The lie about outliers

In his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success, journalist Malcolm Gladwell sets out to obliterate the myth of rugged individualism. No one is self-made, he asserts, no matter how humble that person’s beginnings might seem. Everyone who has reached the pinnacle of achievement has been afforded opportunities and advantages that provided a foundation for hard work and persistence.

Money and status are obvious springboards for success. But Gladwell digs deeper than that. Athletes get a leg up when they barely miss early childhood cut-off dates for sports signups, making them bigger and more physically mature – and thus getting more playing time, attention, and investment from coaches – than their peers. The peculiar demands of rice farming created a culture of year-round work in Asian countries that filters down to students, setting them up for an unwavering focus on schoolwork. Bill Gates came of age in exactly the right era to get in on the personal computing revolution, and he lived in the right place to capitalize on a series of opportunities that got him thousands of hours of coding practice on the newest – and scarcest – technology. Privilege comes in many forms.

Though the myth of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is inspirational, the real-life weaving together of generations and circumstances strikes me as profoundly biblical. Scripture is full of success (and failure) stories that have their roots in previous eras, others’ choices, and living in a certain place at a particular time. And Jesus makes it clear that we belong to one another, as the effects of our words and actions ripple out far beyond what we can see.

What, then, are the hidden forces that have contributed to our success? And how might we help others to see their own advantages and opportunities? One possibility is to map out our lives, starting with the present day and going backward to examine (to the best of our limited vision) the factors that brought us to where we are. Who mentored us? What were our lucky breaks? How did our birthdates, cultural heritage, physical makeup, access to options, and location shape our trajectories?

If we can unearth the forces at work in our lives and give up the narrative that we got where we are under our own power, the implications for widening our (individual and congregational) understanding of and call to mission are huge. And we might discover innovative ways to support others in less traditional ways when we don’t have much money and status to offer.

Photo by Tory Morrison on Unsplash.


The value of assessments

There are times when we get stuck because we’re lacking a piece of the puzzle. Why can’t this person and I get on the same page? What’s keeping me from tackling that task that never drops off my to-do list? Why does my work feel so overwhelming or confining?

These are situations in which an assessment could help. Assessments help us better understand aspects of our personality, habits, and approach to relationships. With this new awareness, we are more equipped to lean into our strengths, read rooms, develop systems that compensate for our weaknesses, and surround ourselves with people whose skills provide the yen to our yang.

A lot of ministers are familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (which was my first introduction to assessments), the Enneagram (which I’m still learning about), and Prepare-Enrich (which many regard as the go-to for counseling couples before and after marriage). Here are some others I really like:

Core Values Index. In this 10-minute assessment takers identify 72 words that best describe them. The combination of words chosen reveals the taker’s innate nature and primary motivators. This test helped me understand how two very disparate parts of my personality and work preferences relate to one another. (A free version of the test is available here.)

Mindframes. This free test is based in neuroscience. It assesses which parts of the brain the taker operates out of most frequently for thinking and doing. Mindframes uses this information to identify how the taker’s brain processes information most efficiently. This test showed me my preferences so that I could capitalize on those strengths – and it revealed which areas of the brain I need to access when the situation calls for a perspective shift.

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. This assessment measures how much the taker uses each of five approaches to conflict. It’s useful for identifying conflict-handling modes the taker might want to utilize more or less often. It is also helpful in team work for helping the members understand one another’s conflict style.

5 Love Languages. This might sound like an odd addition to this list, since the 5 love languages are primarily used for relationships with loved ones. I have found it useful in ministry, though, for pinpointing how to relate with others more effectively, particularly in pastoral care or shared leadership.

Learning styles inventory. This free assessment is geared toward educators so that they can strategize how to communicate best with their students. I have found it helpful for realizing that I remember best information presented to me visually. The test also reminds me to utilize other learning styles when working with others.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but I hope these assessments provide some pathways to deeper understanding of self and others. Your results can be a great jumping-off point for coaching – now that I know this about myself, what do I do with this information? – so contact me if you’d like to explore that possibility.

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash.

