For the love of questions

I defied my junior high Sunday School teachers yet again on Sunday night. I went to a rock ‘n roll show, as the kids say. Well, kids of a certain generation, I guess.

My youth leaders specifically warned me about two of the three acts. Don Felder – FORMERLY OF THE EAGLES, as I imagine legal actions require him to clarify – sang “Hotel California,” which my teachers said was about drug use. (I never really understood the objection, since the song seems like more of a cautionary tale than a ringing endorsement.) Styx put on the best concert I’ve ever seen, but did you know that the Styx is a river that leads to Hades? (My Sunday School leaders whispered that “Hades” is another word for hell.)

I hated every millisecond of my Sundays in that too-small room with teachers who saw the world through the lens of fear and divided everything in it into good and bad camps. (I promised myself then that I would crank up and sing along to “Hotel California” every time it came on the radio, and I made myself a mental note to check out Styx, even though it would be another five years until I really got into classic rock.) The worst part of my “formational” experience in that setting, though, was that there was no room for questions. And as a teenager struggling with the difference between what I deeply felt to be true about Jesus and what I was being told at church, I had a lot of ’em.

My parents took my abject misery and my soul’s peril (as I refused to be baptized in this congregation) seriously, and we hopped around until we found a church that was a good fit for our whole family. There I made my pastor, many a youth leader, and my peers uncomfortable with my questions and pushback, but no one tried to shut me up. Bless those kind souls. They are one of the reasons I am in ministry today.

Now, I ask questions for a living. What a dream for a person with so many! I don’t ask these questions on my own behalf in my role as coach. I listen for what is going on in clergy and congregations and make queries that will help them come to their own realizations and reach longed-for goals. I cannot tell you how much I love this work.

Maybe it’s a curiosity mindset that the Eagles were actually referring to: “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” And why would I want to?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

 

Already amazing: young clergy women and pastoral leadership

Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a pastoral leadership workshop at the Young Clergy Women International conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. My goals in that hour and a half were to ask coaching questions that allowed participants to

  • name their strengths and consider how to operate out of them,
  • articulate how they want to show up in their ministry settings,
  • identify the helps for and barriers to showing up in those ways, and
  • begin to make a plan for utilizing the resources and maneuvering around the roadblocks.

I want to share the discussion prompts I offered in that sacred space in the hopes that they might be useful to you as well.

Naming and claiming strengths

  • What energizes you in ministry?
  • When have you felt most like you were living fully into your call? (Responses can include one-off and recurring situations.)
  • What do your responses to these two questions tell you about your strengths?

Showing up authentically

  • How do you want to show up as a pastoral leader in your ministry setting?
  • When have you shown up this way? (If you’re not sure, try to imagine your leadership through the eyes of a congregant, lay leader, or judicatory leader.)
  • What has made showing up this way possible?

Utilizing resources and managing barriers 

  • What tapped and untapped resources do you have for showing up the way you want?
  • How might you best utilize these resources?
  • What keeps you from showing up the way you want?
  • How do you remove the barriers you can control and maneuver around the barriers you can’t control?

Putting it all together

  • Given what you have learned about yourself and your context from your responses to these questions, what is the first step toward living more fully into your pastoral leadership potential? In other words, what is the lowest-hanging fruit for drawing on your strengths, taking into account how you want to show up, maximizing helpful conditions, minimizing obstacles, and putting the tools at your disposal to good use?

While I think these are useful questions, what made them powerful was the workshop participants’ willingness to create spaces for candid conversation. Since there were 25-30 people in the room, I asked them to divide themselves into dyads or triads to respond to the questions. The women shared deeply and offered invaluable observations and encouragement to one another. These questions, then, are good for reflection but much more transformative when used as a discussion guide.

 

The measure of a good question

“What are y’all talking about?”

“What does that mean?”

“What road is this?”

“Is that the Taj Mahal?”

My 4-year-old son is learning to satisfy his irrepressible curiosity by asking questions. He practices a lot. Sometimes I won’t be finished responding to one query before he lobs another. My husband and I counted approximately 541,092 questions on the 3.5-hour trip from our home to Atlanta last week. Actually, double that, because almost every unique inquiry was followed up by his request to repeat the answer.“What’d you just say?” (Yes, we’ve had his hearing checked.)

His questions get tedious, but I do my best not to discourage them. My parents always made time for mine. I knew I’d found a church home as a teenager when my Sunday School teachers and youth minister let me challenge what they told me. And I make a living asking coaching questions of clergy who want to make positive changes in their personal and professional lives.

My brain, my faith, and my livelihood run on questions. That is why it really pains me when people preface their wonderings with, “Maybe this is a dumb question, but…” or worse yet, not feel comfortable making their inquiry at all.

If you’re wondering whether your question is worth asking – without any qualifying – here is an assessment:

  • Are you genuinely curious?
  • Does your question invite rather than shut down discussion?
  • Are the time and venue right, to the best of your understanding, for your question?

(Note that right time and venue don’t necessarily have to do with making your hearer(s) comfortable. Sometimes it’s important to ask well-planned questions that raise anxiety.)

If you responded to these bullet points in the affirmative, then go forth and ask boldly!

Feedforward

You’re sitting in your annual review. Most of the feedback you’re getting is positive. Not just positive, actually, but really encouraging. There are just a few minor areas for improvement: “I wish you’d handled your conversation with X a bit differently.” “We’ve received some complaints about an example you used in a recent sermon.” “There was a slight dip in numbers late in the year.” And all the steam you picked up from hearing about what’s going well dissipates into the strata. Why, when there are so many more items in the plus column?

Part of the reason is that feedback is, well, backward-focused. And there aren’t any mulligans for moves we’ve already made, so we’re left endlessly replaying situations we cannot change. But in Entering Wonderland: A Toolkit for Pastors New to a Church, author Robert Harris introduces the concept of feedforward. Instead of putting the past under the microscope, Harris suggests that questions intended to evoke improvement start with the present moment and look ahead.

  • Instead of (or as a follow-up to) “I wish you’d handled your conversation with X a bit differently,” a feedforward question could be, “How do you want to relate to X in the future?”
  • Instead of (or as a follow-up to) “We’ve received some complaints about an example you used in a recent sermon,” a feedforward question could be, “How do you determine what stories best support your messages? How do you decide when an anecdote might be hard to hear but needs to be included?”
  • Instead of (or as a follow-up to) “There was a slight dip in numbers late in the year,” a feedforward question could be, “What changes can we make in communication, content, support, and timing to help our ministries be as robust as possible?”

This kind of reflection acknowledges that there is room to grow, but it channels that awareness toward action steps. We claim our capacity for positive change instead of being held captive by second-guessing.

Feedforwarding doesn’t automatically happen. It is a different way of thinking, both about ourselves and for the people who join us in ministry. How, then, might you introduce and model the concept in your context?

Creative Commons image “Forward backward” by Khairil Zhafri is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

Rising Strong: owning our stories

Here is my single biggest takeaway from Rising Strong:

When I am feeling overwhelmed, I need to ask, “What is the story I’m telling myself?”

Creative Commons "Story Road" by umjanedoan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “Story Road” by umjanedoan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I am too quick to assume – that the person who just tore into me is irredeemably ornery, that I’m not good enough, or that I am too good to be the one creating the problem. None of these default narratives points me toward reflecting more deeply on the situation, reaching out for help, or looking for a solution. They are interpretations, and narrow, blame-inducing ones at that.

As an extreme introvert, I am especially prone to spinning a whole story in my head without fact-checking it, then acting on it like it is true. “What is the story I’m telling myself?” is a way of getting out of my head and sharing my perspective without making hearers defensive, since I’m not claiming that my outlook is gospel.

Instead, Brené Brown suggests I get at the whole story by asking myself:

  • What am I leaving out in my default narratives?
    • What am I feeling? Why?
    • What am I thinking?
    • What am I believing?
    • What am I doing?
  • What information do I need to flesh out and own this story?
    • about myself
    • about others

Not only are these the questions that I often neglect to ask, they are the ones that congregations need help raising to address subversive narratives of shame and blame. Churches – especially well-established ones – will have trouble moving forward until they are able to unearth and discuss sources of  resistance. Only when they are well-aware of feelings and dynamics will they be able to love and trust enough to risk doing new things.

 

 

Making connections

In school I was a great test-taker. I studied, I regurgitated…and then I promptly lost most of that hard work. This is why I made a 5 on the AP Calculus exam but can’t do basic algebra now.

Creative Commons "The Bermuda Triangle" by NOAA's National Ocean Service's photostream is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “The Bermuda Triangle” by NOAA’s National Ocean Service’s photostream is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This week I learned in my “coaching and the brain” class what created this mental Bermuda Triangle. By preparing myself to respond to test-type questions – for which I was supposed to know the (one) right answer – I was taking in isolated bits of information and not connecting them well to concepts that were already in my longer-term memory. That meant the knowledge never got fully assimilated.

Coaches, however, ask discovery-type questions. These queries are open-ended. They are designed to help the respondent comb his/her memory for various pieces of information and then build bridges between them to create new ideas. That’s what (ideally) leads to “aha!” moments.

No matter how life-changing these new ideas are, however, they can be sucked down into the Bermuda Triangle too if they are not quickly applied. Brain research shows that concepts must be acted upon within 24-72 hours if they are to find a home in long-term memory. In other words, use it or lose it.

I will be asking more questions in upcoming coaching calls to help coachees “lock in” the good work they are doing. What great ideas do you need to act on right now – at least in part – so that they don’t disappear, never to be heard from again?