Growing up in the church, Peter Reynolds* was expected to become a leader.
His great-grandfather co-founded the church he and his family attended. His father succeeded his grandfather as the church’s senior pastor. His mother is a pastor’s daughter. With such a lineage, Peter and his siblings were encouraged to take on leadership roles – leading Bible studies, participating in church programs, serving as camp counselors over the summer, etc.
However, these expectations also created within Peter a great deal of anxiety.
Instead of experiencing life-giving freedom, in his early twenties Peter felt “following Christ seemed more like an exhausting system of rules and structures to comply with.” Slowly he began to question this system, struggling to understand the “appeal” of God and what He wanted from him.
When it came to being a leader, Peter says he felt there wasn’t much room for understanding why he should be a leader in the church. “I grew up thinking you have to be committed, you have to be a leader, you have to do things and be plugged in. I was sure of those points before I was sure of the why. It seemed to be about obedience and rote following, almost like a script.”
'Is there something wrong with me?'
As he grew into adulthood, Christianity and his faith felt like a burden, not something that was uplifting or a source of joy.
He continued to feel anxious about leadership and not understanding what God wanted from him. This uncertainty ate away at his motivation, even causing him to think there was something wrong in his heart. “I wondered if there was something wrong with me for not being able to be this type of leader I had seen in my parents and in other people. I thought there must be something wrong with me because I couldn’t participate with my heart fully in it.”
These feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy led Peter to distance himself from participation in his church community. This was a five to six year period, from his early twenties to when he was 26 or 27 years old.
“I was a bit lost,” he says. “I didn’t know why I wasn’t interested in it or why I should want to be the type of Christian I thought I was supposed to be. I wasn’t feeling it in my heart. I didn’t know how to pray to God for something different because I thought what I was supposed to be seeking was leadership and I didn’t like it, didn’t want it, didn’t get it, didn’t buy into it. So I retreated.”
Running from the system
This retreat included refusing to seek out or have a Christian mentor or discipler to walk alongside him during this time. He says this refusal likely came from his experience of church culture, which coloured his view of these ‘alongsiders’ as being supervisors of the system he was running away from.
“I didn’t want somebody like this to come alongside me and put even more pressure on me to fit into this mold I couldn’t make sense of,” he says. “In my community we called [them] an accountability partner. It would be an older person checking in with me to make sure I was keeping up with my devotions and taking the next steps in church participation."
He went on, "I certainly had people like that looking out for me, but these were questions I knew I could expect from them: ‘Are you reading your Bible regularly?’ ‘Have you thought of joining a Bible study?’ 'Could you give the morning devotion next Sunday?’ That’s what I figured I’d be getting from a discipler. So I didn’t want one because I rejected the system and didn’t want a supervisor of the system in my face, one-on-one.”
Regaining sight of Jesus
Two years ago, Peter’s view and understanding of discipleship changed for the better when he reached out to Ron Pagé, a Navigator staff and professional therapist.
He had been experiencing insomnia as the result of a rupture in a relationship he was in at the time, which he attributed to the guilt he felt over how he handled the breakup. “At that point, I was emotionally and spiritually empty, and completely at a loss of how to deal with my life,” Peter says. “I thought I could handle everything on my own: protect myself, keep myself safe and manage my environment and relationships to suit everybody’s expectations. I completely failed.”
As he and Ron began to talk about his life and struggles, Peter realized the anxiety he felt came not from the breakup or any one thing he had done, but from his broken relationship with God.
Ron helped Peter realize that as he became more and more turned off by what he experienced at church, he lost sight of Jesus. Instead of focusing on Jesus, he had given the central place in his life to things such as: his old relationship, his own abilities of protect himself and manage his environment and satisfying others’ expectations for how Christians should experience and demonstrate spiritual growth, often through obeying and complying with church structures (leadership). Peter’s inability to meet the expectations of these ‘gods’ led to emotional and spiritual exhaustion.
As Peter began to reconnect with Jesus, he found his emotional wellbeing was a key part of Jesus’ plan for his life. “All these expectations I will never be able to satisfy, He’s lifted these off my shoulders and I have so much less anxiety and worry. I don’t feel like it’s all about my ability to control things and meet other people’s expectations. I don’t live with that type of anxiety, and I haven’t for a year and a half or so. It’s a big change.”
The meaning of his suffering
Looking back on his journey with anxiety and coming back to Jesus, Peter says he has a better understanding of the Christian worldview through his experience with finding the meaning behind his suffering. “Anxiety is a signal to us that there’s something we’re not happy about with where we’re putting our focus or hope. My previous experience with anxiety was to try to suppress it, repress it and do away with it. I was trying to block it out and pretend it wasn’t there, until it got to a point of being too much. I wasn’t sleeping anymore. This stuff was coming back in the night and getting me.”
As he told Ron about this experience, he says Ron told him to ‘tune into’ this experience: “God can use anxiety to communicate to you things that aren’t right, or things you don’t feel are right with where you’re putting your focus and hope.”
Peter says he learned to ‘befriend’ anxiety and tune into it by being in conversation with Ron. “I was able to learn a lot and, in the last year and a half, I experienced the greatest period of personal, spiritual and emotional growth I’ve had in my life.”
As Peter underwent this period of growth, Ron transitioned from being his therapist to being a mentor and a friend, explaining how he had undergone a similar journey as Peter had. They have continued to journey together and this relationship has helped redeem for Peter the idea of discipleship and the role of a discipler in his life.
The role of a discipler
“It’s somebody who is a mature Christian, who’s been through similar things and who has a lot more experience on this journey. For me, a discipler is someone who can step into my life, understand what’s on my heart and through all that, love and encourage me. Somebody who’s concerned with which God I’m following, who’s able to re-orient me back to Jesus and help me see Him above the crowds and through the different distractions and pressures I face.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity and privacy of the individual this story is about.