Second edition of clergy search and call workbook now available

I believe that the foundation for healthy mutual ministry is laid in the pre-covenanting conversations that clergy and congregations have with one another – namely, the search & call process. It’s a time of determining whether our strengths and purpose align with a church’s needs and mission. It’s a means of sussing out whether there’s a possibility of the two parties growing and serving together, of belonging to one another. It’s an imagining of what could be as minister and ministry setting leave behind what is known.

Because of its importance, this season of discernment can be at turns exhilarating, overwhelming, and downright frustrating for ministers looking for a great-fit position. Search teams move at different speeds, and some are more communicative than others. It can be hard to know how to present ourselves (on paper and in person) in compelling ways. We usually get gut-punched by “no” a few times before we can celebrate a “yes.” And even after a call has been extended, there are so many details to tend to – salary negotiations, leaving the current position gracefully, moving, starting the new position well.

It’s a lot. Sailing Uncertain Seas: A Workbook for Navigating the Search & Call Process is here to help. First published last year, I’ve strengthened some of the coaching questions and added six pages of content to the second edition, primarily around the end of the call process. Here’s what the workbook covers:

  • How do I know when the time is right to make a move?
  • What does a “good fit” position look like for me?
  • How do I attend to gaps in the experience I have and the experience I must have?
  • How do I get my materials in front of a search team?
  • How do I tell my story to search teams?
  • How do I prepare spiritually, mentally, and emotionally for interviews?
  • What do I wear for interviews?
  • How can I reflect on interview experiences in helpful ways?
  • How do I get the real story on congregations I’m interested in?
  • How do I deal with search team gaffes?
  • How do I juggle different search timelines?
  • How do I navigate searching while serving elsewhere?
  • How do I navigate searching while not serving elsewhere?
  • How do I make good use of a search team’s “no”?
  • What else do I need to make a good decision if a call is extended?
  • How do I negotiate compensation?
  • How do I leave my current call well?
  • How do I get off to a good start in my new call?

You can print off a PDF of the workbook and use the coaching questions within to prepare for each phase of your search.

If you’re looking to make a move, this 64-page guide is a great place to start. Click here to purchase it. (Note that a free copy of Sailing Uncertain Seas is included in a search & call coaching package. If you’re interested in learning more, go here to schedule an exploratory call.)

New (free) resource: weekly calendar with reflection prompts

I am someone who dreams pretty intensely. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time turning off my mind at night. Or it could be that the podcast I have to listen to in order to quiet my brain plants wild notions in my head. Neither explanation accounts for a very detailed conversation I had last night with Nick Saban, who sought out my advice because his board chair was unwilling or unable to innovate. Luckily for Saban, my freshman roommate wandered by, and a couple of Tennessee grads tag-teamed a leadership strategy for the most powerful man in college football. (See what I mean? Vivid. And weird.)

Occasionally, though, I dream the seed of an actionable idea. Such was the case recently when I sleep-designed a resource for ministers. This weekly calendar with reflection prompts is aimed at bringing more intentionality to our lives. Each day has morning and evening coaching questions. In between, the days are divided into three blocks of time. Those blocks can be used to list appointments, to divvy up tasks, or to designate work and leisure time. (In the units of time approach, every day has three units: morning, afternoon, and evening. Full-time work is 10-12 units per week. Subscribers to this method usually recommend booking no more than 2-3 evening work commitments and taking 3-6 blocks off in a row for full rejuvenation per week.)

Below you will find a JPEG of this weekly calendar. Here is an 8.5 x 11″ grayscale PDF. I welcome you to download, print, use this resource. You are also encouraged to share it with others who might benefit.


As young clergywomen from all over gather this week…

Note: I wrote but did not publish this reflection one year ago upon attending my last The Young Clergy Women Project/Young Clergy Women International conference. I offer it now as clergywomen from a number of denominations and locales gather in St. Louis.

I departed my first – the first – Young Clergy Women Project conference in inner turmoil. In 2007 I was floundering in ministry. As a moderate-to-progressive Baptist, congregations in northwest Alabama that aligned with my theology were scarce, and open positions in them were rare. Yet as the spouse of a United Methodist pastor under appointment, I had no say in where I lived. Just before the conference I was called to a staff position at a nearby church. This opportunity was a huge relief to my self-esteem and my bank account. I would be in ministry full time! With benefits! My start date was set for the Sunday after I returned home from the conference at the Cathedral College of Preachers in Washington, DC.

