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.

The course of least regret

A few weeks ago my area was under a tornado warning. (Tornado season in Alabama is pretty much year-round.) I turned on the tv to watch the continuous weather coverage, which was led by a meteorologist known for his suspenders and his uncanny knowledge of local landmarks. He was telling viewers that rotation could spin up at any time, so we should follow the “course of least regret.”

That phrase has stuck in my head ever since. It is an encouragement to look at the big picture. Don’t try to run out for supplies in this weather. Don’t decide today is the day to fulfill your stormchaser dream. Get to a safe place and hunker down until the danger has passed. Otherwise, you might get the batteries or see a marvel of nature but lose your life in the process.

Often, though, we find ourselves traveling the path of least resistance instead of the course of least regret. This perspective is focused on our present comfort level. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make anyone mad. Keep your imagination in check. We might stay safe in the short term, but we’ll have a lot of clean-up to do when suppressed emotions and long-held disappointments spin up.

While I like the thought of the course of least regret, I might reframe it more positively, like maybe the course of greatest possibility. We’re acknowledging what is going on in the present – as well as the potential impact – and responding pro-actively so as to keep future options open.

Where is your search team following the path of least resistance, and how is it limiting you? How might you take the on-ramp to the course of greatest possibility, earning trust and creating more options in the process?

Photo by James Forbes on Unsplash.

Gifts gratitude calendar

“I don’t have enough time to do all the things.”

“I don’t have anything worth contributing.”

“Our congregation is so much smaller and grayer than it used to be.”

“We’re gonna have to send these church budget requests back to committees to be pared down, because our projected giving is down 10%.”

Do these sentiments sound familiar? They play in loops in individuals’ heads and reverberate through sanctuaries of all sizes. They are the product of scarcity thinking, of focusing on what we don’t have. The scarcity mindset is rampant in our culture, manifesting in the beliefs that we need to guard what we have and prepare for the worst possible scenario. And unfortunately, while we worship a God who created the universe out of a dark and formless void and follow a Savior who was all about opening up the law and the bounds of community, this thinking has trickled down into our churches. The result is that many of our people are afraid to dream and reach out, instead turning inward and wondering how long our congregations will be able to hold on.

The scarcity scourge is a huge barrier to growing our faith in and love of God. (It’s also a huge hurdle in a pastor search, because few clergy want to lead a church that can’t imagine a vibrant future.) Luckily, the season focused on removing such obstacles to our discipleship is almost upon us, and I want to offer a resource that might help individuals and congregations note the abundance that God has blessed them with in the form of resources, talents, connections, hopes, and ministries. The calendar below gives a gratitude prompt for each day of Lent and the first day of Easter. (A printable PDF is available here.) Feel free to download and/or share it. I hope that those who use this calendar will talk with one another about the unexpected ways they have realized that God is at work in and around them.

Gifts gratitude calendar.jpg

Consider the co-pastor model

In recent months I’ve had the opportunity to coach several co-pastor teams, each a bit different in its composition. Some of the teams are comprised of married couples, others are not. A few of the co-pastors have solo or lead pastor experience in their backgrounds, but the majority are in the first chair for the first time.

In addition to coaching these co-pastor teams, I have received inquiries from search teams about whether they should consider calling co-pastors. These questions often come from congregations that started out looking for one person to fill the role of pastor, then candidates have asked whether the church would be willing to call two ministers to fill the position.

Since the co-pastor model seems to be growing in prevalence, I think it would be worth most (if not all) search teams’ time to have a discussion about what that paradigm of leadership could look like in and whether it could work for your context. For search teams that seriously explore this staffing possibility, here are some advantages I have noticed from the co-pastors’ perspective:

Each co-pastor has a built-in sounding board. This cuts down on isolation, allows budding ideas to be more thoroughly thought-through before they are acted upon, and lets the congregation know that at least two minds are always at work on problems that pop up.

