A note of gratitude

When I was researching and writing Searching for the Called, I made the choice to offer the resulting materials free of charge. Because I believe in this approach to ministerial searches, I wanted to eliminate any barriers to its use, particularly in smaller congregations. I’m available for coaching if the resources alone do not provide enough guidance, but I’ve found that the comprehensiveness of Searching for the Called makes the coaching piece optional rather than necessary in many cases.

As a result, I often have no idea which churches have downloaded Searching for the Called or what judicatory or denominational bodies have recommended it to their congregations. I do know that bodies across the ecumenical spectrum have put it to good use.

An exception to this not-knowing is the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which has adopted Searching for the Called as the primary document distributed to searching churches. (This is due to encouragement from and engagement with Craig Janney, CBF’s Reference and Referral Manager, throughout the development process.) Searching for the Called was launched at CBF General Assembly two years ago. As I moved through conversation spaces at this year’s Assembly, I received several comments from laypeople along the lines of, “I wanted to meet you. Our church used your materials, and they were so helpful to us. We now have a pastor that we love!” (Were lovelier words ever spoken?) I also tagged along in workshop leadership with a senior pastor and one of her search team members whose church used Searching for the Called. On the last afternoon of Assembly, that room was full of laypeople and ministerial candidates eager for a hopeful word about the search process, and I could tell by the energy level in the room that they were getting one.

I am so grateful that Searching for the Called can be a small part of that hope. In a world quick to focus on what is lacking, on what will never be, on what divides us, my prayer is that an approach to pastoral searches rooted in hospitality can open a window into what God sees, what God wants, how God is at work connecting us with one another and with the future.

Thank you for your trust in the process. As Searching for the Called evolves, I will work hard to make sure the resources continue to be worthy of that precious gift.

Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash.

Learned helplessness vs. learned optimism in congregations

In the field of psychology there is a condition known as learned helplessness. The subject is put into a challenging environment - for example, there might be a persistent, sharp sound - with no way to overcome the issue. After experiencing that initial lack of agency, the subject gives up trying to alter the condition or escape. The subject accepts the situation as permanent, and this learned helplessness induces a passivity that becomes a default response in other, unrelated circumstances.

In contrast, another subject is given the means to change the challenging condition, such as by pushing a button that stops the noise. This subject learns that the problem is temporary and that the means are available to address it. This subject bounces back quickly from adversity, because the agency claimed instills a sense of optimism.

While many studies of learned helplessness and optimism have focused primarily on the impact to individuals, I think these phenomena are very applicable to congregations. Take a church that considers itself in decline, for example. This congregation tries everything it can think of to reverse the trends, such as sending postcards to the neighborhood, hosting a community cookout on the church lawn, sprucing up the nursery, and offering a grief support group. At most, a couple of new people start attending on Sundays from these efforts. The church accepts that it is helpless to stop its slide. It gives up trying to reach out to the community, and it dwindles until a discussion about permanently closing the doors becomes imminent.

On the other hand, a church in similar circumstances might claim a sense of optimism by finding agency in its situation. This could involve the congregation naming and ministering out of the gifts that a small church has to offer that a big church cannot. It might mean reframing growth so that it is not about Sunday morning attendance and offering but about numbers of unique individuals involved in leadership in the congregation and community or the length of time it takes a youth group to name all of the ways it saw God at work during the week prior. It could entail using perceived failure as a springboard for ongoing discernment and deeper dependence on the Spirit.

Learned optimism is not fanciful or untethered from reality. It is a secular term for the hope we claim as people of faith, rooted in the partnership that God invites us into. Whereas helplessness and passivity prevent growth, optimism creates the possibility for all kinds of positive change and for relationship development and strengthening.

This grounded hope is important for congregations seeking new ministers. Most searching clergy are not interested in churches where they will simply pass the time. Your pastoral candidates want to serve a congregation that dreams, that rises to challenges, that recognizes and lives toward its calling. Where, then, does your church need to recognize its God-given agency and begin to act out of hope instead of helplessness?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

The challenges of a pastoral change - a PK parent's perspective

Last week I talked about the challenges of moving as a clergy spouse. This week I want to address an issue of even greater concern to me personally: moving a preacher’s kid.

When our family relocated to our current city for my husband's pastoral appointment, our son was two. He didn’t really understand what was happening. He was also a bit delayed in stringing together words, so he couldn’t ask us questions or verbally share many of his feelings. We tried to make him feel safe, and we explained as simply and as well as we knew how. Still, his anxiety ramped up as he saw boxes accumulating in our old house, causing behavior changes and stress-induced illness. And when we moved into our current house, which was a great situation in many ways, he spent the first day wandering around the house in tears. What was this place? Why were we here? Would we leave him here alone? Where was all of his stuff? It broke my mama heart.

He’s an adaptable kid, though, and it didn’t take long for him to love his new surroundings. So much so that my husband and I dreaded telling him that now, four years later, it is time to move again. We knew we would be moving months before we could tell our son. For one thing, we were bound by confidentiality. For another, we weren’t sure yet where we were going. Once we found out, we sat him down and gave him the news. “You mean I’ll have to leave my school? My NanNan and Papa? My church?” That last one really stung. When a clergy parent moves, the whole family loses its faith community and the anchor of its social connections.  (That is, if the family has been coming to church with the clergy parent. Some do not, and churches should not assume that the family will attend.) It’s hard to explain to a child that mom or dad’s job is the link to a particular congregation and that changing jobs means severing that link.

As you can hear, the grief is potent in a PK. Here our son made his first real friends. He claimed his church and his school, and they claimed him in return. He will move away from one set of grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and three cousins who are like his siblings. He will leave behind his own activities, like the martial arts academy where he has learned so many life skills and the music school that promoted his verbal development. In all of this sadness his dad and I are trying to balance honoring his feelings and helping him get excited about a new adventure.

One of my son’s biggest worries relates to parsonage/manse/rectory life. Not everything in our house belongs to us - some furnishings belong to the church. He is trying to get straight what will be going with us and wondering if some of his toys and stuffed animals were never really his. And what if we leave something behind? And where will I sleep in my new house? Will I have a bed since this bed stays here? These are all hard concepts for a 6-year-old, especially as the boxes tower over us and the anxiety mounts and the truck’s arrival date grows ever closer.

When we get to our new town, our routines (specifically our Sunday morning ones) will change. He and I won’t go to Panera Bread for breakfast before Sunday School at 10:00 and worship at 11:00, because there is no Panera Bread. We don’t know which worship service we’ll attend, traditional at 9:00 or contemporary at 11:00.  Our son’s Sunday School teachers will have to learn that he is always in costume, whether as a penguin or Batman or a book character named Galaxy Zack. And he’s a method actor, so expect the voice and persona to go with the character. He’s not going to be a sharply-dressed, perfectly still and reverent preacher's kid.

You know from reading to this point that though the circumstances are causing some of my son’s anxiety, some of my own is probably adding on. It’s kind of a cycle. I’m working on it, I promise! But it is important for clergy to be aware of what their children might experience with a move - knowing adversity can be character-building - and for churches receiving new pastors with children to understand what the minister will be coping with on the home front. Make an effort to get to know clergy children, to make them feel valued in their own right. Soon they will be at home in your congregation, and your new pastor can focus more fully on ministry alongside you.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.

The challenges of a pastoral change - a clergy spouse's perspective

My husband and I are both clergy. I was ordained first, in a tradition that allows ministers to decide what positions to seek and where to search. Matt, on the other hand, still had a couple of years to go as a provisional minister in the United Methodist Church, in which clergy are appointed to congregations by the bishop. In other words, I was mobile, and he was not. So it made sense that I would move to where he was pastoring when we got married fifteen years ago.

As it has worked out, I have been the trailing spouse ever since. Though frustrating at first, those circumstances eventually played a part in my decisions to pursue interim ministry, consultant, and coach training as well as opportunities to serve beyond my denomination. I love what I do, and because of my education and network, I can do it anywhere.

It’s helpful to remember that, because it’s moving time again. Next week we’ll migrate our household two hours up the road so that Matt can take a new appointment. For the moving minister, this change is predictably bittersweet. It’s hard to leave a congregation you’ve pastored for several years, but the anticipation of new challenges is (mostly) exciting. There’s a tangible reality this clergyperson is reaching toward. For the spouse of a minister, this new thing is much more nebulous. There’s no pre-set title, role, or responsibilities waiting - there shouldn’t be, at least! - and contact with the new church and community is minimal before the actual move. The feelings of a moving clergy spouse, then, can vary widely, and I think it's important for churches receiving new pastors to know that.

Specifically, there can be more grief than excitement because what we as spouses are leaving is much more definable that what the future holds. From my perspective, there has been good in our current church, even as there has been difficulty. I have cultivated networks in the surrounding community that I will deeply miss, and I have doubts that there will be similar counterparts in my new town. And I lament the unmet hopes and plans for our time in this city. (For example, I have had to put some developments in my coaching practice on hold to free up time to pack and to be able to put a more long-term address on legal paperwork.)

Also, developing a sense of home is difficult as a clergy spouse, particularly the spouse of an officially itinerant minister. The unknowns around how long we will be living in this place affect how much I invest in the church and community. I wonder whether it’s worth hanging pictures and art on the wall. I hesitate to make friends, knowing we will not be here forever. The anticipatory grief begins almost as soon as a bond is established. I note all these patterns in myself, even as I wonder how to adapt them to be more healthy and settled.

And then there’s the issue of expectations. I am not, will never be, don’t want to be the stereotypical clergy spouse. For example, don’t assume I’ll be at church whenever the doors are open. I also probably won’t teach Sunday School, even though I love kids and have been both a children’s and a youth minister, because I’m on the road some Sundays. This can be hard for a receiving congregation to understand. It’s not rejection. It’s just that I have my own call to ministry, and I’m very introverted to boot. And, of course, these expectations say nothing about my parenting. My kid is always in character. He’s painfully (for me) outgoing. He's very inquisitive. While I want him to be respectful, I will not change who he is so that he can be a smartly-dressed, seen-but-not-heard preacher’s kid. (More on that next week.)

Clergy spouses, I pray with and for you when you go through a pastoral change. Churches, I encourage you to do the same and to ask your pastoral families what they - and I mean all the family members - need. When the clergy family feels seen, heard, and valued, it makes it much more likely that your pastor will be able to focus on the work at hand. It also breeds the kind of connection that makes the minister and family want to stay in your congregation for a long time.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 8

Once your church has unearthed its gifts during the interim season and planned new ministry initiatives, the work is not done. It is important to pre-set times for reflecting on these initiatives. (Note that if debrief sessions aren't calendared in advance, they are much less likely to happen.) The questions below offer prompts for ongoing discernment about the faithful use of gifts and celebration of God's work in, around, and through the people involved with the ministry.

Ministry reflection form
Ministry name:
Ministry date(s):
Ministry leader(s):
Brief description of ministry:

What were the main tasks in the planning and implementation of this ministry?


What relationships were started or strengthened?


How did we make faithful use of the following?

  • People’s time

  • People’s talents

  • Personal connections

  • Congregational connections

  • Physical space

  • Money

  • Other resources

What did we learn about the following?

  • Ourselves (individually)

  • Ourselves (as a congregation)

  • Our larger community

Where was God at work in, around, and/or through us through the planning and implementation of this ministry?


In light of our responses to the above, what is God inviting us to consider going forward?

Using the reflection prompts above will not only allow your church to tweak ministries to make them more effective but will remind planners that even if an event doesn't turn out as planned, the careful debrief of it means that no effort is lost in God's economy. This realization is especially uplifting during a pastoral transition, and it begins to set a pattern of discern-reflect-discern that can spill over into even the congregation’s longtime ministries - and into the lives of individual church members. So give thanks for opportunities to love, learn, and grow, and pray for God’s continued guidance.

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 7

The season between settled ministers does not have to be a time of standing still. (The church, after all, is the people, not the pastor.) Over the past several weeks I have introduced ways to take stock of the gifts of individuals in your church, the congregation as a whole, and your surrounding community. I have also offered means of celebrating those gifts and assessing how they are currently being used. After completing all of this faithful work, leaders have much of the information needed to plan for the immediate future. Below is an outline for initiative design that is rooted in Spirit-led discernment rather than human-led decision-making.

Create an atmosphere for discernment. Prepare the gathering space in a way that is conducive to worshipful work.

Set aside distractions. Ask, “What does each of us need to turn over to God before we can focus on the work at hand?”

Worship together. Invite everyone to name where they have seen God at work throughout the process.

Review and celebrate all that the leaders have learned from listening and information-gathering.

Pray as Jesus did: "Not my will but Thine be done.”

Discuss the question undergirding the planning process: “Given all the information and reflections we have gathered, what is God inviting us to consider for the immediate future?” Notice where there is excitement or energy as well as where there is a feeling of flatness.

Identify the realization that seems (realizations that seem) to be emerging. Get every concern on the table for the invitations around which there is excitement. Refine ideas that bubble up related to these invitations.

Work toward agreement. What further exploration is needed to confirm or flesh out our responses to God’s invitations? What will faithfulness look like in moving forward with what God is inviting us to consider?

Test the agreement. Let the resolution(s) rest. If your leadership isn’t able to sleep on it/them, take a meal break and then discuss how leaders are feeling in their heads, hearts, and guts about the proposed way forward.

Ask the “next step” questions. What leadership will be required for what God is inviting us to do What current programs do we need to scale back or celebrate and let go of in order to respond to God’s invitation? To whom do we need to reach out to start living into God’s invitation? Who will be the primary point person/group or liaison? When and how will we stop to evaluate our progress toward our vision of faithfulness? (Next week I will provide a ministry reflection form to aid in this assessment.)

Take action. Make detailed plans for action steps. Who will do what? How, and by when? What support and/or accountability is needed? The planning team takes these responses and begins putting detail to potential initiatives, handing them off to standing committees and/or leaders for approval and/or implementation as appropriate.

Offer gratitude to God and ask for God’s help in the coming months.

As the work draws to a close, be sure to celebrate! You have done faithful, hard work on behalf of your congregation. And this effort will not only help your search team better know what a great-fit pastor will look like, it will also make your church more enticing to most candidates.

Photo by Daniel Fontenele on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 6

After taking stock of the full range of gifts in your church and community, it's time to move from inventory and celebration to getting curious about everything your congregation has noticed and experienced. This can be a very powerful moment for a church in an interim season, and for those congregations engaged in the intentional interim ministry process, the event described below can pull on the threads of both mission and connections.

Invite the congregation to gather around tables for storytelling. Sharing a meal together provides a great reason for people to come and fuels the conversational energy. Set the vibe by bringing the visual gifts display and the accompanying responses into the meeting space, and get people excited by explaining how their participation will contribute to movement into the church's next season of ministry.

Include the following in the congregational conversation:

Worship together. Invite the congregation, as an offering to God, to name aloud responses to the following. Have someone write them down as they are voiced. Be sure that people of all ages are included in this offering.

  • Skills and stories of individuals encountered in the community

  • Personal experiences in the community

  • Observations about the community, especially what surprised, delighted, and challenged

Distribute the information compiled from studying the demographics and naming local leaders and gather around tables to discuss the following questions. Ensure there is a facilitator and a scribe for each conversation group. It is important to have someone who is prepared to keep the conversation on track and ensure all the voices are heard.

  • Who are our neighbors?

  • How is God at work in/around/through our neighbors?

  • Where might we join in that good work?

  • What are the challenges in our community?

  • Who is affected by them?

  • Who is already doing good work around them? How might we support them?

Close with prayers of thanks for your neighbors and for wisdom and faithfulness in using your gifts. Be sure to collate the accumulated responses after the gathering.

Next week's post will take the noticing and curiosity to beginning to put ministry initiatives on paper.

Photo by Bogdan Kupriets on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 5

Pastoral transitions are perfect opportunities not only for assessing our church’s gifts but also for starting and renewing relationships within the community. These efforts allow us not only to notice challenges in our neighborhoods but also to uncover the gifts and stories of the people who live and work around us, making it less likely that we will rush in with well-meaning but wrong-headed (and sometimes destructive) "fixes" as part of our attempts to be faithful to the gospel.

Considering context first involves knowing who our neighbors are. Here are some ways to identify the people who live and work around you:

Conduct a demographic study. Check with the judicatory or denomination to find out if it has contracted with a demographic service. If not, contact your local chamber of commerce or search online for demographic information. Look for age, gender, race, ethnicity, age, family composition, population concentrations, economic levels, education levels, and any other available statistics. Put the demographics of the community with the demographics of the church side-by-side. What do you notice?

Learn who the local leaders are. Brainstorm (as a team or by a mini-survey to the congregation) or look online for the following:

  • Local government officials

  • School principals/superintendents/deans/presidents

  • Librarians

  • Chief emergency responders

  • Business owners

  • Directors of organizations/agencies/associations

  • Clergy of other congregations

  • Other influencers

Collate the above information and pray for the people in your neighborhood.

Considering context doesn't end with information-gathering, however. It also involves interacting with our neighbors. Below are some ways to go about that. (Note that the first three suggestions below are particularly family-friendly.)

Go into the neighborhood. Create a scavenger hunt to encourage church members to go into nearby businesses, particularly ones they might not normally patronize. (Be sure to contact businesses ahead of time to let them know about the purpose and date(s) of the scavenger hunt and to get their permission.) For example, go into the home insurance office and get a business card. Go into the comic book shop and take a picture with the life-size cardboard cutout of Spiderman. Go into the local diner and order a slice of its famous cherry cobbler. At each location, introduce yourself to at least one employee. Make note of the people you meet and your experiences going into the businesses.

Take a prayer walk or drive. Give church members a map of a fairly small walking or driving radius. Go in groups or families, praying for the people and places along the route. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you along the way.

Challenge church members to volunteer. Create a list of local service agencies or opportunities as well as conversation prompts for interacting with people. (Where is your favorite place in the neighborhood? What is something that makes you smile? What are you good at?) Go in groups or families to volunteer. Make an effort to talk with the people – particularly the “clients” – in that place. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you.

Encourage church members to attend a city council meeting, community forum, and/or a school board meeting. Listen for the good that is going on as well as the needs being expressed.

Invite community representatives to a panel discussion at your church. Ask them what they love about their jobs and the community. Encourage them to share where they see neighborhood gifts, both individual and collective. Get them to tell about good things happening in the community, challenges they observe, and places that the church can join in either.

Next week I'll share some ways to process the information your church gleans and the experiences congregation members have in the community.

Photo by Max Böttinger on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 4

Over the past few weeks I have been offering ways to unearth all of your congregation's gifts so that you can fully name who you are, what you do well, and what God might be nudging you to consider. Once the gifts have been identified and their current uses assessed through the survey and congregational conversations, it is time to celebrate these strengths! Chances are that your congregation will be floored by the volume of previously-unnamed blessings, providing your church with a reason to be hopeful about the future, fodder for some real creativity, and a much clearer sense of what pastoral leadership is needed. (Hope, innovation, and clarity can be big boons for a transitional season that is often very anxious.)

Here are some of the ways you can celebrate the full range of gifts:

Create a visual display of all the gifts and ministries gathered from the surveys, congregational storytelling, compilation of financial, physical, relational, and leadership gifts, and committee reflections. Ask one or more people who enjoy making art and/or organizing information to help with this task. Make all of the information movable so that it can be rearranged. Put the display in a high-traffic area where most church members will be able to see it over the course of a few weeks.

Use a number of communication means to point people to it, such as:

  • Moving the display around the building when events take place on different parts of the church campus.

  • Taking photos of the display and sending them to church members who cannot be physically present.

  • Creating one or more liturgies out of the gifts for use in worship.

  • Preaching or giving brief testimonies about various gifts or ministries.

  • Interviewing members with previously hidden or unusual gifts for the church newsletter.

As part of the display, write the following prompts and include space and writing utensils for people to respond to the following:

  • What surprises us?

  • What delights us?

  • What challenges us?

  • As we look at these gifts, what are we realizing about our congregation?

  • As we look at these gifts, what do we believe God might be saying to us?

On the display or at a congregational event, ask people to group gifts that complement one another or that could potentially be put together in new ways for greater impact. (For example, the church has a patch of unused land, a couple of adults with a propensity for gardening, and a youth group looking for a mission project. These could be combined into the creation of a vegetable garden, with the proceeds to be donated to a local food bank, or a flower garden, with the flowers taken by youth to people in nearby nursing homes.)

Celebrating the gifts will open hearts and minds to new possibilities, and getting curious about the gifts will start to move the process from naming strengths to generating excitement about the future.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 3

The time between settled pastors is a chance to reflect on who your church has been, is, and aspires to be. One of the ways to do this self-study is through the lens of gifts. Over the past couple of weeks I have shared a survey to get to know the gifts of individuals in your church better and some questions to help your congregation reflect on its collective blessings. This kind of noticing orients us to abundance and innovation rather than need, worry, or scarcity. It brings invitations from God to the surface. But to be able to recognize and respond to this divine nudging, congregations must consider how gifts are already being used. Some that have just been noted using the links above will be completely untapped, while others are likely being stretched in unsustainable ways. The assessment below will help your church zoom out to see the current concentration of gifts.

With the help of the church calendar, meeting minutes, and/or newsletters/bulletin announcements, ask each committee to list every ongoing and one-off ministry of the church that comes under its purview.
Categories might include but are not limited to:

  • Worship

  • Christian education/spiritual formation

  • Congregational/pastoral care

  • Welcoming newcomers

  • Outreach to community

  • Service to community

  • Fellowship

Using their lists, ask committees to reflect on the following. Make sure each committee has a scribe.

What gifts does each of these ministries utilize, and in what ways?

  • Person power

  • Time

  • Money

  • Physical space

  • Talents/skills

  • Relationships

Whom does each of these ministries reach?


How long has each ministry been running?


What do we need to celebrate about each ministry?


What are the hoped-for outcomes of these ministries?


What are the actual outcomes?


Thank God for all of the gifts that have been offered to make these ministries happen.

Leaders will gather the lists and responses to reflection questions from the committees, take time to mull them, and then discuss the following:

What people or groups are lightly or not at all involved in ministries (participation or leadership)?

What gifts are going untapped?

Which gifts are being stretched in unsustainable ways?

How are we out of balance with how we leverage our gifts and capacities?

About what are we feeling some excitement?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 2

After the first Sunday of Easter, the air begins to crackle with transition. Much of that has to do with the season - seminarians are graduating, ordinations are being scheduled, and pastors who accompanied their churches to the empty tomb are now announcing their moves to new places of ministry. These latter changes in particular (hopefully) prompt deep congregational reflection.

It matters greatly how churches frame these conversations. If we start with all that we aren't and all that we don't have, it will be incredibly difficult to imagine what is possible and discern what God wants us to do. But if we begin with gifts, we will be encouraged and creative and - most importantly - faithful with what God has given us.

Last week I shared a survey for taking stock of individuals' gifts. Below are some discussion prompts for a churchwide gathering to unearth the intangible gifts of the congregation as a whole.

Personal connections (Be sure to include all ages in this part of the conversation, adapting the questions as needed to varying developmental levels.)

  • When did I become part of this congregation?

  • What drew me here?

  • What keeps me here?

  • How has God been at work in/around/through me since I joined?

  • When/where do I feel most engaged with church members and/or God?

The communion of saints

  • Who are the saints (dearly departed) of our congregation?

  • How was God at work in/around/through them?

  • What legacies of these saints do we carry forward?

  • How were their values our values?

  • What ministries (formal or informal) did they begin that we carry on?

Congregational history

  • What are the key moments/turning points in our congregation’s history?

    • Pastoral changes

    • Physical plant changes

    • Conflicts

    • New ministries

    • Rapid change in membership numbers

  • How was God at work in these seasons?

  • What did we learn or how did we grow at these critical junctures?

  • Where is additional healing or resolution needed?

Close conversation with a prayer of gratitude for God's faithfulness or a ritual of celebration. Be sure to collate the accumulated responses from the session for further use.

Of course, not all congregational gifts are intangible. Leaders (staff and lay) can brainstorm/research and note responses to the categories below, which are based more on records and spreadsheets.

Financial

  • Giving units

  • Cash on hand

  • Reserves

  • Special funds

  • Endowment

Physical

  • Space currently utilized

  • Space currently not or (under-) utilized

  • Accessibility to people with disabilities (mobility, hearing, sight, etc.)

  • Location

  • Movable items (communion sets, tables/chairs, tools, etc.)

Relational (congregational level)

  • Name recognition

  • Reputation

  • Community partners

  • Denominational partners

  • Global partners

Leadership

  • Staff

  • Recognized lay leaders

  • Informal lay leaders/influencers

As with the intangible gifts, be sure to give thanks for these more measurable blessings as you record them.

Taking the time to inventory your church’s gifts will set the stage well for thinking about how God is leading your church into a new season of ministry and thus what kind of pastoral leadership your congregation needs.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 1

When a pastor departs, the congregation must re-learn who it is apart from that minister’s influence. This self-study work lays the foundation for a search that can result in a good fit and a long tenure. It provides an opportunity for church members to grow in relationship with God and one another. And, if done well, it keeps the focus on what God is calling the church to be and do and what kind of leadership that direction requires, not on the wide-ranging anxieties and personal preferences that are impossible for an incoming pastor to meet.

Over the past year I have been developing an approach to congregational self-study and planning that is grounded in an ongoing exploration of gifts, both of the congregation and community. It is intended to re-focus the individual and collective gaze from a narrative of scarcity - prominent during the early stretches of most interim periods - to noticing the often-overlooked workings of God all around us and honoring gifts from God in each person.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing elements of this process. To kick off this series, I offer to you a survey that answers the question, “Who are the people in my congregation?” The prompts are designed to get beyond Sunday morning small talk, digging deeper into each survey-taker’s engagement with the church, gifts, networks, aspirations, and spiritual journey.

Survey pre-work

Plan well for survey distribution. The survey will have the highest rate of completion if it is handed out and worked on during some sort of extended gathering time (Sunday School, congregational meeting, etc.). Everyone who is able to communicate should take at least part 2. Helpers can read the questions, adapting them as needed, and record the responses for those who don’t read or write well. Be sure to mail, email, or make the survey available online for those who are unable to fill it out in person.

As part of an invitation to take the survey, communicate some key information for transparency and trust-building. State clearly the overall purpose(s) of the information-gathering, which information will be collected anonymously and which will have names attached, and who will collect and collate the information.

See the people survey

Part 1 – Demographic survey – anonymous

  • Age

  • Gender identity

  • Race

  • Ethnicity

  • Family composition (e.g, number of adults and children in the home)

  • Distance from residence to church

Part 2 – Individual gifts survey – named (detachable for submitting separately from demographics)

  • Name

  • Address

  • Phone

  • Email

  • Length of membership at this church

  • Church leadership roles held (past and present)

  • What are the three things about our church that you love most?

  • Relationship-related questions

    • Where do/did you go to school?

    • Where do/did you work?

    • Where do you volunteer in the community?

    • What clubs, organizations, or professional networks do you belong to?

    • What businesses in the community do you frequent?

  • Gift-related questions

    • What skills or talents do you use in your work (paid or volunteer)?

    • What do you make/create?

    • What do you most enjoy doing?

    • What do others tell you that you do well?

  • Aspiration-related questions

    • What community issues do you care most about?

    • What would you do if you had unlimited resources, including time?

  • Faith-related questions

    • When you feel closest to God, what are you doing or where are you?

    • When you feel most distant from God, what are you doing or where are you?

    • What would you most like to learn related to the Bible, your faith, or church life?

Survey post-work

Collect and collate the survey results. Offer a prayer of thanks for people’s gifts and their willingness to share about them.

Next week’s post will focus on taking stock of the congregation’s collective gifts.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.

Networking that doesn't feel icky

{Note: this post originally appeared at laurastephensreed.com. It is offered here to let search teams know what hard-working candidates and potential great fits might be doing as they move toward engagement with your processes. This means of networking is in contrast to the self-interested version that is always focused on getting ahead - whatever that looks like and wherever that lands the networker - rather than on sincere engagement and mutual discovery.]

The last semester of seminary was an anxious time for me. Every day I felt more unemployable as my classmates were appointed or called to their post-graduation churches. Meanwhile, I went on interview after interview, breaking the top two or three several times before hearing the “no” that every minister in a search process dreads.

A big factor in my failed searches was that I didn’t know a lot of people. I was a name on a page, with too little experience to make search teams want to find out more about me. One reason for my small network was that I simply had not met a lot of people. I had only recently found my way to the progressive Baptist world, which was where I wanted to serve, yet as a Candler student most of my friends and professors were United Methodist. But there was also the side of me that rejected networking as I understood it: schmoozing and getting ahead based on the connections I had, not the work I had done or the skills I possessed.

In time I realized that “networking” is one of those words that needs to be re-claimed, like evangelism. Good, healthy networking is not about ladder-climbing. It’s about showing interest in other people and their work. It’s about learning from and sharing wisdom with others. It’s about, in short, understanding our interdependence and strengthening relationships such that both parties can more fully inhabit their personhood and their call.

Putting on a Murphy Brown suit and making it rain business cards won’t accomplish those ends. But in his WorkLife podcast, organizational psychologist Adam Grant recently offered up ways to network that do build genuine bonds:

Build your skills. As you learn, you not only increase your range and expertise, you meet people in the areas where those skills are needed, some of whom are regularly contacted by organizations looking for those talents. So in the world of ministry, seek out parachurch trainings about how to be a head of staff or mediate conflict or navigate the interim time between settled pastors. Attend continuing education events offered by seminaries. Get coached. Go to denominational gatherings that offer practical workshops.

Give help. Want to learn how to do something new and show your willingness to be a team player? Offer to pitch in. Take on a project at the middle judicatory level. Mentor a new minister. Offer your expertise in a consultant-type role. Lead a retreat. Tread with intentionality, though, making sure you aren’t just accumulating tasks that no one else wants or that others expect women to do.

Ask for advice. Not everyone loves to be asked for help. That can, at times, feel like a burden. But who doesn’t like to be asked for their wisdom? Contact someone who is doing something you’d like to do and ask a few brief questions about how that person got there. If you want to serve a big-steeple church, reach out to a large-church pastor you admire. The same goes if you’re feeling called to be a CPE supervisor, judicatory or denominational leader, or any other role. The veteran will feel recognized for work well done, and you will gain knowledge and plant your name in that person’s memory.

The key in all of these types of network is to be sincere in your interactions. Truly be interested, and you will likely be amazed at the doors that will open for you.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash.

Post-interview thank yous

Recently I had a conversation with a minister who is searching for a new call. The minister inquired whether it is appropriate to send a thank you note after an onsite interview, particularly one for which the search team has gone all out in terms of hospitality. “Of course!” I replied. Not only are thank you notes courteous gestures in general, sending one as a candidate provides yet another ping to keep your name fresh in the search team’s mind. And if the search team has obviously worked hard to tend well to all those little moments that add up to a multi-day interview, you can assume that noticing that hospitality will be much appreciated.

There was something behind this minister’s question, though. As it turned out, this minister had been discouraged from sending thank you notes by people who had previously served on search teams. To those folks, thank you notes looked like a candidate was “trying too hard” or was “too eager” to leave their current situation. Past search team members said that in their work, they were looking for pastors who were happy where they were.

Ok, a couple of things.

For pastors in searches (and I want search teams to overhear this): if manners mean you’re trying too hard, you’re probably looking at a church you don’t want to serve. Something is going on in a congregation where the default assumption about politeness is that it is a tool for manipulation.

For search teams (and I want clergy to overhear this): bracketing my feelings about poaching clergy for the moment - spoiler alert: those feelings aren’t rainbows and unicorns - just because a minister is ready to move on doesn’t mean that pastor isn’t very capable. Sometimes clergy outgrow their circumstances. Sometimes the fit isn’t good for whatever reason. Sometimes there’s that one toxic member who makes the minister’s life hell, and the pastor is just ready for a fresh start. Additionally, you want a clergyperson who acknowledges effort. Churches are full of volunteers who can get easily discouraged if their ministry efforts go unrecognized, which is a recipe for apathy and inward focus.

In sum, I encourage search teams and candidates to lean in hard to hospitality. Worry less about decoding on another’s intentions and more about building relationships.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

The value of boundaries

As a minister with standing in my region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I am required to attend boundary training at least every ten years. This is important work, not just because abuse by clergy is (sadly) in the news so much these days. It’s also essential because the emphasis in these conversations shifts. For example, we spent much more time discussing preaching in this iteration of the training than in my last go-round. That’s because the political climate is such that pastors have to check their motivations and their theology every week so that the pulpit doesn’t become, well, the bully pulpit.

The increased attention to preaching was not the only new piece for me, however. The training materials lifted out that boundaries aid ministers’ work; they allow pastors to recover from the emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even physical demands of their roles so that they can come back to lead another day. That seems obvious enough. For the first time, however, I heard that boundaries themselves actually are the work.

I bristled at that statement initially. Surely ministers are not being encouraged to walk around wrapped in caution tape! But the materials clarified that we are constantly crossing boundaries – anytime we step over the threshold into a homebound member’s home or a hospital room, get buzzed into a school to eat lunch with a youth, hear the intimate details of a parishioner’s hurt, embolden our leadership in the midst of conflict, share a bit about our lives to let others know they are not alone, or enter the pulpit to preach. It is the minister’s job, though, to acknowledge those boundaries, to be clear on why we are or are not pushing through them, and to ensure that those reasons are to help the people in our care grow closer to God.

At the same time, spiritual leaders are called to help others recognize the boundaries they have set up between themselves and God and between themselves and humans so that they can remove these obstacles. Clergy do this through preaching and prayer, teaching and serving the community alongside church members.

Boundaries, then, are in fact the heart of ministry, recognizing and then either holding to or tearing them down. The hoped-for end is the same, regardless: to see and celebrate the image of God in all people and to remember that rootedness in relationship to God is essential for us all.

With your pastor(s), encourage intentionality around boundaries, and support her/him/them in the approaches that promote connection and wholeness.

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash.

Getting in the flow

In the field of positive psychology, focus is placed not on diagnosis and treatment of maladies but on creating the conditions for human flourishing. A key aspect of thriving is engagement, when we are so into what we are doing that everything else fades into the background while we are doing it. The flow model developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says that for people to be deeply engaged in an activity, the skill level of those people must be in balance with the challenge of the task. If skill availability is high while difficulty of the task is low, people will get easily bored. If the challenge outweighs the talents of those involved, the anxiety in the room ratchets up.

There are a few applications of the flow model to search team work. First, make sure that all the skills and qualities needed for a good search are represented on the search team. Otherwise the team will either be discouraged quickly or overconfident without good cause. Second, pace the work of the search well. Trying to move the process along too quickly will tip the scales toward challenge no matter how much skill is in the room.

The flow model is also useful in assessing candidate fit. If the congregation has done its self-study homework, it will have determined what kind of challenge God is calling the church to in this new season of ministry. A great-fit pastor will have the needed skills to lean into this mission and will draw gifts out of congregation members so that this vision of ministry can be faithfully pursued. If that minister doesn’t have the qualities needed, the church will start to worry, leading to conflict or stuckness. If that clergyperson is over-qualified to encourage and equip others in that vision, however, that leader will start to look around for bigger challenges in new congregational contexts.

If your search is not in flow mode, stop to consider why rather than pushing ahead. Course-correcting is always an option, and it’s much preferable to burning out your team or calling a pastor who isn’t a great fit.

Photo by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash.

Women, ministry, and emotional labor

[Note: this post originally appeared at laurastephensreed.com. I offer it here as an opportunity for search teams to listen in on all that their ministers - particularly their clergywomen - carry.]

I have a decade-old memory of weeding with great ferocity. In the process I was telling my husband – who had joined me in yanking up a root system that spanned the entire backyard – that I was so tired all the time. I was constantly doing, and if I wasn’t doing, I was recalling information or researching or planning. How did people find the leisure time they seemed to have? I was truly befuddled.

Part of my problem was due to my personality. I am interested in a lot of subjects, and it was (is) easy to let myself become occupied. I also have perfectionist tendencies, so it’s hard to leave projects be when they reach the “good enough” stage. But I’ve come to realize that there is another reason it is so difficult to let myself rest – mental load and emotional labor.

Mental load is bearing the responsibility of remembering all the things. Emotional labor is tending to the feelings of everyone affected by those things. Both mental load and emotional labor are both invisible and labor-intensive, draining energy and leaving us to wonder where it went. And women are culturally-conditioned to be responsible for both.

But wait, there’s more! Ministry is itself a vocation laden with emotional labor. We hold the big picture for our congregations, with all the hopes and disappointments of individual church members wrapped up in it. We sit with people in intimate moments, deeply listening to thoughts and feelings so personal they might not have been shared with anyone else.

And then…parenthood. That added layer upon layer of remembering – when was the last time my baby pooped? what did he say his best friends might like for their birthdays? what time is karate, and who will take him and pick him up? – and tending to big feelings (his and mine).

All of this hard work was brought into the light by reading Gemma Hartley’s book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. I took away a couple of pieces of wisdom from the book that are currently helping me address the heaping pile of emotional labor in my own life. One is that I have to talk about all of that invisible work, proactively rather than when I am at my wits’ end. Only then can I begin to shift some of it. The second suggestion that struck me was that I am sometimes undermining my own desires to share the emotional labor load by thinking that things can only be done one way. If I have a standard that no one else can live up to, or if I go behind others to “fix” what doesn’t look like I think it should, then the emotional labor will be all mine, for all time. I must admit that my way isn’t the only or even necessarily the best way.

Where do you feel doubled-over with emotional labor? What strategies might you employ to hand some of it off, not just so that you can breathe but also so that others can enjoy the breadth and depth of emotional and relational life?

Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash.

System or congregation?

[Note: a version of this article originally appeared at laurastephensreed.com.]

In many congregations there is a generation or two that pines for a bygone era, one in which Sunday School rooms were bursting at the seams and regular worship attendance meant coming to church every week. There is a movement in Christianity that pushes back on this nostalgia. It says that things were not as good as we remember. That the Church’s success then sowed the seeds for its current struggles now. That marginalization of religion allows us to be more prophetic. (After all, the church in Acts operated from the fringes.) That faith requires us to be nimble and to meet people where they are, not enshrine ways of doing ministry and make others come to us.

I agree with all of these arguments. That said, I don’t know that they address what I suspect is the real issue underlying nostalgia: in the mid-20th century, the church morphed from a community into a system. Communities are built on connection, on investing in our neighbors and our neighborhood, on drawing on one another’s gifts to make life work. Systems, by contrast, breed disconnection. They focus on areas of (sometimes manufactured) discontent and then propose solutions to that unhappiness – a product or service that we must purchase. The signs of this shift in the church include:

Congregation-shopping. If my needs aren't fully met at one church, I'll keep looking until I find the "perfect" (for now) church instead of pitching in to make my current faith home look more like my vision.

Outsized staffs. If laypeople aren't covering all the responsibilities, we'll pay more people to take on those tasks.

Siloed ministries. Noisy, questioning children and youth are shuffled off into their own classes and worship services, rarely to be heard or seen.

Inclination to hire experts to come in and tell us what to fix.  Someone else must know better than we do what changes we can make to become vibrant again.

Now, we don’t need to recreate the 1950s for a number of reasons. But looking for ways to move church culture from a systems focus back to a community mindset is a worthy endeavor. Some ways to do this include encouraging more interaction between church members and the community, not in a “we’re here to help you” kind of way but in mutually-beneficial relationship-building way. Looking for more opportunities to foster understanding, connection, and investment among generations within the church. And making a deep and wide exploration of the congregation’s collected gifts and considering what God might be inviting us to consider through this assessment. The transitional season between settled ministers is a great time to evaluate where the church acts like a system and where it embodies community, taking steps to shift more toward the latter.

The point of these efforts will not be to get more bodies in the pews or more dollars in the bank. After all, God told us to go forth to make disciples, not bring them in so that we can pad our attendance rosters and our budgets. But if we can transform a congregational system into authentic community, people eager to know and be known by others will undoubtedly be much more eager to join us.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash.

Safety in hard conversations

Hard conversations are everywhere – or at least are needed everywhere – these days. Politics, faith, and the practicalities of everyday life are converging in ways that necessitate honest and vulnerable dialogue if we are to grow as disciples and tend to the well-being of our congregations, our neighbors, and ourselves. Before we can have helpful hard conversations, however, we must establish some degree of safety for people to share their deepest worries and highest hopes. Trust is the bedrock of this safety, and I’ve written elsewhere about what trust is and how to build it.

In this post, though, I’d like to focus on signs that trust-building isn’t complete. (In a sense it is never finished, because the work of mutual respect is ongoing.) If one or more parties is engaging in either silence or violence, that means said party does not feel safe enough to be fully seen, and more trust-building exercises are required to create the conditions for real dialogue.

As defined in the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, silence is a fear reaction that can manifest as sugar-coating one’s feelings, avoiding the real issue, or walking away altogether. Violence is also a fear response, and it consists of such tactics as defensiveness, blaming others, and using power over another in manipulative ways.

All of these approaches to difficult topics are common in congregational life, and they can pop up in search team interactions. I wonder how our perspectives and the conversation might change, though, if we were able to keep in mind that silence and violence are the result of feeling afraid. With a more generous read, how might our willingness to engage and our approach itself evolve? What might we be willing and able to do with that generosity to continue upping the trust factor?

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash.

Combatting bias

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell examines the snap decisions we make without even realizing the reasons behind them, leading to instinctive movements and unconscious bias. We can develop the ability to make good choices, but it takes learning to “thin-slice,” or hone in quickly on the most critical information in the face of so many details.

What does this mean for a pastoral search? Like it or not, search team members form opinions of candidates at first impression. This allows candidates who are very charismatic or who fit the mental picture of a pastor to muscle other (potentially better-fit) candidates out of the search team’s focus.

Search teams, then, must do their homework. First, they must take the time to build trust with one another so that if one team member has a great inclination or aversion to a particular candidate, others feel free to share dissenting opinions. Second, search team members must be very clear on the congregation’s criteria for a great-fit minister. Those bullet points can test first impressions to make sure they align with needed competencies. Third, taking individual notes after each interview and then comparing only after that round of conversations is complete can prevent the collective thoughts about one candidate from affecting the team’s attitude or hospitality toward another candidate. And finally, asking one another, “What excites us about each candidate? What challenges us?” gives search team members the chance to think about specific reasons for reactions to candidates.

Because we are human, we can leap to conclusions. Taking the above steps creates more space for the Holy Spirit to move in the search process, making it more possible for searches to move forward based on God’s nudging instead of personal preference.

Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash.