Valuing staff that steps up

In churches that have more than one clergyperson on staff, it is good and right for the congregation to look to the associate pastor(s) for leadership when the senior pastor is away. That associate pastor has the training and the big picture understanding to keep ministry moving forward during the senior pastor’s absence.

Things get tricky, though, when we’re talking about the long-term leave (such as sabbatical) or the resignation of a senior pastor. In these instances the capabilities of associate pastors do not change, but their capacities do. A senior pastor’s two-week vacation typically means temporarily-added stress for an associate pastor, who might take on more worship leadership, preaching, pastoral care, and administrative (e.g. meetings) duties than usual. That is doable for a short span. Carrying those extra responsibilities for months, however, could easily lead to resentment and/or burnout on the part of an associate pastor. After all, she is doing more than the job to which the church called her. And all too often congregations don’t recognize, bring in help for, or compensate this essential yet supplemental work.

How, then, can these common gaps in senior pastor leadership be navigated well? Here are a few thoughts:

Senior pastors can

  • Make the effort to communicate to church leadership how much time they spend on the various aspects of their ministry so that those leaders can make good decisions about coverage.
  • Invite their associate pastors to ask questions, share concerns, and state needs around the responsibilities that might fall to them during long-term senior pastor absences.
  • Secure temporary assistance for their associate pastors during sabbatical periods and advocate for additional compensation during and time off after the leave for their associate pastors.
  • Help the church be pro-active about budgeting for temporary assistance and additional compensation so that the funds will be there when needed.

Associate pastors can

  • Talk with their senior pastors, pastoral relations committees, and/or personnel committees about their hopes and fears around their senior pastors’ absences.
  • Keep track of all of their responsibilities and the time needed to do each well. Be prepared to share this information with church leaders and to help them do the math. (“If you want me to pick up X responsibility, what would you like for me to drop?”)
  • Ask for what they need. What kind of help would be most useful? Who might provide it? How much recovery time will be required after the church is fully-staffed again? How much additional pay would be fair for taking on senior pastor duties?
  • Go on vacation beforehand. Have something to look forward to afterward.
  • Ensure they have breaks built into the time when they’ll be running point.

Congregations can

  • Recognize their associate pastors as pastors, all the time.
  • Take care to appreciate their associate pastors’ extra effort and to note the toll it takes when the senior pastor is gone.
  • Acknowledge that associate pastors pick up extra emotional labor when senior pastors are absent due to added anxiety in the system.
  • Mobilize to pick up some of the duties that would otherwise fall by the wayside when the senior pastor is away.
  • Listen to associate pastors when they say that expectations are unreasonable. Even better, invite them to share concerns in advance of the leave and work to resolve them.
  • Give associate pastors some choice in what they pick up and what they hand off to others during senior pastor absences. Some associates might be eager to preach more. Others might want to stay closer to the areas of ministry to which the church called them.
  • Budget for additional pastoral help during stretches without a senior pastor in place. In other words, be ready to call at least a part-time interim minister following a senior pastor’s resignation, and be prepared to pay for temporary help during a senior pastor’s sabbatical.

A senior pastor’s absence can be a time of growth for the associate pastor and the congregation. In order to harness this opportunity, though, it is important to be thoughtful and pro-active. Otherwise, expect the associate pastor to begin imagining herself elsewhere.

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash.

I appreciate you, pastors

October is Pastor Appreciation Month, but let’s be honest. You deserve to be noticed and thanked year-round for the ways you have committed your lives not just to the tasks but also to the intense spiritual, emotional, and mental labor of ministry. I want you to know that…

…I see you when you get up at 4:30 am for a pre-surgery visit after crawling into bed late the night before due to a meeting that ran long.

…I see you when you struggle over whether to take that much-needed vacation, knowing that a beloved church member is on hospice care.

…I see you when social media tells people in the pews to “walk out of worship if your pastor doesn’t preach on [insert current event here],” yet your sensitivity to the Spirit and to your congregation’s capacity tells you that doesn’t need to be your focus today.

…I see you when the lectionary is serving up softballs for addressing the world’s ills, and you go there, knowing some of your parishioners will be angry.

…I see you when it’s hard to date or make friends outside of work because of the assumptions about and demands of your vocation.

…I see you when you are pulled between wanting to be a whole person (including showing up for your loved ones and yourself) and wanting to be the best pastor possible.

…I see you when you feel like you have to hide part of yourself, whether a belief or an aspect of your identity, because you want to be able to continue in this vocation to which God has called you.

…I see you when you work so hard to encourage your church’s progress, only to have conflict burn it all down.

…I see you when your calendar looks like a box of markers exploded on it, with color-coded appointments leaving precious little blank space.

…I see you when you have to wear the mantle of spiritual leadership even as you wrestle with your own faith.

…I see you when you are moved to enter search and call and have to deal with the ickiness of feeling like you are betraying your current context.

…I see you when you are confined by circumstances to a ministerial role you have outgrown, and you keep showing up despite the chafe.

…I see you when you have no idea what to do next after a metaphorical bomb goes off in your congregation, so you keep putting one foot directly in front of the other.

…I see you when the Church or your church makes you representative of all of a particular demographic, such that you bear the weight of excellence on behalf of all your peers.

…I see you when constructive feedback is hard to come by, no matter how much you seek it out.

…I see you when others discount your voice because you are too something, yet still you keep raising it because your message is faithful.

…I see you when you toil in obscurity, leading small congregations, because you are making big impacts that will ripple out far beyond what you will ever see.

…I see you when you make (or lead your church to make) decisions that are hard but good.

…I see you when you offer care to people who disappoint or even hurt you.

…I see you when you want more for the Church, because it is Christ’s body here on earth.

…I see your love for God and neighbor, your tenacity, your creativity, and your wisdom.

Thank you, dear ministers, for all the seen and unseen work you do to bring more peace, connection, and understanding into this world.

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash.

 

 

 

The importance of context

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an astronaut. That was not an uncommon goal in those days. The space shuttle program was relatively new, and the teacher-in-space program – as disastrously as it ended – made space travel seem more attainable. I’m still not so sure what was so enchanting about this dream. Maybe my budding introversion loved the idea of so much, well, space. Maybe it was the enchanting solar system photography that captured my imagination. Maybe I just didn’t know what all my career options were. Maybe I watched the movie Space Camp too many times. (The answer is probably all of the above.)

My parents encouraged me in this low-likelihood endeavor. They took me to the Marshall and Kennedy Space Flight Centers. They helped me write letters to request the scientist equivalent of head shots. They signed me up for Space Camp (which, by the way, was fun but nothing like the movie). My space fixation went strong for several years until I realized I didn’t enjoy science and math nearly as much as English. When I hit junior high, most of my astronaut posters and training manuals (yep, I’m a nerd) were put into drawers as artifacts of nostalgia.

I still love space, though. One of my favorite places continues to be the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. My husband, who went to Space Camp the same summer I did, gets giddy about it too, and now our son looks forward to going. On our most recent visit there was a new (to me) experiment about the context of the space race. As a child, the history of space travel was interesting, but it was just a timeline of progress. But the space program was never just about exploration. It was set against the backdrop of wars (hot and cold) and a struggle for the identity of the country, and the choices, the pressure, the setbacks and achievements cannot be fully appreciated without putting them in this larger context. Suddenly the stakes were clearer to me, as was the tenacity of those engineers who made the improbable happen with very little tech.

So it is with our congregations. The ebb and flow of membership, the beginnings and endings of ministries, patterns of pastor tenures, and even the architecture of church campuses must be set against the backdrop of all that was happening locally, nationally, and globally in particular eras. Then we are able to look for God’s presence through it all, identify values and legacy, and discern future direction.

When looking ahead, don’t forget to direct your gaze backward first, noticing cultural and political trends in the process. Only then, with a full grasp of context, will you be able to get clear on the character and gifts that will launch your church into a future in which the sky proves no limit.

Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash.

Repost: breaking shame’s hold on our congregations

[Note: I am re-posting this blog from November 2017 because I think it is particularly relevant as we head into budgeting, stewardship, and nomination seasons. We cannot do much more than copy and paste – or copy, shrink by 10%, and paste – last year’s line items and fill open slots with warm bodies until we acknowledge and break shame’s hold on our congregation’s vision.]

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.

How firm a foundation

I currently have the privilege of serving as transition facilitator for a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee. This involves coaching a team of laypeople as they lead the church through some discussions that will be intense as well as – if we do our work with great intention and trust God’s presence – fruitful and hopeful.

This past weekend I trained this transition team. We had a big agenda for our Saturday together. Worship together, bond as a team, understand the scope of the transition process, pray our way through the large physical plant, plan for our first congregational conversation, and set the timeline for our work. (Yes, I was tired, and I’m sure the team was as well!)

I was not surprised that we quickly fell behind in our ambitious schedule. The people around the table were telling stories and enjoying one another’s company. Internally, my desire to stay on task warred with my conviction that these conversations were the work, no matter what our agenda said. A key component of the day was the sharing of faith journeys. I was amazed by the depth to which team members told deeply personal stories. There were tears. There was laughter. The connections being formed and strengthened were almost visible, they were so visceral.

We were able to check off the most important to-dos in preparation for our work with the church as a whole (and still adjourn on time!). But when we reflected on the our work we had done over eight hours, there was consensus that the team-building pieces – faith stories, casual conversation during lunch, a tangent or two, affirming one another’s experiences and gifts via call and response – were where God was most powerfully at work.

