Speaking the truth about power

You have been working with ministry leaders for months on a new initiative. In the process you and your team have carefully gathered input, communicated decisions out in a variety of ways, and provided pastoral care to people for whom proposed changes to the way things are currently done might spark anger or grief.

When implementation time comes, however, the initiative dies on the vine. Why? Well, you’ve attended to reason and emotion, two key aspects of transformation, but it’s possible you and your team overlooked the most potent one: power. According to UCC minister and seminary dean Sarah Drummond in her book Dynamic Discernment, all three areas must be addressed for lasting organizational change to occur.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ve got to have the investment of influencers for anything new to have a shot at succeeding. But here’s the thing, says Drummond: people with power often deny that they have it: “Oh, as board chair my voice is just one among many.” “I haven’t held any [formal] leadership roles for a long time.” “It’s not my fault that others look to me for my opinions.” That’s because those who acknowledge that they have power for whatever reason (position, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, race, age, length of membership, etc.) might be asked to give up some of that advantage, which even well-meaning people are reluctant to do.

Ministers must have a clear-eyed understanding of power dynamics in order to help their congregations live into hope and inhabit new realities. And they have to be able to help others see the forces at work, own where they have clout so that they can leverage it for healthy purposes, and willingly share some of their authority so that new voices can be heard.

As in many matters, curiosity is key, whether you wonder to yourself, “What is really going on here?” or if you ask others to tell you more about people, roles, and expectations to heighten their awareness as well as your own. This questioning not only illuminates previously hidden systems but also makes it possible to note what Drummond calls “pockets of possibility” where established power and grassroots energy could converge.

Who, then, holds the power in your setting? If you don’t know, how will you find out? And how will you then use that information in wise and compassionate ways to affect changes so that your church can be creative and faithful?

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash.

New workshop: let your light shine

I know a lot of clergywomen. I run in different networks designed for them. I coach them. I am one myself. And I cannot think of a single one that is not creative, smart, and committed. Why, then, aren’t more clergywomen serving as senior pastors in big pulpits or leading middle judicatories or denominations? One reason is that it’s largely up to us to showcase our own abilities and that of our clergywoman peers. That’s not easy, though, because women are socialized for humility and often have smaller spheres of influence because of the ministry roles to which we are called.

Based on these realities and gleanings from wise women in a cohort I recently led, I am offering an interactive workshop on six strategies for claiming and sharing your gifts, experiences, and successes. This event will share insight on how to
  • beef up your bio for guest preaching and speaking and for informal introductions
  • develop a system for keeping track of your accomplishments
  • be ready with adjectives and illustrations that highlight your skills
  • invite yourself to important committees and conversations
  • strengthen your networks, lifting up other women in the process
  • use social media to amplify women rather than give a bigger platform to those who deny our leadership abilities

The workshop will take place via the Zoom online platform from 11:00 am – 12:30 pm central time on Wednesday, February 5. The cost is $20. Please sign up here, and you will receive a PayPal invoice and a Zoom link in short order.

I look forward to helping you design ways for your brilliant light to have a greater reach!

It’s a new year, but the world doesn’t need a new you

You see, you’re already pretty great.

First of all, you are a beloved child of God, made in the divine image. That means you glimmer with God’s imagination and care. Wow.

Second, you are tenacious. After all, you’ve had bad days and Really Bad Days in among the good. And the world sometimes feels like it’s crumbling around us. Yet here you are, keeping on keeping on. Great work!

Third, you do really valuable ministry.  I feel confident saying that you are not just smart but also wise. That you are resourceful and innovative. That you are compassionate. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have the role and the responsibilities that you tend so faithfully. I’m grateful for who you are and what you do.

So the world doesn’t need you to become a whole new you in 2020, despite what the weight loss commercials might tell you. The world does need you to become the best you, though, because you have unique ways of seeing and being in and moving through all that is wonderful and terrible. And we need this particularity from you, from each other.

Coaching can help you embrace this best self. In this new year, I’d love to help you discover:

  • what your hard-won and God-given aspects of greatness look like,
  • how to channel that greatness for more impact,
  • how to remove obstacles to that greatness, and
  • how to share (and enlist others to share) the good news of that greatness with others.

Are you ready to explore the fullness of who you are and what you can do in 2020? If so, let’s talk. Click here to schedule a free discovery call.

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash.

Mortality and middle age

It didn’t happen when I turned 30 or 40, like I expected.

It happened this year, my 42nd. I began to wrestle with my mortality in more than an academic sense.

It started with the unexplained illness and eventual death of Rachel Held Evans, which hit me hard. I felt a heaviness in my body and soul that was new for me. I can’t explain exactly why. I admired her work, but I did not know her personally. I think my reaction was a soup of knowing that she was putting so much good out into the world, and yet she was physically gone. That she was younger than me. That she left behind a baby and a preschooler who will have to learn about their mom through others’ memories.

Around the same time that Rachel Held Evans contracted her illness, a high school classmate of mine lost her toddler suddenly, also without a clear medical diagnosis. Every day my classmate posts a picture or video of her curious, rosy-cheeked daughter on social media. Every day I look and I “like” what she has shared. I’m sure this child would have been – likely already was – smart and feisty like her mama. I am grateful to my classmate for inviting her friends into her grief process, and it socks me in the gut daily.

And then, in August, I walked that thin line myself between being here among the living or being a (hopefully) blessed memory. I was run over by an SUV while crossing a busy downtown street on foot. I was pretty gruesome to look at, and I had a couple of internal injuries as well. A few inches in one direction or another, and I would have been on the other side of that thin line. For weeks I fought off the absurd notion that I was living in an alternate dimension and that in another, I had been those few inches forward or backward. Four months later, I still think nightly about my first month home from the hospital – about how every movement took effort, about how I couldn’t find a position to sleep in because I had on open wound on my face and a goose egg on the back of my head, about how I had to cull stories about car accidents or death from my podcast playlist because they were so triggering.

2019 slopped a healthy dollop of reality onto my plate. And yet, facing my mortality through others’ experiences and my own has strengthened my resolve. I want to put as much good out into the world as I can. I want to notice all that is life-giving. I want to be here, really here, while I yet breathe.

I hope you’ll join me.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

‘Twas the week before Christmas…

Some crunch time humor…and an important reminder.

'Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the congregation
this minister was rushing to fulfill her vocation.
The greenery was rung 'round the sanctuary with care, 
in hopes that regulars and visitors soon would be there.

The figures were placed just so in the nativity,
waiting to add Jesus with his imminent delivery.
The musician in a tizzy, and I having writer's block, 
prayed our health would hang on
'till we'd sung "Silent Night" with our flock.

When from the copy room there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my desk chair to see what was the matter.
Away to the Xerox I flew like a flash,
dismantled the paper tray and pulled out the trash.

The machine had eaten all the Christmas Eve bulletins
and left me with confetti to distribute to everyone.
Little did I know that this was only the first mess
that would cause me no end of holiday stress:

The glow sticks I had purchased to hand out to kids
had been backordered due to so many bids.
My nursery workers were bailing, wanting to be in the pews,
meaning parents would have to juggle their hymnals and babies
until the service was through.

Grieving members needed extra care as they recalled Christmas memories,
and I was unsure where to focus my flagging energy.
A water main broke and half our parking lot was a geyser,
and I wondered if I could just hide in my bed, no one the wiser.

Strong Mary! Doting Joseph! Funky shepherds and sheep!
Sweet-singing angels 
and gift-bearing wise men coming to watch the baby sleep!
To Bethlehem proper, to that small, crowded stall,
now come quickly! 
Come quickly! Come quickly, all!

Time speeded up as the 24th drew nearer, 
and when was I supposed to shop for my family? That was no clearer. 
So to Amazon I went several nights, grateful for Prime, 
and shopped till my clock warned me it was nearly daytime. 

And then Christmas Eve came. It was showtime. 
I prayed that the worshippers would experience something sublime. 
As I climbed into the pulpit, white stole 'round my neck, 
I glanced toward the AV booth and gave a nod to the tech. 

