Dealing with contrarians

Contrarian 1: “I’m not so sure that starting this new ministry is a good idea. It will take a lot of financial and people resources that we don’t have to spare, and we can’t be sure that it will move us forward. Can you give examples of other churches that have tried this and had success?” 

Contrarian 2: “This new ministry isn’t needed. What we’re doing now is perfectly fine. Even if we did try something new, this particular idea is doomed to fail. I’m only thinking of the church when I say I can’t support this initiative.” 

If you’ve spent any time in congregational ministry, you’ve dealt with these two contrarians. Both of them can be very frustrating, especially when it seems so clear to you that change is needed and that there’s a solid plan for said change. There’s an important distinction between these two contrarians, though, and being able to identify and manage it could mean the difference between the congregation getting behind the change or staying mired in complacency.

The first contrarian is a skeptic, a logical thinker. Skeptics are cautious. They can help refine ideas. They can be brought on board to new initiatives with more facts. Skeptics might slow down processes, but their need for details can help churches guard against trying to do all the things. And once skeptics are convinced of a plan’s merit, they can become big cheerleaders and hard workers.

The second contrarian is what John Kotter calls a NoNo. NoNos don’t want change and will never support new ideas. In fact, a NoNo will actively work – loudly or behind the scenes – to undermine any change. When NoNos ask for more details, they are looking for selective facts to support their positions, not information to help them process the proposal. Many a NoNo has killed small-scale changes and ministry action plans coming out of a visioning process.

Last week I wrote about the importance of true urgency, and one of Kotter’s tactics for creating urgency is dealing with NoNos. Kotter says that NoNos will let the air out of congregational urgency if you spend time and energy try to convince them to get behind the coming change. On the other hand, they will gain power if you simply ignore them. Here, then, are some constructive ways to deal with NoNos:

Pray. Pray for the NoNo, for the situation, for discernment, and for your relationship and interactions with the NoNo.

Distract them. Identify their talents and recruit them to ministries (far away from the one they’re trying to kill) in which they can put their skills to good use and feel positive about their contributions.

Use positive peer pressure. Find someone who is a big proponent for the new ministry idea and is respected by the NoNo. Assign this person the task of neutralizing the NoNo’s negativity anytime the NoNo voices it. If this person can use humor gracefully, great! If not, the person can gently remind the NoNo – and more importantly, others who are listening – why the change-in-progress is important for mission fulfillment.

Remove them from leadership. This is really tough to do with volunteers and should only be attempted if the two tactics above don’t work. Sit down with the NoNo and at least one other congregational leader. (You might also want to give your judicatory leader a heads-up in advance.) Express that since all the voices have been heard and all the options have been explored, and the congregation has subsequently decided to move forward with the initiative, it’s essential that lay leaders be focused on how to implement it most effectively. If the NoNo is not willing to be solution-focused, you would be happy to help the NoNo find a different way to use gifts and skills in service to God.

It just takes one NoNo, even one working diligently at the fringes, to bring innovation to a grinding halt and make your vocational life miserable. Don’t let a NoNo keep you and your congregation from living toward God’s vision for your ministry.

Creative Commons image “Arrows” by librarianishish is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


Creating urgency

Two-plus weeks into the new school year, our family is slowly getting into a groove. One big adjustment has been the loooooong afternoons. (My son got home from preschool around 4:00. At the end of his pre-K day, we’re pulling into the driveway by 2:20.) One of the gifts this “found” time offers is an opportunity to read. While L watches an episode of Nature Cat – the four-year-old’s equivalent of an evening at a NYC comedy club, judging by his laughter – I sit beside him and knock out a chapter in a book on systems theory, business, leadership, or practical theology.

I just finished A Sense of Urgency by John P. Kotter, a quick read that defines urgency and why it’s so important to organizational life. Urgency is an awareness in the head and heart that something must soon change for our church/business/institution to keep moving forward and that I have a role to play in creating that change. Urgency is the foil to complacency, which convinces us that things are fine as they are. True urgency is different from false urgency, which is driven by anxiety and characterized by busywork that has little to no impact.

I probably don’t have to convince you that a sense of urgency is very much needed right now in the church and in the world. Complacency keeps us from fulfilling our mission until that purpose is out of reach – or at least requires digging ourselves out of a sizeable hole. False urgency makes us think we’re doing something until we realize that all our busywork has actually been guzzling our energy and distracting us from moving toward our goals.

