The Nathan Effect

The truth will make you free, (but first it will make you miserable.)David Nathan by Chagall

None of us likes to be told that we need to change something that we do not believe we need to change.  It’s torture, actually, hearing that something we are doing is wrong. The shame can be excruciating.

So . . . imagine that you are a pastor who believes that you are a pretty good preacher only to have your personnel committee tell you that you need to take a preaching class.  Ouch.

Imagine that you consider yourself an approachable person who is easy to talk with, but a person you trust shares privately that – actually – there are quite a few folks who find you “too busy” or “too disinterested” or “too sarcastic” or “too cranky” to come to you for pastoral care.   Ugh.

Imagine that you see yourself as a strong administrator after many years of professional ministry, but your staff shares that they are frustrated at the ineffectiveness of your administrative duties.  Really?

We will not take seriously or believe people we do not trust if/when they bravely share that there is Something we need to alter to improve our skills.  We like to believe that we are good at what we do, that we know what we are doing, and that we are aware of our strengths and our growing edges.  But what if the truth is that we are not as good as we think we are or we could use some coaching or we overestimate our gifts and minimize our weaknesses?  Our congregations suffer – that’s what.

Everybody needs a Nathan – someone whom we trust who can speak the truth to us.  Yes, it hurts.  But we need to hear it.  Our community depends upon it.

Image is David and Nathan by Marc Chagall.

Ideas Are Good

Chicago Ideas Week 2014Fortified by consuming five kinds of meat yesterday due to Chicago Ideas Week and Course Horse festivities (goat, chicken, pastrami, lobster, and salmon) I’m inspired by ideas about death, food, entrepreneurship and more. Because I’m (quite literally) weighed down, my own ideas this morning will be short and sweet:

Communities willing to try new ideas with fearlessness are thriving communities.

This is a fresh idea: Placing a cross covered with blackboard paint outside the front doors of the church building the week before All Saints’ Sunday and inviting people to write the names of people they miss.

This is a rehash: Doing what we do every year on All Saints’ Sunday and a) light candles, b) read names, or c) ignore All Saints’ Sunday altogether.

This is a fresh idea: Doing a Story Corps project with your congregation during Advent this December by inviting them to share memories from Advents and Christmases past.

This is a rehash: Doing Advent and Christmas The. Way. We’ve. Always. Done. It. whether we like it or not, whether it’s spiritually transformational or not.

The ideas above come from two of my brilliant colleagues who share their faithfulness by being fearless:

  • They do not fear “failure.” If it doesn’t work, we don’t do it again. Not a problem.
  • They do not fear upsetting those who Never Want Anything To Change because it reminds them of their childhood (even though new people neither know nor care about the decades-old customs.)
  • They do not fear being intentional about connecting faith and customs. Many of us keep doing the same things over and over again without asking how our faith is deepening, how our discipleship is expanding, how our service is increasing.

Ideas are good, especially when they come from inspiration outside the walls of our church buildings. We can all become better followers of Jesus by learning from the interesting people that haven’t passed through our doors. Check out the ideas of these engaging people I’ve learned from this week: Jennifer Brokaw, Rebecca Soffer, Mitchell Davis, Marty Stewart, and Ranjana Bhargava. Tonight: Peter Thiel.

Image from Chicago Ideas Week 2014.

Who You Gonna Call?

ghostbusters3I’ve been reading through the annual reports of our presbytery’s pastors, and one of the questions we ask  is:  Who is your pastor?

It’s extraordinarily interesting.  Sometimes it’s the Executive Presbyter. Sometimes it’s a pastoral colleague. Sometimes it’s a spiritual director or an interfaith colleague or a friend from seminary. But everyone needs a pastor – someone we can call in times of crisis, spiritual drought, and life transitions.

This holds true for everyone.  Everyone needs a spiritual caregiver.

One of my goals as a parish pastor was to ensure that every person had at least three persons to call.  As the pastor, I would probably be one of them.  But if I wasn’t available, it was important that everybody had at least two others who could tend to their spiritual needs.

This is also true on the Presbytery/Middle Judicatory level.  My hope is that – if I’m not available to answer the questions, offer a reference, or explain a process to church people – there are at least two other knowledgeable people who can be called.  This is what “equipping the saints” looks like.

May we all be on the call list.

Image from Ghostbusters.  Word on the street is that the Ghostbusters III movie will feature female ghostbusters.  I suggest Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and Kristen Schaal.

Weather Report

Rainy DayLet’s talk about the weather.  As we all know, it’s easier than talking about feelings and fears.

A friend and elder, many years ago, suggested that we open board meetings by sharing our “internal weather.” Brilliant.

This is much healthier than – for example – an elder coming into a meeting after being fired that day and  – without anyone knowing how his day had gone – taking it out on the person making the financial report.  Without necessarily sharing the details (because many of us are very private), elders on that Session would start meetings – each taking his or her turn – offering that things were “sunny” or “stormy” or “a front was coming in.”  One person shared that she was in the throes of a tsunami and this was helpful information when it came time for her to make a report and she became a bit weepy.

Church people do not need to talk about making changes.  All of us already know that our churches need to change for a new time and culture. It’s just exhausting to deal with those changes.

But what if we couched our conversations about change using weather analogies?  For example, it would be interesting to ask church leaders what the weather is like for their congregations right now.  Is there a drought?  Are things clear and breezy?  Is heavy accumulation a problem?  Are we in a fog?

It feels easier to get conversations started this way as we consider how we need to prepare for the day.  Will we need a shovel?

Image source.

Why Does Calling a Pastor Take So Long?

21st Century Pastors MosaicIn denominations without bishops, we find our own pastors via denominational opportunities lists.  (Please correct me, Bishops, if I’m wrong about this.) Essentially, bishops assist congregations in finding/assign congregations new pastors to the point that it’s possible to have one pastor leave this Sunday and have a new pastors arriving the next Sunday.

As for Presbyterians, we often take A Long Time.  It honestly doesn’t have to be this way and there are avenues for calling a pastor faster.  But these are some of the situations that elongate the process.  Take note Pastor Search Committees:

  • The church refuses to consider clergywomen.  This is especially true for Asian-American and African-American congregations.  I know many exquisitely gifted women of color who are not considered in the pastoral searches of Asian-American and African-Congregations, and so they seek calls in multi-cultural congregations.
  • The church wastes time looking for someone who looks like their ideal pastor on paper and/or in photos.  I often watch Search Committees spend a year or so looking for Pulpit Candy (thank you SC) only to realize that those pastors are not what they need at all.
  • The church is not equipped to find a 21st Century Pastor.  Especially for congregations who haven’t sought a new pastor in 20 years, they don’t know that Things Have Changed.  Pastors of thriving congregations today are not only solid preachers, teachers, and worship leaders.  They are also gifted in teaching pastoral skills to their leaders.  They are acquainted with terms like agility, resilience, emergent, missional ministry, and positive deviance. Many congregations need to assess cultural changes and have some Come to Jesus conversations about their future before seeking their next pastor.

What else slows down the process as far as you have noticed?

Note:  it doesn’t have to be like this.  It doesn’t have to take so long to call the right spiritual leader, but congregations have to be willing to be coached by people who want them to thrive and grow.

Life, Death, Ebola. And Church.

Ebola PreventionIn light of the tragic Ebola outbreak in West Africa and beyond, we are learning some essential facts about this virus:  Those who have died from Ebola are more contagious than those living with Ebola.

Burial practices are sacred and long-standing but people will literally die if they don’t change.

What has happened for generations:  Loved ones gather around the body and family members of the same gender wash the dead body thoroughly before wrapping it in a burial cloth and then placing the body into a village grave.

What must happen now in order to save lives:  Officials in haz mat suits take the body which is then either cremated or buried in a cemetery devoted to Ebola victims away from the home village.

Imagine the spiritual upheaval – not only from the rampant death in communities, but also from the inability to continue practicing an important custom of their faith.

So here is my terrible metaphorical connection:  What would we in the church alter about our practices and customs if we realized that they were killing us? (Because some of them are.)

Image by Abbas Dulleh

Transition Hurts

hilary-green-spiral-of-lifeMaybe you saw this brilliant video by MaryAnn McKibben Dana back in 2011. It comes to mind often, especially as I talk with church leaders who don’t want their church to die, but they don’t know how to help their church live.

When I explain what it will take to get to new life, they often look like they might just choose death.  (Note:  This is not a bad thing if we are resurrection people.)

It takes enormous courage, energy, person-power, commitment, and faith to transition a congregation.  And yes, it’s a lot like like – most specifically – Transitional Labor (i.e. giving birth to a brand new person.)

What To Expect When You’re Expecting puts it this way:

“Phase 3: Transitional (Advanced) Labor

During transitional labor, the last, most intensive, and fortunately the shortest of the phases of labor, your cervix will dilate from seven to its final ten centimeters. Contractions are very strong at this point . . . with intense peaks. Because they’re spaced only about two or three minutes apart, it may seem as though you barely get to relax before the next contraction begins. During transition, you’re likely to feel strong pressure in the lower back and rectum, nausea, fatigue, tightness in the throat and chest area, shakiness, chills, or sweats (or alternating between them).”

Transitioning a church is something like this, at least figuratively.  It’s messy and exhausting.  The only thing getting us through the process is the promise that at the end, there will be New Life.  We don’t know what this New Life will look like and we can’t control the tastes, needs, hopes, and quirks of this New Life.  All we can do is love it.

But it hurts like crazy.

Image source here.

We All Die. But Maybe Not Yet.

The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; Psalm 90:10

Death at the age of 56 feels premature if not cruel. 

Yesterday I participatedresurrection by worku goshu ethiopia 1981 in the burial of a 56 year old congregation.  The last sermon poignantly and appropriately sounded like a funeral homily.  The life of the church was lauded for all the lives that were touched and changed for good.

Like many congregations we have known and loved, that particular congregation was born full of promise.  If you know anything about the Congregational Life Cycle, after birth comes growth and maturity, and then a congregation has some critical decisions to make:  the church can sit back and relish its success or the church can begin the process of reinventing itself in preparation for the next season.  Too often after those stable years, there is decline and then death.  For many congregations the death is slow and painful.  The faithful congregation we buried yesterday at the age of 56 chose to let go so that resurrection might begin sooner than later.

A church leader from a different congregation contacted me recently and asked if I would attend their Session meeting.  “Can you give me an idea what this is about?” I asked, and the elder replied, “We need to make changes or we will die.”  The congregation could be called Middle Aged, having recently celebrated a sixtieth birthday, but they feel older than that in some ways.

Honestly, they are wonderful human beings.  And as we sat together, they shared a story that went something like this:  “We have a good congregation but we are tired.  If people could just find us, they would experience God’s love here.  If people could meet us, they would experience a friendly congregation.  If they knew who we are, they would understand what we are about.

As I heard their earnest and faithful analysis of their ministry, I asked them to consider turning their comments on their heads:  “You have a good congregation and – while you are tired – you need to change the way you’ve been the church.  If you could go out and find your neighbors, if you could meet them, if you knew who they were, then your church could be transformed.  But this takes energy.”

Growing congregations no longer focus on “attracting” people.  Growing churches in the 21st Century deploy people to go out into the neighborhood and figure out what breaks God’s heart out there.  This is not merely what keeps us alive; it keeps us young.  And most importantly, it keeps us faithful.

Image source.

It’s That Time of Year: Annual Performance Reviews!

ScorecardsMy annual review has been scheduled for October 30 and I’m honestly looking forward to it. It’s so important to get feedback but – for too many pastors – this is the usual feedback she/he gets:

  • I liked your sermon.
  • That was a nice sermon.
  • (No comment.)

In the first year in my second parish, I announced every Sunday during worship announcements that “you can find the Friendship Folios under the pews beneath you” before someone told me that actually, they are located sitting on the pews along the center aisle. (My previous church had had shelves under the pews.) It. Took. A. Year. Before. Someone. Corrected. Me.

People don’t want to hurt our feelings (unless they do.) But we cannot get better at what we do without feedback. Constructive criticism is essential. Positive comments are also really helpful – especially if they are concrete and related to spiritual transformation rather than fashion. Example: “That sermon you preached on money had a real impact on my giving this year.

Not as helpful: “When you wear brown shoes in the pulpit, it really distracts me.

So, this article was published in the New York Times last week about the difference between the performance reviews of women and the performance reviews of men. I shared a few posts ago that I once received this line in an annual review report: “Jan is a good mother.” For the record, I have also received these verbal comments during reviews over the course of 30 years in professional ministry:

  • You don’t look that good in corduroy.”
  • Have you thought about wearing eye makeup so that we can see your eyes from the pulpit?

Not kidding. I chalk it up to the fact that I looked very young when I was a new clergywoman and people considered me their daughter as much as their pastor. Women my mother and grandmother’s ages felt like it was okay to give motherly/grandmotherly fashion and grooming advice (although it was a man who commented on the corduroy.)

Beyond the fashion/grooming/personal life comments that some of us have received in annual performance reviews, Tara Mohr’s article in the NYT notes that women receive more comments about their personalities. We know the drill: strong women are often characterized as “abrasive” or “strident.” Strong men are often characterized as “solid leaders.”

Mohr suggests that “if a woman wants to do substantive work of any kind, she’s going to be criticized — with comments not just about her work but also about herself. She must develop a way of experiencing criticism that allows her to persevere in the face of it.” Amen, sister.

We women have been raised to be “nice” and – historically – women have not had the physical,financial and political power that men have had, so women have assessed ourselves in terms of what other people think of us. Mohr: “Disapproval, criticism and the withdrawal of others’ approval can feel so petrifying for us at times — life-threatening even — because for millenniums, it was.

So, both women and men: let’s prepare well for Annual Review Season. Here are some basics:

  • Actually have a review. There are congregations that have rarely – if ever – conducted personnel reviews for their pastor and other staff members. For the love of God, please conduct annual reviews. Yes, it’s awkward to review your pastor. And honestly, you have no idea what she does most of the time because parish ministry is like no other. But start here. And ask professionals for help.
  • Consider how your pastor is equipping other leaders. (Ephesians 4:11-12) Biggest two problems in pastoral leadership: pastors who do everything themselves and pastors who send out lay leaders to do ministry but have not trained them.
  • Discuss how the congregation and the community are being transformed. This is a group effort led by the pastor but not achieved solely by the pastor. Is the congregation growing in faith, as seen in their behaviors, perspectives, attitudes? Is the neighborhood being transformed to the point that they would miss the congregation if the congregation suddenly disappeared? Are glimpses of Jesus on the rise?

I love annual performance reviews. I love them.

While I’m a big fan on ongoing coaching throughout the year (e.g. don’t wait a year to share with the church musician that he needs to liven it up) the annual review is a valuable opportunity to share openly, respectfully, and enthusiastically what’s been going well and what could be tweaked. This is how we grow. This is how the reign of God expands.

And if you remember nothing else, remember this: It’s not about you and me. It’s about making disciples and loving God and neighbor.

Channeling Olivia Pope

Olivia PopeI have never had to deal with dead bodies in church buildings nor am I having an illicit affair.  It’s also true that I possess neither the gorgeousness nor the style of Kerry Washington, and yet . . . I can dream.    In spite of all this, one of my colleagues said this morning that “sometimes we have to go all Scandal” in our middle judicatory work.

In my denomination, we make decisions in community.  The call of a pastor depends upon approval by three separate entities – the pastor, the congregation, the presbytery.  The ordination of a person requires the approval of the one being called, the calling organization (a church, hospital, school, etc.) and the judicatory overseeing that ordination.  But sometimes things get done behind the scenes.  And this is the faithful thing.

We do not have bishops in our denomination but sometimes I do bishop-y things.  A friend of mine  – who happens to be a bishop in another denomination  – shared that he occasionally “goes Presbyterian” in his actions, which I think means that – while he could decree something, he chooses to form a committee to study and discern together.

In a post-denominational world, we must remain agile which occasionally means that middle judicatory staffers need to tap our inner Olivia Pope and become the behind-the-scenes fixer.

For God so loved the world, God didn’t send a committee.  And while we are not playing God, it sometimes feels like it a tiny bit.