I had?

As I pondered the ways Christians serve the Lord and witness for Him, I had to learn to be “okay” with a more unobtrusive church role. 

My new space of ministry, while requiring a significant shift, has been to serve at the request of others—preaching, teaching a class, mentoring and coaching pastors and leadership teams. These roles fit my areas of calling but do not carry with them the same “weight” as the care of the local church.  

Undergirding this new role is the conviction that ministry really ought to be the overflow of a well-ordered life, and when the life is disordered, a reprieve from ministry may be in order to regain a healthy order.

We must learn to say “no” to very important things. Inherent in these words is the reality that we are humans—finite, faltering, and frail. With this awareness must come a new awareness that every time we say “yes” to something, we are saying a resounding “no” to a thousand other important things. 

We must learn to discern our primary responsibilities, our first order of priorities, and say “no” to many good things that may well contribute to our failure to fulfill our first and highest calling. Sometimes what we must prioritize may not even be our highest calling, but the time and season of life demands that it be put first. 

We need these trusted people in our lives to help us find the clarity to make those bold and extremely difficult decisions. It will at times mean saying “no” to things you love, roles and responsibilities that seem to be at the very center of your identity. 

And yet, if you are to adequately care for those first areas of responsibility—your relationship to God, the stewardship of yourself, the spouse you promised to love, the family God entrusted to you—you must trust to God those things you can no longer manage and let go. 

If you hold tightly onto all the things you love to do and even are good at, who will take those on when you experience a sudden burnout or health crisis? 

If you don’t let go, and the stress and pressure take you completely out of commission, how can that be considered wisdom? 

Are you listening?

  • No one can do it all or have it all. We are finite creatures with limits.
  • You’ve got to learn to say “no” to very important things, even to things you love, to things that feel like a part of your identity.
  • Learn to listen to those people God has placed in your immediate family and circle of friends and community. They know you better than anyone and sometimes see things about you that even you haven’t seen.
  • Most importantly, learn to listen to the Holy Spirit and to humbly seek God’s purposes for you and your gifts and abilities.  

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