Healthy Leaders


8 Tips to Survive the Messy Middle

William FrisbieWilliam Frisbie

Impacted by a testimony of the transforming work of God in someone’s life, we are often left in awe of God’s faithfulness and with a fresh hope of what He will do in us and in others we are praying for. How quickly we forget that in most cases transformation in our lives is a process and the actual experiences leading up to a magnificent testimony were likely not pleasant, happy times for all involved.

Listening to the spewing poison of bitterness while hoping to find the right place to interject a word on the power of forgiveness, rushing to the hospital to pray for a person who overdosed again, dashing about in the middle of the night to try to prevent someone from buying drugs, watching and weeping as a person reaps hard consequences of actions taken contrary to our counsel, being accused of all manner of malice by the one for whom you have sacrificed much. All this and more may occur in what I refer to as the messy middle.

Some will move rapidly through this zone, perhaps without a hint of mess, while others find victory only after months or years of turmoil. Which victor is more spiritual, and which is more victorious? Do we welcome both overcoming types (and all in between) into our church family? Didn’t God send both? How long will God suffer with any of us in bringing us into maturity? He will not contend with us forever, and history is evidence that His patience greatly outlasts ours (Ps. 103:9-10).

Have you ever ministered to someone who has been in the messy middle? They are moving forward towards overcoming in an area but not without setbacks and skirmishes. They are not displaying behavior that reflects the maturity we might expect or hope for. Especially when this person is an adult, our perceptions and patience towards them may not be terribly generous.

Depending upon your own motivational gifting (Romans 12), you may find the messy middle life-giving or nerve-grating. Generally speaking, here’s what I mean:

However, as an exhorter with a very strong mercy gift, I personally experience the nerve-grating and life-giving at a deep level. While restraint has prevailed in the outward expression of my struggle, it took several years to find my way to internal health when dealing with those who linger in the messy middle.

Whether feeling stretched or thriving, here are a few biblical principles that can guide us when we are working with someone in the messy middle.

  1. Don’t minister in this alone. (Eph. 4:16, Rom. 15:14, 1 Cor. 3:5-9) Healthy growth as a believer happens in the context of community. As much as it may appeal to our bent toward heroics to be “the only one” who is going to lead this person through the messy middle, it is not the way God designed it. Love requires that we look to what is best for the one we are ministering to. God is the one who ultimately transforms and we are privileged to be His vessels. A team approach answers the issue of having the gifts that thrive best available at different points along the way. Just like constructing a house, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, siders, and so forth all come and use their strongest skills to build it. A team approach also allows us to give a consistent message to the person. We can also encourage one another to continue on during the roughest times.
  1. Minister with gentleness (Gal. 5:23, 6:1, Phil 4:5) In Philippians we are exhorted to let our “gentleness be evident to all” indicating that it is an important character trait to our witness as Christ followers. Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. As such, true gentleness is not possible for us apart from His work in our lives. It is temperance, a mildness that communicates care for the individual while demonstrating that though their situation is out of control, we ourselves are not because we are confident that God is in control. Gentleness is not weakness. It is quite possible to deliver many a strong word and warning while maintaining the gentleness of the Lord. (See the next point.) In fact, in a world of constant drama and angry shouting, the mere contrast of hard Truth gently spoken may rise above the roar. Gentleness is both attitude and methodology. Choice of words, tone of voice, physical touch, and time spent, all reflect gentleness. If we employ all of these as a front while harboring a harsh attitude, our nonverbal actions will eventually betray us.
  1. Use appropriate firmness (Gal. 6:1, 1 Tim. 4) While we move forward in gentleness, that does not mean we should forego appropriate firmness. Speaking the Truth in love and setting boundaries are essential parts of helping someone move forward through the messy middle. These boundaries need to be relevant for the struggle. Exercising firmness rooted in frustration rather than love can create hurt, harm the relationship, and hinder the person’s progress. If we find ourselves in frustration, it is time to talk to God, as well as someone else on our team, more about it in order to get perspective. You may find that for the moment you’ll need to hand off to someone else on the team with the necessary gift to apply the firmness needed at the moment. Even harder, you may have to simply let the person in the messy middle hit bottom until they are ready to surrender.
  1. Recognize and celebrate the small wins. Look for the opportunities to celebrate points where the person has been met by God and moved further toward freedom. We see throughout the Scriptures how God’s victories are to be proclaimed. Miriam’s song of celebration after the Lord closed up the Red Sea was early on the journey to the Promised Land. We see stones of memorials, scrolls of remembrance, and altars created throughout Genesis to Malachi, marking significant interactions with God. Often, we will recognize those moments more easily than the one who is going through the difficulty. In celebrating along the way, we reinforce the reality that God is at work and as they persevere, the battle will be won. Helping them to see the faithfulness of God along the way develops their own ability to recognize it for themselves in the future.
  1. Be vulnerable ourselves. (1 Tim. 1:15-17) I remember once sitting across from a couple who asked if my wife and I ever struggled with anything. To them, we seemed to have it all together. It was an eye-opening moment – I wondered how in the world they could have come to that conclusion. We need to use wisdom in this area not to share in a way that diminishes confidence in the idea that we can be of help. Nevertheless, our vulnerability communicates hope for them as well as points back to our need for Jesus. In another conversation, my wife shared some struggles we as parents were having with one of our children. The woman began to tear up. She said, “Thank you so much. This is the first time in the seven years that we have been going to churches that I now know I am not the only one who is not perfect.”
  1. Release expectations. (1 Tim. 1:16, Gal. 6:9, 2 Cor. 12:15) How long will this messy middle last? Are we there yet? Unlike a road trip, we cannot know how far we are from arrival so we need to be committed to God’s timing. We are called to minister to people, not to take on projects, and with that realization comes uncertainty. We cannot know for certain what edge of the middle we are closest to. Take for example grief – we are meant to grieve well but not to stay there forever – however, no one experiences grief in exactly the same way or for the same amount of time. It also has no “expiration date” by which time it will never return. Likewise, some experience instant freedom from addictions through a single prayer, and others need prayed-through many long dark nights of struggle, spread out over a long period of time until they, too, emerge free. God was willing to take the children of Israel through the wilderness for as long as it took to bring them to the spiritual response He desired of them. He was clearly far more concerned about the fullness of their transformation over the efficiency of their travel. He hasn’t changed.
  1. Recognize it isn’t only about the one ministered to. (1 Tim.4:16, Prov. 27:17) When iron is sharpening iron, both will feel the heat. In God’s efficiency, we all receive some transformation through ministering to others. It is simply the way it is. The pressure of ministering in the messy middle tests and reveals our character. We do well to take advantage of this exposure to allow growth in our own lives. Prepare to repent before the Lord quickly and possibly often, for wrong attitude, thoughts, and impatience. Tougher yet, prepare to apologize to the very one you felt provoked by. Once I had an opportunity to get past my own righteous indignation with a couple going through a messy middle in order to recognize my unrighteous manner (with the help of my leader) and then the further opportunity to go to them to apologize. I took responsibility for my own error, and in so doing did not condone their dysfunction, but neither did I leave room for my own.
  1. Remember, we can change no one. (Phil. 2:13, 1 Cor. 3:5-9, John 15:5) The responsibility to respond to the Holy Spirit rests with each person involved. While we can only minister what we receive from the Holy Spirit, the person we are ministering to has to want to be transformed. We can plead with them to take this or that action. We should enlist trusted others to join us in intercession for them. Ultimately, though, they alone can make the decision to surrender to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. So likewise, we can take pleasure but not pride in the eventual victory. For while we allow ourselves to be obedient vessels, we can do nothing apart from Him. However, it is pride that often derails a person’s progress and our patience. On their end, refusing to give up control, going back on foolish proclamations, risking loss of face with old friends and such, can tempt them not to do the right and hard things. On our part, when we begin to judge our efforts or worse yet, imagine others judging us as ineffective, because a person should have responded to our ministry and wisdom by now. We may be tempted to prematurely decide the person is incorrigible and give up to save face.

Applying these few principles can strengthen our work with those in the messy middle of life transformation. Just as the Lord endured the cross for the joy of all that would be accomplished, we too should draw strength in reminding ourselves of the coming testimony in which we are privileged to be playing a part.

Some suggested activities:

  1. Reflect upon your own testimony. How did you act during a “messy middle” period in your life? How did others minister to you during that time? Make a list of what things they said or did that impacted you (both positively and negatively). If possible, contact those who ministered to you through that time and get perspective on their experience of ministering to you through that time.
  1. List the gifts God has given you and reflect on how they might be used in ministering to someone in the messy middle.
  1. If you are ministering to someone in the messy middle now, reflect on how it is going in light of the above principles. Seek God for direction on adjustments you can make in your own life to be more effective.

Consider other principles you feel should be added to those I’ve included here and then discuss these in the LinkedIn group for edification of others who may be walking through this trial. I will consider them for a future edition where they can be shared with everyone. I always welcome referrals of resources written by others about this topic.


© 2014 William Frisbie. All rights reserved. Appeared first on

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