The math of a great-fit call

Navigating search & call is complicated for clergy. There are so many variables in the process, and it’s hard to know much weight to give to each. I want to offer two things to those of you seeking a new ministerial position: a word of encouragement and a formula.

First, the encouragement. I believe there is more than one great-fit position out there for you. The pieces of ministry that give you life can be found in a range of congregations, and you have many gifts that will be well-leveraged in a number of places. I hope this assertion takes some of the pressure off as you weigh your opportunities, particularly when you are dealing with mismatched search timelines (e.g., should I withdraw from this process that I’m a finalist in to explore a relationship with another search team that is about to start initial interviews?).

And now, the formula. If you’re having trouble discerning what a great fit looks like for you, consider this visual:

There are two overriding aspects of fit: vocation and circumstances. Vocation is your purpose in ministry, the essence of what God has called you to do. It is built on your inherent gifts, though we often pick up some learned abilities along the way. It is imperative that we as candidates have a strong sense of our vocation. Otherwise, everything or nothing will look like a great fit.

We live out our vocation in a particular context. That includes the church itself, the larger community/country, and the denomination. We must be paid fairly and provided adequate benefits to engage with the people in our congregation and beyond in healthy ways.

In a great-fit call, all four aspects of vocation and circumstance – a position that utilizes our passions and strengths and a setting we have the desire and means to connect with – must be present. If one is missing, we’ll be working hard emotionally, spiritually, and mentally to avoid frustration and resentment. When all four parts work in harmony, we will flourish, even if we sometimes have to remind ourselves to take time for self-care.

As you look at the diagram above, what resonates with you? What questions does it raise? Where might you push back?


Yellow flag words

Yellow: it’s the color of caution. (That is, unless you live in Alabama, where it apparently signals blow every other car’s doors off trying to make it through this traffic light.) Yellow flag words, then, are verbal indicators of the need to probe for deeper meanings before moving further into conversation. If we don’t clarify these words or phrases, we can make mental leaps that quickly morph into misunderstandings. Consider:

“I can’t get that report to you by Friday.” This statement might seem clear on its face, but it could actually have several meanings, such as:

  • I want to get the report to you, but I don’t have the time.
  • I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to write it.
  • I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to submit it.
  • I don’t want to get the report to you.

If you’re the person counting on this report, imagine your response to each of these interpretations. Three of them are about barriers. A bit more discussion might reveal that you and the other person both value the work, and then you can brainstorm about ways to remove or maneuver around the obstacles. The fourth reply, however, would likely make your blood boil. The relational impact and the possible solutions vary widely based on which response the other person actually intends.

Some other examples of yellow flag words or phrases include:

  • “I’m not ready to take that step.” (What does ready look like for you?)
  • “I don’t feel supported in my decision.” (What kind of support are you counting on?)
  • When the time comes, I’ll know what to do.” (When will that be?)

When there’s ambiguity around the meaning of words, ask an open-ended question. You’ll find out what your conversation partner does and does not mean, and you might also prompt some new awareness in that person around the power of her verbiage.

An ounce of curiosity is much less costly than an assumption that escalates into unhealthy conflict.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash.

Starting with common interests

Two weeks ago I began taking an eight-part course on the language of coaching. The class is designed to help participants learn how to harness the power of words for even more effective coaching. Last week we focused on distinctions: phrasing that illuminates the difference between two options or states of being. One of the distinctions we discussed was interest vs. solution. Interest is what I ultimately want to happen. Solutions are means of attaining that goal.

Sadly, during the time that we were in class, the latest school shooting was occurring in Florida. The deaths of 17 students, faculty, and staff provoked strong reactions, as they should. My Facebook feed began filling up with explanations for why these mass shootings keep happening – easy access to guns, parental failure, mental health issues, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, teachers not being armed, and the First Amendment, to name a few – and strongly-worded proposals for making needed changes. I watched as friends, family, and acquaintances doubled down on their positions when questioned. (Admittedly, I was guilty of this as well.) Conversations spiraled down or ground to a halt. Ain’t no knotty problems getting resolved this way.

Which is what made the distinction between interest and solution timely. If we start with our plans to eliminate the world’s ills, we will never get on the same page. There’s always a reason my approach is better than yours and vice versa. Before we can work together on the answers, first we must agree on the goal. For example, I have hardly seen mention of the fact that surely – hopefully – we can all stand on the side of protecting the lives of young people and the professionals who nurture them. When we understand that we’re all working for the same purpose, we gain trust in one another’s motives. We recognize our shared pain. We acknowledge that we are not alone in our efforts. That is a much more promising starting point. Then there’s potential for deep listening. For throwing out a range of solutions and then working together to improve them. For making legitimate progress toward the endgame we’ve agreed upon.

So I commit to identifying a shared goal with at least one person this week. Around what issue – and with whom – will you seek common ground in the next few days?

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

Making time for deep work

Do you ever feel like you can’t get around to the meat of ministry because you’re chained to email, constantly interrupted when trying to write or plan, or unable to get momentum on more mentally-intense projects due to the way your schedule is broken up by meetings?

You’re not alone. Most professionals struggle with distraction, making it harder for them to tap into the fullness of their gifts and to spend as much time as they’d like on the tasks they consider most important.

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, computer science professor Cal Newport lays out his case for making time for uninterrupted work that pushes professionals to their cognitive limits and offers strategies for creating that space.

Newport’s suggestions have to be adjusted for ministry, because sometimes “interruptions” such as pastoral care crises turn out to be exactly what we need to focus on. But setting up a schedule and conditions for deep work will allow us to prepare sermons we feel good about with less strain, plan further out for liturgical seasons, create curricula trajectories and content, and flesh out new ministries. Without this intentionality, we’ll fill up our time with activities that are easy to cross off the to-do list and remain frustrated about all the “real” ministry we don’t have time to tackle.

Here are some approaches that might be worth mulling:

Build in and protect blocks of deep work. Set aside 1.5-4 hour blocks for bursts of undistracted work. Settle into a location that promotes good focus. Turn off your internet connection. (If you need it for your work, ensure that email and social media are off limits.) Ask your admin to come in – or allow others in – only if there is a pastoral emergency. (Be sure to clarify what constitutes an emergency, and tell your admin how this deep work enables you to minister better so that your admin can then repeat this explanation to others.)

Make a work flow. Plan for your day, assigning all of your deep and shallow work to time slots. When tasks take longer or shorter than expected or an unexpected ministry need arises, hold your schedule lightly and revise it for the rest of the day. The point is not to be rigid but to be intentional about how your time is spent.

Create start and shutdown rituals. Establish a pattern for entering your focused work time to signal your brain that it’s time to close down all the other tabs. When you are stopping work at the end of each day, go through a routine that tells your body and mind that you are bracketing work until tomorrow. (Your shutdown ritual might include a plan for completing remaining tasks so that you can rest in the confidence that everything will eventually get done.) Then honor the shutdown ritual, knowing that rest will allow you to reset fully.

Retreat for intensive planning periods. A couple of hours each day might not be enough to do medium- to long-range planning. Allow yourself to spend entire days (or multiple days) offsite for this work. Let others in your church know what you are doing and why, and be prepared to show your work. If you really want to settle in for deep focus, use study leave time and/or find pastoral care coverage.

Deep work allows us to give more fully into our calls. It also helps us remember what is important as opposed to what is urgent, and it reminds us that there are very few interruptions that cannot wait a couple of hours for our attention.

How do you build in deep work? Which of the suggestions above might you try?

Lessons from the Lego expo

Last weekend my family went to our first ever [insert fandom descriptor here]-con. For four hours we meandered around an exhibit hall, looking at everything God has ever made re-created with Legos. It was pretty amazing. There were entire downtowns. Moon bases, along with all the vehicles needed to reach them. Rube Goldberg machines. Assault weaponry. (Not my favorite, but works of art nonetheless.) Famous monuments. Celebrity portraits. All of these designs were made exclusively with tiny bricks, with the exception of a few stickers and motorized parts.

