Church in the time of Coronavirus

Let’s not mince words. This whole COVID-19 business sucks.

That suckage covers a big range, too. At one extreme, there’s the physical danger to immunosuppressed people and to those living in poverty, who might have difficulty feeding themselves as schools close and shelves empty at food banks and at stores that take government benefits. At the other extreme, people lament the (hopefully very short-term) loss of all that makes life enjoyable, such as birthday parties and trips and worship services and the NCAA basketball tournament. And these are only the immediate impacts.

So we’re all feeling the pinch in some way. The mortal danger is, of course, the exponentially greater concern. That’s why institutions of all kids are taking precautions and recommending safety guidelines to leaders and individuals – including pastors and church members. Talk about the things they didn’t teach you in seminary: many a minister is struggling to tend both to concerns about vulnerable people and frustrations about closures in a context that is now changing hourly.

Fully acknowledging how much the situation stinks, there are a couple of opportunities to keep in mind.

First, the church is not the building where your congregation is used to meeting. The church I attended in seminary had (and probably still has) a sign that said, “Oakhurst Baptist meets here.” It was a way of separating the congregation from the physical location. Many a church struggles to do that. After all, how many conversations about sanctuary carpet or the color the youth want to paint the walls of their meeting space become seemingly all-consuming, to the detriment of actual ministry? With many churches canceling in-person gathering for at least the next few weeks, there can begin to be more daylight between the people and the place.

With that in mind, how can you help your congregation members see in new ways that church is about relationships, not a facility? How will you equip and encourage your people to tend to those connections in the absence of a physical gathering place?

Second, the church as it was has been dying for some time. Many pastors know that, yet it can be hard to imagine what a new iteration of church might look like. And even if we can visualize it, how in the world can we inspire our people to be courageous enough to attempt it? Well, this pandemic offers a laboratory for that. We can’t conduct business as usual. We thus have unprecedented permission to discern new ways of connecting to one another as we seek to grow in our relationships with God.

So what expressions of the scattered church have you wanted to play with but heretofore haven’t dared? If you’re not sure what you’d like to experiment with, how can those who are accustomed to relating to people who aren’t physically present (e.g. youth ministers, digital natives, tech professionals) show us the way?

I am praying for you, pastors, and I am confident in your faithfulness, compassion, and ability to innovate. Lean into those strengths – you might be surprised by what emerges. And as you attempt new things, give yourself permission not to have all the answers immediately. We’re all feeling our way along in this brave new world.

Photo by Sheldon Kennedy on Unsplash.

The difficulty of discernment

Discernment is reallllly hard.

Discernment is also reallllly important.

Here is a link to the audio of a sermon I preached two Sundays ago about the why and the how of discernment. I was in the pulpit at First Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which is between settled pastors. In my role as the FBC’s transition facilitator, I was speaking directly to the challenge and the gift of discerning along the way to calling a new minister. The sermon also applies anytime we as clergy or congregations feel the internal or external pressure just to get on with it.

Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash.

Re-imagining ministry and re-inventing yourself

Many clergywomen find themselves in the position of needing to re-invent themselves at some point. There are many reasons why. We are geographically limited. Or congregational ministry positions are drying up as church budgets shrink. Or we have small children or aging parents who need more of our attention than full-time congregational ministry allows. Or we’ve been scarred by church work. Or we have yet to find a venue that fully utilizes our gifts. Or God is at work in us, shaping a vision of what we’ve been made for. 

And so we dream about – or are forced to consider – what an out-of-the-box ministry could look like. Let me say (as someone who has been there) that I am in your corner. I’d offer these steps to you as you mull and plan.

Define your purpose in ministry. What is it that God is nudging you to do? The specific tasks aren’t as important at this point as what your overall aim is. “I create spaces for people to grow their relationships with God and one another.” “I help churches navigate change with clarity and hope.”

Free yourself up to think broadly about ministry. Many seminaries are geared to drive students toward traditional congregational ministry positions. There’s more than one way, though, to live out your purpose in ministry. What way(s) suit you and your strengths?

Consider the environment you need. What kind of space does your ministry require? Do you work best with people or on your own? What supports and/or accountability will allow you to make the most of your gifts? What equipment or resources can undergird your efforts? How important is location to your success?

Think about your financial requirements. Creating your own ministry often means leaving the world of steady pay and benefits. How much fluctuation in income can you tolerate, at least in the short term? How will you secure health insurance? Remember too that business expenses will now likely come out of your gross income, and be sure to figure that in to your projections.

Identify to whom your ministry would be good news. If God is inviting you to consider a new venture, your efforts will be valuable to others as well. Find those people, tell them what you’re mulling, and listen deeply to the feedback as you gauge their level of excitement.

Pray on it. After you’ve done all of the above, turn your data and your shoulds and coulds over to God: that would you have me do? This is a time for discernment, not decision-making.

Promote yourself. “Noooo…” you might be thinking. “I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that.” But remember those people you talked to who saw great potential in what you were thinking about. Letting those who need your ministry know that your help is available is a service to – not a burden on – them.

Set attainable targets for yourself. You have very little control over whether you net a certain number of new clients per month, so a goal like this is a recipe for frustration. You can absolutely make so many new contacts or spend X number of hours per week working on a particular project, though. These kinds of mileposts keep you moving forward.

Celebrate the flexibility you have when times are lean. Hustling is hard. It requires tenacity. You will wonder many times if you heard God correctly when you stepped out on this limb. And, you will be so glad when you don’t have to plan time away, whether it’s to attend an event your child’s school or to get away for a few days, around a million other concerns.

Find colleagues. Even if you work well alone, don’t allow yourself always to be alone. Look for people with whom you can provide mutual encouragement, space to vent, and brainstorming time.

Keep learning and growing. There’s a lot of trial and error in starting up a new venture. Instead of letting the errors discourage you, use them for further discernment. What about this particular try helped me be faithful to my purpose? What distracted me from it? Use those reflections to refine your ministry.

Be patient with yourself. You are brave. You are wise. You are innovative. You have much to offer. And, it will take time to build your ministry. Release yourself from the expectation – and the pressure that comes with it – of going from 0 to 60 in a few months.

I have found great joy in reimagining what ministry looks like for me. That does not mean it’s always been easy. It took a long time to build toward sustainability, but I can now confidently say it was worth the effort. So all the best to you in your new season of ministry. Know that I am here to help if you need it.

Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash.

How firm a foundation

I currently have the privilege of serving as transition facilitator for a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee. This involves coaching a team of laypeople as they lead the church through some discussions that will be intense as well as – if we do our work with great intention and trust God’s presence – fruitful and hopeful.

This past weekend I trained this transition team. We had a big agenda for our Saturday together. Worship together, bond as a team, understand the scope of the transition process, pray our way through the large physical plant, plan for our first congregational conversation, and set the timeline for our work. (Yes, I was tired, and I’m sure the team was as well!)

I was not surprised that we quickly fell behind in our ambitious schedule. The people around the table were telling stories and enjoying one another’s company. Internally, my desire to stay on task warred with my conviction that these conversations were the work, no matter what our agenda said. A key component of the day was the sharing of faith journeys. I was amazed by the depth to which team members told deeply personal stories. There were tears. There was laughter. The connections being formed and strengthened were almost visible, they were so visceral.

We were able to check off the most important to-dos in preparation for our work with the church as a whole (and still adjourn on time!). But when we reflected on the our work we had done over eight hours, there was consensus that the team-building pieces – faith stories, casual conversation during lunch, a tangent or two, affirming one another’s experiences and gifts via call and response – were where God was most powerfully at work.

This team was put together through congregational ballots that were then processed by a nominating committee to ensure as much diversity in life and church experience, perspective, age, and gender as possible. It was purposefully representational of a church that – like most churches – has plenty of different thoughts on what the next chapter of ministry should look like.

That’s exactly why this “soft” or “slow” work was necessary. (To be clear, I believe attention to relationship-building is tough and makes processes more efficient in the long run.) We were able to see the image of God in one another and note what we have in common so that we can work from that starting point rather than areas of disagreement. Now the team members can model that recognition of each person’s belovedness, that delight in one another, that love for their church as they lead the discussions that must be had if the congregation is to notice and respond faithfully to God’s invitations in this season.

Where in your ministry setting is the “real work” getting hung up by disagreement, disengagement, or lack of follow-through? I encourage you to consider whether taking a step back to strengthen relationships might be a way to move forward.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.

 

 

 

‘Tis the season for nominations

In churches that have January-December lay leadership terms, fall is the nominating committee’s active season. In many congregations the nominations process consists of looking at the rosters of all the committees and boards, noting who is rotating off, and plugging in (often recycled) names. It’s not uncommon for nominees to be approached with either apologies (“I’m sorry – I know you’re really busy – but we need you to fill this spot”) or guilt (“If you don’t fill this spot, I don’t know what we’ll do”).

I believe we can do better.

A big part of the problem is that we’re starting the nominations process too zoomed in. There’s no reason to look at the rosters of committees and boards until we’ve spent some time considering why we have these working bodies and how they fit into the overall direction of the church. Here, then, are some questions to help nominating committees broaden their thinking.

What is God inviting our congregation to consider doing in the next nine months to three years? Hopefully this question will have already been discussed at the congregational level. If not, the combination of nomination and stewardship seasons could provide opportunities for discernment.

What is the relationship of each working body to that invitation? If a new initiative is in the cards, that will impact what committees and boards do and how they work together.

What will the capacity of each working body be to live into that relationship when members with expiring terms rotate off? Notice that even three questions in, the focus is still on the bigger picture.

What gifts are needed to help each working body hold up its part of God’s invitation going forward? Think broadly about spiritual maturity, talents, perspectives, energy, and expertise.

Who are the people with those gifts or with the potential to develop them? Look for a balance of experienced and new nominees, making sure that all the various constituencies of the church are represented across the rosters. When contacting nominees, name the gifts the nominating committee sees in them, how they would strengthen the working body, and how the working body helps the church live into its mission.

If we still have holes after hearing back from all of our nominees, what does that mean? Consider what barriers to participation exist, whether committees and boards need to be right-sized or combined, if there is good understanding about what each working body does and how it contributes to the overall direction of the church, and whether further big-picture discernment is needed before resorting to the any-warm-body-will-do approach.

What lay leadership needs do we anticipate beyond the coming year, and what work can be done now to prepare those who are not yet ready to serve? Here we broaden back out to lay the groundwork for a pipeline of ready leaders. Communicate responses to this question to pastoral staff for further deliberation.

The nominating committee might kick into gear at only one time of the year, but its work is significant. Getting the right people on the right working bodies ensures not just functionality but energy and creativity that in turn propel the church toward its God-given vision. Blessings upon this hard, holy work.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash.

 

Indignation and indifference

“JEEEE-susss, it’s no fair. Mary is making me do all the work. Make her help meeee.” This quote is often used to pit Martha against her sister in Luke 10:40, thus retconning the catfight trope into holy scripture itself.

Not today, Satan. Not only does the typical translation of these women’s relationship set up a false binary between doing and being, service and leadership, it keeps us from more deeply seeing ourselves reflected in the scripture.

Martha says, “Tell Mary to get off her butt.” She speaks to Jesus with the confidence of someone who knows her hearer will certainly see her side. Instead: “Sorry, Martha. I’m enjoying this conversation with your sister.” If she’d had access to an ice pack, Martha would no doubt have used it on her floor-bruised jaw and her indignant-red cheeks.

How often do we approach God authoritatively, knowing God will agree with us? If you’re like me, it’s more often than I care to admit. “Not my will, but thi…yada, yada, yada, I’m sure you’d like to bless me with good weather for my road trip and a change of attitude for that person who has been a thorn in my side and a new on-sale dress for Easter.”

Whole congregations can do this too. We pray for more people to join our membership – because God must want that for us – but what if we’re already the right size to do the job God has for us? We pray for more resources, but what if more money leads to more distractions and excuses from spiritual growth and disciple-making? To the best of my understanding, God doesn’t think in the same categories and metrics that we do.

This is what makes the prayer of indifference – a key component of discernment – so important and so dang hard. It means acknowledging our short-sightedness. It means giving up some control. But unless we can offer prayers that sound like, “Here’s what I’m worried about, please do your God thing” without prescribing what we’d like that God thing to look like, we’re too attached to a particular outcome. That means limiting God, or at least limiting our openness to God.

The prayer of indifference is made a bit easier by cultivating a habit of gratitude. Noting where God has been at work in, around, and through us in big and small ways reminds us that our faith in God’s presence and goodness is warranted. God doesn’t do on-demand prayer responses, but God hasn’t abandoned us yet.

What adjustments to your prayer posture would you like to make? How might you incorporate noticing gratitude into your routine to make these changes possible?

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash.

Learned helplessness vs. learned optimism in congregations

In the field of psychology there is a condition known as learned helplessness. The subject is put into a challenging environment – for example, there might be a persistent, sharp sound – with no way to overcome the issue. After experiencing that initial lack of agency, the subject gives up trying to alter the condition or escape. The subject accepts the situation as permanent, and this learned helplessness induces a passivity that becomes a default response in other, unrelated circumstances.

In contrast, another subject is given the means to change the challenging condition, such as by pushing a button that stops the noise. This subject learns that the problem is temporary and that the means are available to address it. This subject bounces back quickly from adversity, because the agency claimed instills a sense of optimism.

While many studies of learned helplessness and optimism have focused primarily on the impact to individuals, I think these phenomena are very applicable to congregations. Take a church that considers itself in decline, for example. This congregation tries everything it can think of to reverse the trends, such as sending postcards to the neighborhood, hosting a community cookout on the church lawn, sprucing up the nursery, and offering a grief support group. At most, a couple of new people start attending on Sundays from these efforts. The church accepts that it is helpless to stop its slide. It gives up trying to reach out to the community, and it dwindles until a discussion about permanently closing the doors becomes imminent.

On the other hand, a church in similar circumstances might claim a sense of optimism by finding agency in its situation. This could involve the congregation naming and ministering out of the gifts that a small church has to offer that a big church cannot. It might mean reframing growth so that it is not about Sunday morning attendance and offering but about numbers of unique individuals involved in leadership in the congregation and community or the length of time it takes a youth group to name all of the ways it saw God at work during the week prior. It could entail using perceived failure as a springboard for ongoing discernment and deeper dependence on the Spirit.

Learned optimism is not fanciful or untethered from reality. It is a secular term for the hope we claim as people of faith, rooted in the partnership that God invites us into. Whereas helplessness and passivity prevent growth, optimism creates the possibility for all kinds of positive change and for relationship development and strengthening.

Where, then, does your congregation need to recognize its God-given agency and begin to act out of hope instead of helplessness?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.