It takes a village

Last week a seasoned minister I admire greatly asked me, “Where did you learn to put yourself and your work out there like you do?” He described my approach as confident without being arrogant, and then he used the J word: he said was jealous.

I was knocked back on my heels. While I was gratified to hear my presence characterized this way, I had no idea how to answer the question. After some silence and sputters, I replied that my output is the result of constantly wrestling with my crises of confidence.

It was an honest answer. I am a perfectionist by nature, and I am terrified of failing or being misinterpreted. (Actually, allowing myself to be seen at all, even at my best, takes a lot of prayer and deep breathing.) But upon reflection, I realized my response was a very incomplete one. My work and I, such as we are, are the product of many forces. I have two parents who have encouraged me relentlessly my whole life. I have a spouse who supports me consistently, prodding me to pursue the whims of the Spirit. I have a community of clergywomen – including my coachees – who show me every day what excellence in ministry looks like. I have mentor coaches who help me think through complex situations. I’ve had teachers and ministers and lay leaders galore who have shaped me and cheered me on. I have doctors who help me keep my anxiety in check. I have barre instructors who strengthen my body and toughen me mentally.

(I acknowledge that my network of people, access to good healthcare, and ability to take advantage of an admittedly bourgeois exercise routine are largely thanks to the systems and institutions I benefit from. So my colleague’s out-of-the-blue question was an opportunity to remember that as a person of privilege, it’s on me to work against inequities perpetuated by these same entities.)

In my own heart and mind, there are some personality quirks that affect the way I interact with the world beyond me. As an extreme internal processor, I don’t put anything out in the world until I have worked on it for a while. I have a stubborn streak that won’t let me quit, for good or for ill. And my love for my work and my belief in the power of clergy and congregations to do much-needed good drive my will and my creativity on a daily basis.

So yes, I do daily battle with my self-perception, but it’s really all these other factors that allow the persona you see – however you feel about her – to emerge. Thanks, friend, for the prompt to reflect and be grateful and for the reminder of my responsibility to push for opportunities for others.

 

 

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A plainspoken prayer to end 2017 and begin 2018

Note: This post was originally set to run last week, but I wimped out. “It’s not the right forum,” I thought. “It’s a little too political.” But since I set being more vulnerable as one of my goals for 2018, I decided this prayer was a place to start. And while my focus on this blog will continue to be on clergy and congregational well-being, there’s no denying that the gospel we root our ministry in is, in fact, political.

Dear God.

Wow. I thought 2016 was terrible,

but then 2017 said,

“Heh. Watch this!”

All manner of natural disasters destroyed human lives and whole communities and economies.

White supremacy showed itself as bold as it’s ever been, maybe more so.

Our country crept closer to nuclear war, tweet by tweet.

We realized that sexual harassment and assault are even more epidemic than we realized.

The people we elected to work on our behalf tried to rip healthcare away from the most vulnerable and passed a tax plan that will concentrate even more wealth among those who already have plenty.

People had new laws, new insults, new dangers heaped upon them based on their sexual and/or gender identities.

Civil dialogue and bipartisan cooperation appeared to take their last breaths.

We turned away refugees fleeing danger and prepared to send “home” people who have only known this country.

We demonized people based on our shallow understanding of their religious faith.

We ignored science and continued using up the earth and her resources like toilet paper.

We (I) got frustrated with people who didn’t share our ideals and cut them out of our lives.

We (I) appalled ourselves with some of the thoughts we (I) had about these same people, fellow children of God.

That’s a lot of suckage, and it doesn’t even touch the personal traumas we all endured.

But.

I made some new friends this year, people I would never have met if we weren’t knitted together by our concerns for all the crap I just mentioned.

I was shaken out of complacency and compelled and equipped to be a more engaged citizen.

I was forced to take a deep look at my own internalized bigotry and to chip away at it through listening, learning, and interaction.

I stopped holding my cards so close to my vest.

I heeded a bigger, bolder call to discipleship.

I became a lot more dependent on my prayer life.

I noted old, dysfunctional systems and beliefs beginning to crumble around me.

I witnessed the power of women at work.

I saw evil get dragged into the light of day again and again, where it could be defanged.

I spotted God-glimmers in places I least expected them and often when I was at my lowest.

I laughed a lot, delighted in my loved ones and in my work, and felt gratitude for all that I have.

I was reminded that humankind partners with you to bring about justice and peace here and now.

I was, at the same time, shown anew that our ultimate hope is in you.

Whose presence is constant.

Whose love is abiding.

Whose preference is for those on the margins.

Whose promises are sure.

And so, I believe that 2018 will be better, even if it’s worse.

As we begin it,

I pray that you would give us daily bread as fuel,

and wisdom to know how best to embody your care,

and fierceness then to do it,

and generosity with all that we have,

and companions for whatever lies ahead,

and heart eyes to see the divine light in others,

and strength with heaping sides of humility and vulnerability,

and rest when it’s needed,

and joy in the midst of it all.

May we – with your help – be your harbingers of hope to a world in desperate need of it as we move about our days.

Dear God, I believe. Help my unbelief.

There’s never been a better time to explore coaching

The new year often brings renewed intentionality around meeting goals and overcoming challenges, whether in our personal or professional lives. If you have big plans for 2018 and need help getting traction with them, coaching might be just what you require to end the year feeling joyful, focused, and accomplished.

Use these questions to gauge whether coaching is a fit for you:

  • Have you thought through what your life would look like if you meet your goals?
  • Do you have a sense of the full range of resources at your disposal?
  • Do you need help viewing a situation from a different perspective?
  • Would you benefit from a thought partner who listens, affirms, and gently challenges you?
  • Could you use an hour on a regular basis that is reserved solely for your processing, planning, and growth?
  • Are you ready to make changes that will bring results?

If you answered in the negative to the first two questions and in the affirmative to the rest, you are in a coachable place. I invite you to join me for a free coaching informational call next Wednesday, January 17, at noon eastern to learn what coaching is all about, how it works, and how it can empower you to get the results you seek. Sign up here.

Five lessons from 2017 and five hopes for 2018

The turning of the calendar provides a natural opportunity for looking backward and forward. Here’s some of what I learned about myself last year:

I’ve been a complacent citizen. In the past, I have either taken for granted that others with concerns like mine would speak up or believed that my lone voice would not make much impact. This year circumstances compelled me to – for the first time – call my members of Congress, canvass, phone bank, write letters to elected officials, march for causes, and poll watch.

I have internalized more bigotry than I realized. The unmasking of white supremacy in the culture at large prompted me to do some inner examination, first as a Lenten discipline, then as an ongoing process. It turns out that forty years of insidious messaging had done more damage than I realized, and I continue actively chipping away at my biases through listening, reading, and interacting.

Scarcity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. (This is not to deny that some people live in dire poverty through no fault of their own.) Sometimes the sermon is as much for the preacher as for the congregation. I often refer to the dangers of a scarcity mindset from the pulpit and in my writing – pointing out that time and again God has done much with little – yet I have fretted over pennies myself. I’m in an online book group that has challenged me to think out of an abundance framework, and when I’ve been able to do it, it has given me a sense of freedom and opened my heart to the dramatic and barely-detectable ways God is showing the way forward.

40 rocks. Many people dread turning 40 years old. I didn’t, and so far my new decade fits me well. The age I feel matches the age I look like on the outside. I see the need less and less to justify my perspectives and my work to those who would poo-poo it. At the same time, I want to remain open to new ideas, new people, and new ways of doing things.

The act of prayer is changing me. I have been more angry and afraid this year than I have ever been. When I’ve caught myself heading down one of these paths, I’ve stopped, taken deep breaths, and confessed my feelings to God. Over time, some of my attitudes have shifted. God is working in me, and I think that the process itself of being honest with God has also made a big difference.

As I anticipate this new year, here is what I am working toward, with God’s help:

To be more generous. I want to grow in my ability to practice what I preach when it comes to the abundance of God’s love.

To be more fierce. There’s no going back to complacency. Lives are at stake. And my voice matters.

To be more vulnerable. There’s a time for privacy, but less often than I have typically exercised it.

To be more resourceful. I want to leverage my creativity and intelligence for good.

To be more connected. I tended to distance myself last year from people who had different commitments than I did. That is neither faithful nor practical.

May your new year be filled with peace, love, and hope.

Being church to abuse survivors

With #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and the Alabama special election taking up much of my newsfeed lately, the abuse prevention programs I once presented in schools and the work I did on several safe church policies have been at the front of my brain. Here is a post I wrote for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Patheos blog about ways the church can prevent abuse and care for abuse survivors of all ages. One commenter rightly notes that these are measures that help those who still attend church, and we have a responsibility to care for survivors both in the church and beyond. This post might be better titled, then, “Preaching abuse prevention and caring for parishioners affected by abuse.”

 

Take advantage of my most popular special!

There are 26 days left in 2017, which means it’s time to get serious about spending your remaining professional development funds. Maybe you have loaded up your Kindle, bought yourself a new Easter stole, and registered for that conference you’re stoked about – and still you have a few dollars until you hit $0.00. If that’s the case, think about investing in yourself by purchasing coaching sessions to use in 2018. You could use those sessions to

  • hone a new skill
  • develop a self-care plan
  • design your approach to dealing with difficult people
  • explore a change in call
  • think through how to orchestrate shifts in your ministry setting
  • strategize ways to handle conflict
  • create frameworks and processes for use in your congregation

Really, the options are endless.

Now here’s where the “special” part comes in: I will round up your remaining professional development funds to the next session value. You won’t leave any of your hard-earned pennies on the table, and you’ll have a thought partner and encourager to support your growth in the coming year.

Contact me before December 31 to take advantage of this offer. If you’re a prospective coachee and you want to chat before you commit, schedule a free introductory call here.

Advent arcs

The special season of waiting for the birth of the Christ child has come around again, bringing a new liturgical year with it. I don’t know about you, but for me the undercurrent of danger in the Advent scriptures is more relatable than ever before, and I need to hold on more tightly to the peace, connection, and equality that Christ’s incarnation portends. If you’re feeling the same, here are some possible themes to explore in preaching, teaching, and writing this month:

Listening to women’s voices. The lectionary gives us the Magnificat (with an option to use it on Advent 3 or 4) and Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel. Mary is not a wilting flower in either passage. What do these interactions tell us about how God sees women? How do we better attune ourselves to and/or amplify the voices of women?

Naming the ills of the world. In addition to the Magnificat, the texts from Isaiah and Mark invite us to pinpoint the injustices we see around us and to repent for our roles in them. How – specifically – have we fallen short in loving our neighbors as ourselves, and to what changes do we commit? Who else do we need to call to repentance, and for what?

Claiming our role in the redemption of the world. God uses mere mortals to bring about God’s purposes: Mary and Joseph; Elizabeth, Zechariah (thought merely mentioned in this year’s texts), and John; shepherds; even – dare I say – the emperor whose decree forced a very pregnant woman to make a hard journey and give birth in a barn. What is our part in ushering in God’s reign?

Staying vigilant. “Beware, keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33) As our political scene, cultural dynamics, and military engagement status quickly evolve, we are living in times that call for wakefulness. How will you stay alert?

Preferring the outcast. Mary’s Magnificat makes no bones about it. God favors those who show awe and fells the proud. He fills the hungry and gives nothing to the powerful, for they have already grabbed more than their fair share. God has done these things, and there is no reason to believe that God will do otherwise in the future. Who are the “lowly” to whom we should be paying heed?

Embracing hope and joy in the midst of uncertainty. Gabriel’s visit blew to bits Mary’s (and Joseph’s) expectations of the future. Her “overshadowing” by the Holy Spirit put her in dire straits. And yet, scripture points us to the long arc of God’s work in the world. How will we open our hearts, minds, and spirits to the work of God so that we might choose joy over fear?

Renewing the promises. We are starting the church year over and journeying again to Bethlehem. In doing so, we note the reliability of God’s promises and presence, still firm even as circumstances around us change. How does this trustworthiness encourage us to live? What in our lives needs renewal or redemption with the turning of the liturgical calendar?

 

Breaking shame’s hold on our congregations

In a recent podcast with pastor/author Jen Hatmaker, research professor Dr. Brene Brown shared an insightful nugget from her work: shame is the enemy of innovation. When we believe that we are not worthy – of love, of belonging, of joy, of dreaming – we cannot think beyond our current circumstances. We cannot brainstorm new ways of being and doing. We cannot envision a future much different from our present.

I have noted this truth for myself. When I feel bad about how I look, it seems like making new friends is out of reach. When my inbox is not dinging, I worry that I’ll never get another coaching or consulting client. When I don’t have expertise about the topic of discussion, I’m certain my conversation partner won’t take my input seriously. It becomes hard to put one foot in front of the other, mentally and emotionally.

It’s no secret that many of our churches are stuck. They try to strategically plan their way out of the mire, but those plans often involve more of what the congregation is currently doing, has done in the past, or has seen work in other contexts. They cannot imagine a different way of being church, only returning to a day when attendance was three times what it is now and children’s Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams.

I think corporate shame plays a role in this stuckness. We think, what is it about our church that makes people want to leave, or not even come in the first place? Why do our regulars only come once or twice a month now, when a decade ago they were here every week? Why would a new pastor accept a call to a dwindling congregation with a shrinking budget? How can we draw in newcomers when everyone in this community knows about “the incident” that happened here twenty years ago? How can we call ourselves a vibrant church when our educational wing is a ghost town?

These are all questions of worthiness. And yet, our value does not come from attendance patterns or the weekly offering. Just because something bad occurred in our past doesn’t mean our story is irredeemable. There’s no need to sound the death knell when one part of the physical plant is lying fallow. We don’t have to earn our place in the whole of Christ’s body. We have significance simply because we were created by God and gathered together in God’s name.

How, then, do we push against this collective shame that prevents us from moving into a fruitful future?

First, we must unearth it. With a group of leaders – or possibly with the congregation as a whole – pose some discussion prompts. What chapters of the church’s life or which former pastors do we not talk about, and why? How do we think others view our congregation? What are our biggest worries about the church’s present or future? How do these worries affect how we do ministry?

Second, we must address the three Ps. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes that personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence radically impact our self-perception. In personalization, congregations think “we are not good enough” rather than “those members who went elsewhere needed something we don’t offer.” In pervasiveness, an issue in one area is generalized to all of church life: “our youth group has hit a membership lull” becomes “the church is dying.” And permanence prompts us to think that we can’t get off whatever train we’re on: “if we’re in decline, there’s nowhere to go but down.” Those big, shame-inducing Ps have to be shrunk down to their proper place as lower-case ps that focus on actions and circumstances rather than unalterable character.

Third, we must broaden the narrative. What are the stories that demonstrate the congregation’s uniqueness? How has this church changed lives for the better? What are the gifts of our current circumstances? What can we do now that we couldn’t do before? What are the non-financial resources we haven’t yet tapped? For whom would this congregation and its mission be really good news?

God did not make us – as individuals or churches – for shame. God created us for love, connection, joy, and innovation. Let us do the hard work of exposing and eliminating the shame that keeps us from embracing the worthiness that comes from our kinship with Christ, thereby becoming free to live fully into the purposes God has for us.

Thanksgiving challenge

For some of us, Thanksgiving is a time for gathering with family, eating more than we should, and falling asleep in a recliner in front of a football game. For some of us, Thanksgiving is a time of stress, knowing we’ll be sharing space with people we love but with whom we disagree passionately. For some of us, Thanksgiving is a lonely time, spent apart from dear ones. For some of us, Thanksgiving is a work day, full of meeting others’ needs.

Whatever your Thanksgiving looks like, I invite you to read through the list below and join me in a challenge that expresses gratitude for all that we are and all that we have through self-care, connection, service, and resistance.

  • Take a nap.
  • Read an article, watch a video, or listen to a podcast from a Native American point of view.
  • Tell someone three specific reasons you are grateful for him/her/them.
  • Challenge a fear-mongering or prejudiced statement.
  • Fully embrace your pledge not to listen to Christmas music before Advent – or play your list of favorite holiday tunes on an endless, joy-inducing loop. (I’ll be doing the latter.)
  • Eat something delicious.
  • Engage in an act of community service or make a donation to a service organization.
  • Jump in a leaf pile.
  • Stay out of the shopping fray on Thanksgiving Day.
  • Have a conversation with someone who knows and loves the whole of you – and about whom you feel the same.
  • Help with the cooking, the dishes, or the trash.
  • Move your body, whether by participating in a Turkey Trot or simply by walking around the block.
  • Thank God for your life, your call, and your people.

Countering loneliness

In chapter three of Braving the Wilderness: the Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brene Brown cites a startling statistic. The odds of dying early are increased by the following factors:

  • air pollution = 5% more likely to die early
  • obesity = 20% more likely to die early
  • excessive drinking = 30% more likely to die early
  • loneliness = 45% more likely to die early

Yikes. I know a lot of pastors – single and partnered, extroverts and introverts – who are seeking meaningful connections they haven’t yet found. I’ve been there many times myself, even as a person who loves her alone time. The boundaries and ethics that have been drilled into us for good reason by seminaries and judicatories often mean that we keep parishioners at arm’s length. (The paradox is that appropriate self-revelation is the key to building trust with a congregation.) Our personal theology and politics can cause us to feel estranged from the people we serve and even from many in the larger community. And the odd, demanding hours of a minister’s vocational life, not to mention the assumptions people have about clergy, make it difficult to cultivate connections outside the church.

We have some significant hurdles to overcome, but the 45% more-likely-to-die-early stat makes it plain that loneliness is a life or death issue. It’s also a matter of theological integrity; we serve a God who seeks us to draw us ever nearer not just to the divine heart but also to one another.

So what can we do to push past the loneliness? Here are a few thoughts:

Know how much connection you need to feel emotionally healthy. Typically (perhaps stereotypically), introverts need a few deep relationships while extroverts value a wide range of friendships.

Identify and share what makes you feel understood and embraced in relationships. What you need to feel seen and close to someone varies from one person to the next. (That makes it important to consider this same question about others.) Gary Chapman’s work on the five love languages has been extremely helpful to me in this vein.

Look for places and people where you note commonality. For example, join a club or a team. Volunteer for a cause. Go to an art class. Look for ways to expand on or dig deeper into that shared interest with those you meet.

Prioritize people. It’s so easy to get buried in tasks. Step back occasionally to remember the purpose behind the task, which is often human-centered. And when faced with the option between nurturing a relationship and checking off a to-do, choose the former as often as possible.

Know your warning signs. How do you know when you’re lonely? What happens in your heart? What changes in your body? How does your calendar look different? When these alerts pop up, step back and reflect on what is happening.

What would you add to this list?