It struck me that there were some takeaways from Brickfest with applications for ministry, and I’m not just talking about the Lego Jerusalem temple that took up multiple tables.

Pay attention to the big picture and the minutiae. Depending on the personalities involved, it’s easy to default to one or the other, yet both are needed. Master builders must be able to see the brickwork on the side of one building, but in the context of the whole cityscape. Otherwise parts of the design will get out of proportion or the Legos will run out. The same is true for a congregation’s vision and its resources.

Sometimes you need just the right piece, but at other times several different bricks might do. There are so many different kinds of Legos, and I’m not just talking bricks. There are plants, cups, hats, ladders, fire, and goodness knows how many more kinds of accessories. For some design aspects, one particular piece in that certain color will add to the overall aesthetic, just like it’s important to get lay leaders into roles that align with their gifts and call. In other areas, a range of pieces – or people – could work.

Show as much of your work as you can. Transparency is essential to trust, which is a key to good ministry relationships. In the world of Legos, it’s easy to see what kind of and how many bricks were used in a design. Of course, there are always a few hidden threads – no one needs to know that the innards of your Lincoln Monument are red and green! – just as there are occasions when not every parishioner has to see how the ministry mettwurst is made.

Make ministry modular. Massive Lego creations have to be movable, so they are built in big chunks. Encourage your people to make their ministry portable as well so that the good news of God’s love travels far.

Know when to be serious and when to inject humor. While a Harley Quinn minifig would not have been the most appropriate choice to mill around the Lego temple, I took great delight in finding Batmen and Unikitties strategically placed in a downtown Nashville scene. Likewise, well-timed humor can bring a sense of play into an otherwise (too?) serious meeting or service.

Big projects take time, but the rewards are great. Some of the displays took no less than a year to create. Yet instead of sharing this fact ruefully, the builders took great pride in their investment. In the world of church, we often get bogged down in the length of our projects and processes. What if we could accept the timeline and – gasp! – enjoy the ride?

I wonder how we as ministry leaders might bring in actual Legos to our worship, work, and play to come to new awareness of these truths and to open up our thinking to new ways of being disciples. I think this would bring delight to our ultimate Master Builder.

The impact of the 3 Ps on candidates in the call process

Searching for a new call is hard. Congregations are eliminating positions due to shrinking budgets. Systemic inequalities make it difficult for some candidates to get a good look from search teams. Call committees often don’t understand how covenanting with a clergyperson is different from hiring an employee.

And those issues don’t even address the mental, spiritual, and emotional toll of the search process on a candidate. In a previous post I described psychologist Martin Seligman‘s three Ps – personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence – and the ways these shame responses show up in congregational life. They also manifest in powerful, potentially debilitating ways in search & call. When a candidate hears “no” over and over, she can begin to think that:

  • the problem is on her end (personalization),
  • that every call committee will see her supposed unworthiness (pervasiveness),
  • and that she will be stuck in this vocational purgatory forever (permanence).

The three Ps can suck any energy for a minister’s search and for her current position in a hurry. Let me assure you that you are a gifted and called minister and that with time you will find a great fit. I really believe that.

So now you feel confident and ready to hit the interview trail again, right? Yeah, I didn’t figure a positive word from me alone would make the difference, even though I truly, deeply mean it. Then let me propose a few ways to combat the three Ps and their pernicious effects during that trying search season.

