How firm a foundation

I currently have the privilege of serving as transition facilitator for a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee. This involves coaching a team of laypeople as they lead the church through some discussions that will be intense as well as – if we do our work with great intention and trust God’s presence – fruitful and hopeful.

This past weekend I trained this transition team. We had a big agenda for our Saturday together. Worship together, bond as a team, understand the scope of the transition process, pray our way through the large physical plant, plan for our first congregational conversation, and set the timeline for our work. (Yes, I was tired, and I’m sure the team was as well!)

I was not surprised that we quickly fell behind in our ambitious schedule. The people around the table were telling stories and enjoying one another’s company. Internally, my desire to stay on task warred with my conviction that these conversations were the work, no matter what our agenda said. A key component of the day was the sharing of faith journeys. I was amazed by the depth to which team members told deeply personal stories. There were tears. There was laughter. The connections being formed and strengthened were almost visible, they were so visceral.

We were able to check off the most important to-dos in preparation for our work with the church as a whole (and still adjourn on time!). But when we reflected on the our work we had done over eight hours, there was consensus that the team-building pieces – faith stories, casual conversation during lunch, a tangent or two, affirming one another’s experiences and gifts via call and response – were where God was most powerfully at work.

This team was put together through congregational ballots that were then processed by a nominating committee to ensure as much diversity in life and church experience, perspective, age, and gender as possible. It was purposefully representational of a church that – like most churches – has plenty of different thoughts on what the next chapter of ministry should look like.

That’s exactly why this “soft” or “slow” work was necessary. (To be clear, I believe attention to relationship-building is tough and makes processes more efficient in the long run.) We were able to see the image of God in one another and note what we have in common so that we can work from that starting point rather than areas of disagreement. Now the team members can model that recognition of each person’s belovedness, that delight in one another, that love for their church as they lead the discussions that must be had if the congregation is to notice and respond faithfully to God’s invitations in this season.

Where in your ministry setting is the “real work” getting hung up by disagreement, disengagement, or lack of follow-through? I encourage you to consider whether taking a step back to strengthen relationships might be a way to move forward.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.




Eight Cs for growing trust

[Note: a version of this article first appeared on Searching for the Called.]

The most important ingredient in any process isn’t expertise or charismatic personalities or financial resources. It’s relationships. When the bonds are strong among the people involved, there can be productive disagreement, a full exploration of possibilities, deep investment in the work, and mutual support and accountability, all leading to forward progress.

The foundation of relationships is trust. Not simply predictability – I know your passions and hot buttons and how you’ll react to each being tapped – but shared vulnerability and risk-taking. Many congregational teams and committees start with some sense of predictability by virtue of the members attending church together for a long time. But most (if not all teams) will need to dig in before high-intensity work begins to develop the second-level trust that will allow for the most thorough and faithful process.

What does it look like to grow that deep trust? Here are eight Cs – from lowest to highest risk – to guide that essential work:

Clarity is getting straight within ourselves about our thoughts and commitments, then being honest with others about them.

Communication is putting our clarified knowledge and understanding out there, and in turn listening to others with open hearts and minds.

Curiosity is admitting we don’t have the whole picture and wondering about what we don’t know.

Compassion is showing care to and connecting at a heart level with others, believing the best about them as we do so.

Companionship is being present and authentic while still maintaining the boundaries that allow us to be clear and compassionate.

Consistency is showing up the same way every time and admitting when circumstances have thrown us off balance.

Conflict is being willing to disagree and to have our ideas improved upon.

Control release is relinquishing attachment to the outcome, trusting that the process will end up as it should so long as we bring our whole selves to it.

Jesus embodies each of these Cs in his ministry. He bookends his active period with a time of clarifying his identity and purpose in the desert and a prayer in the garden of “here’s what I want, but I’m here to finish the job.” His interactions with followers and adversaries alike are centered on getting his message out while asking about and listening to their hopes and fears. Time after time Jesus shows up for people, particularly the least of these, truly valuing them and radiating divine love for them. With those who want to hold on to what they know and have, he’s not afraid to offer a challenge. And in the end, he allows himself to be led to the cross so that he can expose all that is wrong with the hunger for power.

The eight Cs and the resulting trust can strengthen relationships not just within the team but between the team and congregation. The effects of deepened connections, in turn, extend beyond the process itself, cultivating beloved community with the Source of love at its center.

Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash.

Dealing with the shoulds

Do you have a case of the shoulds? (I have a chronic condition that I struggle to keep in check.)

“I should finish this sermon before I go to bed.”

“I should visit my homebound member, even though I saw him two weeks ago.”

“I should count my calories more closely.”

“I really need to marinate on my response some more, but I should send this email reply now anyway because my board chair is expecting it.”

“I should go to that third evening meeting this week, regardless of whether I have much to add to the discussion.”

“I should tackle that pile of dirty clothes in the floor.”

I should…I should…I should. 

Now, there are a few worthwhile shoulds. I should eat more veggies. I should make an appointment with the dentist. I should be kind to everyone I meet. But in most cases, this is how I’d describe that big pile of should:

Originality: How do I know what I’m capable of if my life is ruled by shoulds?

Understanding: How will I grasp who I am, what my call is, and where others are coming from if I’m too busy doing shoulds?

Leisure: How will I ever get time to rest and re-center if I’m playing whack-a-mole with shoulds?

Deeper connections: How will I ever create time and space for knowing and being known by God and my loved ones if there’s always – and there is – one more should to check off the list?

Shoulds are loud, persistent, confidence-kicking tyrants. Next time a should pops into your head, ask:

Who says I should do this?

Why is it important to that person that 1) this get done and 2) that I do it?

What do my head, heart, and gut tell me about this should?

How will fulfilling this should help me be the minister, family member, friend, or person God has called me to be?

You are valuable, you are beloved, just as you are. You don’t have to earn it.

Safe for whom?

In several of the communities that I value, there are intense discussions happening about the nature of safe space. Whose sense of safety are we protecting? It’s an important question, one that is rooted in the reality of privilege. All of us are socially located at the intersection of our gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors. Those of us with more privilege are accustomed to others deferring to our safety. I have been wrestling a lot lately with the nature of my privilege as a white, straight, cisgender, Christian, middle class person and the ways my obliviousness to that privilege has harmed others. I want to do better. I must do better. I am grateful for courageous voices that are calling me out, even if the new awareness they spark makes me uncomfortable. After all, what change was ever catalyzed by comfort?

The interactions that are urging me to examine both my innermost self and her outward manifestations are complicated. Listening and speaking can both be shut down quickly, hence the discussions about what makes space safe, and for whom. So what are some of the conversational skills that can help us hang in with one another in the midst of these tough, revealing conversations? Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had from my location as an ever-learning, trying-but-still-stumbling person of privilege:

Clarifying rather than (or at least before) advocating. Most of us speak to be understood before seeking to understand. Reversing that order – asking before telling – can stop a lot of arguments before they start.

Challenging rather than shaming. When we share our own perspectives, what is our goal? Is it to inform, to help our conversation partner grow (challenging), or to make him/her feel bad about her/his status or opinion (shaming)? Information and challenge can strengthen relationships. Shame rarely does that.

Defaulting to belief rather than doubt. Assume that the person saying something hard to hear is telling the truth.

Using “I” rather than “you.” “I” statements (“I feel angry when…” as opposed to “you make me angry”) are basic communication skills, yet we rarely use them. Starting a sentence with “you” tends to put hearers on defense. “I” signals I’m about to talk from my experience.

Avoiding exceptionalism. Don’t leap to self-defense when someone calls out privilege. Instead, take a moment to consider whether s/he might be right.

Striving for unity rather than uniformity. We will never all agree. That is ok. But we can look for shared values and purpose to rally around. And in doing so, we will better get to know one another, our histories, and our points of view.

What would you push back on, delete from, or add to this list?

Creative Commons image “listen (069/365)” by Tim Pierce is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

10 ways to strengthen relationships in the new year

It’s a strange world we live in. In some ways, our relationships are stronger than ever, thanks in large part to technology. In other ways, we are more disconnected from each other than we’ve ever been (at least partially due, ironically, to the ways we use technology).

