Congregational Transformation

Two Secrets of Good Leadership: Learning to Live with Other People's Pain and with Your Own Mistakes

By Derek Penwell

Two Keys to Good Leadership

Thesis: You can’t be a good leader until you get comfortable with other people’s pain and with your own mistakes.

Learning to Live with Other People’s Pain

I know about a church that developed some bad habits over the years. They had worked with a paradigm of ministry in which the minister was responsible for virtually everything. If a light bulb burned out in the exit sign, they dropped a note to the minister. When the lady who was supposed to bring the grape jello to Vacation Bible School forgot, everything stopped while they called the minister to let him know. When the garbage cans didn’t get put back, somebody would leave a message on the answering machine to apprise the minister of this crucial oversight.

And, as if by magic, new light bulbs and purple jello would appear. The garbage cans mysteriously found their homes. The minister made sure complaints were addressed and problems were solved. He did most of it himself.

The arrangement suited everybody—the minister had a compelling need to feel needed, and the congregation had a capacious reservoir of need. Everybody wins![1]

Except when the minister left, the arrangement was no longer viable. Now there was a congregation trained to be needy, but no longer anyone to meet those needs. How do you handle a situation like that?

What will the next minister have to do if she doesn’t want to continue this co-dependent relationship?

She’s going to have to develop an extraordinarily high tolerance for pain.

“What?”

Any minister who wants to make changes to a system that depends on the minister to make changes is going to have to get comfortable watching people suffer.

“How can you possibly say that? Isn’t suffering part of what ministers are supposed to be in the business of alleviating?”

No. Where did you get that idea? Ministers are in the business of helping equip people for the reign of God. Sometimes that means being intensely and pastorally present when people suffer. But pastoral ministry is almost never about fixing people’s suffering, about doing away with people’s anxieties, about slaying everyone’s dragons for them.

Pastoral ministry is about helping people discover a new story that makes sense of their suffering and anxiety (and hope, doubt, aspirations, needs, etc.) in light of God’s reconciling love manifested in Jesus Christ.

In the case I’ve been describing the new pastor, if she is going to be faithful to her vocation, is going to have to get comfortable with the pain caused when people see burned-out light bulbs, jello-less VBS extravaganzas, empty garbage cans by the side of the road, and mistakenly believe that the only person responsible for them is the minister.

“So, you’re saying the minister should just be lazy and let everybody else do everything?”

No. I’m saying that if everybody else believes the only person who needs to do anything is the one getting paid, you haven’t hired a minister; you’ve hired domestic help.[2] The minister isn’t doing anybody any favors by constantly rescuing the congregation from those situations for which other people need to be taking some responsibility.

Authentic, Jesus-centered ministry that seeks to enable growth rather than merely enable, requires learning to have a high threshold for other people’s pain.

It’s tough, but there aren’t any shortcuts.

Learning to Love Your Own Mistakes

I just took a group of people down to San Luis Potosí, México. We work in a children’s home there, started by Ted and Wanda Murray. I’ve been taking groups down for over 20 years now. The trip is one of my favorite things to do.

Anyway, I took my two oldest children again this year. My daughter wants to speak Spanish better to be able to communicate with the kids down there. So, I started her on a language series, The Pimsleur Method (It’s the best language learning system I’ve found, for whatever that’s worth).

So, I've been talking to my daughter about how her Spanish is progressing. She said she really likes the lessons. So, I gave her some tricks about learning a language.

“The nice thing about the Pimsleur method,” I said, “is that, if you do it daily, you wind up having to hear yourself speak the language out loud over and over again—which is important, because one of the biggest obstacles to speaking a foreign language when you travel is overcoming your fear of speaking out loud in front of other people.”

She said, “Yeah, that’s the scariest part, because you don’t want to goof up and have people laugh at you.”

“That’s the trick to learning a language, though—being able to withstand the embarrassment of getting it wrong. If you can’t stand being laughed at, you’ll never learn another language.”

Why is that?

Because the process of mastering a language requires making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Tons of mistakes. Painful, embarrassing mistakes.

Learning a language is just as much about learning what not to say. There are no shortcuts to the hours of practice or the patience to endure the humiliation of doing it incorrectly.

I also think that’s another secret to good leadership.

Much of what passes for conventional wisdom about good leadership has to do with always making good decisions.

When presented with a choice, the good leader will choose X; the poor leader will choose Y—where X is eventually shown to be a wise decision, and Y a poor one.

I want to suggest, however, that making good decisions isn’t the best indicator of leadership. Instead, I think the sign of excellence in leadership is the desire to learn from mistakes.

If you’re going to learn to pound nails, you’re going to have to make peace with mashing your thumb every once in a while.

On this reading of leadership, excellence requires not only a willingness to be wrong, but an enthusiasm about being shown where you went wrong. Good leadership values being shown where things went wrong.

You can’t be a good leader without risking mistakes and embracing the humiliation of getting it wrong.

Here’s the secret: Ministry isn’t about being right; it’s about getting it right.

And if you want to get it right, you’d better learn to love your mistakes, because they’re your friends on the path to good leadership.

Good leadership is often counter-intuitive. But if it were easy, great leaders would be everywhere. They’re not. So, we have to work at it.

_______________

  1. Before I get a whole bunch of email arguing either that I’m being unfair to to needy congregations or needy ministers, I’m willing to spread the blame across the clergy/laity spectrum.  ↩
  2. Again, prior to emailing me, let me hasten to say that I know there are lazy ministers out there. If that’s your problem, then this post won’t help you address your situation.  ↩

Accessibility and Necessity

By Rev. Mindi

I remember when my child was less than a year old, joining a clergy group for breakfast, and finding out the hard way the restaurant bathroom had no changing table. And this was one of those baby pooplosions, where you cannot wait to change the diaper. It made me angry, and luckily, my clergy group decided to switch locations after that.

I also remember so many times my husband had to change our son in the car because the men’s public restroom did not have a changing table. Very few still do, and this is 2016.

With all the talk about bathrooms in the news these days, I wonder:

Are we having this conversation about accessible restrooms in our churches?

I serve a congregation where thankfully all of the bathrooms in our small building were renovated in the last fifteen years, are all accessible for disabled persons, and two out of the three having changing tables. All three are large enough not only to bring a wheelchair or walker inside, but also for someone to bring in another person who needs assistance in the bathroom.

My child is almost eight, and due to his disability needs assistance in the bathroom. Oh, and because both my husband and I are incredibly tall people (someone once remarked that we breed giants), our kiddo is the size of a ten-year-old.

I highly suspect this being an election year has brought this latest wave of transphobia and bathroom shock to light. Masked in the cloak of protecting our children from predators (look at statistics of child assault and abuse and you’ll find that 75% of the time it happens within the home from a relative) we have ostracized our transgender kin. And we have made restrooms—a basic function, a basic need of our humanity—less accessible than before.

Even if my kiddo didn’t have a disability that required some assistance in the bathroom, I’ll be honest: as a parent, I have a hard time sending my child alone anywhere with strangers. But I am 100% not worried about transgender folks. I am also 100% not worried about someone pretending to be transgender who might harm my child, because let’s face it, that is NOT happening. That is a lie perpetuated to drum up fear in an election cycle. No. I am concerned, however, of something happening to my child in a public restroom from a child predator, who most likely will be a white straight dude, based on statistics.

I remember the fear when I sent my child to preschool, after having moved, knowing no one in the area. Sending my child to a strange teacher with strange paraeducators in the classroom who would be helping my son use the restroom. Why? Because videos and stories of students with disabilities being abused by staff are abundant on the internet. New stories are abundant in the suburbs of Seattle, along with stories from parents.

I have seen the stares, heard the jokes, seen the rolling eyes by women as I bring my tall son into the bathroom with me. I remember once at a child’s play space a young girl complaining that “there is a boy in the bathroom!” I once had someone complain when my child was three—yes, three years old—that he didn’t belong in the women’s bathroom with me.

I am afraid for transgender people. I am afraid that they will be abused and harmed, even killed, by someone claiming to “protect” someone else. I am also afraid that as my child grows larger, as he gains more independence and uses the restroom by himself, people will report him because of his strange sounds and the time he spends in the restroom. I have known many parents of teens with disabilities telling me how they had to talk with a police officer outside of a public restroom where their child was inside because someone called the police on a “dangerous” person inside. I am also afraid that someone will take action themselves and claim to be “protecting” others.

So what can we do as the church? I’ve seen many conversations in social media focusing on certain laws and policies, but what about within your own congregation’s physical space?

We can start by creating safe spaces in our churches. Create restrooms that are accessible for persons with disabilities and their caregivers. Make it known that these restrooms are accessible and gender neutral. If you have existing men and women’s restrooms, if they have single stalls this makes it easier to go gender neutral, but also consider the need to renovate (if you can, knowing how church budgets are these days) to make them accessible for persons with disabilities. Also add changing tables, and if you are able to, adult changing tables. I have seen one restroom with an adult changing table. Yes, they are necessary for many adults with disabilities, and finding them in public is a very difficult task.

The simple, shortcut answer, is to create one gender neutral restroom, one accessible restroom out of the rest. This can ostracize folks, singling them out to use that restroom. Also, to be quite honest, it’s a pain to have to wait in line for the restrooms anyway—but to have to wait for that one special stall, or that one special bathroom to open up while everyone else is at least moving forward in line—that’s degrading. The longer-term solution is to make all of our restrooms accessible to all people.

While the debate continues over laws and policies, can’t we, within the church, start making safe and accessible spaces, including restrooms? Can’t we lead the way?

 Many thanks to the Unitarian Universalist Association for this inclusive restroom sign.

Many thanks to the Unitarian Universalist Association for this inclusive restroom sign.

Enemies, Trust, and Dying for Congregational Transformation

By Derek Penwell

From time to time someone will come to my office, anxiety etched across the brow, looking for a listening ear. When I open the door on these occasions, I don’t know what kind of pain lies on the other side. I summon my best active listening practices from Pastoral Care 101, and I say, “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well, Gladys and I have been having problems. You may have noticed we haven’t been around much lately.”

 

Sometimes I have, and sometimes I haven’t. I try to remain noncommittal: “I”m glad you’re here now."

“Let me cut to the chase.”

(That’s good. I’m pro cut-to-the-chase.)

“I think Gladys has been having an affair with a co-worker…”

And with that we embark on an all too familiar journey into betrayal, fear, and recrimination.

I listen to another sad story, which often ends with a question. It’s a big question, one I never feel comfortable answering. People who come to see me with problems like this ask it anyway:

“What should I do?”

I know the difference between directive and non-directive counseling, between offering a way to move forward and offering the person the opportunity to make those kinds of discoveries and decisions. I often have a hard time keeping my mouth shut about what people ought to do, but in these situations, it always seems better (easier?) to go with a non-directive approach:

“What do you want to do?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know what to do. I lover her, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust her again.”

There it is. Trust.

Trust. Relationships require it if they have any chance at being healthy. To say that “once lost, trust is difficult to recover” is, surely, to have said something everyone already knows instinctively. How long does it take to quit checking text messages and phone logs? How much time has to elapse before you believe that a trip to the store for milk and bread is really a trip to the store for milk and bread?

Unfortunately, there’s no calculus capable of offering a quantifiable answer about how much time it takes to rebuild trust. However, one thing is certain: If trust is to be rebuilt, it won’t happen just because of the elapse of time. Trust takes work, hard, often tedious, repetitive, mind-numbing work. Showing up when you say you’re going to show up. Being where you said you’d be. Doing what you said you’d do. Going out of your way to reassure the other person.

No matter how strongly a person feels about having recovered, no matter how eloquent the protestations about “turning over a new leaf,” no matter how many genuine tears are shed seeking forgiveness, there’s no short cut to the actual work of rebuilding trust.

Everyone knows that, right?

The other side of it, though, which also seems equally self-evident, but often gets overlooked in the face of the pain is that the wounded party has to want to heal, has to want to find trust again. This too requires work.

It’s possible to bang your head against a wall for someone who appears only to relish the sight of you concussing yourself. It is impossible to heal, however, when the infliction of pain becomes the glue that holds the relationship together.

Betrayal and the Congregation

It occurs to me that many churches have been wounded, whether by promiscuous pastors who took advantage, or by unprincipled lay leadership, or by denominational neglect–or just because the organizational system was set up to fail. Whatever the cause, the first casualty of betrayal is trust.

Unfortunately, the lack of trust in wounded congregations is a self-destructive feedback loop of bitterness and distrust that inhibits healthy growth and creativity. Distrust in a congregational system treats all change as equally menacing, treats everything new (people, programs, ideas) as presumably hostile–until proven otherwise.

A trip to the store for bread and milk is always assumed to be a pretext for something else, something surely more nefarious.

A new Sunday School class can never be just a new Sunday School class; it’s an indictment of the other Sunday School classes or a new avenue for some hostile party to consolidate power.

A change to the worship service or to the worship space is either an attack on tradition or a play to increase the power base of some suspicious constituency–or both.

What gets communicated in a wounded system where trust has been lost is: “We’re not quite sure yet how you’re trying to screw us over, but we’re pretty sure you are. Therefore, we’re withholding approval and/or permission.”

Has your church lost trust? Here’s an informal checklist:

  • Do you regularly have meetings that last longer than 2 hours?
  • Do people bring dog-eared copies of Robert’s Rules of Order to board meetings?
  • Do you hear at least one reference to the Constitution and By-laws at every meeting?
  • Do people bring their own calculators and red pens to the meeting where the budget is being proposed?
  • Do you have meetings where there are arguments about whether everybody on staff “really needs their own stapler?”
  • Does rearranging the furniture in the narthex or switching brands of air freshener require board approval? (Bonus: If really bad, does it require congregational approval?).
  • Do you have a lot of congregational meetings?
  • Does the announcement of a meeting elicit a particular kind of feeling in your stomach?
  • Do you keep an extra bottle of Rolaids in your car for use before meetings?
  • Does recruiting for congregational officers evoke anxiety not for a fear of who will say “no,” but for fear of who will say “yes?”
  • Do you require a doctor’s note from staff who call in sick?
  • Do you have people who regularly drive by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there?

How Can We Trust Again?

I wish it were easy. It’s not.

I wish I could point you toward “7 easy steps to recovering your trust.” I can’t.

It all comes down to this: a wounded congregation must make a decision to begin trying to trust again. You may get burned. But relationship is always a crap shoot.

How about this?

  • Be mindful that each positive step in which you don’t get hurt is a step in the right direction.
  • Call attention to and celebrate positive steps.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t enter every new situation convinced you’re going to get burned.
  • Assume people (even those who feel like the “enemy”) are telling the truth until you find out otherwise.
  • Don’t get into the habit of thinking of people with whom you share the body of Christ as the “enemy.” It’s too difficult to pull back from the precipice.

Even if trust hasn’t been restored, you’re going to have to live like it has. Until you can live together with a commitment to restoring trust, ministry, if possible at all, can only be tenuous and fragile.

And if all else fails, remember, it’s God’s church–not your’s (or your “enemy’s”).

Besides, trusting your enemy is just about impossible--although dying for your enemy has been done before.

Finding Excuses to Die: The Problem with Thinking It's about Everything Else

By Derek Penwell

(From the archives) 

Finding Excuses to Die

“It was great to see all those people there for Easter yesterday.”

“Pretty great.”

“Of course, and I hate to say it, there’s a part me that dreads Easter.”

“Well, there’s a lot to dread about Easter. It’s busy, and all those extra services. Easter’s tough on ministers.”

“No. That’s not what I’m talking about. Well, all that stuff is hard, but I mean something else.”

“What?”

“Monday. I hate the Monday after Easter. Because as soon as Easter’s over, I start thinking about next week, and how most of those people won’t becoming back. Then that reminds me about how it feels like our congregation’s dying.”

“I know. That’s rough. So, what are you doing to make things different?”

“We want to change.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Well, it’s more complicated than that?”

“More complicated than what?”

“We want to change, but in order to change we need some things to be different.”

“But if things were different, that would be change already, right?”

“Has anybody ever told you how obnoxious you are to talk to?”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. But what is it that you need changed that—if you got it—would finally provide the right environment for transformation?”

“For one thing, we need more people to get involved.”

“How are you going to get them involved?”

“We’ve tried everything we know to try: begging, chiding, wheedling, shaming.”

“How’s that working for you?”

“It’s not, actually, smart guy.”

“So, you can’t change until somebody else does something?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t sound very good when you say it like that.”

“Why else can’t you change?”

“We need more resources.”

“Like what?”

“It’s been tough. The budget’s been a train wreck. Money’s just hard to come by. If we had more money, things would be way easier.”

“What would money buy you that—if you finally had it—would allow you to change?”

“I’m not sure. Wait. I could get a new computer.”

“What would you do with a new computer?”

“I could get more done.”

“What kinds of things could you do with a new computer that you can’t do now?”

“I could write more, organize my time better. Digitally. You know.”

“You don’t have a computer?”

“Yeah, but a new one would be more efficient.”

“I’m just going to take shot in the dark: Have you ever considered the possibility that the quality of your tools isn’t your most pressing problem?”

So, here’s what I think: Most congregations don’t want to change. I’ve said this before, but I’m still convinced it’s true. Most congregations would rather die than change.

Believing that something external has to change before anything internally has a crack at transformation is a recipe for death. Whether you admit it or not, when you say, “Just as soon as _____, then we can start thinking about changing,” you’ve started making preparations to die.

And the convenient part about it is that you’ll have ready made excuses for why it’s dead.

Waiting for the conditions to be just right, focusing on external stuff is like saying:

  • I could be a better preacher if I had a nicer pulpit.
  • We could have more baptisms if we just had a nicer baptistry.
  • We would have bigger budget if we had better accounting software.

It’s fiddling. Plain and simple.

You can’t lose weight by buying a cooler treadmill. If you’re not using the heck out of the one you’ve got, buying a new one is only going to succeed in making you two things you don’t want to be: fat and broke.

In fact, you don’t even need a treadmill at all, we have these wonderfully free analog devices called “roads” and “sidewalks” that, with a little effort should suit your purposes.

If you’re not changing with the people and resources you’ve got, then even if all those Christmas and Easter folks came the next week, nothing would be different. In fact, things might get considerably worse.

Most ministers are afraid in the deepest part of their souls of getting everything they’ve always said they needed.

Because if your wish list is completed, and you finally get everything you think you need to change (more volunteers, a better web site, an associate, the right associate, great leadership, a bigger parking lot, an oversubscribed budget, shade grown coffee and Barcaloungers in the narthex), what happens if things don’t change then?

If you think what’s at stake can be fixed by newer and better Barcaloungers, then this is the best I can do for you.

If you’re worried about equipping disciples for the reign of God, then get back to work. You’ve got all you need to do that right now.

You want to change? Then change.

“That’s easy for you to say.”

No. Well, it may be easy for me to say. But it’s not any easier for me to do than anyone else. I fight my own battles with resistance.

The question isn’t whether I’m perfect at it. The question is whether I’m right about it.

The fact still remains that if you think the culture of your church is going to change for the better if you wait long enough for everything to fall into place before you do the difficult work of transformation, you’re always going to find an excuse to die.

Leading the Way

By Rev. Mindi

Almost three and a half years ago, I began at my current call to ministry, a tiny congregation to the south of Seattle. A congregation with very few children and that, quite frankly, wasn’t used to having children present in the congregation.

My (at the time) four-year-old child with autism was definitely a change for this quiet congregation. AJ can vocalize and laugh and giggle very loudly. On occasion, he had made not-so-happy noises. I have interrupted my own sermon to try to calm him down when others could not.

When we first came, he ran up and down the center aisle and the sides. He would run all over the chancel throughout the service and be difficult to contain and have him sit still. Once, he figured out that he could step over the pews instead of walking between them, and stepped over each one.

I heard complaints on occasion about my son being too disruptive and too loud. My first pastoral relations committee meeting was a tough one. I heard people ask if my husband could take my child to his church instead. I know people want to come and worship and take that one hour out of the week to reconnect with God and it’s hard to do it when the child next to you is screaming, or shouting, or yelling. But it’s even harder for the parent who wants to come to worship with their family and finds they are not welcome, let alone the pastor.

Now at age seven and-a-half, AJ still runs around, up and down the aisle. He sits at the drum kit and plays the drums, and often at the keyboard, refusing to follow any instructions but plays his own tune. However, when the prelude starts, for the most part he now knows that he needs to sit down. He often sits in the back pew with a friend, sometimes one his own age, but often an adult who can help him sit most calmly in church.

But something remarkable has happened in these three and-a-half years, and it’s not that AJ has quieted down or matured a little. It isn’t that AJ has changed his behavior; it is that the church has changed with him. Children now take the offering during worship, and on occasion AJ has helped. A few young families have come with their little ones who have run up and down the aisle and all over the chancel. The children lead the adults in saying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday before the Prayers of the People. And one of our youngest read part of the Gospel According to Luke on Christmas Eve, along with the other adult readers.

At my most recent pastoral relations committee meeting, one of the eldest members of the congregation brought up how wonderful it was that children feel free to dance and wiggle and move about. She remarked how delightful it was to her, that it warmed her heart to see the children so free to be themselves in our church, a place where they are welcome just as they are. And she turned to me and said, “It’s because of AJ. AJ has made this church welcoming of all children.”

Too many churches still try to do a separate-but-equal ministry for persons with disabilities, or an outreach to persons who are houseless, or to teens who are at-risk. Too many churches want to do something to change other people, to make them more acceptable.

But this is what inclusion does: inclusion changes us.

We are continuing to have to push for inclusion in our child’s school and our school district. Often, students with special needs like our child’s are separated in a Special Education class. While they receive more individualized instruction, they do not receive the socialization with other students. However, as we keep promoting at our child’s school, it’s less for AJ’s growth as it is for the other general education students. How will “typical” peers ever learn about students with disabilities if they are not in their classes? How will adults live with and work with (and hire, if they become employers) students with disabilities if they have had little to no social interaction with their disabled peers?

Outside of public education, we still are struggling for inclusion for AJ in extra-curricular activities: music and dance and sports. Summer camps have been notorious for not including (by not accommodating) students with different needs. And sadly, this has proved true for us, even at church-run day camps and Vacation Bible Schools. We know from other parents that this does not get any easier as children grow into teens and young adults; few of them are ever included in the events of their peers.

This is one of the places that the church still has the opportunity to lead the way in our communities, and frankly, in our world as a whole. We have the opportunity to lead the way in building up the beloved, inclusive community of Christ here on earth. We have the ability to truly make a difference—not just for people with disabilities—but for all of us, because inclusion changes us. And I believe it changes us to be more like the image of God.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. ~Isaiah 11:6

Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. ~Mark 10:15