Planning from abundance, part 8 – engaging in ongoing reflection

Once your church has planned new ministry initiatives, the work is not done. It is important to pre-set times for reflecting on these initiatives. (Note that if debrief sessions aren’t calendared in advance, they are much less likely to happen.) The questions below offer prompts for ongoing discernment about the faithful use of gifts and celebration of God’s work in, around, and through the people involved with the ministry.

Ministry reflection form
Ministry name:
Ministry date(s):
Ministry leader(s):
Brief description of ministry:

What were the main tasks in the planning and implementation of this ministry?

What relationships were started or strengthened?

How did we make faithful use of the following?

  • People’s time
  • People’s talents
  • Personal connections
  • Congregational connections
  • Physical space
  • Money
  • Other resources

What did we learn about the following?

  • Ourselves (individually)
  • Ourselves (as a congregation)
  • Our larger community

Where was God at work in, around, and/or through us through the planning and implementation of this ministry?

In light of our responses to the above, what is God inviting us to consider going forward?

Using the reflection prompts above will not only allow your church to tweak ministries to make them more effective but will remind planners that even if an event doesn’t turn out as planned, the careful debrief of it means that no effort is lost in God’s economy. So give thanks for opportunities to love, learn, and grow, and pray for God’s continued guidance.

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen 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.

As young clergywomen from all over gather this week…

Note: I wrote but did not publish this reflection one year ago upon attending my last The Young Clergy Women Project/Young Clergy Women International conference. I offer it now as clergywomen from a number of denominations and locales gather in St. Louis.

I departed my first – the first – Young Clergy Women Project conference in inner turmoil. In 2007 I was floundering in ministry. As a moderate-to-progressive Baptist, congregations in northwest Alabama that aligned with my theology were scarce, and open positions in them were rare. Yet as the spouse of a United Methodist pastor under appointment, I had no say in where I lived. Just before the conference I was called to a staff position at a nearby church. This opportunity was a huge relief to my self-esteem and my bank account. I would be in ministry full time! With benefits! My start date was set for the Sunday after I returned home from the conference at the Cathedral College of Preachers in Washington, DC.

My relief morphed into exhilaration and then plummeted to an “oh, crap” feeling over the course of the TYCWP conference. Something in me was unleashed through that gathering of clergywomen, through our study and practice of homiletics. Maybe it was my preaching voice. Maybe it was clarity about the shape of my call. Maybe it was a sense that I was settling for a position that didn’t match my gifts in a setting that had already shown glimmers of toxicity. Whatever it was, it told me I had no business beginning my new position. As I traveled home, my husband was on a retreat and unavailable to help me process. My parents could only commiserate. So I went to work that Sunday, a sour feeling in my gut.

As you might imagine, the eight months I served at that church were not pretty. (I claim my part in the debacle. I was too fearful to heed the gut-jabbing elbows of the Holy Spirit.) In the end, I was forced out. I probably would no longer be in ministry after that experience. Except…I now had a community of YCWs who had helped me claim a new understanding of my ministry at the conference. Who afterward accompanied me through the many low points of my short-lived job. Who picked me back up when I was emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and sometimes even physically prostrate following my resignation.

And so, as frantic as my inner monologue and as chaotic as my vocational life became out of that first TYCWP conference, I couldn’t imagine not going to the next one. In fact, I’ve been to all of them but one, which got pushed off my calendar by a mission trip. All of them have been great. A few have been life-altering.

The conference is (by far) my most extroverted week of the year, when I float between groups of conference participants, skip naps and stay up late for conversations – if you know me well, you get that this is not my usual M.O. – and drink up all the wisdom and laughter I can. Those of us who have been attending conferences since those early days get to check in annually after tracking one another’s family additions and losses, changes in positions, and cross-country moves on social media throughout the year prior. Those of us older young clergy women also get to welcome first-time attendees and learn about the latest practices and resources from pastors just coming out of seminary.

This month’s Young Clergy Women International conference – the organization, like my own tenure in ministry, is no longer tenuous – was my last one, as I’ll turn 40 shortly. It felt like coming full circle. I arrived at the closing worship with a settled spirit, celebrating that I am feeling more creative and productive in ministry than ever before. After the sermon, proclaimer Casey Fitzgerald asked each participant to describe herself with a single word, to tell that word to another YCW, and to receive affirmation and anointing from that colleague. My word came immediately: encourager. Some YCWs laughed and nodded in confirmation when I told them my word.  I am an encourager. I am an encourager because so many YCWs have encouraged me by recognizing and calling forth my gifts, by sharing with me about the amazing ministry they are doing, and by telling me to rock my new haircut. I am who I am as a person and pastor in large part because of this community. And I am ready to leave it in the capable hands of young clergy women, which I no longer am, and support it from afar as I re-join friends who have gone on to the alumnae group.

Bless you, YCWI. Keep on doing great things for the people of God, in the name of God.

The necessity of encouragement

During the fall of my sixth grade year, I tagged along when my parents took my younger brother to sign up for rec league basketball. When we arrived, I shocked my mom and dad – and myself, for that matter – by declaring that I wanted to play ball too. I was bookish. I was freakishly short. I had never shown an iota of interest in anything athletic. To their credit, my parents only exchanged brief glances, asked me once if I was sure, and then filled out my registration form.

The picture of athleticism.

I was terrible at basketball, as it turned out. I wasn’t fast. I was clumsy. I had no arm strength, so I had to shoot free throws underhanded, which was humiliating. I also wore glasses – not the sporty kind – that required me to use a very sexy [snort] croakie to keep them from being knocked off my head. I put my hair up with a tie that had a tiny piece of metal on it and went into a game with newly-pierced ears, both mistakes that prompted the referees to stop the action on my behalf. (I had to change out the hair tie and put medical tape over my earrings to avoid harming self and others.)

That sixth grade season was not pretty on my part. The only points I scored that year were in one game, when my coach told me to camp out under our team’s basket and wait for my teammates to lob defensive rebounds downcourt to me so that I could (hopefully) hit an unguarded layup. But I was having the time of my life.

After the season I had an idea of what I needed to work on (everything) to get better. So I started conditioning. I shot baskets and ran ball handling drills for hours in the driveway. I attended camp at a university known for being a powerhouse basketball program in the NAIA. And I improved. I made my school team in seventh grade. I didn’t start, and I didn’t always see much playing time, but I persevered. In eighth grade I developed my arm. No more granny-style free throws for me – in fact, I was pretty reliable from three-point range.

But I was getting discouraged. I was working my butt off without seeing my efforts translate into playing time. I could shoot and play in-your-face defense, but my ball handling was still weak, and you can’t be 4’10” with a case of the fumbles and not expect to make gluteal indentations on the bench. Before my ninth grade season, with honors courses and all the homework that accompanied them piling up, I decided to focus on what I was best at – studying. I still traveled with the school basketball team as a statistician and played church league ball, but any hope of a varsity (or beyond) athletic career vaporized.

Several years later, I ran into my eighth grade coach. We caught up a bit, and then she said, “I wish you hadn’t stopped playing. With your work ethic, you could have been an All-American.”

Record scratch.

I mumbled a “thank you” and scooted out of there before my brain exploded. This coach had never told me that she saw my potential. I thought I was forever destined to be a benchwarmer, and to me Rudy is the saddest-sack movie ever made.

The coach’s statement was no doubt hyperbolic, and yet I wonder if I would have made different choices if I had been given a slow drip of encouragement. “Keep at it – you’re improving.” “You’ll get your chance.” “You work at least as hard as anyone else on this team, and everyone notices.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with my life as it has unfolded. And it turns out I might have given up too soon on an outlet I was passionate about.

Everyone wants to know that he is not invisible, that she is valued. To be sincerely appreciated for who she is and what he does. To have her gifts-in-development called forth. This goes for loved ones, colleagues, volunteers, community leaders, and the people who serve our food and collect our trash and protect our neighborhoods and teach our kids. Intentional eye contact or a handwritten note plus specific feedback go a long way toward strengthening relationships and encouraging dreams in people who previously did not dare to entertain them.

Who around you needs encouragement this week, and how might you offer it? And who provides you with much-needed encouragement to keep moving forward? Thanks be to God for all of these people.

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.

To ministers lying prostrate on their office floors

I have been there.

I have been bullied by power-obsessed parishioners, then gaslighted by a senior pastor who denied the bullying was happening.

I have been left with few advocates – whose voices were diluted in a sea of people who either actively opposed me or didn’t know what was going on – even as I was forbidden to advocate for myself.

I have been afraid of what would happen to my vocational future if I got let go and if I resigned, even as those were my only two options.

I have faded away into a congregation’s ether when no one wanted to announce my departure, because then the folks caught off guard would start asking questions.

I have endured a last lunch I didn’t want with a staff that refused to back me, at which the senior pastor poo-pooed my next steps in ministry.

I have worried about my family’s ability to pay the bills, having just purchased a home, when my income went away.

As I said, I have been there. And it sucks beyond words.

But this lowest point in my career was also the beginning of my rising.

I learned from the missteps I’d made while also refusing responsibility for others’ bad behavior. I continued the work of shifting my pastoral identity from a job title to my unchanged sense of call. The shape of that call deepened and sharpened, making the approaching points on my professional trajectory crystal clear. I sought training for those next steps, loading up my ministry toolkit. I was going to be more discerning, more wise, and more prepared emotionally and spiritually for the next opportunity to serve.

As a result, the years of ministry since I found myself prostrate on my office floor have been exponentially more fruitful than the years before that moment. I feel more creative and impactful and I’m having more fun.

Who knows? I might find myself facedown again. But I have learned that there is life after noting carpet impressions on my face. I will thrive again, God willing and with God’s help. You can too.

So, when you’re ready, peel yourself off the floor. Let others help you stand back up, because we don’t rise on our own. And follow your call from God into what is next for your gifted, amazing self.

Creative Commons image “Defeat” by Cameron Kisel is licensed under CC BY 2.0.