Whatever the state of our relationships, it never hurts to reinforce them. After all, they are the primary means for creating circles of care, affecting change, and ushering joy into the world. I’ve developed a list of ten ways to strengthen relationships in this still-young year. They can be applied to individual bonds, teamwork, and our walk with God.

Deepen trust. Without authentic trust, relationships will always stay at a surface level. What small risk are you willing to take to show the real you? How might you invite others to do the same?

Add a layer of communication. We generally believe we’ve been heard better than we actually have been. How can you relay important information in an additional, different way so that everyone is operating from a shared understanding?

Share stories. Narrative is the root and food of knowing and being known. It prompts people to laugh, mourn, and plot together. What anecdote or arc speaks to where you are or how you’re feeling today? Who needs to hear it? Whose stories do you want to seek out?

Reflect on the relationship. Ok, it’s awkward, but it never hurts to ask for feedback on how the relationship is going. What’s working (and not) for him/her? For you? Disconnects can’t be repaired if they aren’t identified.

Embrace conflict. Conflict is simply a difference of opinion. It doesn’t have to come with all the baggage we tend to load onto it. Being forthright – in respectful ways – about our disagreements allows us to learn, and our openness to one another in moments of dissent breeds trust.

Help one another be fully engaged in the relationship. Everyone’s personality is different. As an extreme introvert, for example, I need lots of alone time to be fully present with people. Know and own your quirks, and support others in theirs.

Examen each day. Engage in some sort of reflection at the end of each day. How was I a good friend? How did I fall short? Utilizing the spiritual practice of examen opens up the possibilities even more. Where did I notice God at work today? How did I aid in or hinder the in-breaking of God’s peace?

Increase your curiosity. Instead of imagining someone’s beliefs or motives, ask: tell me what you were thinking when… What did you hope to accomplish by…? We usually default to assuming the worst, and often the truth is better (or at least more complex) than what we thought.

Start from common values or vision. Consider what all parties can affirm. Even if there are differing ideas about how to approach problems, there can be shared commitments underlying them. That’s a much more promising starting point for connection and for change.

Affirm one another. Name what you appreciate in one another. Be specific, and focus on attitudes and actions rather than appearance. Not only does a genuine compliment provide a serotonin boost, it also helps people identify and navigate from their strengths.

Which of these ideas could you begin implementing today? What would you add to this list?

Creative Commons image “Free Hugs” by Ricardo Moraleida is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.





My guiding words for 2017

Sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. Recently it ambushed me by way of an interview that entertainer/faux (?) journalist Samantha Bee conducted with pundit Glenn Beck. (If you click on the link, be prepared for strong language.) In it Bee and Beck, who inhabit opposite ends of the political spectrum, acknowledged that they have more in common than it seems. They celebrated their fledgling friendship by sharing a strange bedfellows cake.

That liberals and conservatives can work together on issues affecting us all was no surprise to me. What did catch me off guard was Glenn Beck’s warning that Samantha Bee was in danger of becoming – like him – a “catastrophist,” someone who reads the worst into every headline. As the earth has shifted beneath my feet the past couple of months, I’ve had to refocus myself continually on hope, courage, and justice. In those many moments when I’ve been less than successful at this, I too have been tiptoeing into catastrophist territory. (Vigilance and action are warranted in such a time as this. Catastrophism, however, consumes physical, mental, and spiritual energy that could be used more constructively.)

Surprised by this self-knowledge, three adjectives popped to mind, and they will serve as my touchstones for the year. I aim to be:

Curious. What’s really happening in this situation? What do I not yet understand? What’s going on inside of me? Denial and assumptions rarely lead to the best course of action.

Present. Who is around me? What do they need from me? What do I need so that I can stay engaged, insofar as it is productive? Insulating ourselves from the hopes and fears of others has led to a fractured church and a deeply-divided country.

Resilient. How will I stoke my resolve to be kind when kindness is not returned? To be brave when I am scared? To see things as they are, but still move forward in the confidence that this bad thing is not the last thing? 2017 promises many setbacks to the commitments I hold dear, but as matters of faith and integrity, I must keep showing up.

This is my mindset as we begin the new year. What word(s), phrase, quote, or song is guiding you? Let’s support and hold one another accountable.

Creative Commons image “New Years 2017” by maf04 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Book review: Good Christian Sex

During my junior year of high school, my Southern Baptist church mounted a True Love Waits campaign. I vividly remember well-meaning but embarrassed adults reciting talking points in a room still half-darkened after an overwrought video viewing. Afterward each youth was handed a TLW pledge card and a pen, with the clear expectation that we would sign away any pre-marital possibilities of fornication on the spot. I scrawled my name enthusiastically. When asked, I proudly marched to the front of the worship space to declare my chaste intentions before the whole congregation. I hung my turquoise pledge card above the switchplate in my bedroom as a reminder of my promises to God, myself, and my future husband. I was girded up for battle with my hormones and any potential suitor’s ill intentions.

And then I went to a sleepover at my Sunday School teacher’s house. There girls who were younger than me and who had committed to virginity alongside me shared about their sexual encounters, mostly with older boys who had applied at least a modicum of pressure. An unmarried woman in her twenties, my teacher answered our questions about sex from personal experience. I was confused, to say the least.

My confusion, which followed me into my adult years, didn’t just impact my romantic relationships. It also hamstrung my ministry to youth. I have had primary ministerial responsibility for youth on and off over the last fourteen years. In that time I’ve often felt convicted to discuss sexuality in the context of theology and discipleship. And I’ve not had a clue how to do it. While I don’t think abstinence-only sex ed does anyone any favors – there are plenty of studies that show this approach generally does not reduce risky behaviors but instead leaves young people more vulnerable to poor choices –  I couldn’t sort my own heart and mind out enough to make sex an approachable, healthy, or faithful topic in the congregational setting. The best I could do was to let my kids know that I loved them and that I was available to discuss difficult things with them.

If I’d had Bromleigh McCleneghan’s new book Good Christian Sex sooner, I’d have been much better prepared to deal with my own mess of thoughts and feelings and to help others sort through theirs. Bromleigh, a United Methodist minister, gives us a book that is well-researched and well-rounded. It draws from scripture as well as from the writings of theologians, psychologists, and philosophers. It’s located, meaning it takes biblical and contemporary sociopolitical contexts into account. It parses out terms that have often been lumped together, like “celibacy” and “chastity.” It’s readable, with a narrative touch and phrases that transport me back to key relational moments. It’s clear and convicted in its premise – that sexual intimacy can be a means of knowing and channeling the Source of all love. It offers a perspective that pushes back against a sometimes abusive purity culture.

But perhaps my biggest takeaways from reading Good Christian Sex were the self-discoveries the book prompted. I thought I’d been carrying one heavy piece of baggage all these years – the message that girls/women who have sex before marriage are damaged goods. But it turns out that in addition to the TLW sentiments that were seared into my brain, the burden was actually distributed among several pieces of luggage: my deep ambivalence (until a God-given vision five years ago) about becoming pregnant. The fact that physical touch is decidedly not my love language of choice. The mixed messages of chastity and self-determination ingrained in me by six years of single-sex education. My concerns about raising a boy in a culture that promotes violence against women.

The gifts of reading this book aren’t all about identifying what has weighed me down, though. I had a sudden, somewhat shocking clarification that while I am progressive on many issues, I am decidedly conservative on this one. I made/renewed my commitment not to judge or shame others – equally loved and valued by God – for making different choices than me. I owned that I am happy with the decisions I have made around sex, even when they weren’t always made for the most healthy reasons.

I believe this is what a good book does. It informs. It gives readers something to push back on. It forges new connections and encourages new understandings. So while I don’t agree with every point in Good Christian Sex, I am very grateful to Bromleigh for writing it, and I highly recommend it to ministers, youth workers, and parents as a means of preparing for hard but essential conversations.