Announcing the next resilience in ministry course

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

The power of well-timed humor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was contagious. Laughter – like yawning – often is.

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

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

Photo by Braydon Anderson on Unsplash.

Watching The Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of FX.

Feeling hopeful

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Gabriel Sanchez on Unsplash.

Caring vs. carrying

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

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

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

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

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

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

What burden do you need to lay down?

Photo by Felix Russell-Saw on Unsplash.

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:

You.

Why?

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.