Suddenly, I saw the faces. People smiling, expecting a Savior, 
glad to be snuggled together, on their best behavior. 
They were dressed in red and green, a few even in bells. 
They looked toward the creche, where God in flesh now dwelled. 

The music - how it filled me! The harmonization, how inspiring! 
The readings reminded me that I should be among those admiring. 
Communion brought us together with both future and past,  
Silence drew me into God's promise to be with us to the last. 

I then remembered that whatever did or didn't go right, 
the darkness would be pierced by Christ's growing light. 
Illumined by candles, the sanctuary filled with hope, 
and my heart beating gratefully, I scurried back up from the end of my rope.
 
God's love had been born anew, not just for me, but for all: 
good guys and bad guys, the worried and ill; 
the lonely, the wanting, the broken, and the raging, 
the hopeless, the imprisoned, the young, and the aging.

We all filed out when worship was done, 
Some to full, busy houses and some to a table of one. 
I headed home to pour a big glass of wine 
and to collapse on the couch, a hard-earned rest finally mine.

As I drifted off to sleep, too tired to remove my shoes, 
I gave thanks not only for the holiday's good news, 
but also for the privilege of witnessing to God's world being made right. 
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night. 

Poem inspired by “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore.





 

These are a few of my favorite books

I am terrible at estimating – heights, ages, distances, you name it. (Maybe it’s because people have judged my age by my size most of my life, which has led to wildly inaccurate guesses.) I decided to set a book-reading goal for 2019, and in typical Laura style, I was way off. I reached my number by May. But the goal served its purpose, bringing me back again and again to my library and THE library and reintroducing me to a joy of reading that had gotten lost somewhere between graduate studies and parenting.

Not all of the books were great. But some were fantastic, and I’d love to share the names of those works with you.

Practice of ministry

God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana. Incorporates improv to help readers say a bigger “yes, and…” to life and faith.

How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going by Susan Beaumont. Rather than telling what to do, this book focuses on how to be during liminal seasons.

Theology

Outside the Lines: How Embracing Queerness Will Transform Your Faith by Mihee Kim-Kort. Pushes against false binaries in places and ways that I’d not considered.

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor. Journeys from envy of other religions and their practices to a new perspective on and respect for her own.

Fiction

Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Both books deal in secrets and the desire to run from the past. Gorgeously written.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. A fictional peek into life in the LGTBQ+ community in the early days of the AIDS crisis.

Non-fiction

Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew by Michael D. Leinbach and Jonathan H. Ward. Lots of details about the recovery and study of remains and debris, but the story is at its best when it examines NASA culture and describes the investment of small communities in the search.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell. Brings out of the shadows an American woman whose tenacity and smarts played an essential role in the French Resistance.

Racial justice

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. Highlights the microaggressions people of color deal with everyday. Cringe-worthy and convicting.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Pulls no punches. Highly recommend.

Memoir

Becoming by Michelle Obama. Former FLOTUS in her own words. Wonderful book that made me long for the days of integrity and focus on public service.

Educated by Tara Westover. Story of a daughter in a Mormon survivalist family who went on to earn her Ph.D. This book would only work as a memoir. As fiction it would seem too outlandish, and as biography it would probably come off as judgy.

Historical fiction

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict. Horrifying story of abusing and erasing a genius scientist.

Sociology

The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones. The sober hope mainline and progressive Christians need right now.

What have you read lately that you’d recommend?

Photo by Janko Ferlič – @specialdaddy on Unsplash.

Women helping women

I know a lot of clergywomen. I run in different networks designed for them. I coach them. I am one myself. And I cannot think of a single one that is not creative, smart, and committed. Why, then, aren’t more clergywomen serving as senior pastors in big pulpits or leading middle judicatories or denominations?

Some of the reasons  are cultural and structural. Women, socialized for humility, are more likely to be shamed (by men and women) for assertively sharing their successes and ideas. Women’s contributions are sometimes co-opted by men, who repeat and get credit for what women have said, sometimes just moments before. Women often have smaller spheres of influence because of the ministry roles to which they are called, giving them less exposure for big steeple pastor searches and elections to leadership on a larger platform. That’s why I piloted a cohort called Trinit-A this fall to help the participants become more comfortable and confident sharing their successes and innovations, celebrate each other’s gifts and accomplishments in ways that encourage continued growth, and go to bat for one another and themselves in spaces dominated by male voices.

During the first session, I asked the members of the cohort what their personal hopes for our time together would be. The group named a desire to share what we learned with others. One of our chosen methods was a blog post. And so, with the cohort’s blessing, I would like to name some of the themes that emerged from our conversations.

Affirm specifics. The group members noted that often they hear their male counterparts celebrated for specific talents and tasks, while they are generally – even generically – referred to as “great,” “sweet,” or “wonderful.” They encouraged affirming in others and in ourselves particular gifts or accomplishments. That makes it more likely that the clergywoman in question will stick in hearers’/observers’ minds and will stand out more in search processes.

Re-write your bio. When we guest preach or speak or lead a retreat, we are inevitably asked for a bio to put in the bulletin and other marketing pieces. Look at yours. In what ways have you undersold your credentials? (If you’re unsure, consult with one of your biggest cheerleaders.) Then take another run at a bio that captures the fullness of your track record and abilities.

Take your rightful seat at the table. Sometimes we’re invited to the table. More often we have to invite ourselves. Either way, it’s important to show up to leadership conversations, reframing, questioning, challenging, and offering our insight on our own behalf and others.’

Network to connect others. For some, networking is still a dirty word. For others it’s not, but it feels awkward. Networking, done right, is intended to benefit both parties. But there’s a way to make it not just win-win, but win-win-win as Michael Scott would say. Consider how you can use your relationships to introduce people who would be of interest to one another but might not meet without your help. Then those people (and the ones they serve) have benefitted, and you lodge in others’ brains as someone who is connected and generous and wise about potential collaborations.

Link hands across denominational lines. Some denominations have more women in ministry than others. Regardless if you’re a pioneer or a third wave clergywoman, though, it helps to have relationships and sounding boards among female clergy in other denominations. These spaces offer perspective, a greater pool of support, and opportunities to share more honestly than is sometimes possible in small denominational worlds. They also lay the groundwork for multi-denominational collaboration.

Highlight positive voices. This fall a certain (male) evangelical leader made a big hubbub about telling a certain (female) author, speaker, and Bible teacher to return to her domicile, among other offensive statements. That incident got a lot of play on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, but it didn’t do much for women other than accentuate how entrenched the patriarchy remains. Instead of giving men who belittle women a bigger platform, the cohort advocated for pushing the voices of women and their allies. It’s just as easy to click share or retweet if you see a clergywoman doing something good or saying something insightful as it is to pass along outrageous content.

Keep track of all you do. The cohort was built on the participants’ willingness to announce recent accomplishments. There were long pauses on the first couple of calls, though, as the members scrolled through their days to remember something worth sharing. After a couple of weeks, one of the women suggested keeping a running list between calls. That shifted the conversation. Responses included, “I didn’t realize how much I do!” and “I thought this was something everyone did. It never occurred to me before now that it is a legit accomplishment.” We’re better prepared to talk about ourselves when we acknowledge all that we do.

Know that your success is my success, and vice versa. We’ve probably all heard a congregation say, “Well, we tried having a woman pastor, and it just didn’t work.” It might be decades before that church is willing to call a woman again, even though the issue was likely not the minister herself but the fit or the church’s lack of support. On the other hand, you might have also heard, “We had a woman pastor, and she was amazing. Let’s call another one.” When one of us succeeds, we broaden the path for all our colleagues.

If we announce our accomplishments and affirm and amplify each other, our whispers of giftedness and faithfulness become shouts that skeptics can’t ignore.

Thank you to this pilot cohort of Trinit-A. I enjoyed being with and learning from you so much.

If you are interested in a future Trinit-A cohort, contact me.

Image courtesy of The Young Clergy Women Project/Young Clergy Women International.