Rethinking Church Staffs

Imagine a church staff that looks more like a circle than a pyramid.Light-Circles

Large congregations have been staffed a certain way for so long that we can’t imagine any other way: Head of Staff/Lead Pastor, Associate Pastor, Christian Educator, Music Director.  I grew up in these churches.  Most multi-staff churches are still organized this way.

One easy-ish change over the past 50 years has been the Senior Pastor who promotes collaborative, permission-giving leadership.  It’s increasingly rare – and often demoralizing – when the one at the top of the ecclesiastical food chain refers to the rest of the staff as “mine” as in “my Associate Pastor” or “my organist.”  Red flag.

Some Senior Pastors say they are collaborative, but they are in fact threatened by that world class educator or effective mission coordinator.  Another red flag.

This might be a good time to re-imagine the church staff – especially if your congregation is in transition.  [Note:  if you are part of a vibrant congregation your church is in a constant state of transition. This is good.]

  • Imagine three congregations on the same side of town who share a staff of leaders.
  • Imagine clergy couples who are not married to each other.
  • Imagine several congregations who share a youth pastor.
  • Imagine a 30-something lead pastor and a 60-something associate pastor.

These ideas are neither new nor radical.  But most congregations will not even consider them.  They are the tip of the iceberg in terms of some of the creative ways we might professionally staff a church.

And maybe the “professionals” we call/hire have been prepared for this ministry in unconventional ways.  Imagine that.

Pastor Jobs: The “It’s Who You Know” Edition

Who you know What you knowIt’s commonly understood that there are more clergy looking for jobs than there are clergy jobs.  In a denomination like mine (without bishops who assign pastors to churches) the field is competitive, at least in popular locations and in healthy congregations.

[Note: Every church is imperfect.  Some are soul-suckingly imperfect. “Healthy” doesn’t equal perfect.]

For pastors with good connections, it’s easier to be called to preferred congregations.  Yes, this is true.

Forget “the call.”  Forget “the moving of the Spirit.”  Pastors who have a foot in the door via friendships or other connections have an advantage to be sure. Although I’m not a bishop, I often have the ear of the Search Committee or a congregational leader and I can put a good word in for Pastor X.  The Old Boy Network has been working this way for generations, so it’s kind of nice when the New Girl Network kicks in.

Sometimes this is a good thing.  And sometimes this is not a good thing.

Good Thing:  A 50-something second career pastor with excellent skills gets a second look by a church which has been looking only at the stereotypical 30-something male pastor with a lovely wife and kids. Someone like me  takes the opportunity to mention that the Search Committee might want to talk with Pastor 50-Something who would bring diversity and seasoned energy to their leadership.

Not Good Thing:  I am trying to help my friend “get a church” even though my friend is unsure that he is really called to this kind of ministry.  I talk him up as even though I know he struggles with most of his relationships.  It’s just that he has mortgage payments and he really needs a job.

Worst Kind of Thing:  I once knew of a Presbytery that approved the call of an Interim Associate Pastor to her own home church even though that church was a week away from announcing that they’d found a candidate to be their “permanent” Associate Pastor.  The spoken explanation for this ridiculousness was that “we wanted to find a call for our friend.”  The unspoken explanation was that the Senior Pastor wanted to make it impossible for her to stick around. Once the “permanent Associate Pastor” was called, the Interim would be forced to leave this church where she was considered a troublemaker.  

Lord have mercy.

The bottom line is that someone like me who has the power and opportunity to whisper someone’s name in a Search Committee Member’s ear is that the Committee still has the freedom to listen to me or ignore me.  In a perfect world, they listen first and foremost to the Spirit of God.  In a perfect world, the right candidate’s most crucial connection is to God.

Every once in a while, the perfect candidate Comes Out of Nowhere to shine as the next pastor.  The Spirit still works.  I just wish – honestly – that all Search Committees would pay attention.

Sadly, Pulpit Candy still wins too many times.


In my denomination, we take an ordination vow to serve God’s windmillspeople with energy.  I am not aware of anyone being charged with breaking this particular ordination vow, but I am aware of leaders whose energy for professional ministry is in fact depleted.  Sometimes we are depleted of the energy to do much of anything.

It wasn’t until yesterday when I finally felt like I’d recovered physically from the family wedding we celebrated the previous weekend.  As much as we loved the wedding, I was absolutely drained for days.  My legs ached.  My attention span was nil.  My need for sleep rivaled somebody with mono.

Years ago, when I announced to a congregation I used to serve that I was leaving to follow HH to the Midwest, someone asked me what I would be doing.  I didn’t have a call myself, but that was okay.  I was absolutely spent.  “I’m really tired,” I said to the group who had gathered.  “Really tired.”  I slept for two weeks after moving to Illinois.  I had worked really hard and then I was done.