Complementary gifts mean that each co-pastor can lean more fully into strengths. There are some combinations of skill sets that are extremely rare to find in one person, causing solo pastors to have to work at times out of areas that are very challenging for them. It is very possible, however, to find co-pastors who are each good at different things. Thus more ministry areas are covered with greater competence, with less pastoral energy expended on working out of a growing edge.

Co-pastors can be in two places at any one time. Ministers often feel like there is not enough of them to go around. With co-pastors, the hospital visit and the finance committee meeting can be  covered simultaneously.

There are challenges to the co-pastor model, of course. Married co-pastors will, naturally, want to be on vacation at the same time. (I would argue, though, that this presents no more issues than a sole lead pastor being away.) And married co-pastors need to be careful that their ministry doesn’t consume their home life in unhealthy ways. On the whole, though, it is definitely worth search teams’ time to mull calling co-pastors if great-fit candidates present themselves.

As with any candidate, search team members should ask themselves what excites them about co-pastor possibilities, what support the co-pastors would need to thrive, and what educational pieces would help the congregation embrace this new-to-it way of doing ministry. These questions are opportunities for the church to grow in imagination and faith with the potential to expand pastoral leadership capacity.

Photo by James Balensiefen on Unsplash.

Broadening perspective when you're stuck

[Note: a version of this piece originally on laurastephensreed.com last year. I have been reminded lately how important it is to have tools for breaking out of a rut in search team work, so I am now sharing this post here.]

My son loves school, but every morning it’s like we’re living 50 First Dates. He forgets how much he enjoys learning and playing with his friends until he actually enters the building. He yells at our Amazon Echo when it reminds him that it’s time to get dressed for school. He mopes while he picks out (at an excruciatingly slow speed) his mismatched clothes.

Recently I’ve been using a coaching technique that has helped everyone’s mood. I’ve been taking his complaint and using it to broaden his perspective. Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1

Alexa reminds him to get dressed.

Him: Your reminders are terrible, Alexa!

Me: Are they really that bad? Let’s play a game. We’ll take turn naming things more terrible than Alexa’s reminders. I’ll go first: dropping my ice cream on the ground.

Him: [Thinks.] A monster destroying Ninjago city.

Me: Getting a cold and missing something really fun.

Him: A baby penguin dying. [Yikes.]

After a couple more rounds, he was laughing and we were declaring each other winners of the game. He then got ready without complaint.

Example 2

Child is refusing to put on his school clothes.

Him: I don’t want to go to school today. Today is Saturday. I want every day to be Saturday.

Me: Hmmm. I like Saturdays too. What would you do on your perfect Saturday?

Him: [Lets me dress him while he talks.] I would watch the Ninjago movie and play Legos.

Me: That sounds fun! What would you eat for breakfast on your perfect Saturday?

Him: Fish and krill. [He was a penguin that day.]

By then he was dressed, and he penguin-waddled across the hall to brush his teeth.

In both of these examples, it would have gotten us nowhere for me to keep askyelling for him to get ready. We would have both been grumpy and started our respective days in a terrible headspace. But by taking his lead and using it as prompt for us both to think creatively, he felt heard and reoriented his focus.

I use this approach in my coaching. If a coachee gets stuck in a thought spiral – often around the worry that she is not an effective pastor – I ask a question to help her widen the view: “What’s the best affirmation you’ve received lately?” (Often this is not an explicit “thank you” but a realization that she has been invited into a tender place by a parishioner.) She realizes that she is making a difference in tangible ways. Or, “what is one change you’ve seen in the congregation since your arrival?” One small change opens the door to thinking about several ways the coachee has led the church toward growth.

This can work for search teams in their work too. Consider the following:

Search team member #1: We aren’t getting anywhere in this search.

Search team member #2: I had hoped we’d be further along by this point too. I wonder if we can find a hint about how to move forward if we think back on everything we’ve learned to this point about ourselves, our church, and our candidates.

