encouragement

Appreciate your pastors

October is Pastor Appreciation Month, but let's be honest. Clergy - interim and settled - deserve to be noticed year-round for the ways they have committed their lives not just to the tasks but also to the intense spiritual, emotional, and mental labor of ministry. Thank them when…

...they get up at 4:30 am for a pre-surgery visit after crawling into bed late the night before due to a meeting that ran long.

...they struggle over whether to take that much-needed vacation, knowing that a beloved church member is on hospice care.

...social media tells people in the pews to "walk out of worship if your pastor doesn't preach on [insert current event here]," yet your pastor understands that that doesn't need to be the focus today.

...the lectionary is serving up softballs for addressing the world's ills, and they go there, knowing some parishioners will be angry.

...they are pulled between wanting to be a whole person (including showing up for their loved ones and themselves) and wanting to be the best pastor possible.

...they work so hard to encourage your church's progress, only to have conflict burn it all down.

...their calendars look like boxes of markers exploded on them, with color-coded appointments leaving precious little blank space.

...they have to wear the mantle of spiritual leadership even as they wrestle with their own faith.

...they have no idea what to do next after a metaphorical bomb goes off in your congregation, so they keep putting one foot directly in front of the other.

...the Church or your church makes them representative of all of a particular demographic, such that they bear the weight of excellence on behalf of all their peers.

...constructive feedback is hard to come by, no matter how much they seek it out.

...others discount their voices because they are too something, yet still they keep raising them because the message is faithful.

...they toil in obscurity because they are making big impacts that will ripple out far beyond what they will ever see.

...they make (or lead your church to make) decisions that are hard but good.

...they offer care to people who disappoint or even hurt them.

...they want more for the Church, because it is Christ's body here on earth.

Thank your ministers often for all the seen and unseen work they do to bring more peace, connection, and understanding into this world. 

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash.

The importance of context

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an astronaut. That was not an uncommon goal in those days. The space shuttle program was relatively new, and the teacher-in-space program – as disastrously as it ended – made space travel seem more attainable. I’m still not so sure what was so enchanting about this dream. Maybe my budding introversion loved the idea of so much, well, space. Maybe it was the enchanting solar system photography that captured my imagination. Maybe I just didn’t know what all my career options were. Maybe I watched the movie Space Camp too many times. (The answer is probably all of the above.)

My parents encouraged me in this low-likelihood endeavor. They took me to the Marshall and Kennedy Space Flight Centers. They helped me write letters to request the scientist equivalent of head shots. They signed me up for Space Camp (which, by the way, was fun but nothing like the movie). My space fixation went strong for several years until I realized I didn’t enjoy science and math nearly as much as English. When I hit junior high, most of my astronaut posters and training manuals (yep, I’m a nerd) were put into drawers as artifacts of nostalgia.

I still love space, though. One of my favorite places continues to be the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. My husband, who went to Space Camp the same summer I did, gets giddy about it too, and now our son looks forward to going. On our most recent visit there was a new (to me) experiment about the context of the space race. As a child, the history of space travel was interesting, but it was just a timeline of progress. But the space program was never just about exploration. It was set against the backdrop of wars (hot and cold) and a struggle for the identity of the country, and the choices, the pressure, the setbacks and achievements cannot be fully appreciated without putting them in this larger context. Suddenly the stakes were clearer to me, as was the tenacity of those engineers who made the improbable happen with very little tech.

So it is with our congregations. The ebb and flow of membership, the beginnings and endings of ministries, patterns of pastor tenures, and even the architecture of church campuses must be set against the backdrop of all that was happening locally, nationally, and globally in particular eras. Then we are able to look for God’s presence through it all, identify values and legacy, and discern future direction.

When looking ahead, don’t forget to direct your gaze backward first, noticing cultural and political trends in the process. Only then, with a full grasp of context, will you be able to get clear on the character and gifts that will launch your church into a future in which the sky proves no limit.

Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash.

Defining success

I went to junior high and high school at an academically and socially intense college prep academy. The deal my parents and I struck was that they would pay for this not-cheap education if I would be responsible for earning my way through college. That seemed more than fair to me.

During those six years a certain notion of success was drilled into my noggin: enrollment in a prestigious university. An "important," high-paying career. A family (in the heteronormative sense, of course), complete with kids in smocked clothing. Membership in the Junior League and other part-sorority, part-community service organizations. This vision was imparted in a variety of direct and indirect ways, like advertising the dollar amount of merit scholarships each graduating senior had been awarded and featuring alumnae who checked all of the boxes in the school magazine.

Well, I studied my tookus off and was admitted to several state and private universities offering varying levels of scholarship incentives. And after visiting probably over 100 colleges over the course of my high school years, I proudly and confidently enrolled in the main campus of my state's university system: the University of Tennessee. I didn't choose UT-Knoxville because my parents had gone there or because my closet was already full of Volunteer orange. (Neither was the case.) I didn't even choose it because they made me a full scholarship offer I couldn't refuse. I chose it because when I made my visit, it felt right. I chose it because of the broad range of course offerings, majors, and other opportunities. I chose it because I could see myself thriving in a bigger, more diverse environment after six years in a school of fewer than 500 students. I chose it because it was close enough to home that I could visit my family regularly.

I notified my current school of my college selection as was required, because college enrollment was a foregone conclusion for students. The upper school principal snarled at me and said, "Get on the bus with the rest of them." (There's all kinds of wrong with this statement.) I was third in my class. Students ranked ahead of and behind me were headed to Princeton, Penn, Northwestern, Brown, Stanford, Harvard, and many other big-name universities. And I was going the University of Tennessee. The implication was clear: my pricey college-prep education was wasted on me. Gone were my (ahem, their) hopes of a big alumna donation, smocked children, and Junior League membership.

That was the beginning of a long process of separating out what others thought success looked like and what success would be for me. Because, somewhat surprisingly for an impressionable seventeen-year-old, the snarl and insult did not lead to any second-guessing on my part. It only made me more eager to get the heck out of an oppressive atmosphere. I went on to receive an excellent education at UT. I studied abroad, and I designed my own major tied up with a thesis that won a national honors project competition.And thanks to the scholarship, I graduated with no educational debt. UT prepared me well for seminary, where I again was fully scholarshipped. Nopity nope, no regrets here. (Please know that I recognize the privilege that set me up for this daisy chain of no educational debt, and each day I work to accept the responsibility it entails.)

Still, many years of messaging meant my subconscious had an upwardly-mobile idea of what my professional life would look like. Begin my ministry as an associate pastor, stay there five-ish years, then step into a solo/senior pastorate. From the beginning, it didn't work that way. I left my first call as an associate at a wonderful church in North Carolina about a year-and-a-half in because I wanted to marry my seminary sweetheart, whose ordination status and indentured servitude to the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church made him less geographically mobile. As a progressive Baptist in Alabama and as the spouse of an itinerant (read: go where the bishop says) minister, I struggled to find my vocational place for a long time. I was a traditional interim solo minister. Then I worked in a non-profit. Then I did piecemeal ministry as a chaplain and designer of pastoral education programs and guest preacher. Then I was a children's minister.

It was in the ashes of the dumpster fire that was my brief tenure as a children's minister that I found my footing. Suddenly, my call was clear: promote well-being in congregations and their leaders so that no clergyperson would have to endure what I just had and so that churches could focus on their real work of discipleship and relationship-building. I became an intentional interim minister. I was trained as a consultant and then as a coach. And suddenly all of my divergent experiences coalesced into a vocation I love, with room to experiment and create and grow and with the flexibility to be mom. My career is not what I thought it would be. It's more "me." I believe it's faithful to what God wants for and from me. My salary is not what it could be. (Again, I acknowledge there's a lot of privilege in not having to be at a certain earning level.) But my quality of life is so much better than it would be if I had held tight to others' visions of success.

For congregations the standard metrics traditionally used to gauge success no longer mean much: average worship attendance, weekly offering, etc. They don't tell the full story of a congregation's impact on its members and on the world. A church’s size and budget are often not proportional to the good a congregation does in the name of Christ. A tiny church operating on a shoestring can be a community’s lifeline whereas a megachurch with a multi-million dollar bank account can be so insular as to be practically irrelevant. So why do we hold to these outdated metrics about what success involves? Let's question those notions of success and instead spend time mulling what faithfulness looks like. Spiritual growth and effectiveness as disciples - what Jesus asks us to be about - hinge on seeking the heart of God, not on growth for growth’s sake or comparing ourselves to others.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

A note of gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Hanny Naibaho on Unsplash.

Learned helplessness vs. learned optimism in congregations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 8

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

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

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


What relationships were started or strengthened?


How did we make faithful use of the following?

  • People’s time

  • People’s talents

  • Personal connections

  • Congregational connections

  • Physical space

  • Money

  • Other resources

What did we learn about the following?

  • Ourselves (individually)

  • Ourselves (as a congregation)

  • Our larger community

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


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

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

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Daniel Fontenele on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 6

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

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

Include the following in the congregational conversation:

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

  • Skills and stories of individuals encountered in the community

  • Personal experiences in the community

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

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

  • Who are our neighbors?

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

  • Where might we join in that good work?

  • What are the challenges in our community?

  • Who is affected by them?

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

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

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

Photo by Bogdan Kupriets on Unsplash.

Unearthing congregational gifts, part 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 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.

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

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

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.

Setting your pastor up to succeed

Your church has invested a lot of time, effort, and probably money in a ministerial search, and you no doubt want to enjoy a long, fruitful season with your new leader. The interactions the search team and congregation have with the incoming minister throughout the covenanting and start-up processes will directly impact that person’s level of engagement and length of tenure. Consider how you can offer the following:

Motivation. Ministers who feel heard and cared for (emotionally and financially) will be eager to come to work each day and give their best. This will translate into better sermons and Bible studies and more enthusiastic pastoral care.

Encouragement. Ministers who hear not just constructive criticism but also affirmation will see the pastor-parish match as a good one. They will be much less likely to jump ship for other ministry opportunities.

Flexibility. Ministers whose reasonable personal needs and family responsibilities are honored by the congregation will be more fully present when they are at the church. They will be less distracted by the tug of other roles.

Alignment. Ministers who understand (and have agreed to) what the congregation expects will know better how to concentrate their efforts. This prioritization will result in deeper engagement and broader creativity and will make it easier for the clergyperson to empower others in their discipleship.

Small gestures of hospitality around these four areas can make ministers feel focused, energized, and invested for the long term. Constantly be on the lookout for ways to build the clergy-congregation bond.

Photo by Grant Ritchie on Unsplash.

Being church

In the secular world an employee is hired to perform a task, to fill a need. The process for hiring this employee is somewhat utilitarian and transactional.

In the church world a pastor is also called to carry out a particular position description. But beyond bullet points on a job announcement, clergy and congregation are brought together to belong to one another. Unlike in secular work, a minister cannot live fully into the role without developing deep bonds with parishioners, without journeying toward the heart of God with them, without working alongside them to be the hands and feet of God beyond the perimeters of the property. And sometimes the pastor has a family who joins in this belonging as well.

This is why the search for a clergyperson must be approached differently than the search for an accountant, a machine operator, a boat captain, or a cartoonist. A ministerial search is a chance for the search team and congregation to embody all of what we know to be true about Christ and that we hope to become ourselves. To grow in faith and understanding. To offer hospitality. To listen to voices others might dismiss. To work hard yet playfully with our ultimate purpose firmly in mind. To trust and be trustworthy. To face challenges head on. To pray fervently and often. In all of these efforts, we expand our capacity for belonging to one another and to God and make it possible for the new pastor to become one of us.

In short, the search is a chance for the church to be the church. I urge you to seize this opportunity!

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash.

Why don't I offer vetting services?

I have received a few contacts from congregations asking if I vet candidates for pastoral searches. Here’s the short answer: no. I’ll explain why I believe vetting is work that belongs to the search team:

You are the expert on your congregation. I know about processes, powerful questions, church size and life stage dynamics, the duties of a pastor, and other such things. But no two churches are exactly alike, and no one knows your congregation like you do.

A search rooted in hospitality requires the willingness to interact with all candidates, at least on paper. Imagine a party at which a gatekeeper turns away certain people at the door – before you as host have even had a chance to greet these folks. What if those who are turned away are really interesting and would have added a lot to the gathering? And what could this rejection do to the hearts and minds of partygoers who were excited about the event but weren’t even allowed into the foyer?

The resume reading and interview processes are opportunities for spiritual growth. God moves in powerful and surprising ways through interaction with candidates. And your increased dependence on God to point you toward a great-fit candidate will lead to a deepened trust in God.

You will be more invested in your new pastor if you have walked with that candidate through each stage of the search. Letting someone beyond your church cull your candidates sows the seeds of discontent. When your new minister disappoints you – which is inevitable – you might jump to the conclusion that your vetters made a mistake. If there is solid trust between the search team that did the work and the congregation, though, the new minister will have more margin for error and there will be re-doubled effort to make the pastor-parish relationship work.

You can do this. It’s true, maybe you’ve never done it before. But I’ve given you good tools, and God will be as involved in the process as you let God be.

Ministerial searches are hard work, and the bulk of that work comes from listening deeply to candidates’ stories and imagining the various futures your church could enjoy under each minister’s leadership. The benefits of this wrestling, however, are not just in the outcome (a new minister) but also in the process itself.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash.