New professional development opportunity: Trinit-A

According to the “State of Women in Baptist Life” July 2016 update published by Baptist Women in Ministry, roughly half of Master of Divinity students at moderate-to-progressive Baptist seminaries are women. Yet as of June 2017, only 6.5% of churches that affiliate with moderate and progressive Baptist bodies had female senior pastors or co-pastors. These statistics are lower than many other mainline denominations in the United States, but not by much.

As an alumna of Young Clergy Women International, an ecumenical network of over 1600 women ministers, I can attest that the numbers mismatch between women training for vocational ministry and women called to pastorates is not due to lack of talent. For twelve years the most innovative leadership ideas I have read (and put to use in my own ministry) have come from YCWI members and alumnae. The church needs more of these creative, bold ministers – who are largely serving as solo pastors in small congregations or as associates in larger churches – in the pulpits of congregations of all sizes and in judicatory and denominational leadership.

Some of the reasons that women are called to smaller congregations and fewer regional and national leadership positions than men are cultural and structural. Women, socialized for humility, are more likely to be shamed (by men and women) for assertively sharing their successes and ideas. Women’s contributions are sometimes co-opted by men, who repeat and get credit for what women have said, sometimes just moments before. Women often have smaller spheres of influence because of the ministry roles to which they are called, giving them less exposure for big steeple pastor searches and elections to leadership on a larger platform.

This reality does not mean we are powerless to change our esteem in the eyes of others, however. With intentionality and mutual support, we can redirect how we present ourselves as pastors and encourage and amplify one another’s – and our own – ideas.

In this vein I am piloting and facilitating a short-term cohort called Trinit-A. It is my hope that through the life of this small group, clergywomen who feel called to ministry positions that have been traditionally difficult for women to break into will

  • become more comfortable and confident sharing their successes and innovations in ways that those with the power to call them, elect them to leadership, or share their ideas broadly can hear,
  • celebrate each other’s gifts and accomplishments in ways that encourage continued growth, and
  • go to bat for one another and themselves in spaces dominated by male voices.

The cohort is called Trinit-A because it is designed around three As:

  • Announcement – “I did a thing.”
    • Claiming accomplishments, sharing credit as appropriate.
      • Claim no more and no less credit than is accurate.
      • Note your specific role in successful outcomes.
    • Using action words and stories.
      • Action words show strength.
      • Stories show humanity.
  • Affirmation – “Here is all the good we see in that thing you did.”
    • Practicing gratitude for the gifts of others in the group.
      • Gratitude pre-empts jealousy.
    • Voicing encouragement and appreciation to colleagues.
      • Encouragement gives permission to share more widely about and to build on successes and gifts.
    • Acknowledging the specific strengths in our own accomplishments.
  • Amplification – “Other people need to know about the thing you did.”
    • Naming specific people who would benefit from knowing about the thing.
      • Think of ministry colleagues, people you went to seminary with, divinity school professors, influential lay leaders, judicatory/denominational leaders, peers who are astute at blogging and/or social media, community leaders, etc.
    • Taking initiative to tell those people about the thing and about the person who did the thing (whether other group members or self).
      • Make and share your plan – who, what, when, how – before leaving the gathering.

This cohort is open to clergywomen in the 35-45 age range* and limited to five participants. It will meet from 1:00-2:30 pm central via Zoom on the following Tuesdays:

September 10
September 24
October 8
October 22
November 5
November 19

The first session will consist of community-building, covenanting, sharing our longer-arc call to ministry, and touching on the design of the cohort. The five following sessions will include check-in time, amplification accountability, a space for everyone to announce accomplishments, a deep dive into affirming and planning to amplify one group member’s announcement, reflection on group process, and a closing prayer.

The cost to participate in the six-session cohort is $150, due by September 2.
I am excited about the possibilities of this cohort, both to increase leadership opportunities for talented clergywomen and to create a replicable pattern for lifting up one another. To contact me with questions, click here. To register, click here.

*The rationale behind this age range is two-fold. First, the cohort is designed to be a peer group, and a broader age range might naturally develop mentor-mentee relationships. Second, clergywomen in this age range have often garnered enough ministry experience to have a sense of their gifts and longer-term call but don’t yet have the exposure to be able to live into that call.

Photo by Ilyass SEDDOUG on Unsplash.

Assessing congregations’ readiness for a woman in the pastorate

I first sensed a call to ministry when I was a youth. I tried to talk with my youth minister about the vocational stirring I felt, but he wouldn’t engage. I met with my pastor, who encouraged me privately. (He didn’t think our church was ready to throw support behind a woman in ministry. He was right, but he also wasn’t pushing the culture.) For a long time, then, my mentors were either strong women who weren’t clergy or clergywomen I “knew” through books and periodicals.

In seminary I found a congregation that had no qualms about bringing me on as an intern and later ordaining me. That business about women being barred from ministry because they were “first in the Edenic fall” (see: 1984 Southern Baptist Convention) seemed far removed from my burgeoning career in more progressive contexts.

And yet, it wasn’t. Microaggressions abounded among staff and congregants, sometimes making churches unpleasant places of ministry. Clergywomen peers found themselves toeing the glass cliff, looking over their shoulders at church people who were willing to “take a chance” on women’s leadership only as a last-ditch effort to slow decline – and then crowding them on that precipice when the long skid was not reversed quickly enough. Other highly-qualified women ministers noted their male counterparts professionally leapfrogging them as they heard “no” again and again from search teams. All of this was – is – happening in mainline denominations that have supposedly conquered sexism.

Let me be clear. The Church needs women in the pastorate. It is shrinking, in part, due to the lack of tenacity, wisdom, innovation, and compassion that women in ministry have to offer. Time and again, though, women pastors hear that churches are not ready for them, or these clergy realize after accepting ministry positions that congregations had misjudged their own preparedness. The ramifications for this miscalculation are huge. If a clergywoman is not successful because of the church’s failure to lay groundwork, that congregation often thinks, “Well, we tried having a woman as a pastor, and it just didn’t work out” instead of examining its assumptions. The church hesitates before calling another woman, thus missing out on deeply-needed gifts and perspectives. Additionally, that pastor might begin to question her effectiveness and call rather than her fit with the context, possibly leaving the ministry for good and ensuring that no congregation benefits from all she has to offer.

Here, then, is my attempt to give churches an assessment they can use to judge their true openness to a pastor who also happens to be a woman. (I want to thank alumnae of Young Clergy Women International for their input on the points below.) You can download a PDF of the assessment here, which I encourage you to share.

Pre-pastor search work:

  • The church has had a woman in its pulpit as a guest preacher, and it referred to her sermon as such rather than as a “talk” or a “devotional.”
  • Church leadership has discussed any members’ protest (such as staying home from worship or walking out before the sermon) of inviting a woman to guest preach and publicly re-affirmed support of the preacher.
  • The church has had women in significant lay leadership roles (elder, deacon, warden, clerk of session, moderator, etc.) and has worked through any conflict that arose as a result of their election/selection.
  • The church has eliminated exclusively male pronouns/descriptors on its website and in its social media.
  • The church regularly uses curricula or other materials written by women (e.g., seminary professors, pastors) with theological authority.

Pre-interview pastor search work:

  • The pastor search team is representative of the demographics and commitments of the congregation as whole, thus making it better able to reflect accurately the fullness of the church’s story to ministerial candidates.
  • The pastor search team has structured its work so that it is rooted in listening deeply to God’s guidance.
  • The pastor search team has discussed its assumptions and the congregation’s about a great-fit pastor, probing the reasons behind them.
  • Having surfaced these assumptions, the search team has named specific competencies (rather than personality traits) as the criteria for a great-fit pastor.
  • In communications with the congregation, the pastor search team has helped the church broaden its imagination about a great-fit pastor.
  • The pastor search team has eliminated exclusively male pronouns/descriptors for the hoped-for pastor in all search team documents (e.g., position description, position advertisements, church profile).
  • The church as a whole has earnestly prayed that God will lead it to the best-fit ministerial candidate, no matter how that candidate might differ from church members’ expectations.
  • The pastor search team members have covenanted to run all questions to and about candidates through the filter of “Would we ask this of a male candidate?” (Examples of questions to be sifted out: “Who will watch your children while you’re working?” and “How will your spouse’s employment affect your ability to move here/stay here for a long time?”)

Interview/call pastor search work:

  • The pastor search team is aware of and open with all candidates about potential challenges that await.
  • With all candidates the pastor search team inquires about the needs of the candidate’s family to ensure hospitable on-site visits, and later, to help integrate the incoming minister’s family into the life of the congregation (to the extent the family desires).
  • The church leadership has discussed the possibility of conflict arising from calling a woman (noting that this conflict might come disguised as an issue about something else) and is prepared to stand behind the candidate of choice/incoming pastor.

Ways you can use this assessment:

  • Churches in pastor searches. This assessment provides a readiness test for calling a clergywoman.
  • Churches with settled pastors. This assessment offers action steps to lay leaders and current pastors. (The “getting ready,” after all, doesn’t just happen. It takes intentional work. And if your church is not willing to do this work, spend some time mulling the reasons why and praying about them.) Even congregations that think they are ready to receive a clergywoman – including those who have or had women ministers – could benefit from working through the points above. Often moderate to progressive churches think they are more welcoming than they actually are.
  • Clergywomen. I invite you to use this assessment in your call processes to help gauge whether a congregation might be a good fit.
  • Judicatory bodies. Use this assessment to help congregations and search teams work through the steps needed to set up the possibility for long and fruitful ministries between churches and clergywomen.

