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.

For the love of questions

I defied my junior high Sunday School teachers yet again on Sunday night. I went to a rock ‘n roll show, as the kids say. Well, kids of a certain generation, I guess.

My youth leaders specifically warned me about two of the three acts. Don Felder – FORMERLY OF THE EAGLES, as I imagine legal actions require him to clarify – sang “Hotel California,” which my teachers said was about drug use. (I never really understood the objection, since the song seems like more of a cautionary tale than a ringing endorsement.) Styx put on the best concert I’ve ever seen, but did you know that the Styx is a river that leads to Hades? (My Sunday School leaders whispered that “Hades” is another word for hell.)

I hated every millisecond of my Sundays in that too-small room with teachers who saw the world through the lens of fear and divided everything in it into good and bad camps. (I promised myself then that I would crank up and sing along to “Hotel California” every time it came on the radio, and I made myself a mental note to check out Styx, even though it would be another five years until I really got into classic rock.) The worst part of my “formational” experience in that setting, though, was that there was no room for questions. And as a teenager struggling with the difference between what I deeply felt to be true about Jesus and what I was being told at church, I had a lot of ’em.

My parents took my abject misery and my soul’s peril (as I refused to be baptized in this congregation) seriously, and we hopped around until we found a church that was a good fit for our whole family. There I made my pastor, many a youth leader, and my peers uncomfortable with my questions and pushback, but no one tried to shut me up. Bless those kind souls. They are one of the reasons I am in ministry today.

Now, I ask questions for a living. What a dream for a person with so many! I don’t ask these questions on my own behalf in my role as coach. I listen for what is going on in clergy and congregations and make queries that will help them come to their own realizations and reach longed-for goals. I cannot tell you how much I love this work.

Maybe it’s a curiosity mindset that the Eagles were actually referring to: “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” And why would I want to?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.


Everything happens

As a teenager I had an unhealthy affinity for Lurlene McDaniel novels. She writes about young people who have chronic or terminal illnesses. There’s also at least one book about a high school girl dying in a car crash because she didn’t want her seat belt to wrinkle her new dress. These works of fiction were the perfect/worst possible match for my personality: generally anxious with a side dish of hypochondria. I cannot tell you how many times I convinced myself I had diabetes or cancer, thanks to the similarity of my “symptoms” with a Lurlene McDaniel character. I mentally penned my farewell letters and practiced my brave face in the mirror. (Truth be told, I still kinda do these things.)

Which is why I couldn’t wait to read/put off reading Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler is an assistant professor of church history at Duke Divinity School who was unexpectedly diagnosed with incurable, stage 4 cancer in 2015. She is in her late 30s. She is a self-professed church nerd. As a Mennonite she is a proponent of believer’s baptism adrift in a sea of infant baptizers at her Methodist seminary. She has a young son. She has a close-knit, irreverent family. In short, I could relate to much of her story. And her humor…oh, how I love her wit.

But Kate Bowler is not a fictional character. She is a real person who is wrestling daily with what it means to inhabit the space between living the dream and actively dying. She is a real Christian who is struggling with her subconscious assent to the prosperity gospel – if you pray hard enough and are good enough, the world is your oyster! – and her fear that death means disconnect from her husband and child.

Bowler’s words did not hit me square in my anxiety. They did something that is rare for someone as head-focused as I am: wriggled their way into my most tender, most guarded inner self. They made me want to be less private and more honest. They made me want to dream about more than control my life. They made me want to love so deeply that I would feel grief acutely. Now, how to do those things…

I guess I don’t have to spell out that I recommend this book, as well as the accompanying podcast.

Thank you, Kate Bowler, for the beauty of who you are and what you share with the world.

The necessity of encouragement

During the fall of my sixth grade year, I tagged along when my parents took my younger brother to sign up for rec league basketball. When we arrived, I shocked my mom and dad – and myself, for that matter – by declaring that I wanted to play ball too. I was bookish. I was freakishly short. I had never shown an iota of interest in anything athletic. To their credit, my parents only exchanged brief glances, asked me once if I was sure, and then filled out my registration form.

The picture of athleticism.

I was terrible at basketball, as it turned out. I wasn’t fast. I was clumsy. I had no arm strength, so I had to shoot free throws underhanded, which was humiliating. I also wore glasses – not the sporty kind – that required me to use a very sexy [snort] croakie to keep them from being knocked off my head. I put my hair up with a tie that had a tiny piece of metal on it and went into a game with newly-pierced ears, both mistakes that prompted the referees to stop the action on my behalf. (I had to change out the hair tie and put medical tape over my earrings to avoid harming self and others.)

That sixth grade season was not pretty on my part. The only points I scored that year were in one game, when my coach told me to camp out under our team’s basket and wait for my teammates to lob defensive rebounds downcourt to me so that I could (hopefully) hit an unguarded layup. But I was having the time of my life.