This team was put together through congregational ballots that were then processed by a nominating committee to ensure as much diversity in life and church experience, perspective, age, and gender as possible. It was purposefully representational of a church that – like most churches – has plenty of different thoughts on what the next chapter of ministry should look like.

That’s exactly why this “soft” or “slow” work was necessary. (To be clear, I believe attention to relationship-building is tough and makes processes more efficient in the long run.) We were able to see the image of God in one another and note what we have in common so that we can work from that starting point rather than areas of disagreement. Now the team members can model that recognition of each person’s belovedness, that delight in one another, that love for their church as they lead the discussions that must be had if the congregation is to notice and respond faithfully to God’s invitations in this season.

Where in your ministry setting is the “real work” getting hung up by disagreement, disengagement, or lack of follow-through? I encourage you to consider whether taking a step back to strengthen relationships might be a way to move forward.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.

 

 

 

Installation budgeting

When a church calls a new clergyperson, formally marking the new partnership is essential. In many denominations an installation worship service is the primary means for doing so. Installations typically take place after the new pastor has been in place for 1-3 months. This delay gives the minister (at least some) time to get acclimated and to meet people in the congregation, judicatory, and surrounding community that she wants to involve in the planning and leadership of the installation service. It also allows her to invite family, friends, and mentors who need advance notice in order to travel.

An installation service is a celebration. A new season in the lives of the minister and congregation has begun. Installing a leader gives church members and the pastor the opportunity to express gratitude to God for accompanying them through the transition time and for bringing them together for mutual ministry. An installation service is a time of covenanting. During the service the clergyperson and the congregation make promises about the ways they will journey alongside one another on mission for God. And an installation service connects church and minister with a broader community. Often a judicatory or denominational representative, clergy colleagues, leaders from community organizations, and/or someone from the pastor’s seminary will participate in some fashion.

For all of these reasons, installations promote positivity and connection that can lead to momentum for the congregation and minister. Often, though, churches and search teams do not think to budget for this worship service. Costs could include honorarium and travel expenses for the installation preacher (who often comes from out of town because the inviting clergyperson is from another area), a gift for the pastor being installed (such as a stole or a chalice and paten), and finger foods for a reception after the service. Larger congregations might easily be able to absorb these costs by pulling from line items such as pulpit supply and hospitality. Many small to medium congregations cannot, however. And having the forethought to include installation expenses in the search budget – no matter how many resources the church has – sends a message about welcome, attention to detail, and the desire to develop a long, fruitful ministry with the incoming pastor.

If you are deep in the process with a searching church, ask about the budget for your installation. (In some contexts, you might need to be prepared first to educate about the what and why of an installation.) If there isn’t one, make it a negotiating point. An installation service is not just for your benefit. It glorifies God and lays the foundation for your leadership and the church’s future.

Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash.

Use your platforms well

When I grow up, I want to be Liz Ray.

Liz is an artist. She created the pen-and-ink piece around which I organized my office, an homage to women working together in the epic battle at the end of Avengers: Endgame. Liz created it at the request of my husband and son for Mother’s Day. (My son asked that Wonder Woman be added, despite the fact she comes from a different universe.)

Liz is also the manager of The Comic Strip, a store in Tuscaloosa that sells (or can order!) any superhero merchandise you could ever want. I love to go in and look at the vintage comic book covers and eerily lifelike Batman statues. Liz organizes several special events at The Comic Strip each year. They are opportunities for customers to cosplay and for local artists to sell their work. There are drawings for prizes, free merch, and costume contests. These occasions are loads of fun for people who shop at The Comic Strip regularly and for those who are dropping in for the first time. Almost always the store and the artists donate a percentage of their sales to a local organization. On the annual Wonder Woman Day, for example, the designated recipient is a program that helps survivors of domestic violence.

And that’s the reason I want to be Liz. She fully uses her platforms – her art and her position at The Comic Strip – to put good into the world. She helps create a community where people are welcomed as they are. She showcases the talents of artists who birth beauty and spark the imaginations of beholders. She raises awareness about needs in the community. And she invites people to join her in supporting those causes.

Each one of us, individually and/or collectively, has at least one platform that can be used to push more good out into a world that desperately needs it. It might be a one-on-one relationship, an Instagram or Twitter stream with a lot of followers, an informal leadership position, a captive audience, wealth, or a title. It could be a committee we’re on, a business we work at or own, a congregation we’re part of, or a print or online publication we contribute to. It could even be a chance encounter with someone we’ll never see again. The size of the platform doesn’t matter. What we do with it does.

Think about all the areas of your personal and professional lives where you have influence. It doesn’t have to be official authority. It could be as minute as the mood you bring to your place of work, because that is catching among co-workers. How are you currently using those platforms to usher in more love, more peace? Where would you like to make adjustments so that you can create more openness and hope?

I’m mulling this too. After all, I want to be like Liz.