The measure of a good question

“What are y’all talking about?”

“What does that mean?”

“What road is this?”

“Is that the Taj Mahal?”

My 4-year-old son is learning to satisfy his irrepressible curiosity by asking questions. He practices a lot. Sometimes I won’t be finished responding to one query before he lobs another. My husband and I counted approximately 541,092 questions on the 3.5-hour trip from our home to Atlanta last week. Actually, double that, because almost every unique inquiry was followed up by his request to repeat the answer.“What’d you just say?” (Yes, we’ve had his hearing checked.)

His questions get tedious, but I do my best not to discourage them. My parents always made time for mine. I knew I’d found a church home as a teenager when my Sunday School teachers and youth minister let me challenge what they told me. And I make a living asking coaching questions of clergy who want to make positive changes in their personal and professional lives.

My brain, my faith, and my livelihood run on questions. That is why it really pains me when people preface their wonderings with, “Maybe this is a dumb question, but…” or worse yet, not feel comfortable making their inquiry at all.

If you’re wondering whether your question is worth asking – without any qualifying – here is an assessment:

  • Are you genuinely curious?
  • Does your question invite rather than shut down discussion?
  • Are the time and venue right, to the best of your understanding, for your question?

(Note that right time and venue don’t necessarily have to do with making your hearer(s) comfortable. Sometimes it’s important to ask well-planned questions that raise anxiety.)

If you responded to these bullet points in the affirmative, then go forth and ask boldly!

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Pastoral leadership in troubled times

Last week I had a front-table speech for Brian McLaren’s early-morning keynote to a room full of clergy cohort conveners. When he dove into his very meaty content, I was glad I was already 2/3 of the way through my coffee. He had some challenging words for faith leaders who are very concerned with the direction of our congregations, denominations, and/or country. In these chaotic, divisive times, McLaren said, we must be intentional and honest about our pastoral approach. In choosing our tack, we have four choices:

Offend no one. We can limit our preaching and teaching to “safe” topics. (I imagine this list of subjects is pretty short!) McLaren noted that we will nevertheless discover new ways to offend people every week, because the Gospel is political.

Go where the wind blows. We can listen to what the people in our care want to hear, then echo it from the pulpit. McLaren warned that there is grave danger in this approach, as our constituents are being tugged by opposing forces, not all of which are in line with the Gospel. We might find ourselves espousing – or at least leaving unchallenged – convictions that are contrary to the core of who we are and what we believe.

Push the congregation. We can prod our parishioners on the core issues of the dignity of all people, stewardship of the planet, caring for the poor, and ushering in peace – what McLaren considers the four core issues of faith. This is a bold move for those of us who pastor purple churches and/or who worry about making ends meet if our congregations can’t tolerate our stances.

Lead by anxiety. We can share our concerns about the fissures in our culture from a personal perspective, such as “I am worried about the normalization of bullying in our country.” (This is permission-giving for people to acknowledge their own concerns in a safe container, not a handing-off of our own worries.) After we have surfaced the tensions, we can discuss with our members what a faithful, corporate response might look like.

I have talked with many ministers who are mulling how to navigate our charged climate. What does it look like to be faithful both to our personal beliefs and to our call to the setting we serve? How do we exercise our prophetic voices in ways that our people can hear? How do we model ways of listening deeply to one another? How do we balance our desire to be engaged – even activist – citizens with our responsibilities as pastors?

I have struggled with these same questions as a guest preacher and a clergy spouse in a more-red-than-purple congregation. I found Brian McLaren’s framework helpful for making a more conscious decision about my own approach. Maybe there’s a nugget in there for you too.

New resource: workbook for designing a self-care strategy

I remember camping out in my parents’ bathroom the night before I took the SAT for the last time. I had worked myself up so much thinking about how important this standardized test was for my future that I threw up. A lot.

I remember curling up on my dorm bed during my final semester of college. It was late evening, and I was supposed to be studying, but I was so stressed that I had given myself a migraine. The only lights I could tolerate were the strand of Christmas twinkles stretched across my room. The pounding in my head got worse as I thought about how much I wasn’t getting done thanks to this forced break.

I remember turning off the lights in my church office and working in the corner, where no one could see me through the window to the hallway. My ministry environment was toxic, but I still had responsibilities to fulfill. So I tended to them, in the dark and in isolation as often as I could.

I remember hiding and crying in my closet as the brand-new, low-supply mom of a baby who grazed all day. I felt like I had completely disappeared into this new parenting identity, but it felt too much like failure to ask for help.

I share these vignettes to let you know that you are not alone if you struggle with self-care. I have always wrestled with the swirl of responsibilities, expectations, and passions. And almost everyone I have coached has raised the issue of self-care at some point. There are many reasons that the need to create or maintain margins is so difficult. For my coachees and me, it often comes down to some combination of the following:

  • Constant accessibility, thanks to technology
  • The availability demanded by the pastoral life
  • Gender norms that try to push more tasks onto women’s plates
  • Assumptions about women that make us feel like we have to work doubly hard to be perceived as competent
  • Family realities, such as care for an aging parent or small child(ren)
  • A chaotic social and political season that is tugging at us to become more engaged in service and/or activism
  • A broad range of interests and/or gifts that makes it hard to know where to specialize

I’m not an expert on self-care (obviously, as the anecdotes above show!). But in making my own changes and in working with coachees, I have developed a framework for designing a self-care strategy. It is built around five Ps:

  • Priorities: working out of one’s own sense of purpose and gifts
  • Permission: getting blessing from self and others to plan for replenishment
  • Planning: naming tangible steps to creating space for self-care
  • Parameters: identifying what it is important to (almost) always say yes or no to
  • Partners: creating a network of accountability partners, encouragers, and helpers

The framework is bookended by some reflection on what about self-care is important to the individual and what it would look like to be (somewhat) ok leaving some things undone.

Originally taught as a webinar and workshop, this series of reflection points is now available as a workbook. If you’re interested in checking it out, this guide is available for purchase here.

Supporting the pastor-parent, part two

Last week I shared my positive experience with a congregation that worked with me so that I could live into my dual calling as pastor and parent. Since then I have heard from several clergy: those whose churches who have made similar efforts and those who have left congregational ministry or are considering doing so because their churches want them to compartmentalize their pastoring and parenting selves.

Sometimes congregations simply don’t know how to support the pastor-parent. Below I have shared a few ways a church can reduce parenting stress so that the pastor can better focus on ministry. For the unconvinced, I have thrown in some notes on how these actions benefit the congregation as a whole – beyond having a grateful and less frazzled leader.

If your church has a daycare or preschool, offer a reduced rate to the minister. Side benefit: the minister will undoubtedly be more involved in the school and will be a more informed and enthusiastic evangelist for it in the community.

Allow flexibility in work arrangements, such as permitting the minister to work from home or bring a child to work as needed. Side benefit: though it may seem counterintuitive, ministers will likely be more available and productive if they are not spending time and mental and emotional energies on arranging emergency childcare.

Set up a rotation of church parents/grandparents to help the minister’s child(ren) participate in worship – or to care for young children during worship, if there’s no formal nursery. Side benefit: the church will develop more cross-generational communication and investment.

Provide childcare for evening and weekend meetings that the minister must attend. Side benefit: other parents with young children will now be able to participate in those meetings when childcare is a given.

Help the minister manage the congregation’s expectations of the minister’s family. Side benefit: the graciousness extended to the pastor’s children and significant other can reinforce or help establish a church atmosphere in which everyone feels safe to be their true selves before one another and God.

What would you add to this list?

In summary, congregations need not be afraid to call pastor-parents. In addition to their many gifts, these ministers bring a deepened investment in the church as their child(ren)’s faith community, an instant means of connection with parents and grandparents in the church, and a unique perspective on hospitality toward and the spiritual formation of young families. For pastor-parents to call upon these “extras,” though, the congregation must demonstrate its willingness to welcome both aspects of the minister’s identity.

 

Supporting the pastor-parent, part one

I was in congregational ministry for over ten years before my child came into the world. During that decade it was sometimes necessary for my husband (a pastor in another denomination) and me to negotiate conflicts between our calendars, but we were both free for the most part to work odd hours, commit to all ministry-related trips we wanted, and sleep off church-induced stress and exhaustion.

That freedom came to a full stop when our son was born four years ago. Suddenly I had to become much more thoughtful about my time and energy usage. While my call to ministry was (and is) as strong as ever, I now had a calling to parenthood as well, and my baby’s dependence meant that I had to figure out how to operate pastorally in a new way.

I was between church positions during my pregnancy, but I was ready to begin looking again soon after L was born. I was extended a call to a part-time ministry in a congregation that was a great theological fit when L was two or three months old. After much hand-wringing, I turned it down because there were big red flags about the position’s flexibility. Not long thereafter I accepted an offer to a congregation that went out of its way to work with me on my office hours, provide me with reduced-price daycare, and set up Sunday evening childcare. This church got the best I had to offer as an experienced minister/new parent because of this extra effort.

While it is true that caring for wee ones consumes a lot of time and focus, parents can be great pastors. And congregations can promote excellence in ministry (and in parenting) by understanding the following:

Some (many? most?) pastor-parents see ministry and child-rearing as dual callings. They are committed to doing both well. A church can make living toward both purposes much easier…or much harder.

Pastor-parents are better able to focus on ministry if they aren’t always worried about their child(ren) or about how congregants view their parenting. The childcare arrangement that works best for the pastor’s family – whatever it looks like – is usually best for the congregation, even if it’s not what the church members would have chosen for themselves or for their minister.

Every minister will have a different pastor-parent style. Some will want or need to bring their child(ren) on pastoral care visits or to evening meetings. Others might choose to build in more separation between pastoring and parenting.

Pastor-parents typically welcome the congregation’s help and parenting wisdom. We can’t do it all, and we don’t know it all! Criticism of the minister’s child-rearing style and especially of the child(ren) is never welcome, however, and can harm the pastor-parishioner relationship.

The church is not just a pastor-parent’s workplace, it is also the PK’s faith community. Just like with any other family in the pews, pastor-parents will invest more in the church if the church invests in their children.

Congregational ministry is one of the only callings in which the leader is evaluated primarily on a weekly take-your-child-to-work day. Bear that in mind when a minister’s kid has a meltdown on the front row during the sermon, and respond with compassion both to the child and to the concerned/embarrassed pastor-parent.

Next week I will offer a part two to this post, noting some ways your church can support the pastor-parent, thereby deepening the pastor-parish relationship and giving the minister opportunity to lead with a full heart.

Tips for creating effective surveys

Your [insert committee here] chair has just suggested that a survey be sent out to take the congregation’s temperature around that committee’s area of ministry. You groan inwardly, because your experience with surveys is that they tend to solicit personal preferences more than information that can be used to shape the ministry’s direction.

It’s true that surveys can muddy the waters if they are not executed well. But surveys can help clarify the church’s needs because they ask the same questions of everyone, yield responses from a range of congregants, and collect a lot of written information. Here, then, are some tips for making your survey as useful as possible.

Identify the goal(s) of the survey. What does the committee hope to gain from this exercise?

Ask questions that elicit the most helpful responses. How will the questions focus respondents on the church’s needs rather than the survey-taker’s preferences? What information will be most useful to the committee? What kinds of survey questions will draw out that information?

Decide on the right number of questions. What survey length will be comprehensive enough to get needed information but not so long as to discourage people from taking it? What is the proper balance between multiple choice/rating questions and free-response questions?

Provide multiple means for taking the survey. Utilizing electronic and hard copy options will allow church members to complete the survey no matter what their comfort level with/access to technology and attendance patterns are.

Determine the best window for survey distribution. Don’t send out the survey in the midst of active conflict or while everyone is on vacation. Do send it out so that the committee has ample time to process the returns before making important decisions. Ensure that the survey is available for a long enough time that everyone will see it and have a chance to respond, but not so long that people will put off filling it out.

Be clear about who will see the survey responses and how the responses will be used. Transparency about the handling of the survey will build trust in the committee and send the message that the congregation’s input is important.

Use the survey in tandem with – not in place of – congregational conversations. Surveys can be conducted before churchwide discussions, and the survey responses can help shape those events. Surveys can also be used as follow-up after congregational conversations.

What wisdom about surveys would you add to this list?

Creative Commons image “survey” by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Starting a new call well

The day you sit down in your desk chair for the first time, plotting how you will arrange your vast theological library and hang your credentials, is an exciting one. It can also be an incapacitating one. What do I do first? Who are these people? How do they operate? Why in the world do they operate that way?