How, then, do we create real urgency as pastoral leaders? Here are Kotter’s tactics, reinterpreted for clergy.

First, feel a sense of urgency yourself and act out of it.

  • Focus on your specific call to ministry and on the mission of your congregation. Run everything you do through those filters.
  • Look for ways to shift or eliminate tasks and meetings that don’t relate to  personal or congregational mission. Unrelated “doing” likely falls into the false urgency category.
  • Tell others what you are doing and why. “Here’s how I’m spending my day. Here’s how those actions move us closer to our vision.”
  • Leave no open/loose ends. At the end of meetings, get clarity about who is doing what and by when.

[Note: much of ministry is “soft,” such as making pastoral care visits and dealing with contrarians. That doesn’t mean these tasks are not urgent. It is important, though, to connect these undertakings to the bigger picture.]

Second, communicate facts about the need for urgency in ways that speak to others’ heads and hearts.

  • Create spaces for storytelling. Data is important, but narrative is convincing.
  • Get an outsider’s perspective. Talk to the church’s neighbors. What are their gifts? Needs? Views of the church? Or bring in a panel of people who serve the community. In what areas do their needs for partners and the church’s resources meet?

Third, seize opportunities that come with challenges.

  • Reframe problems. Don’t deny the issue, but also note how it creates new possibilities.
  • Do things you can’t do during times of stability. Stability breeds complacency. Challenges shake up our perspectives and force us to act.

Fourth, deal with naysayers.

  • This is a huge issue in churches that merits a blog post on its own. Stay tuned for part 2 on creating urgency, coming next week.

Creative Commons image “Urgent” by Judith E. Bell is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

A celebration of my preaching box upon its retirement

I have yet to find a pulpit or lectern designed for someone who is 4’10.”

This wasn’t really an issue until my senior year of high school. As a condition of graduation, all seniors had to give a talk to the entire student body. It was likely that my audience would only be able to see my teased hair over the big wooden podium. I thought, Hey, now I won’t have to see any bored or disgruntled faces!  On the other hand, I’d be putting in a whole lot of work for nothing. No one’s gonna listen to a floating coiffure.

My dad came up with a solution. He asked someone at the family business to build a box for me. This person found some wood scraps and carpet leftovers and whipped them up into a platform.


I used the box for my senior talk, then put it in storage for a long time. When I received my first call to a church, though, I dusted it off and carted it to Winston-Salem. It has traveled with me ever since. I often leave the box in the car when I supply preach for the first time at a church, until I see if I need it. (I can dream, right?) My host usually greets me, sizes me up, and says, “We have a platform we can get from the choir room…” I listen politely and then inform my host that I have my own box, a faithful companion for lo, these 23 years.

The box is not much to look at. The carpet is that industrial kind you find in offices. It’s been fraying at the edges for a while. It kinda stinks after having my feet on it so often.


The box is practically indestructible. I have never doubted its ability to hold me those six inches off the ground. It is the perfect size – not too big to carry, but wide and deep enough so that I have only almost fallen off of it once. The carpet pieces protect against any distracting shoe noises. At some point along the way I inscribed a couple of Bible verses on the inside of it that give me some extra juice when it’s time to preach.

Not only that, but I imagine Robby, a long-ago employee in a now-defunct business, searching through the warehouse for just the right materials, lining up the wood, driving a million nails into it to make the box as sturdy as it is, and cutting the carpet scraps just so. A lot of care went into giving me a good foundation. The box represents all the encouragement and guidance I’ve been given through the years, which bear me up when the ministry gets rough.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a collapsible stool on the random row at Aldi – the one that has the short-term specials on any number of home/personal care/school items. The stool is much lighter than my box. It has rubber on the top and the bottom to keep it – and me – from skidding. It won’t trap foot stench. It folds up flat. It can live in my trunk for, you know, any random preach-ins or height-boosting needs. I realized then it was time to retire my preaching box.

The box still lives under my desk, so anytime I’m coaching or writing, it’s holding my feet up so they don’t go to sleep. It’s living into its purpose in a new way. I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it. (I’ve had it for over half my life, for goodness’ sake.) It will still be a trusty companion. It just won’t travel anymore.

And so, for all the miles it has gone, for all the ways it has held me up, and for its continued support, I give thanks to my preaching box. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Seeing, remembering, including

“Can I get your mocha started for you?”

The barista had a smile on her face and a cup at the ready. I hadn’t even placed my order yet, but I’ve been to Panera on so many Sunday mornings that she could anticipate my request.

I felt a little giddy, I’ll admit. I’ve arrived! I’m a regular.

I haven’t been a “regular” anywhere since seminary. Back then I spent every Wednesday night – karaoke night, mind you – at Trackside Tavern. (Once I went, bag of saltines in hand, because I felt like death but couldn’t stand to miss.) While there were plenty of folks who came to karaoke once in a while, there was a core community that participated weekly, come hell or high water. Occasionally they would greet me with a chorus of “Baby!” – the name I often went by then because one of my good seminary/karaoke friends was Laura – as I walked in. Sometimes the bartender would plop a cider in front of me before I even greeted her. I didn’t always have to choose my own karaoke songs, because others would put in requests for me. (Ironic, since I have a terrible voice.)

That experience of community was special because I felt seen. Remembered. Included. It was an opportunity to show care for others as well. To cheer them on fiercely when they sang. To bear witness to difficulties in their personal and professional lives in between performances.

This is what congregations do at their best. They don’t just say hello and hand promotional coffee mugs to newcomers, they recall visitors’ names and a bit about them on their subsequent Sundays. They don’t just ask guests about the same job/hobby/favorite team week after week but invite them to connect that interest to the life of the church.

Some congregations – bless their hearts – don’t do any of this well. They don’t see (or at least greet) visitors, which makes remembering and including impossible. Some see and even remember guests, but never find a way to include them. Some see and include but don’t really remember much about individuals, making inclusion feel more utilitarian than truly welcoming. For a community to grow, it must attempt to do all three things.

But why do seeing, remembering, and including matter?

In the early years of our marriage, my husband and I worked a week of junior high church camp together. Each time we had roughly the same crew of counselors. At the end of year four, all the camp staff was gathering for a celebratory, we-survived-six-days-of-teen-drama picture. One of the counselors handed me his camera so I could take the group photo.

I was on one side of the camera. Everyone else was on the other side. I’ve never – before or since – felt so invisible. So forgotten. So left out.

I took the picture, shoved the camera back at the counselor, and disappeared to bawl my eyes out. I never worked another week of camp. (As you can tell, this is still a sore spot ten or so years later.)

This is what happens to church folks who fade away. They feel unnoticed, unremarkable, unwelcome. They may never be brave enough to try another congregation.

If your church isn’t greeting visitors, start there with some equipping and encouragement on how to do so. If they’re further along, help them see the importance of remembering and including and give them some ready-made tools for that work.

We can all do better. As followers of a Christ who saw the invisible, remembered the marginalized, and included us all at the expense of his own life, we must do better.

Creative Commons image “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name” by Lara is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


I did it again last Tuesday.

When someone asked me which church I pastor, I answered, “I’m not in a church right now.”

Right now.

That has been my default response for a couple of years.

In a strictly literal sense, it’s accurate that I am not on staff at a congregation at this moment in time. But this caveat does nothing to capture the fullness of my call and the way I live it out.

I strive, with all that I do, to promote health in congregations and the people who lead them.

I do this by encouraging and strategizing with clergy and search teams.

I do this by putting content into the world that focuses on hospitality and hope.

I do this by filling pulpits so that weekly preachers can recharge.

I do this by connecting ministers with each other in groups for learning and support.

I am, in truth, a minister-at-large, a multi-denominational mercenary. If I do ever take a position on a church staff again – which seems unlikely at this point – it will probably be in a part-time and/or interim capacity. I am not giving up coaching, writing, and workshop-leading in the ecumenical realm. I’m in the kind of groove that makes me think I’m doing what I’ve been created to do. And I’m able to impact the health of more clergy and congregations than ever before.

So why do I default to the “right now” response, as if I am keeping an eye out for something different?

Maybe it’s mere habit at this point, a holdover from a time when I felt less secure in my pastoral identity.

Maybe it’s because people have a hard enough grasping the concept of a woman in ministry, much less a woman in a non-traditional ministry, and I don’t have the energy or will to explain/defend myself.

Maybe it’s because I still fear, somewhere in the recesses of my heart, that I will ultimately fail at carving out a sustainable niche.

Whatever the reason, it ends now. What church do I serve? I serve the Church of Jesus Christ. I am a minister of the good news of God’s love for all people. I am an advocate for hospitality toward authentic selves – our own and others’.

This is my call, and I claim it.


On turning 40

I turn 40 on Friday. (Happy birthday to meeeeeeeeee!)

Some people dread this milestone. I get that. I see those “over the hill” birthday messages in the greeting card aisle at Target. I feel my age, especially when my child demands that I “run!” or “get out of bed!” I notice when I forget to take my regular dose of Miralax, a gift from God that I did not rely on until recently. I get frustrated when my Rodan + Fields reverse regimen doesn’t miraculously erase the dark spots on my face.


I am really looking forward to this birthday. Maybe it’s because each of my decades has been better than the one preceding it. Maybe it’s because I associate a 40th celebration with my dad’s, which was a joyful/awkward party in his bird’s eye office with employees crowded around, balloons, cake, and a belly dancer. (I still have no idea who arranged for that belly dancer. It was a bizarre choice for my dad.) Or maybe it’s because I am finally comfortable in my own body, heart, and mind:

I feel more settled and creative than ever before in my vocational life.

That angst-producing question of whether Matt and I would have kids – and if so, how many – has been resolved.

My anxiety is at a manageable level, thanks to exercise and medication.

My parents and I are finally being honest with each other, which was a long time coming.

I get joy every day from noting my son’s emerging understanding of the world and his imagination around what could be.

I have claimed my voice as a citizen, speaking up for what I believe to be good for my community.

I no longer feel obligated to finish books that don’t hold my interest or that I want to throw across the room.

I don’t wait for others to confer authority upon me as a pastor, parent, or person.

I don’t expect my 40s to be easy. The realities of membership in the sandwich generation will no doubt set in soon. The realities of life in a very contentious time in the church and the culture at large show no signs of abating. The realities of physical changes (“this happens at your age…”) will bring more preventative procedures. And who knows what else is in store?

But I’m as ready as I can be. Bring it.

Creative Commons image “40” by Amanda Slater is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.



Already amazing: young clergy women and pastoral leadership

Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a pastoral leadership workshop at the Young Clergy Women International conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. My goals in that hour and a half were to ask coaching questions that allowed participants to

  • name their strengths and consider how to operate out of them,
  • articulate how they want to show up in their ministry settings,
  • identify the helps for and barriers to showing up in those ways, and
  • begin to make a plan for utilizing the resources and maneuvering around the roadblocks.

I want to share the discussion prompts I offered in that sacred space in the hopes that they might be useful to you as well.

Naming and claiming strengths

  • What energizes you in ministry?
  • When have you felt most like you were living fully into your call? (Responses can include one-off and recurring situations.)
  • What do your responses to these two questions tell you about your strengths?

Showing up authentically

  • How do you want to show up as a pastoral leader in your ministry setting?
  • When have you shown up this way? (If you’re not sure, try to imagine your leadership through the eyes of a congregant, lay leader, or judicatory leader.)
  • What has made showing up this way possible?

Utilizing resources and managing barriers 

  • What tapped and untapped resources do you have for showing up the way you want?
  • How might you best utilize these resources?
  • What keeps you from showing up the way you want?
  • How do you remove the barriers you can control and maneuver around the barriers you can’t control?

Putting it all together

  • Given what you have learned about yourself and your context from your responses to these questions, what is the first step toward living more fully into your pastoral leadership potential? In other words, what is the lowest-hanging fruit for drawing on your strengths, taking into account how you want to show up, maximizing helpful conditions, minimizing obstacles, and putting the tools at your disposal to good use?

While I think these are useful questions, what made them powerful was the workshop participants’ willingness to create spaces for candid conversation. Since there were 25-30 people in the room, I asked them to divide themselves into dyads or triads to respond to the questions. The women shared deeply and offered invaluable observations and encouragement to one another. These questions, then, are good for reflection but much more transformative when used as a discussion guide.


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!

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.