One day a month, I commute between two cities that are about 300 miles apart. In order to spare myself the driving hours, I choose to fly. For each of these days, I want to lighten my carrying load and make airport security as easy as possible. So, rather than carrying a purse and a work bag, I combine them. This appears to be a genius way to carry less weight and shuffle fewer things through the TSA. However, it also means that things are in places I don’t expect them to be.
This summer, security lines were longer than I had experienced them in 15 years. I was waiting in that slow, long line when a cell phone started to ring behind me. It rang, unanswered for about 20 seconds. Then, after a brief silence, started again. On its fourth cycle through ringing, I started to give into the feelings of annoyance. “Come on! Answer your phone already!” I growled internally. The fifth ring sent me looking around at all the other people in line, wondering if I could pinpoint the guilty party. During the sixth ring, when I felt an emotional explosion coming on, a finger tapped my shoulder. “Would you please answer your phone?”
We carry baggage with us everywhere we go. Emotional baggage can range from inconvenient to crippling based on your personal history with family, friends, and church. It is tempting, especially when you are in leadership, to pretend that your baggage isn’t heavy or that you just don’t have any. It feels too vulnerable to expose our personal pain when people are trusting us to have the answers.
As leaders, we have an obligation to deal with our stuff so that it doesn’t get in the way of our leadership. When our woundedness goes unnamed and unattended, we lead with a limp that we assume no one notices. However, like the emperor in his new clothes, we are far more exposed than we would like to believe.
Our baggage is a filter. It changes the way we see situations, people we interact with, and ourselves. I lost my dad suddenly at a very young age. This loss changed how I view relationships because I am always planning for the moment that the other person will leave. In leadership, this has meant that I find trusting people very difficult and hardly worth the effort. My own emotional scars have formed a lens through which I view every other interaction, both with God and people. If I never learn that my filter exists and is perhaps flawed, how can I engage authentically with anyone? Those that follow find themselves wondering why I am harshly judgmental.
Our baggage is a blockade. It keeps people from getting to the real us, the places where we feel vulnerable enough to be hurt. From my fear of being abandoned, I build an emotional brick wall that keeps everyone out, including God. I hide behind the possibility that I will be hurt when people leave me so that I don’t have to risk trusting them. If I never realize that I am hiding behind my fear, how can I know when to step out into the open? Those who follow find themselves wondering why I am emotionally unavailable to them.
Our baggage is a dagger. It becomes a weapon that we use against people who are threatening our sense of security. My fear of losing relationship means that I see every slight as a first sign of leaving and therefore fire back accusations that the other party is in fact trying to leave. In reality, they may just need another cup of coffee this morning. I use my own fear as an offensive weapon when I feel threatened. If I never realize that I am projecting and ‘weaponizing’ my fear, how can I enter wholeheartedly into redeeming relationships? Those who follow find themselves wondering why I am cruel.
Busy leaders may wonder if this kind of talk is just psychological mumbo-jumbo that leads to navel gazing instead of real ministry. You may perceive spending time examining emotional baggage as narcissistic and selfish, but in my experience as a spiritual director, it is vital to healthy ministry. You cannot be an influence for good on a congregation without naming your own baggage and actively pursuing mature responses.
Romans 12 urges Christians to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ and this is for those leading Christians, too. If you, as a leader, haven’t done the work of knowing your stuff, it is never too late. Find a group of fellow Christ-followers and be honest. Engage with a spiritual director on a regular basis. Pursue therapy.
Would you please answer your phone? Your flock hears it ringing, too.
Rhesa Higgins is a spiritual director and experienced retreat leader. She holds a B.S. from ACU in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of HeartPaths, a three-year program in spiritual formation and direction. Rhesa serves as the founding Director for eleven:28 ministries (www.eleven28ministries.org) in Dallas, Texas, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the spiritual vitality of ministers. Rhesa is also a partner with Hope Network. She is married to Chad and together they are raising their three kids. Rhesa loves good coffee, dark chocolate, baseball, theatre, and most any good book.