Jim Herrington, Co-Founder of The Leader's Journey, joins us to discuss self-care in a time of crisis and best practices for pastors and those shepherding many people at once.
" This is hard. Grief is real. You don't have to pretend like you're okay when you're not okay. Church is a safe place for you to lament, for you to grieve, for you to process your feelings."
Hello. Today I'm joined by Jim Herrington from The Leader's Journey is, he has been a Houston church leader for many, many, many years. A good friend of mine as well as a good friend of Houston Responds and I'm very thankful to get his insights today. Jim, thank you for joining us.
Hey Tommy, good to see you. Thanks for having me today.
You bet. Tell us just a little bit about your background and your history here in, serving the church community, especially here in Houston.
Yeah. I came to Houston right out of seminary about 35 years ago. Pastored a local congregation on the near Southwest side of the city for six years. For 10 years was executive director of Union Baptist Association, which is the association of 500 plus Southern Baptist congregations in the Harris County area. And then I think it was in 1998 that I was the founding executive director of mission Houston, which was, is a 501C3. That was whose primary purpose was to, work in geographic communities to get a local congregations to work together across the lines that would normally divide things like denomination, culture, gender, generation, language, where clusters of congregations could begin to not only do church planting within a geographic area who were the unreached people groups, but also to ask what were the unmet needs. And I worked in that ministry for about 17 years, actually Houston Responds is kind of the next iteration of Mission Houston. And so yeah, I've been doing work for the church in the city, both at the local and the, at the city level for 35 years.
And now you're working with churches across the country coaching pastors. And so you have had many conversations with churches all over the country about COVID-19, talk to us a little bit about what you've been advising to some of these pastors and what you've been hearing.
Yeah. So, I do service coach have a partner named Trisha Taylor and we've got clients all over North America. And right after the, after we were, kind of ordered to stay home, we began to just talk to as many of them as we could. And what we discovered was two things. We discovered that they were in crisis mode. They were like hustling as fast as they could to figure out how to get everything from online services to how do we care for people in our congregation when we can't make face to face contact with them. So the early on there was just this whole series of what do we do? How do we do it? Who's going to do it? Is it being done well? How are we going to monitor this? There was a whole set of what I would call crisis questions.
And as the conversations began to unfold, what the kind of the next ripple of what we heard was they were beginning to realize how fatigued they were. They were beginning to get in touch with how much grieving they were doing. On one of the first Sundays when every, when nobody was meeting in their worship services, I bet I saw 10 pictures that pastors took from the front or the back of their sanctuary. There was a picture of an empty sanctuary and then in their Facebook or their social media posts, they were just giving a really painful expression to how much grief they were experiencing. Their world, and the world that, they had, you know, served in all of their lives had changed so fundamentally. And what that led us to was, we recently, we have a podcast that we do on a, about a twice a month basis.
And that lead us to a podcast about caring for yourself in the midst of crisis. I think that if I could say anything to pastors, congregational leaders, leaders of 501c3's, businesses, I would say that that perhaps the most important thing among all the things that you have to do is to grow your capacity to focus on and to take care of yourself. Uh, that seems counter intuitive because you know, the Christian faith calls you to this selfless life. And so we may be using the biblical language and the family systems language that we use may be using self in a different kind of way. But another way of saying it is the most valuable gift that organizations, congregations have in the midst of crisis is a calm, thoughtful leader. When we face a crisis, what happens is this, is a little neuroscience, but it's real helpful.
What happens is your brain, the feeling processes of your brain get all stirred up and simultaneously the thinking processes in your brain gets begin to shut down. And so rather than making thoughtful responses to whatever the circumstances are before us, we do the stereotypical fight, flight or freeze. And, my partner Trisha would say, anxiety makes us stupid. I would chime in and say, she didn't just say you were stupid, but she, but when anxiety sets in and the feelings get stirred up in the thinking gets shut, stack and get shut down, then what happens is you can't get access to your bank of best thinking. And more than anything in the midst of a crisis, what we need is a leader who can get access to the facts, who can, you know, kind of sort out what the competing challenges are, uh, and then can help the people that are, that follow him or her that can help them begin to figure out how do you get an action, what are the most important things to do?