Listening to staff and the people in the pews is an important step toward answering these questions. You don’t have to wait for cottage meetings or scheduled conversations with influencers to start putting your ear to the ground, however. You can ask for the following information before you even show up the first day. These documents will help you pick up on patterns, pinpoint whom to contact first, and refine your questions so that you can get off to the quickest possible start.

  • Most recent church directory
  • Staff list and position descriptions
  • Pastoral care list (including homebound, critically ill, and anniversaries of deaths)
  • Church calendar
  • Budget for the past three years
  • Constitution and by-laws
  • Board/committee information (including chair, chair’s contact information, meeting schedule and location, and recent meeting notes)
  • Special events and traditions (including when they occur, contact person, and the history of the event or tradition)
  • Locations of hospitals and other key places
  • Names and contact information for partner churches and organizations
  • Judicatory calendar
  • Notes left by previous or interim minister (if applicable)

Not every church will have all of this information at the ready. (What information is available and how current it is might, in itself, be telling.) But the documents you can get your hands on will give you a better sense of the church’s immediate needs and your pastoral priorities.

What else would you add to this list?

Should you consider coaching?

Coaching is a relatively new field, so you’re in good company if you’re not sure what it’s all about. (If you want to learn about it, I offer an overview here and answers to frequently asked questions here.) You don’t necessarily need to understand how the coaching process and relationship work, though, to determine if it’s worth 45 minutes of your time to explore whether coaching would benefit you.

If the above statements resonate with you, I invite you to go to my scheduling tool and set up a free introductory call. During that conversation we’ll get to know each other, I’ll explain my approach to coaching, and you can ask any questions you have about how coaching works. We’ll discern together whether we’re a good match, and from there we’ll design a coaching package to help you meet your goals.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Worshipful work meeting outline

In developing the approach to ministerial searches that is rooted in hospitality, I put together a meeting structure that weaves together the elements of discernment and the business that teams must attend to. It builds in intentional spaces and means of attending to the Holy Spirit as teams go about the work at hand. This outline can be utilized for a range of congregational processes. Consider the content below, then, a preview of Searching for the Called as well as a resource with many potential applications.

Preparing to perceive God’s guidance

  • Create an atmosphere for discernment. Prepare the gathering space in a way that is conducive to worshipful work.
  • Set aside distractions. Ask, “What does each of us need to turn over to God before we can focus on the work at hand?”
  • Worship together in your gathering space. Invite everyone to name where they have seen God at work this week.
  • Refine the question for discernment.
    • Ask each team member to give an overview of progress that has been made on agreed-upon actions.
    • Celebrate this progress and build in support for actions that are incomplete.
    • Identify what the team needs to focus on in this meeting. Parse which pieces are matters for discernment and which can appropriately be accomplished through decisions.
    • Clarify the question(s) for discernment that is/are now before the team.
  • Pray for indifference. Pray as Jesus did: “Not my will but Thine be done.”

Listen for the wisdom of God

  • Gather relevant data. Invite team members to share the details of work done since the last meeting.
  • Discuss the data. Encourage each team member to share what they notice from the data presented. Ask clarifying questions. Name what the team doesn’t yet know but needs to know. Listen deeply to one another.
  • Pray for wisdom. Acknowledge that the team has done what it can in terms of collecting and evaluating the data. Ask God to move in that new awareness.
  • Make friends with silence. Wait on the Lord. Use spiritual disciplines to tune into what God might be saying.

Consider and commit to what God is inviting the team to do

  • Identify the resolution that seems (resolutions that seem) to be emerging. Get every concern on the table. Refine every idea that bubbles up.
  • Work toward agreement. Start from points of commonality: “What is it that we all seem to be hearing clearly?” Dig deeper on points of resistance: “Tell me more about your hesitation.” Use your team’s previously agreed-upon means of coming to agreement.
  • Test the agreement. Let the resolution rest. If your team isn’t able to sleep on it, take a break and then discuss how team members are feeling in their heads, hearts, and guts about the proposed way forward.
  • Take action. Make detailed plans for action steps. Who will do what? How, and by when? What support and/or accountability is needed?

Reflect on how God is at work in the process as a whole

  • Before adjourning, check in on how the team felt it worked together today and what adjustments to process need to be made.
  • Wonder aloud, “What is God up to?”