coaching

How firm a foundation

I currently have the privilege of serving as transition facilitator for a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee. This involves coaching a team of laypeople as they lead the church through some discussions that will be intense as well as - if we do our work with great intention and trust God's presence - fruitful and hopeful. (Transition facilitators work with congregations that have traditional interim ministers, dividing the labor between congregational self-study and the essential pastoral functions.)

This past weekend I trained this transition team. We had a big agenda for our Saturday together. Worship together, bond as a team, understand the scope of the transition process, pray our way through the large physical plant, plan for our first congregational conversation, and set the timeline for our work. (Yes, I was tired, and I'm sure the team was as well!)

I was not surprised that we quickly fell behind in our ambitious schedule. The people around the table were telling stories and enjoying one another's company. Internally, my desire to stay on task warred with my conviction that these conversations were the work, no matter what our agenda said. A key component of the day was the sharing of faith journeys. I was amazed by the depth to which team members told deeply personal stories. There were tears. There was laughter. The connections being formed and strengthened were almost visible, they were so visceral.

We were able to check off the most important to-dos in preparation for our work with the church as a whole (and still adjourn on time!). But when we reflected on the our work we had done over eight hours, there was consensus that the team-building pieces - faith stories, casual conversation during lunch, a tangent or two, affirming one another's experiences and gifts via call and response - were where God was most powerfully at work.

This team was put together through congregational ballots that were then processed by a nominating committee to ensure as much diversity in life and church experience, perspective, age, and gender as possible. It was purposefully representational of a church that - like most churches - has plenty of different thoughts on what the next chapter of ministry should look like. 

That's exactly why this "soft" or "slow" work was necessary. (To be clear, I believe attention to relationship-building is tough and makes processes more efficient in the long run.) We were able to see the image of God in one another and note what we have in common so that we can work from that starting point rather than areas of disagreement. Now the team members can model that recognition of each person's belovedness, that delight in one another, that love for their church as they lead the discussions that must be had if the congregation is to notice and respond to God's invitations in this season.

In a snapshot, this is the opportunity in the transition time between settled ministers. The interim period puts a pin in business as usual and gives space for the congregation to deepen the connections among members and between people and God, making it possible then to have a more focused, faithful impact on hearts and lives both within and beyond the church walls. Pease don’t squander this gift!

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.

Indignation vs. indifference

"JEEEE-susss, it's no fair. Mary is making me do all the work. Make her help meeee." This quote is often used to pit Martha against her sister in Luke 10:40, thus retconning the catfight trope into holy scripture itself. Not only does the typical translation of these women's relationship set up a false binary between doing and being, service and leadership, it keeps us from more deeply seeing ourselves reflected in the scripture.

Martha says, "Tell Mary to get off her behind." She speaks to Jesus with the confidence of someone who knows her hearer will certainly see her side. Instead: "Sorry, Martha. I'm enjoying this conversation with your sister." If she'd had access to an ice pack, Martha would no doubt have used it on her floor-bruised jaw and her indignant-red cheeks.

How often do we approach God authoritatively, knowing God will agree with us? If you're like me, it's more often than I care to admit. "Not my will, but thi...yada, yada, yada, I'm sure you'd like to bless me with good weather for my road trip and a change of attitude for that person who has been a thorn in my side and a new on-sale dress for Easter."

Whole congregations can do this too. We pray for more people to join our membership - because God must want that for us - but what if we're already the right size to do the job God has for us? We pray for more resources, but what if more money leads to more distractions and excuses from spiritual growth and disciple-making? To the best of my understanding, God doesn't think in the same categories and metrics that we do.

This is what makes the prayer of indifference - a key component of discernment - so important and so hard. It means acknowledging our short-sightedness. It means giving up some control. But unless we can offer prayers that sound like, "Here's what I'm worried about, please do your God thing" without prescribing what we'd like that God thing to look like, we're too attached to a particular outcome. That means limiting God, or at least limiting our openness to God.

The prayer of indifference is made a bit easier by cultivating a habit of gratitude. Noting where God has been at work in, around, and through us in big and small ways reminds us that our faith in God's presence and goodness is warranted. God doesn't do on-demand prayer responses, but God hasn't abandoned us yet.

In what areas might your congregation pray for indifference? How might developing a gratitude as a default posture help?

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson 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.

Staff involvement with a senior pastor search

At a church with staff, there are often questions about whether and how staff should be involved in a senior pastor search. Here are some reflection questions to guide those decisions:

What does your polity say (officially and unofficially)? In some denominations there is a policy – or at least an expectation – that staff members serve at the pleasure of the senior pastor. This means that staff, ministerial and otherwise, typically have little to no input into a senior pastor/head of staff search. It’s important to know what your judicatory recommends or requires.

What do you need to know from the staff? Most laypeople don’t know much about the day-to-day operations of a church, much less the details of a pastor’s schedule and the weight of conflicting expectations. Staff could provide essential information that helps shape search criteria and interview questions.

Beyond “need to know” information, how might the wisdom of the staff positively inform the search? Pastoral staff in particular can speak to congregational needs and dynamics that could greatly impact ministerial fit.

How might the staff’s attachment to the search outcome potentially hinder healthy involvement? Staff at a church without a settled senior pastor are stretched thin (having picked up extra duties) and highly anxious (worrying about compatibility with the next senior pastor). And on occasion – if polity allows – a minister on staff might want to be considered for the senior pastor position. As a result, staff involvement might (unconsciously) be shaped largely by self-interest rather than investment in the congregation.

Use your responses to these questions to create clear expectations about what staff involvement with the search will look like: no involvement, information provider, ex-officio/non-voting role, or full member of the search team. No matter what you decide, remember to communicate frequently with staff to let them know how the search is progressing, and thank them often for their ministry during this challenging season.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Common approaches to soliciting candidates

In some denominations, most or all resumes or profiles come through a national or regional office. For congregations that receive this candidate information directly, however, there are several schools of thought about which applicants to consider:

Everyone. The search team will look at all resumes, whether they were sent directly by the candidate or by someone else on the candidate’s behalf.

Pro: you might find stellar candidates who weren’t on any influencer’s radar.

Con: you might have a tall stack to sort through, with resumes that need a closer read than those who were referred.

Consider: what difference does it make to your search team - if any - when a minister self-refers?  

Only candidates who are not looking. Some congregations don't like to advertise at all. Instead, they look for ministers who are doing good work where they happily serving.

Pro: this minister is likely competent, already being at a church.

Con: there are many great candidates out there who are looking for reasons other than because they are un-callable. (Maybe their positions were downsized, or they were victims of sexual harassment, or they have just not yet found the right fit.)

Consider: would you would want another congregation to lure your (content) minister away?

Only candidates who are referred by trusted sources. It's becoming a more common practice to solicit names from seminary faculty, consultants, and ministers who are friends of the congregation.

Pros: these candidates have built-in references and are well-networked.

Cons: you might get roughly the same list from every source, who in turn might be giving that list to other churches.

Consider: what questions you might ask your sources to uncover less obvious – and therefore a better range of – candidates?

Whatever approach your search team chooses for gathering candidate profiles, consider ministers who would stretch your congregation and remember to be hospitable in all your interactions. Communicate with everyone whose resume or profile you receive, and affirm candidates’ gifts even as you tell them you will not be continuing conversations.

Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash.

Strengths versus skills

When searching for a new minister, it is vitally important to discern what each candidate’s strengths are and how they align with your position description. Strengths are God-given talents. They are central to a person’s identity. They are manifestations of passion and purpose.

Skills are a bit different. We pick up skills through education and experience. They are add-ons. They’re important too, but some skills are better indicators of fit than others. If the skill is built on top of one of my strengths, then it enhances my ability to live fully into my call. If the skill is something I’ve learned out of necessity – not because it aligns with my purpose – then it can actually be a distraction, even if it’s a really useful ability. For example, I have taken several pastoral care classes and spent many hours making hospital and home visits. I’m pretty decent at it. Pastoral care, however, is not my natural gift. It takes substantial time for me to rev up for and recover from this work. If your church needed someone who would spend 10+ hours per week checking on folks, then I would not be your ideal candidate. My energy is increased, though, by coaching people toward action, writing sermons, and attending to details, and I’ve developed a range of skills that build on these strengths. I would thrive in a context that wanted me to preach once a month, plan ministries, proofread newsletters, and coach ministry leaders.

Most candidate resumes and profiles will include strengths, skills that relate to these strengths, and skills that don’t. It is important for your search team to develop questions that distinguish among these three categories. When are you most engaged in ministry? What pieces of ministry drain you? How would you state your purpose in ministry in one sentence?

A great-fit candidate will be one whose strengths, associated skills, and sources of energy match your congregation’s priorities. That minister will be able to give maximum effort and be set up to thrive.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

The impact of the 3 Ps on candidates in the call process

Note: this post was originally published at laurastephensreed.com, but I wanted to share it here to give you a peek into what candidates often go through when they search for a new ministry position. 

Searching for a new call is hard. Congregations are eliminating positions due to shrinking budgets. Systemic inequalities make it difficult for some candidates to get a good look from search teams. Call committees often don’t understand how covenanting with a clergyperson is different from hiring an employee.

And those issues don’t even address the mental, spiritual, and emotional toll of the search process on a candidate. In a previous post I described psychologist Martin Seligman‘s three Ps – personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence – and the ways these shame responses show up in congregational life. They also manifest in powerful, potentially debilitating ways in search & call. When candidates hear “no” over and over, they can begin to think that:

  • the problem is on their end (personalization),
  • every call committee will see their supposed unworthiness (pervasiveness),
  • they will be stuck in this vocational purgatory forever (permanence).

The three Ps can suck any energy for a minister’s search and for the current position in a hurry. Let me assure you that you are a gifted and called minister and that with time you will find a great fit. I really believe that.

So now you feel confident and ready to hit the interview trail again, right? Yeah, I didn’t figure a positive word from me alone would make the difference, even though I truly, deeply mean it. Then let me propose a few ways to combat the three Ps and their pernicious effects during that trying search season.

  • Pray. Make sure your search is deeply rooted in your relationship with God.
  • Seek encouragement from people who know you. Spend time regularly with a friend or small group that recognizes and affirms your many talents. Getting an attitude boost from those who cheer us on can help when it feels like we’re hearing a lot of rejection.
  • Approach every interview as an opportunity to network. Not every church will extend a call to you, but with every encounter you expand your exposure and gain invaluable interview experience.
  • Debrief interviews. Set a timer for 15-30 minutes to mull what you thought went well, where you felt hesitant, what questions bubbled up in you during the interaction, and what your prayer is going forward. 
  • Ask for feedback from search teams. Did you get a no from a church you were excited about? See if the search chair will give you a few pointers based on your time with the team.
  • Focus your search. Have you been scattershot with your search approach? It might seem counterintuitive, but it could be time to cull your options. Create a one-sentence mission statement and self-refer only to those congregations whose positions would allow you to live well into that purpose. You’ll be better able to explain why you’re a good fit – and you’ll be much happier if you end up going to that church.
  • Work on telling your story. Of the parts of the search process we can control, none is more important than good storytelling. Refine your paperwork, making sure you have included action words and vivid examples. Think before interviews about what you want to be sure a search team knows about you by the end of the hour. Role play with a colleague. Spend time picking out an interview ensemble that tells the story you want.
  • Remember that you were called before, and you will be called again. If you are serving or have served a church, a search team has seen and responded to your gifts. It will happen again! (For years I held onto my first congregation’s newsletter that announced my call for this very reason.)

The church needs you and your gifts. Hang tight – a great fit is out there.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash.

Succession plans

I’m hearing of more and more churches designing succession plans rather that engaging in an interim period between lead pastors. (Before interim ministry was a specialty, this approach was common in some denominations.) I will admit my bias up front: I believe the time between settled pastors is an invaluable opportunity for reconnecting with the church’s history, understanding the congregation’s specific purpose anew, and making needed changes. I also think there’s huge spiritual transformation potential, because when there is no installed leader, the church has to lean harder into its faith in God’s presence and goodness.

If your church is considering a succession plan, I would urge you to discuss the following:

What are the reasons we want our next pastor in place before the current one departs? It’s important to be able to name motives beyond the desire to avoid the discomfort of the interim time and a lack of confidence in the congregation’s ability to do the work of the search.

In what ways will the current pastor be involved (or not) in the search for the next pastor? One of the functions of an interim time is to allow a congregation to find out who it is apart from the identity of the departing pastor. If the current pastor is permitted to influence the search process, your church will – for good and ill – continue to be strongly influenced by the outgoing pastor’s passions and personality.

What will the transition look like? How much overlap between the pastors will there be (and can you afford it budget-wise)? How will the responsibilities be shifted over the course of that doubled-up period? What agreements and rituals will you put in place for the eventual end of the current pastor’s tenure?

When will we build in time for self-reflection about God’s call on us as a congregation, and what will that process look like? Church mission/purpose statements evolve over time, and the interim is a natural period for re-evaluation. If there is no interim time, what conditions will you put in place to make sure this work happens so that your congregation continues to be as faithful as possible in its response to God’s call?

Calling and building a relationship with a new pastoral leader takes great intentionality, no matter what that minister’s start in the congregation looks like. Leave no question about process undiscussed, and let your choices be guided by faith in God rather than fear of the unknown.

Photo by Marc Sendra martorell on Unsplash.

Why search team coaching?

From the start of my research, I intended to offer the Searching for the Called resources for free. I have confidence in their value and want them to be used as widely as possible. At the same time, I am also a coach who believes in the power of the coaching process to make learning deeper and longer-lasting. Here, then, are the reasons you might want to consider covenanting with me for search team coaching in addition to using the Searching for the Called materials:

When you feel overwhelmed, I will help you prioritize actions. Ministerial searches involve a lot of tasks, and it is normal to feel at times like you aren’t making much headway. I can assist you in creating and sticking to a plan and in noting progress.

When you are tempted to take a shortcut, I will remind you why process matters. Ministerial searches are lengthy, and search teams sometimes want to cut corners. I will keep in front of you the possible consequences of doing so.

When you are overlooking a potential opportunity or challenge, I will help you identify it. Ministerial searches are each unique, so not every situation will be covered by the Searching for the Called materials. I will guide you in thinking through your particular issue.

When you are discouraged, I will help you stay focused. Ministerial searches can go off the rails quickly if there’s an unexpected complication. I will pull you toward the light at the end of the tunnel.

When you are unsure, I will provide guidance. Ministerial searches can be head scratchers sometimes. If you get stuck, I can share some examples of practices that have worked well for other congregations and lead you in thinking about the takeaways for your process.

When you call your great-fit minister, I will celebrate with you. Ministerial searches are hard but good work. Your search team will have impacted the life of your congregation from this time onward. I will remind you that a celebration of a process done well is in order – and I will celebrate your team for all that you have done.

The time between settled ministers is one of many opportunities. Coaching can help you make the most of them. Contact me to get more information about coaching.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash.