Book recommendation: How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going

Surprise! The old ways of doing church are no longer leading to the outcomes we’ve been conditioned to expect. Instead, numbers in most congregations have dipped (well, at least the ones that are easiest to measure). Churches are so desperate to stop the skid that they often tell God to take a backseat and lean on strategies more suited for the corporate world. The result is that congregations no longer feel so much like sacred centers but frantic, fractured gatherings of people who’ll do anything to avoid looking mortality – the congregation’s and their own – in the eyes.

There’s no denying that the “Big C” Church and many congregations are at a crossroads, or what seasoned consultant Susan Beaumont calls a “liminal space.” The old is in the rearview, and the new is not yet in sight. There is no easy path forward. This is not a situation that churches can strategically plan their way out of or pour more resources into until the trend rights itself. Instead, this season calls for a new kind of leadership, one that lets go of attachment to outcomes, tends the soul of the gathered body, and notices what emerges.

Image courtesy of susanbeaumont.com.

What this transition time requires, in other words, is true spiritual leadership. In her book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, Beaumont lines out what this leadership looks like. It requires the ability to live with discomfort. Every congregation wants to know now what the future will look like now, and that simply isn’t possible without experimentation and discovery. Humans in a world geared toward instant gratification will buck against this purposeful not-knowing, and the leader must point toward the faithfulness of this stance and the opportunities in it. Liminal leadership also necessitates the willingness and capacity to tune into who the congregation is at its roots, what God is up to, and what the Spirit is nudging it to do and be. It invites the church as a whole to join in this untangling of its DNA, this discernment, this identification of purpose. In the process, dependence on God’s timing and attentiveness to God’s presence bring about spiritual transformation for those who engage in this challenging work.

Beaumont’s book offers as much of a guide as we have available for how to navigate this weird, wild time. It outlines the postures a liminal leader must take. It points to where the soul of each congregation reveals itself. It teaches the spiritual practices that add up to discernment. It helps leaders detect and elevate new, more helpful narratives about their churches. It highlights what congregations do (e.g., core values) and don’t (e.g., a 10-year plan) need to move ahead with faithful purpose. And it reassures and emboldens leaders and their churches by emphasizing that it is good and right to stand in wonder rather than on certainty.

I recommend this book to pastors and lay leaders who are stymied about how to put one foot in front of the other. It offers a balance of spiritual and practical, realism and hope that I believe can move churches from liminal languishing to empowered, impassioned purpose.

 

Valuing staff that steps up

In churches that have more than one clergyperson on staff, it is good and right for the congregation to look to the associate pastor(s) for leadership when the senior pastor is away. That associate pastor has the training and the big picture understanding to keep ministry moving forward during the senior pastor’s absence.

Things get tricky, though, when we’re talking about the long-term leave (such as sabbatical) or the resignation of a senior pastor. In these instances the capabilities of associate pastors do not change, but their capacities do. A senior pastor’s two-week vacation typically means temporarily-added stress for an associate pastor, who might take on more worship leadership, preaching, pastoral care, and administrative (e.g. meetings) duties than usual. That is doable for a short span. Carrying those extra responsibilities for months, however, could easily lead to resentment and/or burnout on the part of an associate pastor. After all, she is doing more than the job to which the church called her. And all too often congregations don’t recognize, bring in help for, or compensate this essential yet supplemental work.

How, then, can these common gaps in senior pastor leadership be navigated well? Here are a few thoughts:

Senior pastors can

  • Make the effort to communicate to church leadership how much time they spend on the various aspects of their ministry so that those leaders can make good decisions about coverage.
  • Invite their associate pastors to ask questions, share concerns, and state needs around the responsibilities that might fall to them during long-term senior pastor absences.
  • Secure temporary assistance for their associate pastors during sabbatical periods and advocate for additional compensation during and time off after the leave for their associate pastors.
  • Help the church be pro-active about budgeting for temporary assistance and additional compensation so that the funds will be there when needed.

Associate pastors can

  • Talk with their senior pastors, pastoral relations committees, and/or personnel committees about their hopes and fears around their senior pastors’ absences.
  • Keep track of all of their responsibilities and the time needed to do each well. Be prepared to share this information with church leaders and to help them do the math. (“If you want me to pick up X responsibility, what would you like for me to drop?”)
  • Ask for what they need. What kind of help would be most useful? Who might provide it? How much recovery time will be required after the church is fully-staffed again? How much additional pay would be fair for taking on senior pastor duties?
  • Go on vacation beforehand. Have something to look forward to afterward.
  • Ensure they have breaks built into the time when they’ll be running point.