And if a leader gets fatigued or if a leader is overwhelmed by grief that they're not processing, or if leader is, taking a responsibility for everybody in their congregation. One of the byproducts of that is they will become less and less effective, in the work that they do. And so that, that's at a high level. I think one more thing I would say, uh, is the ministry tends to, a ministry tends to attract what we, what Trisha and I in the family systems world would call overfunctioning. And so let me see if I can distinguish that. So, I've got a congregation of a hundred people and the coronavirus thing comes along and we're all grieving. We're scared, we're confused. We don't know what to do. And a person who's overfunctioning begins to believe in their head and act as if your feelings are my responsibility.
And so not only do I have to make myself feel better, but somehow I've got to take on the unbelievable task of making you feel better. The difference in caring for someone and taking care of someone is the distinction that I'm making there. So as a pastor, I am responsible for caring for the people in my congregation, but not only am I not responsible for taking care of all my members, it is not possible for me to do that. And if I've got more than 10 or 12 people in my congregation, that just multiplies exponentially in a crisis because everybody's scared. Everybody's angry, everybody's grieving. And what will happen is that pastor will burn out. And so we're, we're working real hard to try to help pastors and distinguish between what does it look like for them to responsibly care for the people in their congregation.
I heard the pastor, one of the largest churches in the city say today if they've got 85,000 members schedule, you know, all over the city. And, they're like, that's one of the mega churches in the city. And they're finding a way to contact every member of the church. And I thought to myself, what a great thing to do. And then I wondered, I wonder how many people he's contacting. I guarantee you he hadn't taken on 85,000 people. There's probably 10 or 12 or 15 people, that he's taken on, have been taken on some people, who've been taken on some people. So, that watching the tendency to over-function becomes an important,
You know, in this season where, you know, we've had to deal with switching from having services to not servicing, you know, we had one week where we thought we'd be able to kind of meet smaller, cleaning up, and then all of a sudden we couldn't meet and all those kinds of things. Now that Easter's on top of it and Holy week and all that comes along with it. There really hasn't been a season to breathe. And then you have this, overfunctioning aspect. What are some of the things if you were coaching a pastor in the midst of, what are some of the things that they can do to help step away a little bit from the overfunctioning to something that could be a little bit more healthy and lasting?
Yeah, yeah. It's a great question. So, let me say four things. I'll try to say them briefly. The first one that I would say is, it's just to reiterate what I said previously and that it is your responsibility to care for yourself if you're not taking responsibility for calming yourself and for managing your, your grief and your anxiety, nobody else is going to do that. And so, when you begin to take responsibility, the, the first and maybe the most important thing that you do is just periodically throughout the day stop, stand still and take five or six deep cleansing breaths. Part of what we're learning from the neurosciences is that when that your, your brain and your body are intimately connected obviously, and that when you began to take deep breaths, that sends a signal to your brain that you're safe.
And when your brain thinks you're safe, it's going to function more effectively than if it thinks you're unsafe. And so the deep breaths is a really important part of the, of the process of learning to calm yourself. One part of learning to calm yourself is learning to name your feelings. Now, I know the pastoral world is mostly made up of men, not exclusively, but more men, way more men than women. And that men have kinda got the, we got the stereotype of, you know, the macho guy who doesn't have any feelings or if he does have any feelings, he's become a master at, you know, compartmentalizing them, shutting them off. And just like John Wayne, you know, riding out into the sunset, taking care of everything he needs to take care of it. Here's what I've learned as I've done my own work around this stuff.
It is possible to compartmentalize and to shut all the feelings down. But here's what's true. If you don't name and process your feelings, they're going to come outside ways. They'll come out in passive aggressive behavior. They'll come out in the straw that breaks the camel's back. I've been doing great all day long. If somebody does something that, and I just respond way out of proportion, they'll come out as a heart attack or as an ulcer. They'll come out with anxious overeating or I put, you know, in this crisis, I was talking to a guy just the other day who said in a month I put on 15 pounds. And what he was saying was just, I'm really anxious and I find myself at the refrigerator off and on all day, every day. And so, if you're a person who has, like has a long history of not dealing with your feelings, you're going to have to take that on as a skillset that you begin to learn.
And so, this is a story of my own learning that in a ministry crisis, when I was in my early thirties, had a crisis, I ended up with a counselor and after several sessions of meeting the counselor and getting a kind of rapport has been established, I came in one day and I said whatever I said, I was all stirred up about something. And he said, that's really informative and really interesting information. So what are you feeling about that? And I said, well, no, no, no. And he said, yeah, that's really interesting information. But the question I'm asking is, what are you feeling about that? And I, I did the same thing a third time and the third time he said, Jim, so all of that's really helpful information. What you're telling me is what you think and what has happened.
What I'm asking you is what are you feeling? And I was able to say, okay, I've tried to answer that question three times. I don't know what the answer to that question is. And he said, great, no problem. He said, so let's work on that. If the primary feeling, colors of feelings are mad, sad, glad, and scared. And what happened with me over a several week, a month period of time of seeing him, he would say, how are you feeling? And I would say, uh, well, it's not glad. I'm pretty sure about that. But over time I've developed the capacity of learning to name my feelings. It's a skill set and it can be developed. It helps if you have somebody around you. And you know, often that's our, that's our spouses. Sometimes it's a mentor or coach or a counselor, but learning to do that and then as you learn to do that, learning to do that and kind of an ongoing way.
And so, once or twice a day, right now in this crisis, I have three or four people in my life that I'm in. Uh, but my wife is one of them. And that there's some people that I work with where a couple of times a day I just kinda like, it's like I've got a cup inside of me that I'm poking all the feelings and putting a top on. And periodically what I do is I take the top off and by venting, you know, dump that out and then that creates some more capacity and I'm able to move on. And so the breathing is important. The naming your feelings is important. So this is a different sort of thing than what I've been talking about. Well I've been, what I've just been talking about is you're feeling, I wanna I want to turn my attention now to your thinking.
And so one of the things that we talk about when we're working with people is what we call a cognitive distortions. And so, in our first formation, we run up as a little kid. You know, if we had painful experiences, we learned to think about crisis, about pain, about her, about wounding in a certain kind of way. And, the, and one of the primary ways of that will show up. I have a client that I'm working with right now who recognizes about himself that when there is a crisis, he automatically goes to the worst case scenario. And it doesn't matter what else is happening. The worst case scenario is what's in the future. And I've got to actually prepare as if the worst case scenario is what's going to happen. And it doesn't just do that in a crisis.
He does at anytime relationships don't want to go the way that he thinks they ought to go. So that worst case scenario is a cognitive distortion. Another way that it shows up is what we would call binary thinking. And so I'm coaching somebody and they're talking about the crisis and I'll say, so tell me what the, what you see as the worst possible scenario. And they'll do that. And then I'll say, now tell me what you see as the best possible case of what could happen. The best possible scenario. And they'll say, yeah, there would be this. And then I'll say, so now name between the worst and the best, they're probably a hundred possibility. Let's see if we can brainstorm and name three things that are in between that. Well, all of a sudden, if you go back to what I said early on, that your feelings get start up and the thinking shuts down. All of a sudden doing that thinking begins to normalize the thinking and the feeling become more equalized, where you can get access to your thinking. And so I think that's a kind of work to be done. I would say one more thing.
I said before we got on the recorded part of this conversation that, Trisha and I are recording our next podcast this afternoon at four o'clock. And what we're going to be working on is what I want to describe here.
