By Nancy Kauffman
Every spring, my mother would assign me the task of cleaning out the closets in our home. It was always amazing in one short year, the amount of items that would find their way into our closets. The content ranged from treasures to junk. Some items were stored for future use. Some items were stuffed in the closet because no one knew what to do with them and so delayed the decision of their fate. Some items were broken, but maybe fixable if and when someone had the time. And on rare occasions, some items were quickly jammed into the closet to hide the mess as unexpected guests arrived at the front door. Actually the later backfired once as one guest opened the wrong closet door and the items tumbled out onto the floor!
I learned to appreciate the task of cleaning out the closets, especially when I found a prized item that we thought was lost. Since I have been in ministry, I have come to the conclusion that “cleaning out one’s closet” is an important self-care tool for leaders as well.
I grew up with wonderful pastors who inspired, encouraged and challenged me in my faith journey. Because they were excellent role models, I entered the ministry with a high view of pastors. But on my very first day in ministry I received a jolt of reality. As I was entering the ministry, two local pastors were leaving the ministry because of their affair. I was saddened and wondered what had gone on in their lives to cause them to hurt themselves, their families and end their ministry.
Since my first day in ministry, I have known a number of healthy leaders who are positive role models for me and others, and a number of unhealthy leaders who have hurt themselves and others and destroyed their ministry. There may be a number of differences between the two groups of leaders, but one very significant difference is how well they paid attention to what was going on deep within their lives and how they dealt with what they discovered. The difference was a “cleaned out closet” versus a closet stuffed with junk.
I use the phrase “cleaning out one’s closet” to mean that we give ourselves the time and space to step back and take an honest assessment of our life and ministry. We open ourselves to be accountable to God and to others. It is rediscovering and reclaiming what we treasure and recognizing and dealing with our junk. It places us in a healthy and thriving space and enhances our ministry.
Some questions to help access what junk might be in our closet
- Is there any past trauma that has left you deeply wounded such as physical, verbal or sexual abuse that is too painful or you feel too ashamed to talk about? Are you still living as a victim rather than a thriver? Is there any other tragic event that you haven’t come to terms with yet?
- Are there any addictions that you are hiding in your closet? Do you have addictions to pornography, money, substances, power or activity that crosses sexual boundaries?
- Do you have any broken relationships within your family or among friends or colleagues? Do you have any unhealthy or inappropriate relationships?
- Are there health issues that you are ignoring?
- Do you have emotions that you need to address such as anger that can turn into rage, deep lingering sadness or constant anxiety or fear?
- Do you lack energy or focus in your ministry? Have you lost heart?
Resources for cleaning out one’s closet
- Set a regular time at least once a year to clean out your closet.
- Seek professional help were needed especially with addictions. Determination and secrecy will not keep addictions in check.
- Set up an accountability relationship with a friend or group of friends/colleagues where you can be very open and honest with each other.
- Find a spiritual director who will help you examine your relationship with God
- Look for continuing educational opportunities to strengthen your leadership. Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary http://www.ambs.edu/leaders and Eastern Mennonite Seminary http://www.emu.edu/graduate-counseling/institute/continuing-education/ offer a number of workshops and webinars.
- Values Based Leadership http://www.vblp.org/ is an excellent resource for leaders who want to review and strengthen their leadership skills.
- One especially excellent book is Ruth Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (Inter Varsity Press, 2008). Chapter Two, entitled “What lies beneath” relates well to cleaning out one’s closet.
- A Generous Presence, Rochelle Melander, Alban Institute 2006
- A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer, Jossey Bass 2004
- Blessed Connections, Judith Schwanz, Alban Institute 2008
- The Spiritual Leaders Guide to Self-Care, Rochelle Melander, Harold Heppley, Alban Institute 2002
Jeremiah 29:11 reads, “For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” Our junk can interfere with God’s plans and limit us from being the kind of leader God calls us to be. Usually our junk is secrets we don’t want others to find out about. We may be in denial, or feel helpless to deal with the junk or even too embarrassed to seek outside help. Over time though, the door to our closet will eventually open and the junk will spill out into our ministry and cause harm. Removing the junk before it spills out frees us to live out the plans God has for us with new found energy, peace and joy.