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.

“Mom, Why do I have to go to church today?”

hope prayer flagIt’s no secret that many of our Millennial Children do not “go to church.”  There are many very good reasons why this is true.  Words like inauthentic, boring, hypocritical, small-minded, and inconsequential come to mind.

I remember seeing a film about Millennials and religion about a decade ago, created – not by a denomination or research group, but by a college student.  “I don’t need church,”  she said.  “I have friends.”  I hope that’s true for all Millennials and yet . . .

Last week, TBC went to the funeral of a man 76 years her senior.  They had had little in common in terms of life experience and political/sociological perspectives. They were not related by blood.

Apart from the whole salvation, Biblical literacy, “learning how to be a good person” arguments for being part of a church – which I could argue here but won’t for now – community is one of the best reasons for wanting our kids and everyone to be part of a spiritual congregation.  People come together who would never be at the same party or live on the same block or work in the same offices.

TBC shared after the funeral that she felt so loved “to be back.”  These were people who have known her since before she was born.  They watched her learn to walk and talk.  They encouraged her when she read the morning Psalm from the pulpit without being able to say her “Rs” and they loved seeing her in worship wearing her soccer uniform.  They donated money for her to go on a mission trip.  And when she went to college, a group of young adults (not much older than she) gave her money to buy her first textbooks.

Not every kid in church experiences this.

PKs in particular often observe church people being mean and petty in ways that the average church kid never sees or wouldn’t notice.  But they also witness pure goodness.  TBC and her brothers witnessed people volunteering to drive people who couldn’t drive themselves, serving food to people who were hungry, and offering hospitality to people who were different.

As crazy as Church World makes us, when community is created well in the name of God, something holy and wonderful happens.

The truth is that a child can grow up in a congregation and Never Get That.  The stories never stick in a personal way.  The worship and behavioral liturgies of life feel bland.  The relationships are shallow.  The experiences are hurtful.  This happens too often perhaps because we misunderstand what’s important about “going to church.”  It’s not about the rules (what we wear, how we sit and stand.)  It’s about the relationships – and not just about the relationships between the youth.

Why do we go to church?  If my kids asked me today, I’d say, “You know why.  This is the community that brought us food when you were born and when your grandparents died.  These are the people who took care of you when we couldn’t. They were the ones who served you cookies on Sunday morning and took you seriously after they asked (for the hundredth time) ‘How’s school going?’  They remembered your name and the fact that you mentioned a friend who needed prayer.  They held us accountable and shared hard words.  They were glad to see us on Sunday mornings or out running errands.  They befriended your parents and loved you when you joined us on pastoral calls.  They kept their baptismal vows for you and the other children of the church.  They loved you.”

Can most of our churches say this?  And if your congregation doesn’t have any/many children, can the adults say this about each other?

Relationships are what move us.  Our relationships with each other and with God.  And good relationships move us outward to notice the world and others, as we have been noticed.

Beyond Winning & Losing

And the winner is . . .  The Winner

Actually, church cannot be about winning and losing in the traditional sense.

A church governing board debates hiring a part-time childcare provider and it becomes heated . . . to the point that suddenly it’s not about what’s best for the church and the children of the church, but who will win and who will lose this debate.

A congregational Personnel Committee and the Pastor discuss whether or not it will be possible for the Pastor to have a sabbatical next year after seven years of pastoral service, and instead of considering what will be best for the Pastor and the congregation, it becomes about winning or losing that discussion.

As I see it, many of the disagreements on church boards are about power issues. We push for what’s good for us and our own families, what supports the legacy we’ve created, what perpetuates the systems we prefer.  We make decisions based on the fear of losing something rather than based on the faith that something kingdom-worthy might occur.

Healthy congregations make decisions based on what will transform their churches and their communities rather than their own personal preferences and desire to “win.”  How have you experienced this?

Image of Justin Leonard celebrating the winning putt on the final day of the 1999 Ryder Cup Tournament.


How to Make Someone a Better Pastor

Don QuiggAs you read this today, know that a special man is being remembered this morning as a blessing to this earth for the past 98 years.

DQ (I just realized he has the same initials as one of our favorite soft serve treats) was a patriot, a public servant, a philanthropist, and a parishioner of the congregation I served for many years in Virginia.  Most importantly, he was a child of God who spent his life trying to follow Jesus.

I intentionally put his photo on the right side of this post.

DQ and I didn’t always agree on everything but he unequivocally made me a better pastor because of who he was and how he lived.  He considered Republican politics the most patriotic choice – and yet he counted many Democrats and Independents alike among his friends.  He was a conservative Presbyterian – and yet he was known to welcome the occasional Sufi worshipper in the pews as warmly as he would welcome the Moderator of the General Assembly.  Like the majority owner of DQ, he was a Midwesterner – and yet he built a home and a community in Our Nation’s Capital, serving in the Reagan administration as a bit of a rock star with people from all over the world.  He loved classical music – and yet he stayed through worship services replete with the occasional drum and tambourine.

Perhaps among his greatest teachings to me:

  • He was regularly generous to his church without needing to control how his contributions were spent – except for once, in memory of his beloved L.
  • He spoke up when he disagreed with me – directly to me and not to others in the church parking lot behind my back – and he still loved and respected me in spite of seeing things differently.
  • He stepped aside as a leader (although asked many times to serve as an elder past his 70s) so that others could have a chance to serve.
  • He spoke openly about his faith, able to articulate his calling and willing to be directed by God even if his own will clashed with God’s.
  • He had fun.  DQ traveled on more oceanic cruises than I’ve traveled to Lake Michigan.  (It’s good to have fun.)
  • He trusted that God had a plan for him, personally and corporately, never forgetting the times his own life had been saved during World War II and since.

Many of us forget the fortunes and escapes of our younger lives:  that time we could have died and did not, that time we were crushed by sorrow and found peace, that time we hit a major road block and found a way out.  DQ seemed to remember all those times and they became sign posts for the future.

He made me a better pastor and I am forever grateful.

Image of my good friend and brother DQ with love to his family today.

Guest Blogger: What I Wish Y’all as the Church Knew about Non-Binary People

spectrum-indigo by Leba BovardNote from Jan: I invited my nibling Taylor to write a guest post for today in hopes of helping those of us in Church World learn something new. There are people in our communities who are unfamiliar perhaps, but they, too, belong. Here goes . . .

Y’all is my favorite gender-free way to address a crowd. That’s why my aunt asked me here to begin with — to talk about what I wish y’all as the Church knew about non-binary people. (Here, is a helpful short trans dictionary in case you don’t know some of the words I use). In no specific order there are some things I wish you knew.

I am only one person. My word is not every non-binary person’s word. I don’t speak for my entire group. My narrative is not every non-binary person’s narrative. For example, I do not experience being non-binary trans in the same way as a person of color would. So, this post isn’t really what I wish you knew about non-binary people but instead what I wish you knew about me as a non-binary person. Moreover, non-binary can be considered an umbrella term containing many identities, but is also an identity in and of itself. So asking me “what kind” of non-binary person I am will get you nowhere. This word works best for me because of the possibilities and ambiguity I attribute to it.

I am not “just like you.” As an anti-assimilationist, I have to say this is one of my least favorite things to hear. The fact of the matter is, I am not like you. If I was, I wouldn’t have to police my behavior in order to assure my safety. This assimilationist chorus most often, for me, manifests itself in church with the way some people frame Galations 3:26-29, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I’m thinking “in Christ” is the most important part of this. In Christ’s eyes, we are no better or worse for our many intersecting identities. Christ might see us as all deserving of the same treatment, but society does not. We might be “children of God through faith” but on the street, some of us are treated as subhuman. Using this verse to deny the lived experiences of trans people — the fact that we are more likely to experience homelessness, alcoholism, abuse, unemployment, and the like — is not only oppressive to us as trans people, but it seems to be a gross recontextualization and application of the verse.

