The difficulty of discernment

Discernment is reallllly hard.

Discernment is also reallllly important.

Here is a link to the audio of a sermon I preached two Sundays ago about the why and the how of discernment. I was in the pulpit at First Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is between settled pastors. In my role as the FBC’s transition facilitator, I was speaking directly to the challenge and the gift of discerning along the way to calling a new minister. The sermon also applies anytime we as clergy or congregations feel the internal or external pressure just to get on with it.

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Understanding conflict

There is more than one way to assess the dynamics at play in conflict. We have the intrapersonal elements: what is going on within each person? Internal struggles are sometimes good fodder for conversation with a therapist or counselor, a professional who helps individuals understand how their current reactions are shaped by past experiences. Once that awareness emerges, healing becomes possible.

In conflict there are also the interpersonal aspects: what is happening among people? I don’t know of an approach that offers more insight into relationships than family systems theory, which explains how different emotional units interact in healthy and unhealthy ways.

To be certain, the intra- and interpersonal overlap when conflict threatens to boil over, and a basic grasp of both is essential to pastoral care at multiple layers. But I think an additional filter is helpful when we’re dealing with issues at the congregational level. Otherwise we can quickly get into the weeds, analyzing who is where in the system or what each person’s triggers are, so that it’s hard to zoom back out to the big picture. Meetings grind to a halt and initiatives die because we’re so focused on managing problems at the micro level.

In my mind, then, congregations live on an x-y axis. Individuals are points on the plane. Family systems theory orients us along the horizontal axis, helping us see how one person relates to the next. The vertical axis can in turn offer us a deeper though perhaps simpler way in to focusing what’s going on by taking us from symptoms at the surface to underlying issues.

At the outset we deal with logic. What are the arguments the involved parties are making? What are the counterpoints? If conflict is not resolved through reason, through adding up pros and cons and taking the most apparently advantageous path, then something else is going on.

The next level down to probe, then, is emotion. Who is feeling what and why? How might those feelings need tending? Whose heart or relationship needs mending?

If conflict remains after working with logic and feelings, then there is a struggle for power, whether or not it’s acknowledged as such. Who has control in certain situations? How did they get it, and how do they maintain it? What would it look like to give some of it up, and who would benefit? What would it take to convince the powerholders to cede some of their stake?

This approach, adapted from Sarah Drummond’s book Dynamic Discernment, provides a more streamlined on-the-spot assessment and offers a way to think about what it would take truly to get conversations and plans moving in a helpful direction. So the next time you’re blindsided in a conversation or banging your head on the conference table during a stalled-out meeting, travel the vertical axis of reason-emotion-power, taking care as you have breadth to tend to the pastoral care needs of individuals and emotional units.

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Re-imagining ministry and re-inventing yourself

Many clergywomen find themselves in the position of needing to re-invent themselves at some point. There are many reasons why. We are geographically limited. Or congregational ministry positions are drying up as church budgets shrink. Or we have small children or aging parents who need more of our attention than full-time congregational ministry allows. Or we’ve been scarred by church work. Or we have yet to find a venue that fully utilizes our gifts. Or God is at work in us, shaping a vision of what we’ve been made for. 

And so we dream about – or are forced to consider – what an out-of-the-box ministry could look like. Let me say (as someone who has been there) that I am in your corner. I’d offer these steps to you as you mull and plan.

Define your purpose in ministry. What is it that God is nudging you to do? The specific tasks aren’t as important at this point as what your overall aim is. “I create spaces for people to grow their relationships with God and one another.” “I help churches navigate change with clarity and hope.”

Free yourself up to think broadly about ministry. Many seminaries are geared to drive students toward traditional congregational ministry positions. There’s more than one way, though, to live out your purpose in ministry. What way(s) suit you and your strengths?

Consider the environment you need. What kind of space does your ministry require? Do you work best with people or on your own? What supports and/or accountability will allow you to make the most of your gifts? What equipment or resources can undergird your efforts? How important is location to your success?

Think about your financial requirements. Creating your own ministry often means leaving the world of steady pay and benefits. How much fluctuation in income can you tolerate, at least in the short term? How will you secure health insurance? Remember too that business expenses will now likely come out of your gross income, and be sure to figure that in to your projections.

