Focus on Leadership: Saying No, Saying Yes

A couple years ago during this same week of Lent, Lutheran (ELCA) pastor Nadia Bolz Weber wrote back-to-back blog posts on the spiritual practice of saying, “No,” and the spiritual practice of saying, “Yes.” The spiritual practices, indeed arts, of saying no and saying yes are applicable throughout the year, but Lent is an especially good time to focus on our priorities.

Do All the Things meme

From All the Things Meme (origins of this meme)

Lent is a time of examination, a time to shed old, destructive habits, and create practices that foster new life. A particularly destructive habit in our American culture is the habit of busyness. We spend so much time talking about how busy we are, how we never have enough time for ourselves, for our friends, for our families, even to practice our faith well. In truth, we probably both are overly busy and we like to think that being busy makes us important, that the world would collapse without us doing ALL THE THINGS.

Bolz Weber talks about our self-imposed pressure and anxiety to do all the things. To say yes to everything asked of us, especially as Christians who are here to help people, right? If we say no, people might think we are rude or selfish, so we keep saying, “Yes!” And this might work for a while, especially if you have a lot of energy and an open schedule. You can probably say yes to a fair amount of little things with a few long-term commitments, and sail along just fine.

Until you can’t. Until your family or work life adds additional or unforeseen demands. Until you can’t cross off some of those little things as you wait on other people, and they pile up. Until something unexpected comes us, throwing your whole tightly-woven schedule out the window. Until you realize you never should have said yes to that thing you couldn’t or simply didn’t want to do.

We feel so much shame around the things we say yes to and cannot complete. What if we started saying, “No?” People might be disappointed (getting volunteers is often not easy), but it is better to say no up front to something we likely cannot accomplish, than to say yes, and not be able follow through.

You can start being honest with yourself about your time, your abilities and the limits of those abilities. Just because someone asks you to do something doesn’t mean you can or should do that thing. Perhaps if we can’t find enough volunteers for something we need to rethink how we are doing it, or whether we need to do that thing at all. It can be a great opportunity for the people and organizations (including the church) around you to think about their own priorities and limits.

Saying no also leaves room to say yes. Yes to new opportunities, yes to things you want to learn or try that you didn’t have time for before. Yes to challenging projects that will take more time and concentration than you might have if you didn’t say no to a few things. Yes to simply taking time to stop and breathe, to remember why we do all of this anyway (hint: God – and right at the top of God’s commandments is the commandment to observe the Sabbath).

Lest you think this is a modern problem, consider the references in Scripture to making your yes yes, and your no no – Jesus in Matthew 5:37, Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:17, James in James 5:12. This is not simply about not being busy, but about being truthful about our boundaries so that we can be true to our yes, we will not let ourselves and others down, which can harm relationships, and so that we can live life in abundance – both taking time to enjoy God and what God gives to us and be ready for new adventures. And it is clearly a human problem, not a modern human problem.

Let us say no. So that we might also say yes.

Focus on Leadership: Take a Breath

It’s Lent. What does that mean to you? Are you giving up chocolate or doughnuts? Adding in an act of kindness each day? Some other practice? No practice? Perhaps Lent stresses you out because you just want to do it “right” as a leader in the church. It’s time to take a breath.

Teaching elders and ruling elders bear equal responsibility of caring for the spiritual health of a congregation, working together to provide opportunities for spiritual growth, seeking out the lost, and setting the course of spiritual well-being. None of us can claim a perfect spiritual life, but too often our leaders are so busy making sure everyone else has what they need, we forget to take care of our own spiritual needs.

Sometimes we just need to stop. Stop everything we are doing, and take a break. We need to simply breathe, rest and take time to reflect. Prayer, reading Scripture, engaging (not leading) worship, resting our minds and bodies – these practices are necessary for us to be grounded in God and become whole. We can be doing all the “right” things, and feel completely disconnected from God’s joy because we do not remember why we are doing the “right” things in the first place.

