Taking time to transition

I love my lists and my Google calendar. They make my chaotic life feel manageable(ish). Still, there are times when the to-dos meld into  asinglerunontask and events overlap. That’s when my brain kicks into hyperdrive, my eyes dart around my desk, and my heart picks up the pace. I’m TCBing, with output of questionable quality. I’m everywhere at once, but nowhere fully present. Maybe you can relate.

I confess that I sometimes I sing “I’m Every Woman” to myself with whiff of pride. But it’s not always (often? ever?) good to be every woman at every moment. I don’t want to be mentally running through research while eating dinner with my family. I’m not my best self as a leader if I’m sketching my sermon outline during a committee meeting. It’s hard to give good pastoral care to someone who is grieving when I’m still coming down off a tense conversation with a colleague. Yes, there are times when I have to manage multiple responsibilities, but not as often as I try to.

Hence the need for transitions: into and out of my workday, from one task to another, between conversations that require emotional awareness and sharp mental focus. Anytime a shift in mindset is warranted, I’ve got to take a moment to close one internal file and open the next. This transition allows me to consider how I want to show up for the situation I’m about to enter and to re-center myself so that I can live toward those intentions.

There are any number of ways I make the shift – sometimes more successfully than at other times, I admit. Taking deep breaths to re-set my brain. Jotting down notes about what I’ve been doing so that I can fully set that work aside and come back to it later. Doing a couple of quick yoga poses or pilates exercises. Shutting my eyes for five minutes (making sure to set an alarm!). Queueing up the playlists I’ve created for settling down and amping up. Turning over loose threads to God and asking for awareness and guidance going into whatever is next on the agenda. Taking a lap around the building.

What are the ways you transition from one task or event to the next, or even into and out of your day? Where do you need to build in a couple of minutes on the front and/or back end of your to-dos so that you can fully be you – insightful, compassionate, prophetic, gifted you – as a pastor and a person?

Creative Commons image “bridge” by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

10 red flags search and call candidates shouldn’t ignore

Are you a minister engaged in the exhilarating, overwhelming, often frustrating search & call process? I’ve ridden that roller coaster too. I’ve participated in some healthy call processes and in others that left me wondering, “What was that search team thinking? Lordamercy.”

Through all these experiences I have learned that the way a church handles its ministerial search is a big indicator of how the clergy-congregation relationship will go. That means it’s really important to be attentive to red flags in interactions with the search team. Here are ten to be on the lookout for:

Inappropriate questions. Outside of small talk, queries from a search team should stay focused on your call to ministry, qualifications, and capacity to engage fully the responsibilities of the position.

Incomplete information. Particularly if you are a finalist for a position, you have the right to obtain complete answers to your questions about the congregation, to view the church’s key documents., and to meet church leaders.

Lack of space for your questions. You are interviewing the congregation as much as the congregation is interviewing you.

Rushed search. A rush job often indicates high anxiety, which means you could be stepping into a hornet’s nest if you accept the call.

Unresolved conflict in the congregation. A church that has completed the hard work of a transition will have addressed tricky issues – or at least will have an already-activated plan for doing so that is not simply “let the next minister handle it.”

Difficult dynamics within the search team. If you can hardly see the search team members because of the elephant in the room, name the dynamics you notice and ask what’s behind them. These difficulties could be a microcosm of what’s going on in the congregation as a whole.

Inflexibility. If the search team can interview you at X date/Y time and no other options are available, for example, consider what might be behind this rigidity.

Job description that is outdated or “kitchen sink.” If the minister description has not been revised since 1957 or it would take four full-time clergy to fulfill all the duties outlined, the search team doesn’t have a good grasp on what it’s looking for.

Lack of courtesy. The best search teams communicate clearly and in a timely manner, plan for interviews and visits with hospitality in view, and don’t leave you guessing about search expenses.

Focus on hot buttons. When you’re asked where you stand on gay marriage, for example, don’t just dive in. Probe the concern behind the question.

If you note one or more of these red flags, don’t panic. These aren’t necessarily indications that the congregation is a train wreck or that you should immediately withdraw your name. (Most people who serve on search teams are participating in this process for the first time, and there’s a steep learning curve for calling a minister.) Do, however, proceed with caution. Do your homework. Leave no question unasked. Parse your search team interactions with a trusted colleague, coach, mentor, or judicatory leader. Mull whether this church’s challenges are a good match for your passions and your skill set.

Above all, enjoy the ride when possible, and hang in there!

Creative Commons image “Red flags” by Rutger van Waveren is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Where does your authority reside?

Two nights before I got married, my parents, husband-to-be, and I went to dinner in the restaurant adjoining the wedding venue. The hostess – a fellow young adult – placed menus with fancy fonts in front of everyone…except for me. I got a coloring sheet and crayons.

At first, I was stunned. After I got my wits about me, though, I was boiling. I marched the kiddie menu back to the hostess stand and asked, through gritted teeth, to exchange it for a grown-up one.

I’d like to say this incident was out of the norm, but it wasn’t. (It was, however, the most embarrassing in a long line of ego-shrinking moments!) Until I had a high-energy child who quickly and visibly aged me, strangers often underestimated my age. The mismatch between my perceived and actual age ballooned into a bigger issue when I became a minister. Not only was I female, I looked like a 14-year-old. Not a great combination for being taken seriously in the pulpit, in hospital rooms, and at the funeral home. I spent a lot of time justifying my presence to others…and to myself.

All of my insecurities came to a head during my first unit of CPE. Some doctors, nurses, and hospital staffers were more open to the idea of chaplaincy than others. Once I was mid-prayer with a patient in ICU – at the request of said patient and family – when a nurse burst in and told me to go so she could perform a routine blood pressure check. I acquiesced. When I brought my frustrations to my CPE cohort, my supervisors challenged me: “Do you believe you had a right to be there? Why did you leave?” That situation was in sharp contrast with the all-night vigil I kept with a family whose patriarch was dying. They – and the doctors and nurses – welcomed my ministry. In fact, the deceased’s wife called the hospital later that week to thank me for my prayers and my presence.

Those two encounters worked on me mightily. I realized I had been waiting for others to grant me pastoral authority rather than locating it in my call and my sense of self. God has pulled me into ministry. God has equipped me and continues to do so. I won’t get it right all the time, but that’s ok. Sometimes my humanity opens opportunities for connection that perfection in pastoring would not.

There’s a certain amount of authority we gain by virtue of our education, ordination, and job title. We also earn some of it by being with our people at points of pain and celebration. But these sources cannot be the primary means of understanding ourselves as ministers. Otherwise, when we are between positions, when we don’t have our ordination certificate handy, when we are at the center of conflict, when others don’t yet know us well enough to let us in, when someone tells us to get out, we won’t have much to keep us rooted in our pastoral identity.

Instead, we must continually (because it’s not a one-and-done exercise) develop the ability to ask, “Do I deserve to be here? What are the gifts I have to offer? What is God prompting me to do here and now?” Not so that we overstep our authority, but so that we live fully into it.

I found that once I stopped questioning myself so much, so did other people. Or, at least, those moments prompted more of a willingness to educate (and, let’s be honest, some mental eye-rolling) than a vocational crisis.

Are you called by God into ministry? Are you called by God to be in ministry at this time, in this place? Has God equipped you, or is God currently equipping you to serve? Then go forth to use your gifts, embracing your identity as pastor and person.

Leavin’ it behind for Lent

Tomorrow is the first day of Lent, the season of preparing ourselves for the good news of Christ’s resurrection, with all that it means for us. Lent is a prime time to clear away – with God’s help – the obstacles that keep us from growing in our relationships with the divine and with humankind. Often that spring cleaning involves taking on a particular discipline, whether giving up a distraction or adding a spiritual practice. Both are great means of creating more space in our lives for love. I think I’m going to tweak those approaches a bit and focus on the barriers themselves, using different means to try to shrink them.

Shame. As Brene Brown so helpfully names, shame is a feeling of unworthiness. It is different from guilt, which is regret about an action or an omission. God has fearfully and wonderfully made me. God has fearfully and wonderfully made everyone else too, including people I do not know, like, agree with, or understand. I will seek to be more attentive to when I feel shame and when I use shame as a tactic against others.

Inaction. I have always liked to think of myself as someone who does her part to help others. In the past month – as circumstances for a number of populations have become more dire – I’ve realized I have not been doing nearly enough. I will ask God to open me to opportunities to be generous, vulnerable, and bold…and to kick me in the pants to take those opportunities.

Defensiveness. My mind screams “I’m a good person!” when someone challenges me on what I believe and how I live out those tenets. The truth is, I’m a privileged person, one who has unwittingly perpetuated a number of isms. I will engage in intentional learning about the shortcomings I’m aware of – and, no doubt, unearth more in the process. Not to feel shame, mind you, but in knowing better, to do better.

Withdrawal. It is really, really hard right now to resist pulling my head and my limbs into my shell. In some of the spaces I inhabit, very human opinions are given the weight of gospel, and the outflowing strategies are heralded as salvific. It does not feel safe to share from my heart, or even from my greater comfort center – my mind. I will effort to stay present, because conversation is one of our greatest hopes for unity.

Despair. It feels like every day another heavy, wet blanket is layered onto my tired body. Things are changing so quickly in our country and world, and (to my mind) not in a way that reflects God’s yearning for creation. I will pray continually for hope, using the scriptural phrase, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

What discipline(s) will you take up for Lent?

Creative Commons image “Prayer” by masatoshi_ is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Nevertheless, she persisted

She was warned that women could not hold positions of authority over men. She was given an explanation, straight from the Bible. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not be assertive. She was given an explanation: she might be perceived as shrill. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not show vulnerability. It was explained to her that she could be dismissed as soft or emotional. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not lead in ways authentic to them. She was given an explanation, that women must lead like men to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women could not be both pastor and parent. She was given an explanation: the concern that women would not be able to live fully into both callings. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not wear clothes, shoes, or makeup that would draw attention to their bodies. It was explained to her that such choices would not just be distracting to others, but possibly even prompt inappropriate thoughts. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that pastors should not also be people who acted on their own convictions in the public sphere. She was given an explanation, that ministers must not alienate the people in their care. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned that women should not challenge assumptions. She was given an explanation, that they would make too many people uncomfortable. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Clergywomen – and women in general – have always been the recipients of status quo warnings and unnecessary or inaccurate explanations. Still, we persist.

Keep on keepin’ on, brave and beautiful souls. Our persistence embodies faithfulness, courage, hope, and beauty that the world desperately needs.

Image created by Suzanne L. Vinson, owner of Silver Tree Art. Used with permission.

Safe for whom?

In several of the communities that I value, there are intense discussions happening about the nature of safe space. Whose sense of safety are we protecting? It’s an important question, one that is rooted in the reality of privilege. All of us are socially located at the intersection of our gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors. Those of us with more privilege are accustomed to others deferring to our safety. I have been wrestling a lot lately with the nature of my privilege as a white, straight, cisgender, Christian, middle class person and the ways my obliviousness to that privilege has harmed others. I want to do better. I must do better. I am grateful for courageous voices that are calling me out, even if the new awareness they spark makes me uncomfortable. After all, what change was ever catalyzed by comfort?

The interactions that are urging me to examine both my innermost self and her outward manifestations are complicated. Listening and speaking can both be shut down quickly, hence the discussions about what makes space safe, and for whom. So what are some of the conversational skills that can help us hang in with one another in the midst of these tough, revealing conversations? Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had from my location as an ever-learning, trying-but-still-stumbling person of privilege:

Clarifying rather than (or at least before) advocating. Most of us speak to be understood before seeking to understand. Reversing that order – asking before telling – can stop a lot of arguments before they start.

Challenging rather than shaming. When we share our own perspectives, what is our goal? Is it to inform, to help our conversation partner grow (challenging), or to make him/her feel bad about her/his status or opinion (shaming)? Information and challenge can strengthen relationships. Shame rarely does that.

Defaulting to belief rather than doubt. Assume that the person saying something hard to hear is telling the truth.

Using “I” rather than “you.” “I” statements (“I feel angry when…” as opposed to “you make me angry”) are basic communication skills, yet we rarely use them. Starting a sentence with “you” tends to put hearers on defense. “I” signals I’m about to talk from my experience.

Avoiding exceptionalism. Don’t leap to self-defense when someone calls out privilege. Instead, take a moment to consider whether s/he might be right.

Striving for unity rather than uniformity. We will never all agree. That is ok. But we can look for shared values and purpose to rally around. And in doing so, we will better get to know one another, our histories, and our points of view.

What would you push back on, delete from, or add to this list?

Creative Commons image “listen (069/365)” by Tim Pierce is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A pastoral prayer for these days

God of all creation,

you made the world we know out of a dark and formless void.

Before your breath swept across the face of the waters,

there was no light.

No sky.

No land.

No way of marking time.

No vegetation.

No animals.

No humans.

You made everything out of nothing, out of chaos.

And it was all good.

 

On behalf of everyone whose life feels out of control this morning,

who wonders how anything good could come out of such mess,

we pray to you this morning.

Where there is fear, let there be courage.

Where there is discord, let there be unity.

Where there is sickness, let there be healing.

