Advent arcs

The special season of waiting for the birth of the Christ child has come around again, bringing a new liturgical year with it. I don’t know about you, but for me the undercurrent of danger in the Advent scriptures is more relatable than ever before, and I need to hold on more tightly to the peace, connection, and equality that Christ’s incarnation portends. If you’re feeling the same, here are some possible themes to explore in preaching, teaching, and writing this month:

Listening to women’s voices. The lectionary gives us the Magnificat (with an option to use it on Advent 3 or 4) and Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel. Mary is not a wilting flower in either passage. What do these interactions tell us about how God sees women? How do we better attune ourselves to and/or amplify the voices of women?

Naming the ills of the world. In addition to the Magnificat, the texts from Isaiah and Mark invite us to pinpoint the injustices we see around us and to repent for our roles in them. How – specifically – have we fallen short in loving our neighbors as ourselves, and to what changes do we commit? Who else do we need to call to repentance, and for what?

Claiming our role in the redemption of the world. God uses mere mortals to bring about God’s purposes: Mary and Joseph; Elizabeth, Zechariah (thought merely mentioned in this year’s texts), and John; shepherds; even – dare I say – the emperor whose decree forced a very pregnant woman to make a hard journey and give birth in a barn. What is our part in ushering in God’s reign?

Staying vigilant. “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33) As our political scene, cultural dynamics, and military engagement status quickly evolve, we are living in times that call for wakefulness. How will you stay alert?

Preferring the outcast. Mary’s Magnificat makes no bones about it. God favors those who show awe and fells the proud. He fills the hungry and gives nothing to the powerful, for they have already grabbed more than their fair share. God has done these things, and there is no reason to believe that God will do otherwise in the future. Who are the “lowly” to whom we should be paying heed?

Embracing hope and joy in the midst of uncertainty. Gabriel’s visit blew to bits Mary’s (and Joseph’s) expectations of the future. Her “overshadowing” by the Holy Spirit put her in dire straits. And yet, scripture points us to the long arc of God’s work in the world. How will we open our hearts, minds, and spirits to the work of God so that we might choose joy over fear?

Renewing the promises. We are starting the church year over and journeying again to Bethlehem. In doing so, we note the reliability of God’s promises and presence, still firm even as circumstances around us change. How does this trustworthiness encourage us to live? What in our lives needs renewal or redemption with the turning of the liturgical calendar?

 

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Breaking shame’s hold on our congregations

In a recent podcast with pastor/author Jen Hatmaker, research professor Dr. Brene Brown shared an insightful nugget from her work: shame is the enemy of innovation. When we believe that we are not worthy – of love, of belonging, of joy, of dreaming – we cannot think beyond our current circumstances. We cannot brainstorm new ways of being and doing. We cannot envision a future much different from our present.

I have noted this truth for myself. When I feel bad about how I look, it seems like making new friends is out of reach. When my inbox is not dinging, I worry that I’ll never get another coaching or consulting client. When I don’t have expertise about the topic of discussion, I’m certain my conversation partner won’t take my input seriously. It becomes hard to put one foot in front of the other, mentally and emotionally.

It’s no secret that many of our churches are stuck. They try to strategically plan their way out of the mire, but those plans often involve more of what the congregation is currently doing, has done in the past, or has seen work in other contexts. They cannot imagine a different way of being church, only returning to a day when attendance was three times what it is now and children’s Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams.

I think corporate shame plays a role in this stuckness. We think, what is it about our church that makes people want to leave, or not even come in the first place? Why do our regulars only come once or twice a month now, when a decade ago they were here every week? Why would a new pastor accept a call to a dwindling congregation with a shrinking budget? How can we draw in newcomers when everyone in this community knows about “the incident” that happened here twenty years ago? How can we call ourselves a vibrant church when our educational wing is a ghost town?

These are all questions of worthiness. And yet, our value does not come from attendance patterns or the weekly offering. Just because something bad occurred in our past doesn’t mean our story is irredeemable. There’s no need to sound the death knell when one part of the physical plant is lying fallow. We don’t have to earn our place in the whole of Christ’s body. We have significance simply because we were created by God and gathered together in God’s name.

How, then, do we push against this collective shame that prevents us from moving into a fruitful future?

First, we must unearth it. With a group of leaders – or possibly with the congregation as a whole – pose some discussion prompts. What chapters of the church’s life or which former pastors do we not talk about, and why? How do we think others view our congregation? What are our biggest worries about the church’s present or future? How do these worries affect how we do ministry?

Second, we must address the three Ps. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes that personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence radically impact our self-perception. In personalization, congregations think “we are not good enough” rather than “those members who went elsewhere needed something we don’t offer.” In pervasiveness, an issue in one area is generalized to all of church life: “our youth group has hit a membership lull” becomes “the church is dying.” And permanence prompts us to think that we can’t get off whatever train we’re on: “if we’re in decline, there’s nowhere to go but down.” Those big, shame-inducing Ps have to be shrunk down to their proper place as lower-case ps that focus on actions and circumstances rather than unalterable character.

Third, we must broaden the narrative. What are the stories that demonstrate the congregation’s uniqueness? How has this church changed lives for the better? What are the gifts of our current circumstances? What can we do now that we couldn’t do before? What are the non-financial resources we haven’t yet tapped? For whom would this congregation and its mission be really good news?

God did not make us – as individuals or churches – for shame. God created us for love, connection, joy, and innovation. Let us do the hard work of exposing and eliminating the shame that keeps us from embracing the worthiness that comes from our kinship with Christ, thereby becoming free to live fully into the purposes God has for us.

Thanksgiving challenge

For some of us, Thanksgiving is a time for gathering with family, eating more than we should, and falling asleep in a recliner in front of a football game. For some of us, Thanksgiving is a time of stress, knowing we’ll be sharing space with people we love but with whom we disagree passionately. For some of us, Thanksgiving is a lonely time, spent apart from dear ones. For some of us, Thanksgiving is a work day, full of meeting others’ needs.

Whatever your Thanksgiving looks like, I invite you to read through the list below and join me in a challenge that expresses gratitude for all that we are and all that we have through self-care, connection, service, and resistance.

  • Take a nap.
  • Read an article, watch a video, or listen to a podcast from a Native American point of view.
  • Tell someone three specific reasons you are grateful for him/her/them.
  • Challenge a fear-mongering or prejudiced statement.
  • Fully embrace your pledge not to listen to Christmas music before Advent – or play your list of favorite holiday tunes on an endless, joy-inducing loop. (I’ll be doing the latter.)
  • Eat something delicious.
  • Engage in an act of community service or make a donation to a service organization.
  • Jump in a leaf pile.
  • Stay out of the shopping fray on Thanksgiving Day.
  • Have a conversation with someone who knows and loves the whole of you – and about whom you feel the same.
  • Help with the cooking, the dishes, or the trash.
  • Move your body, whether by participating in a Turkey Trot or simply by walking around the block.
  • Thank God for your life, your call, and your people.

Countering loneliness

In chapter three of Braving the Wilderness: the Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brene Brown cites a startling statistic. The odds of dying early are increased by the following factors:

  • air pollution = 5% more likely to die early
  • obesity = 20% more likely to die early
  • excessive drinking = 30% more likely to die early
  • loneliness = 45% more likely to die early

Yikes. I know a lot of pastors – single and partnered, extroverts and introverts – who are seeking meaningful connections they haven’t yet found. I’ve been there many times myself, even as a person who loves her alone time. The boundaries and ethics that have been drilled into us for good reason by seminaries and judicatories often mean that we keep parishioners at arm’s length. (The paradox is that appropriate self-revelation is the key to building trust with a congregation.) Our personal theology and politics can cause us to feel estranged from the people we serve and even from many in the larger community. And the odd, demanding hours of a minister’s vocational life, not to mention the assumptions people have about clergy, make it difficult to cultivate connections outside the church.

We have some significant hurdles to overcome, but the 45% more-likely-to-die-early stat makes it plain that loneliness is a life or death issue. It’s also a matter of theological integrity; we serve a God who seeks us to draw us ever nearer not just to the divine heart but also to one another.

So what can we do to push past the loneliness? Here are a few thoughts:

Know how much connection you need to feel emotionally healthy. Typically (perhaps stereotypically), introverts need a few deep relationships while extroverts value a wide range of friendships.

Identify and share what makes you feel understood and embraced in relationships. What you need to feel seen and close to someone varies from one person to the next. (That makes it important to consider this same question about others.) Gary Chapman’s work on the five love languages has been extremely helpful to me in this vein.

Look for places and people where you note commonality. For example, join a club or a team. Volunteer for a cause. Go to an art class. Look for ways to expand on or dig deeper into that shared interest with those you meet.

Prioritize people. It’s so easy to get buried in tasks. Step back occasionally to remember the purpose behind the task, which is often human-centered. And when faced with the option between nurturing a relationship and checking off a to-do, choose the former as often as possible.

Know your warning signs. How do you know when you’re lonely? What happens in your heart? What changes in your body? How does your calendar look different? When these alerts pop up, step back and reflect on what is happening.

What would you add to this list?

Course on resilience in ministry coming in 2018

I coach clergywomen around a number of topics: widening the margins in their lives, leading in ways that are true to their gifts and purpose, visioning new ministries, finding a best-fit next call, leaving and starting a position well, navigating conflict, leading change in the church.

I believe from the split ends of my hair down to my non-pedicured toes that each coachee is capable of navigating the issues in front of her. But that doesn’t mean that these clergywomen don’t get tired and anxious, don’t occasionally daydream about 9-5 jobs, or don’t wonder if they can do this pastoring thing for the long term.

It takes resilience – the ability to withstand and even thrive in the midst of stress – to to lead at a high level throughout a ministry career. That’s why in 2018 I am offering Pastoral persistence: cultivating resilience for the long haul. This three-session course will cover three key areas of resilience in ministry: leading with authenticity, dealing with feedback, and tending to joy. Each 1.5-hour video call will include teaching and coaching time. Participants will come away with a clearer understanding of their specific call and leadership style, a plan for setting up helpful feedback systems and learning from criticism, and a strategy for ongoing self-care. The format will be part teaching, part coaching.

Here are the pertinent details:

January 9, January 23, February 6
12:30-2:00 eastern
Zoom platform
$50/person

Space will be limited. Sign up here.

 

New resource: mutual ministry review outline

Most congregations require an annual evaluation of the minister. This is a worthy requirement, but it must be framed and conducted well to be useful rather than (at best) frustrating or (at worst)counterproductive.  Below are some suggestions to get the most out of the process. (A PDF of this post, suitable for printing and sharing with your lay leaders, is available here.)

Make sure the right people are in the room. What body should conduct the review? Sometimes this information is outlined in the minister’s letter of covenant/call or in the congregational by-laws. If it isn’t, the group of lay leaders that works most closely with the minister (with input as appropriate from others) should facilitate this conversation.

Be clear about the purpose of the review. What does everyone involved hope to accomplish? The review will be an exercise in fruitlessness, maybe even frustration, if it’s being done merely to check off a box.

Frame the conversation in terms of mutual ministry. Ministry is collaborative, not performative. How are pastor and parish in this together? Where have we helped each other grow or made each other stronger this year? What do we need from one another in the coming year?

Set helpful metrics. What mile markers will tell us how well we are living into God’s call? (Having a functional mission statement makes these criteria much easier to establish.) The wrong metrics prompt focus on surface rather than substantive issues.

Look backward and forward. What have we noticed and what do we hope for? Examining – though not lingering in – the past can be a springboard for promising conversations about what lies ahead.

Welcome the opportunity to minister in the midst of the review. Framing the conversation in terms of mutual ministry allows the participants to check in with one another, not just as fellow constituents of the church but also as people.

Use feedforward for constructive feedback. How can we leverage difficulties into positive changes? Useful criticism starts with what we’ve learned and where we are now, then looks ahead to what we can do differently.

Agree on intervals and means for feedback through the year. Concerns and celebrations don’t need to wait until the formal review. What are the logical times of year for all parties to touch base with each other, and what’s the most helpful way to go about that?

