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Bib Quotient

Mad Men wearing bibsIf you divided up the people in your congregation/organization, how many would
be on The Apron List and how many would be on The Bib List?  The numbers could determine the level of exhaustion felt by your pastor.

  • Lots of People Wearing Aprons = A Culture of Service
  • Lots of People Wearing Bibs = A Culture of Being Served

This post is chock-full of old news.  But it bears repeating.

All of us have to wear bibs occasionally:  when we are babies, when we are sick, when we are eating lobster.  But many of our congregations are filled with people who almost always wear the proverbial bib.  This is regrettable.

Maybe we’ve made the mistake of teaching our people that church is an organization comprised mostly of victims, the needy, and the entitled.  (Where is the resurrection if we are stuck in those narratives?)

Maybe we’ve become so pastor-centric that nobody knows how to do anything but the person with the seminary degree – and the pastor has failed to realize that this is not effective leadership.

Maybe we have people who have served faithfully for decades in particular positions, but it’s more about them (the power!) than a call to service (the dirty work!)

Leadership is the single best predictor for success in ministry.  Pastors who know how to equip others for leadership will excel.

To be fair, many gifted pastors serve people who erroneously assume that it’s the pastor’s job to be the professional Christian.  That’s what we pay her for.

In wealthy communities, where people are used to hiring out everything from their housekeeping to their lawn mowing to their dog walking, church staff are often considered spiritual vendors.  We pay the pastor to marry, baptize and bury, to deliver pastoral care and a decent sermon.  They work for us.

Adventures in missing the point.

In all kinds of communities, there is a different kind of assumption that it’s
The Pastors Job to do all the preaching, teaching, praying, visiting, and caring. This kind of thinking will not only close down your church fairly quickly, but it’s not even Biblical according to this simple job description.

Great communities are filled with more people who wear aprons.  Maybe the aprons are real and maybe they are figurative.  I’m thinking about the homebound lady who phones other homebound parishioners for a daily check-in.  I’m thinking about the mom who helps another mom when one of the kids has a meltdown in Target.  I’m thinking about the person who naturally walks the church guest down the hall to the nursery or the person who reflexively wipes off the tables after a spill.

I actually wrote about this three years ago.  But now more than ever, we need leaders who know how to train others to lead – not as a grab for “power” but for an expression of gratitude.

Image is from Mad Men.  Halloween hint:  Don’t dress like a big baby for Halloween.  It’s sad.  

Kill the Meetings. Set People Free.

One year when I was a parish pastor, we gave up meetings for higher consil

Seven weeks.  No meetings – except for prayer and study gatherings.  We prepared ourselves for this (traumatic) shift by getting business done in advance and giving people permission to do what needed to be done between Ash Wednesday and Easter without calling the Boards together for debate and discussion.

Two things happened:

  1. People loved it. (We were free to be with our families and friends all those week nights and weekend days.  Church became more about “get to” and less about “have to.”)
  2. People hated it.  (There were complaints of “I don’t know what’s going on!”  and some of our leaders felt like their power had been taken away.)

We in Church World have entered the season of Meeting-Palooza.  Stewardship Meetings. Capital Campaign Meetings.  Thanksgiving Service Meetings.  Advent Planning Meetings.  Christmas Pageant Meetings.  2016 Budget Meetings.  Staff Review Meetings.  And then all the usual staff/elders/deacons/trustees/area clergy meetings continue as well.  We complain about them perhaps but then we keep meeting.  It’s what we do.

This article recently jolted me back to organizational sanity.

Our lives include both horizonal and vertical meetings.  Most are well-planned. Some are not.  Many have clear purposes.  Some are a waste of time – except for the fact we can say we met.  Management happened.  Order was maintained. Sacred assumptions about What-We-Are-Supposed-To-Be-Doing were achieved.

Dear Pastors and Other Leaders: what if – instead of scheduling and requiring meetings and more meetings –  we managed our ministries in a different way?

John Donovan, Executive VP of AT&T defines the role of a manager as “removing roadblocks and recognizing excellence.”  What if we set our people free to do their work, with quick check-ins or planned “stand up meetings” at the coffee pot (“What’s going on with you this week?”)  Healthy churches, for example, set leaders free to do ministry with two basic parameters:

  1. Is what we’re doing within the budget?
  2. Is what we’re doing within the core values of the church?

Beyond that, leaders have permission to do their work.  Excellent.

What are you finding about the culture of meetings in your church?  Do committees even meet anymore? (Or is everything done digitally?)  Are meetings well run?

Imagine an institutional world in which formal meetings were rare and ministry was set free.  Would that work in your context?

Big Decisions for Our Small Churches

The median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday Small Church Mosaicmornings, according to the 2015 National Congregations Study.  (The median church size is the point at which half the churches are smaller and half the churches are larger.)

I have great affection for several churches with less than 50 members/regular participants. I’m thinking of one with 25 members.  Another has 11 members.  Yet another has 32. What will those congregations look like in five years?  Here are some options:

  • Live Until We Die – The congregation could keep going until they can no longer pay their utility bills, not to mention afford any semblance of professional  leadership.  The inability to afford regular pastoral leadership means that – while the church might continue to offer the most basic features of community life together (weekly worship, emergency pastoral care) –  it’s virtually impossible for a church to expand its mission with part time pastoral attention.  Without intentional neighborhood outreach, discipleship training, and leadership development, a church will eventually die.  Life expectancy is directly determined by the size of the church endowment (to keep paying those utility bills.)
  • Live With Volunteer Leadership – Maybe our congregations cannot afford full time leadership, but our volunteer leaders are strong and spiritually mature.  Or maybe we have a theological commitment to embrace First Century ministry in that we’ve decided that we’ll have no paid leaders.  Everyone will serve according to her/his gifts and abilities.  The problem here is that after working a 40-50 hour week in their secular jobs, they will have little energy to offer their church the level of commitment needed to thrive.  Many of our members are so utterly busy and weary that we are grateful for anyone who can commit to “two hours every Tuesday” or “an hour once a month.”   Unless the congregation is comprised of many healthy retired members or independently wealthy younger members, this ministry cannot be sustained indefinitely.  Life expectancy is directly determined by the availability and willingness of members to devote many hours of healthy leadership – in addition to having balanced home and work lives.
  • Live with an Idealistic Pastor  – Maybe the congregation is blessed with an energetic pastor who works full-time but is paid part-time, in hopes that the church will grow to the point of being able to afford to pay more in the future.  Filled with vision and the Spirit, this pastor make personal sacrifices  – perhaps to the point of martyrdom and exhaustion.  But life expectancy is determined by the willingness of the congregation to make their own financial and personal sacrifices.  The congregation will also have to make cultural sacrifices (e.g. giving up the way things have always been if new people join the church.)

Most of our churches under 50 members will probably close in the next five years or less, but there is nothing shameful about this.

In their earlier history, some of congregations transformed their communities. In some cases, once thriving churches were always social clubs and it was never about Jesus.  They were doomed to shutter one day. Other churches could not survive issues beyond their control (a fire, a flood, an economic downturn.)

But none of this means that The Church of Jesus Christ is done.  It’s simply shifting.  Either we also shift or we make way for something new.

What decisions are the small churches in your lives making in these shifting times?  I’m especially looking for good news stories.

When the Head of Staff is 30-something & the Associate Pastor is 60-something

In the past week three 60-something friends have commented to me that they2 shepherds crooks would love to serve under a Rock Star millennial Head of Staff/Senior Pastor before they retire.

Maybe these comments were of the toss-off variety.  Or maybe not.  But then this article popped up in the Washington Post yesterday:  I’m 60.  My Boss is a 20-Something.  It’s Awkward.

It doesn’t have to be awkward.  In fact it could be transformative for The Church.

What would make it awkward:

  • A young, unteachable head of staff who is completely unaware of what she/he doesn’t know and a seasoned, incurious associate who thinks he knows everything.
  • A young head of staff with less than 10 years experience earning 2-3 times as much as the seasoned pastor with 30+ years of experience.  (Note:  often the opposite is true in that the “senior” Senior Pastor earns 2-3 times more than any associate pastor on a church staff.  This is not necessarily just either.)
  • Rivals on the same staff.
  • Pastors with no sense of humor.
  • Resentful colleagues (i.e. an older associate pastor who felt pushed out of his/her last position or a younger head of staff who felt threatened by parishioners who felt more comfortable with the older pastor.)
  • Clergy of any age with limited eye-roll control.

What would make it awesome:

  • A seasoned pastor – who has done the whole preaching-every-Sunday thing for decades is totally ready to relinquish the pulpit – even for Easter and Christmas Eve – to a younger voice.  And he/she relishes hearing that millennial’s take on scripture.
  • A younger head of staff who seeks mentoring from the seasoned pastor as she/he navigates a new way of being “the senior.”
  • Parity in setting salary and benefits based on the fact that 1) the head of staff is both the face of the congregation and has more responsibilities but is less experienced and 2) the associate pastor has more experience but less responsibility
  • A team of pastors whose shared goals are 1) to make disciples, 2) to bolster community, 3) to equip the saints for ministry — not to strive to be “the cool one” or “the most popular one.”  Emphasis on team.

This could alter so many things that need to be changed, like . . .

  • Boomer pastors who won’t step down from churches – often at the congregation’s expense.  (By the time some retire, their congregations will have had such sluggish leadership for so long that they may never recover.)
  • Wage disparity between clergy on the same staff.

One of the issues in all this concerns the fact that – as our congregations continue to reduce in size –  more and more churches are staffed by a single (exhausted) pastor.  More about that tomorrow.

I’d love your feedback, folks.

Image of matching shepherd’s crooks.

Social Capital Saves Lives

We’ve thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the brightest
men, or occasionally women, in the room, and giving them all the resources and all the power.  And the result has been . . . aggression, dysfunction and waste.  If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live.
   Margaret Heffernan

Social Network Shelby McQuilkin

The initial title for my post today was “We Are Killing Ourselves & Each Other” but it sounded a bit too dark, don’t you think?  Still –  it’s true.

What’s also true is that we need each other.  For the love of God (and humanity) please listen to this or – if you prefer, read the transcript of Margaret Heffernan’s TED Talk about work – it’s here.

As we all know, another loner has taken the lives of innocent people along with his own.  These shooters are called “unknown” or “sullen and aloof” with “socialization delays.”  Sometimes teachers or counselors noticed them along the way and they expressed concern.  But it wasn’t enough.  They needed friends, mentors, unconditional love, treatment, protection, intervention, attention.

I have no wisdom for how to stop our national crisis.  My life’s work involves church and professional ministry, and in the throes of this work, I also know pastors and other church leaders who are profoundly lonely and broken.  We self-medicate.  We avoid conflict.  We keep our spiritual doubts to ourselves.

We need to make changes in the way we work.  We need to figure out how to create social capital.

Margaret Heffernan works with companies and this is what she says about making companies thrive:  “Social capital is what gives companies momentum. And social capital is what makes companies robust.

. . . Time is everything because social capital compounds with time. So teams that work together longer get better because it takes time to develop the trust you need for real candor and openness. And time is what builds value.

Many pastors have limited social capital.  Maybe we tried to make changes without first developing relationships.  Maybe we love the intellectual rigors of our profession, but we don’t love the relational piece. Maybe we didn’t show our people that we love them.  Maybe we don’t love them.  Maybe we are working solo in a tiny church with negligible support.  Maybe we are lonely as hell.

Our seminaries and denominational leaders would serve professional ministers better if we could teach/encourage/model how to build social capital.  Some of our more creative colleagues have ideas:

  • Multi-staff pastors invite neighboring solo pastors to join them for staff meetings, to do what people do at staff meetings – collaborate, bounce ideas off each other, check in.  Yes, neighboring pastors often meet occasionally in Clergy Associations, but what if there was a culture shift that created a broader understanding of “staff”?
  • Solo pastors in several churches become staff for each other, partnering across congregational and denominational lines.  (We need to get past the idea that Roman Catholics can’t do things with Methodists or Presbyterians cannot join Lutherans without the fear that one pastor won’t steal another pastor’s people.)
  • We need therapy groups/accountability groups/12-step groups for clergy in which we leave our shame and fear at the door.  (Note: there are untrustworthy clergy out there.  Sadly, we must be careful about what we share.)

Social capital saves lives.  This is true for loners with violence issues.  This is true for clergy with savior issues.  This is true for all of us.

Image is Social Networking by the gifted artist Shelby McQuilkin.  Please buy her art here.

Clergy Friends: Whatever Happened to Mira Sorvino?

Mira Sorvino OscarThere are clergy who accept the call to professional ministry because We Just Want To Serve.  We want to please God.  We want to follow Jesus.  And, if we are honest, maybe there’s also a little of this: We Like The Attention.

Of course, the days are over when being the local preacher brought immediate respect and name-recognition.  It used to be true that the calling of a new pastor was newsworthy, but today that’s simply not the case – unless you are the pastor of the tallest of tall steeple churches.  And even then, the average human being won’t care.

Nevertheless, many of us spend energy trying to get our names out there, possibly for the sake of the Gospel.  (Or more likely for our own sakes.) We want to be known.  We want to be desired as a theologian or a writer or a retreat leader.  We seek out doctoral degrees or more prominent positions.  Clearly, I’m speaking for myself here.  But maybe you can relate.

Some of us reach a point when we say, “I don’t have anything to prove anymore.” We don’t care if others are chosen.  We don’t mind if others win.  We got attention when we needed it more.

Or maybe we will always feel like we have something to prove – to somebody else or to ourselves.  Or to God?

So I was thinking about Mira Sorvino who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when she was 28 years old.   Sweet.  And then she did other remarkable things, only not necessarily in the movies.

Yes, she was amazing in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, but that was 18 years ago.  Since winning the Oscar, Mira Sorvino has “starred in lower-budget and independent films” according to Wikipedia.  As well, she’s raising four kids with her spouse and there’s an entomological process found in the sunburst diving beetle named “mirasorvone” after she played an entomologist in the movie Mimic.  

This is an honor comparable to calling the exegetical process of depatriarchalizing scripture tribling perhaps.  So that’s pretty impressive.  But again, only the dorkiest among entomologists or theologians would understand.

Ms. Sorvino also identifies as a devout Christian and her life’s ministry includes work to end human trafficking.  I imagine that God finds this work more impressive than having a beetle’s defensive mechanism named after her.  Or acting in 40+ movies.

This week I’m retreating with new clergy, some of whom are the age that Mira Sorvino was when she won an Oscar.  Being Ordained as a PCUSA Pastor Winning an Oscar.  It’s the beginning of professional service in the church, not the pinnacle of professional acting in the movies.

And yet, there’s pressure in both places.  If we win early, there’s the pressure to keep winning.  If we are just starting out “with the whole world in front of us” there’s the pressure to become someone who is successful/worthy/known.  At least this is true for the privileged among us with options.

What is “enough” as a professional minister (or as a professional journalist or teacher or dentist or caterer or farmer?)  And how do we measure our worth?  Is most of our work behind the scenes (and are we cool with that?)  For clergy, most of what we do best will never be known to the masses or share-able on social media:

That time a sermon moved someone to make a tough choice (and we never even heard about it for decades.)  That time we sat with a woman we barely knew in the ER after her husband’s accident.  That time we said just the right thing in a prayer to soothe a desperate soul.  That time we helped a woman escape from her abusive husband.  That time we organized a moving day for a disabled friend.  That time we listened to a widow as she told us (for the tenth time) the story about how she met her husband.  That time we convinced a well-heeled member to fund a project for refugees over coffee.  That time we . . .

It’s a huge sign of spiritual growth when we realize and accept that we only have to prove something to God. And God’s actually fine with us making an attempt.

Image of my sister in Christ Mira Sorvino that time she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Mighty Aphrodite in 1995.

Clergy with Abandonment Issues

Don't Go

Sitting in a planning meeting yesterday, I referred to Clergy with Abandonment Issues and everybody nodded.  It’s something many of us deal with and it manifests itself in different forms:

  • Transience  – In many of our urban areas and especially with certain age groups, nobody stays in the same place for very long.  I’ve lived in places where people connect with the church in January and move to Topeka by August.  Ugh.
  • The Dones are Jumping Ship – As pastors, we try to equip leaders to serve and build community.  They volunteer to take on key roles.  We love them.  And then they realize they just aren’t connecting with God anymore and they drop out.  It hurts.
  • Everybody’s Dying – There are seasons when Everybody Seems to Be Dying.  Eighty-Somethings pass away after long, wonderful lives.  Thirty-something die – shockingly – in accidents.  Kids lose their lives when childhood diseases strike them.  It’s agony.
  • People Up and Vanish – There’s not even a Post-It note of an explanation.  Great people become part of the congregation.  They connect.  They are wonderful.  And then they disappear.  Did they secretly hate the church?  Did they die in a fiery crash?  Are they mocking you in a Starbucks somewhere?   Insecurities Abound.
  • Too Embarrassed to Face You Again – Someone – perhaps a new church person or a long-time church person discloses a Very Difficult Truth.   Addiction.  Adultery.  Incest.  Manslaughter.  Embezzlement.  And they cannot face you again post-confession.  Sigh.

Yes, there are congregations that remain the same for decades.  Nobody comes or goes much – even if we pray that they would.  But in the 21st Century, we pastors will need to brace ourselves for more good-byes than we were expecting.  It’s a real thing for clergy.  Sometimes we must simply grieve for those who have left us and the congregations we serve.  It’s part of the job.

GIF intended to soothe our pain.


Syrian Christian Priest Francois MuradI am struck by the fact that the New York Times didn’t cover the death of Phyllis Tickle last week.  The Church World (including denominational people, non-denominational people, the  Emerging Church crowd, assorted religious writing fans) noted the loss of Phyllis last week across social media and beyond.

The Times considered the deaths of Ali Salem, Jeremy Tarcher, and Leon Root obit-worthy, but the author of 38 books – many of which altered our ministry considerably – was not.

Why?  Because Church World is not the same as Secular World.

Most people in the universe do not care about the things Phyllis researched.  I’ve heard many people laud Nadia Bolz Weber for hitting #8 on the New York Times Bestsellers list two weekends ago. (A progressive Christian is embraced by the world!)

All of us appreciate being “known” in some way.   Some clergy become well-known – but only in very limited circles.  Some churches become well-known for both laudable and nefarious reasons.

I preached in Cincinnati yesterday to (mostly) strangers and it made me feel good when someone said he read my blog.  That’s really nice.  But honestly, most of the world will never care and that’s just fine.  Why are we doing what we do anyway – whether that’s helping people, serving the poor, writing books, preaching sermons, teaching classes, or picking up trash on the side of the road?

For followers of Jesus, we do it – ultimately – because it’s the best way to use our gifts to God’s glory, right?  Most of the world will not read our obits and that’s okay.

Image of Franciscan Priest Fr. Francois Murad who was murdered in Syria in 2013.  His obituary wasn’t in the New York Times either.

Considering Our Options

When I say “White Privilege” what’s your immediate response?


I’ve found that we white people often become defensive at the term, immediately noting that we haven’t always had it easy ourselves.  Maybe we’ve struggled financially or emotionally or physically. (What’s so privileged about that?) Maybe our ancestors never bought and sold slaves.  Maybe we’ve always lived in racially integrated communities where bigotry is unheard of and bluebirds sing and the air smells like cinnamon rolls, but this doesn’t mean our lives are privileged or anything.

Last week, I was in Philadelphia at a meeting, and on my way to join someone for breakfast, I found myself navigating my way to a bagel shop in a cute neighborhood.  And it occurred to me that I could eat at any of the restaurants I was strolling by:  the cute diner, the upscale cafe, the Starbucks, the other Starbucks, the fancy bread store.  I had so many options.

It occurred to me that privilege is about options.  I can live in any neighborhood in Chicagoland – except maybe the ones with million dollar houses.  But if I had millions of dollars I could literally live anywhere.  Not true for people of certain races and nationalities and religions – if they had a million dollars.

I could move to a place with good schools and/or good school choices.  I can select pretty much any doctor or dentist I want.  I can choose a coat from LL Bean or the thrift shop.  I have quite a few clothing options in my closet.

My options include any of the four pairs of black shoes lined up in there.

I have vacation options – and not merely because I can afford a vacation financially.  I can choose a Bed and Breakfast with my husband, even though that B&B might not welcome gay couples or brown couples or Arabic-speaking couples.

You get the picture.  Privilege = Options.

If ever we don’t believe there’s such a thing as White Privilege or Heterosexual Privilege or American Privilege or English-speaking Privilege or Christian Privilege – we need to count our options.  Chances are that we have lots of them.

Hello and Goodbye

Francis and PhyllisAs you read this, Pope Francis has said “hello” to Our Nation’s Capital and Phyllis Tickle has said good-bye to us all.  Over breakfast, HH and I say good-bye to friends we’ve come to love in Chicagoland who are moving south.  And there are good-byes and hellos in the office.

People come and people go in our lives.  This is a really, really good thing.  That’s all I have to say about that today.