Building Walls in Order to Build Walls

Building Walls in Order to Build Walls

One person asked me this week, “On a scale of 1 to 10, where are you on burnout?” My response? “Oh, the usual. A 6 or 7. Not too high.” Which really got me thinking about emotional intelligence and resilience in ministry.

Nehemiah had a calling … but it was a thankless job. Nehemiah’s life was comfortable. He had a great job, a high level of authority, and a general level of comfort. It was good to be the king’s cupbearer. But one day Nehemiah’s world was turned on its head. A brother from Jerusalem came to visit, lamenting the sad state of affairs in the formerly grand city: the people had returned to rebuild their lives, but the walls still lay in ruins. And Nehemiah’s initial response was one of grief. He simply wasn’t sure what to do. But rather than garner other’s advice, seek public opinion, or make a pro/con list, Nehemiah spent time in fasting and prayer. Nehemiah sought the Lord. Then he made a bold decision: he approached the king, asked for a sabbatical, and left behind the comfortable job and the court he knew for a land he had never seen.

He was sent with the king’s commission, the funds to complete the task, and the subordinates to help in the role. But let’s not kid ourselves; this is no easy task, even with the allocated resources. Nehemiah was going to face an uphill battle against militant opponents and the insipient inertia of his own people. There was no guarantee that the inhabitants of Jerusalem would place the same priority on change that Nehemiah did. Along the way he would face ongoing opposition, malicious gossip and slander, and new conflicts that arose among his own people. It was Nehemiah’s leadership that would determine whether the task would succeed or fail. [1]

Nehemiah had to become a resilient leader. A resilient leader is one who has faced adversity and learned to navigate times of chaos, challenge, stress, uncertainty, and even failure. As Amy Mogdlin writes, “The true grit of a leader is not how they perform during the good times but rather how they display emotional strength, courage and professionalism during the most trying times.” [2] Leadership is easy when things are going well; but it is possible that we cannot truly be called “leaders” until we are tested by trials that demonstrate where our strength lies.

Nehemiah constantly faced outside pressure from opponents and inside issues from coworkers. Yet he persisted, and the walls were built. But in order to do so, Nehemiah probably had to build some walls of his own. He would have to practice emotionally healthy spirituality, creating a solid spiritual foundation in which he continued to seek the Lord. He would have to learn how to self-differentiate, practicing emotional intelligence as he faced opposition. He would have to create boundaries in order to protect himself while accomplishing the mission he set out to do.

In his book The Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman defines five characteristics that lead to failed leadership: (1) reactivity to the situation, events, and individuals involved; (2) herding, in which the group proceeds at the pace and arrives at the level of the least mature member; (3) blame displacement rather than acceptance of responsibility; (4) a fear of tension leads to a quick-fix mentality rather than helpful change; and (5) a lack of well-differentiated leadership. It has nothing to do with ability or knowledge; it has everything to do with resilience. The key to change is the willingness to “stand in the gap” courageously, even when everything seems chaotic. [3]

I am certain that others had noticed the lack of walls around Jerusalem. (One had come all the way to the Persian capital!) They recognized the deficiency and knew the need; they simply weren’t willing to put in the effort to effect change. It took one Nehemiah, giving just one speech, for the work to begin in earnest. One person with a vision and the resilience to accomplish it even when the going got tough. But he had to build some walls in order to build some walls.

What might your walls need to be? As ministers, we recognize the strengths and deficiencies of the congregations in which we serve. We know many of the places that might need to shift or adapt in order to be what God wants us to be. But often it is difficult to implement the change. Maybe because we fear the conflict that will ensue with any proposed change. Maybe because we don’t feel like we have the energy for one more fight, one more initiative, one more thing on our plates. Maybe it is because we simply feel alone in ministry, and we aren’t sure if others would follow. Maybe it is simply a failure of nerve. But if it is God’s preferred future for the congregation, then not moving toward it would be a failure of leadership. That’s easy to say from the outside; but it is hard when you are the one who has been called to build the walls.

Our congregation has been in the midst of a revisioning process. We are taking an 80-year-old church and trying to breathe new life and establish a new vision. I believe it is possible … but it has made me build a number of walls over the past year. I have recognized the areas in which I am strong … and the areas I am weak. (Sometimes those are the same things!) At times I have an emotionally healthy spirituality; other times I find that I am scraping the bottom. Sometimes I have emotional intelligence; other times I find that I have brought the stress home with me and I am easily angered or frustrated.

What are the best ways to build some walls in order to build some walls? I’ll be approaching that question through my next few posts. But until then, I want you to join me in praying this prayer:

Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night. [4]

May we pray these words and remember his promises.

[1] If you don’t know the story ends, check out Neh. 1-7.


[3] Ezek. 22:30.

[4] Neh. 1:5-6.

A Salute to Mr. Pauline, A Hood Hero

A Salute to Mr. Pauline, A Hood Hero

What Is Mentoring?

What Is Mentoring?