After the season I had an idea of what I needed to work on (everything) to get better. So I started conditioning. I shot baskets and ran ball handling drills for hours in the driveway. I attended camp at a university known for being a powerhouse basketball program in the NAIA. And I improved. I made my school team in seventh grade. I didn’t start, and I didn’t always see much playing time, but I persevered. In eighth grade I developed my arm. No more granny-style free throws for me – in fact, I was pretty reliable from three-point range.

But I was getting discouraged. I was working my butt off without seeing my efforts translate into playing time. I could shoot and play in-your-face defense, but my ball handling was still weak, and you can’t be 4’10” with a case of the fumbles and not expect to make gluteal indentations on the bench. Before my ninth grade season, with honors courses and all the homework that accompanied them piling up, I decided to focus on what I was best at – studying. I still traveled with the school basketball team as a statistician and played church league ball, but any hope of a varsity (or beyond) athletic career vaporized.

Several years later, I ran into my eighth grade coach. We caught up a bit, and then she said, “I wish you hadn’t stopped playing. With your work ethic, you could have been an All-American.”

Record scratch.

I mumbled a “thank you” and scooted out of there before my brain exploded. This coach had never told me that she saw my potential. I thought I was forever destined to be a benchwarmer, and to me Rudy is the saddest-sack movie ever made.

The coach’s statement was no doubt hyperbolic, and yet I wonder if I would have made different choices if I had been given a slow drip of encouragement. “Keep at it – you’re improving.” “You’ll get your chance.” “You work at least as hard as anyone else on this team, and everyone notices.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with my life as it has unfolded. And it turns out I might have given up too soon on an outlet I was passionate about.

Everyone wants to know that he is not invisible, that she is valued. To be sincerely appreciated for who she is and what he does. To have her gifts-in-development called forth. This goes for loved ones, colleagues, volunteers, community leaders, and the people who serve our food and collect our trash and protect our neighborhoods and teach our kids. Intentional eye contact or a handwritten note plus specific feedback go a long way toward strengthening relationships and encouraging dreams in people who previously did not dare to entertain them.

Who around you needs encouragement this week, and how might you offer it? And who provides you with much-needed encouragement to keep moving forward? Thanks be to God for all of these people.

Be our guest

On Saturday my family returned from Disney World, a.k.a. The Happiest Place on Earth. (Ironically, more than once I overheard a parent using this slogan as a threat toward an overstimulated, beyond-exhausted child: “This is the happiest place on Earth, DANGIT, so start acting like it!”) I am glad for the opportunity my son had to fly on an airplane (a long-held desire), meet his favorite characters (he has always loved anyone in a costume), ride roller-coasters and spinny nightmares (which made him giddy), and see his first in-person fireworks (despite his initial terror that Cinderella’s castle was exploding). I am eternally grateful to my in-laws for making these experiences possible.

During our stay I was reminded of the complex relationship I have with all things Disney. As a forty-year-old, I have never known a world untouched by Disney, with all of its fraught cultural messages around gender, race, ethnicity, and other key identity markers. (If you’re not sure what I mean, see this list of more accurate Disney movie titles.) And Disney’s ability to turn anything into a moneymaker is unparalleled, building on and feeding a consumerism that I worry will be the eventual downfall of humankind. Not to put too dramatic a point on it, of course.

And yet I cannot argue with the hospitality that permeates the whole of the Disney experience. The church could learn a few things from this warm welcome. Rather than focusing on the consumerist side – how do we get people here and then entice them to come back? – that I think is the church’s default in the light of shrinking membership rosters and budgets, I want to encourage some reflection on how we notice and treat people when they come through our doors. Here, then, are some things that we as the church would do well to emulate:

The employees we encountered at every turn seemed happy to be there – and happy that we were there. Maybe you’ve encountered church greeters who look like they’ve just come from a root canal. Or members who glared at you for taking “their” seats. Or pastors who apologized from the pulpit for the sermon scripture or focus for that day. At Disney the bus drivers, security types, vendors, ride operators, performers – everyone – was smiling and helpful. That joyful tone created an expectation that I would be glad I came to this place on this day, no matter what kind of trepidation I came with.

Everything is set up from the visitor’s perspective. There is signage everywhere about directions, wait times, and events. Information is also available by hard-copy map, people stationed around the parks to assist, and an app for your smartphone. There are so many restrooms scattered around that you are never far from one, and the stalls are plentiful such that there isn’t much of a line. Contrast this approach to the one many churches take, in which everything is set up from the insider’s perspective. You’re just supposed to know which door to go in, what time worship takes place, and where the nursery is.

Language choices are given a lot of thought. Disney calls their employees “cast members,” giving them all – no matter their role – a stake in how the experience turns out. The people coming to the parks are not visitors or customers but “guests,” making it clear that they are to be treated as such. Language shapes the way we locate ourselves and others in an environment. What would change if churches called their volunteers “ministers,” which they rightly are by virtue of the priesthood of all believers? What if congregations referred to all newcomers as “guests,” seeing them as the people worthy of the most honor?

Despite my complex relationship with Disney, I came home from my trip tired and full of gratitude, thanks in large part to the welcoming aspects that Disney gives such careful attention. May it be so for those who enter our church walls.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash.