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October 19, 2010

Stepping Out: Guilt, Failure and Trust

Making the call about when and how to step out of a leadership role tops my all-time list of “Things I Hate.” I would venture to guess that you’ve been there; that the struggle leaders face over when, how and why to step away—although circumstantially unique—are somewhat common.

Earlier this year, I stepped out of a role that played a significant part in my development as a leader. Having traveled the transition road before, when I stepped out, I anticipated the internal battle: guilt (now others had to pick up my slack), ego (would they really be okay without me?), loss (but the relationships…). What I didn’t expect, however, was for a voluntary stepping away to leave me feeling like a complete failure.

The decision came during a “conversation” my husband and I had been having for the better part of three years. While I knew this particular role was utilizing my gifts, growing my skills and making a difference, the investment of time and energy was taking away from other areas of my life that I cared deeply about. So when my husband suggested—again—that maybe it was time to take a break, I put on my gloves and prepared—again—to be declared the victor. But midway through the conversation, something unexpected happened. I found myself agreeing with my husband. It was a rare moment of clarity for a girl whose family-of-origin-motto is “Let’s wait and see.” I knew I needed to quit, and I knew it had to be soon.

At first I was proud of my uncharacteristically decisive action, for so clearly obeying the still small voice. But it took less than 24 hours for the guilt to set in, for me to begin questioning whether or not I had made the right decision. I secretly wondered how the dynamics of the community would change without me, and I felt the gap of missing relationships. But then, a few weeks later, the strangest thing happened. I found something in my life that I’d been missing for years: white space.

And I felt completely, utterly, one-hundred percent…lazy. Like an unstressed, well-rested, big American zero.

Feelings of inadequacy replaced feelings of guilt about stepping away. I wondered what deficiencies I had that made me incapable of handling a busy load. I questioned my work ethic and self-discipline. Comparison plagued me as I looked at the capacity of other leaders I knew. Well if she can handle it, why can’t I? Maybe if I had just stayed up later and gotten up earlier, I could have pulled this off.

Our western culture had gotten the better of me. It tells me if I’m not stressed out, exhausted and burning the candle at both ends, I’m not productive. It equates busyness with fruitfulness. It consistently asks me what I want to do, but rarely asks me who I want to be. It tells me to wear my to-do list like a badge of honor. As a product of it, I beg God to reveal his plan for my life, rather than begging him just to reveal himself. I believe that he cares as much about my competency as he does my character.

In the midst of this journey, I was drawn to Mark Buchanan’s book The Rest of God. A simple perusal of the table of contents was enough to remind me of God’s A-plan in asking us to sit out:

Stopping to Think Anew; To Find What’s Missing; To See God’s Bigness; To Become Whole; To Taste the Kingdom; To Hear God; To Glimpse Forever

I didn’t step away from the position for any of those reasons. Not one. But God, in his sovereignty, with mercy and kindness, knew that during my timeout, I’d be on a journey where white space would become my lifeline; that I’d need the margin to think anew, to find what was missing, to see his bigness, to become whole; to renew my mind, to see him for who he was, to listen to his voice, to stop doing and simply be. He wasn’t asking me to trust him with my gifts; he was asking me to trust him with my heart.

I suppose if that makes me a failure, then so be it.

Maybe you’re facing a stepping-out decision right now. Maybe you just made one and are second-guessing if you did the right thing. Maybe you’re a bit neurotic like me and feel like you just couldn’t make the grade. Regardless of your circumstance, trust that God uses our time out to shape us as much as he does our time toiling away.


Suanne, this is so true and so thought-provoking. I love Mark Buchanan's book, and the whole concept of resting in God has shaped my life profoundly.
Ministry often tempts us to pride. Our motives, which start out so well, get mangled. Way to listen to God, and thanks for being honest about how hard that can sometimes be. this hit home: "I beg God to reveal his plan for my life, rather than begging him just to reveal himself." That is me! Great stuff to share, especially with my daughter who is looking at colleges and trying to figure out God's plan!

I absolutely agree with Suanne that as leaders we have the false mindset that we should be busy using our gifts. The viewpoint of culture insists that we "work hard" and DO. Having stepped out of a leadership role, the question I get is, "What are you doing now?" To add to what others think, my own pride says that I need to do something as equally significant in the future if not right now. I have become accustomed to feeling whole and significant through the role or position I am in. I have been refreshed by this article which emphasized the very thing God instructed me to do, "Step down" and just "be". I too have been asking God, "What is your next role and plan for me?", but will from here on ask instead, "Reveal Yourself to me. Still my heart and mind so I see YOU." May we experience His peace as we step back to just worship and know Him better, the very reason we serve and do.

This all reminds me of something Bill Hybels said at the Leadership Summit a few years back - putting a new twist on the Lord’s challenge in Mark 8:36, "What does it profit you to gain the world but lose your soul?" - as Hybels discussed the concept (new to me at the time) of "self leadership."

Even "the world" of ministry can cause you to lose your soul: As the speed and intensity of your ministry increase, he explained, you have less and less time to invest in your own soul.

The irony, he said, is that the most important thing you have to offer to others in ministry is your soul.

Your comments are encouraging to my own heart. All of you have reinforced the truth of God's character and how much he deeply cares about our own souls. Wayne, thank you for pointing out the Bill Hybels' insight. I'll read Mark 8 in a new light. Medy, keep trusting that God has you exactly where he wants you. And Keri, sharing this with your daughter would be the highest honor I could receive. Blessings to all of you and thanks for taking the time to jot a comment.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your article resonates alot with me right now as I am experiencing a similar situation, stepping down from leadership positions, feeling the guilt and feeling unproductive, but now actually having time to enjoy just being with God and others and tending to my soul.

It is comforting to know that others have experienced the same kinds of feelings. Thanks again.

Thank you for bringing wisdom and peace to my decision. I feel guilty and like a coward. But I'm praying for peace of mind.

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