Aligning responsibility and authority

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

Do you feel like you cannot dig your way out from under an avalanche of work, but when you make a request or propose an idea, no one listens?

Do you feel like your congregation looks to you too often for guidance, yet during your office hours you find yourself bored and unsure how best to use your time?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, you might be experiencing a mismatch between responsibility and authority. Responsibility is what you are assigned – by self or others – to do. Authority is the weight people give to your perspective, and it comes from a combination of role, experience, and earned trust. Part of developing a healthy pastoral identity and creating right-sized expectations is making sure responsibility and authority are not out of proportion with one another.

If either your responsibility or authority level is too high, here are some questions to consider:

  • What are the roots of my over- ( or under-) developed sense of responsibility or authority?
  • Which roots can I pull up?
  • What specifically am I gifted and called to do?
  • In this context, what work is truly mine to carry out?
  • How might I shift, in whole or in part, the work that isn’t mine?
  • What authority do I, in actuality, have?
  • How can I use this authority wisely and on behalf of the most vulnerable?
  • How might I utilize less obvious sources of authority when needed (e.g., a lay leader with whom you have mutual respect and who is trusted by the congregation)?

Aligning responsibility and authority is key to leading well and avoiding burnout. If your levels are out of whack, take the time to consider why that is and what you can change. If needed, I’m available to help you with your reflecting and strategizing.

Photo by Jason Ortego on Unsplash.

Caring vs. carrying

A couple of weeks ago I wrapped up a three-session course on resilience in ministry with some fantastic clergywomen. We talked about the emotional labor that gets dumped on us by parishioners – bless their hearts – and the ways it siphons off both professional and personal joy. The question that popped into my mind was, “What do we need to refuse to care about more than our people do?” One of the participants anticipated that I was going to use the word “carry” instead of “care,” a leap that took us into rich discussion. Maybe we shouldn’t refuse to care. Maybe we can’t not care. But that doesn’t mean we have to carry all the worry and responsibility – especially around this emotional work – that others offer us.

I can care that you’re in conflict with another church member without inserting myself into the conflict.

I can care that your feelings were hurt by not being nominated for a lay leadership role while remaining clear that the decision was a good one.

I can care that you don’t think I visited you often enough in the hospital without doubting my intentionality around how I spend my ministry time.

I can care that you heard my sermon in a way I did not intend and still trust that the Spirit did its work in and through me.

Caring vs. carrying all boils down to the hard work of self-differentiation: here is where you end and I begin. When we are clear about our strengths, purpose, and role, we can begin to crawl out from the weight of others’ expectations while remaining connected to the people around us.

What burden do you need to lay down?

Photo by Felix Russell-Saw 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.

Everything happens

As a teenager I had an unhealthy affinity for Lurlene McDaniel novels. She writes about young people who have chronic or terminal illnesses. There’s also at least one book about a high school girl dying in a car crash because she didn’t want her seat belt to wrinkle her new dress. These works of fiction were the perfect/worst possible match for my personality: generally anxious with a side dish of hypochondria. I cannot tell you how many times I convinced myself I had diabetes or cancer, thanks to the similarity of my “symptoms” with a Lurlene McDaniel character. I mentally penned my farewell letters and practiced my brave face in the mirror. (Truth be told, I still kinda do these things.)

Which is why I couldn’t wait to read/put off reading Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler is an assistant professor of church history at Duke Divinity School who was unexpectedly diagnosed with incurable, stage 4 cancer in 2015. She is in her late 30s. She is a self-professed church nerd. As a Mennonite she is a proponent of believer’s baptism adrift in a sea of infant baptizers at her Methodist seminary. She has a young son. She has a close-knit, irreverent family. In short, I could relate to much of her story. And her humor…oh, how I love her wit.

But Kate Bowler is not a fictional character. She is a real person who is wrestling daily with what it means to inhabit the space between living the dream and actively dying. She is a real Christian who is struggling with her subconscious assent to the prosperity gospel – if you pray hard enough and are good enough, the world is your oyster! – and her fear that death means disconnect from her husband and child.

Bowler’s words did not hit me square in my anxiety. They did something that is rare for someone as head-focused as I am: wriggled their way into my most tender, most guarded inner self. They made me want to be less private and more honest. They made me want to dream about more than control my life. They made me want to love so deeply that I would feel grief acutely. Now, how to do those things…

I guess I don’t have to spell out that I recommend this book, as well as the accompanying podcast.

Thank you, Kate Bowler, for the beauty of who you are and what you share with the world.

Caveats

I did it again last Tuesday.

When someone asked me which church I pastor, I answered, “I’m not in a church right now.”

Right now.

That has been my default response for a couple of years.

In a strictly literal sense, it’s accurate that I am not on staff at a congregation at this moment in time. But this caveat does nothing to capture the fullness of my call and the way I live it out.

I strive, with all that I do, to promote health in congregations and the people who lead them.

I do this by encouraging and strategizing with clergy and search teams.

I do this by putting content into the world that focuses on hospitality and hope.

I do this by filling pulpits so that weekly preachers can recharge.

I do this by connecting ministers with each other in groups for learning and support.

I am, in truth, a minister-at-large, a multi-denominational mercenary. If I do ever take a position on a church staff again – which seems unlikely at this point – it will probably be in a part-time and/or interim capacity. I am not giving up coaching, writing, and workshop-leading in the ecumenical realm. I’m in the kind of groove that makes me think I’m doing what I’ve been created to do. And I’m able to impact the health of more clergy and congregations than ever before.

So why do I default to the “right now” response, as if I am keeping an eye out for something different?

Maybe it’s mere habit at this point, a holdover from a time when I felt less secure in my pastoral identity.

Maybe it’s because people have a hard enough grasping the concept of a woman in ministry, much less a woman in a non-traditional ministry, and I don’t have the energy or will to explain/defend myself.

Maybe it’s because I still fear, somewhere in the recesses of my heart, that I will ultimately fail at carving out a sustainable niche.

Whatever the reason, it ends now. What church do I serve? I serve the Church of Jesus Christ. I am a minister of the good news of God’s love for all people. I am an advocate for hospitality toward authentic selves – our own and others’.

This is my call, and I claim it.

 

Where does your authority reside?

Two nights before I got married, my parents, husband-to-be, and I went to dinner in the restaurant adjoining the wedding venue. The hostess – a fellow young adult – placed menus with fancy fonts in front of everyone…except for me. I got a coloring sheet and crayons.

At first, I was stunned. After I got my wits about me, though, I was boiling. I marched the kiddie menu back to the hostess stand and asked, through gritted teeth, to exchange it for a grown-up one.

I’d like to say this incident was out of the norm, but it wasn’t. (It was, however, the most embarrassing in a long line of ego-shrinking moments!) Until I had a high-energy child who quickly and visibly aged me, strangers often underestimated my age. The mismatch between my perceived and actual age ballooned into a bigger issue when I became a minister. Not only was I female, I looked like a 14-year-old. Not a great combination for being taken seriously in the pulpit, in hospital rooms, and at the funeral home. I spent a lot of time justifying my presence to others…and to myself.

All of my insecurities came to a head during my first unit of CPE. Some doctors, nurses, and hospital staffers were more open to the idea of chaplaincy than others. Once I was mid-prayer with a patient in ICU – at the request of said patient and family – when a nurse burst in and told me to go so she could perform a routine blood pressure check. I acquiesced. When I brought my frustrations to my CPE cohort, my supervisors challenged me: “Do you believe you had a right to be there? Why did you leave?” That situation was in sharp contrast with the all-night vigil I kept with a family whose patriarch was dying. They – and the doctors and nurses – welcomed my ministry. In fact, the deceased’s wife called the hospital later that week to thank me for my prayers and my presence.

Those two encounters worked on me mightily. I realized I had been waiting for others to grant me pastoral authority rather than locating it in my call and my sense of self. God has pulled me into ministry. God has equipped me and continues to do so. I won’t get it right all the time, but that’s ok. Sometimes my humanity opens opportunities for connection that perfection in pastoring would not.

There’s a certain amount of authority we gain by virtue of our education, ordination, and job title. We also earn some of it by being with our people at points of pain and celebration. But these sources cannot be the primary means of understanding ourselves as ministers. Otherwise, when we are between positions, when we don’t have our ordination certificate handy, when we are at the center of conflict, when others don’t yet know us well enough to let us in, when someone tells us to get out, we won’t have much to keep us rooted in our pastoral identity.

Instead, we must continually (because it’s not a one-and-done exercise) develop the ability to ask, “Do I deserve to be here? What are the gifts I have to offer? What is God prompting me to do here and now?” Not so that we overstep our authority, but so that we live fully into it.

I found that once I stopped questioning myself so much, so did other people. Or, at least, those moments prompted more of a willingness to educate (and, let’s be honest, some mental eye-rolling) than a vocational crisis.

Are you called by God into ministry? Are you called by God to be in ministry at this time, in this place? Has God equipped you, or is God currently equipping you to serve? Then go forth to use your gifts, embracing your identity as pastor and person.