When a Leader Spirals Downward

An aviation term called a death spiral describes what can happen to a plane in nighttime or poor flying conditions when a pilot loses his sense of the plane’s horizontal orientation. The plane can begin to spin uncontrollably. Unless the pilot pulls out, he can spiral out of control and crash. In ministry, leaders can often get caught in a similar downward spiral mentally, physically, emotionally or relationally. When that happens, what can we do to pull out of it? The prophet Jonah illustrates what contributes to a downward spiral and what we must do to pull out of one.

In Jonah 4, Jonah finally relented and obeyed God’s call on his life to preach to the ancient city of Nineveh. The city then repented and turned to God. And yet, Jonah wasn’t happy. He spiraled downward. His response gives us clues to what can cause a downward spiral in ourselves.

What can cause a downward spiral?

1. Prolonged stress. Jonah had almost drowned, was stuck in the belly of a big fish for three days, traveled over a month to Nineveh and had just finished a stressful and extended time of preaching. He was tired and near burnout. The same can happen to a leader after prolonged and intense ministry. Such stress can set the stage for the beginning of a downward spiral.

2. Self-focus. In the original language in Jonah 4, he used ‘I’ and ‘my’ nine times. After the people repented, which Jonah didn’t really want, he turned inward and felt justified for his intense anger at God. Turning inward facilities a downward spiral. When we turn deeply inward and ruminate and rehearse what we don’t like that is happening to us, it exacerbates a spiral.

3. Cutting off from others. After Jonah’s preaching, his anger drove him to cut himself off from the Ninevites and from God. He left the city in a huff instead of staying there to help the people understand more about God. Often when in a downward spiral, we pull away from the very people we need to be around.

4. Disproportionate emotions. Jonah got angry at God for not destroying the Ninevites, yet was deliriously happy about a plant that provided him shade. Emotional responses that are out of proportion to what precipitated them often signal we are in a downward spiral, whether it’s being overly glad or overly angry about something insignificant.

5. Distorted thinking. Jonah was not thinking clearly based on his unhealthy response to God’s work in Nineveh. When in a downward spiral, our negative emotions get amplified and clear thinking gets skewed.

6. Justifying bad behavior. When God questioned Jonah about his behavior, he justified it with a defensive attitude. When we’re well into a downward spiral, it’s easy to justify poor decisions.

So, when a leader finds himself in a downward spiral, what can he or she do? Consider these six choices that can help us pull out of a downward spiral.

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Charles Stone
Dr. Charles Stone is Lead Pastor at West Park Church in London, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of four books including, "People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership" (IVP 2014), and his most recent book, “Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry” (Abingdon, May 2015). His fifth book, on an ancient spiritual formation practice seldom practiced today, releases January, 2019 from Moody Press.

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