encouragement

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.