Where there is oppression, let there be liberation.

Where there is loneliness, let there be connection.

Where there is worry, let there be peace.

Where there is want, let there be enough.

 

Use us, your people, to bring about all of this good,

because in your blueprint,

you bestowed upon humankind responsibility for all living things.

Prompt each one of us,

whether we are the leader of the free world

or have no formal position of power,

to use the skills and influence you have given us

in ways that make your world a place that is more just

more interdependent

more joyful

more beautiful

more sustainable.

 

These things we ask in the name of Jesus,

who came to redeem the brokenness in all that you made,

and by the power of the Spirit, which recreates us on a daily basis. Amen.

Creative Commons image “Hubble Goes High Def to Revisit the Iconic ‘Pillars of Creation'” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Ministry in a changing context

It’s been less than two weeks since a new American president was inaugurated. The rapid pace of change – not just of policy, but also of a sitting president’s understanding of his authority – has resulted in whiplash for many. Ministry, never an easy calling to live into, has become even more fraught with tension for those who pastor politically diverse congregations or whose ideologies clash with their parishioners.’ What’s a clergyperson to do? Here are the best ideas I have to offer about how to minister in the current climate:

Advocacy

As a citizen, make phone calls, write letters, and sign petitions about issues of importance to you. There are plenty of websites, apps, and social media groups that provide action suggestions, scripts, and contact information for your leaders/representatives. You don’t have to give up your voice because of your vocation. (In fact, please don’t!)

Matters are more tricky for your public persona. Your church members don’t know when you call your senator’s office. They might take note – and possibly even offense – if they see you marching for a cause they oppose. When considering when to make your personal views known publicly, ask yourself these questions: How can I make the biggest impact for a position I believe to be biblically based? Would it be better in my context to march (for example), then share about my reasons and my experience and invite honest questions in response? This could provide an opening to important, if uncomfortable, conversation. It could also model healthy vulnerability and an openness to differing ideas. Or would it be better in my context to refrain from marching, knowing that I don’t yet have the trust level needed for my reasons and experience to be heard, and instead keep focused on what I have discerned scripture has to say about the issues at hand? You can still be plenty prophetic while continuing to build trust with your people.

[Regardless of your approach, familiarize yourself with the IRS Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations, which lays out the boundaries for political speech and action for faith communities that want to maintain their tax-exempt status.]

Ministry

In tough times, double down on the Bible and particularly the person of Jesus. Teach the gospels. Encourage people at every opportunity to put on their “Christ glasses”: knowing what we do about Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, what would he have to say about this people group or that issue? Ramp up missions, building off of the congregation’s energy. While you and your church might differ about whose needs are more urgent, together you will be bringing light and love to a corner of the world. Create more avenues within your congregation for storytelling and question-asking. Help them get to know the histories behind one another’s commitments. (Make sure you pull a seat up to this table too.) And check in with your leaders. What’s their take on what the church needs right now? Which members are really struggling with all the change and need some extra pastoral care?

Self-care

Change came quickly, and more shifts are coming. Prepare yourself to minister over the long haul. Widen your circle of care and extend your networks of people who are passionate about the same things you are. Make a recurring appointment with your therapist or spiritual director. Tend daily to your soul and your connection with God. Get good rest. Create something beautiful. Make room for fun! And please, for the love, never read the comments on internet articles.

Thank you for your ministry, which becomes more vital by the day. I have hope because of the good work you are doing. Keep it up!

Creative Commons image “IMG_1760” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

10 ways to strengthen relationships in the new year

It’s a strange world we live in. In some ways, our relationships are stronger than ever, thanks in large part to technology. In other ways, we are more disconnected from each other than we’ve ever been (at least partially due, ironically, to the ways we use technology).

Whatever the state of our relationships, it never hurts to reinforce them. After all, they are the primary means for creating circles of care, affecting change, and ushering joy into the world. I’ve developed a list of ten ways to strengthen relationships in this still-young year. They can be applied to individual bonds, teamwork, and our walk with God.

Deepen trust. Without authentic trust, relationships will always stay at a surface level. What small risk are you willing to take to show the real you? How might you invite others to do the same?

Add a layer of communication. We generally believe we’ve been heard better than we actually have been. How can you relay important information in an additional, different way so that everyone is operating from a shared understanding?

Share stories. Narrative is the root and food of knowing and being known. It prompts people to laugh, mourn, and plot together. What anecdote or arc speaks to where you are or how you’re feeling today? Who needs to hear it? Whose stories do you want to seek out?

