It’s no secret, ministry leadership is far from perfect. No matter where you serve, you have probably experienced the stress that the last two, Covid-laced years of unpredictability have generated. We’ve all had to accept that we do not control as much of our lives and vocation as we thought we did.
Let’s be clear, adopting gratitude practices is not a practice in denial. The practice of gratitude does not ignore or cover-up our leadership challenges and complexities. On the contrary, Paul advises, “Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers ... ” (Phil. 4:6,7).
Thanks to scientific research, we understand that cultivating gratitude results in many holistic benefits.
However, because most research studies on gratitude have been conducted with mentally-healthy and well-functioning people, Brown and Wong (2017) set out to research whether gratitude is also beneficial for individuals who are struggling with mental health. Their sample included 300 adults, mostly college students, struggling with issues related to anxiety and depression. All were seeking mental health counseling.
Study participants were recruited just before they began their first session of counseling, then were randomly assigned into three groups, all of which received counseling services. The first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. The second group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group was not given any writing activity.
This study found that individuals who wrote gratitude letters (whether they mailed them, or not) reported significantly better mental health four weeks and even 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. In fact, it seems, that practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling, carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.
Robert Emmons, the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude, reveals why gratitude is good for our bodies, our minds and our relationships. “We’ve studied more than one-thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits” (2010). Following are some of these benefits:
- Stronger immune systems
- Less bothered by aches and pains
- Lower blood pressure
- Exercise more and take better care of their health
- Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
- Higher levels of positive emotions
- More alert, alive and awake
- More joy and pleasure
- More optimism and happiness
- More helpful, generous and compassionate
- More forgiving
- More outgoing
- Feel less lonely and isolated.
Given the emotional, spiritual and social upheavals in which our country and communities remain stuck, I think there hasn’t been a better season to consider how implementing and modeling gratitude practices can minister to our battered, ministry leadership souls.
Have you ever tried to imagine what it would look to shape our worries into praises? I have. I take a concern or a stressful event to God and ask him to further reveal my unconscious concerns and worries, so I can intentionally shape them into praises.
I pray, "Father, I praise and thank you today, for allowing me to identify my unconscious worries and concerns. I praise you because I can trust You to fill me with your Spirit who will gift me with the compassion and love to deal with my challenges. I praise you because I don’t have to carry this worry or concern on my shoulders (or in my neck) because You have 101 ways to convert these situations into blessings for me and others. Amen."
Paul completes his thought by reminding us that there is a “side effect” to shaping our worries into petitions and praises: “Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life” (Phil. 4:7, MSG).
Ministry will continue to bring us challenges and moments where we don’t know if we’re adequately equipped to deal with them. Choose to trust Him. He knows everything and is allowing and empowering you to serve Him, right where you are. “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. THIS is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live” (1Thess. 5:16–18, MSG).