Note that some aspects of this assessment can be adapted for considering a congregation’s preparedness to be led by a pastor who would be another kind of “first,” though there would be additional work specific to the variety of first. Often a candidate will be more than one kind of first – identities are intersectional, after all – making it essential for a church to take readiness steps in multiple areas.

This welcoming work is worthy of intentionality and intense listening to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and not just because of the clergyperson in question. This attentiveness and the resulting actions can lead to spiritual transformation, deeper discipleship, and increased connectedness among people and between people and God. These benefits are available to all involved.

Download a PDF of the assessment here.

Define success for yourself

I went to junior high and high school at an academically and socially intense college prep academy. The deal my parents and I struck was that they would pay for this not-cheap education if I would be responsible for earning my way through college. That seemed more than fair to me.

During those six years a certain notion of success was drilled into my noggin: enrollment in a prestigious university. An “important,” high-paying career. A family (in the heteronormative sense, of course), complete with kids in smocked clothing. Membership in the Junior League and other part-sorority, part-community service organizations. This vision was imparted in a variety of direct and indirect ways, like advertising the dollar amount of merit scholarships each graduating senior had been awarded and featuring alumnae who checked all of the boxes in the school magazine.

Well, I studied my tookus off and was admitted to several state and private universities offering varying levels of scholarship incentives. And after visiting probably over 100 colleges over the course of my high school years, I proudly and confidently enrolled in the main campus of my state’s university system: the University of Tennessee. I didn’t choose UT-Knoxville because my parents had gone there or because my closet was already full of Volunteer orange. (Neither was the case.) I didn’t even choose it because they made me a full scholarship offer I couldn’t refuse. I chose it because when I made my visit, it felt right. I chose it because of the broad range of course offerings, majors, and other opportunities. I chose it because I could see myself thriving in a bigger, more diverse environment after six years in a school of fewer than 500 students. I chose it because it was close enough to home that I could visit my family regularly.

I notified my current school of my college selection as was required, because college enrollment was a foregone conclusion for students. The upper school principal snarled at me and said, “Get on the bus with the rest of them.” (There’s all kinds of wrong with this statement.) I was third in my class. Students ranked ahead of and behind me were headed to Princeton, Penn, Northwestern, Brown, Stanford, Harvard, and many other big-name universities. And I was going the University of Tennessee. The implication was clear: my pricey college-prep education was wasted on me. Gone were my (ahem, their) hopes of a big alumna donation, smocked children, and Junior League membership.

That was the beginning of a long process of separating out what others thought success looked like and what success would be for me. Because, somewhat surprisingly for an impressionable seventeen-year-old, the snarl and insult did not lead to any second-guessing on my part. It only made me more eager to get the heck out of an oppressive atmosphere. I went on to receive an excellent education at UT. I studied abroad, and I designed my own major tied up with a thesis that won a national honors project competition. And thanks to the scholarship, I graduated with no educational debt. UT prepared me well for seminary, where I again was fully scholarshipped. Nopity nope, no regrets here. (Please know that I recognize the privilege that set me up for this daisy chain of no educational debt, and each day I work to accept the responsibility it entails.)

Still, many years of messaging meant my subconscious had an upwardly-mobile idea of what my professional life would look like. Begin my ministry as an associate pastor, stay there five-ish years, then step into a solo/senior pastorate. From the beginning, it didn’t work that way. I left my first call as an associate at a wonderful church in North Carolina about a year-and-a-half in because I wanted to marry my seminary sweetheart, whose ordination status and indentured servitude to the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church made him less geographically mobile. As a progressive Baptist in Alabama and as the spouse of an itinerant (read: go where the bishop says) minister, I struggled to find my vocational place for a long time. I was a traditional interim solo minister. Then I worked in a non-profit. Then I did piecemeal ministry as a chaplain and designer of pastoral education programs and guest preacher. Then I was a children’s minister.

It was in the ashes of the dumpster fire that was my brief tenure as a children’s minister that I found my footing. Suddenly, my call was clear: promote well-being in congregations and their leaders so that no clergyperson would have to endure what I just had and so that churches could focus on their real work of discipleship and relationship-building. I became an intentional interim minister. I was trained as a consultant and then as a coach. And suddenly all of my divergent experiences coalesced into a vocation I love, with room to experiment and create and grow and with the flexibility to be mom. My career is not what I thought it would be. It’s more “me.” I believe it’s faithful to what God wants for and from me. My salary is not what it could be. (Again, I acknowledge there’s a lot of privilege in not having to be at a certain earning level.) But my quality of life is so much better than it would be if I had held tight to others’ visions of success.

In the church we know the standard metrics no longer mean much: average worship attendance, weekly offering, etc. They don’t tell the full story of a congregation’s impact on its members and the world. So why do we hold to outdated (if they were ever relevant) metrics about what our personal success involves? Let’s question those notions of success just like we press on the whole nickels and noses approach in our churches. My generation and younger will likely not be as well off as our parents were. Full-time ministry opportunities are shrinking. As long as upward mobility in terms of salary and church size is our measuring stick, we’ll come up short. We need to define what success and faithfulness look like for us, and we need to own our impact wherever we serve.

Now let me be clear that this is not to say that we should not do what we can to make inroads as leaders and seek respect and appropriate pay. I am all in for getting more women into larger spheres of influence and making sure they are compensated as well as (or better than!) anyone else. Lord knows the world really needs the innovative, passionate, and compassionate voices of women now more than ever. But may we do so with discernment, making sure our reasons for doing so are healthy, helpful, and fit with our gifts and call.

Photo by Juan Jose 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.

Planning from abundance, part 6 – noticing together

After taking stock of the full range of gifts in your church and community, it’s time to move from inventory and celebration to getting curious about everything your congregation has noticed and experienced. Invite the congregation to gather around tables for storytelling. Sharing a meal together provides a great reason for people to come and fuels the conversational energy. Set the vibe by bringing the visual gifts display and the accompanying responses into the meeting space, and get people excited by explaining how their participation will contribute to movement into the church’s next season of ministry.

Include the following in the congregational conversation:

Worship together. Invite the congregation, as an offering to God, to name aloud responses to the following. Have someone write them down as they are voiced. Be sure that people of all ages are included in this offering.

  • Skills and stories of individuals encountered in the community
  • Personal experiences in the community
  • Observations about the community, especially what surprised, delighted, and challenged

Distribute the information compiled from studying the demographics and naming local leaders, and gather around tables to discuss the following questions. Ensure there is a facilitator and a scribe for each conversation group. It is important to have someone who is prepared to keep the conversation on track and ensure all the voices are heard.

  • Who are our neighbors?
  • How is God at work in/around/through our neighbors?
  • Where might we join in that good work?
  • What are the challenges in our community?
  • Who is affected by them?
  • Who is already doing good work around them? How might we support them?

Close with prayers of thanks for your neighbors and for wisdom and faithfulness in using your gifts. Be sure to collate the accumulated responses after the gathering.

Next week’s post will take the noticing and curiosity to beginning to put ministry initiatives on paper.

Photo by Bogdan Kupriets on Unsplash.

Planning from abundance, part 4 – celebrating gifts

Over the past few weeks I have been offering ways to unearth all of your congregation’s gifts so that you can plan out of faithfulness to who you are and what you do well. Once the gifts have been identified and their current uses assessed through the survey and congregational conversations, it is time to celebrate these strengths! Chances are that your congregation will be floored by the volume of previously-unnamed blessings, providing your church with a reason to be hopeful about the future and fodder for some real creativity.

Here are some of the ways you can celebrate the full range of gifts:

Create a visual display of all the gifts and ministries gathered from the surveys, congregational storytelling, compilation of financial, physical, relational, and leadership gifts, and committee reflections. Ask one or more people who enjoy making art and/or organizing information to help with this task. Make all of the information movable so that it can be rearranged. Put the display in a high-traffic area where most church members will be able to see it over the course of a few weeks.

Use a number of communication means to point people to it, such as:

  • Moving the display around the building when events take place on different parts of the church campus.
  • Taking photos of the display and sending them to church members who cannot be physically present.
  • Creating one or more liturgies out of the gifts for use in worship.
  • Preaching or giving brief testimonies about various gifts or ministries.
  • Interviewing members with previously hidden or unusual gifts for the church newsletter.

As part of the display, write the following prompts and include space and writing utensils for people to respond to the following:

  • What surprises us?
  • What delights us?
  • What challenges us?
  • As we look at these gifts, what are we realizing about our congregation?
  • As we look at these gifts, what do we believe God might be saying to us?

On the display or at a congregational event, ask people to group gifts that complement one another or that could potentially be put together in new ways for greater impact. (For example, the church has a patch of unused land, a couple of adults with a propensity for gardening, and a youth group looking for a mission project. These could be combined into the creation of a vegetable garden, with the proceeds to be donated to a local food bank, or a flower garden, with the flowers taken by youth to people in nearby nursing homes.)

Celebrating the gifts will open hearts and minds to new possibilities, and getting curious about the gifts will start to move the process from naming strengths to designing actions.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash.