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.

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.