For what do we have energy?  In one way, this is a question for the privileged.  If I’m a single mom with no education and no safety net, I need to find the energy to do whatever it takes to support my family.  I don’t have the benefit of waiting for “the right job.”

What concerns me about many of my ministry colleagues is that we often stay in a position even when our energy for that ministry is long gone.  We have checked out.  But we need the paycheck until we can find a new position.   Or we need to hang on until we can afford to retire.

This is a problem not merely for our own souls but for the communities we serve. I observe serious damage to congregations when a pastor doesn’t leave after the energy is gone.  But many of us stay nevertheless.

On the cusp of Labor Day weekend, this week’s posts will be about the work of professional ministers in the 21st Century.  We are in the throes of tumultuous  – and exciting – change in The Church.  When our labor as pastors is lifeless, God’s people suffer.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Image of the windmill farm along Interstate 65 in Indiana.


What We Learned at the Wedding

CakeThere was a wedding in our backyard over the weekend and now We Have Advice.   After experiencing their own (or their children’s) weddings from engagement to honeymoon, people often believe they are expertly qualified to counsel others in their own nuptial planning.  Speaking as the mother of the groom, I believe there is something to this.

The personal experience of planning a wedding changes a person.  These are among the things we learned:

  1. Everyone advises that “when people volunteer to help, let them” but there is something helpful and holy about mundane wedding tasks. Picking up ten gallons of sweet tea can obviously be done by the someone other than the groom’s mom.  But I learned that a) when the wedding is at your house, you have no place to retreat and so a car trip feels like a little break.  And b) I was thinking about the cultures that encourage people – in times of death – to build their own loved ones’ caskets, wash their own loved ones’ bodies, and dig their own loved ones’ graves.  Although marriage is mostly not about loss, it’s incredibly meaningful to do some of the dirty work ourselves in order to process things.  We could sit back and direct the work.  But schlepping tables and lugging bags of ice makes it real.
  2. You will always need more ice.
  3. Don’t assume everybody knows the expectations.  What exactly does a best man do?  It’s possible that his only point of reference is The Hangover (although for the record, SBC was the perfect Best Man.) If somebody expects X and somebody else expects Y and friction ensues, it’s okay.  But if it really matters, have the “this is what I expect of you” talk several weeks/months before the wedding.
  4.  Take into account cultural differences & refrain from all judgement. (e.g. Having a wedding registry in which the couple picks exactly which bowls they’d like is considered unspeakably tacky in many cultures just as paying the bride cash to dance with her at the reception is frowned upon in other cultures.)  Embrace diversity.
  5. Attention all brides, grooms, & parents: Pick the One Thing you care about the most for this wedding.  One Thing. Be as specific as possible.   Not: “I want everyone to arrive safely.”  But: “I really want Aunt Sophie there even though she’s in a body cast.”  If the bridal bouquet is The Most Important Thing, then by all means make those perfect flowers happen.  Also, make your One Thing known so that others will recognize the centrality of this particular matter.
  6. Accept the fact that something will disappoint you on or around the wedding day.  Then channel your inner Elsa.
  7. Accept the fact that some random action will unnecessarily mess with the beautiful picture in your head of how everything’s supposed to look.  48 hrs before our backyard wedding, the power company people marked our painstakingly manicured  back yard with red spray paint so the tent people wouldn’t cut power lines.  These particular spray paint people clearly do not read Martha Stewart Living.
  8. Invite guests to make music requests when they RSVP.  Thank you to the person who requested “We Are the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.”
  9. Expect very view people to follow RSVP guidelines.  I’ve heard this from hosts who included a self-addressed/stamped envelope, an email address, a phone number, & all the above.  Most people will not tell you if they are attending.  (But thank you, thank you, thank you if you actually RSVP.  We salute you.)
  10. You need one toilet per every 50 people according to the professionals.  A bouquet of eucalyptus tied together with a lovely ribbon makes any Port-A-John smell delightful.
  11. Authentic love is everything.  There’s not a photo booth or monarch butterfly release on earth that will make a wedding beautiful if the couple is faking it, whether they realize it or not.
  12. Get a fearless eleven year old on the dance floor and set him free.

Image of someone’s One Thing. #BSWedding

Countdown to Matrimony

There will be a wedding in our backyard this Saturday.simple-backyard-wedding-ideas

Of the last eight weddings I’ve attended, not one of those celebrations occurred in a church building.  This even includes weddings featuring brides/grooms who are themselves clergy.  Even devout Christians often choose a non-traditional venue.

There are many reasons for this:

  • It’s less expensive and more convenient to hold one’s wedding and reception in the same location.
  • Gone are many of the judgments about “non-church weddings” because our theology has expanded.
  • A “church wedding” can happen in a field, on a beach, or in a cave for that matter.  What makes it “church” – theologically speaking – is the community surrounding the couple, not the stained glass windows surrounding the couple.
  • Christians who belong to mega-churches often prefer a more intimate sanctuary than an auditorium.

As our FBC and his betrothed prepare for their wedding this Saturday, I’ve often imagined What My Mother Would Say had she lived to see this milestone. Engraved invitations have been replaced by mass printed card stock.  The “save-the-date” announcement was a video.  The gift registry is on Amazon. Professional servers in white jackets were never considered, but instead we will be graced by friends who have volunteered to pour wine and refill sweet tea urns.

Wedding traditions have changed dramatically – in some ways for the better and in some ways for the ridiculous.  Some practices drive me crazy, theologically. (Just say no to individual communion.)  And there are others that make today’s weddings feel much more authentic.

Karl Rahner was right:  when couples marry, they create a new little church. They will do what a church does: have a purpose and a mission and core values. For followers of Jesus, they will worship God, pray for and with each other, serve neighbors, and contribute financially to the poor.  This is what I hope for my own children and their future spouses – that they would get that marriage is not merely about two people being in love.  It’s about two people partnering together to love others and to make the world a little more like heaven.

This is the kind of conversation that’s trickier than the pre-wedding conversation about church building versus beach venue.  Honestly, most of us haven’t got a clue what married life will be like when we stand before God and loved ones and exchange vows.  Where it happens doesn’t matter very much.  How it happens doesn’t matter very much.  But why it happens matters quite a bit.

My posts will be limited this week because I’ll be in swirling in the wedding vortex.  But commentary will surely follow.

Image is not of our backyard, but it will look something like this in my head.

Everybody Needs a Stella

skepticI once knew a soccer mom with whom I spent many weekends watching our daughters play.  She was hilarious and inappropriate. She drank too much.  She wore fun earrings.  I liked her so much.  Let’s call her Stella.

Stella:  So if I walked in your church next Sunday, what would you say that made me take you seriously?

Me:  (Ugh.  Not much?)

I lived in dread that some random Sunday, Stella would show up, sit on a back pew, cross her arms, and give me an irreverent “So, I’m here.  Rock my world” look.

She never did, but the fear made me a better preacher.  I was forced to consider if the message I was sharing was consequential in any way to a skeptical, secular friend.  It kept me from ever preaching a sermon like I heard once, trying to convince us that Jesus rose on a Tuesday, not a Sunday.  (Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.)

Obviously I’ve preached enormous heaps of dross sometimes but the hope is that there has been more gold than dross- thanks be to God.

Nevertheless, everybody needs a Stella to keep us on our toes.

I was asked just yesterday by someone who is not a believer, “What’s the best thing one of the churches you work with does?”  My first thoughts were not “Fill the pews on Sunday” or “Offer excellent music.”  I thought of the church with the safe after-school program in a neighborhood prone to violence.  I thought of the tutoring program that connects hundreds of young adults with local students.  I thought of the food banks and the clothing closets.

Shifts in the 21st Century Church include these:  “consumer Christianity is dying and a more selfless discipleship is emerging” and “attendance no longer drives engagement; engagement drives attendance.” (Carey Nieuwhof)

Especially for Stella and her friends, making a difference in this ridiculously troubled world is the point. We realize gaps in our lives and the need to make a difference.  And doing this in community makes it easier and more meaningful.  And there is a God who created us for good.  And this God is worthy of getting to know and honoring.

Today’s prayer: I believe.  Help my unbelief – especially when I fail to minister to the Stellas in my life.

A Model for Loving our Political Enemy

Picture a Bernie Sanders Democrat happily vacationing with a Donald Trump Republican.  Can you see it?

oil and water

There were four kids in my family of origin and we have turned out pretty well, if you ask me. But we have very different ideas about how the world should be run.  Although raised by the same parents, two of us – and our spouses – self identify as  “liberals” and two of us – and our spouses – self identity as “conservatives.”

Among the topics of conversation last week:

  • “Illegal aliens”
  • The heritage of Confederate flag-waving
  • The notion that “pro-life” must include taking care of babies after they’re born
  • The incidence of violence against women on college campuses
  • “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter”

Oh, and we watched the Republican debate together last Thursday night. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Actually it was and that’s not to say that there were not moments when there was strained silence (like that moment when one candidate said that his policy against abortion didn’t include exceptions for rape and incest and that time another candidate announced that he wasn’t sure “we need a half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”)

It’s not easy loving people whose politics are seriously at odds with our own.  We tend to want to lash out verbally at our political enemies.  We judge them for being uninformed or maybe even “unChristian.”

But what if they are in your family?

