Healthy Responses for Church Leaders: How to Stop Playing Tennis with Yourself

Healthy Responses for Church Leaders: How to Stop Playing Tennis with Yourself

This is part 4 of an ongoing series. Find the rest of the series here.

Healthy Response #4: Focus on CHALLENGE not comfort

“Your system is perfectly designed to get the results you are now getting.” This is a truism if ever there was one. Are you dissatisfied with the results produced in your health, your family, your church, your business, your society? Well…”your system is perfectly designed to get the results you are now getting!” Something is going to have to change in the system to produce a change in the outcomes.

But here’s the thing about systems—biological, social, or otherwise—they don’t like to change! Churches are no exception. All churches are constantly seeking a state of homeostasis—comfort, stability, and “sameness.” This isn’t a bad thing! Stability is very important to health. Being sedentary comes with significant health risks, but being “extreme” and pushing yourself to the limits all the time is hardly an alternative.

This all seems pretty straightforward, but often our response to conflict and new circumstances is to keep doing what we’re doing—just try harder! Instead of making a difficult, but challenging, change to our behavior, response, or expectations; we just keep doing what we’re doing with a little more gusto!

In Friedman’s Fables, Edwin Friedman tells the story of a man who decides to improve his wife’s tennis game. The wife doesn’t care about this at all, but the man is committed! He buys her books and tapes, leaves magazine articles around the house hoping she’ll pick them up, purchases new equipment—anything to help his wife’s tennis game improve. Her game doesn’t improve. In time, she actually starts to regress—fatigue, injuries, and becoming ill before tennis-related trips.

The husband decides it’s time for his wife to have a breakthrough. His brilliant plan: he’s going to become his wife’s coach. He buys her all new equipment, addresses each of her many complaints, finds a secluded court and a convent time—all of his wife's excuses fail! The husband is tireless in his resolve to try everything conceivable to help his wife’s tennis game improve. He begins to coach, first with verbal instructions, then by running from his side of the court to hers to help her fix her stance or move her elbow in a different way. By the end of the game, the wife is bored and standing by the side of the court, as the husband runs from one side of the other—playing tennis with himself.[1]

Who lost that match?

Have you ever seen church leaders who are just playing tennis with themselves while the congregation is sitting on the sidelines, bored and wishing they were somewhere else?

It’s probably too easy to hear the principle: "focus on CHALLENGE, not comfort” filtered through the lens of the Protestant American Work Ethic. Having a strong work ethic is great! I try to work hard and I respect others who do the same. But that’s not a very helpful lens for church leaders. Challenge doesn’t equal “work" and comfort doesn’t equal “lazy."

Sometimes the challenging thing will require a season of hard work. But sometimes the most challenging thing in ministry is actually to do less rather than to do more. Or, as in the case of our tennis loving husband, the challenge can be to sacrifice our own ideas about what the other needs and actually listen to them. It’s a lot easier to just keep trying harder to see your own vision come to life than to admit you’ve dedicated so much time, effort, and energy to a losing game.

Comfort isn’t a bad thing. It’s nice to be comfortable. But we don’t have to try very hard to be comfortable. As a therapist once told me, “Humans are comfort-loving, comfort-seeking creatures. We love to feel soft things on our skin. We love to feel safe and secure."

But do you want to grow? Do you want to lead? Focus on CHALLENGE, not comfort.

[1] Edwin Friedman, Friedman’s Fables (Guilford Press, 1990), 75-80.

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