Leadership is stressful even in the best of times. When you are leading through a time of crisis, sometimes the stress feels unmanageable. Learning to cope with stress is one of life’s most important lessons. Learning to lead in the midst of stress is a mark of a courageous leader. So, how are you coping with stress these days? How are you facing the difficulties of leading?
Acknowledgment or Denial?
My assumption is you are doing one of two things. You are either avoiding the stress by denying it or facing the stress by acknowledging it. You are either escaping it by numbing yourself or you are coping with it by finding a way through it. You are either blaming others for it or you are dealing with it responsibly, learning about yourself and learning how to lead in the midst of it.
Feeding the 5000
One of the most popular stories in the bible gives us insight into coping with stress. It is the story of the feeding of the 5000. When we read the story from Mark’s perspective, we gain insight into coping with the difficulties that come with leadership.
The disciples have just returned from a mission trip, and they are wanting to tell Jesus about their experiences. But there are so many people coming and going that the disciples don’t have time for themselves. Not even time to eat. So, Jesus says to them, “Let’s go off to a place by ourselves. You can rest while you report on your mission encounter.”
They get in their boats to cross the Sea of Galilee to a place less populated, a deserted place. When the people see the disciples leaving, they run ahead to meet them at their destination. When Jesus and the disciples arrive, they are met with the crowd they were trying to leave on the other side of the lake.
Jesus, out of deep compassion, rearranges his plans and works with the people all day. But his followers are not as flexible or as generous. By late afternoon they are tired and irritable. They realize that the people are hungry and could soon get hostile if something isn’t done to help them. Out of concern for the people, the disciples want to send them away to get their own food and provisions. They pull Jesus aside, point out the difficulty, and suggest that he disperse the people quickly before things get out of hand. It seems logical based upon what they perceive. A problem situation, full of stress and perceived danger.
So, how does Jesus cope with the situation?
Jesus Faces the Situation
First, Jesus decides to face the situation openly. He chooses not to escape or to avoid by rationalizing the situation. When the disciples want to send people away, Jesus responds out of integrity and compassion. He does not see people as a nuisance, so the situation becomes an opportunity to be who he was created to be.
Jesus Surveys his Resoures
Second, Jesus surveys his resources. He chooses to find out what he has in hand to meet the need of the situation. Although it is not much, it is what he has. In their hurry to escape the problem, by sending the people away, the disciples do not consider what they have going for them. Even though it is not much, they are amazed to discover that there is some food available in the group.
Jesus Uses Available Resources to Address the Need
Third, Jesus takes the resources and begins the task of meeting the need of the situation. He chooses to do the best he can with what he has. What seems impossible to the disciples, as they look at the problem, becomes a possibility through the courage and decisiveness of Jesus. He is not immobilized by the need or the lack of resources. He knows that nothing can begin until the first step is taken. So, he acts on the basis of what he has. His action gathers strength and turns an unsolvable problem into a success.
Now, it is obvious that there is a radical difference between the way Jesus coped with the difficulty and the way you and I usually go about dealing with reality. But the difference is not so much about lack of capacity as it is unused potential.
When you are tired and irritable, you become short-sighted and reduce your field of vision. Too often, in the face of problems or in the midst of difficulties, you don’t always see the possibilities. Instead of utilizing what God has already placed in your midst, you seek a way out either by denying the difficulty or by avoiding the situation.
The reality is, there are always “five loaves and two fish” in every problem. And when you don’t see the possibilities or recognize the resources at hand, you waver, hesitate, and become immobilized. There is nothing that intensifies stress more than inactivity. The longer you standstill in the face of a problem, the more stress you create. On the other hand, the decision to act, no matter how useless it may seem, often breaks the spell and turns the tide. The ability to start acting, even when it seems small and insignificant is key in facing difficulties and solving the problem.
Life is, and always will be, a process of problem-solving. Jesus came to terms with that fact. He seems to have laid aside all the fantasies of a place where there is no conflict or difficulty. He accepted the fact that such a place does not exist for us humans. This realistic outlook enabled him to focus all his energies on the real issues of life rather than trying to escape them by seeking “the way things used to be” or by longing for things to get back to “normal.”
Posture of Gratitude
How was Jesus able to cope? The secret is found in a posture of gratitude. In facing a hungry crowd when his followers were wringing their hands, Jesus calmly looked up to heaven and gave thanks to God. I don’t think this act pertained only to five loaves and two fish. It included not only that event, but life as it was given to Jesus day by day.
God is Good
Jesus learned the deepest secret there is to learn. The secret? God is good. And God, who gives us life, also loves us, is for us, and is working for our good. Out of that realization came the ability to receive the events of life with gratitude, not resentment. He learned to regard the events and encounters in his life as expressions of love rather than acts of hostility. He was able to see the events as God’s way of dealing positively with humanity.
It is amazing the difference such a posture of gratitude can make in the way we cope with difficulty. If we really begin to look at the things that happen to us as good gifts from God, even the problems take on a different form. Instead of seeing them as hopeless obstacles to our happiness, we come to see them as the challenges that give life its meaning and hope. Problems cease to be overwhelming when we see them as something to be received with gratitude.
Posture of Thanksgiving
The posture of thanksgiving opens our eyes to the resources that are present. Even though the resources might be hidden by the problem, our eyes are opened and we no longer say, “We don’t have enough” or “There is nothing here we can use.” No matter how deep the crisis, God has provided “five loaves and twelve fish” to meet the need. Gratitude opens our eyes to what we already have going for us.
Gratitude encourages us to begin with what we have and to expect more as we move forward. After all, what we have at the beginning has been given by a gracious God. Can’t we expect God to give even more to complete the task? This is what Jesus did. He began to act out in a profound sense of gratitude. His trust and action gathered up strength from earth and heaven until a multitude was fed.
Coping with Reality
So, how are you coping with stress these days? How are you facing the difficulties of leading? There are a thousand unhealthy ways of coping, like avoiding or escaping being two.
But there is at least one healthy way of coping. It is the way Jesus modeled for us on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. There in the shadow of great difficulty, he faced the problem. He laid hold of the resources already present, and he began to act in terms of what he had.
The truth is you can do the same. It is possible for you to lead through the stress and difficulties you face today. It is as simple and profound as this: let Jesus show you God by letting him reconcile you to the fact that God, who gives life, is good. Let him teach you to receive all of life in gratitude. When this becomes not only your perspective but your way of living, the courage to cope will rise from the depths of your being. Your problems will become the shape of a challenge. Your difficulties will be seen as the bearers of hidden resources. And the crisis will become nothing more than the moment to begin.
Your Next Step
This week, try coping with your stress by giving God thanks for your anxiety. Ask God to open your eyes to the resources present in the situation. And then, by God’s grace, take your first step toward addressing the difficulty. Again, try coping with your stress by giving God thanks in the midst of what seems impossible to overcome. It was good enough for Jesus. Shouldn’t it be good enough for you?
Remember, who you are is how you lead!