In the last two weeks, I have provided a description, given a Biblical example, and shared general examples of learned helplessness. Last Wednesday Phyllis and I had dinner with a couple that a few years earlier was facing one of the most difficult circumstances a pastor and wife could face. In our two-hour dinner conversation, we heard multiple stories of God’s redeeming and transforming power at work. As we listened, our thoughts went back to the many previous conversations that took place. Then I began to think about the process that God used and the time, effort, and energy that this couple along with four other couples had invested. The end result has been a transformed marriage, an intact family, and an exciting new ministry opportunity. The process we used mirrors the one Henry Cloud suggests someone desiring to overcome learned helplessness should use.
In chapter seven of Cloud’s book Boundaries for Leaders, he describes the following five-part process for overcoming learned helplessness.
1. Create Connections—Don’t think you can do it on your own and skip this step. In fact, it is so significant that Cloud actually wrote a separate book on this topic: The Power of the Other. He suggests that you set up a small group of six to ten people who are experiencing the same challenges. As you form the group, establish the needed structure, time, and place where you can go through the process together. Group members need to come with a positive tone, create a safe environment, and develop transparency so that everyone is honest and willing to share their victories and their difficulties. Let me add a hearty AMEN to this step from my own personal experience. The value and impact of such a group is immeasurable.
I would also point out that Satan is well aware of the importance of creating connections. We would call one of Satan’s groups a gang. Think about how many gangs you will find in communities where learned helplessness has become the norm.
2. Regain Control—I have lost count of the number of times I have taken a napkin or scrap of paper and described this step. Cloud calls it the “Control Divide.” Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle creating two columns. In column one, write down things that are making your ministry difficult and are things that you cannot control. Next, take time to REALLY focus on and reflect on the impact of the items on the list—they are real and you don’t want to deny they exist. Next, draw a stop sign at the bottom of the column and stop thinking about the items in column one. Next, and most importantly, in the second column write down everything you can do and that you can control—things that can create positive results. I suggest that you keep the paper with your daily devotional materials and pray through the list daily. When you get to the bottom of the first column, stop, reflect on the list, and then place the items at the foot of the cross. Then prayerfully work through the second column picking at least one of the items that you can do that day. As God prompts you, add items to both lists. Doing this daily will help you to slowly shift the spotlight away from the items in column one and provide a better focus on the items in column two.
Cloud opened the chapter with a great illustration of this process. When Tony Dungy accepted the head coaching job of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers he faced a “hopeless” task. He faced significant headwinds. But instead of focusing on all the negatives, none of which he could control, Dungy identified three critical areas that he knew from experience differentiated good football teams from bad ones: turnovers, penalties, and special team play. He began to focus on these three areas because they were factors he could control, and if the team did better in these areas they would contribute to success. The Bucs saw a huge turnaround under Coach Dungy.
Cloud states two powerful things happen when we focus on what we can control. First, we get results. But maybe more importantly, a change takes place in our brains so we can function better. Is this what Paul is describing in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God?”
3. Take Note of the Three P’s—I talked about the Three P’s in a previous article: Personal, Pervasive, and Permanent. He suggests we journal or log the negative thoughts that are impacting us. Then, review each of the thoughts and write specific facts to refute them. Our natural tendency is to focus on the one negative and ignore the dozens of positive things that God does daily in our lives. Over time, we become willing to accept reality and begin to take positive action. The positive impact of this step is multiplied when you begin to share your positive experiences and hear the positive experiences of others in your small group.
4. Add Structure and Accountability—Social psychology research has shown that when people assign a specific time and place for completion of specific tasks and goals, their chances of success increase by up to 300 percent. Structure, stability, security, routine, and predictability—all are necessary for our brains to function at their highest levels. Reread the last sentence as you think about what has been happening the last two years. What’s the probability that we are not currently functioning at our highest level?
Henry states, “I’ve encouraged individuals, including some very high-performers, to break their daily activities down to very small increments, sometimes as small as thirty-minute segments, and specifically plan what they would do in that time. It sounds pedantic, but it absolutely works. Having them write down their objectives for every thirty minutes of the day helps identify and isolate activities that are particularly endangered due to inaction and three P’s thinking.” How would the discipline of doing something like this help you deal with the fluid world we are living in today?
5. Take the Right Kind of Action with the Right Kind of Accountability—Henry writes, “By right kind of action I do not mean mere activity. Busyness is not action that builds momentum or results. The action you want is action that specifically drives results. And the accountability you want is the kind that drives success, not the kind that only measures results and keeps score. What I’m talking about is accountability that creates high performance and results. Figure out what that is, and you will undoubtedly see winning results as well. Said another way, don’t count the score. Count the behaviors that run up the score.”
I can say from firsthand experience that God can use this five-part process. My question is, “If you are experiencing learned helplessness, are you willing to step out in faith, ask others to help, and put in the work that it will take to see the real-life transformation?”
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, AMS
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.
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