When Bill Bishop wrote The Big Sort in 2004, he nailed it in his sub-title: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.  We who watch Fox News only talk with other people who watch Fox News.  We who used to get our news from Jon Stewart hang out with other Jon Stewart fans.  We have lost the ability to temper our vocalized opinions because we don’t have to.

We have sorted ourselves in such a way that pretty much everyone in our neighborhoods, our churches, and our social circles believe what we believe, get their information where we get our information, and vote the way we vote.  We are increasingly diverse as a culture but segregated from diversity.  We increasingly “hate” those with whom we disagree even though – at the core – we are not that different.  We love our children.  We want safe neighborhoods.  We bleed the same color of blood.

So how do we express our fury over the way things are – whether we are furious about undocumented workers not paying taxes or we are furious about gun violence against Black citizens or we are furious about budget cuts for critical services while the 1% thrives?

I’m here to tell you that it’s not only possible – it’s rage-melting – to vacation with people whose world view is not like our own . . . if we love them.

How do we express our most heart-felt opinions to someone whose own heart-felt opinions enrage us?  It’s not easy, but here’s a start:

  • Ask questions rather than make accusations.  “What should we do about children born to poor families whose mothers did not or could not choose abortion?”  “How does that candidate’s policies support your understanding of what Jesus taught?”
  • Remember that listening is more than waiting for our turn to talk.
  • Pray for and with those with whom we disagree.
  • Connect where we can.  Do we both have dogs?  Do we both love lasagna?  Honestly – look for any kind of connection and start there. It’s harder to hate someone when you’ve played with her dog or you’ve shared a home-cooked lasagna dinner with him.

I’m grateful for my family and I love them so much that we spend vacation together every summer.  We’ve been doing it for 25 years now.

It’s perhaps the only week of the year when oil and water actually intermingle just a bit.  But maybe this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.

Healthy Glow

I’m back from a week at the NC coast with a healthy glow.  ---Yellow-Glow-psd94975

Gone are the days of slathering baby oil on my skin, baking for six hours, and returning home with “a healthy burn.”  My tan will be short-lived but it looks pretty good for a day or so.

Healthy Glow means my very white face looks a tad less pasty, and yet I still rubbed a little color into my cheeks on vacation.  Why not?  The contrast between bronzed and more bronzed defines my cheekbones.  And who doesn’t long for defined cheekbones?

Perhaps you saw this in the Atlantic last week.  Or this a few years ago in the NY Times.  Ugh.

I am a minimal makeup wearer.  (Is that why I’ve never served a large steeple church?  Apparently Proctor and Gamble would say yes.)

I once had a parishioner ask me if I “didn’t wear makeup” for theological reasons.  “You are so brave,” she said, “not to conform to the pressure of wearing mascara.”  Apparently some of us feel pressured to wear mascara?

The truth is that I actually do wear makeup but apparently it looks “natural.”  I have allergies which make mascara a terrible idea.  I try to remember to wear lipstick, but it comes off when I sip water all day.  Whatever.

Personal appearance is A Big Part of success in this world.  A healthy glow helps land the job.

Many Pastor Nominating Committees consider appearance when seeking their next clergy person.  Clergywomen in particular can’t be too good-looking of course.  Healthy, yes.  Glamorous, no.  And confident, spiritually solid PNCs will call the best leader, regardless of appearance.

But mostly, I hope our Pastor Search Committees seek servants with a healthy glow. To be honest, all of us worth our salt are broken/have experienced brokenness.  A large percentage of pastors take anti-depressants.

I want a spiritual leader with a healthy glow, but my hope is that the glow comes something extraordinary and holy.  The best pastors I know have a resilience that comes from having a strong spiritual core.  They trust in Something bigger than themselves.  They do not make ministry about themselves.

Maybe our pastors struggles with an array of imperfections.  But they know how to use even those imperfections for good.

What we need are pastors with a healthy glow.

Vacation = Radio Silence

More posts after vacation.


Not a Bucket List But a . . .

holey bucketWatching Larry Wilmore the other night, he referred to Barack Obama’s last year as President as a period during which the President seems less concerned with his Bucket List than his (2 words that rhyme with Bucket) List.  This is a family blog and so I’m not going to spell out what I’m talking about but we could call it the @*#^ -It List.

The notion of a Bucket List has always bothered me.  Bucket Lists seem to create more obligations and competition than necessary.

Instead, a more spiritual plan seems to be the @*#^-It List.  Again, I don’t mean to be vulgar.  It’s just that shedding burdens or fears or shame or unrealistic expectations seems to be a holy endeavor.  Tossing out what we no longer need feels wonderful.

As we celebrate a wedding in our backyard in a mere 23 days, I am in the perfect frame of mind to embrace this spiritual practice.

What is truly necessary?  What is truly helpful?  What brings people together and what brings unnecessary anxiety.  What needs to be on our @*#^-It List?