How to Overcome Feeling Nervous as a Leader

woman who learned how to overcome feeing nervous as a leader behind a cafe window smiling with hands clasped

We remodeled bathrooms last winter, taking out an upstairs hall and adding its space to one bathroom, gutting a second, and updating a third. It was a project Alejandro promised to finish by late February, just in time for a women’s retreat scheduled to take place there. But February came and went, and the retreat got put on the back burner, while installing vanities, lights, and faucets became front and center.

I let the pastors know we’d have to postpone the retreat until summer. But I got to thinking: The winter retreat topic was more suited to gathering around a fireplace than around our porch, so I sent an email to the powers-that-be about another idea more suitable for summer. When I didn’t hear back from them, I felt relieved; I was too busy wrangling workers to pursue a retreat any further.

What Are You Prioritizing?

In my frenzy of finishing up the bathroom details after the remodeling was over, the summer retreat topic lost its allure for me, and the summer hadn’t even started. Hanging mirrors and wall art and finding trashcans and bathmats consumed me for 13 weeks after the workmen left. Don’t ask me how or why. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the dream of having bathrooms that looked like those in magazines was the carrot that baited me, promising to be infinitely more satisfying than—gulp—leading women to Jesus.

What I do know is that the dream of having bathrooms that looked like those in magazines was the carrot that baited me, promising to be infinitely more satisfying than—gulp—leading women to Jesus.

I also hadn’t heard back from our church leaders about my summer retreat idea. Clearly it wasn’t on anybody’s radar, and I was fine with it. No sense pushing a retreat, or worse, pushing myself as its speaker. I’m a team player and like to make sure I’m wanted before I step up. Even so, I felt forgotten, like the shriveled lemon languishing in the back of my refrigerator.

And then suddenly, a pastor asked when the retreat was scheduled to take place. And the women’s ministry coordinator asked, too. I had to tell them I didn’t have a topic I was excited about, that was I wasn’t feeling it, that my enthusiasm had tanked in the adulation of marble tile and a new tub.

“Feed My Sheep”

It was just when I was ready to wind down for what I thought would be a relaxing summer, that I read what Jesus said to Peter in John 21 as they talked after breakfast on the beach. I don’t know how it happened, but that conversation pulled me off my sofa in Georgia and set me in Peter’s shoes on the shores of Galilee. I could almost taste the salty air, feel the breeze on my cheek. Those words sank in as clearly as if Jesus spoke them directly to me: “Come and eat…Feed my sheep…Follow me.”

I looked around to get my bearings. There were the library doors. My cats were waiting to be fed just outside them. I’m here, not there, I thought to myself, though I could swear I just heard seagulls crying overhead. I don’t have the words to say what was happening, but this is the conversation I said and heard and felt, and maybe dreamed:

Me: “I’m afraid, Jesus. Last summer’s retreat, I read my whole talk because I was worried I’d mess it up. I’m a writer, not a speaker. I’m uncomfortable up front.”

Jesus: “I’m not calling you to lead. I’m calling you to follow me and serve. I’m the Shepherd. You’re my sheep. I do the leading. Listen to me.”

Me: “Alright, I’m listening.”

Jesus: “I’m not asking you to put yourself up front. Put me up front. Leading is scary when it’s all about you. But following me is easy. Let your words be my words. Let me dazzle my sheep. Open your heart; open your front door; open my words; open your mouth. I’ll handle what comes out.”

what my faith says about my purposeMe: “That reminds me, I don’t have a topic. What am I supposed to talk about?”

Jesus: “Come and eat. Taste and see. Feed them what I’m feeding you. It’s not a matter of what you will say, but will you serve? Will you do the work it takes to get your home and heart ready? Will you humble yourself to let both places be imperfect? Will you hear me calling today and say, ‘Whatever my Shepherd wants, I’ll do,’ because you love me that much? Will you let this retreat be about me and not you?”

And in that moment, the fear fell away. I felt light and right inside. The fabric I’d spent three days looking for lost its pull. Not only did I want to stop retreating from my retreat, I wanted to fling open my fear cell doors and invite others to fling theirs open with me.

Joy poured in. And suddenly, I knew what the topic would be—what Jesus said to his friends that day on the beach, what he’d just said to me: “Come and eat. Feed my sheep. Follow me.”

When You’re Nervous as a Leader, Set Yourself Aside and Serve

These were Jesus’ last instructions before ascending to the Father. He repeated them for emphasis, the way a parent talks to his children before he heads out of town, telling them once again what he wants them to do while he’s gone: “Feed Scout and Lovey. Their food is in the pantry. Do it like I do–give them 1 cup each. I love you, and I know I can count on you because you love me, too.”

Eugene Peterson writes, “the Christian life isn’t about leadership but ‘followership,’ not about becoming more and more, but less and less,” The MSG Devotional Bible, p. 1252.

This is what Jesus did and taught and teaches still: to set ourselves aside so we can feed the hungry, wash feet, heal the sick, weep with the grieving, cast out demons, fight for the forgotten, humble ourselves, talk to him and do what he did, which was mainly to love people.

Leading is scary, but serving is easy—as easy as helping with the trash or in the church nursery, as cutting the neighbor’s grass, as opening your door and welcoming friends, as giving a cup of cold water to someone who’s thirsty. After all, “the Son of Man didn’t come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus says to anyone listening, “Do what I do. Follow me.”

A retreat is an opportunity to treat my friends again and again, to “re-treat” them, so to speak. It’s not the opportunity to show off what I think I know or how cleverly I can entertain them. It’s time I set aside to point to Jesus, to provide a place away from it all where they might taste the salt, feel the breeze, hear him call, and follow him.

I can’t wait.

Curious to know more about your relationship with Jesus? Listen to this podcast episode: The Beauty of Our Imperfect Lives with Jesus – 209

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