Seeing, remembering, including

“Can I get your mocha started for you?”

The barista had a smile on her face and a cup at the ready. I hadn’t even placed my order yet, but I’ve been to Panera on so many Sunday mornings that she could anticipate my request.

I felt a little giddy, I’ll admit. I’ve arrived! I’m a regular.

I haven’t been a “regular” anywhere since seminary. Back then I spent every Wednesday night – karaoke night, mind you – at Trackside Tavern. (Once I went, bag of saltines in hand, because I felt like death but couldn’t stand to miss.) While there were plenty of folks who came to karaoke once in a while, there was a core community that participated weekly, come hell or high water. Occasionally they would greet me with a chorus of “Baby!” – the name I often went by then because one of my good seminary/karaoke friends was Laura – as I walked in. Sometimes the bartender would plop a cider in front of me before I even greeted her. I didn’t always have to choose my own karaoke songs, because others would put in requests for me. (Ironic, since I have a terrible voice.)

That experience of community was special because I felt seen. Remembered. Included. It was an opportunity to show care for others as well. To cheer them on fiercely when they sang. To bear witness to difficulties in their personal and professional lives in between performances.

This is what congregations do at their best. They don’t just say hello and hand promotional coffee mugs to newcomers, they recall visitors’ names and a bit about them on their subsequent Sundays. They don’t just ask guests about the same job/hobby/favorite team week after week but invite them to connect that interest to the life of the church.

Some congregations – bless their hearts – don’t do any of this well. They don’t see (or at least greet) visitors, which makes remembering and including impossible. Some see and even remember guests, but never find a way to include them. Some see and include but don’t really remember much about individuals, making inclusion feel more utilitarian than truly welcoming. For a community to grow, it must attempt to do all three things.

But why do seeing, remembering, and including matter?

In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I worked a week of junior high church camp together. Each time we had roughly the same crew of counselors. At the end of year four, all the camp staff was gathering for a celebratory, we-survived-six-days-of-teen-drama picture. One of the counselors handed me his camera so I could take the group photo.

I was on one side of the camera. Everyone else was on the other side. I’ve never – before or since – felt so invisible. So forgotten. So left out.

I took the picture, shoved the camera back at the counselor, and disappeared to bawl my eyes out. I never worked another week of camp. (As you can tell, this is still a sore spot ten or so years later.)

This is what happens to church folks who fade away. They feel unnoticed, unremarkable, unwelcome. They may never be brave enough to try another congregation.

If your church isn’t greeting visitors, start there with some equipping and encouragement on how to do so. If they’re further along, help them see the importance of remembering and including and give them some ready-made tools for that work.

We can all do better. As followers of a Christ who saw the invisible, remembered the marginalized, and included us all at the expense of his own life, we must do better.

Creative Commons image “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name” by Lara is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Caveats

I did it again last Tuesday.

When someone asked me which church I pastor, I answered, “I’m not in a church right now.”

Right now.

That has been my default response for a couple of years.

In a strictly literal sense, it’s accurate that I am not on staff at a congregation at this moment in time. But this caveat does nothing to capture the fullness of my call and the way I live it out.

I strive, with all that I do, to promote health in congregations and the people who lead them.

I do this by encouraging and strategizing with clergy and search teams.

I do this by putting content into the world that focuses on hospitality and hope.

I do this by filling pulpits so that weekly preachers can recharge.

I do this by connecting ministers with each other in groups for learning and support.

I am, in truth, a minister-at-large, a multi-denominational mercenary. If I do ever take a position on a church staff again – which seems unlikely at this point – it will probably be in a part-time and/or interim capacity. I am not giving up coaching, writing, and workshop-leading in the ecumenical realm. I’m in the kind of groove that makes me think I’m doing what I’ve been created to do. And I’m able to impact the health of more clergy and congregations than ever before.

So why do I default to the “right now” response, as if I am keeping an eye out for something different?

Maybe it’s mere habit at this point, a holdover from a time when I felt less secure in my pastoral identity.

Maybe it’s because people have a hard enough grasping the concept of a woman in ministry, much less a woman in a non-traditional ministry, and I don’t have the energy or will to explain/defend myself.

Maybe it’s because I still fear, somewhere in the recesses of my heart, that I will ultimately fail at carving out a sustainable niche.

Whatever the reason, it ends now. What church do I serve? I serve the Church of Jesus Christ. I am a minister of the good news of God’s love for all people. I am an advocate for hospitality toward authentic selves – our own and others’.

This is my call, and I claim it.

 

On turning 40

I turn 40 on Friday. (Happy birthday to meeeeeeeeee!)

Some people dread this milestone. I get that. I see those “over the hill” birthday messages in the greeting card aisle at Target. I feel my age, especially when my child demands that I “run!” or “get out of bed!” I notice when I forget to take my regular dose of Miralax, a gift from God that I did not rely on until recently. I get frustrated when my Rodan + Fields reverse regimen doesn’t miraculously erase the dark spots on my face.

But.

I am really looking forward to this birthday. Maybe it’s because each of my decades has been better than the one preceding it. Maybe it’s because I associate a 40th celebration with my dad’s, which was a joyful/awkward party in his bird’s eye office with employees crowded around, balloons, cake, and a belly dancer. (I still have no idea who arranged for that belly dancer. It was a bizarre choice for my dad.) Or maybe it’s because I am finally comfortable in my own body, heart, and mind:

I feel more settled and creative than ever before in my vocational life.

That angst-producing question of whether Matt and I would have kids – and if so, how many – has been resolved.

My anxiety is at a manageable level, thanks to exercise and medication.

My parents and I are finally being honest with each other, which was a long time coming.

I get joy every day from noting my son’s emerging understanding of the world and his imagination around what could be.

I have claimed my voice as a citizen, speaking up for what I believe to be good for my community.

I no longer feel obligated to finish books that don’t hold my interest or that I want to throw across the room.

I don’t wait for others to confer authority upon me as a pastor, parent, or person.

I don’t expect my 40s to be easy. The realities of membership in the sandwich generation will no doubt set in soon. The realities of life in a very contentious time in the church and the culture at large show no signs of abating. The realities of physical changes (“this happens at your age…”) will bring more preventative procedures. And who knows what else is in store?

But I’m as ready as I can be. Bring it.

Creative Commons image “40” by Amanda Slater is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

 

 

Already amazing: young clergy women and pastoral leadership

Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a pastoral leadership workshop at the Young Clergy Women International conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. My goals in that hour and a half were to ask coaching questions that allowed participants to

  • name their strengths and consider how to operate out of them,
  • articulate how they want to show up in their ministry settings,
  • identify the helps for and barriers to showing up in those ways, and
  • begin to make a plan for utilizing the resources and maneuvering around the roadblocks.

I want to share the discussion prompts I offered in that sacred space in the hopes that they might be useful to you as well.

Naming and claiming strengths

  • What energizes you in ministry?
  • When have you felt most like you were living fully into your call? (Responses can include one-off and recurring situations.)
  • What do your responses to these two questions tell you about your strengths?

Showing up authentically

  • How do you want to show up as a pastoral leader in your ministry setting?
  • When have you shown up this way? (If you’re not sure, try to imagine your leadership through the eyes of a congregant, lay leader, or judicatory leader.)
  • What has made showing up this way possible?

Utilizing resources and managing barriers 

  • What tapped and untapped resources do you have for showing up the way you want?
  • How might you best utilize these resources?
  • What keeps you from showing up the way you want?
  • How do you remove the barriers you can control and maneuver around the barriers you can’t control?

Putting it all together

  • Given what you have learned about yourself and your context from your responses to these questions, what is the first step toward living more fully into your pastoral leadership potential? In other words, what is the lowest-hanging fruit for drawing on your strengths, taking into account how you want to show up, maximizing helpful conditions, minimizing obstacles, and putting the tools at your disposal to good use?

While I think these are useful questions, what made them powerful was the workshop participants’ willingness to create spaces for candid conversation. Since there were 25-30 people in the room, I asked them to divide themselves into dyads or triads to respond to the questions. The women shared deeply and offered invaluable observations and encouragement to one another. These questions, then, are good for reflection but much more transformative when used as a discussion guide.

 

The measure of a good question

“What are y’all talking about?”

“What does that mean?”

“What road is this?”

“Is that the Taj Mahal?”

My 4-year-old son is learning to satisfy his irrepressible curiosity by asking questions. He practices a lot. Sometimes I won’t be finished responding to one query before he lobs another. My husband and I counted approximately 541,092 questions on the 3.5-hour trip from our home to Atlanta last week. Actually, double that, because almost every unique inquiry was followed up by his request to repeat the answer.“What’d you just say?” (Yes, we’ve had his hearing checked.)

His questions get tedious, but I do my best not to discourage them. My parents always made time for mine. I knew I’d found a church home as a teenager when my Sunday School teachers and youth minister let me challenge what they told me. And I make a living asking coaching questions of clergy who want to make positive changes in their personal and professional lives.

My brain, my faith, and my livelihood run on questions. That is why it really pains me when people preface their wonderings with, “Maybe this is a dumb question, but…” or worse yet, not feel comfortable making their inquiry at all.

If you’re wondering whether your question is worth asking – without any qualifying – here is an assessment:

  • Are you genuinely curious?
  • Does your question invite rather than shut down discussion?
  • Are the time and venue right, to the best of your understanding, for your question?

(Note that right time and venue don’t necessarily have to do with making your hearer(s) comfortable. Sometimes it’s important to ask well-planned questions that raise anxiety.)

If you responded to these bullet points in the affirmative, then go forth and ask boldly!

Pastoral leadership in troubled times

Last week I had a front-table speech for Brian McLaren’s early-morning keynote to a room full of clergy cohort conveners. When he dove into his very meaty content, I was glad I was already 2/3 of the way through my coffee. He had some challenging words for faith leaders who are very concerned with the direction of our congregations, denominations, and/or country. In these chaotic, divisive times, McLaren said, we must be intentional and honest about our pastoral approach. In choosing our tack, we have four choices:

Offend no one. We can limit our preaching and teaching to “safe” topics. (I imagine this list of subjects is pretty short!) McLaren noted that we will nevertheless discover new ways to offend people every week, because the Gospel is political.

Go where the wind blows. We can listen to what the people in our care want to hear, then echo it from the pulpit. McLaren warned that there is grave danger in this approach, as our constituents are being tugged by opposing forces, not all of which are in line with the Gospel. We might find ourselves espousing – or at least leaving unchallenged – convictions that are contrary to the core of who we are and what we believe.

Push the congregation. We can prod our parishioners on the core issues of the dignity of all people, stewardship of the planet, caring for the poor, and ushering in peace – what McLaren considers the four core issues of faith. This is a bold move for those of us who pastor purple churches and/or who worry about making ends meet if our congregations can’t tolerate our stances.

Lead by anxiety. We can share our concerns about the fissures in our culture from a personal perspective, such as “I am worried about the normalization of bullying in our country.” (This is permission-giving for people to acknowledge their own concerns in a safe container, not a handing-off of our own worries.) After we have surfaced the tensions, we can discuss with our members what a faithful, corporate response might look like.

I have talked with many ministers who are mulling how to navigate our charged climate. What does it look like to be faithful both to our personal beliefs and to our call to the setting we serve? How do we exercise our prophetic voices in ways that our people can hear? How do we model ways of listening deeply to one another? How do we balance our desire to be engaged – even activist – citizens with our responsibilities as pastors?

I have struggled with these same questions as a guest preacher and a clergy spouse in a more-red-than-purple congregation. I found Brian McLaren’s framework helpful for making a more conscious decision about my own approach. Maybe there’s a nugget in there for you too.

New resource: workbook for designing a self-care strategy

I remember camping out in my parents’ bathroom the night before I took the SAT for the last time. I had worked myself up so much thinking about how important this standardized test was for my future that I threw up. A lot.

I remember curling up on my dorm bed during my final semester of college. It was late evening, and I was supposed to be studying, but I was so stressed that I had given myself a migraine. The only lights I could tolerate were the strand of Christmas twinkles stretched across my room. The pounding in my head got worse as I thought about how much I wasn’t getting done thanks to this forced break.

I remember turning off the lights in my church office and working in the corner, where no one could see me through the window to the hallway. My ministry environment was toxic, but I still had responsibilities to fulfill. So I tended to them, in the dark and in isolation as often as I could.

I remember hiding and crying in my closet as the brand-new, low-supply mom of a baby who grazed all day. I felt like I had completely disappeared into this new parenting identity, but it felt too much like failure to ask for help.

I share these vignettes to let you know that you are not alone if you struggle with self-care. I have always wrestled with the swirl of responsibilities, expectations, and passions. And almost everyone I have coached has raised the issue of self-care at some point. There are many reasons that the need to create or maintain margins is so difficult. For my coachees and me, it often comes down to some combination of the following:

  • Constant accessibility, thanks to technology
  • The availability demanded by the pastoral life
  • Gender norms that try to push more tasks onto women’s plates
  • Assumptions about women that make us feel like we have to work doubly hard to be perceived as competent
  • Family realities, such as care for an aging parent or small child(ren)
  • A chaotic social and political season that is tugging at us to become more engaged in service and/or activism
  • A broad range of interests and/or gifts that makes it hard to know where to specialize

I’m not an expert on self-care (obviously, as the anecdotes above show!). But in making my own changes and in working with coachees, I have developed a framework for designing a self-care strategy. It is built around five Ps:

  • Priorities: working out of one’s own sense of purpose and gifts
  • Permission: getting blessing from self and others to plan for replenishment
  • Planning: naming tangible steps to creating space for self-care
  • Parameters: identifying what it is important to (almost) always say yes or no to
  • Partners: creating a network of accountability partners, encouragers, and helpers

The framework is bookended by some reflection on what about self-care is important to the individual and what it would look like to be (somewhat) ok leaving some things undone.

Originally taught as a webinar and workshop, this series of reflection points is now available as a workbook. If you’re interested in checking it out, this guide is available for purchase here.

Supporting the pastor-parent, part two

Last week I shared my positive experience with a congregation that worked with me so that I could live into my dual calling as pastor and parent. Since then I have heard from several clergy: those whose churches who have made similar efforts and those who have left congregational ministry or are considering doing so because their churches want them to compartmentalize their pastoring and parenting selves.

Sometimes congregations simply don’t know how to support the pastor-parent. Below I have shared a few ways a church can reduce parenting stress so that the pastor can better focus on ministry. For the unconvinced, I have thrown in some notes on how these actions benefit the congregation as a whole – beyond having a grateful and less frazzled leader.

If your church has a daycare or preschool, offer a reduced rate to the minister. Side benefit: the minister will undoubtedly be more involved in the school and will be a more informed and enthusiastic evangelist for it in the community.

Allow flexibility in work arrangements, such as permitting the minister to work from home or bring a child to work as needed. Side benefit: though it may seem counterintuitive, ministers will likely be more available and productive if they are not spending time and mental and emotional energies on arranging emergency childcare.

Set up a rotation of church parents/grandparents to help the minister’s child(ren) participate in worship – or to care for young children during worship, if there’s no formal nursery. Side benefit: the church will develop more cross-generational communication and investment.

Provide childcare for evening and weekend meetings that the minister must attend. Side benefit: other parents with young children will now be able to participate in those meetings when childcare is a given.

Help the minister manage the congregation’s expectations of the minister’s family. Side benefit: the graciousness extended to the pastor’s children and significant other can reinforce or help establish a church atmosphere in which everyone feels safe to be their true selves before one another and God.

What would you add to this list?

In summary, congregations need not be afraid to call pastor-parents. In addition to their many gifts, these ministers bring a deepened investment in the church as their child(ren)’s faith community, an instant means of connection with parents and grandparents in the church, and a unique perspective on hospitality toward and the spiritual formation of young families. For pastor-parents to call upon these “extras,” though, the congregation must demonstrate its willingness to welcome both aspects of the minister’s identity.

 

Supporting the pastor-parent, part one

I was in congregational ministry for over ten years before my child came into the world. During that decade it was sometimes necessary for my husband (a pastor in another denomination) and me to negotiate conflicts between our calendars, but we were both free for the most part to work odd hours, commit to all ministry-related trips we wanted, and sleep off church-induced stress and exhaustion.

That freedom came to a full stop when our son was born four years ago. Suddenly I had to become much more thoughtful about my time and energy usage. While my call to ministry was (and is) as strong as ever, I now had a calling to parenthood as well, and my baby’s dependence meant that I had to figure out how to operate pastorally in a new way.

I was between church positions during my pregnancy, but I was ready to begin looking again soon after L was born. I was extended a call to a part-time ministry in a congregation that was a great theological fit when L was two or three months old. After much hand-wringing, I turned it down because there were big red flags about the position’s flexibility. Not long thereafter I accepted an offer to a congregation that went out of its way to work with me on my office hours, provide me with reduced-price daycare, and set up Sunday evening childcare. This church got the best I had to offer as an experienced minister/new parent because of this extra effort.

While it is true that caring for wee ones consumes a lot of time and focus, parents can be great pastors. And congregations can promote excellence in ministry (and in parenting) by understanding the following:

Some (many? most?) pastor-parents see ministry and child-rearing as dual callings. They are committed to doing both well. A church can make living toward both purposes much easier…or much harder.

Pastor-parents are better able to focus on ministry if they aren’t always worried about their child(ren) or about how congregants view their parenting. The childcare arrangement that works best for the pastor’s family – whatever it looks like – is usually best for the congregation, even if it’s not what the church members would have chosen for themselves or for their minister.

Every minister will have a different pastor-parent style. Some will want or need to bring their child(ren) on pastoral care visits or to evening meetings. Others might choose to build in more separation between pastoring and parenting.

Pastor-parents typically welcome the congregation’s help and parenting wisdom. We can’t do it all, and we don’t know it all! Criticism of the minister’s child-rearing style and especially of the child(ren) is never welcome, however, and can harm the pastor-parishioner relationship.

The church is not just a pastor-parent’s workplace, it is also the PK’s faith community. Just like with any other family in the pews, pastor-parents will invest more in the church if the church invests in their children.

Congregational ministry is one of the only callings in which the leader is evaluated primarily on a weekly take-your-child-to-work day. Bear that in mind when a minister’s kid has a meltdown on the front row during the sermon, and respond with compassion both to the child and to the concerned/embarrassed pastor-parent.

Next week I will offer a part two to this post, noting some ways your church can support the pastor-parent, thereby deepening the pastor-parish relationship and giving the minister opportunity to lead with a full heart.