Congregations can

  • Recognize their associate pastors as pastors, all the time.
  • Take care to appreciate their associate pastors’ extra effort and to note the toll it takes when the senior pastor is gone.
  • Acknowledge that associate pastors pick up extra emotional labor when senior pastors are absent due to added anxiety in the system.
  • Mobilize to pick up some of the duties that would otherwise fall by the wayside when the senior pastor is away.
  • Listen to associate pastors when they say that expectations are unreasonable. Even better, invite them to share concerns in advance of the leave and work to resolve them.
  • Give associate pastors some choice in what they pick up and what they hand off to others during senior pastor absences. Some associates might be eager to preach more. Others might want to stay closer to the areas of ministry to which the church called them.
  • Budget for additional pastoral help during stretches without a senior pastor in place. In other words, be ready to call at least a part-time interim minister following a senior pastor’s resignation, and be prepared to pay for temporary help during a senior pastor’s sabbatical.

A senior pastor’s absence can be a time of growth for the associate pastor and the congregation. In order to harness this opportunity, though, it is important to be thoughtful and pro-active. Otherwise, expect the associate pastor to begin imagining herself elsewhere.

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash.

I appreciate you, pastors

October is Pastor Appreciation Month, but let’s be honest. You deserve to be noticed and thanked year-round for the ways you have committed your lives not just to the tasks but also to the intense spiritual, emotional, and mental labor of ministry. I want you to know that…

…I see you when you get up at 4:30 am for a pre-surgery visit after crawling into bed late the night before due to a meeting that ran long.

…I see you when you struggle over whether to take that much-needed vacation, knowing that a beloved church member is on hospice care.

…I see you when social media tells people in the pews to “walk out of worship if your pastor doesn’t preach on [insert current event here],” yet your sensitivity to the Spirit and to your congregation’s capacity tells you that doesn’t need to be your focus today.

…I see you when the lectionary is serving up softballs for addressing the world’s ills, and you go there, knowing some of your parishioners will be angry.

…I see you when it’s hard to date or make friends outside of work because of the assumptions about and demands of your vocation.

…I see you when you are pulled between wanting to be a whole person (including showing up for your loved ones and yourself) and wanting to be the best pastor possible.

…I see you when you feel like you have to hide part of yourself, whether a belief or an aspect of your identity, because you want to be able to continue in this vocation to which God has called you.

…I see you when you work so hard to encourage your church’s progress, only to have conflict burn it all down.

…I see you when your calendar looks like a box of markers exploded on it, with color-coded appointments leaving precious little blank space.

…I see you when you have to wear the mantle of spiritual leadership even as you wrestle with your own faith.

…I see you when you are moved to enter search and call and have to deal with the ickiness of feeling like you are betraying your current context.

…I see you when you are confined by circumstances to a ministerial role you have outgrown, and you keep showing up despite the chafe.

…I see you when you have no idea what to do next after a metaphorical bomb goes off in your congregation, so you keep putting one foot directly in front of the other.

…I see you when the Church or your church makes you representative of all of a particular demographic, such that you bear the weight of excellence on behalf of all your peers.

…I see you when constructive feedback is hard to come by, no matter how much you seek it out.

…I see you when others discount your voice because you are too something, yet still you keep raising it because your message is faithful.

…I see you when you toil in obscurity, leading small congregations, because you are making big impacts that will ripple out far beyond what you will ever see.

…I see you when you make (or lead your church to make) decisions that are hard but good.

…I see you when you offer care to people who disappoint or even hurt you.

…I see you when you want more for the Church, because it is Christ’s body here on earth.

…I see your love for God and neighbor, your tenacity, your creativity, and your wisdom.

Thank you, dear ministers, for all the seen and unseen work you do to bring more peace, connection, and understanding into this world.

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash.

 

 

 

The importance of context

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an astronaut. That was not an uncommon goal in those days. The space shuttle program was relatively new, and the teacher-in-space program – as disastrously as it ended – made space travel seem more attainable. I’m still not so sure what was so enchanting about this dream. Maybe my budding introversion loved the idea of so much, well, space. Maybe it was the enchanting solar system photography that captured my imagination. Maybe I just didn’t know what all my career options were. Maybe I watched the movie Space Camp too many times. (The answer is probably all of the above.)

My parents encouraged me in this low-likelihood endeavor. They took me to the Marshall and Kennedy Space Flight Centers. They helped me write letters to request the scientist equivalent of head shots. They signed me up for Space Camp (which, by the way, was fun but nothing like the movie). My space fixation went strong for several years until I realized I didn’t enjoy science and math nearly as much as English. When I hit junior high, most of my astronaut posters and training manuals (yep, I’m a nerd) were put into drawers as artifacts of nostalgia.

I still love space, though. One of my favorite places continues to be the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. My husband, who went to Space Camp the same summer I did, gets giddy about it too, and now our son looks forward to going. On our most recent visit there was a new (to me) experiment about the context of the space race. As a child, the history of space travel was interesting, but it was just a timeline of progress. But the space program was never just about exploration. It was set against the backdrop of wars (hot and cold) and a struggle for the identity of the country, and the choices, the pressure, the setbacks and achievements cannot be fully appreciated without putting them in this larger context. Suddenly the stakes were clearer to me, as was the tenacity of those engineers who made the improbable happen with very little tech.

So it is with our congregations. The ebb and flow of membership, the beginnings and endings of ministries, patterns of pastor tenures, and even the architecture of church campuses must be set against the backdrop of all that was happening locally, nationally, and globally in particular eras. Then we are able to look for God’s presence through it all, identify values and legacy, and discern future direction.

When looking ahead, don’t forget to direct your gaze backward first, noticing cultural and political trends in the process. Only then, with a full grasp of context, will you be able to get clear on the character and gifts that will launch your church into a future in which the sky proves no limit.

Photo by Niketh Vellanki on Unsplash.

Repost: breaking shame’s hold on our congregations

[Note: I am re-posting this blog from November 2017 because I think it is particularly relevant as we head into budgeting, stewardship, and nomination seasons. We cannot do much more than copy and paste – or copy, shrink by 10%, and paste – last year’s line items and fill open slots with warm bodies until we acknowledge and break shame’s hold on our congregation’s vision.]

In a recent podcast with pastor/author Jen Hatmaker, research professor Dr. Brene Brown shared an insightful nugget from her work: shame is the enemy of innovation. When we believe that we are not worthy – of love, of belonging, of joy, of dreaming – we cannot think beyond our current circumstances. We cannot brainstorm new ways of being and doing. We cannot envision a future much different from our present.

I have noted this truth for myself. When I feel bad about how I look, it seems like making new friends is out of reach. When my inbox is not dinging, I worry that I’ll never get another coaching or consulting client. When I don’t have expertise about the topic of discussion, I’m certain my conversation partner won’t take my input seriously. It becomes hard to put one foot in front of the other, mentally and emotionally.

It’s no secret that many of our churches are stuck. They try to strategically plan their way out of the mire, but those plans often involve more of what the congregation is currently doing, has done in the past, or has seen work in other contexts. They cannot imagine a different way of being church, only returning to a day when attendance was three times what it is now and children’s Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams.

I think corporate shame plays a role in this stuckness. We think, what is it about our church that makes people want to leave, or not even come in the first place? Why do our regulars only come once or twice a month now, when a decade ago they were here every week? Why would a new pastor accept a call to a dwindling congregation with a shrinking budget? How can we draw in newcomers when everyone in this community knows about “the incident” that happened here twenty years ago? How can we call ourselves a vibrant church when our educational wing is a ghost town?

These are all questions of worthiness. And yet, our value does not come from attendance patterns or the weekly offering. Just because something bad occurred in our past doesn’t mean our story is irredeemable. There’s no need to sound the death knell when one part of the physical plant is lying fallow. We don’t have to earn our place in the whole of Christ’s body. We have significance simply because we were created by God and gathered together in God’s name.

How, then, do we push against this collective shame that prevents us from moving into a fruitful future?

First, we must unearth it. With a group of leaders – or possibly with the congregation as a whole – pose some discussion prompts. What chapters of the church’s life or which former pastors do we not talk about, and why? How do we think others view our congregation? What are our biggest worries about the church’s present or future? How do these worries affect how we do ministry?

Second, we must address the three Ps. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes that personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence radically impact our self-perception. In personalization, congregations think “we are not good enough” rather than “those members who went elsewhere needed something we don’t offer.” In pervasiveness, an issue in one area is generalized to all of church life: “our youth group has hit a membership lull” becomes “the church is dying.” And permanence prompts us to think that we can’t get off whatever train we’re on: “if we’re in decline, there’s nowhere to go but down.” Those big, shame-inducing Ps have to be shrunk down to their proper place as lower-case ps that focus on actions and circumstances rather than unalterable character.

Third, we must broaden the narrative. What are the stories that demonstrate the congregation’s uniqueness? How has this church changed lives for the better? What are the gifts of our current circumstances? What can we do now that we couldn’t do before? What are the non-financial resources we haven’t yet tapped? For whom would this congregation and its mission be really good news?

God did not make us – as individuals or churches – for shame. God created us for love, connection, joy, and innovation. Let us do the hard work of exposing and eliminating the shame that keeps us from embracing the worthiness that comes from our kinship with Christ, thereby becoming free to live fully into the purposes God has for us.

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.