Quieting Your Inner Critic & Finding Your True Self : Steve Cuss

Quieting Your Inner Critic & Finding Your True Self - Steve Cuss - 116 - FrontStage BackStage with Jason Daye

How can we better identify and address the challenges we face as ministry leaders with inner doubts, anxiety, reactivity, and criticism? In this week’s conversation on FrontStage BackStage, host Jason Daye is joined by Steve Cuss. Steve is a pastor, former chaplain, and founder of Capable Life. He speaks, consults, and hosts workshops to help people integrate emotional and spiritual health. He’s a best-selling author, and his latest book is entitled The Expectation Gap. Together, Steve and Jason look at how we can dismantle the false self that we often accept and uncover our true selves that God created us to be. Steve also provides some incredibly practical tools to help us contain our inner critic and encounter God at a deeper level.

Looking to dig more deeply into this topic and conversation? Every week we go the extra mile and create a free toolkit so you and your ministry team can dive deeper into the topic that is discussed. Find your Weekly Toolkit below… Love well, Live well, Lead well!

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Additional Resource Links

www.stevecusswords.com – Visit Steve’s website, where you can delve deeper into his insightful books and enriching courses and find valuable resources designed to assist and guide you on your personal faith journey.

The Expectation Gap: The Tiny, Vast Space between Our Beliefs and Experience of God – In his book, Steve Cuss—pastor and founder of the leadership organization Capable Life—offers tangible tools for engaging with God in a deeper, more soul-satisfying way. You’ll unveil harmful expectations and patterns that keep you spiritually stuck so that you can replace them with habits and practices that will lead to a more vibrant faith life.

www.capablelife.me – Lower reactivity, increase connection, break stuck patterns. First in you, then in your people. An Online Learning Community for Christian Leaders.

Get The Life Giving List Download – Sometimes, anxiety has to be displaced with life-giving habits and people. This simple spreadsheet helps you capture people, places, and activities that make you feel human and alive.

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Ministry Leaders Growth Guide

Key Insights and Concepts

  • The conflation of being God’s child and God’s employee can distort a pastor’s relationship with God, shifting the focus from spiritual connection to performance.
  • Many pastors and ministry leaders mistakenly believe that neglecting their own well-being is a form of spiritual devotion. This self-neglect, often disguised as self-sacrifice, can lead to severe burnout and a profound disconnection from the faith they seek to nurture in others.
  • Blind spots in personal behavior, once revealed, can offer profound insights into one’s spiritual and emotional state, prompting necessary growth.
  • Pastoring involves inviting the congregation into the leader’s own struggles and doubts, fostering a community of authenticity and mutual support.
  • The internalization of low-grade angst about one’s faith journey can lead to a dissonance between proclaimed beliefs and actual experiences.
  • The gap between intellectual belief and emotional experience in faith can create a sense of spiritual incongruity and personal crisis.
  • Recognizing and addressing reactivity and triggers in pastoral ministry can deepen one’s connection to God and the congregation, allowing for more authentic interactions.
  • The development of a false self, which serves as a protective mechanism, can significantly impede genuine spiritual growth and relational authenticity. This facade, created in response to past traumas or insecurities, needs to be dismantled for true personal and spiritual development.
  • Vulnerability in leadership, including admitting hurt from critics, can disarm negativity and foster a more honest community dynamic.
  • Cultivating a life-giving list of activities and relationships helps pastors maintain personal well-being and a balanced ministry.
  • The need for validation and understanding from critics can ensnare pastors in a debilitating cycle of anxiety and self-doubt. This constant striving for approval detracts from their spiritual mission and personal peace.
  • Embracing the complexity of following an invisible God can help faith communities be more honest and supportive in their spiritual journeys.
  • The pressure on pastors to embody an idealized version of discipleship can lead to unrealistic expectations and spiritual fatigue among both leaders and congregants. This relentless pursuit of perfection is both unsustainable and spiritually draining.
  • The stories of biblical characters should inspire growth in Christ, not impose unrealistic standards that lead to feelings of inadequacy.
  • The best gift a pastor can offer their congregation is their own well-being, which naturally fosters a healthier, more relational church environment.

Questions for Reflection

  • How do I navigate the dual roles of being God’s child and God’s employee? In what ways might this dynamic be affecting my relationship with God and my ministry?
  • What steps can I take to ensure I am not neglecting my own well-being in the name of serving others? How do I balance self-care with my pastoral responsibilities?
  • When was the last time I recognized a blindspot in my behavior? How did this occur?
  • How do I respond when blind spots in my behavior are revealed? What processes can I put in place to become more aware of these blind spots before they become issues?
  • How do I feel about sharing my personal struggles and doubts with my congregation? Can I effectively share my personal struggles and doubts with my congregation in a way that fosters a supportive and authentic community? If so, what does that look like?
  • In my life, where do I notice gaps between the beliefs I preach and my personal spiritual experiences? How can I begin to bridge these gaps?
  • Do I recognize any disparity between my intellectual beliefs and my emotional experiences of God’s promises? Why might I be experiencing these disparities? What practices can help me internalize these beliefs more deeply?
  • Have I taken time to consider and identify any emotional triggers I have? What have I learned?
  • In what ways can I better identify and manage my personal reactivity and emotional triggers within my pastoral role? How can this awareness improve my leadership and relationships?
  • How can I work on dismantling my false self to foster genuine spiritual growth and relational authenticity? What steps can I take to become the self God created me to be?
  • How do I handle criticism from my congregation? How does this type of criticism affect me? How can I use vulnerability as a tool for fostering a healthier community dynamic in the face of criticism?
  • What activities, relationships, and practices are life-giving for me? How can I incorporate these more intentionally into my routine to maintain my well-being?
  • When I consider my personal needs for validation, what do I see? How can I reduce my need for validation and understanding from critics? What strategies can I use to stay focused on my spiritual mission despite external pressures?
  • How do I acknowledge and communicate the challenges of following an invisible God to my faith community? What can I do to create a more supportive and realistic approach to faith?
  • How can I alleviate the pressure of embodying an idealized version of discipleship for myself and my congregation? What realistic expectations can I set to prevent spiritual fatigue?
  • How can I use the stories of biblical characters to inspire growth in Christ without imposing unrealistic standards on my congregation? How will this impact the way I preach and teach?
  • What steps can I take to ensure my own well-being? Specifically, what will I do and when? How can this positively influence the health and relationships of my church community? How can I model a balanced and healthy spiritual life for my congregation?

Full-Text Transcript

How can we better identify and address the challenges we face as ministry leaders with inner doubts, anxiety, reactivity, and criticism?

Jason Daye
In this episode, I’m joined by Steve Cuss. Steve is a pastor, former chaplain, and founder of Capable Life. He speaks, consults, and hosts workshops to help people integrate emotional and spiritual health. He’s a best-selling author, and his latest book is entitled The Expectation Gap. Together, Steve and I look at how we can dismantle the false self that we often accept and uncover our true selves that God created us to be. Steve also provides some incredibly practical tools to help us contain our inner critic and encounter God at a deeper level. Are you ready? Let’s go.

Jason Daye 
Hello, friends, and welcome to another insightful episode of FrontStage BackStage. I’m your host, Jason Daye. Every single week, I have the privilege and the honor of sitting down with a trusted ministry leader. We dive into a conversation all in an effort to help you and pastors and ministry leaders just like you embrace a healthy rhythm for both your life and your ministry. I’m proud to be a part of the Pastor Serve Network. We love coming alongside pastors and encouraging them. Each and every week, not only do we have a conversation on a topic that will resonate with you, will draw you in, and encourage you. But we also create an entire toolkit that complements the conversation. This gives you an opportunity to dig more deeply into the topic that we discuss. You can find this toolkit for this episode in every episode at PastorServe.org/network. Now in the toolkit, you’ll find a ton of resources, including a Ministry Leaders Growth Guide. In that growth guide, you can work through it yourself, or we encourage you to process through that growth guide with the leaders at your local church. So we give you an opportunity to really connect with the topic, see how it applies, and how you can contextualize it for your ministry setting. So be sure to check that out at PastorServe.org/network. Now, as I said, at Pastor Serve, we love walking alongside ministry leaders, and we have trusted coaches who do just that week in and week out. If you’d like to learn more about how you can receive a complimentary coaching session, you can check that out at PastorServe.org/freesession. If you’re joining us on YouTube, please give us a thumbs up and take a moment to drop your name and the name of your church in the comments below. We love getting to know our audience better and we will be praying for you and for your ministry. Whether you’re joining us on YouTube or your favorite podcast platform, please be sure to subscribe and follow. You do not want to miss out on any of these great conversations. This week, we have a great conversation, as I said. I’d like to welcome Steve Cuss to the show. Steve, welcome.

Steve Cuss 
Good to be here. Thanks for having me, Jason.

Jason Daye 
Yeah, very excited about this conversation. I believe it’s one that resonated with me as I read your new book, The Expectation Gap. I’m sure it’s gonna resonate with our audience as well. Steve, you as a pastor and ministry leader, wrestled with somewhat of a disconnect. You share that cognitively your beliefs about God and what you were studying, preaching, and teaching. That there was a disconnect between that, perhaps, and what you were experiencing, right? You share in the book that actually, as you’re reflecting on this, you began to think well, perhaps maybe the fact that I’m a pastor is somehow the problem, which I think that all of us in ministry can resonate with to some degree. You’re thinking maybe the work I’m doing for God is somehow limiting my capacity to really experience God. Yeah, so Steve, I’d love for you to just share a little bit about that wrestling experience and those things that you were processing.