Brainstorm what you know now as a team that you didn’t know at the beginning of the search process. Celebrate this new awareness, even if it parts of it seem negative. For example, you might name that the candidate pool is smaller than you anticipated. This is knowledge you can work with. What are the reasons the pool is small? Are you looking in the right places for candidates? Is your advertised compensation range too low? Have you made your criteria too stringent? Is there a shift in clergy availability that means you’ll need to be more creative in structuring the position to make it attractive to candidates? Moving the conversation in this discernment direction is important in at least three ways: it acknowledges the frustration of the current situation while limiting its power; it gets the brains in the room thinking in more positive ways, thus opening up the neural pathways for bigger-picture thinking; and it focuses on digging deeper for the data needed to jumpstart the search.

Perspective shifts like these are invaluable when there is stuckness. Next time you feel mired down, try opening up the conversation with a question, brainstorming prompt, or game.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash.

KonMari-ing your church's ministries

The latest rage on Netflix is Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, an eight-episode series in which an internationally-renowned organizational consultant goes into cluttered homes and helps families cull their possessions. All of the people that Kondo works with are at some sort of transition point in their lives. Some are newlyweds or new homeowners. Others are readying themselves for the arrival of a baby, grieving a loss, or wanting to move from living like students to inhabiting more adult personas. These changes provide the urgency for making their home more welcoming.

The tidying method Marie Kondo uses is not a light-a-match-and-walk-away approach. Instead, she asks her clients to hold each article of clothing, book, or tool and note whether it sparks joy. If it does, keep it and find a more efficient way to store it (for example, the KonMari method of folding clothes). If it doesn’t, say “thank you” and donate, recycle, or dispose of it. The overall purpose of the tidying is to be grateful for the past and to imagine the future you want to move toward, being more thoughtful about what you need in order to get there.

There is much about the KonMari method that is worthy of churches’ consideration. Lots of congregations, even (maybe particularly) small ones, are stooped over from the weight of so many ministries. As more are added, few to none are brought to an intentional close, making the church’s mission unclear and stretching congregation’s financial and people resources much too thin. What might it look like, then, to identify what God’s purpose for your church is? To name everything that the church is doing, just as Marie Kondo requests that her clients put every clothing item on the bed and every book on the floor to look through? To examine each ministry, noting whether it is an essential part of the present and/or future and saying a sincere “thank you” to those that are not? A pastoral transition is a great time to do this work, because there is already ongoing discussion about who we are as a church and what we believe God wants us to be and do.

At the end of each episode of Tidying Up, the families have worked through clashing priorities and conflict styles to create a home that reflects who they want to be. And while I realize this is a tv show that is comprised of carefully curated clips, the struggles the subjects go through are a microcosm of congregational community, and the desire to move forward with intentionality rings deeply true. So consider capturing the cultural moment, taking the best of what the KonMari method has to offer and assessing your church’s ministries for a more peaceful, purposeful future.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash.

Eight Cs for growing trust

The most important ingredient in any process isn’t expertise or charismatic personalities or financial resources. It’s relationships. When the bonds are strong among the people involved, there can be productive disagreement, a full exploration of possibilities, deep investment in the work, and mutual support and accountability, all leading to forward progress.

The foundation of relationships is trust. Not simply predictability - I know your passions and hot buttons and how you’ll react to each being tapped - but shared vulnerability and risk-taking. Many pastor search teams start with some sense of predictability by virtue of the members attending church together for a long time. But most (if not all teams) will need to dig in before the search begins to develop the second-level trust that will allow for the most thorough and faithful search process.

What does it look like to grow that deep trust? Here are eight Cs - from lowest to highest risk - to guide that essential work:

Clarity is getting straight within ourselves about our thoughts and commitments, then being honest with others about them.

Communication is putting our clarified knowledge and understanding out there, and in turn listening to others with open hearts and minds.

Curiosity is admitting we don’t have the whole picture and wondering about what we don’t know.

Compassion is showing care to and connecting at a heart level with others, believing the best about them as we do so.

Companionship is being present and authentic while still maintaining the boundaries that allow us to be clear and compassionate.

Consistency is showing up the same way every time and admitting when circumstances have thrown us off balance.

Conflict is being willing to disagree and to have our ideas improved upon.

Control release is relinquishing attachment to the outcome, trusting that the process will end up as it should so long as we bring our whole selves to it.

In pastor searches, these Cs and the resulting trust can strengthen relationships not just within the search team but between the search team and congregation and between the search team and candidates. The effects of deepened connections, in turn, extend beyond the search itself, cultivating beloved community with the Source of love at its center.

Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash.



Living in the tensions

My five-year-old is the most amazing, maddening person I know. Ironically, it’s the frustrating aspects of his personality that make possible the parts of him that bring me the most joy. He fights sleep like he thinks he’ll never wake up from it…because his never-bored mind always has plans and ideas to implement. He grabs the microphone from me during the children’s message in worship…because he has been self-conscious (that I have observed) just twice in his young life. Our house is constantly a mess…because he is interested in art and reading and martial arts and music and Legos and science and more. He has strong clothes preferences that lead to laundry meltdowns…because his beautiful mind conjures up characters that he embodies each day, and he needs certain shirts and pants for his “costumes.”

When I find myself gritting my teeth, I try to remember that occasional irritation is the price I must pay for overwhelming delight. The same is true for congregations as they consider their relationships with their ministers. For example, is there muttering that the pastor doesn’t make enough pastoral care visits? Chances are that minister is spending painstaking hours researching and writing a sermon that will help draw parishioners into God’s presence on Sunday mornings. Or is the pastor less attentive to details than some people prefer? The minister is probably focusing on big-picture discerning that will allow the church and its members to live toward God’s call more fully. Delight must live in tension with frustration; capacity coincides with complaint.

That’s why search teams must know how the church prioritizes criteria for a good pastor-parish match. With a good grasp of sought-after competencies, the search team can identify potential tensions like the ones named above. The search team is then equipped to help the congregation adjust expectations, and the minister can be set up with staff or lay help that fills in any gaps. This work up front will create clarity for all and a much more seamless entry for the incoming pastor, laying the groundwork for a long, fruitful ministry.

Photo by Luís Eusébio on Unsplash.

Having trouble pinpointing your congregation's identity? Here's a way in.

I was recently coaching co-pastors who wanted to help their congregation name and claim its identity, but they weren’t sure how to help the church get its arms around such a big topic. During their tenure, they hadn’t yet picked up on a narrative that felt like it captured both the past and current character of the congregation.

The pastors mentioned that there had been some good conversation around All Saints’ Day, when church members were telling the stories of people who were key figures in the congregation’s history. In recounting the names, the pastors recognized that the departed were loved for the ways they welcomed others through the things they did and by their very presence. The theme of hospitality emerged - not mere friendliness, but a deep sense of embracing everyone who comes through the doors. The co-pastors realized that hospitality is still a lived value in their church today. This awareness created excitement around a through-line that not only resonated but could be built upon in a number of ways in the coming year.

During pastoral transitions it is important for congregations to learn to tell their stories in ways that are informative, accurate, and hopeful. A resonant identity gives newcomers a reason to return, members a way to assess which ministries to undertake, and - perhaps most importantly for the purposes of a pastoral search - the congregation a sense of what they need in a clergyperson. Just as in the case of my co-pastor coachees, however, it can be difficult to know where to begin in sussing out church identity. If everyone in the room is shrugging their shoulders and looking to others for answers, ask about the congregation’s saints. Who are they? What are some anecdotes about them? How are they part of the church’s DNA? What are the legacies that the congregation has built on? Look for the commonalities and try them on: is this who we are? If so, what does that mean for what we do going forward and whom we call as our pastor?

This kind of historical study promotes hindsight rather than an unhelpful nostalgia for days gone by. Done thoughtfully, these questions about individuals can prompt laughter and tears and bring to light clarifying and encouraging through-lines that the church has never considered.

Photo by Zoran Kokanovic on Unsplash

Lagging and leading indicators

The easiest measurements of how things are going are quantifiable, such as money or attendance. Unfortunately, they are not the most helpful. One reason is that unlike in the business world, where the number of widgets produced or the profit margin does tell much of the story, numbers don’t necessarily reveal the kind of spiritual growth we’re (hopefully) aiming for in church.

Another reason that nickels and noses don’t give us much useful information is that they are lagging indicators. This means that they are backward-looking.

Leading indicators, by contrast, give us benchmarks toward progress. We ask, “What are we going to do to work toward our hoped-for outcomes?” When we name our part in bringing about change, we acknowledge our responsibility, build in accountability, give ourselves an assessment tool to measure our progress along the way, and set goals that we have actual control over.

So, for example, a lagging indicator might be a certain percentage of growth in worship participation. A leading indicator, however, might be that our church develops a team that prays for those who are seeking a faith community like ours to find their way to us. It might be offering training on better including people with disabilities. It might be offering a Bible study on hospitality. It might be learning to tell the story of God’s work among us to our surrounding community in a more compelling way. It might be revamping the bulletin to make it more visitor-friendly. It might be pulling out a pew or two and creating a prayground. All of these efforts emphasize imagination, not fear. They are in service to a larger goal, but with the emphasis on what is now within our control and requires our investment and ongoing discernment. They lay the foundation not just for growth in numbers but also in understanding of our connection to God’s story, God’s work among us, and the gifts God is asking us to use on behalf of others.

I encourage you to assess your current measurements. Which ones are lagging? How might you transform them into leading indicators, and in the process allow yourselves to be transformed?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Focus on what you've got, not on what you don't

These are interesting times indeed for the church. Membership, budgets, and staff in many mainline congregations are shrinking. Attendance patterns are changing such that “regular” participation is now 1-2 times per month instead of 3-4. The Sunday morning and Wednesday evening time blocks, once considered off-limits by school, sports, and other community activity schedulers, are no longer so. Many people define themselves as spiritual but are uninterested in the institutional church.

For these reasons some congregations are fearful about survival. This anxiety often manifests in a scarcity mentality, a focus on what we no longer have (or never had). In turn this mindset generates a wide range of potential “solutions,” which are rooted either in personal preference or observations about has worked for the megachurch down the road. This is a recipe for scatteredness - as everyone’s preferences will likely be different - and discouragement, since what works for one church rarely lands the same way in another.

Luckily, there’s a different approach we can take, one that is grounded in abundance. (Don’t we believe, after all, that God’s love and creativity know no bounds?) Instead of beginning by naming what we need, let’s start by laying out all that we already have. This is called asset mapping, and it’s a tool we can borrow from the world of community organizing. Gather your lay leaders, or possibly even your entire congregation. Write down on sticky notes all of your church’s advantages:

  • Physical plant

  • Geographical location

  • Finances

  • Leadership (lay and staff)

  • Current ministries

  • Skills and interests of members

  • Denominational connections

  • Relationships (congregational or individual) with community institutions, associations, or influencers

  • Name recognition

  • Any other assets you can think of - be creative!

Step back and look at all the gifts. Ask what God might be telling you or inviting you to do through them. Combine your assets together in new ways to birth initiatives. These are the efforts that will bear the most fruit, because they are rooted in who your congregation is and what it has.

This activity is very helpful during a pastoral transition. Congregations can have a hard time imagining what the future will look like now that the former leader is gone. Mapping assets can remind them that they are the church and that God is still at work through and around them. This exercise can also help a congregation understand what kind of pastoral leadership is needed to help them leverage their strengths and share a more accurate narrative and expectations with pastoral candidates.

Go forth, then, to take stock of what is good in your church and to plan out of grateful awareness.

Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash.

Aligning responsibility and authority

[Note: this post is written to clergy about a common problem in ministry. It is posted here to allow search teams to eavesdrop and thereby make sure expectations of the incoming minister are clear and appropriate.]

Do you feel like you cannot dig your way out from under an avalanche of work, but when you make a request or propose an idea, no one listens?

Do you feel like your congregation looks to you too often for guidance, yet during your office hours you find yourself bored and unsure how best to use your time?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you might be experiencing a mismatch between responsibility and authority. Responsibility is what you are assigned - by self or others - to do. Authority is the weight people give to your perspective, and it comes from a combination of role, experience, and earned trust. Part of developing a healthy pastoral identity and creating right-sized expectations is making sure responsibility and authority are not out of proportion with one another.

If either your responsibility or authority level is too high, here are some questions to consider:

  • What are the roots of my over- ( or under-) developed sense of responsibility or authority?

  • Which roots can I pull up?

  • What specifically am I gifted and called to do?

  • In this context, what work is truly mine to carry out?

  • How might I shift, in whole or in part, the work that isn't mine?

  • What authority do I, in actuality, have?

  • How can I use this authority wisely and on behalf of the most vulnerable?

  • How might I utilize less obvious sources of authority when needed (e.g., a lay leader with whom you have mutual respect and who is trusted by the congregation?

Aligning responsibility and authority is key to leading well and avoiding burnout. If your levels are out of whack, take the time to consider why that is and what you can change.

Photo by Jason Ortego on Unsplash.

Go slow to go fast

When we gather a search team, often the tendency is to capitalize on initial enthusiasm to get as much done as quickly as possible. That's totally understandable. After all, novelty begets energy, and we don't want to waste it. But if we haven't taken the time to build our team and outline our process, even a small bump can drain that momentum and derail our collective work.

That's why it's important - even though it's counter-intuitive - to start slowly. Develop relationships among the search team members. Learn where each person is coming from, what their reasons were for agreeing to serve, what skills and experience and ideas they bring, what they need from others in order to make their best contributions, and how they deal (or don't) with conflict. When those involved in the search have this kind of context for their teammates, they will be able to engage one another more quickly and effectively when difficulties arise.

In addition to interpersonal processes, agreeing on procedures at the outset can make work go faster down the road. What is the future story we're striving for? How does everyone plan to participate in the work? What is our timeline? How will we come to agreement on major decisions? How will we ground our work in God? How will we hold one another accountable? What will we do if we come to an impasse? Intentionality at the front end can ease - if not prevent - many stresses that pop up as humans, with our anxieties and agendas, cooperate.

Note that slow movement at the start might prompt questions from the team and the congregation such as "why are we wasting time on this ‘soft’ work?" Be prepared to explain how deliberateness serves both the overall goal and the speed of the work that is to come.

In what ways do you need to pump the brakes in order to do some of this foundational work? Though it might seem tedious at times, your relationships and your efforts will greatly benefit. If you need help with going slow, this trust-building workshop is worth your consideration.

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Follow your curiosity

In a recent TED interview, author Elizabeth Gilbert talked about creativity in terms of following our curiosity. We are often told to follow our passions, she said, but that is advice that can lead to unnecessary risk and discouragement. Attending to our curiosity, in contrast, is more gentle. It involves asking questions before making big leaps: what's going on in me/us? What is God nudging me/us toward? What would it mean for me/us to make a major change? What would I/we need in order to take that step? The ultimate outcome might be the same, but it would derive from discernment and come with a more settled spirit. (The point is not to abandon passion, after all, just to probe it a bit.) Or the queries might lead to a previously-unconsidered way of being faithful to God.

This curiosity is not just useful for individuals but also for groups such as search teams. Sometimes teams want to drive right in to their work, or they are drawn to a particular candidate from the first encounter. Asking questions can help flesh out the process, provide needed touchstones, situate the work in service to God-given vision, and allow us to explain why the candidate of choice is the best fit. These reflection points might also reveal that the team is not yet ready to get into the meat of a search or that a candidate - while charismatic - does not meet essential criteria, saving a lot of heartache down the road.

As you consider what is going on in and around you (as an individual and as part of a collective), where would a bit of curiosity help you listen deeply, plan faithfully, and move forward confidently?

Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash.