leadership

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.

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  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.  ↩

The Best Darn Continuing Education Event You Will Ever Attend

By Rev. Mindi

A few years ago, some of the people I follow on Twitter started using the hashtag #unco. I asked what it was, and that was the first I heard of the UnConference, a time when clergy and other church leaders can gather together, share ideas, and dream together of what creative ministry could be. At first, I thought, “that sounds nice, but I have so many denominational responsibilities and other conferences I want to go to, I don’t think I can fit another in.”

Then I learned that the UnConference isn’t really a conference (re-read the name). There are hosts and organizers, but no keynote speakers. We all bring something. We all come away with something. We all participate and learn and teach together. I started thinking that this might be something I’d really like—a group of colleagues to hang out with and share stories and insights. After all, isn’t that the best part of conferences—the after-hours when you get together and talk, not the hours of listening to a keynote (even if they are great speakers)?

However, I learned even more: this was something you could bring your kids to! Say WHAT?! They have KidUnco. Kids have their own times to participate so you can go to breakout sessions and learn and chat together. Or, you can bring your kiddo with you if you want to. And there is free time to explore, and we all stay in the same place together so you can hang out with other adults when your kiddo goes to sleep. Unlike denominational conferences where you have to go to bed when your kiddo goes to bed because you’re in a hotel floors and doors away, you are right there.

The cost is way, way less than any conference I ever paid for. Right in line with a lot of denominational continuing education scholarships, too. And they have two locations: East (at Stony Point, New York) and West (at San Francisco Theological Seminary in California). East is May 16th through 18th this year (West is in October; we are still waiting to confirm exact dates).

I learned more in the first fifteen minutes in my first UNCO breakout on finances (called “Show Me The Money”) than I did in the required seminary course on church administration and stewardship. I learned more from my UNCO experiences than I have from any other continuing education opportunity. And, unlike most conferences and workshops, the work is continuing. Not like boring homework, but good work—new insights, ideas, and colleagues partnering with you. I have at least two groups that have continued, one since 2014 on funding, that meet monthly via video chat. I get to connect with my friends in ministry in real time and chat about what is going on and work on what I want to work on for my ministry.

All those @ names I was following that used the #unco hashtag? They became my friends, most of whom I have now met in real life. Most are not of my denomination, either, which is helpful. I have accountability, friendship, and encouragement in a very 21st century way that is helpful to who I am as a pastor and the ministry I am engaged with.

UNCO allows for creativity and collaborating. UNCO has given me a space in which I not only enjoy the work we are doing together but I also find rest and renewal. It’s both work and self-care all in one. And my clergy spouse and my kiddo get to come with me because it’s open for all of us.

Consider joining us at UNCO this year. For more information, visit www.unco.us. Registration for East is available, and West will be soon (those of us who go to the West location often like to say #westisbest, but to each their own). And follow #unco16 on social media! 

 

Some Thoughts about Congregational Leadership

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

The office I now occupy in the congregation I serve went unoccupied for about eight months.  After their former pastor left, the church decided not to hire an interim pastor, but instead had a local hospital chaplain fill the pulpit on a weekly basis.   He was not responsible for any of the pastoral or administrative work that needed to be done.  His role was to preach and preside at the table.  Everything else a pastor might do, church members took on themselves to do.  I have to admit they seemed to do it quite well.  The elders and the church board kept meeting and doing their work.  The elders pastorally caring for the church members and the board overseeing the whole life of the church, with special attention to the financial situation.  Sunday school was staffed each week and the entire youth program was continued.  They kept alive their ministry of partnering with other congregations during the winter months to make certain the area homeless have food and warm shelter for the cold nights.  All in all, the folks did a very good job of keeping the ministry of this congregation moving forward.

                So I am sitting now in the office that went unoccupied for several months and thinking about my role as pastor of this quite capable congregation.  Where should I spend my time? To what areas should I give my attention?  What should be the focus of my leadership?   The question of the role of pastoral leadership in this day is an extremely important one.  Not just for me, but for anyone who seeks to provide leadership in a local congregation.  Are we called to be leaders who help maintain the organization?  Should our focus be on the numbers?  Looking for growth in membership and budget.  Are we chaplains or prophets?  Or a little bit of both? 

Since I went to seminary thirty years ago, I don’t know what is presently being taught now about the kind of leaders that congregations need.  I do know as I sit in this office that went unoccupied for a while, surrounded by people who are very able to be church without me, I am giving lots of thought to what kind of leader I need to be for this congregation.  Here are some things I think:

1)      My role isn’t to be a program builder, but the one who reminds the folks why we do what we do.  In other words, remind them about Jesus and how we are to be His presence in the world.  My role is to help the congregation stay rooted in the Gospels and the message of good news for all people that is there.  I just finished reading the book, “Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in Ministry Failure.”  The author wrote of a mega-church conference where a number of pastors spoke about their “success” in ministry without even mentioning Jesus.  When we forget about Jesus, it may not be his work that we are doing at all.

2)      My role is to help the congregation as a whole to interpret the faith for this day and time.  When the question “Where are the young people” is asked my job is to help the church ask the question “Are we talking about and doing the things that help younger folks in their own experience of faith?”  That is, are we talking about meaning and purpose and are we engaged in hands-on-mission that makes a difference in the lives of people?

3)      My role is to help the congregation be ready for the emerging expressions of faith that are popping up around us.  Not to be afraid of them or feel as if we are in competition, but to understand that it might well be God doing a new thing in our midst.

4)      I need to be a leader who lets the people know that I am on the same journey in life that they are.  I am also trying to understand what my place is in this world.  And how I try to make sense of things from the perspective of my faith.  I lead by not just standing in front of them, but walking beside them as we journey together on this path of life. I came across a quote recently that asked “What does the world need: gifted men and women outwardly empowered? Or individuals who are broken, inwardly transformed?” (Gene Edwards, “A Tale of Three Kings”)  I think the church needs leaders of the second sort.

The specifics of my leadership role, of course, include sermons, bible studies, pastoral care and some oversight responsibilities.  It includes being present with the people as we minister together to the homeless of our area.  But understanding the reason behind those specifics is, I think, extremely beneficial to myself and to the congregation.

If you are a pastor, I encourage you to try and be clear about what your leadership role is in the life of the church you serve.  If you are a parishioner, I hope you and your congregation are clear with your pastor about what kind of leader you hope the pastor will be.  Leadership makes a difference and there needs to be clarity about what that leadership is for the church today.

Church, Go Back to School!

By Rev. Mindi

We checked in over coffee, talking about the start of the year, about what hadn’t been done over the summer. We shared our frustrations about things that were still the same, and celebrated the changes that have been made and places where we saw hope and opportunity.

We weren’t talking about church; we were talking about school.

Over the course of the conversation, as we talked about our admiration for the younger teachers who seemed to be able to adapt and adjust better, who could multitask and understand the differing needs of today’s children, of all abilities, I couldn’t help but think about church and how so many of the conversations we are having in the public education sphere are almost the same conversations we are having in the church world. While a younger age does not guarantee someone is open to change and adaptation, these observations came from parents at this gathering about younger teachers and administrators:

-Technology is seen as a necessity, not a luxury, especially for students with disabilities, and all students benefit from access to technology.

-They use social media as a teaching tool in the classroom, to share the accomplishments of the school with the public, and to connect with parents and families.

-They are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom, even when there are disruptions and distractions.

-They want to know about students’ lives outside of the classroom—culture, family, interests, progress they are making academically and socially.

 

In contrast, teachers and administrators that are “old school” tend to be:

-Unfamiliar with technology or supports for students with different and unique needs.

-Unfamiliar with social media—even afraid to use it for fear of privacy concerns.

-Using one-size-fits-all models of classroom instruction and behavior expectation.

-Unable to adapt to major changes—want to use same curriculum or method of teaching.

-Struggle with cultures that are different or new to them.

Of course, these are generalizations. Of course, every school is different, every administrator and teacher is different. However, public education in the United States is changing, and these conversations are eerily similar to the conversations I have with my colleagues in ministry.

There are plenty of factors that make a comparison between the church and public school a different one. However, in this conversation with parents, I heard many familiar themes:

-Struggle of an institution stuck in patterns of the past.

-Administrators unable to think outside of the box and try new ideas, or even see the reason for doing something in a different way.

-Teachers not being paid enough to live even near the communities they teach in.

-Not enough resources to go around.

-Access to technology lacking.

-Buildings in dire need of updating, but can’t due to lack of funds.

-Struggle of educating students in a rapidly changing multi-cultural community.

-The number of students on free and reduced lunch rapidly on the rise.

Change “Administrators” to “Administration Board” or whatever your governing body is, change “teachers” to pastors, etc. You get the idea. Our communities are changing with new immigrants and cultures and the number of families at or near the poverty level is on the rise.

What I see that is helpful in this comparison is that change is possible. As part of this group of parents, I am seeing significant change in our school district towards inclusion of students with disabilities. Younger teachers are being hired who are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom. More resources are being invested in technology, including an app for parents to keep up with what is going on at their child’s school and in the district.

At the same time, teacher salaries are low. Teacher turnover is high in the state of Washington, where I live, and more and more teachers are leaving public education altogether. Bonds are not passing at the local level and so buildings are falling into disrepair, and resources are stretched thin. Every year, there are teacher positions that are unfilled by a permanent teacher and instead filled by a substitute, sometimes for the entire year.

The conversation is all too familiar. All too close to home. What can we learn, and what can we do differently?

Can We All Be More Vulnerable?

By Colton Lott

At the risk of rant, do you want to know what my biggest frustration with the church is?[i] It isn’t that we frequently worship in mausoleums at the risk of financial ruin. It isn’t that we sing songs that reflect a theology or social outlook that we generally decry. It isn’t even that we get hung up on the silliest things and try to call it important aspects of ministry, like the color of the carpet runner or parliamentary procedure. What really trips my trigger and gets me riled up? The fact that we can barely talk about even the small things, much less the big things.

The lack of willingness to engage meaningfully and with sincere openness is, to me, the number one factor affecting the church negatively today. Much like an addict who refuses to name their problem, many churches refuse to admit that they will only have inauthentic conversations about surface issues.

To a degree, this is because leaders are not always the best at prodding and poking for the “real story” to come out. It’s a difficult job to discern when and where to apply pressure to the fault lines of people’s lives—do so correctly, and energy is released constructively, do so haphazardly, and the result is an earthquake. Naturally, I don’t really know how to do this yet myself, but I do know that it’s not being done enough.[ii]

But more pressing than some changes leaders should make, congregations refusing to have hard conversations presents the most detrimental effects on their collective ministry. I think the unwillingness is caused by a marriage between not knowing what a hard conversation looks like and a fear that such discussions, should they arise, would cause a church apocalypse. Any discussion that doesn’t protect and perpetuate the (crumbling) status quo is deadly and unwanted. Such conversations don’t attend to the “real challenges and concrete decisions” that a church has to make.

However, and this is an important however, very rarely do we stop and ask about how and why we really feel the way that we do. And this lack of reflection is showing. Why cannot we not crack open ourselves to answer questions that deal with the root of our decisions and indecisions? For example, one of my early “not my biggest frustrations” was churches who worship in physical spaces that are exceedingly too large or nonfunctional for their ministry, an inheritance from a time of single-purpose design, higher religiosity and birthrates, and lower upkeep costs.

The conversation about “what do we do now?” gets delayed because of reasons we all too often don’t want to speak out loud. Perhaps it’s because we’re afraid that we will make a financial mistake and due to poor stewardship cause the ministry to fold. We’re fearful that we’ll lose the memories we’ve attached to a specific location. We are personally satisfied and we are worried that changing something big will cause our own satisfaction to dwindle.  

These painfully personal conversations don’t happen because opening up is hard work that requires trust. And the human institution of the church, as much as we like to call it a family, is not always good at holding other people’s feelings in warm and close regard. Often, humans acting together do horrific things, things that make it hard to trust the collective with the individual’s intimate self.

Our unwillingness to be vulnerable is causing our Good News to be disconnected from our deepest self. We sterilize and package until all that is left is freeze-dried and unpalatable to even the most desperate. Goodness is mushed into blandness.

I understand that the church has lackluster obligations like paying the electric bill. But when our organizational leadership is most concerned with the earthly and not heavenly, or even the humanly, then a problem arises. I have yet to see a healthy church that doesn’t have a corresponding healthy governance structure, one that asks and reflects on the hardest questions while attempting to ask individuals to reach deeply into their feelings and ask “why do I really feel this way?”

I overheard a minister friend of mine say that whenever the folks in a church discuss important issues, one should ask “Why is that?” five times in a row to a response, causing the responder to dig deeper and deeper into their own answer, attempting to seek the root of their hope or their fear, their faith or their doubt.

Real truth occurs when we can have real conversations. They don’t just happen, though. I have to commit to trusting the group and trusting that the group will challenge and comfort me if I find out something that I don’t find savory about my own self. I have to resolve to aide others when I find out things that I don’t find appealing about them.

If you’re skimming this article, the take home pay is this: when you show up for your next church board meeting, are the folks around the table talking about something that’s deeper than replacing the lightbulbs? And if not, who is? And if no one is, then why not? And if you can, begin modeling rawness for someone else so that we can all begin to start being authentic, because authenticity starts with sheer vulnerability. Be raw, because so many of our churches are so well-done that they’re, well, done.

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[i] By “biggest frustration” I mean “the biggest frustration I have today.” Tomorrow, it’ll be something different. Frustrating, isn’t it?

[ii] This is not to diminish the reality that some churches are willing to quickly fire or abuse a minister who tries dig too deeply. That is a subject quite different than this article is attempting to deal with. 

Crossing the Great Generational Divide

By Rev. Mindi

Sometimes we lament the fact that our children grow up and then don’t go to church. Or sometimes we lament the fact that they do go to church, but not to our church anymore. I’ve written before about how we can sometimes treat young adults as if they are still children, but I see this happen more and more in the churches I serve: we remember people as we once knew them, not who they are now. We still remember when they were kids, and sometimes we still treat them like they are children.

More importantly, however, we do not see how we have grown and changed. And aged. In this time, when 50 is the new 40, 40 is the new 30, etc., we have forgotten that 40 year olds are not young adults, but we treat them that way. And sometimes those of us pushing upper 30’s and early 40’s forget that we are technically middle-aged, not young adults. And I’ve heard retirees feel that they are still much younger than they are. Heck, I know people in their sixties and seventies dying their hair weird colors and getting tattoos just like twenty-year-olds are doing.


What does this matter? Aren’t these all just labels anyway?

In the structure of the church, this can matter greatly. It probably shouldn’t, but it does. Teens and younger adults who were part of the church and are now in their 40’s and 50’s are still treated like children. They are still treated as if they cannot make a commitment or be dependable in the life of the church, and sometimes are not offered leadership positions or their offers to volunteer are not taken seriously.

There’s been so much written about churches and generation gaps and Millenials, Millenials, Millenials—while the next generation is getting ready to graduate high school and we aren’t ready for them—that I think we have completely missed the boat on this conversation.

We need to change the conversation from being about one generation, or about how one generation relates to another, but rather how we see ourselves. Are we truly the Church, the Body of Christ? If so, we are one of the last multi-generational organizations in existence. We are one of the last places where inter-generational community can take place.

But it doesn’t. Instead, we tend to stick with those in our stage of life as we have been seen in the church. I believe that these “stages of life” as I am calling them here come into play more often than actual generations.  These are some generalizations coming up, but see if your church doesn’t generalize based on these “stages” either: children and youth (those under the age of 25) young adults (i.e. those who are single and under 50), young couples (those couples without children that are under 50), young families (single and coupled parents with children whose children are under the age of 25 and the parents are under the age of 60), grandparents and those close to retiring (ages 50-70—can be single, coupled, can be parents or grandparents), recent retirees (70-80) and Seniors (80+).  There is some wiggle room in this, but I feel it has less to do with generations as defined in society and more to do with stages of life. And as more and more people live longer, the age range for these younger “stages” has widened. Look at that: all of the stages under 50 are mainly considered "young."

You might think this, just like generation definitions, is just a bunch of baloney. But as more and more people wait for marriage and children, as more and more people choose second careers and go back to school in their 40’s (or 50’s and 60’s), these age ranges are becoming greater. What seems to have happened is that Gen X, Millenials and the upcoming generation have been lumped into one: the “young adult generation” or “young adult stage.”

What does this mean for leadership in the church?  It means that even though you have aged, you might still see yourself in the same stage, or close enough to it. It means that your definition of young might have changed, because you are no longer in your thirties but your fifties. It means that a search committee looking for a “young” pastor 40 years ago was looking for someone in their 20’s, maybe their 30’s. Today, a “young pastor” could be anyone under 50!  It means that sometimes pastors are turned down who are under 50 because they are seen as not having enough experience.  It means that in regional and national denominational committees and boards, one persons’ definition of young may be very different than another person’s definition of young.

My spouse, who will be turning 43 soon, is still called a “young pastor” and a “young adult.”  I am very close to 40. I am still often am asked if I am serving in my first church (I’m at my third call). I'm in a very different place than I was at 24 and out of seminary, but I'm often not seen that way. And my colleagues coming out of seminary are in need of church positions to move into and that can't happen if those of us in our 40's and 50's are still considered young and still being hired for those positions that young clergy need in order to begin following their calls to ministry.

While in larger congregations some of the age ranges in these stages may be smaller (I know some churches that would not call adults in their 40’s young adults, nor would they call families with teenagers young families, but I have seen and experienced this in many churches both as a pastor, as a visitor, and as a consultant), these stages do set our points of view in a certain way. For folks who are in the “grandparent and close to retiring” stage, the “young families” and “young adults” and “young couples” really could be pushing 50 and they would still think of them that way, as “young.”

So what does this all mean? I’ve just created yet another system of categorization and labels that are not helpful, right?

Maybe. Maybe though we can use this to help deconstruct the myths around age and what is “young” and “old” in the church. Maybe we can stop referring to people in their 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s as “young adults” and think of them as adults in the life of the church, capable and gifted for leadership. And yes, maybe some of us on the “younger” side could stop looking at those over 60 as too old and too traditional and too set in their ways, and we can stop making side comments when they dye their hair or get tattoos. We need to find ways of crossing generations and life stages to be the Church, the body of Christ.

The lectionary Gospel text this Sunday is Mark 3:20-35. I wonder if maybe Jesus, who was in his 30’s, was still just seen as a “young adult” or even “Joe and Mary’s kid.” When Mary and his brothers came and called to him, maybe Jesus was tired of still being seen as a young adult or child. Jesus says, after looking around at those who have sat with him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Maybe we truly need to start seeing each other as our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, kindred in Christ. If we could see the person who seems too young to be moving into that leadership position as my sibling—if we could see each other as equals in relation to each other—we could give up our need for control and power, our need to put down others as not having what it takes just yet. If we could see each other as part of the body of Christ, as equals—we could let go of these generation gaps and be truly intergenerational, interconnected, integral to the body of Christ.

Reverent and Rule-Breaking: There's a Woman In the Pulpit

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Available today at Skylight Paths Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble

I have had the pleasure of being part of the RevGalBlogPals community, a group of active clergywomen bloggers, and the great honor of being a contributing author in the RevGals first collective book There’s a Woman In the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments, and the Healing Power of Humor, which is being released today by Skylight Paths Publishing.

As Rev. Martha Spong, director of RevGalBlogPals and the editor of this work (as well as a seminary colleague and friend of mine), states in the introduction, “Our community includes people who are single and married and partnered and divorced and widowed, gay and straight, cis- and transgender, parents and not, clergy and clergy spouses and laypeople, with an age range of twenty-something to seventy-something…” and we come from a variety of denominations around the world. In short, you will not find another work with the personal voices of such a diverse group of clergy women.

Included in this diversity of clergy women’s personal stories are some common threads: the difficulty of following one’s call into ministry by a still male-dominated patriarchal church structure, sometimes calling women away from the denomination of their youth; the focus by others on what clergy women wear and look like; wrestling with theological questions and walking with people on their faith journeys. 

There are prayers and poetry, laments and reflections; tales of baptisms and communions, deaths and births, revelations and resolutions. The stories shared are often of those intimate moments in ministry: placing ashes upon the forehead of a stranger; praying for a dying stranger; baptizing a child; being in the ER when people are informed their loved ones are gone. These intimate moments are shared beautifully, and as I read them, renewed in me the understanding of God’s call to this important ministry I am part of as a Christian pastor.

As I read each woman’s story, I recognized my own frustrations and trying times of being a woman in ministry. I especially resonated with the tales of breaking the rules. Standing in the line of Jesus, women called into ministry have been called to break the rules—even if their denomination ordains women. We still are challenging a status quo, a cultural idea that men are ministers and women are not. And in subtler ways we have been breaking rules even in our liberal, affirming contexts, because the work is not done to welcome all and to follow Jesus’ call.

This is not just a book to give to the clergy woman you know, though she will enjoy it, I’m sure. This is the book to give to anyone considering the ministry. This is the book to give anyone who loves Jesus but isn’t sure about the church and its laundry list of rules. Guess what—some of the clergy aren’t so sure about those rules, either. Yes, there is a place for you. There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and she’s inviting you in.


Inclusion and Acceptance--of those already among us

By Rev. Mindi

Recently, my son AJ was invited to a birthday party. This is a rare occurrence for us, as AJ has special needs and is not included in a classroom with typically developing peers. Though he goes on field trips and is on the playground at recess and in the cafeteria for lunch, most of the time he is in a classroom with other special needs students.  We know families with typically developing children, but AJ is often not invited to birthday parties. I’m sure it is not on purpose; I’m almost certain that he wasn’t thought of, or it was assumed that we would find it too much trouble to go, or that AJ would not be able to participate. Even when he is invited, often the other children do not interact with him. They don’t know him and don’t know how to. He doesn’t go up and talk to them like typically developing children; they have to take the initiative to go up to him, say hi and try to communicate with him.

This birthday party was great because he was not only invited, he was included and some of the kids knew him from other parties and occasions, and some of the older children did communicate with him. And when he didn’t respond at first and I told the older girl who was asking him a question that he had autism, she replied “One of my friends has autism” and went on to tell me about their friend.

This experience led me to reflect on the church, as all too often we say “no one is coming” or “there isn’t anyone to ask.” How many people do we not think of because of their age, or perceived ability, or perceived allowance of time? How often do we ask the same people over and over again, and not realize the people who are missing out on being involved in ministry?

And though I know we are all tired of the generational divide discussions, how many of our churches do not ask folks in younger generations to participate in the leadership and ministry of the church because of the assumptions we make? “They’re too busy,” or “They only come once in a while so I’m not sure how committed they are,” or even “They don’t know how to do it yet.”  I have heard all of those assumptions made about Gen Xers and Millenial church members that really wanted to be involved, but were never asked. And I wonder if the problem might be that we don’t know how to communicate past our assumptions.

Often the reality is that we act like parents planning a party, and we don’t even realize who we are not inviting. And when we do, we come up with quick excuses to dismiss them, and we’re not even conscious of what we are doing. We don’t want to be overbearing on the new family. We don’t want to burden the individual who started coming six weeks ago. We don’t want to ask the college graduate because they might get a job and be too busy or move away. We don’t invite the person who said no last time we asked because we assume they will say no again. And so on and so forth.

We need to be open to all of God’s people for all of the ministries of the church. And while I am thinking of my son AJ, I am reminded that folks with disabilities in our church are able to participate. There are a variety of ministries and a variety of gifts.

Inclusion is something we are constantly working on as a church. We want to extend the welcome to participate in the community of faith to all—but we often still have to work on including and accepting the people who are already part of us.

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

An Open Letter to All Those Who Came To Church

By Rev. Aaron Todd

To the one who came to church, 

It's a busy day.  You have a busy life.  You don't even have to be here.  After all, what is one Sunday out of the fifty-one others that will come and go during this year?  You've got a packed schedule and a brain and a heart that is full of thoughts, questions, and to-do lists. Some days, it's hard enough to get up and get moving when you have to be at a place where you get paid for your presence and participation.  Wouldn't it be nice to have a morning where you did not have to rush to get the family dressed and fed and hurriedly out the door?   No one would blame you if you were somewhere else today.

But you are here today.  There are many times when I long to crawl inside your head and your heart so that I may see more clearly what leads you out of your daily grind and into the Church and what good news you long to hear. 

What is it that brings you here?  Is it obligation and a sense of duty? Is it a need for refuge and a desire for sanctuary?  It is it a longing for community and companionship?  To you come here looking for a sense of belonging?  Do you enter through the doors of the Church desperately needing to hear the Good News that tomorrow can be brighter than today? What is it that calls you out of your home and into the house of God?  

Perhaps you come out of a sense of duty, and you sometimes feel under appreciated or that your commitment is not noticed or does not make a difference.  When you think those thoughts and when you feel like you are not making a difference, please know that I appreciate you and that what you do here is seen by the One we serve and that what you do matters.  

Perhaps you are coming here seeking sanctuary and safety. Feeling as if the world is an unforgiving and unrelenting place you coming here seeking to have the waves of life buffered by the sturdy walls of the Church.  As you seek that refuge, maybe there have been times when you have not felt safe even within the Church.  Perhaps you even come here slightly wary, feeling like you have to be on guard even as you want nothing more than to lower your defenses.  If you are coming here for safety, please know that I desire nothing more than for you to find it here.  

Perhaps you come here for companionship and to know that you belong..  Perhaps you have recently retired, sent your children off to college, or bid a final farewell to a parent or spouse. Perhaps life has brought circumstances to you in such a way where now all you need is someone to sit and to share with. Even in the midst of the commotion of this day, and though or in spite of the numerous activities offered by the Church, I pray that you found a cup of coffee, a comfortable chair, and a soul or two to worship alongside you today.  I pray that you were able to laugh, to cry, to listen, and to be listened to.  I pray that I showed you love and properly acknowledged your presence here.   

Perhaps you come here searching for Good News.  Perhaps this has been a week of less-than-good news and you need more than anything to hear a word of hope and of promise. I hope that the words that were shared in the hallways, around the coffee pots, in the classrooms, and in worship were good words. I hope that you were able to hear a message of love from not just the scriptures and the sermon, but from the eyes, lips, and hearts from all in this place.  I pray that you found yourself encouraged, strengthened, and enlivened by your time here.  I pray that you, even for a moment, had your sense of hope restored.  

No matter what led you to this place, and no matter if I will see you again next Sunday, please know that I am grateful and humbled to have the chance to share in a time of worship with you.  Please know that I saw you here and that I thanked God that we had this time together.  While I long to see you again, please know that no matter where life takes you that you will forever have a partner on the journey.  

In Love,

Your Minister

Breaks and Interruptions

By Rev. Mindi

I haven’t written something new for Dmergent since before Christmas. I was all set, after the holiday break and our “Best of 2014” series to write something new on January 6th, Epiphany.

Then my son fell and broke his ankle at school. On Epiphany. He gets the cast off on—you guessed it—Ash Wednesday. He’s definitely a PK.

On those first six days of the New Year, I had grandiose plans. I and another clergy friend launched autismandchurch.com, a new blog about autism and church that incorporates personal stories, resources and reflections, from both family members of people with autism along with individuals on the autism spectrum. I was going to try to blog almost every day, and I started thinking about ideas to write here… and then the break happened.

When I was in high school, discerning a call to ministry, my pastor would sometimes bring me to the local clergy text study. I remember the Lutheran pastor in our town say once to me, “A day in pastoral ministry is a series of interruptions.” How true. How many times I have sat down to work on the worship service and received a call from a member who needed to speak to me. A person drops by the office in need of assistance. The office administrator needs the Call to Worship for the bulletin. A series of interruptions.

There is no time for a pastor to have a personal crisis, but here we were, on Epiphany, waiting for hours in the emergency room for xrays, for results from radiology, for pain medication that never came, for a referral to Children’s, for discharge papers. My husband had to come home early and join me at the hospital while we waited for all the news and instructions. Twenty-four hours later, we were at our son’s orthopedist appointment at Children’s, breathing a sigh of relief that our son would not have to have surgery, and that he would spend six weeks in a hard cast, and six weeks from that day will be Ash Wednesday. The entire Season After Epiphany will be marked by a green and purple striped cast for this clergy family.

But what I had forgotten, and was reminded so beautifully by my congregation, is that people are always praying for us. A wonderful card came for AJ the very next day. The member who runs the prayer chain called me on the way home from the hospital to see how AJ was doing. Others sent text messages and Facebook messages. People celebrated when he came to church on Sunday in his wheelchair. We were prayed for and cared for by the congregation.

Almost six-and-a-half years ago, one week after giving birth to AJ, I was rushed to the emergency room because I had an infection after my C-section. As I was admitted to the hospital and given a room, the head nurse on the floor that day was a church member. She came to greet me as I was rolled in and said, “I saw the name on the chart and began to pray.”

What happened next still brings me to tears. She made sure we were comfortable in our room, showed JC where the coffee was at the nurse’s station and to help himself, made sure we had everything we needed for AJ and then turned things over to another nurse. Instead of being my nurse, she asked, “Pastor, can I pray for you?” And she took my hand and JC’s hand and prayed for me, for AJ and JC. She was strong, and certain, and was a better chaplain that I could have been to a patient that day. She took the priesthood of all believers seriously, and made sure my spiritual needs were cared for while the other nurse took care of any medical needs.

Pastors and leaders, we need to remember to let ourselves be ministered to, as well as our families. We need to know that interruptions are going to happen, and that sometimes we need to let go, and let someone else minister to us. As we enter 2015 (three weeks in now, I realize), may we learn to let go a little easier, and let others minister to us, and with us.

Grow up, Grownups!

By Rev. Mindi

I went to hear a prominent Christian speaker today and she was excellent.  She spoke about our current cultural dynamics, broken down by generation and religious affiliation, and that the future of the church is now. 

The speaker mentioned how those in the 18-29 age range are adults.

Then an older woman made the comment, “Legally.”

SERIOUSLY?

And we wonder why millennials are not in the church?

Right after the woman made that comment, several people shouted back, “NO” to the woman, and “They are adults!” The speaker confirmed gently that yes, they are adults and we need to reframe our thinking.

But this comment by one woman is a symptom of a much greater problem in the church. The fact is, we treat young adults like they are children and what used to be middle-age like they are adolescents.

Look at your church board. Is there anyone under 40 on it? Anyone under 30?

I have seen this happen in the churches I have served. As a young pastor, I’ve been called “kid” many times. Ironically, when my hairdresser recently asked me about coloring my hair I said no. I need my grays that are streaking in. However, the larger issue is that regularly, people in their 30’s and 40’s in the churches I have served and known are referred to as kids (because everyone probably remembers when they were kids and their parents probably still attend that church), but what’s worse, they are often treated like kids.  I have seen adults in their 70’s and 80's scold the 40-year-olds in the church over various things—their attire, their tattoos, the way they teach Sunday School—and we wonder why even younger adults are not there.

We have to stop this symptom. We have to change our attitudes. We have to treat millennials and Gen-Xers as adults. Gen-Xers are middle-aged. Millennials vote and work.  We are adults. We have a vested interest—perhaps even more than others—in the future of the church and if we are not included right now, treated with equal value and respect—then why in the world would we want to stay in an institution that doesn’t treat us this way?

This symptom, of course, is a symptom of a greater issue—power and control. I remember in a previous church a group of young 30-somethings complaining about some of the decision-making in the church and how they were excluded from it. Even though they served on the board, their ideas were dismissed and opinions ignored. They often joked, “When we get to be their age, then we can be ornery and stubborn and make the church the way we want it!” That was said tongue-in-cheek, but it reflected the behavior of the boomers and the seniors in the church leadership at that time.

We shouldn’t divide on generational lines, and as was shared by another participant in this conversation, the church is one of the last institutions that can be truly intergenerational and was intended to be that way. There is value of all people of all generations being together, and we know the value of diversity within those generations. But all too often, we are dismissing “younger” adults as not being an adult, not capable of participating or making decisions or being trustworthy or having the right skills. News flash: if your church is in decline and all your leadership is above fifty, you might want to consider that you may not have the right skills for leadership today.

We cannot change all of the reasons why younger adults are leaving the church, or why they haven’t come in the first place (that would take another article, plus we would need to address the assumption that we still need to get people in to the church, and that perhaps we need to rethink our models of church, but I digress). But we can do better. The first step is changing our attitudes about younger adults. The second is to be intentionally intergernational and to break down our stereotypes of all generations.  It’s going to take all of us, together, to nip this in the bud.