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.

‘Tis the season for nominations

In churches that have January-December lay leadership terms, fall is the nominating committee’s active season. In many congregations the nominations process consists of looking at the rosters of all the committees and boards, noting who is rotating off, and plugging in (often recycled) names. It’s not uncommon for nominees to be approached with either apologies (“I’m sorry – I know you’re really busy – but we need you to fill this spot”) or guilt (“If you don’t fill this spot, I don’t know what we’ll do”).

I believe we can do better.

A big part of the problem is that we’re starting the nominations process too zoomed in. There’s no reason to look at the rosters of committees and boards until we’ve spent some time considering why we have these working bodies and how they fit into the overall direction of the church. Here, then, are some questions to help nominating committees broaden their thinking.

What is God inviting our congregation to consider doing in the next nine months to three years? Hopefully this question will have already been discussed at the congregational level. If not, the combination of nomination and stewardship seasons could provide opportunities for discernment.

What is the relationship of each working body to that invitation? If a new initiative is in the cards, that will impact what committees and boards do and how they work together.

What will the capacity of each working body be to live into that relationship when members with expiring terms rotate off? Notice that even three questions in, the focus is still on the bigger picture.

What gifts are needed to help each working body hold up its part of God’s invitation going forward? Think broadly about spiritual maturity, talents, perspectives, energy, and expertise.

Who are the people with those gifts or with the potential to develop them? Look for a balance of experienced and new nominees, making sure that all the various constituencies of the church are represented across the rosters. When contacting nominees, name the gifts the nominating committee sees in them, how they would strengthen the working body, and how the working body helps the church live into its mission.

If we still have holes after hearing back from all of our nominees, what does that mean? Consider what barriers to participation exist, whether committees and boards need to be right-sized or combined, if there is good understanding about what each working body does and how it contributes to the overall direction of the church, and whether further big-picture discernment is needed before resorting to the any-warm-body-will-do approach.

What lay leadership needs do we anticipate beyond the coming year, and what work can be done now to prepare those who are not yet ready to serve? Here we broaden back out to lay the groundwork for a pipeline of ready leaders. Communicate responses to this question to pastoral staff for further deliberation.

The nominating committee might kick into gear at only one time of the year, but its work is significant. Getting the right people on the right working bodies ensures not just functionality but energy and creativity that in turn propel the church toward its God-given vision. Blessings upon this hard, holy work.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash.


New professional development opportunity: Trinit-A

According to the “State of Women in Baptist Life” July 2016 update published by Baptist Women in Ministry, roughly half of Master of Divinity students at moderate-to-progressive Baptist seminaries are women. Yet as of June 2017, only 6.5% of churches that affiliate with moderate and progressive Baptist bodies had female senior pastors or co-pastors. These statistics are lower than many other mainline denominations in the United States, but not by much.

As an alumna of Young Clergy Women International, an ecumenical network of over 1600 women ministers, I can attest that the numbers mismatch between women training for vocational ministry and women called to pastorates is not due to lack of talent. For twelve years the most innovative leadership ideas I have read (and put to use in my own ministry) have come from YCWI members and alumnae. The church needs more of these creative, bold ministers – who are largely serving as solo pastors in small congregations or as associates in larger churches – in the pulpits of congregations of all sizes and in judicatory and denominational leadership.

Some of the reasons that women are called to smaller congregations and fewer regional and national leadership positions than men 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.

This reality does not mean we are powerless to change our esteem in the eyes of others, however. With intentionality and mutual support, we can redirect how we present ourselves as pastors and encourage and amplify one another’s – and our own – ideas.

In this vein I am piloting and facilitating a short-term cohort called Trinit-A. It is my hope that through the life of this small group, clergywomen who feel called to ministry positions that have been traditionally difficult for women to break into will

  • become more comfortable and confident sharing their successes and innovations in ways that those with the power to call them, elect them to leadership, or share their ideas broadly can hear,
  • 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.

The cohort is called Trinit-A because it is designed around three As:

  • Announcement – “I did a thing.”
    • Claiming accomplishments, sharing credit as appropriate.
      • Claim no more and no less credit than is accurate.
      • Note your specific role in successful outcomes.
    • Using action words and stories.
      • Action words show strength.
      • Stories show humanity.
  • Affirmation – “Here is all the good we see in that thing you did.”
    • Practicing gratitude for the gifts of others in the group.
      • Gratitude pre-empts jealousy.
    • Voicing encouragement and appreciation to colleagues.
      • Encouragement gives permission to share more widely about and to build on successes and gifts.
    • Acknowledging the specific strengths in our own accomplishments.
  • Amplification – “Other people need to know about the thing you did.”
    • Naming specific people who would benefit from knowing about the thing.
      • Think of ministry colleagues, people you went to seminary with, divinity school professors, influential lay leaders, judicatory/denominational leaders, peers who are astute at blogging and/or social media, community leaders, etc.
    • Taking initiative to tell those people about the thing and about the person who did the thing (whether other group members or self).
      • Make and share your plan – who, what, when, how – before leaving the gathering.

This cohort is open to clergywomen in the 35-45 age range* and limited to five participants. It will meet from 1:00-2:30 pm central via Zoom on the following Tuesdays:

September 10
September 24
October 8
October 22
November 5
November 19

The first session will consist of community-building, covenanting, sharing our longer-arc call to ministry, and touching on the design of the cohort. The five following sessions will include check-in time, amplification accountability, a space for everyone to announce accomplishments, a deep dive into affirming and planning to amplify one group member’s announcement, reflection on group process, and a closing prayer.

The cost to participate in the six-session cohort is $150, due by September 2.
I am excited about the possibilities of this cohort, both to increase leadership opportunities for talented clergywomen and to create a replicable pattern for lifting up one another. To contact me with questions, click here. To register, click here.

*The rationale behind this age range is two-fold. First, the cohort is designed to be a peer group, and a broader age range might naturally develop mentor-mentee relationships. Second, clergywomen in this age range have often garnered enough ministry experience to have a sense of their gifts and longer-term call but don’t yet have the exposure to be able to live into that call.

Photo by Ilyass SEDDOUG on Unsplash.

What the church could learn from a trip to the retro arcade

As a child, some of my favorite Friday nights consisted of eating a chili dog and playing video games at the Double Dip Depot (RIP, dear Chattanooga institution). On my family’s semi-regular trips to Gatlinburg in the 1980s and 1990s, the arcade was always one of the highlights.

So I am not complaining that retro arcades seem to be popping up everywhere. Recently I took my 6-year-old, who has not yet been so exposed to modern gaming as to be unimpressed by 30-year-old technology. As we enjoyed our ALL-YOU-CAN-PLAY PASS (!), it occurred to me that these machines might have some wisdom to offer those of us in the vocation of ministry.

Asteroids. Just like those church programs that are no longer effective but you still feel obligated to offer, you only play this game for the nostalgia factor. (I mean, come on, it’s barely a step up from Pong.) Memories are central to who we are collectively and individually, but we don’t need to spend too much time living in them. And yes, I recognize the irony of hating on nostalgia while celebrating the return of retro arcades.

Centipede. Getting a high score on this game means being able to focus on the movements of the centipede while keeping an eye on – but not being too distracted by – the spiders falling on you. Similar to how you have to keep the big picture in front-of-mind even as you plan the details for individual ministries.

Cruis’n USA. Counterintuitively, you don’t finish the race in first by flooring the gas pedal the whole game. You’ve got to ease off in the curves, or else you’ll spin out. Churches often don’t take enough time to breathe and reflect, they just speed ahead and run out of time and energy. Same goes for clergy.

Pinball. There’s a lot of waiting and watching in pinball. The player has to be ready to hit the flipper buttons when the ball heads down the play field, but dynamics largely beyond the player’s control bounce the ball around in the meantime. Beating on the button when the game is out of your hands just wears you out and makes you frustrated. Churches do this a lot by measuring and fretting over numbers they can’t do much about instead of looking for the right opportunity to make an impact.

Ms. Pac-Man. You’ve got to have a plan when you play Ms. Pac Man, or you’ll get yourself eaten in a hurry. Congregations without a sense of direction will devour their volunteers and resources, with nothing much to show for it.

What retro game is your church’s culture most like?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Indignation and indifference

“JEEEE-susss, it’s no fair. Mary is making me do all the work. Make her help meeee.” This quote is often used to pit Martha against her sister in Luke 10:40, thus retconning the catfight trope into holy scripture itself.

Not today, Satan. Not only does the typical translation of these women’s relationship set up a false binary between doing and being, service and leadership, it keeps us from more deeply seeing ourselves reflected in the scripture.

Martha says, “Tell Mary to get off her butt.” She speaks to Jesus with the confidence of someone who knows her hearer will certainly see her side. Instead: “Sorry, Martha. I’m enjoying this conversation with your sister.” If she’d had access to an ice pack, Martha would no doubt have used it on her floor-bruised jaw and her indignant-red cheeks.

How often do we approach God authoritatively, knowing God will agree with us? If you’re like me, it’s more often than I care to admit. “Not my will, but thi…yada, yada, yada, I’m sure you’d like to bless me with good weather for my road trip and a change of attitude for that person who has been a thorn in my side and a new on-sale dress for Easter.”

Whole congregations can do this too. We pray for more people to join our membership – because God must want that for us – but what if we’re already the right size to do the job God has for us? We pray for more resources, but what if more money leads to more distractions and excuses from spiritual growth and disciple-making? To the best of my understanding, God doesn’t think in the same categories and metrics that we do.

This is what makes the prayer of indifference – a key component of discernment – so important and so dang hard. It means acknowledging our short-sightedness. It means giving up some control. But unless we can offer prayers that sound like, “Here’s what I’m worried about, please do your God thing” without prescribing what we’d like that God thing to look like, we’re too attached to a particular outcome. That means limiting God, or at least limiting our openness to God.

The prayer of indifference is made a bit easier by cultivating a habit of gratitude. Noting where God has been at work in, around, and through us in big and small ways reminds us that our faith in God’s presence and goodness is warranted. God doesn’t do on-demand prayer responses, but God hasn’t abandoned us yet.

What adjustments to your prayer posture would you like to make? How might you incorporate noticing gratitude into your routine to make these changes possible?

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash.