Getting in the flow

[Note: a version of this post originally appeared at Searching for the Called.]

In the field of positive psychology, focus is placed not on the diagnosis and treatment of maladies but on creating the conditions for human flourishing. A key aspect of thriving is engagement, when we are so into what we are doing that everything else fades into the background while we are doing it. The flow model developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says that for a person to be deeply engaged in an activity, her skill level must be in relative balance with the challenge of the task. If her skill availability is high while the difficulty of the task is low, she will quickly get bored. If the challenge outweighs her talents, her anxiety ratchets up.

What does the flow model reveal to you about your work? Specifically:

When are you deeply engaged in ministry? At these moments you are most likely living into your God-given calling.

When are you bored? Though you might have developed some reliable skills to carry out these less scintillating tasks, you are not building on your innate strengths.

When are you anxious? There is such a thing as a healthy stretch, which is a challenge that fosters our personal or professional growth. When we are overextended, however, we can start to believe that we are frauds and worry that we will fail those who rely on us.

Take a look at your responses to the above questions. What are the percentages of time spent on engaging, boring, and anxiety-producing tasks? Everyone has some tasks that fall into the latter two categories – that’s part of work life (and adulting in general, for that matter). But if those aspects are disproportionately large, it’s time to look at ways to revamp your job description. What dull or stressful assignments can be eliminated or shrunk if they’re less essential or redistributed to others who can do them better and with more enthusiasm if they are truly important? Your personnel committee or pastoral relations committee might be able to help you assess this.

If there’s not much that can be changed, then it’s time to consider whether your position is still a good fit for you. If not, what might a great fit look like? Your gifts are too valuable not to be fully engaged.

Photo by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash.

The value of boundaries

[Note: this post originally appeared on Searching for the Called.]

As a minister with standing in my region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I am required to attend boundary training at least every ten years. This is important work, not just because abuse by clergy is (sadly) in the news so much these days. It’s also essential because the emphasis in these conversations shifts. For example, we spent much more time discussing preaching in this iteration of the training than in my last go-round. That’s because the political climate is such that pastors have to check their motivations and their theology every week so that the pulpit doesn’t become, well, the bully pulpit.

The increased attention to preaching was not the only new piece for me, however. The training materials lifted out that boundaries aid ministers’ work; they allow pastors to recover from the emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even physical demands of their roles so that they can come back to lead another day. That seems obvious enough. For the first time, however, I heard that boundaries themselves actually are the work.

I bristled at that statement initially. Surely ministers are not being encouraged to walk around wrapped in caution tape! But the materials clarified that we are constantly crossing boundaries – anytime we step over the threshold into a homebound member’s home or a hospital room, get buzzed into a school to eat lunch with a youth, hear the intimate details of a parishioner’s hurt, embolden our leadership in the midst of conflict, share a bit about our lives to let others know they are not alone, or enter the pulpit to preach. It is the minister’s job, though, to acknowledge those boundaries, to be clear on why we are or are not pushing through them, and to ensure that those reasons are to help the people in our care grow closer to God.

At the same time, spiritual leaders are called to help others recognize the boundaries they have set up between themselves and God and between themselves and their fellow humans so that they can remove these obstacles. Clergy do this through preaching and prayer, teaching and serving the community alongside church members.

Boundaries, then, are in fact the heart of ministry, recognizing and then either holding to or tearing them down. The hoped-for end is the same, regardless: to see and celebrate the image of God in all people and to remember that rootedness in relationship to God is essential for us all.

May we thus be aware of boundaries, sometimes using and other times obliterating them to promote connection and wholeness.

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash.

Networking that doesn’t feel icky

The last semester of seminary was an anxious time for me. Every day I felt more unemployable as my classmates were appointed or called to their post-graduation churches. Meanwhile, I went on interview after interview, breaking the top two or three several times before hearing the “no” that every minister in a search process dreads.

A big factor in my failed searches was that I didn’t know a lot of people. I was a name on a page, with too little experience to make search teams want to find out more about me. One reason for my small network was that I simply had not met a lot of people. I had only recently found my way to the progressive Baptist world, which was where I wanted to serve, yet as a Candler student most of my friends and professors were United Methodist. But there was also the side of me that rejected networking as I understood it: schmoozing and getting ahead based on the connections I had, not the work I had done or the skills I possessed.

In time I realized that “networking” is one of those words that needs to be re-claimed, like evangelism. Good, healthy networking is not about ladder-climbing. It’s about showing interest in other people and their work. It’s about learning from and sharing wisdom with others. It’s about, in short, understanding our interdependence and strengthening relationships such that both parties can more fully inhabit their personhood and their call.

Putting on a Murphy Brown suit and making it rain business cards won’t accomplish those ends. But in his WorkLife podcast, organizational psychologist Adam Grant recently offered up ways to network that do build genuine bonds:

Build your skills. As you learn, you not only increase your range and expertise, you meet people in the areas where those skills are needed, some of whom are regularly contacted by organizations looking for those talents. So in the world of ministry, seek out parachurch trainings about how to be a head of staff or mediate conflict or navigate the interim time between settled pastors. Attend continuing education events offered by seminaries. Get coached. Go to denominational gatherings that offer practical workshops.

Give help. Want to learn how to do something new and show your willingness to be a team player? Offer to pitch in. Take on a project at the middle judicatory level. Mentor a new minister. Offer your expertise in a consultant-type role. Lead a retreat. Tread with intentionality, though, making sure you aren’t just accumulating tasks that no one else wants or that others expect women to do.

Ask for advice. Not everyone loves to be asked for help. That can, at times, feel like a burden. But who doesn’t like to be asked for their wisdom? Contact someone who is doing something you’d like to do and ask a few brief questions about how that person got there. If you want to serve a big-steeple church, reach out to a large-church pastor you admire. The same goes if you’re feeling called to be a CPE supervisor, judicatory or denominational leader, or any other role. The veteran will feel recognized for work well done, and you will gain knowledge and plant your name in that person’s memory.

The key in all of these types of network is to be sincere in your interactions. Truly be interested, and you will likely be amazed at the doors that will open for you.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash.

The course of least regret

[Note: a version of this article original appeared at Searching for the Called.]

A few weeks ago my area was under a tornado warning. (Tornado season in Alabama is pretty much year-round.) I turned on the tv to watch the continuous weather coverage, which was led by a meteorologist known for his suspenders and his uncanny knowledge of local landmarks. He was telling viewers that rotation could spin up at any time, so we should follow the “course of least regret.”

That phrase has stuck in my head ever since. It is an encouragement to look at the big picture. Don’t try to run out for supplies in this weather. Don’t decide today is the day to fulfill your stormchaser dream. Get to a safe place and hunker down until the danger has passed. Otherwise, you might get the batteries or see a marvel of nature but lose your life in the process.

Often, though, we find ourselves traveling the path of least resistance instead of the course of least regret. This perspective is focused on our present comfort level. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make anyone mad. Keep your imagination in check. We might stay safe in the short term, but we’ll have a lot of clean-up to do when suppressed emotions and long-held disappointments spin up.

While I like the thought of the course of least regret, I might reframe it more positively, like maybe the course of greatest possibility. We’re acknowledging what is going on in the present – as well as the potential impact – and responding pro-actively so as to keep future options open.

Where are you following the path of least resistance, and how is it limiting you? How might you take the on-ramp to the course of greatest possibility, earning trust among peers and creating more options in the process?

Photo by James Forbes on Unsplash.

Women, ministry, and emotional labor

I have a decade-old memory of weeding with great ferocity. In the process I was telling my husband – who had joined me in yanking up a root system that spanned the entire backyard – that I was so tired all the time. I was constantly doing, and if I wasn’t doing, I was recalling information or researching or planning. How did people find the leisure time they seemed to have? I was truly befuddled.

Part of my problem was due to my personality. I am interested in a lot of subjects, and it was (is) easy to let myself become occupied. I also have perfectionist tendencies, so it’s hard to leave projects be when they reach the “good enough” stage. But I’ve come to realize that there is another reason it is so difficult to let myself rest – mental load and emotional labor.

Mental load is bearing the responsibility of remembering all the things. Emotional labor is tending to the feelings of everyone affected by those things. Both mental load and emotional labor are both invisible and labor-intensive, draining energy and leaving us to wonder where it went. And women are culturally-conditioned to be responsible for both.

But wait, there’s more! Ministry is itself a vocation laden with emotional labor. We hold the big picture for our congregations, with all the hopes and disappointments of individual church members wrapped up in it. We sit with people in intimate moments, deeply listening to thoughts and feelings so personal they might not have been shared with anyone else.

And then…parenthood. That added layer upon layer of remembering – when was the last time my baby pooped? what did he say his best friends might like for their birthdays? what time is karate, and who will take him and pick him up? – and tending to big feelings (his and mine).

All of this hard work was brought into the light by reading Gemma Hartley’s book Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. I took away a couple of pieces of wisdom from the book that are currently helping me address the heaping pile of emotional labor in my own life. One is that I have to talk about all of that invisible work, proactively rather than when I am at my wits’ end. Only then can I begin to shift some of it. The second suggestion that struck me was that I am sometimes undermining my own desires to share the emotional labor load by thinking that things can only be done one way. If I have a standard that no one else can live up to, or if I go behind others to “fix” what doesn’t look like I think it should, then the emotional labor will be all mine, for all time. I must admit that my way isn’t the only or even necessarily the best way.

Where do you feel doubled-over with emotional labor? What strategies might you employ to hand some of it off, not just so that you can breathe but also so that others can enjoy the breadth and depth of emotional and relational life?

Photo by Slava Bowman on Unsplash.

System or community?

In many congregations there is a generation or two that pines for a bygone era, one in which Sunday School rooms were bursting at the seams and regular worship attendance meant coming to church every week. There is a movement in Christianity that pushes back on this nostalgia. It says that things were not as good as we remember. That the Church’s success then sowed the seeds for its current struggles now. That marginalization of religion allows us to be more prophetic. (After all, the church in Acts operated from the fringes.) That faith requires us to be nimble and to meet people where they are, not enshrine ways of doing ministry and make others come to us.

I agree with all of these arguments. That said, I don’t know that they address what I suspect is the real issue underlying nostalgia: in the mid-20th century, the church morphed from a community into a system. Communities are built on connection, on investing in our neighbors and our neighborhood, on drawing on one another’s gifts to make life work. Systems, by contrast, breed disconnection. They focus on areas of (sometimes manufactured) discontent and then propose solutions to that unhappiness – a product or service that we must purchase. The signs of this shift in the church include:

Congregation-shopping. If my needs aren’t fully met at one church, I’ll keep looking until I find the “perfect” (for now) church instead of pitching in to make my current faith home look more like my vision.

Outsized staffs. If laypeople aren’t covering all the responsibilities, we’ll pay more people to take on those tasks.

Siloed ministries. Noisy, questioning children and youth are shuffled off into their own classes and worship services, rarely to be heard or seen.

Inclination to hire experts to come in and tell us what to fix.  Someone else must know better than we do what changes we can make to become vibrant again.

Now, we don’t need to recreate the 1950s for a number of reasons. But looking for ways to move church culture from a systems focus back to a community mindset is a worthy endeavor. Some ways to do this include encouraging more interaction between church members and the community, not in a “we’re here to help you” kind of way but in mutually-beneficial relationship-building way. Looking for more opportunities to foster understanding, connection, and investment among generations within the church. And making a deep and wide exploration of the congregation’s collected gifts and considering what God might be inviting us to consider through this assessment.

The point of these efforts will not be to get more bodies in the pews or more dollars in the bank. After all, God told us to go forth to make disciples, not bring them in so that we can pad our attendance rosters and our budgets. But if we can transform a congregational system into authentic community, people eager to know and be known by others will undoubtedly be much more eager to join us.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash.

Small group processing sessions for United Methodist clergy after General Conference

Though my primary denominational identity is Baptist, my approach to ministry was broadened and deepened by attending Candler School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary. While I was a student there, I met four United Methodist clergywomen who are still my best friends. That was also the season when I started dating my now-husband, a United Methodist pastor. I have served congregations in multiple contexts, including the UMC. I now coach ministers in more than ten denominations, with a significant number in the UMC.

Because of all of these connections, I am familiar with the rising anxiety around the called General Conference – and the potential consequences of the decisions made there – that will take place from February 23-26 in St. Louis. At that gathering delegates will act on a report from the Commission on a Way Forward, a group proposed by the Council of Bishops and authorized by the 2016 General Conference to discuss and make recommendations about language in the Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality. These conversations are high-stakes, and it’s no surprise that churches, clergy, and all people who either identify as LGTBQIA+ or love someone who does – all of us, in other words – are deeply invested.

Pastors will be bombarded with questions no matter what happens at General Conference, and I want to help them (to the extent that I can) show up as the thoughtful, faithful leaders I know them to be. And so, I will be drawing upon my outsider-insider perspective and coach approach to facilitate conversations with United Methodist clergy about what the General Conference outcomes mean for them and for their ministry settings. I hope that these discussions will be spaces for finding mutual encouragement and developing strategies so that participating pastors feel better-equipped to guide their churches in the coming days.

On February 27 and 28 I thus invite United Methodist ministers to join in one of a few 50-minute, small group (6 participants or fewer) discussions, each of which will be tentatively structured as follows:

  • How am I feeling? What self-care do I need to engage in?
  • What are the possible impacts of the decision(s) on my ministry setting and individuals within it?
  • What are the possible impacts of the decision(s) on me personally and my ministry?
  • How do I want to show up in and for my ministry setting right now?
  • What do I need to know that I don’t yet? How might I find out?
  • What are my immediate next steps?
  • What support do I need, and where might I find it?

We will bookend our time together with prayer for clergy and congregations.

There is no charge for these processing sessions. If you are interested in taking part, please fill out the form (which includes the available time slots) here. I will contact you with a day, time, and Zoom link by the week prior.

Peace and hope be with all who worry in these uncertain days.