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.


When I was in seminary, I became moderately obsessed with re-runs of the 80s tv show St. Elsewhere, a medical drama set in a run-down Boston hospital. My devotion made sense. It was fun to see current celebrities in their earlier iterations. I was fascinated by the ways medical and social issues, such as the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, were handled by the writers. And since an episode aired every day, the show was my nightly reward for plowing through my class assignments.

The series finale of St. Elsewhere is still – 28 years later! – one of the most polarizing in tv history. In it viewers find out that the entire run of the show has taken place in the head of one of the characters, a boy with autism. (For the record, I’m in the camp that thinks this is a genius wrap-up.) This is what folks in the comic book world call retroactive continuity, or retconning for short. It’s re-visioning the whole arc of the story in light of previously unknown facts. Via retconning writers can:

  • add details, filling in important tidbits that explain how the characters got where they are,
  • alter details, often through a narrative device (as in St. Elsewhere’s finale),
  • or subtract details, basically ignoring elements that no longer work with the current direction of the story.

Does this kind of literary math strike you as familiar? While I’ve never heard the term “reconning” used in the church world, we do it all the time. Congregations are masters of revisionist history. Retconning can be a means of improving collective health. Dragging long-buried secrets into the light of day can allow churches to trace reactive patterns and to have honest dialogue about what’s keeping them from living toward God’s call. Re-interpreting tightly-held narratives can open up possibilities for growth where progress had previously been stunted. Retconning can also be a means of denial and disease. Ignoring unpleasant truths causes them to simmer, making them highly combustible.

As you consider the arc of your congregation’s story, where might a bit of retcon work move your people toward more authentic community and deeper discipleship? What retcons are holding your church back and need to be named and revised?

Creative Commons image “Fork in the road” by Jordan Richmond is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


What clergy health looks like

Healthy churches are much more likely to have healthy ministers. There’s a chicken-or-egg question involved, but the influence likely goes both ways. Here, then, are some thoughts on what clergy health looks like.

Taking care of self:

  • Tends to own discipleship/relationship with God. A spiritual leader must continue to be formed by and connected to God.
  • Knows when to call it a day/week. There is always more ministry to be done.
  • Takes all vacation/professional development time. Those who can’t go on vacations take staycations. Those who can’t attend conferences plan their own reading or planning weeks.
  • Attends to physical and mental health. Sometimes being healthy means tending to literal health by getting regular checkups, seeing a counselor as needed, and taking the advice (and the medicine!) prescribed by healthcare professionals.
  • Asks for personal and professional help as needed. Requesting help is a sign of self-awareness and strength, not shortcoming.
  • Asks for what he/she needs materially to be able to focus on ministry. Just wages offer freedom from the resentment and financial panic that distract from ministry.
  • Has a peer support network. Isolation in ministry is the shortest path to burnout.
  • Has a pastor. Many ministers who worry about gossip and politics look outside their denominations for a pastor.
  • Has a life outside of church. All work and no play make for a tired, frustrated, dull minister. Make a friend. Find a hobby. Become a regular somewhere.
  • Protects his/her family from the fishbowl effect. A less anxious family makes for a happier home.

Leading well: 

  • Continues to feel called. Ministry isn’t just a job and a paycheck.
  • Enjoys the challenge of ministry, even though not all ministry situations are pleasant. It’s a great feeling when gifts are being well-utilized.
  • Doesn’t own issues/initiatives that shouldn’t belong to him/her. The triangle is my least favorite shape.
  • Addresses conflict in a timely fashion. Conflict that isn’t addressed festers and then explodes.
  • Sees the pastoral needs behind conflict. When people are behaving badly, they are usually acting out of their hurt.
  • Identifies the line between being someone’s pastor and being someone’s friend. It’s very hard – if not impossible – to be both.
  • Is transparent. Vulnerability breeds trust.
  • Knows and owns strengths and weaknesses. Weaknesses can’t always be shored up, but strengths can always be built upon.
  • Keeps learning and growing. The church is evolving, and so must her ministers.
  • Is able to see when good ministry has been done. Even at the end of a hard or seemingly unproductive stretch, it’s helpful to reflect on where God was at work.
  • Mentors, supports, and thanks leaders. Ministry is not done in a vacuum.
  • Acknowledges when it’s time to move on. An appropriate level of challenge breeds effectiveness.

What would you add or remove from this list? What specific commitments do you need to make to your own health?

Creative Commons image “Resting” by Erich Ferdinand is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What congregational health looks like

Churches are most able to focus on worshiping God and embodying the love of Christ when they are healthy. But what does congregational health look like? Here are some of my thoughts.


  • Members trust lay and clergy leadership and vice versa. Mutual ministry is nearly impossible when trust is low.
  • There is a balance of stability and turnover in lay leadership. Leaders stay in their positions long enough to get good at them but not so long that they stagnate.
  • The leadership understands how the church’s size relates to its mission. The small church gets how its numbers allow it to be agile and responsive to the gifts and needs of the community.
  • New lay leaders are identified, mentored, and empowered. Without some sort of process for training and placing new leaders, the face of leadership stays the same indefinitely.
  • Leadership needs are revisited on a regular basis. The church assesses whether its structure is serving its mission well.


  • Everyone who has been attending for at least three months knows the church’s mission. The mission visibly shapes the life of the congregation.
  • That mission is primarily about engaging the community beyond the walls. A church that exists primarily for its own sake is not Christ-centered, nor is it built to last.
  • The membership claims the mission as its own. Church members know the mission and use it as a tool to evaluate existing ministries and to generate new ideas.
  • The congregation revisits its mission on a regular basis. The specific shape of call evolves, not just for individuals, but for whole communities.

Life together: 

  • People know how to disagree in healthy ways. The church values unity around decisions, even when there are varying opinions.
  • The congregation gathers at least occasionally purely for fellowship. Laughter and play enhance worship and service.
  • The different generations are invested in each other. Young and old teach and learn from one another.
  • The church has clear processes and lines of communications in place. Everyone knows how to share ideas and address concerns.
  • The congregation stewards its resources well – including its people resources. It neither holds them too tightly nor spends them too easily.


  • Everyone is growing in discipleship. People ages 0-99+ are actively learning about God’s love and what it means for their lives.
  • People follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit instead of their own desires. There is an emphasis on true discernment: “not my will but thine be done.”
  • Worship is part of everything the church does. At lock-ins and committee meetings people name God’s presence and greatness and call upon God’s power.

What would you add to or remove from this list? What are some specific ways you help your congregation attain health?

Creative Commons image “Pulse oximeter” by Quinn Dombrowski is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.





Determining agency

There are times when every minister feels stuck, helpless, or ineffective in his/her ministry setting, particularly if that setting is experiencing unhealth. One of the keys to regaining hope and refocusing on the ministry at hand is to determine what kinds of power or agency you do in fact have. Hint: there may be some types that aren’t immediately obvious!

    • Relationships/partnerships (inside and outside setting)
    • Position/roles (formal and informal)
    • Talents/expertise (ministry-related and not)
    • Assets (budget, facilities, other tangible resources)
    • Teaching tools (curricula and other springboards for discussion/study)
    • Other
Creative Commons "power" by Naama Ym is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Creative Commons “power” by Naama Ym is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Once you have named the avenues of agency you have, how will you utilize them? What power do others who share your vision for ministry have, and how can you leverage this combined power for forward movement?

Creating networks of care

At my denominational meeting last week, I co-led a workshop on creating networks of care. Below are some of the notes for my piece of the workshop, which focused on finding non-peer professional support. (Note that my section followed a discussion of the value of peer learning groups.)

Creative Commons "Support" by GotCredit is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “Support” by GotCredit is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What are the benefits of non-peer professional support?

  • Non-peer professionals come with particular expertise and credentials. They are also often able to be more objective about your situation and needs than peers.
  • Professionals are generally bound by confidentiality clauses in the professional-client covenant and in the ethical codes of their disciplines, thus creating a safe environment for you to share freely.

What are the biggest differences between a coach, spiritual director, and therapist/counselor?

  • Coach: Coaches concentrate on forward movement from the present, helping the coachee name particular action steps toward reaching goals. The coach believes that the coachee is the expert on his/her situation, and the coach asks focused questions to draw out inherent wisdom and new awareness in the coachee. The coachee sets the agenda, meaning the coach asks questions that help the coachee reach her/his stated goal.
  • Spiritual director: Spiritual directors help clients pay attention and respond to where God is at work, letting go of whatever is in God’s way. Spiritual direction’s main emphasis is growth in relationship with divine. The spiritual director’s primary tools are study, narrative, questions that prompt reflection on the spiritual life, and spiritual disciplines.
  • Therapist/counselor: Therapists assist clients in healing from past events and learning how to move forward in light of them. Therapy uses narrative, problem-solving, and various exercises to help the client find health.

 Each of these fields has nuances, and many ministers engage more than one of them. The different approaches often complement one another.

Where would a minister look for one of these professionals?

  • Ask for referrals from ministerial colleagues and/or denominational staff.
  • Additionally, if you’re looking specifically for one of these professionals:
    • Coaches: Check with coach accrediting bodies, seminaries, and parachurch organizations.
    • Spiritual directors: Look for spiritual direction accrediting bodies and retreat centers.
    • Therapists/counselors: Contact nearby pastoral counselor centers, your insurance provider, or your physician.

How does a minister determine a good match with a professional?

  • Comfortable talking with the professional
  • Clear about nature and goals of relationship
  • Confident in professional’s skills, willingness to listen, and commitment to confidentiality
  • Sense support and/or progress in the issues raised

Don’t hesitate to end a relationship if you and the professional are not a good match!

How does a minister pay for this professional support?

  • Check on insurance coverage for counselors/therapists.
  • Use professional expenses as appropriate. (Check with your ministry setting or a tax professional if you have questions about appropriate uses of funds.)

Channeling conflict

No one – well, no healthy person – loves conflict. But since we are neither clones nor automatons, conflict happens.

Creative Commons "Conflict Resolver" by Bopuc is licensed under CC 2.0.
Creative Commons “Conflict Resolver” by Bopuc is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Actually, I’ll take it a step further. We need conflict to grow as individuals and as communities. That tension prompts us to reflect on and clarify what we’re passionate about and why. It (ideally) makes us more carefully consider our positions and interactions and keeps us engaged with those who believe differently than we do. Conflict also shakes us out of complacency by spicing things up.

But conflict is still uncomfortable and potentially destructive if it’s not managed well. Here are some questions to ponder when dealing with conflict in a ministry setting:

  • What is really driving the conflict? Often the presenting issue is not the real issue.
  • What does your role need to be in managing the conflict? Know where your involvement should begin and end. Don’t enable others’ bad behavior by stepping in out of your own anxiety.
  • How can the passions at play be redirected? Apathy is a much bigger problem than conflict. So what are some positive outlets for the care being shown?
  • What culture changes need to occur so that future conflict is productive? Be proactive about teaching your people how to fight well. It will be worth your effort!

The endgame is not to eliminate conflict but to do conflict well. If you know people or churches who model this, find out what their conflict hacks are and try them on for size.