Rejection. The sound of the word itself even sounds ominous. If you’ve been a pastor or church leader for any length of time, chances are you’ve felt the dagger of rejection. It may have come intentionally through a serious conflict with a leader who didn’t like or support you. It may have come more subtly when someone quietly leaves your church and the scuttlebutt was that they left because they “weren’t getting fed.” The source doesn’t matter. It still hurts. When it inevitably does come, what can we do? In this post I suggest 7 ways to navigate the pain of rejection.
How Leaders Can Navigate the Pain of Rejection…
- Recognize that you’ve not sinned because you feel hurt. Our brain registers physical pain primarily in two areas of the brain, the insula, which lies deep in our brain, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which lies between our brain’s thinking center and our emotional center. And guess what? Social pain such as rejection registers in the same places. So, rejection actually physically hurts. It’s an automatic response to rejection that God wired into our bodies. So, the bad feelings you experience from rejection don’t mean you’re a weak leader or a sinful person.
- When rejected, admit the pain you feel. Don’t ignore or stuff your emotions. The phrase, “Grown men don’t cry,” implies that a guy should not allow himself to show his ‘soft’ emotions. The problem is, it’s self-defeating. When we stuff or suppress our emotions, it actually makes our painful emotions more intense internally. However, it’s scientifically proven that when we name our painful emotions, we actually lessen their intensity.
- Journal your feelings. Many counselors recommend something called ‘writing therapy,’ a fancy term for journaling. When we feel rejected, journaling our painful feelings can take the sting out of them. Akin to writing therapy is something called ‘talk therapy.’ Again, it’s a fancy term for sharing you pain with others. It’s helpful to find a safe friend to process your feelings when rejected. In this post I share several qualities to look for in a safe friend.
- Refuse to base your identity on your ability to make 100% of the people happy 100% of the time. A temptation every ministry leader faces is to keep people happy 100% of the time. Trying to do that will kill you. We certainly don’t want to intentionally make people mad. But some people will never be pleased, no matter what you do. Jesus, the perfect leader, didn’t please everyone. In fact, John records this uber rejection of Jesus. From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6.66, NIV)
- Don’t magnify the pain by rejecting the rejector in return. It’s tempting to cut your rejectors off by rejecting them. When we do, we only exacerbate our pain. I once had a guy who did his best to convince the board that I was not the right pastor for the church. The board fully backed me. He left. A few months later I saw him in a store and had a choice. Would I walk down another aisle to avoid him, or would I walk toward him and try to shake his hand? I made the latter choice. I walked over, reached out my hand, and said, “Hi.” He glared at me and walked by without shaking my hand. Poor guy. He was a bitter dude. In such cases, apply the words Peter gave us about Jesus’ response to rejection. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (I Pt 2.23, NIV)
- Step back to keep or regain perspective. When rejection stings, our perspective can quickly become cloudy. We can easily extrapolate the rejection in our minds and assume that many other people feel the same way or will do the same thing (i.e., I wonder who else is leaving the church?). Remember, a rejection by one person is…rejection by one person. Such rejection seldom reflects the viewpoints of others. So, guard against the proverbial, “blowing things out of proportion.”
- If it’s a serious rejection, get professional help. Sometimes rejection is such a deep blow that we can’t navigate it on our own with a good cry or coffee with a friend. You may need professional help. Losing a job, losing a vote of confidence from your board, or significant numbers of people leaving your ministry probably qualify as significant rejections. Don’t feel ashamed to seek professional help. If you break an arm, you’ll see a doctor. If your heart gets broken, find a wise counselor to help bring healing.
Sometimes we’d rather experience physical pain than social pain, for good reason. Our brains are wired to recall the emotional pain of past rejection, but not past physical pain. So, rejection potentially carries a long-lasting impact on our souls. Don’t take it lightly. Deal with it sooner than later.
What has helped you deal with rejection in ministry?