So, take a breath. Remember what brought you to this place. What were all the small and great joys along the way – in worship, in fellowship, in service – where you felt the call to leadership in the church. Strip away all that doesn’t need doing today, and simply breathe.

Putting it into Practice

Let us lead this Lent by being people who take a breath, people who truly practice Sabbath. What about all those extra things that need to get done this holy season?

What about that new small group? Go, but let the members find their own calls to leadership in taking on new roles as facilitators. (Help new leaders breathe by encouraging them, and reassure them when silence crops up. Sometimes we just need to have some space to think.)

What about extra worship services during Lent? Do you need to fill every moment with active liturgy? Perhaps give more space to simple sitting and quiet contemplation. We all need more time to just be. (Help your members relax into this by encouraging breathing in and out, slowing down, quieting the thoughts in their heads.)

What about community meals? How will we make sure there is enough to eat? How many church meals have you been to where there hasn’t been enough food? (Help your hospitality committee breathe by grabbing some family-size cans of soup to have at the ready if need be. All will be well.)

Perhaps this Lent we give up perfection. We create a little more space for each other. Let go of the things that don’t need to get done TODAY, let there be times of silence, forgive ourselves for failures to get it “right.” Because, isn’t that what this faith is about? Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, and when we get it wrong, take a breath.

Focus on Leadership: Making Room

How much time do we spend complaining about traffic? About the crowded streets, about other drivers, about how it is slowing us down? When you are in that traffic, is your tendency to think about other drivers as adversaries or partners?

If we see them as adversaries, we are probably less likely to give people the space they need to merge or switch lanes. We might cut others off before they can do it to us, and we will definitely yell at them for whatever infraction they might incur. If we see them as partners in getting where we are all going, we might pay more attention to what other drivers are trying to do. We anticipate sticky spots where you know many people are entering onto one side of the highway, and will quickly need to exit on the complete opposite side, and make space for them. Likewise, we will pay attention to those entering or exiting, and make room or adjust our speeds to accommodate them.

It is likely we all are guilty of being adversaries on the road at one point or another. (And some wise people who know that they tend to be overly aggressive on the roads choose to use public transportation.) This doesn’t just apply to traffic, of course. We see this behavior on sidewalks and in grocery store lines, anywhere there is a group of people who all have their own ideas about how and when to get where they are going. It is usually exacerbated by our own busy schedules, too.

Does it ever feel like this in your church life? When you are in a committee meeting, session, or Bible study, does it seem like everyone has their own agenda? We aren’t really paying attention to the needs of other individuals, and assume that my needs apply to the whole group? If we see each other as obstacles to our desired outcome, we find ourselves in the same traffic jams we encounter on our busy roads.

Just as driving becomes smoother, and less stressful when we work together to get where we’re all going, seeing each other as partners in ministry leadership helps us all get where we need to go. Paying attention to the needs of those around us – in churches, on presbytery committees, in outside ministries – helps us make room for each other.

We may not all have the same hopes and needs on Sunday morning, Wednesday night, or other times we gather. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t work together to all get where we need to go.

Take some time to think about those around you as partners in growing and living out your faith every day, inside and outside our ministries. Really listen to one another, and see how we can help each other get where we are going. This might mean active encouragement, or simply creating space to experiment without judgment. We may find that our own needs were less important than we thought, or fulfilled in a different way than we imagined.

We will probably still be guilty of being less-than-pleasant in traffic or in line at the grocery store when we are in a hurry. However, we might find that we can get where we need to be in plenty of time, both in the church and out when we simply make some room every day.

Remarks from J. Herbert Nelson

The Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, was scheduled to join us this past January 25th, and was unable to be with us at our daytime event. He was able to send us this video to view at our luncheon that day, and we wanted to share it with everyone.

Rev. Nelson has some powerful things to say about the life of the Presbyterian Church, our role in the work of the Kingdom, and how we need to work together to know and share our story as part of that important work.

Feel free to share this video with your congregations, as we move forward in hope.

Focus on Leadership: Salt and Light

Courtesy of Worship Times

This past Sunday many of our churches shared Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount regarding what it means to be a follower in the world. Those who follow Christ are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city on a hill. In other words, our love adds essential flavor to life and should not and cannot be hidden.