Reflect on the relationship. Ok, it’s awkward, but it never hurts to ask for feedback on how the relationship is going. What’s working (and not) for him/her? For you? Disconnects can’t be repaired if they aren’t identified.

Embrace conflict. Conflict is simply a difference of opinion. It doesn’t have to come with all the baggage we tend to load onto it. Being forthright – in respectful ways – about our disagreements allows us to learn, and our openness to one another in moments of dissent breeds trust.

Help one another be fully engaged in the relationship. Everyone’s personality is different. As an extreme introvert, for example, I need lots of alone time to be fully present with people. Know and own your quirks, and support others in theirs.

Examen each day. Engage in some sort of reflection at the end of each day. How was I a good friend? How did I fall short? Utilizing the spiritual practice of examen opens up the possibilities even more. Where did I notice God at work today? How did I aid in or hinder the in-breaking of God’s peace?

Increase your curiosity. Instead of imagining someone’s beliefs or motives, ask: tell me what you were thinking when… What did you hope to accomplish by…? We usually default to assuming the worst, and often the truth is better (or at least more complex) than what we thought.

Start from common values or vision. Consider what all parties can affirm. Even if there are differing ideas about how to approach problems, there can be shared commitments underlying them. That’s a much more promising starting point for connection and for change.

Affirm one another. Name what you appreciate in one another. Be specific, and focus on attitudes and actions rather than appearance. Not only does a genuine compliment provide a serotonin boost, it also helps people identify and navigate from their strengths.

Which of these ideas could you begin implementing today? What would you add to this list?

Creative Commons image “Free Hugs” by Ricardo Moraleida is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

 

 

 

What you get when you call a clergywoman

Recently the Lewis Center for Church Leadership published a fantastic article about how congregations can welcome and support their female ministers. The piece speaks to some of the fears that search committees have when considering a woman for a ministry position. It also raises awareness about  the small but significant ways that clergywomen are treated differently than clergymen. In doing so, the post names and dispels many of the assumptions about women in ministry. With that slate clear, what can churches expect from their female clergy?

Clergywomen love Jesus. We are not in ministry for the money (most of us are paid less than our male counterparts) or the notoriety (the stained glass ceiling is real). And we definitely have not pursued this vocation because it is the path of least resistance. We’re here because we are drawn to the message and model of Christ.

Clergywomen know their scripture. For many of us, Paul’s epistles have long been used as a barricade to the pulpit. That means we’ve had to steep ourselves in the Bible, studying its words, arcs, and historical/cultural context so that we can be confident we’ve discerned correctly and so that we can be faithful in forming others.

Clergywomen have been vetted, then vetted some more. At every level of examination, someone is looking for a reason not just to exclude each one of us as individuals, but also to use our personal shortcomings (real or imagined) as grounds not to grant pastoral authority to any woman. If we clear these hurdles, you’d better believe we are capable.

Clergywomen have had their mettle tested. Women in ministry are criticized for our hair, age, fashion choices, voice, family situation, and many other variables that are irrelevant to ministry – and that men are rarely evaluated on. And the “acceptable” leadership style for a woman (in any professional field, really) falls in a miniscule range between too soft and too assertive. Experienced in dealing with discouragements around these matters on a regular basis, we are not easily scared off from the legitimate difficulties of church work.

Clergywomen have a deep, DEEP sense of call. Women have their calls to ministry questioned all the time. Sometimes it happens in plain talk (e.g., “I believe women should never teach men”), and on other occasions it manifests by such means as second-guessing, talking to a female pastor as if she is the speaker’s daughter or granddaughter, asking where the “real” pastor is, or using diminutive terms (Miss Laura, Pastorette). As a result, clergywomen check in with God about their calls on a regular basis, asking for guidance and courage to live toward the purpose we’ve been given.

Clergywomen are endlessly creative. When there are so many hurdles not just to serving faithfully, but also finding a place to serve to begin with, women have to call upon all our gifts. We can think beyond our assumed constraints because we must – and the church and her people are the beneficiaries of our innovation.

Many clergywomen are backed by a fierce tribe, which provides its members with wisdom and support. When a congregation calls a female minister, it gets the bonus of a magnificently insightful hive mind. (Note: if you are a woman in ministry who has not yet found her tribe, look for it! Here are two places to start. And as a coach I would be thrilled to be your encourager and thought partner via a coaching relationship.)

Imagine your congregation could find all of these qualities in a minister, plus the particular skills and graces of a ministerial candidate. What great things for God could you do together?