So we've kind of moved through the crisis. I don't mean, and I don't mean by that, that we've dealt with all of our grief or that we figured out how to care for everybody, but we've put in place some new systems and structures that we're now learning how to work that with every passing day. There's less and less of, I'm doing something for the first time in this crisis.
Nobody knows how long this crisis is going to last. Andy Crouch, is a Christianity Today, editor who wrote a book on culture shaping several years ago, and he's one of the guys that I really listened to. And maybe in the first week of the crisis, he wrote a article that said, some people are thinking about this like a blizzard. And some are thinking about this like winter and some are thinking about this like, the beginning of a mini ice age. And he said, the truth of the matter is that nobody knows how long this is going to last. And it's been really interesting for me who is a guy who's thinking about this. Part of what I've begun to do is ask people that I'm talking to. So in the circles you're running and what are people thinking about this? And it's all over the map. But a part of the way our brains work is that we can deal with crisis if we've done some preparation for that.
So the difference in something that happens that comes completely out of the blue, like the work you guys do is, is just instrumental around this. You know, we had a hurricane and the, and the very first hurricane it was like, Holy moly, what do we do? But the work y'all do and helping with the recovery and how we have an experience and we respond and we learn from that. And so the next time it happens, it's still a crisis. But it doesn't have near the impact that it does if we're doing this for the very first time. And so what I'm wondering with people is I'm asking them to actually think about doing some scenario planning where they're saying, okay, so what if the what if by the 1st of July we're sort of back to normal? What would that mean for what you, how you're going to function and do your life, how you're going to live between now and then and then have the conversation.
What if it's January that the way things are now, they're mostly like that until January. Then what would that mean for how you take care of yourself or what kind of systems and structures you need to create or for how you need to organize to get your work done for how you care for people? I mean, there's a whole whole set of questions and then let's ask the question, what if it's January of 2022 before we return to some semblance of normal? And then ask those same questions and all three scenarios, what things are the same and what things are different? Where are the critical unknowns that like for instance, a critical unknown is this thing would change on a dime. If today on the news they announced that we had a, we had a vaccine that changed on a dime. That's not going to happen.
But if it did, it would change on a dime. That's a critical unknown. What's going to happen when a church of 80,000 people context everybody in their congregation, what's happening to the people who are making those calls and what's happening to the people who are on the receiving end of those calls? And so, yeah, I mean that's enough. At a high level what I've said was take care of managing your feelings and take care of doing some thinking that actually helps you to get to clear thinking. And if pastors and congregational 501c3 leaders would begin to engage those practices on a kind of a regular basis, they would be much more useful, much more effective, much more high impact as they did their work in the, in the congregations that they're serving.
That's great stuff. I think, you know, we, like I said earlier, we've been pushing through this season of the unknowns and then with the Holy week and all that goes into that. Okay. Come on the back end of this and go, okay, what's next? And we know from the disaster world that, you know, first of all in Houston we noticed like to what happens when the electricity doesn't come on for two weeks, right? Or what happens when the streets are flooded for two weeks. We can, we can gut it through a period of time, but we're about to come through that period of time where we just can't gut it out anymore. Not necessarily the leaders, but also those within our church. And then you also look at the rising rates of domestic abuse that are happening. And then we know from the disaster world that at some point in time with all that adrenaline dump is over and you just can't work any harder and you just can't push further anymore. Unfortunately that's when suicidal actions happen in those kinds of things, which unfortunately this is going to be a similar trajectory that is a massive interruption to people's lives and to they're planning their future. So as pastors, you know, tried to self care themselves, they also have to go and then speak to their congregations as to, how does the congregation take care of themselves? So what some of the advice that you would give pastors as they, they speak to their bodies?
Yeah, so I think that's a great question. And as a part of the answer, I want to acknowledge that. I think, you know, in the imagery, the biblical imagery of the body of Christ, I think we have it. God has already given us what we need to be able to respond to any crisis that comes along. And I think one of the things that you guys do, the Houston Responds, guys do. I think one of the best services that you provide is that you can main pastors and geographic communities. And when you get them together, not only share some of the, like, I've see you as some of the most trustworthy data people out there. Like what are the facts? But you also, by getting them together and allowing them to share what they're doing and share how they're taking the training that y'all are providing and implementing it, there's something about coming together that triggers imagination and creativity.
And in a crisis that the like that's the economy that is going to help us move to the future creativity, imagination, facts that help us to get into action. Like in the large frame of what I have that I think that, that I would probably say two or three things to the congregation. One of the things that I would do is I would tell the truth about this is hard. This is hard. Grief is real. You don't have to pretend like you're okay when you're not okay. Church is a safe place for you to lament, for you to grieve, for you to process your feelings. I think that, the often what happens is we use the Bible as a kind of spiritual trump card that says, well, God's in control.
And if he knew that this was going to happen and he's going to take care of us, and while it is true that God is with us, I think that's the second message that we have to send is that God is with us. That no matter what happens, no matter if the worst case scenario happens, God is going to be with us. And there are some people who love you, who are going to be with you. And no matter what happens, you're not going to have to go through any of this alone. And then I think a third thing that I would say to them is, I'd be very careful to not communicate that God caused this to happen, to get us to do something that we weren't willing to do. But a part of my own understanding of the gospel is that even when really hard challenging things happen, that stretch us to the edge of everything that we know and have and understand that God meets us at that point and, and redeems what's taking place.
And so rather than risk resisting being at the edge of all of that, I would encourage people to see that as the place of creativity and imagination where God does something new. And I don't know what the new thing God is going to do out of all this, but I have Tommy, I'm absolutely certain, uh, that whatever God is gonna do is going to, um, uh, lead us into a new kind of future that is going to be different than the reality that we've been living in. And I have, I think if pastors can stand up, if leaders can stand up and say those things in a calm kind of manner, where on the one hand, you know, you tell the unbridled truth about this is hard, this hurts, and God is with us and we're gonna make our way through this and let's come together and find ways to solve the challenges that we face. I think that the spirit of God that's in us, activates some stuff that doesn't get activated. And, I'm actually like, I want to be really clear. I'm not glad this has happened. I'm grieving like everybody else is. And there's a part of me that's got a really curious side that wonders, after Easter and a month from now and six months from now, what's going to happen and what are we gonna watch God doing in the midst of all of this?
One of the things I know from Houston Responds perspective that, that make us passionate about the church of living into these moments of disaster or crisis is the transformative aspect of God meeting somebody in their worst times, number one, but also what it's like to be, even if even if you're not experiencing those worst times, what it's like to be there for somebody else during that season. And this is gonna be a bit different.
I've heard you say that like a dozen times over the last several years. Well, it's a particularly sensitive hurricane Harvey, where there were lots and lots of people who weren't affected by Harvey but who got recruited by their church or by different organizations, to do kind of spiritual care just to go check up on people who were traumatized by that. And I've heard you tell dozens and dozens of stories about how being on the giving end of that as well as being on the receiving end of that was transformative for everybody involved. And I think we will have, we are having, and we will have some of those same kinds of experiences here.
Well Jim, I'm incredibly thankful for your leadership and your friendship and your insight.
Thanks Tommy. I appreciate what you guys are doing. I post it on my Facebook page today. Y'alls like to y'alls website and said of all the people in the city who you want to turn to, these are the guys there that I know that are the most helpful out there.
Well, as you know, we're just trying to figure it out along with everybody else.
helping us do it together.
That's great. Houston church leaders, if you want more resources like this, Faith Leader Insights as well as updates, anything else we could find, we're putting it at houstonresponds.org/covid-19. We hope that's a great resource for you. Thank you for doing this today.
Additional COVID-19 resources for congregations available here.
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