From Joining To Starting Clergy Groups

It has been conventional wisdom for a long time that groups of clergy colleagues are good for pastors’ health. I’ve been invited into groups like this in both of the communities I have served, and I have been part of national groups as well. I have found them to be a helpful source of insight and encouragement.

But I think the emphasis for clergy needs to shift from finding these groups to forming them, which is a totally different skill set. Forming a group of clergy colleagues requires leadership among our peers, which most of us don’t feel we have permission to exert. But I have been grateful for the leadership my colleagues have exercised in setting a date and a time, calling peers, and saying, “I need this to exist and I want you in it” (Iona, I’m looking at you).

For such a group to accomplish what its founders want (study, accountability, learning), someone is going to have to lead, again in a way none of us feels we have a right to do. But with a group of colleagues that gathered for three days last December, one of us proposed (and led!) a Leadership Learning Conversation process that was the heart of our work (Landon, I’m looking at you).

Groups like these are tools for our health and learning in ministry, but they don’t just exist. Someone has to start them, and someone has to lead them (even the most collaborative group needs, at the very least, a facilitator). If there’s not a group where you are, what’s keeping you from making one?

Your Place at The Table

Sometimes life sits you across the table from a bigwig, which is one thing when the table is only set for two but quite another thing when there are 10. The first case is an interview, either of you or by you, but in any case the conventions are defined enough to manage.

Sitting across from a bigwig when there’s a whole table full of people feels different. Now the peers to your right and left, to the bigwig’s right and left, may judge you as an opportunist for making too much of your fortuitous seating. So don’t hog the bigwig. But if nobody else engages her, go to work. After all, there’s another seat right next to the bigwig, and nobody took it.

Ask all your questions and glean all you can. If you’re really lucky, the bigwig may even throw some criticism your way. Eat it all up. You won’t be at this table again. And when the thought creeps in that your table-mates are silently condemning you a for a greedy conversationalist (which is obviously more about you than them–they don’t and you’re not), just practice in your mind how you will retell the story the bigwig just shared about being in a Michael Lewis book.

Monday Morning Quarterback


Stuff we learned on Sunday

Youth Sunday, I now realize, is as much about the adult congregation as it is about the teenagers. This annual ritual is a chance, yes, for teens to plan all the music, to lead all the prayers, even to preach the sermon, but it is also a chance for the grown ups in the pews to hold those teenagers in their moment of risk and vulnerability.

That is a momentous thing to do.

It is as if we say to these moms and dads, Sunday school teachers and octogenarians all, “Here, do this: for the next hour concentrate as hard as you can on these kids and channel every ounce of grace and courage you can to them, for they are trying to summon the divine for you, and that is dangerous business indeed.”

The church is always, I’m finding, up to this task. It is hungry for it.

I. Want. You.

Two out of the four high school seniors who will address their fellow graduates at the community baccalaureate service next month are my students, and you better believe I’m proud of them. I’m also glad I asked them to audition. Well, “ask” isn’t the right word, and that makes all the difference.

Two speakers auditioned on the first of two appointed days, and all of mine were MIA. So as I left the high school, I texted three of them, “I want you to audition to speak at Baccalaureate.”

Not “Would you like to?”

Not “I think you should.”

Not “Please consider.”

I. Want. You.

I suppose it’s possible that the two who responded care so much about my approval that they’d sooner stare down hundreds of their peers with nothing to say than disappoint me, but that’s not where I’m putting my money. I’m betting the earnest desire of an adult who cares about them and wants to see them flourish was the thing.

Being wanted is powerful. I need to do more of this: let people know how highly I think of them and that I want them to share their gifts. That’s transformative.

Why Don’t I Read Anymore?

I don’t read much these days, and I feel badly about that. I have a roll of about 10 blogs that come to my email inbox daily, and I’ll spend about five minutes perusing those at the start of the day, but my reading barely goes beyond that. I have subscriptions to Harpers and The Atlantic, and I carry issues around in my bag for weeks not reading them. Last week I actually read half of a Harper’s article in a restaurant, then walked out without the magazine.

 So many books that I didn’t read/but there’s so much air I got to breathe (Matt & Kim)

And books? Forget about books. I read several chapters of the Kindle edition of this book over a recent vacation, but since then I’ve barely picked it up again. Of course, cooling on reading doesn’t stop me from acquiring more books.

I never felt completely honest describing “reading” as one of my hobbies, because the truth is my attention span is short, and I tend to read when there’s nothing else to do. Like on airplanes. I devour books on airplanes.

All the same, I used to read quite a bit. It feels like the time I used to spend reading, though, now goes to blogging, editing a podcast, or making some kind of progress on a project, like sending an email or organizing a spreadsheet. And while I feel badly about reading so much less, I feel pretty good about these other projects. I’m not trolling Facebook instead of reading; I’m working on stuff.

Maybe some spark will ignite a love of long, uninterrupted periods of reading again in the future. It’s gone now.

The Clock Is Ticking

I have a friend for whom the clock is ticking at her current job. Her position is transitioning to part-time in less than a month, and she is urgently looking for another full time gig someplace else. She’s 15 years into this gig.

I feel like the clock is ticking for all of us. I know teachers who find out in May whether they’ll have a job come September. I know architects moonlighting as Uber drivers because projects have dried up. It’s not about the particular circumstances of this or that job, but about a large shift taking place in the nature of work itself wherein a “job” is not going to provide the stability it once did. That includes church jobs.

In the church we talk about “tent-making” and “bi-vocational” pastors, those in our profession who aren’t drawing a full-time salary from a congregation but who have a non-church profession that allows them serve the church part-time. The problem with that arrangement is that, while the church job description may be “part-time,” the work rarely is. Ministry has a sneaky way of claiming all of you.

I don’t think bi-vocational is the next paradigm for the church to pursue. Instead, I’m wondering more and more if the pattern of freelance work can’t help both pastors and churches in this era. Even those of us in full-time installed calls will benefit from the ownership and urgency demanded of freelance work, the need to always be hustling and creating new work that meets real needs and adds real value.

I guess I’m wondering about the relative importance of the work of pastoral ministry compared to the role. Secure roles are disappearing from work life everywhere, and I don’t think the church will (or should) be immune from that change.

The Illusion of Writing A Book

“You actually don’t get that much from writing a book,” said the author of two books published by major publishers. It’s the second time in a month that an author has related to me how much of your life doesn’t change once you join the ranks of actual, honest-to-God authors. It’s such a struggle to convince yourself that you actually have something to say that would take a whole book, and it’s such a trial to actually produce that thing, that you must think all the while that everything about your life will change once it’s done and on bookshelves somewhere.

But I guess nothing really changes. Only now you have to sell your book. You have to go talk to the public about it. And you have to start working on the next one. What, you thought you’d be content to publish a single book and be done?

I’ve never written a book. I have harbored the illusion, though, that if I did I would be a different kind of person: smarter, more interesting, worth listening to.

If the work we’re doing is a ladder to another kind of life in which we’re a different kind of person, then it’ s an illusion. We always must scrap and struggle to be producing work of value, and no past or potential achievement will remove that burden from us. If anything, the burden intensifies once we’ve reached a goal. Because now we know we can do it; we don’t have that excuse anymore.

What if the book you’re thinking of writing is just one piece in a larger constellation of work you’re doing?

Monday Morning Quarterback

Stuff we learned on Sunday

Youth Sunday used to be on Mother’s Day in my congregation. After repeated complaints from a small sector of people whose own children were no longer youth, I changed it. Now Youth Sunday follows Mother’s Day by one week.

So the Sunday for planning Youth Sunday is now . . . you guessed it: Mother’s Day.

This is so much worse than having Youth Sunday on Mother’s Day in several ways. Fewer youth participate. My neighbor chastises me for taking teens away from Dear Old Mom. The mother of my own child sure as schnitzel doesn’t appreciate it.

Effective next year, I’m changing Youth Sunday back to Mother’s Day.

Of course, Youth Sunday is one of those pieces of church life that always feels like an outdated exercise. Parading teens in front of the congregation one Sunday a year can be an excuse for not pressing their role as worship leaders on 51 other Lord’s Days, or it can be a platform for gimmicky shenanigans in the service of cuteness.

These are my fears every year as the day approaches. As I negotiate a “Happy” Call to Worship energizer and patiently explain why students may not sing “The Misty Mountains Cold” as an Introit, I am 100% convinced that I am presiding over a farce. And then Youth Sunday comes, the teens are earnest, they connect with the congregation, the gospel is proclaimed, and the church is built up. I go home ashamed to have doubted them.

So, yeah, next year it’s on Mother’s Day again.

The Story You Tell Yourself About Yourself

My blog posts have come later in the day this week, because I’ve been going to the gym during my blogging time. Previously, my gym time came later in the morning, but that frequently meant not digging in to work until 10:00, and that felt hard to justify. Because the story I tell myself about myself is that I am a responsible professional.

But I also tell myself a story about myself that says I am a blogger, so the time to do that needs protecting. For a couple of months it came at the expense of the gym.

I also want to tell myself a story about myself that I am not a lazy out-of-shape slob, and the absence of regular exercise makes that story a very tough sell indeed.

I’m telling myself multiple stories about myself, and there’s a constant negotiation going on among them.

Everybody does this. The people who come to our churches are doing so as an exercise of the story they tell themselves about themselves. “Lifelong Presbyterian,” Liberal Christian,” “Interested observer,” “Begrudging companion”: these stories all interact with a personal network of related stories like, “I’m a teacher,” or “I’m a marathon runner.”

People leave church because it no longer fits the story they’re telling themselves about themselves: “I’m inclusive.” “I obey the Bible.” “I”m open minded.” “I’m faithful.”

Sometimes something happens in the church that changes the fit, like a changing definition of marriage. But I think just as often something happens in the person. Their story changes, while the church doesn’t.

I feel like I need to know my peoples’ stories better.


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