Leading in the midst of the storm

Dr. Bruce Hopler

Vice President of Church Strengthening

  • Church & pastoral health


While this year has been undoubtedly challenging for everyone, it has been brutal for pastors. They’ve been trying to lead their congregation through massive and sudden change without warning and a road map.

One of the things that they’re often finding is they will make decisions and then have decision fatigue. They might even have a lot of negativity blowback from their congregation who disagree.

Pastors are weary, tired, emotionally exhausted, and some are full-on burnt out. That’s why we’re doing these series of videos geared toward the emotional health of a pastor. Each week I’ll interview a pastor or a leader to give some practical wisdom and guidance.

Today it’s my honor to introduce you to pastor Dan Nold of Calvary Church in State College, Pennsylvania.

Bruce Hopler: Pastor Dan, first of all, welcome and thank you for joining us.

Dan Nold: It’s great to be here, Bruce.

BH: Pastor Dan, one of the things when you and I were talking about what your specific topic would be, I enjoyed the topic entitled Leading from Be Still in the Midst of the Storm. I think if we’re gonna talk about that, let’s break that down a little bit. Let’s talk about the ending part of the statement. Tell me about the storm.

DN: Sure, well, you already started talking about the general storm that I think leaders find themselves, not just in the church, I mean all over the place, but specifically as we talk about the church, I think the uncertainty is a huge part of it. Our minds do not like uncertainty, so we’re working extra hard because there’s always all these options out here, what we could do, should do, somebody wants us to do, shouldn’t do, all of that.

It’s not just a decision-making process that brings drain, it’s just feeling like you never have all the information, and tomorrow the information might be different. We’re at the whims, more so than maybe in other years, at what governments think or what people outside the church, outside of our, it’s all outside of our control, but outside of our control are thinking, saying and doing.

So there’s a lot of uncertainty and mixed messages. I mean, when leaders are trying to make decisions based on good information, wise counsel and good information and wise counsel seems like it’s saying the opposite or 17 different things all at the same time. I think that can just bring a weariness, that’s part of the decision fatigue.

Part of the storm, for me, personally, part of the storm was, I think, I’ve shared in a couple of different settings that for me, part of the storm was getting COVID-19. Way back in March, I do some consulting for churches and missions organizations. I was consulting for a mission organization out in the state of Washington, right across the river from Portland, and came home from that, and two weeks later was feeling some of the symptoms.

Got an email from somebody in Vancouver saying, “Hey, just want you to know I tested positive and came down with it.” I went and got tested and ended up having it. About a week into that sickness, which was much more mild when I had it than a lot of people are going through, but I would say it was still the sickest two-week mild I’ve ever experienced.

In the midst of that, about a week into having the symptoms, this is just right when things are starting to close down and stuff like that. I’m feeling, in a lot of ways, inadequate, and partly because of feeling cruddy, drained, all of that, and knowing that I need to lead my church, but in part, because I was feeling like a lot of my peers in churches of my size, I just felt like they’re doing a lot better job.

They’re hitting it out of the park and this is going well and they’re doing this, and we’re not doing that, and here I am, I’m sick. I remember lying in bed and just doing a little bit of the why me whine to God, and just really having that message really clearly given to me by the Spirit, be still, stop striving. Your problem is, Dan, you’re still trying to control everything that you think you should control and you think that the success is based on your capacities, your capabilities, and I’ve got this, what you’ve been praying for.

I remember just getting that sense so strongly. What you’ve been praying for, I’m doing. Stop striving. Those words, that be still from Psalms, be still and know that I am God, that really began to shape my perspective. There are a number of places after that where I felt like I had a point of the Holy Spirit kind of saying, “Watch this, let this go, surrender this.”

I think those things, in terms of being emotionally healthy, it had more to do with perspective than it had to do with certain practices. There’s all of that in a storm. How’s the church doing, and I’m not seeing the church, and I’m trying to lead in a whole different way.

At the same time, I’m trying to figure out what is God doing because I don’t believe that this is a temporary interruption. I believe that it’s a transitional disruption, so as a leader, I’m trying to think through not just how do we make it through this, but really trying to dial in on God, what are you doing and what do you have for us in the next chapter?

All of that stuff, the physical, and shepherding the people, and making decisions, and trying to figure out what’s next, not just how do we make it through, because that, for me, is part of leading well. All of those things, I think, become the storm.

BH: Pastor Dan, I would encourage pastors right now, get out a pen and paper and write down two words: be still. It’s like we preach and we teach and we know that we’re to rely on the Spirit of God, but we are naturally as leaders, we tend to be strivers.

As you said, when you’re in a time of uncertainty, that is just scary because your foundation is being messed with. We tend to get into the comparison game, too.

DN: It’s always there.

BH: I know most pastors fall into it innocently by just saying, “Well, let’s see what I can learn from the other churches,” and the next thing you know, they’re saying, “Gosh, they’re doing a lot better than me.” I appreciate your humility in wrestling with that. That, right there, was worth the price of admission, but let’s dig into that a little bit more. How do you find the be still place in the midst of the storm?

DN: Yeah, well, it’s recognizing that when Jesus said, be still, when God said, be still in Psalms, and even you have that storm story in the Scripture where Jesus says be still to the storm. So often, I think, when we’re thinking about what is stillness, we immediately go to non-activity. I’ve got to be quiet, I’ve got to be silent, and I think that’s hugely important.

Honestly, if pastors aren’t, and this is a practice more than a perspective, but it leads to perspective. If pastors aren’t taking a sabbath from social media, headlines, mainstream media. We need to write some of our own headlines. There’s some pretty good biblical headlines that are much better clickbait than some of the stuff that’s out there.

That kind of silence is important too, but the Hebrew word in the psalm for be still, it’s literally let your hands drop. Stop striving, stop trying to hang onto what you’re not meant to hang onto. I think those issues of control and comfort, as leaders we feel like that’s part of our calling is to be in control. How can I lead if I’m not in control?

Whereas I think God is really looking for leaders who are willing to be out of control, and I don’t mean by that to be reckless. I’m not risk averse, but it’s not a recklessness, it’s a surrender. For me, that journey actually started more like seven, eight years ago when I went through my Doctor of Ministry studies.

It was on organic leadership development, and one of the concepts that was introduced to us from Bobby Clinton’s writings was this concept of spiritual influence, spiritual authority. We talked about how, as leaders, we can lead from a number of different places.

We’re all familiar about positional authority. That’s the lowest basis, kind. I consider it a push me authority. You’re telling me what I have to do. What’s the bare minimum? It’s just by virtue of the position that I have.

Then there’s a leadership that comes from charisma or capacity, it’s my personality or it’s my abilities, and you want to be around me because you see me getting stuff done or you like who I am. That’s kind of a draw me along leadership, it’s a pull me leadership.

But spiritual authority is not the authority you get because you’re a pastor, that’s positional authority. Spiritual authority is more like a dance. When you see this spiritual authority in someone, sometimes it’s almost like you can’t tell who’s leading, whether it’s between that person and God or it’s between that person and others.

There’s just this weaving together of motion and interaction. Spiritual authority, spiritual influence comes from going deeper with Jesus. It comes from letting him process the junk and allowing him to go deeper, being open about who you are and where your stuff is.

The charismatics call it anointing, but I think it actually goes deeper than anointing. It’s more than just integrity and trust. There’s actually a smell of Jesus on somebody who has spiritual authority, and you want to be with them even if they don’t accomplish anything because you sense something good there.

I think that’s available to all of us, regardless of our skill level or capacity. There’s three postures that lead us into that spiritual influence, spiritual authority, that take us deeper with Jesus.

One is the posture of surrender. When it comes to leadership, that’s the kind of authority we want. It’s never about trying harder, it’s always about surrendering more. I feel like day by day, there’s something new, whether it’s something big or little, that is another step of surrender.

New revelation almost always is preceded by surrender. I just think surrender is one of those, it’s not even so much, I guess you could call it a discipline or a practice, but it’s really a perspective of hands out, saying, “God, everything I have belongs to you. What do you want me to surrender today?”

One of the points in these last few months, two different points in terms of surrender, I felt like God was saying, “Dan, I want you to surrender the crowds,” and at another point I felt like he was saying, “I want you to surrender your voice.”

To me that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be a pastor, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to leave, but there’s a certain attachment that we have to what success looks like, and basically I felt like God was saying, “I want you to surrender those things that you’re attaching your sense of success to.”

And surrender, the issue of surrender is always who’s in control? It’s always answering, am I in control or is God in control? That’s really the primary issue in question.

Then the posture of brokenness is the question of dependency. It’s the question of what do I bring to the table? Do I bring to the table primarily my capacities and my abilities, or to I bring my desperate dependency on God? Really, what Christ is looking for in leaders is that desperate dependency, not so much our abilities. Jesus said in the parable of the talents he can do more through our worst failures than we can do without him through our success. He’s the one who sows where he doesn’t even plant, excuse me, reaps where he doesn’t even plant.

Then the final one is the posture of vulnerability, and the posture of vulnerability is more that horizontal thing, where it’s all about me being able to say to others in my life, I actually need you more than you need me.

Because of that, it’s not just about being authentic, it’s not just about sharing my struggles, it’s actually saying, “I need you. I need you to walk with me through this. I need others. I’m not just that solitary leader who can do it alone.”

It kind of goes a little bit beyond authenticity. The vulnerability says to my neighbors, “I actually need you more than you need me.” It says to God, obviously, says to people in the church, “I actually probably need you more than you even need me.”

I found, as I try to live out those three postures, that’s my greatest de-stressor in times of the storm. It leads me to Jesus in the midst of the storm.

BH: You know, this strikes me that very little of the Scriptures were written in stable, predictable times.

DN: Right, yeah.

BH: Most of it was in the context of this is confusing, this is chaos, we’re not in control, so therefore those three postures are ones that those that were in tune with the Lord. They somewhat also just make sense because they’ve had to do it so often.

I’m not so sure, in our context, we’ve known about them, but have we had to do them to the level that we’ve had to do them? I think it’s pretty revealing. They always say that crisis doesn’t create something new, it just reveals what’s not there.

DN: Yeah.

BH: So it’s humbling to recognize that I need to invite brokenness, or that I need to let go of control in all of that. Other than these postures, what has been some of your best rhythms of health in the midst of the storm?

DN: Yeah, you know there’s a number of things that I do, besides kind of taking on those postures and saying, “OK, what do I need to surrender?” and reminding myself of my own brokenness. There’s some principles and there’s some practices.

For me, one of the principles is just always remembering we’re in the midst of a battle. It’s not a physical battle, it’s spiritual. It’s not against people. Recognizing where the source of the conflict comes from is always helpful to me, and that leads into prayer. I think in times of uncertainty and stress, in times of desperation and helplessness,

Ole Hallesby, who wrote one of the classic books on prayer, just entitled Prayer, said your helplessness is your best prayer. When our hearts feel that helplessness, that goes straight to the heart of God faster than any words that we can pray.

Coaching people and pushing people and leading people, our church, into times of prayer during this season has been so critical. That was at the very beginning. In March, we led people into a season of prayer. We’re just finishing up 40 days of prayer. For me personally, that’s been such an important part of it, the prayer rhythms.

I think another thing, just as practical, for Lynn and I, what we do on our day off, is we get out of town, we take a long drive in Pennsylvania. I know for some people listening to this, taking a drive in your city may be stress inducing, not relaxing, but for us, getting out of town gets us away from the spiritual battle for a period of time, gets us away from the context, and a lot of times, even as we go, we’re talking about church, not all the time, but a lot of times.

It’s just a whole different feel when we’re out of town. We’re here in Pennsylvania, it’s a gorgeous place, so we’re seeing some of God’s creation. We’re reminded of the goodness of God’s works. That’s been a really helpful part for Lynn and I as well.

I think another practice is always pulling back from trying to simplify complex issues. I think our desire to simplify complex issues is just another place where we try to control, and if we can simplify it so that I can understand, I can decide whether this is right or wrong and you’re good or bad, and it’s got to be 100% good or bad. I think we should not try to simplify complex issues, but I do think there are simple practices that God calls us to that help us in the midst of complex issues.

Love God and love your neighbor. OK, I know that I’m called to do that in the midst of stressful, chaotic, leadership-draining kind of times, and I think if I do that, that’s gonna help me with my emotional health, that’s gonna help me with my stress levels, because I’m on God’s path.

Finding some of those things, those simple, next step commandments, just looking for the next step. I feel like I have a better idea of where we might be a year from now than I have where we might be next week. I’ve learned to surrender my certainty in where we’re gonna be next week, and I’m really focusing on what’s further down the road.

BH: Wonderful. You know, I was reflecting as you were talking that God has the ability to make the incredibly complex into simple, and we have the ability to take the very simple and make it incredibly complex. It almost begins to become a sign that you might be out of sync with the Lord when you’re getting too entangled in the complexity of things and not just saying, “OK, let me deconstruct that a little bit. Lord, what would you have me do?”

Simple things would be steps, these practices, taking a nap, taking a drive, getting alone with the Lord, or just kind of working through it, or just taking things one piece at a time, and recognizing we’re not in control.

DN: Yeah, you bet.

BH: Could I ask you this? There’s gonna be a lot of pastors who are gonna be watching this, and some are in pain, some have gone through some very difficult circumstances, and they know that they need to put these practices, they’ve probably written down multiple things, but again, cognitively knowing it and really surrendering to the Spirit can be a difficult thing at times. Would you end our time by praying for the pastors that are listening?

DN: Yeah, you bet. I’d be happy to, Bruce. Let me pray.

Father, I know that every pastor listening to this, you love them far beyond their imagination. The love that they’ve preached about, the peace that they’ve told others is available is for them, and I pray first of all, maybe most importantly, that every leader listening to this would have a little bit of that sense of being like a little kid who’s guarded by his or her father’s embrace.

Father, I just start by saying thank you. You are a good God, you are a good Father. Jesus, you are an amazing King. You are the King of the kingdom. There is nothing going on in this world that is beyond your scope, that is beyond your knowledge, that is beyond your ability. Holy Spirit, the power that you empower us with, the comfort that you comfort us with, the way that you pray for us when we can’t put it into words, it just goes beyond our imagination. You are too wonderful for words, and we rest in that hope.

We rest in the hope of Romans 8, that what we’re going through cannot even begin to compare with the glory that one day will be revealed in us and through us. You are taking us to a place. This is not without purpose, it’s not without direction. There is something you’re doing, not just in our own congregation, but globally, with your body Jesus, globally, you are in the process of doing something. With all my heart, I believe that you’re taking us through a transition, and transitions are some of the most uncomfortable things that we can experience in the world.

But those transitions are also times of catalytic, spiritual growth, so I pray that in our striving, we wouldn’t miss that catalytic spiritual growth. God, I pray for every person listening to this, that you would do a deep work in them, that you would spiral it down, your grace and your word and your righteousness and your justice and your love, that all of that would become so woven in us, and in the process, Father, I just pray for each one of us, that in our sense of desperation and brokenness, we would lean into prayer, that we’d become even more and more a people of prayer, and that as we pray, as we sit even in silence with you, because we don’t know what to pray, that your Spirit would do that healing work in us, that rejuvenating work in us, that you would give us a peace that will guard our hearts, that you will strengthen and energize us for the task ahead.

God, I pray especially as we close, just for hope, that you will just pour your hope out upon your people, upon your leaders, that they will know that you have good in store. Whenever we reach it, that’s in your hand, Father, but you have good in store for your people, you have good in store for your kingdom, and you’ve got this. There’s nobody in the world who gives us a more certain, a more sure hope, even in the times of wavering uncertainty, so we thank you for that.

God, bless each person leading, bless each person listening with your presence. We don’t want your power without your presence. We don’t want impact without intimacy. We don’t want achievement without access. So Father, distinguish us from all the people on the face of the earth by your presence.

It’s in Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

If you’re a pastor and you need somebody to talk to, contact us.

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Dr. Bruce Hopler, Vice President of Church Strengthening

Dr. Bruce Hopler has been coaching pastors and church planters for over 20 years. He now serves as the executive director of Church Strengthening at Converge. Bruce started a church in Maryland against all odds with no core group and no upfront funding, but it has grown for 18 years. He then moved to Las Vegas, where he was the Spiritual Formation pastor for the eighth-fastest growing church in America. During his time in Vegas Bruce completed his doctorate in spiritual formation and leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. After four years there, he moved to Orlando to join Converge. Bruce loves planters and pastors. He has been certified in StratOps, Church Unique and SOULeader coaching. He strives to help pastors discover what healthy means, within their unique calling and context.

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