Identify to whom your ministry would be good news. If God is inviting you to consider a new venture, your efforts will be valuable to others as well. Find those people, tell them what you’re mulling, and listen deeply to the feedback as you gauge their level of excitement.

Pray on it. After you’ve done all of the above, turn your data and your shoulds and coulds over to God: that would you have me do? This is a time for discernment, not decision-making.

Promote yourself. “Noooo…” you might be thinking. “I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that.” But remember those people you talked to who saw great potential in what you were thinking about. Letting those who need your ministry know that your help is available is a service to – not a burden on – them.

Set attainable targets for yourself. You have very little control over whether you net a certain number of new clients per month, so a goal like this is a recipe for frustration. You can absolutely make so many new contacts or spend X number of hours per week working on a particular project, though. These kinds of mileposts keep you moving forward.

Celebrate the flexibility you have when times are lean. Hustling is hard. It requires tenacity. You will wonder many times if you heard God correctly when you stepped out on this limb. And, you will be so glad when you don’t have to plan time away, whether it’s to attend an event your child’s school or to get away for a few days, around a million other concerns.

Find colleagues. Even if you work well alone, don’t allow yourself always to be alone. Look for people with whom you can provide mutual encouragement, space to vent, and brainstorming time.

Keep learning and growing. There’s a lot of trial and error in starting up a new venture. Instead of letting the errors discourage you, use them for further discernment. What about this particular try helped me be faithful to my purpose? What distracted me from it? Use those reflections to refine your ministry.

Be patient with yourself. You are brave. You are wise. You are innovative. You have much to offer. And, it will take time to build your ministry. Release yourself from the expectation – and the pressure that comes with it – of going from 0 to 60 in a few months.

I have found great joy in reimagining what ministry looks like for me. That does not mean it’s always been easy. It took a long time to build toward sustainability, but I can now confidently say it was worth the effort. So all the best to you in your new season of ministry. Know that I am here to help if you need it.

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Understanding how people arrive at different beliefs

Have you ever wondered how someone in a similar life station can experience the world or believe so differently from you?

Or have you ever been in a conversation that seemed benign until the other party exploded, leaving you to think, “Well that escalated quickly.”

An organizational psychologist named Chris Argyris developed a model called the ladder of inference that might be helpful for understanding what’s happening in scenarios like these.

Basically, each of us filters the world around us in a different way. We select among observable data, often without thinking much about it. We add meaning to that slice of data according to our personal experiences or cultural background. Those assigned meanings lead us to make assumptions, and we then make conclusions accordingly. As conclusions pile up over time, they solidify into beliefs. We act based on those beliefs.

The ladder of inference explains how even in a congregation that averages 100 in attendance – or in a discussion between two people – the parties can end up having very divergent perspectives. It can also help us learn to explore situations through others’ eyes. How might differences at each rung of the ladder lead to ranges of beliefs and actions? Where are potential points at which further discussion might result in understanding and collaboration?

The ladder of inference could be a useful tool for committees or teams that are having trouble coming to agreement. Start at the bottom and work your way up. What are each person’s observations? What data do they choose to work with? Keep going up. Note where there are divergences. Hearing from one another is the starting point for real collaboration.

Who – or what – controls your time?

I have had a number of conversations lately with coachees who feel overwhelmed by their workloads. Some have even expressed shame that they can’t seem to get their arms around all they need – or at least think they need – to do.

Here are my responses to that:

You are not alone. Not by a long shot. Most ministers are generalists, which makes your work big and amorphous.

If you feel overwhelmed, it’s because you care. You love your calling and your people. That’s a good thing!

It is ok to reclaim your time. There are some things that only you can do or that you are specifically called to do. You are allowed to prioritize those tasks.

There are strategies that can help you toward that end. Some of the following suggestions will work better than others for you based on your work style and personality type, but you might consider:

Developing a work flow. Think about tasks that recur weekly or monthly and schedule standing blocks of time for them. These don’t have to be big chunks, but blocking time creates touchstones that reduce anxiety and the number of decisions you have to make in a day.

Postponing and/or limiting time spent on email. If you open your email as soon as you sit down at your desk, you have ceded control of your day to whatever awaits you in those messages. Get some of your important tasks done before you check your inbox. A related strategy is to dg into email only at a couple of designated times each day. (Rest assured that real emergencies will get through to you by other means.)

Thinking in longer arcs. Take time at the beginning of each month or season to set goals, plan sermon trajectories, or create outlines for Bible studies. That will offer continuity to your work and make sure your best ideas don’t get shelved.

Breaking big projects into smaller tasks. Projects on the whole can feel too overwhelming to start, but they are made up of mini projects and shorter deadlines that are much more manageable.

Working somewhere else when needed. It’s ok to set up shop from time to time somewhere that you won’t be interrupted every five minutes. Let your admin or lay leaders know where you are for accountability and how your deep work during these windows benefits the church.

Getting curious. Ask yourself questions such as, “Why am I doing this?” or “Who could do this better or with more enthusiasm than me?”

Empowering others. Ministry is about equipping people to follow Jesus. What opportunities to use God-given strengths and to share the love of Christ can others take on and free you up for other responsibilities in the process?

Loving the people in your care is not the same as responding to their every expectation, real or imagined. I encourage you to be proactive about your use of time and to notice how your ministry and your stress level change as a result.

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Avoiding clergy burnout

According to many studies done over the past couple of decades, clergy burnout is epidemic. At least half of all pastors leave vocational ministry for good after five years of service. (Some surveys put the number closer to 85%.) Fewer than 1/10 of clergy make it to retirement. These are sobering numbers.

Symptoms of burnout cover the range from relationship problems to poor physical health to feelings of isolation from God to anxiety and depression. But what is the root cause of this burnout? According to Sarah Drummond in Discerning Dynamics: Reason, Power, and Emotion in Change Leadership, “A leader becomes burned out not from long hours, but from working under unrealistic expectations set by others or themselves. When responsibility and power are insufficiently proximate in the work environment, burnout is possible.” This means that clergy who are tasked with making congregational shifts (or keeping a lot of people with disparate hopes happy) but who are not given the resources and authority to put changes in place are most at risk.

What can pastors do, then, to avoid burnout?

Get clear. Use every avenue available to you to find out what the stated and unstated expectations of the pastor are. Read old newsletters. Paw through meeting minutes the previous minister left behind. Know what is in legal documents. Information itself is power.

Get curious. Talk with formal leaders, informal influencers, and people who have a long history with the congregation (including those beyond the church, such as judicatory leaders and other clergy in the community). Whenever a weird dynamic pops up, probe what’s going on beneath the surface. Illuminating unhelpful norms is the first step in reshaping them.

Communicate, then communicate some more. Let everyone – especially your core leaders – know what you’re doing. Use the newsletter, the pulpit, and social media. Make your pastor’s reports available to everyone when appropriate. The role of minister is shrouded in mystery for some folks, leading them to believe you only work a few hours a week. That can prompt them to lay on the pressure even as they grab tasks. Sharing what you’re doing can reshape unrealistic expectations.

Create constructive feedback loops. Advertise when and how you hear questions and concerns best (e.g., a Monday morning email instead of a pre-worship ambush). State what kind of feedback is off limits, such as your parenting approach or hairstyle. Say how you handle anonymous notes. Setting boundaries allows you to claim – appropriately – your power.

Build support for new initiatives. Before you take any big steps, identify the people who will be most affected and get backing from them, particularly from those with the most clout. In other words, pool your power for positive purposes.

Say what you need. Could you use more time away for rest and renewal and professional development? An increase to a line item in the budget? Introductions to potential community partners? More layperson power for a particular ministry? It’s ok to ask, no matter what the response is. In fact, it’s an opportunity to share your thinking and to give folks a peek into what happens in ministry.

All of these approaches work toward more alignment between responsibility and power.

The church needs you and all your gifts for the long haul. So while the onus isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – all on you to match expectations and authority, it’s well worth your effort to gain new awareness for yourself, shift others’  understanding, and seek more resources.

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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?

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