Book recommendation: How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going

Surprise! The old ways of doing church are no longer leading to the outcomes we’ve been conditioned to expect. Instead, numbers in most congregations have dipped (well, at least the ones that are easiest to measure). Churches are so desperate to stop the skid that they often tell God to take a backseat and lean on strategies more suited for the corporate world. The result is that congregations no longer feel so much like sacred centers but frantic, fractured gatherings of people who’ll do anything to avoid looking mortality – the congregation’s and their own – in the eyes.

There’s no denying that the “Big C” Church and many congregations are at a crossroads, or what seasoned consultant Susan Beaumont calls a “liminal space.” The old is in the rearview, and the new is not yet in sight. There is no easy path forward. This is not a situation that churches can strategically plan their way out of or pour more resources into until the trend rights itself. Instead, this season calls for a new kind of leadership, one that lets go of attachment to outcomes, tends the soul of the gathered body, and notices what emerges.

Image courtesy of susanbeaumont.com.

What this transition time requires, in other words, is true spiritual leadership. In her book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, Beaumont lines out what this leadership looks like. It requires the ability to live with discomfort. Every congregation wants to know now what the future will look like now, and that simply isn’t possible without experimentation and discovery. Humans in a world geared toward instant gratification will buck against this purposeful not-knowing, and the leader must point toward the faithfulness of this stance and the opportunities in it. Liminal leadership also necessitates the willingness and capacity to tune into who the congregation is at its roots, what God is up to, and what the Spirit is nudging it to do and be. It invites the church as a whole to join in this untangling of its DNA, this discernment, this identification of purpose. In the process, dependence on God’s timing and attentiveness to God’s presence bring about spiritual transformation for those who engage in this challenging work.

Beaumont’s book offers as much of a guide as we have available for how to navigate this weird, wild time. It outlines the postures a liminal leader must take. It points to where the soul of each congregation reveals itself. It teaches the spiritual practices that add up to discernment. It helps leaders detect and elevate new, more helpful narratives about their churches. It highlights what congregations do (e.g., core values) and don’t (e.g., a 10-year plan) need to move ahead with faithful purpose. And it reassures and emboldens leaders and their churches by emphasizing that it is good and right to stand in wonder rather than on certainty.

I recommend this book to pastors and lay leaders who are stymied about how to put one foot in front of the other. It offers a balance of spiritual and practical, realism and hope that I believe can move churches from liminal languishing to empowered, impassioned purpose.

 

Book review and giveaway: We Pray With Her

Since last Advent I have been searching for a new devotional book. Some that I looked at were too light, while others were a bit more academic than I wanted. Many were focused solely on personal holiness, and a few were so social justice-oriented that I had to stretch to apply the readings to my everyday life.

And then, We Pray With Her was published this fall. I was already looking forward to getting a copy, because some of the friends and colleagues I respect most contributed to the book. The first night I opened it up, I felt seen and understood. Here were young clergywomen speaking to the threads that I find myself pulling on daily in my ministry, parenting, and civic participation: call, courage, struggle, resistance, and persistence. In these 100 devotions I found good biblical scholarship applied to the challenges I face in this stage of life and work. The pieces invited me to tend to my spirit, then turned me outward to enact in the world my faith in God’s love and abundance.

In addition to the devotions, there are standalone prayers tailored to situations young women often find themselves in. Some center on choices and realities associated with parenting, such as being asked – AGAIN – why we don’t have children, struggling with infertility, experiencing post-partum depression, and dealing with the everyday challenges of parenting. There are family-related prayers that are not child-centered, including muddling through the illness of a parent or a divorce. Other prayers focus on professional concerns like preparing spiritually for interviews, difficult meetings, position changes, and returning to work after vacation. And there are some prayers that speak to the overall tenor of our lives: prayers for boldness, for discernment, and for help in the midst of loneliness and panic and struggle.

I have felt my way through We Pray With Her. Instead of going through the book in order, I have considered the theme that best speaks to my current state and gone to that section for a good word. I have then flipped through for a standalone prayer that relates to what I’m going through. This approach – and the words that I find on the page each night – have been a boon to my spirit. Ending each day with the sense of being seen and using the prayers to open a conversation with God have allowed me, in the midst of all that is difficult in the world right now, to be grateful and thus to be empowered.

I want you to feel seen and to be empowered too, so I am giving away one of the review copies that Abingdon Press sent to me. You can enter by commenting below with a note about why you’d like to receive We Pray With Her. Your comment will enter you into a random drawing on Friday, November 30, at noon central.

Everything happens

As a teenager I had an unhealthy affinity for Lurlene McDaniel novels. She writes about young people who have chronic or terminal illnesses. There’s also at least one book about a high school girl dying in a car crash because she didn’t want her seat belt to wrinkle her new dress. These works of fiction were the perfect/worst possible match for my personality: generally anxious with a side dish of hypochondria. I cannot tell you how many times I convinced myself I had diabetes or cancer, thanks to the similarity of my “symptoms” with a Lurlene McDaniel character. I mentally penned my farewell letters and practiced my brave face in the mirror. (Truth be told, I still kinda do these things.)

Which is why I couldn’t wait to read/put off reading Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler is an assistant professor of church history at Duke Divinity School who was unexpectedly diagnosed with incurable, stage 4 cancer in 2015. She is in her late 30s. She is a self-professed church nerd. As a Mennonite she is a proponent of believer’s baptism adrift in a sea of infant baptizers at her Methodist seminary. She has a young son. She has a close-knit, irreverent family. In short, I could relate to much of her story. And her humor…oh, how I love her wit.

But Kate Bowler is not a fictional character. She is a real person who is wrestling daily with what it means to inhabit the space between living the dream and actively dying. She is a real Christian who is struggling with her subconscious assent to the prosperity gospel – if you pray hard enough and are good enough, the world is your oyster! – and her fear that death means disconnect from her husband and child.

Bowler’s words did not hit me square in my anxiety. They did something that is rare for someone as head-focused as I am: wriggled their way into my most tender, most guarded inner self. They made me want to be less private and more honest. They made me want to dream about more than control my life. They made me want to love so deeply that I would feel grief acutely. Now, how to do those things…

I guess I don’t have to spell out that I recommend this book, as well as the accompanying podcast.

Thank you, Kate Bowler, for the beauty of who you are and what you share with the world.

Book review: Good Christian Sex

During my junior year of high school, my Southern Baptist church mounted a True Love Waits campaign. I vividly remember well-meaning but embarrassed adults reciting talking points in a room still half-darkened after an overwrought video viewing. Afterward each youth was handed a TLW pledge card and a pen, with the clear expectation that we would sign away any pre-marital possibilities of fornication on the spot. I scrawled my name enthusiastically. When asked, I proudly marched to the front of the worship space to declare my chaste intentions before the whole congregation. I hung my turquoise pledge card above the switchplate in my bedroom as a reminder of my promises to God, myself, and my future husband. I was girded up for battle with my hormones and any potential suitor’s ill intentions.

And then I went to a sleepover at my Sunday School teacher’s house. There girls who were younger than me and who had committed to virginity alongside me shared about their sexual encounters, mostly with older boys who had applied at least a modicum of pressure. An unmarried woman in her twenties, my teacher answered our questions about sex from personal experience. I was confused, to say the least.

My confusion, which followed me into my adult years, didn’t just impact my romantic relationships. It also hamstrung my ministry to youth. I have had primary ministerial responsibility for youth on and off over the last fourteen years. In that time I’ve often felt convicted to discuss sexuality in the context of theology and discipleship. And I’ve not had a clue how to do it. While I don’t think abstinence-only sex ed does anyone any favors – there are plenty of studies that show this approach generally does not reduce risky behaviors but instead leaves young people more vulnerable to poor choices –  I couldn’t sort my own heart and mind out enough to make sex an approachable, healthy, or faithful topic in the congregational setting. The best I could do was to let my kids know that I loved them and that I was available to discuss difficult things with them.

If I’d had Bromleigh McCleneghan’s new book Good Christian Sex sooner, I’d have been much better prepared to deal with my own mess of thoughts and feelings and to help others sort through theirs. Bromleigh, a United Methodist minister, gives us a book that is well-researched and well-rounded. It draws from scripture as well as from the writings of theologians, psychologists, and philosophers. It’s located, meaning it takes biblical and contemporary sociopolitical contexts into account. It parses out terms that have often been lumped together, like “celibacy” and “chastity.” It’s readable, with a narrative touch and phrases that transport me back to key relational moments. It’s clear and convicted in its premise – that sexual intimacy can be a means of knowing and channeling the Source of all love. It offers a perspective that pushes back against a sometimes abusive purity culture.

But perhaps my biggest takeaways from reading Good Christian Sex were the self-discoveries the book prompted. I thought I’d been carrying one heavy piece of baggage all these years – the message that girls/women who have sex before marriage are damaged goods. But it turns out that in addition to the TLW sentiments that were seared into my brain, the burden was actually distributed among several pieces of luggage: my deep ambivalence (until a God-given vision five years ago) about becoming pregnant. The fact that physical touch is decidedly not my love language of choice. The mixed messages of chastity and self-determination ingrained in me by six years of single-sex education. My concerns about raising a boy in a culture that promotes violence against women.

The gifts of reading this book aren’t all about identifying what has weighed me down, though. I had a sudden, somewhat shocking clarification that while I am progressive on many issues, I am decidedly conservative on this one. I made/renewed my commitment not to judge or shame others – equally loved and valued by God – for making different choices than me. I owned that I am happy with the decisions I have made around sex, even when they weren’t always made for the most healthy reasons.

I believe this is what a good book does. It informs. It gives readers something to push back on. It forges new connections and encourages new understandings. So while I don’t agree with every point in Good Christian Sex, I am very grateful to Bromleigh for writing it, and I highly recommend it to ministers, youth workers, and parents as a means of preparing for hard but essential conversations.