Many people try to get through life keeping their heads down, avoiding anything that might cause conflict. Jesus says a characteristic of his followers is that they stick out. But we are not drawing attention to ourselves for our own sake or ego, but rather people see us and are drawn to us for our flavor and light. God’s love that fills us shines out in our words and actions.

We posted a piece on Facebook with remarks at last year’s polity conference from PC(USA)’s Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson talking about not getting stuck.

Doing what is familiar and comfortable is a trap for groups of leaders, whether things are going well, or whether you are dealing with a new problem, and want to feel safe and in control. Being people of salt and light means that we need to think through decisions with clarity, and some creative flavor.

Rather than blending in, going along with what is comfortable, we are called to be beacons of hope. Those who are ordained in the PC(USA) make a vow to pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. We tend to lean on the previous vow, to further the peace, unity and purity of the church, by interpreting it to mean that we shouldn’t make too many waves, without understanding that both vows must work together.

Peace, unity and purity mean neither a lack of problems or conflict, nor an unanimity of thought. Rather, these speak to a wholeness of the church that cannot be achieved among people with different experiences and ideas without energy, intelligence, imagination and love. In order to come together, we must use our saltiness, we must make decisions that create a community that does not rely on common understandings of how the world works.

As Christians, we follow a Messiah upended the common understandings of the world – either fit in, keep your head down, don’t cause too much trouble or make sure you are at the top of the heap with no room for anyone else. In Christ’s view of the world being salt and light means both sticking out and making room for others.

So, let’s not get stuck, but instead let’s stick out. Let our lights shine as beacons toward a God and community that love differently, and use our saltiness to figure out new ways of working and being together.

Focus on Leadership: Showing Up

It’s the text. That one you were expecting. The one that always comes. Maybe a day before, maybe only a few hours or a few minutes before. “Sorry! [Something] came up, and I just can’t make it!” The text from that one friend or fellow volunteer. And that “something” is almost never an emergency. It’s usually an oil change, or a last-minute lunch with friends, or running to the store to pick up project supplies for their kids. Repeat: Not an emergency.

When you consistently break your prior commitments, you are telling your friends or fellow volunteers that they (and your work together) don’t matter much. Where you choose to spend your time is telling, and can be difficult to challenge. Work, family, friends, necessary chores – none of these are frivolous. And, yet so many of the conflicting commitments could be scheduled at other times.

In a friendship, and in the church, there is generally enough good will to give people the benefit of the doubt when they flake one time. But, if you consistently cancel on a friend or church events, they are simply a lower priority in your life. If these are things we really value, and say we value, we need to follow through by rearranging our priorities and commitments.

In a busy world, more of us are becoming this person, too. It’s so easy to fall into, especially when everyone around us is, too. Perhaps we could be the good example, instead of following the crowd.

Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’
Matthew 5:37

Show up.

When you say you are going to do something, show up. Do the thing.

If the commitment is a meeting or set of meetings that don’t work for your schedule, be honest about it. Either indicate which things you can commit to, see if you can change the schedule, or simply decline.

If you make a commitment and something comes up, assess whether the new conflict is a) really a higher priority than your original commitment, and/or b) can be done another time. Unless it is an emergency, stick with your original commitments.

If you show up people will trust you when you say you are going to do something. If you simply say no when you know you can’t follow through, people will respect that you have boundaries. If you tell people you can’t do something because you already have a previous commitment, they may start doing the same. You can’t build a friendship or get work done if you can’t get together.

If you want to build an amazing community, show up. The rest happens from there.

shadow of person with outstretched hands on beach

Focus on Leadership: Caring for Yourself

shadow of person with outstretched hands on beach

How are you?

How are you? A question asked and answered almost daily by most of us that most of us rarely answer fully. It’s much easier to just say, “Fine,” than to lay out either our great joys or great concerns, or even simple, “meh.” But, it’s also a question we don’t answer honestly if and when we ask it of ourselves.

As leaders in the church and other areas of our lives, we tend to put others and their needs before our own. But what happens if we aren’t listening and responding to our own needs? How can we be any good to anyone else?

You may not be someone who makes resolutions for the new year. Resolutions are too often broken, dropped, or forgotten within weeks, days or even hours of making them. However, if there is one thing we all need to do better this year, it is to listen to yourself.

Take time each day to check in with yourself. In Christian tradition, there are many practices of prayer and discipline that include this check-in. The Ignatian Examen is a classic example of a daily spiritual practice that centers checking in with yourself. However you do it, being honest about what went well, what didn’t go so well that day helps us move forward to the next day.

Checking in with yourself and being honest in answering those questions are just first steps. If the answer to the question, “How are you,” is, “Not so hot,” do something about it. None of us are happy every day. We all have days where we seem to fail at every turn. If you are tired, take some rest. If you are overwhelmed, ask for help. If you just feel blah, try something new. And if the not-so-hot days are outnumbering the okay or good days, you might need something more.

Take care of yourself. The people around you want you to be whole and healthy for you, as well as for your ministry and leadership. And God wants that for you, too. Jesus spent a lot of time asking people how they were, and healing bodies, minds and spirits in response.

So – How are you today?

Focus on Leadership: Caring For One Another

After a tough week at work, including a conversation with an employee that revealed some deep hurts in his life, a Human Resources Director told her pastor, “I had never really thought much before about where an HR Director goes when she needs to talk to someone about difficult things at work.” Of course, she was talking to her pastor, which can be a great and confidential outlet. Having a good therapist on hand to talk to is also never a bad idea for anyone. But there was a lot of truth to her statement. Organizational leaders often don’t know where to turn when they need to talk through a difficult situation arising from the organization itself.

When you are at the top, you don’t (and often can’t) put the burdens of leadership back on people below you in the organization. And there may be no one above you to talk to, either. Keeping it to yourself may cause more problems. So, what can you do?

First, as Presbyterians we are blessed to have a system where no one person is at the top of our organizations. We have designed the system intentionally to share the decisions and challenges that come with being leaders in the church. In our churches, pastors are not the end of the line – we have sessions to make most of the decisions together with the pastors.

We too often think of our sessions as merely decision-makers, though. Ruling elders, especially those serving on session, are charged with the spiritual leadership of the church, not just the business of the church. This changes how we might view our work. It is not just important to be responsible stewards of financial resources, but to be in tune with other members and the pastor(s) to see if there are needs that are not being expressed.

As teaching and ruling elders, we have to care for one another. If one of us is having a tough time, or if a difficult situation is causing anxiety, anger, sadness or strife in the church, it is our responsibility to help lift the burdens others are carrying.

No leader can do our work alone, and without good conversation partners. And if we try to, we may end up hurting the organizations and the people who work in them, and who they serve.

We need to remind each other to get the rest we need. If someone is taking on too many tasks, we need to find ways of relieving them of some of that stress. If we need to take more time making a decision because it is clear that we are not ready, we need to take courage to voice that. This also works at the presbytery, synod and national church levels, not to mention in our other organizations.

If you are in a structure where the buck stops with you, think about how your experience within the church might help you seek out other leaders at your level that you can talk to. Think about who might be a helpful sounding board when you can’t talk to people in your own organization. Who might you help in the same ways?

And may you find peace everywhere you go this Christmas season.

Focus on Leadership: Listening

We live in a time where there is a lot of noise – information coming at us through news, fake news, social media, in audio, video and written forms. But how much are we actually absorbing? Quite a few studies have been done about confirmation bias – that we are more likely to listen to, agree with and pass on narratives that fit our predetermined understanding of the world. Whether or not those narratives are true or false. If something fits our idea of how the world works, we fit it into the picture. If it challenges our world view, we reject it.

And yet…we are preparing to celebrate an event does not fit into any understanding of the world. A poor, unmarried woman pregnant with a child who is both fully human and fully divine. A child who is fully divine, yet lives as a human, grows and learns, falls down, has bad days and good days, just like any human being. A child who will grow up to save the world, not in the way that past heroes, or any heroes to come, had conquered, but by showing that all the powers of the world could not defeat God. No humiliation, no silence, not even death could stop the Word of God from spreading, in stories, in actions, in transformed lives.

This event, the birth of Christ is celebrated each year not as a memorial, but as an ongoing reality. Though we talk about Jesus changing our lives as a caterpillar changes into a butterfly, our change is not a one-time thing. Just as Jesus’ ancestors and Jesus’ disciples found their worlds being turned upside down not once, but many times, so too will ours if we continue to read, listen to and think about Scripture, pray, and connect with people in faith throughout our lives. How we think, how we live, how we behave will all be challenged again and again.

Our faith calls us to be open to these challenges and these transformations. Ecclesiastes talks about this so well. Life is compared to a vapor, which is often interpreted to mean that it holds little weight or meaning, but which is probably better understood to mean that we should not hold too tightly to anything. There is a season for everything. We have to be willing to let go of even things that we have always known as true or have worked for us in the past. It may not be true now or in the future. It doesn’t help us to hold onto it.

The biggest thing we have to let go of is assuming we know how others feel or think or what their experiences are. NPR political reporters reflecting on their work, especially in this last election season, said the biggest thing that helped them do good work is to ask questions without assuming what the answers would be. Then they actually listened to people answer those questions and tell their stories.

If we want to change how we respond to each other, if we want to continue to be challenged and changed through our faith, we can start by being good listeners. And hopefully as we model good listening, others will feel heard, and want to learn how to listen as well.

Focus on Leadership: Peacemaking

dove-183267_640The way of peace is not an easy one. As the Confession of 1967 lays out, “Wise and virtuous [people] through the ages have sought the highest good in devotion to freedom, justice, peace, truth, and beauty. Yet all human virtue, when seen in the light of God’s love in Jesus Christ, is found to be infected by self-interest and hostility. All [people], good and bad alike, are in the wrong before God and helpless without…forgiveness.”

As the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” So often when we attempt to do good, we cannot do it. The problems are too big, or we get afraid, or our ego gets in the way. As leaders, how can we lead others in the ways of peace, if we ourselves cannot accomplish peace?

Fortunately, it is not up to us alone. Our faith reminds us that while even humans trying to do good will stray from the path, we were not created to do this by ourselves. We have a Savior and Encourager in God, who can guide us when we mess up. We are reminded that taking on big problems requires many small steps, that we are not alone when we are afraid, and that it’s not about our ego, our reputation, our goals, but rather we follow that goals of Jesus Christ, we live into the reputation of Christ.

Another entry in our Book of Confessions, A Brief Statement of Faith, states this so well: “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”

We are also reminded that not only is God with us, as our Creator, as the One who guides and saves us, as Encourager, but we have a whole team of peacemakers – others who believe as we do, that we are called to reach out and seek reconciliation with our neighbors and enemies. That the ways of peace mean that we have to face comments, insults, perhaps injury or death from those who profit from strife and warfare, those who thrive on chaos, those who think peace is a myth. But we face them together.

Just one person sharing acts of peace can encourage and embolden others to join them. Justin Normand, of Irving, TX, found this out last weekend when he decided to spend some time near a local mosque with a sign of peace and friendship for his Muslim neighbors. A picture of him with his sign was shared across social media as a sign of light in a discouraging time when so many acts of hate happening. This week Mr. Normand shared how his faith, as a Presbyterian, compelled him to do something, anything he could to show his neighbors they were loved.

This was a powerful witness kicked off by just one person. And how many spirits were lifted through his actions? How many others will join him in sharing love for their neighbors because of his simple act? And he learned to do it through the teachings of our faith. In churches just like ours.

We cannot do this without the work of the Holy Spirit, or without the saving grace of Christ, but our words and actions matter. We can do this work of peace, with God’s help, one step at a time.


Some resources to share with your congregations to talk about and live out peace and peacemaking can be found on the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s page and also on the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s website.