Assessing congregations’ readiness for a woman in the pastorate

I first sensed a call to ministry when I was a youth. I tried to talk with my youth minister about the vocational stirring I felt, but he wouldn’t engage. I met with my pastor, who encouraged me privately. (He didn’t think our church was ready to throw support behind a woman in ministry. He was right, but he also wasn’t pushing the culture.) For a long time, then, my mentors were either strong women who weren’t clergy or clergywomen I “knew” through books and periodicals.

In seminary I found a congregation that had no qualms about bringing me on as an intern and later ordaining me. That business about women being barred from ministry because they were “first in the Edenic fall” (see: 1984 Southern Baptist Convention) seemed far removed from my burgeoning career in more progressive contexts.

And yet, it wasn’t. Microaggressions abounded among staff and congregants, sometimes making churches unpleasant places of ministry. Clergywomen peers found themselves toeing the glass cliff, looking over their shoulders at church people who were willing to “take a chance” on women’s leadership only as a last-ditch effort to slow decline – and then crowding them on that precipice when the long skid was not reversed quickly enough. Other highly-qualified women ministers noted their male counterparts professionally leapfrogging them as they heard “no” again and again from search teams. All of this was – is – happening in mainline denominations that have supposedly conquered sexism.

Let me be clear. The Church needs women in the pastorate. It is shrinking, in part, due to the lack of tenacity, wisdom, innovation, and compassion that women in ministry have to offer. Time and again, though, women pastors hear that churches are not ready for them, or these clergy realize after accepting ministry positions that congregations had misjudged their own preparedness. The ramifications for this miscalculation are huge. If a clergywoman is not successful because of the church’s failure to lay groundwork, that congregation often thinks, “Well, we tried having a woman as a pastor, and it just didn’t work out” instead of examining its assumptions. The church hesitates before calling another woman, thus missing out on deeply-needed gifts and perspectives. Additionally, that pastor might begin to question her effectiveness and call rather than her fit with the context, possibly leaving the ministry for good and ensuring that no congregation benefits from all she has to offer.

Here, then, is my attempt to give churches an assessment they can use to judge their true openness to a pastor who also happens to be a woman. (I want to thank alumnae of Young Clergy Women International for their input on the points below.) You can download a PDF of the assessment here, which I encourage you to share.

Pre-pastor search work:

  • The church has had a woman in its pulpit as a guest preacher, and it referred to her sermon as such rather than as a “talk” or a “devotional.”
  • Church leadership has discussed any members’ protest (such as staying home from worship or walking out before the sermon) of inviting a woman to guest preach and publicly re-affirmed support of the preacher.
  • The church has had women in significant lay leadership roles (elder, deacon, warden, clerk of session, moderator, etc.) and has worked through any conflict that arose as a result of their election/selection.
  • The church has eliminated exclusively male pronouns/descriptors on its website and in its social media.
  • The church regularly uses curricula or other materials written by women (e.g., seminary professors, pastors) with theological authority.

Pre-interview pastor search work:

  • The pastor search team is representative of the demographics and commitments of the congregation as whole, thus making it better able to reflect accurately the fullness of the church’s story to ministerial candidates.
  • The pastor search team has structured its work so that it is rooted in listening deeply to God’s guidance.
  • The pastor search team has discussed its assumptions and the congregation’s about a great-fit pastor, probing the reasons behind them.
  • Having surfaced these assumptions, the search team has named specific competencies (rather than personality traits) as the criteria for a great-fit pastor.
  • In communications with the congregation, the pastor search team has helped the church broaden its imagination about a great-fit pastor.
  • The pastor search team has eliminated exclusively male pronouns/descriptors for the hoped-for pastor in all search team documents (e.g., position description, position advertisements, church profile).
  • The church as a whole has earnestly prayed that God will lead it to the best-fit ministerial candidate, no matter how that candidate might differ from church members’ expectations.
  • The pastor search team members have covenanted to run all questions to and about candidates through the filter of “Would we ask this of a male candidate?” (Examples of questions to be sifted out: “Who will watch your children while you’re working?” and “How will your spouse’s employment affect your ability to move here/stay here for a long time?”)

Interview/call pastor search work:

  • The pastor search team is aware of and open with all candidates about potential challenges that await.
  • With all candidates the pastor search team inquires about the needs of the candidate’s family to ensure hospitable on-site visits, and later, to help integrate the incoming minister’s family into the life of the congregation (to the extent the family desires).
  • The church leadership has discussed the possibility of conflict arising from calling a woman (noting that this conflict might come disguised as an issue about something else) and is prepared to stand behind the candidate of choice/incoming pastor.

Ways you can use this assessment:

  • Churches in pastor searches. This assessment provides a readiness test for calling a clergywoman.
  • Churches with settled pastors. This assessment offers action steps to lay leaders and current pastors. (The “getting ready,” after all, doesn’t just happen. It takes intentional work. And if your church is not willing to do this work, spend some time mulling the reasons why and praying about them.) Even congregations that think they are ready to receive a clergywoman – including those who have or had women ministers – could benefit from working through the points above. Often moderate to progressive churches think they are more welcoming than they actually are.
  • Clergywomen. I invite you to use this assessment in your call processes to help gauge whether a congregation might be a good fit.
  • Judicatory bodies. Use this assessment to help congregations and search teams work through the steps needed to set up the possibility for long and fruitful ministries between churches and clergywomen.

Note that some aspects of this assessment can be adapted for considering a congregation’s preparedness to be led by a pastor who would be another kind of “first,” though there would be additional work specific to the variety of first. Often a candidate will be more than one kind of first – identities are intersectional, after all – making it essential for a church to take readiness steps in multiple areas.

This welcoming work is worthy of intentionality and intense listening to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and not just because of the clergyperson in question. This attentiveness and the resulting actions can lead to spiritual transformation, deeper discipleship, and increased connectedness among people and between people and God. These benefits are available to all involved.

Download a PDF of the assessment here.

Define success for yourself

I went to junior high and high school at an academically and socially intense college prep academy. The deal my parents and I struck was that they would pay for this not-cheap education if I would be responsible for earning my way through college. That seemed more than fair to me.

During those six years a certain notion of success was drilled into my noggin: enrollment in a prestigious university. An “important,” high-paying career. A family (in the heteronormative sense, of course), complete with kids in smocked clothing. Membership in the Junior League and other part-sorority, part-community service organizations. This vision was imparted in a variety of direct and indirect ways, like advertising the dollar amount of merit scholarships each graduating senior had been awarded and featuring alumnae who checked all of the boxes in the school magazine.

Well, I studied my tookus off and was admitted to several state and private universities offering varying levels of scholarship incentives. And after visiting probably over 100 colleges over the course of my high school years, I proudly and confidently enrolled in the main campus of my state’s university system: the University of Tennessee. I didn’t choose UT-Knoxville because my parents had gone there or because my closet was already full of Volunteer orange. (Neither was the case.) I didn’t even choose it because they made me a full scholarship offer I couldn’t refuse. I chose it because when I made my visit, it felt right. I chose it because of the broad range of course offerings, majors, and other opportunities. I chose it because I could see myself thriving in a bigger, more diverse environment after six years in a school of fewer than 500 students. I chose it because it was close enough to home that I could visit my family regularly.

I notified my current school of my college selection as was required, because college enrollment was a foregone conclusion for students. The upper school principal snarled at me and said, “Get on the bus with the rest of them.” (There’s all kinds of wrong with this statement.) I was third in my class. Students ranked ahead of and behind me were headed to Princeton, Penn, Northwestern, Brown, Stanford, Harvard, and many other big-name universities. And I was going the University of Tennessee. The implication was clear: my pricey college-prep education was wasted on me. Gone were my (ahem, their) hopes of a big alumna donation, smocked children, and Junior League membership.

That was the beginning of a long process of separating out what others thought success looked like and what success would be for me. Because, somewhat surprisingly for an impressionable seventeen-year-old, the snarl and insult did not lead to any second-guessing on my part. It only made me more eager to get the heck out of an oppressive atmosphere. I went on to receive an excellent education at UT. I studied abroad, and I designed my own major tied up with a thesis that won a national honors project competition. And thanks to the scholarship, I graduated with no educational debt. UT prepared me well for seminary, where I again was fully scholarshipped. Nopity nope, no regrets here. (Please know that I recognize the privilege that set me up for this daisy chain of no educational debt, and each day I work to accept the responsibility it entails.)

Still, many years of messaging meant my subconscious had an upwardly-mobile idea of what my professional life would look like. Begin my ministry as an associate pastor, stay there five-ish years, then step into a solo/senior pastorate. From the beginning, it didn’t work that way. I left my first call as an associate at a wonderful church in North Carolina about a year-and-a-half in because I wanted to marry my seminary sweetheart, whose ordination status and indentured servitude to the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church made him less geographically mobile. As a progressive Baptist in Alabama and as the spouse of an itinerant (read: go where the bishop says) minister, I struggled to find my vocational place for a long time. I was a traditional interim solo minister. Then I worked in a non-profit. Then I did piecemeal ministry as a chaplain and designer of pastoral education programs and guest preacher. Then I was a children’s minister.

It was in the ashes of the dumpster fire that was my brief tenure as a children’s minister that I found my footing. Suddenly, my call was clear: promote well-being in congregations and their leaders so that no clergyperson would have to endure what I just had and so that churches could focus on their real work of discipleship and relationship-building. I became an intentional interim minister. I was trained as a consultant and then as a coach. And suddenly all of my divergent experiences coalesced into a vocation I love, with room to experiment and create and grow and with the flexibility to be mom. My career is not what I thought it would be. It’s more “me.” I believe it’s faithful to what God wants for and from me. My salary is not what it could be. (Again, I acknowledge there’s a lot of privilege in not having to be at a certain earning level.) But my quality of life is so much better than it would be if I had held tight to others’ visions of success.

In the church we know the standard metrics no longer mean much: average worship attendance, weekly offering, etc. They don’t tell the full story of a congregation’s impact on its members and the world. So why do we hold to outdated (if they were ever relevant) metrics about what our personal success involves? Let’s question those notions of success just like we press on the whole nickels and noses approach in our churches. My generation and younger will likely not be as well off as our parents were. Full-time ministry opportunities are shrinking. As long as upward mobility in terms of salary and church size is our measuring stick, we’ll come up short. We need to define what success and faithfulness look like for us, and we need to own our impact wherever we serve.

Now let me be clear that this is not to say that we should not do what we can to make inroads as leaders and seek respect and appropriate pay. I am all in for getting more women into larger spheres of influence and making sure they are compensated as well as (or better than!) anyone else. Lord knows the world really needs the innovative, passionate, and compassionate voices of women now more than ever. But may we do so with discernment, making sure our reasons for doing so are healthy, helpful, and fit with our gifts and call.

Photo by Juan Jose on Unsplash.

New resource: coaching call reflection form

You hang up the phone or press “leave meeting” on Zoom after a great coaching call. You’re seeing your situation in a new way, and you’ve got some clarity about what you need to do next to reach your goal. Your heart feels light, and you are motivated to take the steps you designed for yourself.

Fast forward a week or two. Your to-do list is about to consume you. Your calendar looks like a rainbow has bled on it. You just want a nap. What happened to all that energy you had coming out of the coaching call?

Chances are, your insights and actions needed a bit more attention to lock them in. That’s why I have created a coaching call reflection form. Intended as a bookend to the coaching call preparation sheet, the questions on this form prompt coachees to write down what it is they want to carry forward from a coaching session. Boiling an hour-long conversation into the essential takeaways – and making connections between a single session and the overall arc of the coaching relationship – can solidify the learning and planning and provide a reference point when the glow of a coaching call fades.

Here are the questions contained in the coaching call reflection form:

  • What insight did you gain in the coaching call that you would like to retain?
  • What action steps did you design for yourself?
  • What accountability (e.g., support, designated time) do you need to carry out those steps?
  • What do you want me to follow up on in our next coaching call?
  • How do your takeaways from today’s coaching call move you further toward your overall goal(s) for coaching?

Don’t let all the good work you did in a coaching session be for naught! You earned those perspective shifts and dug deep to come up with solid steps appropriate to you and your context. To download a Word version of the coaching call reflection form, go here.

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash.

Learned helplessness vs. learned optimism in congregations

In the field of psychology there is a condition known as learned helplessness. The subject is put into a challenging environment – for example, there might be a persistent, sharp sound – with no way to overcome the issue. After experiencing that initial lack of agency, the subject gives up trying to alter the condition or escape. The subject accepts the situation as permanent, and this learned helplessness induces a passivity that becomes a default response in other, unrelated circumstances.

In contrast, another subject is given the means to change the challenging condition, such as by pushing a button that stops the noise. This subject learns that the problem is temporary and that the means are available to address it. This subject bounces back quickly from adversity, because the agency claimed instills a sense of optimism.

While many studies of learned helplessness and optimism have focused primarily on the impact to individuals, I think these phenomena are very applicable to congregations. Take a church that considers itself in decline, for example. This congregation tries everything it can think of to reverse the trends, such as sending postcards to the neighborhood, hosting a community cookout on the church lawn, sprucing up the nursery, and offering a grief support group. At most, a couple of new people start attending on Sundays from these efforts. The church accepts that it is helpless to stop its slide. It gives up trying to reach out to the community, and it dwindles until a discussion about permanently closing the doors becomes imminent.

On the other hand, a church in similar circumstances might claim a sense of optimism by finding agency in its situation. This could involve the congregation naming and ministering out of the gifts that a small church has to offer that a big church cannot. It might mean reframing growth so that it is not about Sunday morning attendance and offering but about numbers of unique individuals involved in leadership in the congregation and community or the length of time it takes a youth group to name all of the ways it saw God at work during the week prior. It could entail using perceived failure as a springboard for ongoing discernment and deeper dependence on the Spirit.

Learned optimism is not fanciful or untethered from reality. It is a secular term for the hope we claim as people of faith, rooted in the partnership that God invites us into. Whereas helplessness and passivity prevent growth, optimism creates the possibility for all kinds of positive change and for relationship development and strengthening.

Where, then, does your congregation need to recognize its God-given agency and begin to act out of hope instead of helplessness?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

The challenges of a pastoral change – a PK parent’s perspective

Last week I talked about the challenges of moving as a clergy spouse. This week I want to address an issue of even greater concern to me personally: moving a preacher’s kid.

When our family relocated to our current city for my husband’s pastoral appointment, our son was two. He didn’t really understand what was happening. He was also a bit delayed in stringing together words, so he couldn’t ask us questions or verbally share many of his feelings. We tried to make him feel safe, and we explained as simply and as well as we knew how. Still, his anxiety ramped up as he saw boxes accumulating in our old house, causing behavior changes and stress-induced illness. And when we moved into our current house, which was a great situation in many ways, he spent the first day wandering around the house in tears. What was this place? Why were we here? Would we leave him here alone? Where was all of his stuff? It broke my mama heart.

He’s an adaptable kid, though, and it didn’t take long for him to love his new surroundings. So much so that my husband and I dreaded telling him that now, four years later, it is time to move again. We knew we would be moving months before we could tell our son. For one thing, we were bound by confidentiality. For another, we weren’t sure yet where we were going. Once we found out, we sat him down and gave him the news. “You mean I’ll have to leave my school? My NanNan and Papa? My church?” That last one really stung. When a clergy parent moves, the whole family loses its faith community and the anchor of its social connections.  (That is, if the family has been coming to church with the clergy parent. Some do not, and churches should not assume that the family will attend.) It’s hard to explain to a child that mom or dad’s job is the link to a particular congregation and that changing jobs means severing that link.

As you can hear, the grief is potent in a PK. Here our son made his first real friends. He claimed his church and his school, and they claimed him in return. He will move away from one set of grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and three cousins who are like his siblings. He will leave behind his own activities, like the martial arts academy where he has learned so many life skills and the music school that promoted his verbal development. In all of this sadness his dad and I are trying to balance honoring his feelings and helping him get excited about a new adventure.

One of my son’s biggest worries relates to parsonage/manse/rectory life. Not everything in our house belongs to us – some furnishings belong to the church. He is trying to get straight what will be going with us and wondering if some of his toys and stuffed animals were never really his. And what if we leave something behind? And where will I sleep in my new house? Will I have a bed since this bed stays here? These are all hard concepts for a 6-year-old, especially as the boxes tower over us and the anxiety mounts and the truck’s arrival date grows ever closer.

When we get to our new town, our routines (specifically our Sunday morning ones) will change. He and I won’t go to Panera Bread for breakfast before Sunday School at 10:00 and worship at 11:00, because there is no Panera Bread. We don’t know which worship service we’ll attend, traditional at 9:00 or contemporary at 11:00.  Our son’s Sunday School teachers will have to learn that he is always in costume, whether as a penguin or Batman or a book character named Galaxy Zack. And he’s a method actor, so expect the voice and persona to go with the character. He’s not going to be a sharply-dressed, perfectly still and reverent preacher’s kid.

You know from reading to this point that though the circumstances are causing some of my son’s anxiety, some of my own is probably adding on. It’s kind of a cycle. I’m working on it, I promise! But it is important for clergy to be aware of what their children might experience with a move – knowing adversity can be character-building – and for churches receiving new pastors with children to understand what the minister will be coping with on the home front. Make an effort to get to know clergy children, to make them feel valued in their own right. Soon they will be at home in your congregation, and your new pastor can focus more fully on ministry alongside you.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.

The challenges of a pastoral change – a clergy spouse’s perspective

My husband and I are both clergy. I was ordained first, in a tradition that allows ministers to decide what positions to seek and where to search. Matt, on the other hand, still had a couple of years to go as a provisional minister in the United Methodist Church, in which clergy are appointed to congregations by the bishop. In other words, I was mobile, and he was not. So it made sense that I would move to where he was pastoring when we got married fifteen years ago.

As it has worked out, I have been the trailing spouse ever since. Though frustrating at first, those circumstances eventually played a part in my decisions to pursue interim ministry, consultant, and coach training as well as opportunities to serve beyond my denomination. I love what I do, and because of my education and network, I can do it anywhere.

It’s helpful to remember that, because it’s moving time again. Next week we’ll migrate our household two hours up the road so that Matt can take a new appointment. For the moving minister, this change is predictably bittersweet. It’s hard to leave a congregation you’ve pastored for several years, but the anticipation of new challenges is (mostly) exciting. There’s a tangible reality this clergyperson is reaching toward. For the spouse of a minister, this new thing is much more nebulous. There’s no pre-set title, role, or responsibilities waiting – there shouldn’t be, at least! – and contact with the new church and community is minimal before the actual move. The feelings of a moving clergy spouse, then, can vary widely, and I think it’s important for churches receiving new pastors to know that.

Specifically, there can be more grief than excitement because what we as spouses are leaving is much more definable that what the future holds. From my perspective, there has been good in our current church, even as there has been difficulty. I have cultivated networks in the surrounding community that I will deeply miss, and I have doubts that there will be similar counterparts in my new town. And I lament the unmet hopes and plans for our time in this city. (For example, I have had to put some developments in my coaching practice on hold to free up time to pack and to be able to put a more long-term address on legal paperwork.)

Also, developing a sense of home is difficult as a clergy spouse, particularly the spouse of an officially itinerant minister. The unknowns around how long we will be living in this place affect how much I invest in the church and community. I wonder whether it’s worth hanging pictures and art on the wall. I hesitate to make friends, knowing we will not be here forever. The anticipatory grief begins almost as soon as a bond is established. I note all these patterns in myself, even as I wonder how to adapt them to be more healthy and settled.

And then there’s the issue of expectations. I am not, will never be, don’t want to be the stereotypical clergy spouse. For example, don’t assume I’ll be at church whenever the doors are open. I also probably won’t teach Sunday School, even though I love kids and have been both a children’s and a youth minister, because I’m on the road some Sundays. This can be hard for a receiving congregation to understand. It’s not rejection. It’s just that I have my own call to ministry, and I’m very introverted to boot. And, of course, these expectations say nothing about my parenting. My kid is always in character. He’s painfully (for me) outgoing. He’s very inquisitive. While I want him to be respectful, I will not change who he is so that he can be a smartly-dressed, seen-but-not-heard preacher’s kid. (More on that next week.)

Clergy spouses, I pray with and for you when you go through a pastoral change. Churches, I encourage you to do the same and to ask your pastoral families what they – and I mean all the family members – need. When the clergy family feels seen, heard, and valued, it makes it much more likely that your pastor will be able to focus on the work at hand. It also breeds the kind of connection that makes the minister and family want to stay in your congregation for a long time.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash.

Planning from abundance, part 8 – engaging in ongoing reflection

Once your church has planned new ministry initiatives, the work is not done. It is important to pre-set times for reflecting on these initiatives. (Note that if debrief sessions aren’t calendared in advance, they are much less likely to happen.) The questions below offer prompts for ongoing discernment about the faithful use of gifts and celebration of God’s work in, around, and through the people involved with the ministry.

Ministry reflection form
Ministry name:
Ministry date(s):
Ministry leader(s):
Brief description of ministry:

What were the main tasks in the planning and implementation of this ministry?

What relationships were started or strengthened?

How did we make faithful use of the following?

  • People’s time
  • People’s talents
  • Personal connections
  • Congregational connections
  • Physical space
  • Money
  • Other resources

What did we learn about the following?

  • Ourselves (individually)
  • Ourselves (as a congregation)
  • Our larger community

Where was God at work in, around, and/or through us through the planning and implementation of this ministry?

In light of our responses to the above, what is God inviting us to consider going forward?

Using the reflection prompts above will not only allow your church to tweak ministries to make them more effective but will remind planners that even if an event doesn’t turn out as planned, the careful debrief of it means that no effort is lost in God’s economy. So give thanks for opportunities to love, learn, and grow, and pray for God’s continued guidance.

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash.