Speaking the truth about power

You have been working with ministry leaders for months on a new initiative. In the process you and your team have carefully gathered input, communicated decisions out in a variety of ways, and provided pastoral care to people for whom proposed changes to the way things are currently done might spark anger or grief.

When implementation time comes, however, the initiative dies on the vine. Why? Well, you’ve attended to reason and emotion, two key aspects of transformation, but it’s possible you and your team overlooked the most potent one: power. According to UCC minister and seminary dean Sarah Drummond in her book Dynamic Discernment, all three areas must be addressed for lasting organizational change to occur.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ve got to have the investment of influencers for anything new to have a shot at succeeding. But here’s the thing, says Drummond: people with power often deny that they have it: “Oh, as board chair my voice is just one among many.” “I haven’t held any [formal] leadership roles for a long time.” “It’s not my fault that others look to me for my opinions.” That’s because those who acknowledge that they have power for whatever reason (position, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, race, age, length of membership, etc.) might be asked to give up some of that advantage, which even well-meaning people are reluctant to do.

Ministers must have a clear-eyed understanding of power dynamics in order to help their congregations live into hope and inhabit new realities. And they have to be able to help others see the forces at work, own where they have clout so that they can leverage it for healthy purposes, and willingly share some of their authority so that new voices can be heard.

As in many matters, curiosity is key, whether you wonder to yourself, “What is really going on here?” or if you ask others to tell you more about people, roles, and expectations to heighten their awareness as well as your own. This questioning not only illuminates previously hidden systems but also makes it possible to note what Drummond calls “pockets of possibility” where established power and grassroots energy could converge.

Who, then, holds the power in your setting? If you don’t know, how will you find out? And how will you then use that information in wise and compassionate ways to affect changes so that your church can be creative and faithful?

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash.

Women helping women

I know a lot of clergywomen. I run in different networks designed for them. I coach them. I am one myself. And I cannot think of a single one that is not creative, smart, and committed. Why, then, aren’t more clergywomen serving as senior pastors in big pulpits or leading middle judicatories or denominations?

Some of the reasons  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. That’s why I piloted a cohort called Trinit-A this fall to help the participants become more comfortable and confident sharing their successes and innovations, 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.

During the first session, I asked the members of the cohort what their personal hopes for our time together would be. The group named a desire to share what we learned with others. One of our chosen methods was a blog post. And so, with the cohort’s blessing, I would like to name some of the themes that emerged from our conversations.

Affirm specifics. The group members noted that often they hear their male counterparts celebrated for specific talents and tasks, while they are generally – even generically – referred to as “great,” “sweet,” or “wonderful.” They encouraged affirming in others and in ourselves particular gifts or accomplishments. That makes it more likely that the clergywoman in question will stick in hearers’/observers’ minds and will stand out more in search processes.

Re-write your bio. When we guest preach or speak or lead a retreat, we are inevitably asked for a bio to put in the bulletin and other marketing pieces. Look at yours. In what ways have you undersold your credentials? (If you’re unsure, consult with one of your biggest cheerleaders.) Then take another run at a bio that captures the fullness of your track record and abilities.

Take your rightful seat at the table. Sometimes we’re invited to the table. More often we have to invite ourselves. Either way, it’s important to show up to leadership conversations, reframing, questioning, challenging, and offering our insight on our own behalf and others.’

Network to connect others. For some, networking is still a dirty word. For others it’s not, but it feels awkward. Networking, done right, is intended to benefit both parties. But there’s a way to make it not just win-win, but win-win-win as Michael Scott would say. Consider how you can use your relationships to introduce people who would be of interest to one another but might not meet without your help. Then those people (and the ones they serve) have benefitted, and you lodge in others’ brains as someone who is connected and generous and wise about potential collaborations.

Link hands across denominational lines. Some denominations have more women in ministry than others. Regardless if you’re a pioneer or a third wave clergywoman, though, it helps to have relationships and sounding boards among female clergy in other denominations. These spaces offer perspective, a greater pool of support, and opportunities to share more honestly than is sometimes possible in small denominational worlds. They also lay the groundwork for multi-denominational collaboration.

Highlight positive voices. This fall a certain (male) evangelical leader made a big hubbub about telling a certain (female) author, speaker, and Bible teacher to return to her domicile, among other offensive statements. That incident got a lot of play on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, but it didn’t do much for women other than accentuate how entrenched the patriarchy remains. Instead of giving men who belittle women a bigger platform, the cohort advocated for pushing the voices of women and their allies. It’s just as easy to click share or retweet if you see a clergywoman doing something good or saying something insightful as it is to pass along outrageous content.

Keep track of all you do. The cohort was built on the participants’ willingness to announce recent accomplishments. There were long pauses on the first couple of calls, though, as the members scrolled through their days to remember something worth sharing. After a couple of weeks, one of the women suggested keeping a running list between calls. That shifted the conversation. Responses included, “I didn’t realize how much I do!” and “I thought this was something everyone did. It never occurred to me before now that it is a legit accomplishment.” We’re better prepared to talk about ourselves when we acknowledge all that we do.

Know that your success is my success, and vice versa. We’ve probably all heard a congregation say, “Well, we tried having a woman pastor, and it just didn’t work.” It might be decades before that church is willing to call a woman again, even though the issue was likely not the minister herself but the fit or the church’s lack of support. On the other hand, you might have also heard, “We had a woman pastor, and she was amazing. Let’s call another one.” When one of us succeeds, we broaden the path for all our colleagues.

If we announce our accomplishments and affirm and amplify each other, our whispers of giftedness and faithfulness become shouts that skeptics can’t ignore.

Thank you to this pilot cohort of Trinit-A. I enjoyed being with and learning from you so much.

If you are interested in a future Trinit-A cohort, contact me.

Image courtesy of The Young Clergy Women Project/Young Clergy Women International.

 

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.