  • Pray. Make sure your search is deeply rooted in your relationship with God.
  • Seek encouragement from people who know you. Spend time regularly with a friend or small group that recognizes and affirms your many talents. Getting an attitude boost from those who cheer us on can help when it feels like we’re hearing a lot of rejection.
  • Approach every interview as an opportunity to network. Not every church will extend a call to you, but with every encounter you expand your exposure and gain invaluable interview experience.
  • Debrief interviews. Set a timer for 15-30 minutes to mull what you thought went well, where you felt hesitant, what questions bubbled up in you during the interaction, and what your prayer is going forward.
  • Ask for feedback from search teams. Did you get a no from a church you were excited about? See if the search chair will give you a few pointers based on your time with the team.
  • Focus your search. Have you been scattershot with your search approach? It might seem counterintuitive, but it could be time to cull your options. Create a one-sentence mission statement and self-refer only to those congregations whose positions would allow you to live well into that purpose. You’ll be better able to explain why you’re a good fit – and you’ll be much happier if you end up going to that church.
  • Work on telling your story. Of the parts of the search process we can control, none is more important than good storytelling. Refine your paperwork, making sure you have included action words and vivid examples. Think before interviews about what you want to be sure a search team knows about you by the end of the hour. Role play with a colleague. Spend time picking out an interview ensemble that tells the story you want.
  • Remember that you were called before, and you will be called again. If you are serving or have served a church, a search team has seen and responded to your gifts. It will happen again! (For years I held onto my first congregation’s newsletter that announced my call for this very reason.)

The church needs you, your gifts, and your call. Hang tight – a great fit is out there.

Lessons from the costume box

If you are one of my coachees, something you might not know is that there is a costume box in my office, just off camera. Well, the costumes were in a repurposed DVR box. Then they moved to a giant trunk. Now they are in the trunk, two dresser drawers, and a quarter of my son’s closet. Our collection of dress-up clothes, capes, masks, hats, wigs and other accessories keeps expanding because I cannot recall the last day my four-year-old was not dressed up as one character or another: Batman (his go-to), Robin (Dick Grayson version, let’s be specific), Wonder Woman, Nemo, Aquaman, football player, Bumblebee (the DC super hero girl, not the insect), Captain America, Superman…the list goes on and on.

I am amazed at his commitment to his characters. When he decides who he is in the morning, he’s all in, with voice, facial expressions, and behaviors to match. If you are unclear about whom you are addressing, he will tell you. Very confidently. He will hum his own soundtrack. If my husband and I attempt to interrupt his expectations of what he needs to be doing as that character (Me: “It’s time to go to dinner.” Batman: “But I need to stay home and fight crime!”), then conversation, reframing, use of story elements, and lots of hugs are required for forward motion. After all, he is not just pretending to be a character. He is that character.

While he might be a bit intractable at times, his imagination also makes him very open. He understands gender – as much as any young child does – but he has no problem playing a female character. (And for the record, I have no issue with him doing so.) If he can’t wear all his accessories because he’s going to school or church or if he doesn’t have the exact clothes to be his persona, he will adapt. For example, I still am not sure how he made a red and navy striped shirt into an Aquaman costume, but hey, it worked for him.

In this manifestation of his inner life, I think my son has a lot to teach me about my pastoral presence. I need to own it. I need to be a minister in every sense of the word, not just play one on tv. And yet, I need to be ready to shatter expectations and deal with the fallout. I need to be open to inhabiting the pastor’s role my style, not just someone else’s perception of the role. How would my ministry be different with these perspective shifts? How would yours?

Now, if my kid would just teach me how to be brave enough to make these changes…

It takes a village

Last week a seasoned minister I admire greatly asked me, “Where did you learn to put yourself and your work out there like you do?” He described my approach as confident without being arrogant, and then he used the J word: he said was jealous.

I was knocked back on my heels. While I was gratified to hear my presence characterized this way, I had no idea how to answer the question. After some silence and sputters, I replied that my output is the result of constantly wrestling with my crises of confidence.

It was an honest answer. I am a perfectionist by nature, and I am terrified of failing or being misinterpreted. (Actually, allowing myself to be seen at all, even at my best, takes a lot of prayer and deep breathing.) But upon reflection, I realized my response was a very incomplete one. My work and I, such as we are, are the product of many forces. I have two parents who have encouraged me relentlessly my whole life. I have a spouse who supports me consistently, prodding me to pursue the whims of the Spirit. I have a community of clergywomen – including my coachees – who show me every day what excellence in ministry looks like. I have mentor coaches who help me think through complex situations. I’ve had teachers and ministers and lay leaders galore who have shaped me and cheered me on. I have doctors who help me keep my anxiety in check. I have barre instructors who strengthen my body and toughen me mentally.

(I acknowledge that my network of people, access to good healthcare, and ability to take advantage of an admittedly bourgeois exercise routine are largely thanks to the systems and institutions I benefit from. So my colleague’s out-of-the-blue question was an opportunity to remember that as a person of privilege, it’s on me to work against inequities perpetuated by these same entities.)

In my own heart and mind, there are some personality quirks that affect the way I interact with the world beyond me. As an extreme internal processor, I don’t put anything out in the world until I have worked on it for a while. I have a stubborn streak that won’t let me quit, for good or for ill. And my love for my work and my belief in the power of clergy and congregations to do much-needed good drive my will and my creativity on a daily basis.

So yes, I do daily battle with my self-perception, but it’s really all these other factors that allow the persona you see – however you feel about her – to emerge. Thanks, friend, for the prompt to reflect and be grateful and for the reminder of my responsibility to push for opportunities for others.



A plainspoken prayer to end 2017 and begin 2018

Note: This post was originally set to run last week, but I wimped out. “It’s not the right forum,” I thought. “It’s a little too political.” But since I set being more vulnerable as one of my goals for 2018, I decided this prayer was a place to start. And while my focus on this blog will continue to be on clergy and congregational well-being, there’s no denying that the gospel we root our ministry in is, in fact, political.

Dear God.

Wow. I thought 2016 was terrible,

but then 2017 said,

“Heh. Watch this!”

All manner of natural disasters destroyed human lives and whole communities and economies.

White supremacy showed itself as bold as it’s ever been, maybe more so.

Our country crept closer to nuclear war, tweet by tweet.

We realized that sexual harassment and assault are even more epidemic than we realized.

The people we elected to work on our behalf tried to rip healthcare away from the most vulnerable and passed a tax plan that will concentrate even more wealth among those who already have plenty.

People had new laws, new insults, new dangers heaped upon them based on their sexual and/or gender identities.

Civil dialogue and bipartisan cooperation appeared to take their last breaths.

We turned away refugees fleeing danger and prepared to send “home” people who have only known this country.

We demonized people based on our shallow understanding of their religious faith.

We ignored science and continued using up the earth and her resources like toilet paper.

We (I) got frustrated with people who didn’t share our ideals and cut them out of our lives.

We (I) appalled ourselves with some of the thoughts we (I) had about these same people, fellow children of God.

That’s a lot of suckage, and it doesn’t even touch the personal traumas we all endured.


I made some new friends this year, people I would never have met if we weren’t knitted together by our concerns for all the crap I just mentioned.

I was shaken out of complacency and compelled and equipped to be a more engaged citizen.

I was forced to take a deep look at my own internalized bigotry and to chip away at it through listening, learning, and interaction.

I stopped holding my cards so close to my vest.

I heeded a bigger, bolder call to discipleship.

I became a lot more dependent on my prayer life.

I noted old, dysfunctional systems and beliefs beginning to crumble around me.

I witnessed the power of women at work.

I saw evil get dragged into the light of day again and again, where it could be defanged.

I spotted God-glimmers in places I least expected them and often when I was at my lowest.

I laughed a lot, delighted in my loved ones and in my work, and felt gratitude for all that I have.

I was reminded that humankind partners with you to bring about justice and peace here and now.

I was, at the same time, shown anew that our ultimate hope is in you.

Whose presence is constant.

Whose love is abiding.

Whose preference is for those on the margins.

Whose promises are sure.

And so, I believe that 2018 will be better, even if it’s worse.

As we begin it,

I pray that you would give us daily bread as fuel,

and wisdom to know how best to embody your care,

and fierceness then to do it,

and generosity with all that we have,

and companions for whatever lies ahead,

and heart eyes to see the divine light in others,

and strength with heaping sides of humility and vulnerability,

and rest when it’s needed,

and joy in the midst of it all.

May we – with your help – be your harbingers of hope to a world in desperate need of it as we move about our days.

Dear God, I believe. Help my unbelief.