You can’t tell just by looking. You know nothing about a person just by looking at them. Just because someone is wearing a dress doesn’t make them a woman. Also, just because you’ve been told for years that dresses are feminine, doesn’t make them feminine. Clothes, colors, sports, and art don’t have a gender. Genitals don’t have a gender. (Hint: never ask anyone about their genitals. This should be obvious and easy.) On this note, not every trans person is looking to transition. Furthermore, transitioning means different things for different people. It might mean changing the clothes they wear or taking hormones. It might be seeking surgery. Regardless, it’s important to know that not every trans person is looking to make changes. Not every trans person experiences body dysphoria).

Call me a “sibling in Christ.” I can’t stress how easy it would be for pastors and laypeople alike to use non-binary inclusive language. Instead of “brothers and sisters in Christ” try words like “siblings” or “family.” Call someone you just met a “person” instead of man or woman. Call someone’s child a child instead of a son or daughter. Call someone’s spouse a spouse, a partner a partner, instead of a husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, if you don’t know their gender. (Hint: You most likely don’t know their gender).

My pronouns non-negotiable: Most people don’t think about pronouns past first grade, but it’s an everyday thought for me as a non-binary person. My pronouns are they/them. (Used in a sentence: Taylor is running late, so they won’t be here until 9:30). Those are the pronouns you should and will use in reference to me, whether I’m in your presence or not. Wrongly gendered pronouns are a quick way to misgender somebody, which can be anything from a nuisance to a make-or-break moment in a trans person’s day.

Everything changes: In church, we are fond of words like “unwavering” and “steadfast.” We are drawn to their spiritual qualities, excited by their promise. I don’t blame you; they are stable words and most of us want stability. But here’s my reality — in any given day I feel a laundry list of gender feelings. I am constantly in flux. Part of this flux also means I feel zero gender feelings some days. I’m curious how a preoccupation with these words might affect the way people in church see my gender. Do they see it as weak? Wishy-washy? Do they write it off as eccentricity and new-agey hullabaloo? My gender isn’t static, but I’m met constantly by both cis and trans communities with the demands of Destination Gender — as if my gender is something final, something permanent. The truth is, I’m not God. I am not steadfast, unconditional, unwavering, constant, or forever. (And as my aunt pointed out to me, even God changes God’s mind sometimes. See: Jonah). Expecting or demanding me to embody words like that is just too much to live up to. It’s setting me up for failure. My gender isn’t a failure. Or a downfall. Or too complicated. Or invalid.

My gender is no destination. It’s more like a hike in the woods at night with a wet book of matches. But it’s not always scary. It’s actually kind of a blast, in a way.

Taylor M. Silvestri is a (f)unemployed writer, teacher, and activist, they spend their days writing cover letters and deconstructing Craigslist ads using various theoretical lenses.

Image is Spectrum Indigo by Leba Bovard

When the Pastor is a Mom/Dad/Wife/Husband

Ben Fred Jan 1989When I was a parish pastor several years ago, this line showed up on my annual personnel review: Jan is a good mother.

It struck me as strange.

I remember not knowing if I should be offended (A male pastor would most likely never find ” ___ is a good father” in his personnel review) or appreciative (Yay. They noticed that I can be a good mom and a good pastor at the same time.)

At the installations of clergywomen over the past year, I’ve noticed that there is often a mention – especially in the Charge to the Pastor or the Charge to the Congregation – about the importance of spending time with family.   I haven’t heard the same guidance about family to clergymen.

It doesn’t matter if my church is happy if my marriage and kids are not happy,” I hear female colleagues say – and of course that is true.  Clergywomen seeking new calls mention the hope of balancing work and family in their interview conversations.  And of course, balance is a good thing.

But when was the last time you heard someone charge a new clergyman or a clergyman’s new congregation with similar words?  When was the last time we heard a male colleague share that he was going part-time after the birth of a child?

I have male colleagues who certainly take their turns with carpools and bedtime stories, but being a father has been something that makes a male pastor more appealing without necessarily impacting his daily ministerial duties.  Or am I wrong about that?  Being a mother and a pastor implies that There Will Be Juggling at a level that being a father and pastor doesn’t seem to imply.  Or am I wrong about that?

What is your experience, friends – especially friends in congregations?

Image of HH, FBC, and me (1989)

Profoundly Disappointed (Or: Clergy Misconduct on the Road)

grief_statueNote: This is one of those posts that makes me feel old and dorky.

Sexual misconduct on the road is a common plot feature in contemporary movies (Up in the Air) and in classic novels (The Scarlet Letter.) The examples are countless actually.

As a parish pastor, there were numerous situations in which a couple came to talk with me after one spouse had cheated at an out of town retreat or conference or meeting. Sometimes the extra-marital relationships had lasted for years. Sometimes they had been one-time liaisons.

Church people might be surprised (and profoundly disappointed) to hear that it’s also common in the lives of clergy.

We professional ministers attend annual meetings, assemblies, conferences, training sessions, and retreats – all opportunities to hook up with someone new regardless of our marital situation. I was comparing Dork Notes with a colleague over the weekend about the fact that we couldn’t figure out exactly How This Works.

For example:

When I was a fresh-out-of-seminary twenty-something pastor, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about preaching Stewardship Sermons and so – for my very first Clergy Continuing Education event – I signed up for Preaching on Stewardship with James Forbes in a lovely retreat center in the NY mountains.

I arrived on a Sunday night for the three day conference, and at the first meal that night, I met the friend of one of my colleagues. We sat next to each other at dinner and he showed me pictures of his pregnant wife and their two daughters. It was the only time we ever spoke during the whole event . . . until the last day, as I was carrying my bags to the car.

Pastor With Pregnant Wife: So, I’m glad I got to see you again before you left. It was good talking with you the other night.

Me: Nice to meet you too.

PWPW: I was thinking that maybe we could go skiing sometime this winter.

Me: (faraway look on my face)

PWPW: What do you think?

Me: I’m trying to figure out who I could bring (because in my head I’m assuming he’ll bring his wife after the baby is born and I’ll need to find a date.)

PWPW: No. (with a chuckle) I meant you and I could go skiing.

Me: (still clueless) I’m not really a good skier.

PWPW: No. (Now smiling with cute – but now oddly disgusting – dimples). We probably wouldn’t be skiing much.

So, here’s my question: Does this actually work for people? You meet someone over meat loaf at a stewardship retreat and two days later you invite her for a winter ski weekend where there wouldn’t be much skiing?

Honestly, this kind of thing happens all the time, I’m sorry to say. There are certain conferences that are especially popular hook up events. Gentle Readers in the PCUSA: you know what I’m talking about. Again, it makes me feel old and dorky to write these words.

I’m a big fan of keeping promises – especially to the person with whom we’ve made vows before God and all the people we love most. But – now with my Professional Hat on – can I just remind you, sisters and brothers, that I currently do your executive job references as a Middle Judicatory staffer? Our denominations are like small towns and if you hook up with an old or new friend at a meeting, I will often hear about it.

Yes, these issues are as old as Genesis. And no, this post won’t change the incidence of adultery and other sexual misconduct among our clergy and other leaders. But please know that when you “inappropriately connect” your actions introduce layers of pain that will take many years to heal. The pain ripples out from your inappropriate relationship to all your other relationships, including the congregations you serve.

Please seek counseling to try to figure out what’s going on in your mind and soul. Please take a break from your ministry until you figure things out, so that your congregation will not be damaged beyond what’s already happened. Please stop lying to yourself. Please stop imagining that your actions aren’t hurting people.