My relief morphed into exhilaration and then plummeted to an “oh, crap” feeling over the course of the TYCWP conference. Something in me was unleashed through that gathering of clergywomen, through our study and practice of homiletics. Maybe it was my preaching voice. Maybe it was clarity about the shape of my call. Maybe it was a sense that I was settling for a position that didn’t match my gifts in a setting that had already shown glimmers of toxicity. Whatever it was, it told me I had no business beginning my new position. As I traveled home, my husband was on a retreat and unavailable to help me process. My parents could only commiserate. So I went to work that Sunday, a sour feeling in my gut.

As you might imagine, the eight months I served at that church were not pretty. (I claim my part in the debacle. I was too fearful to heed the gut-jabbing elbows of the Holy Spirit.) In the end, I was forced out. I probably would no longer be in ministry after that experience. Except…I now had a community of YCWs who had helped me claim a new understanding of my ministry at the conference. Who afterward accompanied me through the many low points of my short-lived job. Who picked me back up when I was emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and sometimes even physically prostrate following my resignation.

And so, as frantic as my inner monologue and as chaotic as my vocational life became out of that first TYCWP conference, I couldn’t imagine not going to the next one. In fact, I’ve been to all of them but one, which got pushed off my calendar by a mission trip. All of them have been great. A few have been life-altering.

The conference is (by far) my most extroverted week of the year, when I float between groups of conference participants, skip naps and stay up late for conversations – if you know me well, you get that this is not my usual M.O. – and drink up all the wisdom and laughter I can. Those of us who have been attending conferences since those early days get to check in annually after tracking one another’s family additions and losses, changes in positions, and cross-country moves on social media throughout the year prior. Those of us older young clergy women also get to welcome first-time attendees and learn about the latest practices and resources from pastors just coming out of seminary.

This month’s Young Clergy Women International conference – the organization, like my own tenure in ministry, is no longer tenuous – was my last one, as I’ll turn 40 shortly. It felt like coming full circle. I arrived at the closing worship with a settled spirit, celebrating that I am feeling more creative and productive in ministry than ever before. After the sermon, proclaimer Casey Fitzgerald asked each participant to describe herself with a single word, to tell that word to another YCW, and to receive affirmation and anointing from that colleague. My word came immediately: encourager. Some YCWs laughed and nodded in confirmation when I told them my word.  I am an encourager. I am an encourager because so many YCWs have encouraged me by recognizing and calling forth my gifts, by sharing with me about the amazing ministry they are doing, and by telling me to rock my new haircut. I am who I am as a person and pastor in large part because of this community. And I am ready to leave it in the capable hands of young clergy women, which I no longer am, and support it from afar as I re-join friends who have gone on to the alumnae group.

Bless you, YCWI. Keep on doing great things for the people of God, in the name of God.

Announcing the next resilience in ministry course

In five years of coaching, I’ve noticed a trend. The clergywomen I work with are enormously talented, innovative, and committed. They’ve got grit. But over time, ministry takes its toll. We’re supposed to shepherd our people as the world becomes both more connected and fractious, as expectations for clergy grow but respect for ministers ebbs, as technology makes us reachable at all times by members with wide-ranging definitions of “pastoral emergency,” and as the bar for active church involvement keeps dropping. These difficulties are compounded by the realities of being a woman in ministry, as we shatter the stained glass ceiling only to find ourselves teetering on the stained glass cliff.

I believe from the unruly hairs on my head all the way down to my kid-sized toes that the church needs what women clergy have to offer in order to respond to the world as we now know it and remain faithful to the gospel. So we must cultivate perhaps the most underrated but necessary trait of a pastoral leader – resilience. Resilience is what keeps us plugging along in dedication to our call when we’d rather binge-watch Netflix and eat our feelings. In the fall I will be offering a three-part course covering three areas key to this strength of spirit: leading with authenticity, dealing with feedback, and tending to joy. 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, thereby preparing themselves to thrive in ministry rather than endure constant frustration and eventual burnout.

This professional development opportunity will offer four means of learning: teaching content, group coaching, wisdom-sharing among the participants, and individual coaching. This will be the first time I’ve included individual coaching with this course, and I believe it will help participants further customize and apply resilience strategies in their contexts. These three one-hour calls can be scheduled at each participant’s convenience.

If your energy for ministry is flagging in the face of so many difficulties, if you’re starting to wonder how long you can hang in (and whether you even want to try), I encourage you to consider this course. Signup is here, and there is a discount of $25 off the listed price of $275 if you register by August 10. The church as a whole and your congregation in particular need your gifts and your voice. Make sure you’re able to offer them for a long time to come.

The power of well-timed humor

I was done. I had spent four days presenting, networking, and wearing only moderately comfortable shoes at General Assembly. I was grateful and better for the interactions, but I was also ready to crawl into a hole and hibernate. The problem was, I had an 8:50 pm flight (delayed a half hour, naturally) and then an hour drive home once I landed. So I was grumpy when I boarded the plane.

Thank goodness I was booked on Southwest. At the start of my trip, I was glad because this meant I had a non-stop flight to the smaller and closer airport, plus I could check a bag for free. (A luxury these days!) At the end of my trip, flying Southwest meant that the crew was free of the staidness of other airlines. The safety demonstration, then, included reminders about not using your neighbor as a flotation device, putting on your own oxygen mask and then turning to your seatmate to decide “if it’s worth it,” and using the emergency exits and slides in case the captain decided to go shark fishing. The lead flight attendant used funny voices and a few dance moves to share other pertinent information. And when we landed, he informed us that the local temperature was 37 degrees. (At 11:00 pm, it was 90.)

I’m sure I wasn’t the only cranky person at boarding time. Yet, when we disembarked (late) into the muggy night, almost everyone I saw was smiling. This borderline-miracle seemed instructive. The flight attendant’s humor:

Caught my attention. Confession: I never listen to the safety information. It’s always the same. But I turned off my headphones because I didn’t want to miss any of the standup act.

Lifted my spirits. I was worried about driving home at my fatigue level, and I dreaded my human alarm waking me up early the next morning, as much as I couldn’t wait to see him. I felt more awake and refreshed for the journey after a few laughs.

Made me want to engage with others. As a raging introvert, I avoid conversations on planes by listening to podcasts and trying to nap. But my improved mood made me open to looking at internet memes with the stranger sitting next to me.

Was contagious. Laughter – like yawning – often is.

When in our work could a bit of well-timed humor do wonders for the atmosphere and productivity? Maybe a committee meeting when everyone is zoned out. Or a congregational gathering where those present are discussing unavoidable (and expensive) repairs to the building. Or even a funeral. (That’s probably not the best venue to work on your Jim Gaffigan “Hot Pockets” voice, but some self-deprecation might do.)

Good-natured humor humanizes and connects. Tuck it into your toolkit for a time when you need to shrink the dimensions of your meeting space.

Photo by Braydon Anderson on Unsplash.

Watching The Americans

SPOILER ALERT: this post contains plot points of “The Americans” series finale.

They actively undermined the United States government. They killed dozens of people, some of them just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They used sex to manipulate those with power or access. They spat upon faith, calling it “the opiate of the masses.” And yet, I cared about “The Americans” characters Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, longtime Russian spies posing as upwardly-mobile travel agents and parents of two in 1980s DC.

Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields made these enemies of the state relatable through masterful storytelling. We saw Philip and Elizabeth’s struggles with ideology and morality. With raising kids born into a culture they were taught to despise. With growing together and apart multiple times, ultimately trusting their partnership despite their diverging outlooks on the state of the world. They were three-dimensional characters. So too was Stan, the FBI counterintelligence agent who moved in across the street in the pilot. Stan was a true patriot and an unfaithful husband, bedding a KGB officer he (thought he) had turned.

So when the series finale aired last month, I was invested. Philip and Elizabeth had been exposed. Would they be able to escape? Stan had realized the truth about the neighbors he regularly shared meals with. How would the inevitable confrontation go? And what about the kids – college student Paige, who had been recruited into the spy business, and high school junior Henry, who had nary a clue about his parents’ true identities?

Stan’s ambush – and ultimate release – of Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige was anxious and heartfelt. For me the real gut punch, though, was the severing of the parent-child bonds. Philip decided Henry’s best shot at a normal life was to abandon him in the only country he’s ever known. In a surprise move, Paige hopped off the train she and her parents are traveling on just before it crosses the U.S.-Canadian border. All of these decisions, so permanent, yet made so quickly out of necessity. I haven’t been able to view the finale again yet. It’s too raw – and this for someone who thinks her feelings.

But maybe my re-watch hesitation has nothing to do with the show. I wonder if it’s actually about the real-time crisis happening on our southern border. Sure, Philip and Elizabeth might never see their kids again. But their children were more or less grown and able to get along on their own. They remained in places familiar to them, where they spoke the same language as most everyone else. They were untethered from their parents’ uncertain destinies by the sacrifice. One of kids was able to choose her own fate. And, of course, they were fictional characters.

None of this is the case for Central American families moving north into the U.S., seeking better, safer lives, many of them engaging the proper channels for asylum. Instead, children – even infants – were being whisked away with no guarantee of when or whether they will see their parents again. (While the executive order means newly-entering families are being detained together, it does nothing to help the children who have already been separated and farmed out to various “welfare” agencies.) Even if you’re not a parent, we were all once small children. Imagine being separated from your mom and dad, held in a cage or an abandoned Wal-mart, put on a plane to another state while no one is really keeping tabs on your location, supervised by people who are forbidden to hold and comfort you in your confusion and distress. It’s traumatizing. It’s inhumane. And if faith doesn’t compel us to action, maybe we are just taking in “the opiate of the masses.”

If I can care about Russian spies on tv, then surely I – we – can have compassion for the flesh-and-blood children of God, coming to our country with hopes of contributing to it, of raising their intact families in it. God help me if I don’t advocate for them exponentially more fervently than I love a tv show that was, at its root, about humanizing the other. May we all be watching – and calling and protesting – the real-life Americans who are causing irreparable harm.

Image courtesy of FX.

Feeling hopeful

“What are you taking away from this conversation?” “Hope.”

The coaching calls that end this way are my fuel. Many clergywomen pastor through difficulties that can be traced back to the glass cliff, sexism in general, or the anxiety that often flares up in congregations. They minister with creativity, authenticity, grace, and power.

Still, even these fierce women run up on situations that are tough to unknot without a conversation partner. Because they live with these realities every day, they need help zooming out from minutiae, sorting through complex dynamics, and determining what their roles are in particular scenarios. In short, they need someone to draw them out of their overwhelm.

It is a joy and privilege when I get to help my coachees see situations from new angles, consider how they want to show up and what it will take to do that, strategize next steps, and realize the value of what they are already doing. This is what hope is – not wishful thinking, but the ability to see a clear way forward that had previously been obscured. This is the essence of what I work to offer my coaches.

Fantastic clergywomen, thank you for letting me be in your orbit. You give me hope.

Photo by Gabriel Sanchez on Unsplash.

Caring vs. carrying

A couple of weeks ago I wrapped up a three-session course on resilience in ministry with some fantastic clergywomen. We talked about the emotional labor that gets dumped on us by parishioners – bless their hearts – and the ways it siphons off both professional and personal joy. The question that popped into my mind was, “What do we need to refuse to care about more than our people do?” One of the participants anticipated that I was going to use the word “carry” instead of “care,” a leap that took us into rich discussion. Maybe we shouldn’t refuse to care. Maybe we can’t not care. But that doesn’t mean we have to carry all the worry and responsibility – especially around this emotional work – that others offer us.

I can care that you’re in conflict with another church member without inserting myself into the conflict.

I can care that your feelings were hurt by not being nominated for a lay leadership role while remaining clear that the decision was a good one.

I can care that you don’t think I visited you often enough in the hospital without doubting my intentionality around how I spend my ministry time.

I can care that you heard my sermon in a way I did not intend and still trust that the Spirit did its work in and through me.

Caring vs. carrying all boils down to the hard work of self-differentiation: here is where you end and I begin. When we are clear about our strengths, purpose, and role, we can begin to crawl out from the weight of others’ expectations while remaining connected to the people around us.

What burden do you need to lay down?

Photo by Felix Russell-Saw on Unsplash.