Are you a cynical ministry leader like me?
Chances are you already know who Carey Nieuwhof is.
If not, you probably also don’t listen to leadership podcasts, because it’s hard to be a podcast listener in ministry and not know about The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast. This is a particularly great interview to start with if you’re a pastor just discovering his content.
(I was interviewed on it once, too. You can listen here.)
Carey has a new book coming out called I Didn’t See It Coming, and he was gracious enough to let me read an advance copy. It’s really fantastic. Carey and I took some time to discuss the section of the book I saw most in myself on a recent call, and we decided to share the conversation with you.
Really you’re just getting a window into the free pastoral counseling Carey gave me. Turns out, I’m a cynic. In this conversation, Carey and I discussed:
Where cynicism comes from and why it can cripple a leader
Warning signs you might be a cynic
The ultimate antidote to cynicism and how to cultivate it
Join the Conversation
We’ll be talking about this more on Facebook and Twitter this week. Listen to the episode and then join in.
Some things we are hoping to discuss:
- When did you first realize you’d become cynical in your ministry leadership life?
- How have you seen cynicism affect the team you lead?
- How do you fight against it in your own life?
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- [book]I Didn’t See It Coming by Carey Nieuwhof
- The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast (CNLP)
- CNLP 140: Tony Morgan On Discovering What Stage Your Church Is At In Its Lifecycle
Tony: 00:56 Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast. I’m Tony Morgan, and each week we share a conversation our team’s having about getting churches unstuck. Today, it’s gonna be a great conversation because I’m talking with my friend Carey Nieuwhof. You’ve probably heard or seen something by Carey. He has a fantastic podcast. He’s a pastor teacher at a church up in Canada, has written a number of books including his most recent book. It’s called I Didn’t See It Coming, and Carey and I are going to talk about just a sliver of that new book today, but it’s the sliver that I see most in my leadership and I am hoping this conversation is going to be helpful for you in your leadership as well. So let’s get straight to the conversation. Here’s my discussion with Carey Nieuwhof.
Tony: 01:43 All right, Carey. So I’m super excited. Thanks by the way, thanks for letting me preview the book. The new book is called I Didn’t See It Coming. Give us a quick overview of the topics, the challenges, and in fact, you allude to the fact that every one of us at some point in our lives are going to face the challenges. So can you give us an overview of the challenges you hit in the book?
Carey: 02:07 Well, yeah, I think so. I think I’m seven for seven, so that’s not bad, you know, for an achiever. Not all at the same depth, but, yeah, sure. So the book opens with cynicism, which you want to do a deep dive on. In no particular order, one of them, which we see in the headlines a lot, but I think shows up in our life in a different way, is just what I call compromise. It’s moral compromise. And yeah, there’s the big stuff, the stuff that gets you out of leadership or fired or in jail, but I don’t think that’s where it engages most of us most days. It’s the little compromises. Just the little things that often will lead to the big things that many of us avoid, but that still doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Another one is disconnection. Just big disconnection. A lot of leaders we know are isolated. I’m not sure tech has helped us with that. Then irrelevance. Which was the one I wasn’t sure whether I was going to put into the book. The editors kept telling me to keep it in.
Tony: 03:05 I was going to ask you that question. So that’s interesting.
Carey: 03:08 Yeah, yeah. And, and actually in the few people who’ve read the book, there have been a number of people who have really resonated with that, but it’s less personal. It’s more about your skill set, less about who you are. So I thought it was like Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other, but I got convinced to leave it in. Then pride, which is a big one and rather than focus on narcissism, which apparently is an issue—I had a long conversation with Erwin McMannus about that very recently—I think most of us come to pride via insecurity and then burnout. I’m rather famous for burning out. Well, and then finally emptiness, which is maybe my favorite. I’m the only person who’s read the book who thinks that’s the best one, but this idea that all your dreams come true and somehow you’re empty. Like you’re grateful. But like what is that? So those are the seven issues in the book.
Tony: 04:02 Yeah. So, we’re gonna make everybody read about the other six. But today, if I’m looking at this as like free pastoral counseling. I’ve had my bout with burnout and certainly any of us in leadership— pride, narcissism—wherever you want to take that. But what hit me in the face was the section on cynicism. I think, well I know and anybody around me would tell you, of all of those seven, it’s definitely the cynic in Tony Morgan that tends to come out. So, let’s start with that. Help me diagnose if I thought I might be a cynic, what are some of the warning signs that I would want to pay attention to?
Carey: 04:54 I think there’s a few, at least a few for me, the big one would be projecting past failures onto the future. So what happens to a lot of us is, you know, most of us start out as optimists, you know, if you think back to even your toddler years, well, you know, sky’s the limit. And unfortunately in a lot…
Tony: 05:13 I don’t know if I did, I think I came into the womb thinking negative thoughts.
Carey: 05:19 You were the cynical three-year-old, right? Like, oh, I know what kind of sister you’re going to be, right? Totally, totally Tony. So, I think back to me, I was very idealistic in my late teens and twenties. You’re going to change the world and like community church planters, they’re all idealists. You’re gonna have the best church in the world. It’s going to grow instantly. You know, entrepreneurs similarly, I mean really we leaders, and I think you’ve said this or maybe I stole it from you, I don’t know, but a us leaders are dealers in hope. And I think that’s what we do. You know, if you’re a preacher of the Gospel, you deal in hope. And I think if you’re a senior leader in an organization or a leader of anybody, you’re bringing hope to people, right? Whether you’re trying to have a better quarter or whether you’re trying to reach your city or whether you’re trying to baptize 100 people, a thousand people like you’re a dealer in hope.
Carey: 06:16 And what cynicism does is it snuffs out hope and how it happens. And this is interesting, you know, when you told me that this is where we’re going in this interview, Tony, I would think you would be a prime candidate for cynicism. And here’s your problem. So we’ll talk about projecting past failures onto the future. But I think cynicism routes itself around knowledge. And I mean, you know, this about our story. You’ve been on my podcast a few times. I’ve been on yours. I’ve been following you from before we knew each other personally. And one of the reasons I followed you is I think you have incredible insight. Like you just see things that other people miss. And the problem with that, you know, cynicism doesn’t start because you don’t know, it starts because you know, and you start to see the trends and you know, so when you’re planning a church, one of your greatest benefits is ignorance, right?
Carey: 07:09 It’s like, well, I don’t know how to plant a church, I don’t know how to start a company. So you just, you go for it and then you fall flat on your face, you’ll learn a whole bunch of stuff or maybe it goes well, but you’re still learning as you go along. And what happens is you accumulate knowledge and then eventually that knowledge that can either work for you or that can work against you. And what happened to me in my first decade of Church leadership and I launched into like, I did 10 years of university. So, you know, pray for me. I couldn’t figure that out. I did history and then theology. So anyway, at 30, 31 I get launched into leadership and by the time I hit 40, you know, I felt like my heart had died. And in the problem, Tony is, as you know from church world is all these people you thought were going to be with you to the very end weren’t or at least not all of them and, and so all of a sudden you learn all these things about people you learn about human nature and, and then what I started doing, this was a fatal mistake and I tell the story in the book of Roger and Mary, just a couple that I had poured my heart into who ended up leaving the church.
Carey: 08:15 And the reason they ended up leaving the church as they said, you didn’t do enough and you didn’t care enough. And I’m like, you know, are you kidding me? Like, I literally did not, in those first five years, spend more time with anyone else in the church or pour more into anyone else. And they left saying, I didn’t do enough and we didn’t do enough. And you know, the next time someone who reminded me, I think psychologists call this projection, reminded me of Roger and Mary when they walked into the back of the church. And they were kind of poor and maybe on the edges of society, which is exactly who we should be reaching in the church. You know what I thought, I know how this ends, I know where this goes, so I am not going to engage my heart at the level that I did because I don’t want to get hurt. So whether in life, you know, you’ve been through 10 bad relationships that all ended and you’re like, I know what all men would do. All women are like, or you know, a lot of people are done with church. I mean how many people in our generation are done with church? It’s like, you know what? I tried five. They’re all terrible and I know what pastors are really like and all of a sudden you take those past failures and you project them on the future. And I think that’s the death sentence.
Tony: 09:24 Yeah. It’s ironic that you allude to the story that you just shared because Emily and I, my wife and I, were just walking through our neighborhood yesterday, trying to pray for our new neighbors and our new neighborhood. And we were talking about one specific person in our lives, and I said, I said it like this. I see the steps that this person’s taking. They’re heading down the wrong path. I know how this story ends. And Emily, of course, who doesn’t struggle with cynicism—She’s very optimistic, believes the best in people, which is exactly why I married the right woman—Said, actually, I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to end. I need the Emily’s in my life. But the way I’ve expressed it to some people Carey, is that I find that, you know, God puts certain strengths in each of us as we become believers.
Tony: 10:20 And I think you’re right, I think for me, knowledge, discernment, that that’s part of the gifting, the wiring that God put into me, that’s the great thing is when God’s in control of that wiring and gifting he can work through me to really impact people’s lives. When I take back control of that gifting, that’s when I find I get myself into trouble. And that knowledge and discernment shifts to cynicism. So I think you’re spot on. But in the book then you start to talk about the antidote for cynicism. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Carey: 10:57 I will. Can I jump on something you just said because I think it’s a really important distinction, Tony. Like there is a fine line between a gifting and I mean, you know, why were we so happy when we were young or some of us anyway because we were stupid, right? Like I didn’t know everything that could go wrong. I had no idea. And, and actually that’s an advantage. The lack of knowledge that a founder or a starter has is actually shown an entrepreneurial and church planting circles. That’s one of the greatest gifts. If you knew everything that could go wrong in whatever you’re starting, whatever you’re launching, whatever you’re attempting, you probably wouldn’t do it because you’d just be too afraid and you’d be like, oh, I see how this ends. So I think there is a beauty and naïveté that is really good, but what you say is you have a gifting so you have a gifting of insight. And I think a lot of leaders listening to your podcast would be similarly gifted and back to your walk with Emily yesterday. Sometimes you actually do know how this ends. Sometimes you can be pretty accurate. I’m sure, Tony, you’ve been to our church a few times, and helped us through the consulting that you do and you know, we’re sitting there in some big mystery and you walk in and within three minutes you’ve got a pretty good read on what’s really going on. I mean, isn’t that true for you?
Tony: 12:18 Yeah. It’s a blessing and a curse.
Carey: 12:20 It’s a blessing and a curse, right? So it’s a blessing and I have a similar gift. I, I’m much better at diagnosing other people’s problems than my own, which makes me a great consultant, but you know, I can walk in and I can size up a church or room and organization pretty quickly and it doesn’t take a lot. And, you know, I’ll go in, meet with the senior leadership team or, you know, sit down with a team and have a conversation. And I’ve got it figured out fairly accurately, fairly quickly, which is a gift if it helps. It’s a curse if it hurts. And, and what happens is, and this is the fine line that I wanted to get back to. I guess you could say one is descriptive. Okay, Carey, let me show you what’s going on, it connects us. Let me show you what’s going on with your team. Does this resonate? But what I will do, what the cynic in me will do if I’m not careful, is I will make it prescriptive and I will almost make that a death sentence. I will almost say, well of course it has to end this way. And then when you snuff out hope you don’t seek to help. And that’s not, that’s not helping anybody. So I thought that was a really good point. And I think often the differences, how can I use this knowledge to help or what a cynic would do is a cynic would be, you know, you’re waiting until that moment where you can say, See I told you so. That’s where cynics live.
Tony: 13:51 I don’t verbalize, “I told you so” very often, but in my brain I am. But there is an antidote is an antidote. And you actually, and you’ve actually alluded to it a little bit already, you say curiosity is where we need related to. Can you explain that a little bit?
Carey: 14:13 I noticed something years ago that really fascinated me, Tony, and that is that cynics are never curious and the curious or never cynical, like rarely do those two line up. And I started to, I realized that the more I cultivated curiosity, the less cynical I became. I think there’s something bigger underneath it. And that is that the, the ultimate antidote to cynicism is hope. And, and you know, oh my goodness, I’m a Christian, you’re a Christian. So many of the people listening are Christians. We have the best antidote to cynicism in the world. Like Christians should be least cynical, I mean, you’re staring a tomb in the face and all of a sudden there’s resurrection.
Carey: 14:56 You look at death and God gives you life. You look at sin and he gives you forgiveness. Like nobody is better at home than Jesus and nothing is an antidote to cynicism like the Gospel. Yet so many of us live in this cynical space where we don’t even believe what we preach. We are, you know, not smoking what we’re selling to use a really bad metaphor that has no personal resonance. But anyway, you know, it’s like, are you kidding me? But saying that hope is the antidote to cynicism is a little bit like saying Jesus is the answer to everything, which he ultimately is, but it’s a bit trivial. So okay, how do I put legs on that? The legs for me have been a curious person is always more hopeful, always more forward thinking. I remember watching PBS one day, I don’t know, I was just flipping channels and for some reason I don’t even remember it was about, there was this 80 year old, professor and he was a professor, in a tweed jacket, bow tie, spectacles, glasses, like he truly had like academic spectacles on and I’m thinking, wow, what is this guy like?
Carey: 16:08 He’s some world expert in something and I’m listening to him talk just for a minute. And he’s like, well, what we’re discovering these days in the current research is, and I’m like, dude, you’re 80 years old. Like, what are you going to rest on your laurels? And I’m very recently, actually, much more recently, I am a Tim Ferriss podcast listener. He interviewed George Raveling who’s this 80 year old African American coach who talked about being 80 a lot. But what blew me away was he is so curious. He’s so open. He’s joining masterminds, he’s reading multiple books a week. He is giving gifts to people and he’s like, man, my best years are ahead of me. And I’m like, I want to be him when I’m 80. And I think if you embrace curiosity and that posture of openness and learning and being willing to trust again, hope again, believe again. I hope that the 70 year old Carey is a lot more alive and optimistic and wide eyed than the 53 year old carrie that’s talking to you right now.
Tony: 17:13 That’s. Yeah, that’s good. And it actually reminds me of a story that I’ve shared quite often about my early days. Emily and I were just married. We didn’t have any kids. We went to the donut shop. It felt like almost every Saturday, this is when we thought donuts used to be good for us. I guess I don’t know that they were healthy, but still were. Yeah, well anyways, we were often at the donut shop and in one corner of the donut shop that were, there was this group of older men that would gather around a circular table and they were enjoying their coffee and the donuts, but they would also always be about problems, challenges. And what was amazing about that table is they had the answer to everything, and Emily and I began to refer to that table as the table of all knowledge. And what I’ve shared with other folks is this is my fear, is I have opinions, I’m not afraid to share my opinions of the cynicism runs deep in me. And my fear is if I don’t embrace curiosity like you have suggested that one day I too will be at the table of all knowledge and it’s not going to be a fun place. I mean, in the moment it might be fun, but in the end I’m not going to be a happy person. And the impact of the gifting that God has put into me won’t be fulfilled. So a pursuit of curiosity is something we all need to lean into, especially those of us in leadership.
Carey: 18:40 That’s a great story. Can I ask you a question and thank you for being so honest, but this is in keeping with you.
Tony: 18:46 Again, I’m just looking at it, but this is like free free counseling, Carey. So I’m just thinking I’m going to take advantage of every bit of this.
Carey: 18:53 I’m just curious what, what is the reward for you in cynicism? Like if we cling to a behavior, there is something, whether that’s a chemical sequence in the brain that makes us feel good, whether it is a safety and security, what would you say when you look back on it? What’s the reward?
Tony: 19:11 So again, I think it’s knowledge like you suggested and where other attributes, strengths in leaders, people, maybe a little bit different than that. For me, we all want to win. And so when I can look back at something and say, I saw that coming and it actually happened, then I think that’s the reward for me. And so, I think everything that you’re talking about is, is spot on. And so, um, and you’re right, it’s, it’s those instances when I’ve backed away from those initial insights and looked for confirmation by asking questions, by getting different perspectives. And in some instances it really did confirm that initial insight. And then as you suggested, rather than using that knowledge to hurt, we’re using that knowledge to take a step forward, which is everything that The Unstuck Group is about and we’re engaging with churches and those instances. I’m seeing what could still be described as a bit of cynicism working for good. I guess when I let myself get to that place of using this just to say I told you so or I’m not really leaning into the opportunity to help someone take a next step in whatever the situation is. That’s, that’s where I see not only is that detrimental to the people around me, but at the end of the day it’s also impacting me and my relationship with Jesus too.
Carey: 20:48 Yeah. Interesting. No, I think. I think you’re right. And that really resonates with me. I didn’t put this in the book. Maybe. Maybe cynicism could be a whole book. I don’t know. That seems to be the chapter that everybody’s resonating with. There are others as well, but it is, it is the big. And it’s chapter one of the book one and two. But, you know, I didn’t read that, just read the first chapter. It’s great. Yeah. So, you know, for me, I think I’m just, I’m really analyzing that. I wonder if the reward, because I hadn’t thought about that. I’m like, okay, what’s the reward for cynicism? Because there’s always a reward, right? And I think for me it is that chance to say, Gotcha, I was right. Look at me, it’s a bit of superiority and I wonder if for me, when I stay cynical, cynicism is a choice.
Carey: 21:36 If I choose cynicism in that moment, I wonder if part of that is it insulates me from really engaging the problem. So if I just walk into a church as one of your consultants, let’s say, which I’m not, and you have your own team, but you know, I walk in, I’m like, oh yeah, it’s bad. And here’s five ways it’s bad. One, two, three, four, five. If I just kind of pronounced a death sentence on that place, I can wash my hands and walk away. But that, that insulates me from the problem or to stay hopeful. If I’m to bring my curiosity, that means okay, we’re going to do a deep dive into this together, and you think about that relationally. If you get cynical about your kids or your marriage or a good friend and you’re like, oh, you rolling your eyes like this is always that way. Well, the opposite of cynicism is no. You got to hope again. You’ve got to trust again. You got to believe again. You got to put your heart in your hand, take it out of its little tomb and put your heart out there and engage with that person or engaged with that problem and really trust God to bring about a better solution. And so I’ve tried to live that way over the last decade since I sort of, you know, burned out and came back and tried to figure that out and it’s a harder way to live, but it’s a better way to live.
Tony: 22:53 That’s good. Carey. All right, so any final encouragement, the leaders that are listening in, whether it’s around this topic of cynicism or any of the other six topics.
Carey: 23:04 Yeah, I just hope this book feels like hope. You know, you don’t always have to be a cynic. Hopefully some tiny evidence of that that, you know, I’m way more hopeful and optimistic than I was 15 years ago and you know, ironically it was ministry that turned me into a cynic not law, which is just the strangest thing. I wasn’t alive very long too, so maybe that had something to do with it. Um, and then, and then there’s just hope like I think you can see these big pitfalls coming and there’s little diagnostic tools in the book and then there’s antidotes and every chapter about, well, how do you stay relevant? How do you avoid compromise? You work twice as hard on your character. You do on your competency. And emptiness, there’s an antidote for that. And so I’m really hoping that, you know, this is the personal journey of leadership that I think takes so many of us out and if it doesn’t take us out a caps our growth, so we never become the person, the husband, the father, the, the leader, the contributor that God sees in us that never gets realized. So I hope this kinda, you know, takes the lid off of our leadership because so much of it is that internal battle and yeah, I just want people to know that there’s hope.
Tony: 24:22 Very good. Thank you, Carey, for today’s conversation and for the free counseling. I really appreciate that.
Carey: 24:27 Thanks Tony. It’s always a blast.