Steve Cuss 
Yeah, it’s a great question and there’s a lot of complexity to it. But I think where we could start is, I think there’s two dynamics going on for faith leaders. One is, that I think a paycheck just infects the family relationship. Sometimes you’ll see like a moving truck, and it says something like Smith and Sons and you know, well, that’s a family business. Mr. Smith started it and his boys are now helping and you know that that changes Thanksgiving dinner. It just does that because Dad is dad and boss. I think that is what happens with us as pastors. God is father and boss. Look, God is a great boss. The problem is not on God’s side. But for me, I think the first dynamic is the way we conflate being God’s child and God’s employee. Then I do think the second dynamic is really related to that we are prone to neglect ourselves in the name of Jesus. So one of the things I teach people is the way we syncretize our anxiety and the Gospel as if it’s all the gospel. So I focus on others. I’m very “others” focused. That sounds almost like Jesus. That almost sounds like the Great Commission. Look at Steve, he’s so focused, look at how he gives and gives. But what’s really true is that I neglect myself. I don’t know what’s going on with me. So I do think we have this double dynamic as pastors that we’re either very others-focused, mission-focused, or vision-focused, that we don’t ever stop and say, Wait a minute, what’s going on in me? How am I doing? Am I actually connecting to the God I’m proclaiming? Then we get into a habit over the years. We just get used to it. We proclaim a gospel that we don’t actually experience. So that was what happened to me. I just woke up kind of and it snuck up on me, Jason. Then in 2015, I was like, wait a minute, this is becoming untenable. In my particular case, I know this isn’t everyone’s story, but I’m a member of the church I used to be a pastor of. I just want to clarify that I’m no longer the lead pastor at this church. But I’m now a congregant there. But when I was the pastor there, I pastored an extremely kind church. None of this was a surprise to them. I was not keeping this journey from them. I actually believe the power of pastoring is letting people enter into my own doubt and struggle, and they can have permission to find theirs. Yeah, those are two dynamics, kind of the employee-child dynamic. Then just the tendency of faith leaders to neglect ourselves. We think it’s for the sake of others, but I think there’s a lot more going on.

Jason Daye 
Yeah, Steve. So as you were processing through that, what did you begin to recognize? What did you begin to seek out? What was God revealing to you as you felt yourself in that kind of tension?

Steve Cuss 
Yeah, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in this situation, I’m sorry to say I’ve been in a situation a number of times in my life where blind spot knowledge is revealed to me. Maybe there’s a way I’m behaving and I’m not aware of it. The way it works, Jason, is somebody will point it out. Then the moment they say it, the moment before they said it, I’d never seen it. The moment they say it, all I can see is Oh, that’s been my whole life. This happened when my wife and I were in premarital counseling. We were engaged and I thought I was God’s gift to future husbands. I’m just a young, selfish, short dude. His ability just to find things in me that I didn’t even know I was revealing. He’s a therapist. I felt so exposed. That’s kind of the experience I had, I think, as a pastor. I always had this low-grade angst about it. But it really did come to a head for me in that 2015 to 2017 era, where it just became so clear to me, Jason. I’m like, wow, my head believes things my body does not believe. So I say I believe in God’s love, but I don’t experience it in my chest. I say I believe in freedom in Christ, but I am not free at all. Now, maybe spiritually and ontologically, I’m free. Maybe to preach. But daily? Nope, not free. The Scriptures teach that we can access supernatural peace, regardless of circumstances. Those promises were written in the context of a harsh Roman Empire. Then I look at well, I’m not at peace, I’m worried about my critics. I’m feeling sermon performance anxiety. So I think for me, it was this sudden blind spot knowledge of Oh, my goodness, these are the foundational beliefs of my faith, and I’m not living them. Then, of course, what’s comforting for me is I just need someone else to join me in my misery. So then I started to discover that, oh, this is everybody. This isn’t unique to pastors. So again, I tried to steward this as a gift to my church and say, This is normal, what are we going to do about it? Then in the book, it gets a bit sophisticated, but what I am a student of is attempted solutions. Human beings have problems, but it’s our attempted solutions that get us into trouble. So I think that’s what’s happening in our faith, is we feel these gaps, but then it’s our attempts to solve them that are in fact, the problem.

Jason Daye 
Yeah, we can exasperate what we’re feeling because we’re attempting to resolve the problem in some way, which falls short as well. It’s just like, oh, here we are. Steve, you talk and write about this idea of the false self and kind of recognizing the false self. Then not just recognizing the false self but then really dealing with the false self. It’s one thing to recognize. But it’s another thing to engage the false self and try to move beyond it. Share with us a bit about that.

Steve Cuss 
Yeah, I mean, this is definitely a lifelong journey. It involves a lot of curiosity and self-kindness. But yeah, at its core, if you really want to get stark about it, we follow an invisible God, and that is not easy to do. I think in some of our faith communities, we make it sound easier than it is. I’m trying to raise my hand and say, Look, can we be honest? Following an invisible God is an intangible experience. It’s hard to know, what’s the target? How do I know I’m hitting it? Then, Jason, we tell people to follow an invisible God. Then we use this superlative language like you must be sold out 100%. All in. Anything less than that and you are lukewarm. Jesus is going to spit you out of his mouth. We take pieces of the Bible, we put ourselves as pastors under so much pressure, and then intentionally or unintentionally, we then pressurize our people. So I think it’s easy to say, look, following an invisible God is difficult. So we have these coping mechanisms to try to manage it. Most of our coping mechanisms do, in fact, start in childhood. We’re not powerful people as kids. We are children in a world of power. So we make these adaptations to survive into adulthood and some of us make these little micro adaptations. Some of us were raised in colossally traumatic experiences. But then we develop what is known as the false self and it’s kind of a protective layer. It’s basically, Jason, what we depend on when we’re not depending on God. I mean, it’s a complex thing, but the simplest way to see it is, we either move into self-righteousness, or we move into self-protection and self-pity. So we kind of get bigger than human size, which is self-righteous. What that looks like in my life is I become very judgmental of others. I love to judge so I don’t have to have the spotlight on me. I get easily irritated by others’ behavior. In my mind, their behavior is a bigger deal than in reality. Sometimes in my false self, I get bigger by dominating. I have to have the last word. I have to be right. You must understand me. We get really rigid. But then the other extreme is when we no longer feel safe to be ourselves in any situation, that’s when we get smaller. That can look like self-pity. But it can also look like self-protection. Basically what’s going on there, is you walk into a room and your safety radar is saying to you, you can’t be yourself in this place. So when you’re self-righteous, you have to put on a pretense. Let me present to you something. When you’re in self-protection, you’re kind of like a turtle in your shell. We’ve all seen this. Even if our listeners think about the last set of staff meetings they were in, people get bigger and smaller in staff meetings. Who’s always using the most words and kind of dominating? Who, even though maybe they’re not the leader, just the way they speak has more power, right? It kind of shuts people down. I was in a meeting yesterday and my job was to facilitate discussion. I was like an outside consultant. One of the leaders who was one of the big leaders in the room, made a declarative statement. He said, This is a non-negotiable. Now no one’s going to then say, well, I would like to negotiate. That’s my job as a facilitator. So what I’m doing is I’m looking at who’s getting bigger and who’s getting smaller. Now, there’s nothing wrong that he said that. That’s his view. What’s also true is he gets the final say. That’s true. But it doesn’t mean there can’t be a conversation. So rather than letting that just be silent, I had to say, Well, Peter, his opinion, is that it’s non-negotiable. At the end of the discussion, what’s true is that Peter gets to decide and we follow it. That’s true. But before we just do that, who thinks it’s not non-negotiable? I’m not looking to shame Peter. That’s not it. But I’m just looking to see that he got bigger and everyone got smaller. How do we stay human-sized? Because human size is when we’re our true self. That’s the self that God created. Where we get to connect with each other. We get to listen to learn rather than listen to defend, or in this case, to kind of close the door. Being human size is the simplest and fastest way to connect to God. Because when you’re bigger, God’s nowhere to be found. You’ve taken up all the space where you’re aware of God. When you’re smaller, God’s no longer your refuge, you are your refuge. So whether bigger or smaller you are depending on self to be well. You’re being what the Bible calls self-righteous. Jesus and Paul invited us to die to self. So I encourage a lot of dying. It’s one of my hobbies. It’s very hard to do. But that’s what I think we should be doing.

Jason Daye 
I appreciate that, Steve. As we look at the false self, you kind of touched on this just there on the tail end, but I’d like to maybe press in just a little bit more. There’s this element of a shift that we make with ourselves, and then an element of a shift that we make in relation to God. Can you talk a little more about finding our true selves and those shifts that we need to make with self and with God?

Steve Cuss 
Yeah, it’s a great question and it is kind of conceptual. That’s the tricky part of this. But one of the cases I’m making in the book is not to separate your relationship with yourself from your relationship with God. I think, in the church, we tend to see our human relationships as very tactical. Like I am looking at you and speaking to you right now. I get it, I see it, and it’s tactile. I hold my wife’s hand or I laugh at my friend’s joke. Those are tactile experiences. Then we kind of put our relationship with God in a whole other category. This whole other thing. I’m trying to say, what if we considered our relationship with God much like our relationship with our friends and family? Then also the other elusive relationship is that relationship with ourself. Most of us just don’t think about I’m in relationship with me. I don’t say that, Jason, to be self-absorbed and let me be fascinated by myself. No, the opposite. It’s the fastest way to get out of the way. If Jesus is saying die to self, and I’m not aware of self, then what am I dying to? It’s nebulous. So what I teach people to do is if you want to connect to God, first, try connecting to yourself. Two examples. If I were to say to you, Jason, who’s in your family, or who are your friends, you would list all these people, and you would be getting down to like, second cousins once removed, and great, great uncles, before you would say, I’m on my list of relations. I’m on that list. We just don’t think about it. So I tell people to go ahead and put yourself on your conscious list of relationships. It’s very uncomfortable. But now that opens up all this possibility. What you start to discover is the way you treat your friends and family is so much better than the way you treat yourself. I would never talk to you, Jason, the way I talk to myself. I would never say to you, even if I didn’t like you, even if I didn’t want to be around you. Even if, I would never say suck it up, Jason. But I say that to myself. I would never say “Get over it” or “You’re so stupid”. I’d never do that to a friend, let alone a stranger, or even an enemy. But I do it to myself. So how can I relax into God’s love when I’m putting more faith into my self-talk than I am in what God says about me? That would be kind of the end of that journey.

Jason Daye 
Yeah, I love that. One of those gaps that you identify in The Expectation Gap is around God’s love for us. That’s one of the big ones. Whenever we are experiencing that gap, the widening of that gap, is when we become, you’re relating to this inner critic, right? This is who we are. I think as pastors and ministry leaders, we’re really good at this, Steve. For whatever reason, we’re really good at being critical of ourselves. So, Steve, what are some ways that we can process through this as ministry leaders and understand the nuances? Because as you said, we talked about, we sacrifice, we serve others, like these are things that we champion. Yet, as important as being selfless is, we’re still called to love ourselves, right? So help us process through this from the perspective of a pastor and ministry leader. How do we work through this?

Steve Cuss 
Yeah, it’s such a great and really important question, Jason. I chuckle because we say we’re really good at it and what we mean is we’re really bad at it. This is actually one of the biggest challenges of pastors that I run into, is we simply do not receive the Gospel we proclaim to others. We call that selflessness. But what it actually is, is false self. It’s quite terrifying, actually, to relax into God’s presence, where God sees everything about me. Anytime we feel vulnerable, we feel a need to move into self-protection. So there’s nothing more vulnerable than being in God’s presence. You cannot hide. So what we do is our inner critic tries to protect us by condemning us before God does. Like beating God to the punch. So my inner critic calls me stupid. My inner critic tells me I’m not worth anyone’s time. It’s really wild some of the messages my inner critic gives me. It means well. My inner critic is trying to protect me from something worse than its condemnation, which is external condemnation. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with a perfectionist, where you go to sit down and have a meeting with them. They’ll say to you, Hey, before you point them out, let me show you all the mistakes and what I did. Like they kind of are pre-empting your criticism. It’s quite funny because I’ve had a number of these meetings where I was like, I wouldn’t have even noticed if you hadn’t brought it up. But what that perfectionist is doing is they’re protecting themselves from the only thing worse than self-condemnation, which is external condemnation from others, or from God. This has massive life-changing implications for pastors. For example, when you have a harsh critic in your church, let’s call them the usual suspects of frequent flyers. I’m not talking about the garden variety critic. All churches have people with opinions and they share their opinions imperfectly. Those people are fine and I’m fine with them. I’m talking about the band of brothers and sisters that get their kicks out of kicking a pastor around You know these people. They don’t have a vested interest in understanding. They actually want to kick you around. That’s what they want. Okay, with these people, the temptation of the pastor is to act like you’re not being hurt. If they are trying to hurt you, then you act harder that you can’t be hurt. But then you go home and you’re quite hurt. You’re talking to your spouse. You’re ruminating for hours or days. What I teach is the counterintuitive move to tell the critic that they hit their target. If your goal was to hurt me, I want you to know you hit your goal. I’m hurt. Is that what you wanted? Now, that is a very disarming and very vulnerable thing to do. But if you look at what’s going on, that pastor is gearing up to face that critic. I’m saying gear down. Let them hurt you because they are. Then give them that you hurt me, is that what you wanted? That will expose your bullies so quickly. Now we can get into how I do that with an elder present. I don’t usually meet with them alone. But by golly, does that change the dynamic because what’s going on, as long as their goal is to hurt me and they don’t ever say, I’m here to hurt you. They usually bring up, Why did you do this and explain this. But their goal is to keep you off guard. If I’m giving them my insight, here’s why we did this. Here’s the decision. Here’s how we prayed through this. I’m giving them my insight. They don’t want my insight. They want to hurt me. So the more insight I give them, I’m just giving them more ammunition to hurt me. The more I act unhurt, the harder they have to work to hurt me. So the jujitsu move is just to get it over with. You hurt me. I actually had a critic once tell me, what are you like soft or something? What I gave him was really Oh, yeah, I’m really soft. I’m so sensitive. You have no idea. What’s he gonna do now? It’s a race to the bottom. He’s trying to take me down, and I’m like let’s go. I’m deep diving. This actually relates to our relationship with God. Because if we’re ever going to experience love, we have to be vulnerable. We quiet in the inner critic and relax into the unconditional love of God with no pretense. It’s very hard to do. So I have a number of human practices that actually help us with our divine relationship because the same dynamic is going on. Yeah, most of us believe that God’s love is three millimeters thick. Then under it is judgment. So we have to just get down below that little epidermis layer to see what’s really going on.

Jason Daye 
Yeah, Steve. So talk to us a little bit about some practices that we can engage in to help us move beyond that sense of, whether it’s inner critic or externally receiving criticism. What are some things that we can do so we can relax into God’s love, as you say?

Steve Cuss 
Yep, it is a long process, but I’ll give three kind of in order of depth. The simplest thing any leader can do is make a life-giving list. You can go to my website, SteveCussWords.com, and you can download a free one. I’ve got a video instruction on how to make it. It’s simply an intentional specific list of the people, the places, and the activities that God has given you as a pastor. For you, that you can’t give to your church. So like, holding my wife’s hand is on my life-giving list. Most pastors give God’s gifts away. When we think of God’s gifts, we think of Paul’s spiritual gifts list. Okay, God has given me a gift. Let me give it to others. No, I’m talking about a list of gifts that God has given you, as God’s beloved son or daughter. That’s where I would start. I’ll go brief, Jason, because you can just go to my website and we have a full video instruction. We have a download. I have 160 items on my list. You can see behind me that I’ve got an album, I think I’m looking at the camera here. But I think that’s my Talking Heads best of. Listening to a vinyl album is on my life-giving list. So is reading theology. But I always used to read theology for my church. Sometimes I just read it for myself, even if I get this profound insight and I don’t share it. That was so hard for me, Jason. I’m under so much pressure, as a preacher, to have something insightful. It was just profound for me to realize, I got into ministry because I love theology. A number of reasons why, but one of them is I love studying the Bible. Let me just study it. Let me get back to before it was my job. So life-giving lists can be a life-changing thing because most leaders are pouring out too much and not receiving enough. We’re giving, giving, giving God’s gifts away. The second is deeper. Once you start to notice your reactivity as a whole. I think I have two chapters on reactivity. Reactivity, the things that trigger you, is the fastest way to disconnect from God and humans. So let’s go back to the critics. When a critic is coming at me, I have a false need to be understood. So I get reactive when I’m misunderstood. At that moment, theologically, what’s happening is I’m not relaxing into the Lord, God’s nowhere to be found. I’m all on my own. I’ve got to figure this out. So it’s my behaviors that burn me out. Now I’m incessantly meeting with my critics trying to win them over, trying to make them understand. But I’m not relaxing into the Lord. I’m anxiously working out of self. So the second deeper move is for leaders and there’s a longer deeper journey to learn to get to know your triggers. Then what you do after that, it’s terrible, but you actually intentionally put yourself in triggering situations so that you can practice noticing the God of the universe, rather than being triggered and reactive. That’s a long journey and it’s a brave journey. You can probably imagine why most of our work is cohorts. We do this work over a long amount of time and we share it with each other. Then yeah, the third deepest journey is the one we started on. It’s your false self, your inner critic, the story you tell yourself about the way you must be, the world must be, and others must be for you to be okay. You start to slowly realize all of the ways we’re not depending on God at all, we’re depending on self. Those would be kind of three options for people.

Jason Daye 
Yeah, I love that. So helpful, Steve. As we’re looking at these gaps, that first gap really revolves around this gap around God’s love, which you’ve shared ways to recognize that and ways to kind of process, move, grow, and develop. I love what you said about just experiencing things for ourselves. Not always thinking about, okay, God’s given me this, how do I pass it along? I mean, that’s huge, right? Just remembering, oh, wait, I have a relationship with God the Father. I have a relationship with Christ the Son, I have a relationship with the Spirit. That’s my relationship with them. It’s not just as a conduit to others, right? Which is huge when we begin to reframe things that way. In The Expectation Gap, you talk about two other expectations that we have. Two other areas that can kind of trip us up or we feel a bit of a disconnect there. The next one really focuses on this idea around God’s presence. God being real. God being involved and engaged. The gap there often leads us to chronic anxiety. Whenever what we think intellectually about God doesn’t match up with what we feel we’re experiencing. I know a lot of pastors, we talk with a lot of pastors, we work with a lot of pastors that experience a lot of anxiety. Sometimes the anxiety becomes compounded because as ministry leaders and pastors, we know Jesus’s words, right? We know that Jesus says do not be anxious about anything, do not worry about anything. I mean, we preach sermons about this, and yet we find ourselves wrestling with anxiety. So, Steve, talk to us a little bit about this gap that we’re experiencing, and how can we begin to to grow in this area as well.

Steve Cuss 
Yeah, this is really the initial work I first started doing with pastors in managing leadership anxiety. I had become a student and specialist in what’s clinically called chronic anxiety. I call it leadership anxiety, reactivity. That’s what it looks like. It doesn’t feel like worry or fear. That’s what makes it tricky to notice. Sometimes it feels like strength. So if you’ve ever been in a group where someone goes off on a political rant, they’re really anxious. But they feel so strong. They feel so powerful ranting and I’m just watching him like, Dude, you’re so anxious, and you don’t even know it. Or what happened yesterday when someone said, no negotiations. Well, that feels like strong leadership. No, it’s just anxiety. You don’t have the capacity right now to be curious about other people and you have to kind of shut it down, that kind of thing. So yeah, reactivity is a huge topic. It’s what leads pastors to burn out. It’s based on a false need that feels real in the moment. This is what trips so many pastors up. So when I’m talking to you right now, I can say to you, Jason, I don’t need your approval and I don’t need you to understand me. But those are two of my driving force needs. But then if you were to watch me at church when an anxious critic comes up, you would watch me get reactive in real time. It’s easy to say when I’m calm, that I don’t need it. But I get triggered again, and again, and again. Now every human has 30 to 50 false needs. One of the most common ones for a preacher is the need for every sermon you’ve ever heard to be the best. Every sermon I’ve ever preached to be the best sermon you’ve ever heard every time. It’s unsustainable. That’s why we’re so vulnerable when we preach because afterward some people like to hide in the green room, some kind of need a pat on the head. Some of us pressurize our poor spouses. Did you like it? Did you like it? Because it’s so vulnerable to put yourself out there. But these are false needs. We can actually thrive as humans, as being human-sized, relaxing into God’s presence, and not get them. Once you locate your triggers, and you start to put yourself, as I mentioned earlier, intentionally put yourself in triggering situations to practice, you’ll be blown away by how deeply you are connected to God and others. So all of my work, if you think about everything I do, what I’m doing, Jason, is I’m helping us with all of our precious relationships. That’s with ourselves, God, family, and friends, but also, Jason, what the Bible would describe as our enemies. I’m not talking about a Roman centurion and he’s trying to make us walk the extra mile with his pack. In passes, our enemies are usually these usual suspect critics. Jesus commands us to love them. But if we don’t do this work, we just get irritated by them. We avoid them, we try to appease them, or we gang up on them with the other staff. We say to the staff, can we agree that Jim is just a pain in the neck? Oh, yeah, me too. But actually, there’s a better path, which is to realize what false needs are my critics triggering in me Nevermind Jim. I can’t change Jim. That’s God’s work. But what I can do is change myself and ask God to lower my triggers, so that I can connect to Jim. Jim and God can do their work. But now I’ve even by working on myself, I’ve broken the predictable pattern where he keeps coming at me again and again. So that’s a deeper journey. But learning to notice your triggers. We’ve got a couple of chapters in the new book that actually help you work through it. Oh, it’s a game-changer.

Jason Daye 
Yeah, I love that. One of the final expectation gaps that we experience you talk about is this idea of our progress, our spiritual progress. This one, as I was reading through this, Steve, I was like, oh, man. As pastors and ministry leaders, this one just, I mean, all of them resonate to such a degree. But this one was kind of like, oh, man. Just thinking through, I should be further along on my journey with God. This idea that I should be further along. Here I am, I’m the pastor, I’m the ministry leader, and I’m the one who’s helping guide, lead, and disciple others. Then we feel that, kind of that angst. We have made a lot of assumptions and those types of things. We have to be careful with those assumptions. So talk to us a little bit about this particular gap because I think this one also applies so readily to pastors and ministry leaders, and you kind of spell this out in The Expectation Gap about this idea around our spiritual progress.

Steve Cuss 
Yeah. I mean, I wrote Managing Leadership Anxiety for pastors and all kinds of people have bought it. It’s been so amazing to see it spread. But I wrote The Expectation Gap for congregants. I wrote it under a church to go through together. I’ll be honest, Jason, my fear was that people would read these chapters and write hate mail to the pastor. I did not want to write it in a way that the pastor was to blame. Because I think what a lot of congregants don’t realize is what you just laid out for us. Pastors feel this internal pressure to be helpful. But what we’re doing is we’re all perpetuating a myth, and the faster the leaders can recognize that we’re perpetuating a myth, the more we can all grow in Christ. Here’s the myth. There is no such a thing as 100% sold-out follower of Jesus. Now, maybe there is, but none of us know what it looks like. Let’s be honest, no one can describe it. None of us in our churches have had a Sunday morning service where we say, Johnny and Carol, come on up. You get the prize. You are in fact, a fully devoted follower of Jesus, well done. We use this superlative language. I would call it a carrot dangling out of reach or a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It doesn’t exist. Here’s what’s interesting. None of the disciples were it. Whatever we think of when we think of 100% sold out, fully devoted followers of Jesus. It wasn’t Peter. It wasn’t James. As I like to playfully say in the book, it wasn’t Thaddeus. People are like, who’s Thaddeus? Exactly. He was just some unknown dude that was trying to follow Jesus. So what we continue to do as faith leaders is we feel this internal pressure to pressurize our people to live up to something that they can never be, we are not, and no one in the Bible was. One of the ways we do it is the way we stack Bible characters in our teaching. So one week, you come to church, and we’re teaching about Peter walking on water, and everyone needs to be walking on water this week. How are you stepping out in faith? But what we don’t teach is the truth. The truth is, if you go back and exegete that passage, there are two quick truths. Number one, it’s got nothing to do with Peter. It’s all about Jesus being sovereign over the elements. Jesus is a Genesis 1 creator God. Any time you encounter the sovereignty of God, your response is to bow down and worship that God. Which is why at the end of the walking on water story, all 12 disciples in the boat are worshiping God with astonishment. Here’s a great sermon. Peter walked on water. 92% of the disciples stayed in the boat. 100% of the disciples end up worshiping Jesus. So hey, congregation, this week watch your friend step out of the boat and almost drown, wait for him to come back in the boat, and you’re gonna end up worshiping Jesus anyway. So don’t worry about it. I mean, I’m being kind of tongue-in-cheek, but I’m kind of being serious. Then you come back to church next week and we’re no longer talking about Peter. This week the story is Mary and Martha. Then we say, Are we all too busy like Martha, we’re all scurrying around. Then we all say yes, we’re too busy with too much time on social media. I’m so anxious, I should be more like Jesus. Must be more like Mary. Well, Mary and Peter were nothing like each other. Mary most likely would have stayed in the boat. Most likely. I can’t say for sure. But we must be both of them and not both of them. We must be one tiny two-dimensional slice of each of them. Plus Moses. Plus Esther. Plus Paul. So we stack this fictional super disciple. You know, Jason, imagine someone told you, okay, Jason, in order to be a proper Christian, you must be like Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, and a supermodel. And you’re like, I can’t do it. I can’t do it. Like, okay, Winston Churchill, drank whiskey for breakfast, is that included? No, just the courageous part. But you know what I mean, you get what I’m saying. We turn our Bible characters into two-dimensional examples, rather than seeing them as human beings. So that’s where the true self comes in. Just being ourselves. That relaxes all of us and that’s how we grow in Christ. We start by accepting exactly how we are now, finding our triggers and false self, and dying to it.

Jason Daye 
Yeah, I love that. Steve, that’s so good. As you’re speaking, there I was thinking of, as we do preach about all of them and teach on all of these different characters from Scripture. The expectation is that you’re we are all the best of all of them, right? All of them at their absolute best. That’s what we should be.

Steve Cuss 
We are the best of all of them, but also, Jason, for all time. That’s right pressure. Peter walked on water one time in his life, sort of, not really. Also, Jason, is it a faith walk? I’m not so sure. Jesus did not say, Peter, show your faith. No, here’s what happened. Jesus is taking a stroll on the lake. The disciples are like it’s a ghost. Jesus is like, come on guys. What do you think? After all these years, a ghost, really? Then Peter says, Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come. The only word that Matthew records is Jesus says, Come. Maybe Jesus is saying, You know what, guys, every time Peter puts his foot in his mouth, something fun happens. Peter, come. We don’t know. We don’t know. But we have turned it into this giant faith walk thing. But even if it is a faith walk, Peter did it once. There is never a week in the life of a modern Christian, where we don’t feel pressure to walk on water. Not fair.

Jason Daye 
So good, Steve. Thank you so much for that. That’s excellent. Well, man, it’s been an incredible conversation. Incredibly helpful. Again, The Expectation Gap is Steve’s latest book, which we’ve been talking a lot about these things. If you want to dig more deeply, there’s a lot of content within this book. I highly recommend it. There are practices in there and questions that draw things out of you. Super good for, as Steve said, not only you as a ministry leader, but also for your congregation. Steve, if people want to connect more with your ministry, the things that you’re doing, or the things that you’re putting out. You’ve shared a bit about this. What’s the best way for them to do that?

Steve Cuss 
Yeah, the easiest is to go to SteveCussWords.com. That’s my website. My last name is Cuss and there’s nothing we can do about it. So we have fun with it. Yeah, I mean, I preach, I do workshops for congregants, and I do leadership workshops for staff. Then as you go to my website, you’ll see we actually have some free courses. I have a whole online community of people who want to do this because it’s a long journey. So people join us for a year or two. It’s self-paced. So you can find all of that if you want to engage in my work on your own or with your group. We have an eight-week workbook that can help people with this. But really just go to SteveCussWords.com, you can click around, get some free resources, look into me coming out, or some of these more paid community experiences.

Jason Daye 
Excellent. I love that. For those of you watching or listening along, we will have links to Steve’s website and some of those different resources. We’ll have links to The Expectation Gap, the book itself, all included in the toolkit for this episode, which you can find at PastorServe.org/network. Steve, I want to give you an opportunity just to share some final words of encouragement with pastors and ministry leaders as we wrap up.

Steve Cuss 
Oh, wonderful. Yeah. It’s simple for me, Jason, the best thing that a pastor has to offer their congregation is a well self. We’ve all seen pastors that are leading and proclaiming Jesus and they’re sick. I’m talking about even the extreme of abuse and secret sins. Just if you can work on you being well, that bleeds, that just infects everybody and helps them all relax. That would be my final word.

Jason Daye 
Awesome. I appreciate it. Steve, it’s been wonderful to have you with us. God bless you, brother.

Steve Cuss 
Thank you so much.

Jason Daye
Now, before you go, I want to remind you of an incredible free resource that our team puts together every single week to help you and your team dig more deeply and maximize the conversation that we just had. This is the weekly toolkit that we provide. And we understand that it’s one thing to listen or watch an episode, but it’s something entirely different to actually take what you’ve heard, what you’ve watched, what you’ve seen, and apply it to your life and to your ministry. You see, FrontStage BackStage is more than just a podcast or YouTube show about ministry leadership, we are a complete resource to help train you and your entire ministry team as you seek to grow and develop in life in ministry. Every single week, we provide a weekly toolkit which has all types of tools in it to help you do just that. Now you can find this at PastorServe.org/network. That’s PastorServe.org/network. And there you will find all of our shows, all of our episodes and all of our weekly toolkits. Now inside the toolkit are several tools including video links and audio links for you to share with your team. There are resource links to different resources and tools that were mentioned in the conversation, and several other tools, but the greatest thing is the ministry leaders growth guide. Our team pulls key insights and concepts from every conversation with our amazing guests. And then we also create engaging questions for you and your team to consider and process, providing space for you to reflect on how that episode’s topic relates to your unique context, at your local church, in your ministry and in your life. Now you can use these questions in your regular staff meetings to guide your conversation as you invest in the growth of your ministry leaders. You can find the weekly toolkit at PastorServe.org/network We encourage you to check out that free resource. Until next time, I’m Jason Daye encouraging you to love well, live well, and lead well. God bless.

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