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.

What does confidence look like?

Walking with swagger. Talking over and down to people. Taking credit for others’ ideas. Overestimating one’s abilities. These are the hallmarks of arrogance. Too often those around us – and sometimes even we ourselves – mischaracterize these actions as confidence.

This is another reason I believe that many women are put off from claiming their self-assurance. In last week’s post I talked about our difficulties getting past perfectionism and embracing failure. Just as abhorrent to us, though, is the thought of being lumped in with people who are unable to read the other people in the room and honor their contributions.

Confidence, at its heart, is our ability to trust our own competence and experience. It affects perception – our own and others’ of us – and our actual performance. But it is not a one-size-fits-all suit. As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman point out in The Confidence Code, we can tailor confidence to our personality and, when needed, our environment. In fact, we have to custom-make it, or else we’ll look like someone playing dress-up. And we’ll lose any of the benefits to our sense of self and people’s views of us that confidence offers.

Authentic self-assurance must include an ever-growing understanding of ourselves and a willingness to act (and to fail). It has to avoid denial of our gifts and contributions, our growing edges and shortcomings. Beyond these parameters, however, we can define how we show up as confident people. We can be humble. We can collaborate and share credit. We can be quietly self-possessed.

Don’t let anyone convince you that you must be braggy and bossy to show confidence, if that’s not your style. Rest in your belief that that’s not you, and carry on in your perfectly-suited self-assurance.

Photo by Natalie Pedigo on Unsplash.

Still attempting to eschew The Handmaid’s Tale

“The Joe Lamb Award for Outstanding Youth Leadership goes to Laura Stephens.” I remember where in the worship space I was sitting, what I was wearing, and how doubtful I was that my jelly-fied legs would carry me to the front. I had never considered myself a leader in youth group. For that matter, up until the year prior, I wouldn’t even have called myself a willing participant in anything church-related. But with this public recognition of my gifts, a sense of call began to awaken within me. And my longtime struggle with the lack of inclusive language and female ministerial leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention intensified, because as a lifelong Baptist I saw no clear path for living into my call.

So I did what all nerds do when they run up on a problem: I studied. In my last two years of college I researched and wrote an honors thesis (very wordily) entitled “Attempting to Eschew The Handmaid’s Tale: The Interplay of Denominational Politics, Biblical Interpretations, and Women’s Ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention.” Through this project I learned about how women were gaining ground in Baptist leadership until the well-orchestrated fundamentalist takeover of the SBC in the 1980s. I read how the Convention’s adoption of a resolution that blamed women for the fall of humankind was critical to the fundamentalists’ platform. And I noted that the banning of women from ordination and the relegation of women to complementary status was essential to the fundamentalists’ plans to retain power over the long haul.

What then was I to do as a Southern Baptist woman called to ministry, now educated in the forces I was up against? My first impulse was to run from Baptist life like my hair was on fire. I went to a United Methodist seminary. I started denomination-shopping on Sunday. Nowhere felt homey to me. Then one evening I was watching the late news in my apartment. A local Baptist congregation was being disfellowshipped from the state convention for its inclusivity. I was in a pew at this church the next Sunday. Women prayed from the pulpit. I had never witnessed even this, much less a woman preaching. I cried in my seat.

This church was starting a Wednesday night series on what it means to be Baptist. A professor from a nearby seminary spoke about Baptists’ emphasis on the freedom to relate directly with God, to read and interpret the Bible for ourselves, to be ministers to one another, and to make decisions at the congregational level. I claimed this historical way of being Baptist nineteen years ago, and I affiliated with Baptist networks who hold these fragile freedoms dear. Though I have worked outside the Baptist world at times, I have always been clear about who I am and where my home is.

Because of my winding journey through Baptistdom, I am both close to and distant from, unsurprised and grieved about recent revelations of various abuses perpetrated against women by past and current Southern Baptist Convention powerbrokers. Part of me says, “The SBC’s doubling-down on inequality was always heading toward this reckoning, and this has not been my fight for nearly two decades.”

But that’s not true.

Anytime a person created by God is emotionally or physically harmed, we are all accountable for calling out the violence.

Anytime a person uses God as an excuse to abuse, we all must rise up and proclaim our belief in a God who loves and wants good for us all and who privileges the downtrodden.

Anytime our sisters are treated as less than, we all must point out that there is no male or female in Christ Jesus.

So this is my fight. And yours, no matter what your relationship (or lack of) to the SBC. Because as members of God’s one family, our flourishing is tied to each other’s. And this flourishing is rooted in healthy practices and policies, right relationships and righteous resolutions.

There is no such thing as benevolent patriarchy. Wherever there is inequality, the table is set for one group to exercise – misuse – power over another. May we all claim the power of love and justice so that all people might know safety, access to resources, and paths for living into the fullness of their personhood.

Ready, set, fail

Confidence is the deep knowing in our hearts, minds, and guts that we can trust our skills and intuition. It’s essential to leadership in good times (when confidence comes more effortlessly) and particularly during challenging seasons, when it would be easy to turn up the volume on those internal and external voices of doubt. One of the reasons confidence is so important is that it doesn’t just affect our perception of our ability to do a thing, it also impacts our actual performance. Think about it: a gifted, faithfully-practicing violinist with flagging self-assurance will not play at nearly the same level as a musician with the same skills and experience but much firmer belief in herself.

How, then, do we build up this faith in ourselves? In The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman propose that one of the best ways to develop confidence is to fail – fast.

[Record scratch.]

Wait, what?

Yep, this advice seems counterintuitive on its face. The prospect of failing is often what makes us doubt ourselves in the first place. Wouldn’t more failure lead to more uncertainty? As it turns out, no. Failing fast means trying several small-stakes ventures, knowing not all of them will pan out. These efforts can get us past the perfectionism that holds so many of us back, allow us to experience mini failures so that we can know the world will not end, and give us opportunities to flex a lot of different muscles so that we learn more about our own capacity.

Confidence – the kind we can develop, since we can’t control the genetic piece – comes from action, not overthinking. What, then, are some initiatives or interests you’ve been wanting to try out but haven’t yet gotten up the gumption? What are some small, immediate actions you could take in the name of exploration?

Sure, you (and others!) might find out you’re not good at something. That’s ok. You’re still a beloved child of God, imbued with the combination of gifts that made God say, “you are good.” You’ll find out something about yourself. You’ll start building your way up to bigger failures, which will set the stage for bigger successes and more visible roles. And I’ll be cheering you on along the way, because I know that your insight and your leadership deserve a larger forum.

Ready, set, fail.

Photo by Samuel Clara on Unsplash.



What do your metrics say to your members?

Nickels and noses are the two most common measurements of a congregation’s vitality. That’s because they are the easiest to track, not because they are the most useful metrics. Income as compared to expenses tells us whether we’ll be able to keep the lights on and make payroll each month, which is no small deal, but a simple spreadsheet of revenue and expenditures reveals little else. For example, how many giving units does our church have this year as compared to last year? Did repeat givers increase or decrease their contributions, and what are the pastoral care questions posed by these patterns? We don’t know. Similarly, average worship attendance is just that: a flat number with no nuance to it. How often are unique individuals coming? What patterns do we notice among newcomers? ASA doesn’t give us any of that.

There is another problem with the nickels and noses approach to metrics. What do those approaches to measurement say to our members? When we emphasize a strictly numbers-based view of budgeting, we tell givers that their relationship with the church is transactional. You come, you put some money in the plate, and we’ll give you a feel-good Jesus experience. There’s little theological reflection on how we’re using our finances or education around the spiritual impact of giving on the giver. When we make a big deal out of ASA, we imply that we don’t care who is coming, why, and how often – as long as there are butts in the pews. It’s no wonder that congregations and denominations who put a lot of stock in these metrics are hemorrhaging members and seeing a lot of transitions among pastors, who are told that their effectiveness depends on growing these “vitality” stats.

What, then, would it look like to develop measurements that are meaningful and useful? I suggest using the following factors to name metrics that truly assess vitality:

  • The measurement must be, well, measurable. “Spiritual growth” is too vague to be quantifiable. The number of unique people who volunteer (as opposed to being voluntold) for leadership positions can be counted.
  • The measurement must be within the church’s control. You have zero say in how many people actually come through your doors on Sunday morning. Your church members can control how many potential newcomers they personally invite.
  • The measurement must give ownership to the members. Yes, the pastor needs to be accountable for her ministry. But the church is actually stewarded by the members, who were here before and will be here after the pastor leaves.
  • The measurement must take impact into account. It does no good to track how many pairs of gently-used adult shoes your church donates to a local organization when said organization deals in providing formula and diapers to low-income families with newborns.

Metrics that measure the wrong things can send churches and pastors into shame spirals and anxiety about survival. Measurements that are meaningful for your setting can be a means of discernment and a way of encouraging your congregation and leadership, however. Take care to set your mileposts with intentionality.

Photo by patricia serna on Unsplash.

Effective preachers

Recently Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University published its list of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. This roster was compiled from a national survey that garnered 179 respondents and based on criteria suggested by homiletics professors.

There are a number of issues with the list, as perceptive people in my social media feeds have pointed out. Some of the preachers do not serve a local church. (Powerful preaching – as judged by the criteria for this list – is easier when study and writing don’t have to be worked around the demands of full-time congregational ministry and the need for a fresh sermon every week.) Diversity in every measure is severely lacking. One guy on the list has been dead for nine months. And that’s just for starters.

I’ve seen some conversations about coming up with alternative criteria for making a list that more fully plumbs the depth and breadth of sermonizing. I really like this open-ended list I like from Nevertheless, She Preached, which recognizes that competitive preaching is not a sport that aligns with the gospel. I’d also like to tell you whom I think is an effective preacher:



Because I know you work hard on your preaching craft, studying scripture and honing your delivery.

Because I know you minister faithfully to and alongside the people in your care, allowing their questions and concerns to provide the scaffolding for your sermons.

Because I know you make yourself vulnerable through your proclamation while taking care not to bleed all over the chancel.

Because I know you love your church enough to comfort and gently challenge from the pulpit.

Because I know you pray for the Spirit to work through your presence and your words, bridging the distance between what you have prepared and what each hearer needs to grow in faith.

Because I know you take to heart every word of feedback about your sermons – maybe too much so – earnestly wanting to improve as a homiletician.

Because I know that God is using you to bring the reign of God ever closer.

I don’t need a list to know all these things. In fact, I don’t believe the most effective preachers will show up on any wide-swath list. They are too busy doing the work of ministry in their own contexts. They don’t have time or use for being celebrities whose names will be well-known enough to be included on a nationwide survey.

I see you, your efforts, and their fruits. More importantly, your congregation and community see you. Carry on, effective preacher.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Announcing and discussing

You toil over your newsletter articles. You prepare diligently for meetings. Yet despite all your efforts, you are sometimes met with the following:

  • Blank stares.
  • “No one told me about this,” said with indignation.
  • “Who was involved in this decision? No one asked me for my opinion,” said with hostility.
  • Silence and disengagement.

You and I are bombarded with emails, voice messages, and social media contacts every day. So are the people we minister alongside. This means we should be even clearer and more concise in our communications than we think necessary. One of the areas we can eliminate ambiguity is in announcements and discussion. Which are we doing, providing information about something that has already been decided or inviting others to be part of the decision-making? What does that delineation mean for what details we share and how?

In You’ve Got 8 Seconds: Communication Secrets for a Distracted World, Paul Hellman helps readers think through these considerations in terms of risk and control. Announcements are low-risk and high-control for the leader. Discussion is high-risk and low-control. Within those two extremes there are combinations of these two approaches. Here is an example, from announcement to discussion:

  • Our church will be starting a community clothes closet.
  • Our church will be starting a community clothes closet because there is a need in our neighborhood for free, quality clothing for children and adults so that they can use their limited funds for other essentials and go to school and work feeling confident in their appearance.
  • Our church will be starting a community clothes closet. How might we go about setting this up, staffing it, and advertising it?
  • Interest in and need for a community clothes closet has bubbled up. What are your thoughts about this potential ministry opportunity?
  • What need/potential ministry opportunity has been on your hearts and minds?

In ministry we are likely to tend more toward the discussion end of the spectrum. (Stereotypically, clergywomen lean this way more than clergymen do.) Every point along the range is needed at times. The trick is to know when to use which approach and to be clear about what input you are (and aren’t) asking for. Here are some questions to ask yourself when identifying your path forward:

  • How would Jesus come at this kind of message?
  • How acute is the situation?
  • How much ownership from others is needed?
  • Whose expertise do you need to have all the relevant data?
  • How attached to the outcome are you?
  • How is God nudging you and others?

Asking yourself all of these questions can help you firm up your approach to an issue, know how to show up for the announcement/discussion, and clarify what you’re saying and asking for. The result will be increased trust and more forward motion.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash.

Disparities in types of ministry work

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review highlights the ways different types of tasks are unevenly distributed in work environments. Glamour work encompasses highly-visible, big picture assignments that set the doer up for recognition and promotion. Office housework includes all the tasks that are necessary to keep things moving – such as taking notes, managing schedules, caffeinating colleagues, and making sure there aren’t science experiments growing in the office refrigerator – and that go largely unnoticed. Not surprisingly, HBR found that women and people of color are much more likely to find themselves stuck with this essential-yet-thankless work.

While HBR’s research was geared toward the business world, the same realities apply in ministry. Women and people of color often serve in positions that are more likely to result in lateral moves than in increased responsibility and credibility and the pay that go with them. One reason is socialization. We* are conditioned to be the ones to keep the trains moving. Others expect us to be good at it, which we often are. We have been encouraged to be humble, and we’re punished when we’re perceived as being braggy, bossy, or bitchy. Another reason is exceptionalism: when one of us manages to break that stained-glass ceiling, it’s because she is an extraordinarily-gifted anomaly.

Since many of us minister in systems where 1) we are called by laypeople rather than assigned by a superior and 2) judicatory leaders intervene into unhealthy and unjust systems infrequently, what do we do in order to claim more of those “glamourous” roles? Here are a few thoughts:

Maintain a robust web presence. On the internet we can communicate the fullness of our ideas without interruption. True, we might have to deal with trolls and mansplainers. But they cannot edit our original thoughts, which we can then share through social media.

Own your purpose. Clarify what you have been called to do, the strengths and qualities you have for that work, and the ways you have already been inhabiting the fullness of your call. This is essential to owning pastoral identity, which has a noticeable impact on your pastoral presence. This specificity will also help you sort what tasks – many of which likely fall into the office work category – to say no to.

Amplify one another. Even when we feel we can’t toot our own horns, we can toot someone else’s. Make a pact (spoken or unspoken) with other people who are going underappreciated to do this for one another.

Tell stories. If saying, “I did this thing and that thing and here’s how it was a rousing success” seems icky to you, work on your telling of an anecdote that relays that same information in a way that helps other people know and like you as they’re learning about what you’re capable of.

Ask for feedforward. The standard annual review can mix a negative tape that plays in your head for the next twelve months. Instead, help your leaders structure a conversation that helps you think about how you’d like to grow in ministry together, setting you all up for bigger and better things.

Network as much as you can. Go to conferences. Connect with people in the kinds of positions you’d eventually like to see yourself in. Look for committees doing transformational work to join.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the church is experiencing the pangs of something new as women and people of color struggle/begin to emerge from the background. The more even distribution of office housework and our ability to move into glamour roles will promote innovation, collaboration, and renewed faithfulness to the mission God has for us all.

*I can only speak personally from the perspective of a white woman. I am relying on the stats in the HBR article plus conversations and a range of reading to assert that people of color share some of these same experiences, likely amplified. I welcome dialogue and am open to correction.

Photo by Antonino Visalli on Unsplash.

Broadening perspective

My son loves school, but every morning it’s like we’re living 50 First Dates. He forgets how much he enjoys learning and playing with his friends until he actually enters the building. He yells at our Amazon Echo when it reminds him that it’s time to get dressed for school. He mopes while he picks out (at an excruciatingly slow speed) his mismatched clothes.

Recently I’ve been using a coaching technique that has helped everyone’s mood. I’ve been taking his complaint and using it to broaden his perspective. Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1

Alexa reminds him to get dressed.

Him: Your reminders are terrible, Alexa!

Me: Are they really that bad? Let’s play a game. We’ll take turn naming things more terrible than Alexa’s reminders. I’ll go first: dropping my ice cream on the ground.

Him: [Thinks.] A monster destroying Ninjago city.

Me: Getting a cold and missing something really fun.

Him: A baby penguin dying. [Yikes.]

After a couple more rounds, he was laughing and we were declaring each other winners of the game. He then got ready without complaint.

Example 2

Child is refusing to put on his school clothes.

Him: I don’t want to go to school today. Today is Saturday. I want every day to be Saturday.

Me: Hmmm. I like Saturdays too. What would you do on your perfect Saturday?

Him: [Lets me dress him while he talks.] I would watch the Ninjago movie and play Legos.

Me: That sounds fun! What would you eat for breakfast on your perfect Saturday?

Him: Fish and krill. [He was a penguin that day.]

By then he was dressed, and he penguin-waddled across the hall to brush his teeth.

In both of these examples, it would have gotten us nowhere for me to keep askyelling for him to get ready. We would have both been grumpy and started our respective days in a terrible headspace. But by taking his lead and using it as prompt for us both to think creatively, he felt heard and reoriented his focus.

I use this approach in my coaching. If a coachee gets stuck in a thought spiral – often around the worry that she is not an effective pastor – I ask a question to help her widen the view: “What’s the best affirmation you’ve received lately?” (Often this is not an explicit “thank you” but a realization that she has been invited into a tender place by a parishioner.) She realizes that she is making a difference in tangible ways. Or, “what is one change you’ve seen in the congregation since your arrival?” One small change opens the door to thinking about several ways the coachee has led the church toward growth.

This can work for clergy in their ministry settings too. Consider the following:

Church member: This [ministry initiative] won’t work.

Minister: Hmm. Ok. Let’s think about everything that could go wrong.

After brainstorming the possible catastrophes, probe why these outcomes are so undesirable. Then name all the potential positive outcomes and discuss, in light of these different visions of the future, what the most faithful next step is. With this approach, you can acknowledge the church member’s resistance, unearth some unspoken – maybe even subconscious – norms and fears, move toward agreement on action, and stop many of the parking lot conversations that sabotage change.

Perspective shifts are invaluable when there is stuckness. Next time you feel mired down, try opening up the conversation with a question, brainstorming prompt, or game.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash.