Planning from abundance, part 5 – gifts of your broader context

Planning for ministry initiatives is incomplete without considering context. Just as individuals are part of a larger congregation, churches are part of larger communities. Often this look at the surrounding neighborhood is focused on needs, on ways that the people around us can be recipients of our care. While Jesus urges us to respond to serious lack and systemic injustice, it’s important to notice the gifts and stories of our neighbors as well. Then we can build relationships and find out where we fit in our community’s ecosystem, not just rush in with well-meaning but wrong-headed (and sometimes destructive) “fixes.”

Considering context first involves knowing who your neighbor is. Here are some ways to identify the people who live and work around you:

Conduct a demographic study. Check with the judicatory or denomination to find out if it has contracted with a demographic service. If not, contact your local chamber of commerce or search online for demographic information. Look for age, gender, race, ethnicity, age, family composition, population concentrations, economic levels, education levels, and any other available statistics. Put the demographics of the community with the demographics of the church side-by-side. What do you notice?

Learn who the local leaders are. Brainstorm (as a team or by a mini-survey to the congregation) or look online for the following:

  • Local government officials
  • School principals/superintendents/deans/presidents
  • Librarians
  • Chief emergency responders
  • Business owners
  • Directors of organizations/agencies/associations
  • Clergy of other congregations
  • Other influencers

Collate the above information and pray for the people in your neighborhood.

Considering context doesn’t end with information-gathering, however. It also involves interacting with your neighbors. Below are some ways to go about that. (Note that the first three suggestions below are particularly family-friendly.)

Go into the neighborhood. Create a scavenger hunt to encourage church members to go into nearby businesses, particularly ones they might not normally patronize. (Be sure to contact businesses ahead of time to let them know about the purpose and date(s) of the scavenger hunt and to get their permission.) For example, go into the home insurance office and get a business card. Go into the comic book shop and take a picture with the life-size cardboard cutout of Spiderman. Go into the local diner and order a slice of its famous cherry cobbler. At each location, introduce yourself to at least one employee. Make note of the people you meet and your experiences going into the businesses.

Take a prayer walk or drive. Give church members a map of a fairly small walking or driving radius. Go in groups or families, praying for the people and places along the route. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you along the way.

Lower the barriers for church members to volunteer. Create a list of local service agencies or opportunities as well as conversation prompts for interacting with people. (Where is your favorite place in the neighborhood? What is something that makes you smile? What are you good at?) Go in groups or families to volunteer. Make an effort to talk with the people – particularly the “clients” – in that place. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you.

Encourage church members to attend a city council meeting, community forum, and/or a school board meeting. Listen for the good that is going on as well as the needs being expressed.

Invite community representatives to a panel discussion at your church. Ask them what they love about their jobs and the community. Encourage them to share where they see neighborhood gifts, both individual and collective. Get them to tell about good things happening in the community, challenges they observe, and places that the church can join in either.

Next week I’ll share some ways to process the information your church gleans and the experiences congregation members have in the community.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

Losing and saving

As I paced the gate area at the Atlanta airport, all the clichés applied. My mind was racing. My heart was sinking. My stomach was knotting up. I knew something life-altering had just happened to me, and I was terrified.

I was on my way home, you see, from the very first conference offered by The Young Clergy Women Project.

I went because it sounded like fun to meet other female ministers under age 40. We’re in short (but growing) supply in Baptist life and in Alabama. And the trip was completely underwritten by the grant that birthed TYCWP, do what did I have to lose?

A lot, as it turned out. I lost the constraints I’d put on my own call to ministry. I lost the isolation that fed my sense of being a victim of the patriarchy. (That’s not to say that patriarchy is dead!) I also lost my will to start my new position, which I was due to report for the day after I returned home. Oops.

Those who would save their lives must lose them, Jesus tells us. And this saving through losing is why I plan my summers around TYCWP conferences. Because I year after year, in the company of awe-inspiring clergywomen, I lose narrowness of vision, doubts about myself, and hopelessness over the current state of the church. And in all of this loss, my ministry and my emotional and spiritual health are saved over and over.

But my renewed life is not the only gain – I largely attribute my son’s existence to a vision that was shaken loose at a TYCWP gathering. I cannot imagine my world without him, and I have hope for the world he will grow up in because of the prophets and priests I have met through TYCWP.

I will age out of TYCWP next year, and that’s ok. I will still look for ways to support my youngest colleagues, and I will re-join some fabulous alumnae. But until then, I anticipate Vancouver. And I urge you in the strongest possible terms to find your peers, your cohort, your tribe if you haven’t yet. Your ministry depends on it, and the in-transition church and our unsettled world need your ministry.

Photo courtesy of The Young Clergy Women Project.

It’s a matter of trust

You share a closely-guarded piece of your heart with a friend, only to have her discuss and dissect it with others.

Your significant other tells you he has to stay at work late for a meeting, but someone tips you off that he was somewhere else…with someone else.

Your governing body holds a secret meeting, after which you are blindsided by the “request” for your resignation.

Trust. It is what crust is to pizza. Rails to your bed. Axles to your car. It is not only the thing on which relationships rest, it’s what holds them together. I can disagree with you, I can even dislike you. But if I trust you, I can stay engaged with you. And if you prove yourself consistently worthy of my trust, I can overlook a multitude of mistakes.

Trust is not just the bedrock of individual relationships. It’s the glue in the pastor-parish partnership and the connective tissue in congregational life as a whole. Trust between ministers and members allows them to say hard but necessary things to one another. Trust in processes keeps the church functioning. Trust in the pastor, in God, and in one another paves the way for a congregation to name a vision and pursue it, even when the plan hits a pothole. When there’s no trust, none of these things happens, and the energy churches could be spending on mission is wasted on secrecy, gossip, and agendas.

As important as trust is, it can be annihilated by a single word or the commission or omission of one action. But re-building trust is possible. In next week’s post, I’ll suggest some ways to go about it.

Creative Commons image “Trust” by Lars Plougmann is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Why I don’t skip The Young Clergy Women Project conference

Eight years ago an invitation that I couldn’t resist came through my inbox. It was a forwarded email about a preaching conference at the Cathedral College – otherwise known as Hogwarts for clergy – in Washington, D.C. It was the inaugural gathering for The Young Clergy Women Project, part research pool for TYCWP’s amazing founder Susan Olson and part newly-forming tribe.

Image courtesy of The Young Clergy Women Project.
Image courtesy of The Young Clergy Women Project.

It would take volumes to recount the ways that TYCWP, and the annual conferences in particular, have shaped me vocationally and personally. But here are a few highlights:

2007 conference (Washington, D.C.) – I was struck by the realizations that I do in fact enjoy preaching and that I might have a viewpoint worth sharing. This knowledge sent me into a tailspin, as I was starting a new call the following week that did not involve preaching.

2008 conference (Washington, D.C.) – My peers helped me think through the tough end to my non-preaching call and discern possible new beginnings. I also became the chair of TYCWP’s community board.

2009 board meeting (St. Louis, M.O.) – When the Cathedral College ended its residential program, TYCWP took a year to consider whether it had the need and the capacity to continue offering annual conferences. When the board decided to give it a go, I had the opportunity to grow a whole new skill set in event planning and to work with a great team on a very intense task.

2010 conference (Atlanta, G.A.) – The conference planning team left it all on the plenary room floor. Our lessons learned, I believe, helped planning teams in the succeeding years create even better experiences. I also had my first real exposure to clergy coaching, which naturally was important to my decision to become a coachee and then a coach.

2011 conference (Durham, N.C.) – In a stunning moment of clarity, facilitated by the keynote speaker, I saw a vision of a toddler running from me to my husband, thus answering the long-held question about whether we should and would become parents.

2012 conference (Chicago, I.L.) – When I nearly hurled on my cabmates on the way to and from a dinner on the river, I realized that I could possibly be on the way to becoming the parent I saw in my vision. (I was.)

2013 conference (Nashville, T.N.) – I intended to skip this conference because I had a two-month-old, but I’m so glad I didn’t. My son was surrounded and blessed by women clergy, and he will never need to ask whether women can be preachers too. And even though I was between positions, my clergy-ness was affirmed by people who understand vocational transition and disruption.

I did miss the 2014 conference in Minneapolis, M.N., because of church commitments. But I’m back and making the most of my next-to-last year of eligibility. I can’t wait to share the impact of this year’s conference, happening NOW in Austin, T.X.

On-the-job insights

Recently I added my take on being half of a clergy couple to the online series #Yoked. (Thank you to Mihee Kim-Kort for the chance to write!) While my main intention was to provide a peek inside one dual ministry marriage, I also hoped to articulate some on-the-job gleanings that have shaped my vocational life:

  • It can take a while to settle into a ministry groove. This is partly true in my case because I had to learn how to apply seminary knowledge in the Real World. More than that, though, it took time to grow into the clothes of a pastor.
  • Calls to ministry evolve over time. When I started looking for my first ministry position, I had a clear idea of what my professional trajectory would be. God laughed, then shredded my map. Thank goodness, because this winding journey has been much more fulfilling.
  • One bad experience doesn’t have to be the end of the vocational line. I still feel the sting when I think about my stint in a toxic setting. But the pain crystallized my purpose and fired me up for what I do now.
  • Pre-fab positions aren’t the only ministry outlets. I finally figured out I could be creative within my constraints. At times I have pieced together different ministry jobs to equal full-time work. At others I have accepted positions that were likely created with someone else in mind. (Most interim minister job descriptions are not written to draw young, female candidates!) And now I have started my own sideline, which may someday be my main ministry.
  • Creative Commons "Four Seasons - Longbridge Road" by jolseyshowaa is licensed under CC 2.0.
    Creative Commons “Four Seasons – Longbridge Road” by jolseyshowaa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

    Ministry can’t be done well – at least for long – in isolation. I have my wonderful husband, who understands the joys and challenges of being a pastor. But I also have a network of local partners in ministry and an international community of young clergy women who teach and support me on a daily basis.

I hope my still-unfolding story is an encouragement to you, especially if you are a current or future minister wondering if this crazy, beautiful vocational life is for you. The church needs you!