by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay

My wife and I attended our last home football game of the year last week.  It’s been a fun inaugural year in the Big 12 for my beloved UCF Knights.  Lots of ups and downs, but we ended on happy note with a victory that sealed bowl eligibility for the 8th straight year.  One of the only down notes as we left the stadium was the continuing struggles of our kicker, Colton Boomer, a true feel-good story from the early part of the season who has suddenly and inexplicably lost his mojo.  It’s been interesting to see how the fans have reacted, and it got me thinking about how we ministry leaders respond when people who have been top performers suddenly lose their touch.

In the case of the kicker whose foot has gone cold, the back story begins with his status as fan favorite previous to these current troubles.  He’s a walk-on local boy, a product of the community high school who made it onto the college team and proceeded to score field goals from improbable distances on a regular basis.  Add to that his winning personality, photogenic demeanor, and the fun factor of his name (the whole stadium shouts “boom!” in unison whenever he kicks the ball), and it’s been a positive element in a hit-or-miss season.  These last couple of games, though, the magic has vanished.  Two games ago, he missed a chip shot field goal that might have won the game, then followed that up by missing an extra point that would have tied things up and forced overtime.

Under different circumstances, such struggles might well have elicited boos from the notoriously fickle football crowd.  But no boo birds appeared.  The feeling among the fans has been more a surge of empathy, a heartfelt commiseration that shares his pain and disappointment.  There is a sense of patience and support, of being willing to stick with him as he works through this tough stretch.  Of course, it’s sports, so fan feelings could turn on a dime.  But I like the way that, so far, people have been willing to be encouraging and understand that kicking (like life) can be a streaky business.  We all endure stretches of struggle.

Ministry practitioners experience stretches of struggle, too.

We all have glory seasons and gory seasons, intervals where everything is going right and we shine in all we do, and intervals of lethargy and labor, where everything we touch seems to be jinxed.

Ministry partners and participants can be as ruthless as sports fans in their critiques when things go awry.  It’s important for us to build a culture of grace and reinforce the core values of patience and empathy with ministry teams and people who are on the receiving end of the ministry.  It’s brutal to serve in a culture in which every mistake or misjudgment is analyzed under a microscope, to always have someone second guessing your every move.

It’s beautiful, on the other hand, to serve in an environment in which you know that part of the process of growth is to be routinely granted space and time to work through challenging seasons.  This is especially true if we want to encourage people to take the kinds of risks that foster creativity and innovation.  People must be able to trust that we have their backs not only when things are going great and but also when things are going not so great.  And a leader who builds that sort of trust will find that when they inevitably sink into an uninspired patch themselves, those teams will have their backs in turn.

When we’re seeking to help those who have lost their mojo, honest communication is the basis of useful support.  Fake shows of enthusiasm don’t help anyone, nor does ignoring real issues and pretending that everything is just fine.  We must acknowledge the crisis with empathy and compassion and take real steps to encourage re-mojoification:

  • Spending time seriously evaluating what the struggles are and how they might be productively addressed.
  • Developing an organized plan to work through the struggles, not just assuming everything will work out with time.
  • Addressing the struggles by embracing training and skill development (or re-development).
  • Goal-setting. Working through the struggles by setting realistic, manageable goals with a reasonable time frame for accomplishing them and a clear understanding of how efforts will be redoubled if the goal is not achieved.
  • Time away. Sometimes the remedy to a stall in mojo is some needed rest or revitalization in a different environment.  One of the best things leaders can ever do (and one of the best things as leaders that we can do for ourselves) is to make space for such time outs.
  • Sometimes what we need is a fresh idea or an inspirational reinforcement of why what we’re doing matters.  We need a source of fresh energy.  This can be found from direct interactions with high-energy inspirational people, from excellent books and other resources, and from revisiting the roots of our original passions.  Help people in this process and see them reap the rewards.
  • We can partner people with others who can coach them, give them critical assistance and support, help them find healing, and inspire them to believe in themselves.  These connections at the right juncture in the story can be pivotal.

All of these things can help.  And we should make it a point to publicize that all of things will be available to anyone who finds himself or herself in an “in case of emergency, break glass” scenario.

We need to keep people in the game, too, working to achieve their former equanimity of purpose by staying active and engaged.

Sometimes we respond by taking responsibilities away from people or pulling them out of the crisis at hand, but any good baseball player knows that the only way to get out of a hitting slump is to keep taking swings.  When I was researching this blog, I came across this article with tips for little leaguers for working their way out of a hitting slump.  I’ve always been a fan of the truism that every baseball player inevitably experiences such a slump, and the only way out of it is to keep hitting – you never work through a hitting slump by sitting on the bench and watching other hitters.  You have to keep swinging.  The article (solely about baseball) had wonderful, applicable tips:

  • Stick with what you know. Keep doing the things you know you can do well.
  • Go for base hits. There’s a great story here about home run slugger Hank Aaron, who when he was struggling as a hitter, found that the best strategy was not trying to slam the ball out of the park, but just to make a solid connection with a line drive.  Concentrating on doing that basic thing well was what ultimately led to him hitting the ball harder and harder.  Sometimes when we’re stuck, we want to swing for the fences, but doing the basics with solid effort can be what gets us back to big swings.
  • Let the pitches come to you. Don’t try to force things.  Stay focused and circumstances will eventually work in your favor.  Forcing things can lead to bad outcomes.  Be patient.
  • Keep your confidence high. Do whatever it takes to remember who you are and what your heritage as a leader is.  Stay true to yourself.  Spend time with people who believe in you – listen to those voices, not the voices of negativity.

Even more powerfully, I took great solace from the observations found in this article, “4 simple life hacks for getting your mojo back based on the neuroscience of motivation”:

  • Start first – get going on the work – and motivation will follow. Doing the thing that is the job, even when we’re not feeling the motivation, can lead to motivation down the road.
  • Break tasks down into more manageable goals. I love the advice of establishing incremental goals.  This is a powerful strategy.  If you don’t feel motivated to take on a big thing, break the task down into a series of smaller things.  Do what you can do, one step at a time, to work through the struggle.
  • Retrain your brain by rebranding your language. Self-talk (and prayer) are powerful motivational tools.  If we are struggling and part of that struggle is a negative mental script, we need to be deliberate about changing that script.
  • Understand “The Goldilocks Rule.” The Goldilocks Rule refers to the truth that human beings need challenges that stretch their abilities.  This is one of the keys to growth and motivation.  However, we need challenges that are just beyond our current comfort level and level of competency, challenges that are “just right.”  If we set goals too audaciously, we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment.  We should push ourselves just a little at a time.  (And to the extent that we are advising others, we should help them moderate their audacity so that they do not get too carried away in their enthusiasms.)

Do these things and the mojo will return!  Remember that slumps are part of life and they are only temporary.

How do you do at managing slumps?  Do you have strategies for working through the down times and negativity until you can return to a place of positivity and smooth sailing?  How do you do at helping other people navigate their times of struggle?  Does the organization which you serve have policies in place to acknowledge the realities of ebbing and surging mojo?  What could you change to keep people productive and focused in these inevitable seasons?  Share your stories.