Planning from abundance, part 5 – gifts of your broader context

Planning for ministry initiatives is incomplete without considering context. Just as individuals are part of a larger congregation, churches are part of larger communities. Often this look at the surrounding neighborhood is focused on needs, on ways that the people around us can be recipients of our care. While Jesus urges us to respond to serious lack and systemic injustice, it’s important to notice the gifts and stories of our neighbors as well. Then we can build relationships and find out where we fit in our community’s ecosystem, not just rush in with well-meaning but wrong-headed (and sometimes destructive) “fixes.”

Considering context first involves knowing who your neighbor is. Here are some ways to identify the people who live and work around you:

Conduct a demographic study. Check with the judicatory or denomination to find out if it has contracted with a demographic service. If not, contact your local chamber of commerce or search online for demographic information. Look for age, gender, race, ethnicity, age, family composition, population concentrations, economic levels, education levels, and any other available statistics. Put the demographics of the community with the demographics of the church side-by-side. What do you notice?

Learn who the local leaders are. Brainstorm (as a team or by a mini-survey to the congregation) or look online for the following:

  • Local government officials
  • School principals/superintendents/deans/presidents
  • Librarians
  • Chief emergency responders
  • Business owners
  • Directors of organizations/agencies/associations
  • Clergy of other congregations
  • Other influencers

Collate the above information and pray for the people in your neighborhood.

Considering context doesn’t end with information-gathering, however. It also involves interacting with your neighbors. Below are some ways to go about that. (Note that the first three suggestions below are particularly family-friendly.)

Go into the neighborhood. Create a scavenger hunt to encourage church members to go into nearby businesses, particularly ones they might not normally patronize. (Be sure to contact businesses ahead of time to let them know about the purpose and date(s) of the scavenger hunt and to get their permission.) For example, go into the home insurance office and get a business card. Go into the comic book shop and take a picture with the life-size cardboard cutout of Spiderman. Go into the local diner and order a slice of its famous cherry cobbler. At each location, introduce yourself to at least one employee. Make note of the people you meet and your experiences going into the businesses.

Take a prayer walk or drive. Give church members a map of a fairly small walking or driving radius. Go in groups or families, praying for the people and places along the route. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you along the way.

Lower the barriers for church members to volunteer. Create a list of local service agencies or opportunities as well as conversation prompts for interacting with people. (Where is your favorite place in the neighborhood? What is something that makes you smile? What are you good at?) Go in groups or families to volunteer. Make an effort to talk with the people – particularly the “clients” – in that place. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you.

Encourage church members to attend a city council meeting, community forum, and/or a school board meeting. Listen for the good that is going on as well as the needs being expressed.

Invite community representatives to a panel discussion at your church. Ask them what they love about their jobs and the community. Encourage them to share where they see neighborhood gifts, both individual and collective. Get them to tell about good things happening in the community, challenges they observe, and places that the church can join in either.

Next week I’ll share some ways to process the information your church gleans and the experiences congregation members have in the community.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

Disparities in types of ministry work

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review highlights the ways different types of tasks are unevenly distributed in work environments. Glamour work encompasses highly-visible, big picture assignments that set the doer up for recognition and promotion. Office housework includes all the tasks that are necessary to keep things moving – such as taking notes, managing schedules, caffeinating colleagues, and making sure there aren’t science experiments growing in the office refrigerator – and that go largely unnoticed. Not surprisingly, HBR found that women and people of color are much more likely to find themselves stuck with this essential-yet-thankless work.

While HBR’s research was geared toward the business world, the same realities apply in ministry. Women and people of color often serve in positions that are more likely to result in lateral moves than in increased responsibility and credibility and the pay that go with them. One reason is socialization. We* are conditioned to be the ones to keep the trains moving. Others expect us to be good at it, which we often are. We have been encouraged to be humble, and we’re punished when we’re perceived as being braggy, bossy, or bitchy. Another reason is exceptionalism: when one of us manages to break that stained-glass ceiling, it’s because she is an extraordinarily-gifted anomaly.

Since many of us minister in systems where 1) we are called by laypeople rather than assigned by a superior and 2) judicatory leaders intervene into unhealthy and unjust systems infrequently, what do we do in order to claim more of those “glamourous” roles? Here are a few thoughts:

Maintain a robust web presence. On the internet we can communicate the fullness of our ideas without interruption. True, we might have to deal with trolls and mansplainers. But they cannot edit our original thoughts, which we can then share through social media.

Own your purpose. Clarify what you have been called to do, the strengths and qualities you have for that work, and the ways you have already been inhabiting the fullness of your call. This is essential to owning pastoral identity, which has a noticeable impact on your pastoral presence. This specificity will also help you sort what tasks – many of which likely fall into the office work category – to say no to.

Amplify one another. Even when we feel we can’t toot our own horns, we can toot someone else’s. Make a pact (spoken or unspoken) with other people who are going underappreciated to do this for one another.

Tell stories. If saying, “I did this thing and that thing and here’s how it was a rousing success” seems icky to you, work on your telling of an anecdote that relays that same information in a way that helps other people know and like you as they’re learning about what you’re capable of.

Ask for feedforward. The standard annual review can mix a negative tape that plays in your head for the next twelve months. Instead, help your leaders structure a conversation that helps you think about how you’d like to grow in ministry together, setting you all up for bigger and better things.

Network as much as you can. Go to conferences. Connect with people in the kinds of positions you’d eventually like to see yourself in. Look for committees doing transformational work to join.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the church is experiencing the pangs of something new as women and people of color struggle/begin to emerge from the background. The more even distribution of office housework and our ability to move into glamour roles will promote innovation, collaboration, and renewed faithfulness to the mission God has for us all.

*I can only speak personally from the perspective of a white woman. I am relying on the stats in the HBR article plus conversations and a range of reading to assert that people of color share some of these same experiences, likely amplified. I welcome dialogue and am open to correction.

Photo by Antonino Visalli on Unsplash.

Breaking shame’s hold on our congregations

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.

New resource: mutual ministry review outline

Most congregations require an annual evaluation of the minister. This is a worthy requirement, but it must be framed and conducted well to be useful rather than (at best) frustrating or (at worst)counterproductive.  Below are some suggestions to get the most out of the process. (A PDF of this post, suitable for printing and sharing with your lay leaders, is available here.)

Make sure the right people are in the room. What body should conduct the review? Sometimes this information is outlined in the minister’s letter of covenant/call or in the congregational by-laws. If it isn’t, the group of lay leaders that works most closely with the minister (with input as appropriate from others) should facilitate this conversation.

Be clear about the purpose of the review. What does everyone involved hope to accomplish? The review will be an exercise in fruitlessness, maybe even frustration, if it’s being done merely to check off a box.

Frame the conversation in terms of mutual ministry. Ministry is collaborative, not performative. How are pastor and parish in this together? Where have we helped each other grow or made each other stronger this year? What do we need from one another in the coming year?

Set helpful metrics. What mile markers will tell us how well we are living into God’s call? (Having a functional mission statement makes these criteria much easier to establish.) The wrong metrics prompt focus on surface rather than substantive issues.

Look backward and forward. What have we noticed and what do we hope for? Examining – though not lingering in – the past can be a springboard for promising conversations about what lies ahead.

Welcome the opportunity to minister in the midst of the review. Framing the conversation in terms of mutual ministry allows the participants to check in with one another, not just as fellow constituents of the church but also as people.

Use feedforward for constructive feedback. How can we leverage difficulties into positive changes? Useful criticism starts with what we’ve learned and where we are now, then looks ahead to what we can do differently.

Agree on intervals and means for feedback through the year. Concerns and celebrations don’t need to wait until the formal review. What are the logical times of year for all parties to touch base with each other, and what’s the most helpful way to go about that?

Re-covenant as needed. What about the covenant we’ve been operating under needs to change? As shifts happen, intentional tweaks to how minister and congregation relate to each other need to be made.


Below are some questions that could be useful toward the ends named above.

This past year

At the beginning of last year, what did we believe God had called us to do and be together? In what ways did we live into that? What obstacles did we encounter, and how did we navigate them? What did we learn?

Where did we notice God at work most powerfully in our ministry together this past year? When were we most energized and engaged?

How have we grown as minister and congregation since the last review?

As individuals, how are we doing spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically?

This coming year

What do we believe God is calling us to do together in the coming year? What are some first steps in living toward that vision? What obstacles do we anticipate?

How can we create even more space for the Spirit to move in, among, and through us this year?

What changes do we need to make to address obstacles that remain from last year or that we anticipate for the coming year? What resources and leadership do we need to overcome these challenges?

What are our self-care plans for the coming year? How can we support and hold each other accountable?

In what areas do we want to grow as minister/disciples? How might we go about that? How can we support and hold one another accountable?

Specifically for the minister

How well does your position description match what you actually do? What do you need to stop doing? What needs to be updated in your position description to make it more accurate?

How well does your compensation align with your needs and responsibilities? What adjustments need to be considered?

Loose ends

Coming out of this conversation, what follow-up is needed? Who will do it, and by when?

Which aspects of this conversation need to remain confidential? How do we define confidential?

Image courtesy of Hermano Leon Clip Art.

Thinking about church size in relationship to mission

Last week I shared discussion questions to help a congregation understand what exactly its church size is and how this size relates to 1) expectations placed on the pastor and 2) the ways newcomers are welcomed and included. These reflection points are important because they help leaders pinpoint why the numbers aren’t increasing – or why they rise, only to be bumped back down. But much more than that, the accurate assessment of size enables a congregation to consider what God is calling it to do and be and to make needed cultural and structural shifts toward those ends. Here, then, is part two of the discussion guide.

Opportunities

Who comprises our community? A demographic study could be helpful for gleaning this information. Even better, take a prayer walk or drive around your immediate community, making an effort to notice who your neighbors are. Once you have identified your neighbors, ask them about their concerns.

What organizations meet the needs of the different populations? According to the different populations and service organizations, what needs are not currently being met? There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Where might there be opportunities to come alongside agencies or churches doing good work? Where are the gaps your church might consider filling? (Hosting a panel discussion with representatives from city leadership and/or the service sector is one way to get at these questions. Talking with social workers and school counselors is another.) Think in terms of physical, spiritual, relational, mental, and emotional challenges.

Assets

What resources for ministry do we have at our disposal? Consider but don’t limit your thinking to money on hand and the physical plant. Other assets include spiritual leadership, ministries/programs, relationships/contacts/spheres of influence, special skills/knowledge, work ethic, and the willingness to try something new.

Capacity

What is our capacity for ministry? Every congregation has a sweet spot in which members feel a healthy sense of urgency and deep engagement but aren’t in danger of burnout. What is your congregation’s capacity in terms of relationships, leadership, energy, finances, and physical space?

  • In which areas have we maxed out our capacity?
  • What do we need to give up to create more capacity?
  • In which areas do we still have capacity left to use?

Represent the different areas of capacity with pie charts or thermometers, then color in the percentages.

Convergence 

What is God nudging us to consider? Given what you have noticed and prayerfully considered, what is your congregation’s mission in the coming months and beyond?

Are we the right size for taking this on, or do we need to size up or down? You have discussed your church’s size, culture, and expectations. Now it’s time to lay those over the vision God has given you and see where there’s alignment and where changes need to be made.

If church size needs to change size to fulfill calling, in what ways can we begin to function at that size? The system will always bump your congregation back to the size it was if you don’t make infrastructure changes first. Given what you know about various church sizes, what might those changes include? Think in terms of pastoral/staff leadership, lay leadership, inroads for newcomers, and procedures. If you can articulate the why for making these shifts – your mission – you will have a much easier time executing them.

What congregational health looks like

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

Leadership:

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

Mission:

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

Life together: 

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

Spirituality:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Rising Strong: parsing shame and guilt

It’s hard to muster up the will to be vulnerable when we absorb criticisms and failures into our identity: “I’m not good enough.” “I’m a screw-up.” That’s why Brené Brown’s distinction between shame and guilt is so helpful.

Creative Commons "Burdened by shame" by John Hain is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “Burdened by shame” by John Hain is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Shame focuses on our own or someone else’s (lack of) worth. It is rooted in the need to assign blame and in the reluctance to change, and it can quickly lead to a sense of powerlessness and even desperation in the shamee.

Guilt, on the other hand, focuses on behavior – not so much who was wrong but what went wrong: “I messed up” rather than “I’m messed up.” It fosters reflection about how to do differently and a sense of agency for making changes, resulting in hope for future successes.

In many churches those self-reflective muscles have atrophied, leading either to shaming (“Pastor So-and-So killed our congregation with X initiative”) or to feeling ashamed: “Pastor So-and-So left us to go somewhere else. What’s wrong with us?” “Our church is so much smaller than First Church. Why would people choose to come here when they could join a congregation with so much more to offer?” These kinds of mindsets, whether they are expressed aloud or not, can kill a church’s energy and become self-fulfilling prophecies.

How, then, can we help our congregations lay claim to hope? Questions can help flip the narrative from one of shame to one of guilt. For example:

  • What do we do well? What are some things we’re able to do that bigger/better resourced/more established/etc. churches can’t?
  • With regard to particular situations, what do we need to do differently the next time?

Notice that these questions focus on actions rather than personalities.

What narratives in your church – or in yourself – need to be flipped, and what questions will help you get there?