Re-covenant as needed. What about the covenant we’ve been operating under needs to change? As shifts happen, intentional tweaks to how minister and congregation relate to each other need to be made.


Below are some questions that could be useful toward the ends named above.

This past year

At the beginning of last year, what did we believe God had called us to do and be together? In what ways did we live into that? What obstacles did we encounter, and how did we navigate them? What did we learn?

Where did we notice God at work most powerfully in our ministry together this past year? When were we most energized and engaged?

How have we grown as minister and congregation since the last review?

As individuals, how are we doing spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically?

This coming year

What do we believe God is calling us to do together in the coming year? What are some first steps in living toward that vision? What obstacles do we anticipate?

How can we create even more space for the Spirit to move in, among, and through us this year?

What changes do we need to make to address obstacles that remain from last year or that we anticipate for the coming year? What resources and leadership do we need to overcome these challenges?

What are our self-care plans for the coming year? How can we support and hold each other accountable?

In what areas do we want to grow as minister/disciples? How might we go about that? How can we support and hold one another accountable?

Specifically for the minister

How well does your position description match what you actually do? What do you need to stop doing? What needs to be updated in your position description to make it more accurate?

How well does your compensation align with your needs and responsibilities? What adjustments need to be considered?

Loose ends

Coming out of this conversation, what follow-up is needed? Who will do it, and by when?

Which aspects of this conversation need to remain confidential? How do we define confidential?

Image courtesy of Hermano Leon Clip Art.

You too?

Last week I added my voice to the (unfortunately) swelling chorus of #MeToos. You can find my article on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Patheos blog here.

If you have experienced sexual harassment or assault within the walls of the church or beyond, I want you to know that I see you. And, I hope you can believe about yourself – as I believe about you with all of my being – that you are strong, you are worthy, and you are loved.

Thinking about church size in relationship to mission

Last week I shared discussion questions to help a congregation understand what exactly its church size is and how this size relates to 1) expectations placed on the pastor and 2) the ways newcomers are welcomed and included. These reflection points are important because they help leaders pinpoint why the numbers aren’t increasing – or why they rise, only to be bumped back down. But much more than that, the accurate assessment of size enables a congregation to consider what God is calling it to do and be and to make needed cultural and structural shifts toward those ends. Here, then, is part two of the discussion guide.

Opportunities

Who comprises our community? A demographic study could be helpful for gleaning this information. Even better, take a prayer walk or drive around your immediate community, making an effort to notice who your neighbors are. Once you have identified your neighbors, ask them about their concerns.

What organizations meet the needs of the different populations? According to the different populations and service organizations, what needs are not currently being met? There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Where might there be opportunities to come alongside agencies or churches doing good work? Where are the gaps your church might consider filling? (Hosting a panel discussion with representatives from city leadership and/or the service sector is one way to get at these questions. Talking with social workers and school counselors is another.) Think in terms of physical, spiritual, relational, mental, and emotional challenges.

Assets

What resources for ministry do we have at our disposal? Consider but don’t limit your thinking to money on hand and the physical plant. Other assets include spiritual leadership, ministries/programs, relationships/contacts/spheres of influence, special skills/knowledge, work ethic, and the willingness to try something new.

Capacity

What is our capacity for ministry? Every congregation has a sweet spot in which members feel a healthy sense of urgency and deep engagement but aren’t in danger of burnout. What is your congregation’s capacity in terms of relationships, leadership, energy, finances, and physical space?

  • In which areas have we maxed out our capacity?
  • What do we need to give up to create more capacity?
  • In which areas do we still have capacity left to use?

Represent the different areas of capacity with pie charts or thermometers, then color in the percentages.

Convergence 

What is God nudging us to consider? Given what you have noticed and prayerfully considered, what is your congregation’s mission in the coming months and beyond?

Are we the right size for taking this on, or do we need to size up or down? You have discussed your church’s size, culture, and expectations. Now it’s time to lay those over the vision God has given you and see where there’s alignment and where changes need to be made.

If church size needs to change size to fulfill calling, in what ways can we begin to function at that size? The system will always bump your congregation back to the size it was if you don’t make infrastructure changes first. Given what you know about various church sizes, what might those changes include? Think in terms of pastoral/staff leadership, lay leadership, inroads for newcomers, and procedures. If you can articulate the why for making these shifts – your mission – you will have a much easier time executing them.

Raising awareness around your church’s size dynamics

“How can we grow our church?”

This is the question that haunts a clergyperson’s dreams, whether it wells up from the minister’s own mind and heart or is voiced by laypeople every time they look at attendance and giving patterns. It’s not necessarily a bad question. It does make a couple of big assumptions – that we need to grow and that we are in agreement about what growth looks like – unless it comes at the tail end of discussions about the congregation’s culture and God-given purpose.

Boiled down to its essence, a church’s size is based on two factors: the role of the pastor and the way newcomers enter the system. (Descriptions of the various size designations are available here.) Ministers can use questions and storytelling around these two dynamics to help leaders begin to understand how the church works and what might need to change for growth to occur.

Pinpointing the church’s actual size

  • How many members does our church have? What is weekly attendance? How do we define regular attendance?
  • What do you love about the size of our church?
  • What limits does our church size put on us?
  • What is your favorite story about this church that relates to its size?

Understanding ministerial functioning

  • What is the role of our pastor(s) – from pastor’s point of view and people’s?
  • What engages and energizes our pastor?
  • What would our pastor like to do if there was time/energy?
  • What leadership support does the pastor have? Need?

 Examining systems of welcome and inclusion

  • What is our system for recognizing and welcoming newcomers?
  • How do we follow up with visitors?
  • How do these systems relate to our size?
  • When is the last time a visitor came 3+ times?
  • How did our newest members know they wanted this to be their faith community?

These prompts are designed to help laity get up on the balcony and see the congregation from a new perspective. Next week I’ll share questions around discerning mission that can bring another level of awareness, such that the congregation can consider whether and in what way(s) it needs to grow to live toward its vision.

When you want to make a significant change in your congregation

In 2011 this video of a guy with some, well, creative moves made the social media rounds. He is the embodiment of “dance like nobody’s watching.” Except that people are watching, and a second person joins in. Then another. And soon there’s a crush of festival-goers feeling the groove.

This is how it goes with innovation. A few people are eager to jump on board at the outset. Most hang back, though, waiting to see how those around them will respond.

In thinking about introducing change to a congregation, it can be helpful to remember that not everyone is going to embrace the new at the same speed. It’s essential for a leader do due diligence with ideas, communicating them and involving the appropriate groups in refining and rolling them out. There are situations, however, in which leaders might have legitimate cause to initiate a change when only the early adopters have bought in. In those cases, here are some ways to make the shift well.

Pray. Start with gratitude for the idea and the opportunity to implement it. Ask God to open hearts and minds – your own as well as others.’

Set meaningful metrics. Know what the goal of the innovation is and name milestones that will allow you and others to assess (accurately) progress toward the end game.

Accept that not everyone will be an early adopter. People have different leadership and followership profiles. And someone who might be an early adopter of one kind of idea might drag their feet on another type.

Roll out the change on a provisional basis. It is possible to try out something new before fully committing to it. (Consider carefully, though, what message having a provisional period sends about your own enthusiasm for the change.)

Stay in regular communication with enthusiasts and skeptics. Seek out feedback frequently. You’ll get encouragement to keep forging ahead as well as thoughts on how to improve the new initiative so that it sticks. (Be clear with skeptics about what constructive feedback consists of!)

Continue to discern. Discernment is a relationship, not a one-and-done. Ask God to give you wisdom about adjustments that need to be made and pastoral care that needs to be carried out with people most affected by the change.

Give frequent updates through many voices and means. Communication lowers anxiety, especially when it includes both stories of and data around  how the innovation is bringing positive results. (Here’s where those metrics come in.)

Remember that big shifts take time. A change that is forced might have good short-term results, but the strain it puts on relationships and trust over the long haul is hard to repair.

About what might you need to dance with abandon?