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.

Planning from abundance, part 7 – designing initiatives

Over the past several weeks I have introduced ways to take stock of the gifts of individuals in your church, the congregation as a whole, and your surrounding community. I have also offered means of celebrating those gifts and assessing how they are currently being used. After completing all of this faithful work, it is now time for leaders (planning team, if there is one, or board/vestry/session/council) to consider the accumulated information in view of the future. Below is an outline for initiative design that is rooted in Spirit-led discernment rather than human-led decision-making.

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. Invite everyone to name where they have seen God at work throughout the planning process.

Review and celebrate all that the leaders have learned from listening and information-gathering.

Pray as Jesus did: “Not my will but Thine be done.”

Discuss the question undergirding the planning process: “Given all the information and reflections we have gathered, what is God inviting us to consider for the immediate future?” Notice where there is excitement or energy as well as where there is a feeling of flatness.

Identify the realization that seems (realizations that seem) to be emerging. Get every concern on the table for the invitations around which there is excitement. Refine ideas that bubble up related to these invitations.

Work toward agreement. What further exploration is needed to confirm or flesh out our responses to God’s invitations? What will faithfulness look like in moving forward with what God is inviting us to consider?

Test the agreement. Let the resolution(s) rest. If your leadership isn’t able to sleep on it/them, take a meal break and then discuss how leaders are feeling in their heads, hearts, and guts about the proposed way forward.

Ask the “next step” questions. What leadership (lay/clergy) will be required for what God is inviting us to do? What current programs do we need to scale back or celebrate and let go of in order to respond to God’s invitation? To whom do we need to reach out to start living into God’s invitation? Who will be the primary point person/group or liaison? When and how will we stop to evaluate our progress toward our vision of faithfulness? (Next week I will provide a ministry reflection form to aid in this assessment.)

Take action. Make detailed plans for action steps. Who will do what? How, and by when? What support and/or accountability is needed? The planning team takes these responses and begins putting detail to potential initiatives, handing them off to standing committees and/or leaders for approval and/or implementation as appropriate.

Offer gratitude to God and ask for God’s help in the coming months.

As the work draws to a close, be sure to celebrate! You have done faithful, hard work on behalf of your congregation.

Photo by Daniel Fontenele on Unsplash.

Thinking about church size in relationship to mission

Last week I shared discussion questions to help a congregation understand what exactly its church size is and how this size relates to 1) expectations placed on the pastor and 2) the ways newcomers are welcomed and included. These reflection points are important because they help leaders pinpoint why the numbers aren’t increasing – or why they rise, only to be bumped back down. But much more than that, the accurate assessment of size enables a congregation to consider what God is calling it to do and be and to make needed cultural and structural shifts toward those ends. Here, then, is part two of the discussion guide.

Opportunities

Who comprises our community? A demographic study could be helpful for gleaning this information. Even better, take a prayer walk or drive around your immediate community, making an effort to notice who your neighbors are. Once you have identified your neighbors, ask them about their concerns.

What organizations meet the needs of the different populations? According to the different populations and service organizations, what needs are not currently being met? There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Where might there be opportunities to come alongside agencies or churches doing good work? Where are the gaps your church might consider filling? (Hosting a panel discussion with representatives from city leadership and/or the service sector is one way to get at these questions. Talking with social workers and school counselors is another.) Think in terms of physical, spiritual, relational, mental, and emotional challenges.

Assets

What resources for ministry do we have at our disposal? Consider but don’t limit your thinking to money on hand and the physical plant. Other assets include spiritual leadership, ministries/programs, relationships/contacts/spheres of influence, special skills/knowledge, work ethic, and the willingness to try something new.

Capacity

What is our capacity for ministry? Every congregation has a sweet spot in which members feel a healthy sense of urgency and deep engagement but aren’t in danger of burnout. What is your congregation’s capacity in terms of relationships, leadership, energy, finances, and physical space?

  • In which areas have we maxed out our capacity?
  • What do we need to give up to create more capacity?
  • In which areas do we still have capacity left to use?

Represent the different areas of capacity with pie charts or thermometers, then color in the percentages.

Convergence 

What is God nudging us to consider? Given what you have noticed and prayerfully considered, what is your congregation’s mission in the coming months and beyond?

Are we the right size for taking this on, or do we need to size up or down? You have discussed your church’s size, culture, and expectations. Now it’s time to lay those over the vision God has given you and see where there’s alignment and where changes need to be made.

If church size needs to change size to fulfill calling, in what ways can we begin to function at that size? The system will always bump your congregation back to the size it was if you don’t make infrastructure changes first. Given what you know about various church sizes, what might those changes include? Think in terms of pastoral/staff leadership, lay leadership, inroads for newcomers, and procedures. If you can articulate the why for making these shifts – your mission – you will have a much easier time executing them.

Raising awareness around your church’s size dynamics

“How can we grow our church?”

This is the question that haunts a clergyperson’s dreams, whether it wells up from the minister’s own mind and heart or is voiced by laypeople every time they look at attendance and giving patterns. It’s not necessarily a bad question. It does make a couple of big assumptions – that we need to grow and that we are in agreement about what growth looks like – unless it comes at the tail end of discussions about the congregation’s culture and God-given purpose.

Boiled down to its essence, a church’s size is based on two factors: the role of the pastor and the way newcomers enter the system. (Descriptions of the various size designations are available here.) Ministers can use questions and storytelling around these two dynamics to help leaders begin to understand how the church works and what might need to change for growth to occur.

Pinpointing the church’s actual size

  • How many members does our church have? What is weekly attendance? How do we define regular attendance?
  • What do you love about the size of our church?
  • What limits does our church size put on us?
  • What is your favorite story about this church that relates to its size?

Understanding ministerial functioning

  • What is the role of our pastor(s) – from pastor’s point of view and people’s?
  • What engages and energizes our pastor?
  • What would our pastor like to do if there was time/energy?
  • What leadership support does the pastor have? Need?

 Examining systems of welcome and inclusion

  • What is our system for recognizing and welcoming newcomers?
  • How do we follow up with visitors?
  • How do these systems relate to our size?
  • When is the last time a visitor came 3+ times?
  • How did our newest members know they wanted this to be their faith community?

These prompts are designed to help laity get up on the balcony and see the congregation from a new perspective. Next week I’ll share questions around discerning mission that can bring another level of awareness, such that the congregation can consider whether and in what way(s) it needs to grow to live toward its vision.

Dealing with the shoulds

Do you have a case of the shoulds? (I have a chronic condition that I struggle to keep in check.)

“I should finish this sermon before I go to bed.”

“I should visit my homebound member, even though I saw him two weeks ago.”

“I should count my calories more closely.”

“I really need to marinate on my response some more, but I should send this email reply now anyway because my board chair is expecting it.”

“I should go to that third evening meeting this week, regardless of whether I have much to add to the discussion.”

“I should tackle that pile of dirty clothes in the floor.”

I should…I should…I should. 

Now, there are a few worthwhile shoulds. I should eat more veggies. I should make an appointment with the dentist. I should be kind to everyone I meet. But in most cases, this is how I’d describe that big pile of should:

Originality: How do I know what I’m capable of if my life is ruled by shoulds?

Understanding: How will I grasp who I am, what my call is, and where others are coming from if I’m too busy doing shoulds?

Leisure: How will I ever get time to rest and re-center if I’m playing whack-a-mole with shoulds?

Deeper connections: How will I ever create time and space for knowing and being known by God and my loved ones if there’s always – and there is – one more should to check off the list?

Shoulds are loud, persistent, confidence-kicking tyrants. Next time a should pops into your head, ask:

Who says I should do this?

Why is it important to that person that 1) this get done and 2) that I do it?

What do my head, heart, and gut tell me about this should?

How will fulfilling this should help me be the minister, family member, friend, or person God has called me to be?

You are valuable, you are beloved, just as you are. You don’t have to earn it.

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.