search challenges

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.

Is your congregation ready for a woman in the pastorate?

I first sensed a call to ministry when I was a youth. I tried to talk with my youth minister about the vocational stirring I felt, but he wouldn’t engage. I met with my pastor, who encouraged me privately. (He didn’t think our church was ready to throw support behind a woman in ministry. He was right, but he also wasn’t pushing the culture.) For a long time, then, my mentors were either strong women who weren’t clergy or clergywomen I “knew” through books and periodicals.

In seminary I found a congregation that had no qualms about bringing me on as an intern and later ordaining me. That business about women being barred from ministry because they were “first in the Edenic fall” (see: 1984 Southern Baptist Convention) seemed far removed from my burgeoning career in more progressive contexts.

And yet, it wasn’t. Microaggressions abounded among staff and congregants, sometimes making churches unpleasant places of ministry. Clergywomen peers found themselves toeing the glass cliff, looking over their shoulders at church people who were willing to “take a chance” on women’s leadership only as a last-ditch effort to slow decline - and then crowding them on that precipice when the long skid was not reversed quickly enough. Other highly-qualified women ministers noted their male counterparts professionally leapfrogging them as they heard “no” again and again from search teams. All of this was – is – happening in mainline denominations that have supposedly conquered sexism.

The Church needs women in the pastorate. It is shrinking, in part, due to the lack of tenacity, wisdom, innovation, and compassion that women in ministry have to offer. Time and again, though, women pastors hear that churches are not ready for them, or these clergy realize after accepting ministry positions that congregations had misjudged their own preparedness. The ramifications for this miscalculation are huge. If a clergywoman is not successful because of the church’s failure to lay groundwork, that congregation often thinks, “Well, we tried having a woman as a pastor, and it just didn’t work out” instead of examining its assumptions. The church hesitates before calling another woman, thus missing out on deeply-needed gifts and perspectives. Additionally, that pastor might begin to question her effectiveness and call rather than her fit with the context, possibly leaving the ministry for good and ensuring that no congregation benefits from all she has to offer.

Here, then, is my attempt to give churches an assessment they can use to judge their true openness to a pastor who also happens to be a woman. (I want to thank alumnae of Young Clergy Women International for their input on the points below.) You can download a PDF of the assessment here, which I encourage you to share.

Pre-pastor search work:

  • The church has had a woman in its pulpit as a guest preacher, and it referred to her sermon as such rather than as a “talk” or a “devotional.”

  • Church leadership has discussed any members’ protest (such as staying home from worship or walking out before the sermon) of inviting a woman to guest preach and publicly re-affirmed support of the preacher.

  • The church has had women in significant lay leadership roles (elder, deacon, warden, clerk of session, moderator, etc.) and has worked through any conflict that arose as a result of their election/selection.

  • The church has eliminated exclusively male pronouns/descriptors on its website and in its social media.

  • The church regularly uses curricula or other materials written by women (e.g., seminary professors, pastors) with theological authority.

Pre-interview pastor search work:

  • The pastor search team is representative of the demographics and commitments of the congregation as whole, thus making it better able to reflect accurately the fullness of the church’s story to ministerial candidates.

  • The pastor search team has structured its work so that it is rooted in listening deeply to God’s guidance.

  • The pastor search team has discussed its assumptions and the congregation’s about a great-fit pastor, probing the reasons behind them.

  • Having surfaced these assumptions, the search team has named specific competencies (rather than personality traits) as the criteria for a great-fit pastor.

  • In communications with the congregation, the pastor search team has helped the church broaden its imagination about a great-fit pastor.

  • The pastor search team has eliminated exclusively male pronouns/descriptors for the hoped-for pastor in all search team documents (e.g., position description, position advertisements, church profile).

  • The church as a whole has earnestly prayed that God will lead it to the best-fit ministerial candidate, no matter how that candidate might differ from church members’ expectations.

  • The pastor search team members have covenanted to run all questions to and about candidates through the filter of “Would we ask this of a male candidate?” (Examples of questions to be sifted out: “Who will watch your children while you’re working?” and “How will your spouse’s employment affect your ability to move here/stay here for a long time?”)

Interview/call phase pastor search work:

  • The pastor search team is aware of and open with all candidates about potential challenges that await.

  • With all candidates the pastor search team inquires about the needs of the candidate’s family to ensure hospitable on-site visits, and later, to help integrate the incoming minister’s family into the life of the congregation (to the extent the family desires).

  • The church leadership has discussed the possibility of conflict arising from calling a woman (noting that this conflict might come disguised as an issue about something else) and is prepared to stand behind the candidate of choice/incoming pastor.

Ways you can use this assessment:

  • Churches in pastor searches. This assessment provides a readiness test for calling a clergywoman.

  • Churches with settled pastors. This assessment offers action steps to lay leaders and current pastors. (The “getting ready,” after all, doesn’t just happen. It takes intentional work. And if your church is not willing to do this work, spend some time mulling the reasons why and praying about them.) Even congregations that think they are ready to receive a clergywoman – including those who have or had women ministers – could benefit from working through the points above. Often moderate to progressive churches think they are more welcoming than they actually are.

  • Clergywomen. Use this assessment in your call processes to help gauge whether a congregation might be a good fit.

  • Judicatory bodies. Use this assessment to help congregations and search teams work through the steps needed to set up the possibility for long and fruitful ministries between churches and clergywomen.

Note that some aspects of this assessment can be adapted for considering a congregation’s preparedness to be led by a pastor who would be another kind of “first,” though there would be additional work specific to the variety of first. Often a candidate will be more than one kind of first – identities are intersectional, after all – making it essential for a church to take readiness steps in multiple areas.

This welcoming work is worthy of intentionality and intense listening to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and not just because of the clergyperson in question. This attentiveness and the resulting actions can lead to spiritual transformation, deeper discipleship, and increased connectedness among people and between people and God. These benefits are available to all involved.

Download a PDF of the assessment here.

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.

The challenges of a pastoral change - a PK parent's perspective

Last week I talked about the challenges of moving as a clergy spouse. This week I want to address an issue of even greater concern to me personally: moving a preacher’s kid.

When our family relocated to our current city for my husband's pastoral appointment, our son was two. He didn’t really understand what was happening. He was also a bit delayed in stringing together words, so he couldn’t ask us questions or verbally share many of his feelings. We tried to make him feel safe, and we explained as simply and as well as we knew how. Still, his anxiety ramped up as he saw boxes accumulating in our old house, causing behavior changes and stress-induced illness. And when we moved into our current house, which was a great situation in many ways, he spent the first day wandering around the house in tears. What was this place? Why were we here? Would we leave him here alone? Where was all of his stuff? It broke my mama heart.

He’s an adaptable kid, though, and it didn’t take long for him to love his new surroundings. So much so that my husband and I dreaded telling him that now, four years later, it is time to move again. We knew we would be moving months before we could tell our son. For one thing, we were bound by confidentiality. For another, we weren’t sure yet where we were going. Once we found out, we sat him down and gave him the news. “You mean I’ll have to leave my school? My NanNan and Papa? My church?” That last one really stung. When a clergy parent moves, the whole family loses its faith community and the anchor of its social connections.  (That is, if the family has been coming to church with the clergy parent. Some do not, and churches should not assume that the family will attend.) It’s hard to explain to a child that mom or dad’s job is the link to a particular congregation and that changing jobs means severing that link.

As you can hear, the grief is potent in a PK. Here our son made his first real friends. He claimed his church and his school, and they claimed him in return. He will move away from one set of grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and three cousins who are like his siblings. He will leave behind his own activities, like the martial arts academy where he has learned so many life skills and the music school that promoted his verbal development. In all of this sadness his dad and I are trying to balance honoring his feelings and helping him get excited about a new adventure.

One of my son’s biggest worries relates to parsonage/manse/rectory life. Not everything in our house belongs to us - some furnishings belong to the church. He is trying to get straight what will be going with us and wondering if some of his toys and stuffed animals were never really his. And what if we leave something behind? And where will I sleep in my new house? Will I have a bed since this bed stays here? These are all hard concepts for a 6-year-old, especially as the boxes tower over us and the anxiety mounts and the truck’s arrival date grows ever closer.

When we get to our new town, our routines (specifically our Sunday morning ones) will change. He and I won’t go to Panera Bread for breakfast before Sunday School at 10:00 and worship at 11:00, because there is no Panera Bread. We don’t know which worship service we’ll attend, traditional at 9:00 or contemporary at 11:00.  Our son’s Sunday School teachers will have to learn that he is always in costume, whether as a penguin or Batman or a book character named Galaxy Zack. And he’s a method actor, so expect the voice and persona to go with the character. He’s not going to be a sharply-dressed, perfectly still and reverent preacher's kid.

You know from reading to this point that though the circumstances are causing some of my son’s anxiety, some of my own is probably adding on. It’s kind of a cycle. I’m working on it, I promise! But it is important for clergy to be aware of what their children might experience with a move - knowing adversity can be character-building - and for churches receiving new pastors with children to understand what the minister will be coping with on the home front. Make an effort to get to know clergy children, to make them feel valued in their own right. Soon they will be at home in your congregation, and your new pastor can focus more fully on ministry alongside you.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.

The challenges of a pastoral change - a clergy spouse's perspective

My husband and I are both clergy. I was ordained first, in a tradition that allows ministers to decide what positions to seek and where to search. Matt, on the other hand, still had a couple of years to go as a provisional minister in the United Methodist Church, in which clergy are appointed to congregations by the bishop. In other words, I was mobile, and he was not. So it made sense that I would move to where he was pastoring when we got married fifteen years ago.

As it has worked out, I have been the trailing spouse ever since. Though frustrating at first, those circumstances eventually played a part in my decisions to pursue interim ministry, consultant, and coach training as well as opportunities to serve beyond my denomination. I love what I do, and because of my education and network, I can do it anywhere.

It’s helpful to remember that, because it’s moving time again. Next week we’ll migrate our household two hours up the road so that Matt can take a new appointment. For the moving minister, this change is predictably bittersweet. It’s hard to leave a congregation you’ve pastored for several years, but the anticipation of new challenges is (mostly) exciting. There’s a tangible reality this clergyperson is reaching toward. For the spouse of a minister, this new thing is much more nebulous. There’s no pre-set title, role, or responsibilities waiting - there shouldn’t be, at least! - and contact with the new church and community is minimal before the actual move. The feelings of a moving clergy spouse, then, can vary widely, and I think it's important for churches receiving new pastors to know that.

Specifically, there can be more grief than excitement because what we as spouses are leaving is much more definable that what the future holds. From my perspective, there has been good in our current church, even as there has been difficulty. I have cultivated networks in the surrounding community that I will deeply miss, and I have doubts that there will be similar counterparts in my new town. And I lament the unmet hopes and plans for our time in this city. (For example, I have had to put some developments in my coaching practice on hold to free up time to pack and to be able to put a more long-term address on legal paperwork.)

Also, developing a sense of home is difficult as a clergy spouse, particularly the spouse of an officially itinerant minister. The unknowns around how long we will be living in this place affect how much I invest in the church and community. I wonder whether it’s worth hanging pictures and art on the wall. I hesitate to make friends, knowing we will not be here forever. The anticipatory grief begins almost as soon as a bond is established. I note all these patterns in myself, even as I wonder how to adapt them to be more healthy and settled.

And then there’s the issue of expectations. I am not, will never be, don’t want to be the stereotypical clergy spouse. For example, don’t assume I’ll be at church whenever the doors are open. I also probably won’t teach Sunday School, even though I love kids and have been both a children’s and a youth minister, because I’m on the road some Sundays. This can be hard for a receiving congregation to understand. It’s not rejection. It’s just that I have my own call to ministry, and I’m very introverted to boot. And, of course, these expectations say nothing about my parenting. My kid is always in character. He’s painfully (for me) outgoing. He's very inquisitive. While I want him to be respectful, I will not change who he is so that he can be a smartly-dressed, seen-but-not-heard preacher’s kid. (More on that next week.)

Clergy spouses, I pray with and for you when you go through a pastoral change. Churches, I encourage you to do the same and to ask your pastoral families what they - and I mean all the family members - need. When the clergy family feels seen, heard, and valued, it makes it much more likely that your pastor will be able to focus on the work at hand. It also breeds the kind of connection that makes the minister and family want to stay in your congregation for a long time.

Photo by Sandy Millar 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 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

Eight Cs for growing trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash.



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