Focus on Leadership: Asking for Help

ask help

As leaders, asking for help can be one of our toughest challenges. People tend to look to us for answers, which is how we got into leadership in the first place. Of course, good leaders are also good at getting help through delegation, so you would think we are also good at asking for help. However, even good delegators (who are telling more than asking) can find themselves with tasks they took on their own shoulders that become overwhelming.

It is important to always recognize your limits. We may be taking on tasks someone else could do. Or we simply may not have the same time to put into a project we’ve easily completed before. Complications could arise we did not anticipate. Or a whole host of other reasons we might need to ask for help when we didn’t think we needed it. When we’ve said we would do a particular thing ourselves, then cannot finish it on our own, we may think it shows a lack of planning or leadership to ask for help.

Well, get over it. You may have planned poorly. You may not be up to this task. But things still need to get done. Or they don’t. Regardless, if you get stuck, ask for help. Even if it’s embarrassing or you think it might burden someone else to help you. Even if the decision between you is that something actually does not need to get done, you do not need to bear that decision by yourself. It is always good to get input.

If you ask for help, you may find a creative solution to a problem you wouldn’t have thought of on your own with the input of others. Plus, people really do love to help. Ok, there are some curmudgeons out there who will make you pay if you ask for their help (and you may just have to live through a little hell to get important work done), but most people want to feel needed, and love to lend a hand.

Good teams require good communication. And good communication requires asking for what you need. You will not only get done what needs to get done, but you will learn a lot about what each team member can do beyond what you already know.

Make your team great. Get stuff done. Stop doing everything yourself. Ask for help.

Focus on Leadership: Sticking Together

We have talked many times about the great gift of community in our Presbyterian way of doing church. Yes – all churches talk about and encourage community (and if they don’t, it’s a red flag). But Presbyterians are very specific about the ways in which leaders coming together to make and support decisions is helpful to building up the Kingdom of God on Earth.

We encourage an ordered way of discussion and voting – officially Robert’s Rules of Order, but unofficially we also use various forms of discussion and consensus models throughout the church as well. Whether you are sticking closely to Robert’s, or have agreed upon another model, the goal is to not silence voices of opposition. As we have discussed before, these voices of opposition can help clarify, shape and change decisions for the better, even when they are in the minority, and do not win the day.

These models might also encourage us to not linger over a decision. If the answer is not clear after a healthy discussion, we might choose to table it until we have had time to let the answers develop. We do not have to draw it out when we are not ready to decide. Instead we can simply give it some more time while we move on to other issues.

In all of this work, however, it is important that the team we are working with – the session, a staff, a committee – agrees on how the decisions will be made, and that once a decision is made, supports that decision. Even if you did not agree with the final decision, coming together to support the collective will is a way to model healthy and faithful forms of discipleship.

We may not agree for a variety of reasons, but in most cases it is simply that we think another decision would have been more effective. It is a faithful act to support the collective decision. First, it is our decision together, no matter how you voted. Second, continued division after a vote is confusing and unhelpful to the church. Third, we might be wrong. If we continue to protest a decision and then turn out to be wrong, we will have cause division and disharmony when we were not even correct. But, most of all, it says that we do not trust the Holy Spirit’s work in our decision-making and in carrying out what we decide. We do not trust God to work through us, even through our flaws.

If you think a decision will cause real harm, there are several ways to protest within our system. But any sort of backdoor campaigning against a decision – even a harmful one – harms the church much more than helps it. An official act of protest fits within our agreed-upon forms of decision-making, and therefore is faithful to the will of the body, instead of working against it.

Most of all, sticking together on a decision encourages us to listen to each other well, to decide carefully, and support each other even in the most difficult situations. And any time human beings choose to come together, sharing their lives, we will see both the very good and the very bad. If we only support each other in the easy times, in the good times, in the joyful moments, we are simply doing what anyone would do. It is standing by each other in the tough times that marks us as disciples, following the challenging way of Christ.

This is also a reminder that we are not alone. You do not have to make this decision by yourself, even if you are the head of staff, the chair of a committee, or other position that sets you apart. We make decisions together so that we also bear responsibility together.

As we gather, as we pray, as we discuss, and as we decide, let us remember that we are in it together. Do not think you have to make decisions alone. Once we make a decision, that is the will of the group, and we will support it. This is how we walk together in faith, hope and love.

Focus on Leadership: Reading Together

Leaders are people who never stop learning. This is true both inside and outside of the church. When you bookmark a list of books Bill Gates read last year it is because you know that it is important to keep exploring, keep learning new things. Reading, in particular, has been shown to be connected to increased openness and innovation.

As a leadership team, whether a Session, ministry staff, or particular ministry team, reading and discussing together is a good way to grow in faith, grow in vision, grow in creativity, and grow in community with one another. You can pick a book or serial study that addresses a particular need or area of growth, or simply read something that stretches your spiritual imaginations.

This past year, PC(USA) Co-Moderators Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston have encouraged congregations to read Waking Up White together, hoping the entire PC(USA) might read together – One Church, One Book. Waking Up White addresses topics we must discuss if we are to fully embrace God’s call for us individually, and as a denomination – racism, and whiteness, in particular.

The PC(USA) is a majority white church that currently sees most of its growth among non-white membership. If those of us who have long held power and privilege in this institution do not address our history of racism, in this country and in this church, we will be refusing to see the amazing work God is doing. How do we grow and change together? This is why we read together.

With a group of leaders bringing unique perspectives to their reading and to your discussions, we can learn much more than when we read by ourselves. The idea of reading together is not new – we have all done so in classrooms and maybe book clubs. But we tend to think of reading together as an academic exercise more than a way to encourage growth and think in new ways.

There are many ways to read together, and many things to read. You might decide on what you want to focus on together and choose some options from there. Some groups might choose to all read different possible books and share what each person learned before you choose what you read together. You can solicit ideas from the participants, ask a trusted group of colleagues in leadership (such as the various PC(USA) leadership groups on Facebook), or, if you are initiating the practice, pick a few of your own favorites to narrow down the choices.

Stewardship, youth ministry, worship practices, new models for leadership and structure – all of these areas have excellent resources to follow up, as well as any topic you might imagine in the church. What are you excited about? What are you struggling with? The conversations you are having around the table will point you in the right direction to start exploring. However you choose to find something to study together, we encourage you to try it. What are you reading?

Announcement: New Chair for Property Management and Support Team

If you were at the September 9th Presbytery Gathering, you heard the exciting news that the Property Management and Support Team now has a leader. Brandon Peart has been raised in the Presbyterian Church, and is an elder and member of the finance committee at Elizabeth Avenue-Weequahic Presbyterian Church in Newark, NJ. He is a full-time, licensed New Jersey real estate agent who specializes in bank REO, foreclosures, and residential sales. Prior to becoming a real estate agent, he spent five years working as a commercial painter for local union 1004. As a painter, Brandon was able to gain an understanding of general contracting and renovation.

But Brandon cannot be a one-man show! Now that you don’t have to worry about being recruited to chair the team, please be in touch with me if you are willing to serve. Especially if you have a background in the trades, building maintenance, or property management, we’d like to hear from you!

Within the next few weeks, Brandon will be sending each church a Building Assessment document. Let me reassure you right from the start, in response to some rumblings I’ve heard – this is NOT a back door attempt to close churches or sell buildings! Rather, this is a PROACTIVE step to help churches identify and plan for upcoming needs rather than react to emergencies. In this way, we might be able to help negotiate better pricing if – for instance – a number of churches are in need of the same work. Also, we will be compiling a list of “tried and true” contractors based on your experience that we can share among our churches, as well as collecting names of people right within our own churches that have needed skills. That will also be a question on the survey!

It is my prayer that you will see this effort in the positive light it is intended. If anyone has any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me – [email protected]

Focus on Leadership: With a Little Help from My Friends

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we talk a lot about being a “connectional church” or a “connectional denomination.” We don’t always talk about what that means, but if we are purely technical, it means that individual congregations are not the end of the line.

We gather together in regional bodies, such as presbyteries and synods, to discuss common mission, to work together to achieve that mission, and to help one another. We do the same at the national level through our General Assembly and Presbyterian Mission Agency. We believe that we are better at fulfilling our call to follow Christ together than apart.

We see this at work in our Global Mission, our Office of Public Witness, our Special Offerings that support particular needs that are better met with combined support, our Compassion, Peace and Justice programs, including everything from world hunger to environmental ministries to disaster response, and so much more.

We can see the results of our combined efforts in reports and pictures from these different offices throughout the year. And some of us receive an even deeper connection to this collective work, such as if your church or community has gone through a natural or human-caused disaster that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has responded to. We have seen the very real ways our collective support meets real individual needs.

But even more than that is knowing that we are not in this alone. No pastor, no session, no elder on or off session, no staff person, no member, no visitor – none of us are in this alone. In fact, when we try to do everything on our own, whether a pastor, a volunteer, a staff person, a committee, or a whole church, try to do it alone, no matter how well-intentioned, it tends to backfire. Even if it is the mere blessing of a group for an individual to make a decision, that connection and input helps us follow Christ more faithfully.

There is a reason that Jesus called 10 disciples, and sent them out to minister in pairs, that even back in the beginning, God did not create merely one person, but a family. We are better together.

This is also a comfort. I may trust my instincts and expertise, but being able to talk to others I can trust – a pastor, a ruling elder, a presbytery staff person, an administer, another member – can help me check my instincts and thinking to see if they are driven by selfishness and/or ego, or out of a faithful witness. Sometimes I may be on the right path, but for the wrong reasons, or I am alienating partners, or I need to go forward in a slightly different way. Talking with others with a different perspective can help clarify the right way forward, and give me confidence in my next steps.

If I make decisions without including the voices of others in my thinking, even if it turns out to be the right thing, I can feel like I am constantly out on a ledge, not knowing how deep the canyon is. With others with me, even if we are taking risks, we can better assess those risks, and make a good plan together, bearing the results together as well.

We do not engage in this connectional church because we do not trust each other, but instead because we share a deep love and trust. We know that we can count on each other to give wise counsel, or to fail together, to laugh and grieve together, to see miracles happening through our faithful work together.

So, friends, don’t go it alone. If you don’t have good partners in ministry, go find them. Seek out trusted members of your congregation, and in other congregations. Look for the gifts in others that may not be your strengths. Respond to requests for help when you can. We are better together, and through us God can do anything.

Focus on Leadership: Timekeeping

There was an interesting article that came across social media a couple months ago, Timekeeping as Feminist Pedagogy. Now, that kind of academic title might have you running for the hills, but the piece is actually an easy and enlightening read. The title caught the eye as we have been exploring the practices that help us be better leaders in our ministries, and sticking to one’s agenda was high on that list.

This article was helpful in framing that conversation in that it is not only about respecting each other’s time in general by starting meetings on time and keeping meetings to the agreed-upon timeframe. It goes further by insisting that we carefully measure the time given to different voices in the room. If you have set aside 5 minutes for a presentation, letting it go over time decreases the time others have for their reports and presentations, for discussion and counterpoints.

This fits well within our Presbyterian context where we use what some see as an arcane system of organizing meetings and decision-making, Robert’s Rules of Order. Some see it as an adherence to tradition for tradition’s sake, and that there are other ways of making decisions that might better fit our modern times. That may be true, but whenever we consider how we make decisions together, one of the most important pieces is to consider how to protect voices of dissent.

We have to consider how to give enough time and power for the voices of those who may be on the minority side of an issue to be heard and considered. We do not know how the Holy Spirit may work through voices of dissent, and we have seen how valuing these voices has benefitted all of us. Hearing implications of our decisions we may not have considered can help us make better decisions and plans. Or, we may hear something that causes a sea change in the room – what seemed like a slam dunk is voted down entirely.

Presbyterians have found that providing adequate time and space to listen to one another helps us grow together better. It encourages courageous disagreement that may prevent us from a poor decision. And it engages all of our leaders in the conversation.

The author of the timekeeping article provides excellent examples of practices that can be implemented in meetings as well as the classroom. At the very least, we should regularly take some time to think about whose voices dominate our conversations and how we might engage every voice more fully in those conversations. Making sure we do not take up someone else’s time is definitely part of that.

Resources: Future of the Church Conversations

From the beginning of the Church, as the Gospel moved from Judea to Asia Minor, to Europe and Africa and South Asia and eventually the Americas, how we practice and tell the story of our faith has been ever-changing. And with every change has come both fear and hope. The Church, especially in the United States, seems to be going through one of the larger transitions in how we gather, worship, do mission and share the Gospel.

The PC(USA) is certainly not immune to these changes, and with them, the fear and uncertainty, along with the hope and excitement at what is to come. But we are not mere bystanders in our practice of faith. We do not sit and simply watch God at work, but we are ever called into that work. Which is why it is important to change how we lead change and the conversations about that change.

The good news in this time of uncertainty is that there are lots of helpful resources to learn how to have these conversations and do church in new ways, even if we are not sure where to start.

Starting the Conversation

In our post on confirmation resources, we mentioned some of the rich resources that the Synod of Mid-America creates through their Theocademy efforts. These include resources for new members, confirmation students, and leadership teams such as Sessions of Elders and Boards of Deacons (though anyone who is interested is invited to watch and learn). In addition to these, there are other fun and informative series the Synod of Mid-America has put out on their YouTube Channel.

PC(USA) Co-Moderator Jan Edmiston recently reposted this 2014 Between Two Plants conversation between Jan and Synod of Mid-America Executive Landon Whitsitt, about the 21st century church, which is just as relevant today. It is just over half an hour, but well worth watching on your own, and with leadership teams interested in leading the type of change needed in our churches and other ministries right now.

PC(USA) Revitalization Initiative

The PC(USA)’s Office of Vital Congregations has just announced a new initiative focusing on the revitalization of congregations and presbyteries. And Newark Presbytery is one of the four pilot presbyteries! We will be hearing a lot more about this starting with our September 9 presbytery gathering, but here is a letter talking a bit more about this process, from our Director of Presbytery Transition, Rev.Barbara Smith.

Come To The Table

Another opportunity to start having these type of conversations is at the Synod of the Northeast’s Fall gathering – Come To The Table, September 22-23 at Stony Point Center. The theme of the event is “Feasting on Abundance,” which focuses on being faithful to Jesus in a time of upheaval, and living abundantly in a world that says there will never be enough.

Listen to Your Neighbors – LEAD

One of the things Jan and Landon mention again and again in the Between Two Plants conversation is needing to really go out and figure out who is in your neighborhood. So many long-standing churches have members who no longer live in the neighborhood around the church, and may not know the people in that neighborhood as well as they could or should. It can be intimidating to think about doing that work without some guidance.

An organization that is helping churches and middle governing bodies, like presbyteries, do that work well is LEAD (Living Everyday As Disciples). LEAD has a Tune In Process and other processes that help churches listen to their neighbors, and learn how to become a church out in the world instead of looking inward. LEAD comes out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is dealing with many similar issues and changes in the PC(USA).

New Beginnings

New Beginnings is another long-standing way for congregations to ask important questions and start conversations. There are congregations within Newark Presbytery who have used or are using New Beginnings to take an honest look at their futures. So, find out more about New Beginnings, and ask your neighbors about their experiences to see how it can help your congregation do transformational work.

 

Knowing where to start in addressing significant change can be difficult, but we hope these resources can help guide your way our of fear and uncertainty into hope (and uncertainty) and excitement.

Announcement: Revitalization Initiative

Dear Friends –

I have news that has the potential to strengthen congregations, build relationships, and draw congregations and the presbytery ever closer to God as we listen to the Spirit’s still, small voice.

Back in April of this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill, who is the Associate for Vital Congregations for the PC(USA). At that time, Kathryn shared her hopes and dreams not only for our denomination, but for our communities, our culture, our nation, and the world.

She also shared that she and Ray Jones, the denomination’s Associate for Evangelism, were hard at work on what is now called a “Revitalization Initiative.” The initiative “is a two-year covenant relationship between pilot presbyteries and the PC(USA) to prayerfully walk with pastors (and ministry leaders) and existing congregations in intentional efforts of revitalization.”

It is not a quick fix for struggling congregations and presbyteries. It is not an opportunity to tell anyone what to do! Rather, it is to encourage courageous discipleship and for congregations and the presbytery to be open to the wonder of God. Kathryn explained that once the initiative was ready to roll, a small number of presbyteries would be invited to pilot it on behalf of the PC(USA).

On behalf of the Vision Accountability Board, the Ministry Leadership Team, and the Newark Administrative Commission, I am beyond excited to report that the Presbytery of Newark has accepted the invitation of the PC(USA) to be one of the four pilot presbyteries!

What does this mean?
What does it require of me?
What are the details of the Initiative?
Why should I do this?
We are already vital…is there something for us?
We’re tired…why would we want to be part of this?
How is this different from New Beginnings?
All of these questions and more will be answered when we host Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill at our September 9, 2017, Presbytery Gathering at First Presbyterian Church at Caldwell. If ever there was a meeting for you and your congregation to re-engage with Newark Presbytery, now is that time!

I firmly believe that in 2017 – where our Presbytery theme is “For Such a Time as This” – that this IS the time where God is inviting us to open our hands, our hearts and our minds to the new thing that God is doing in our communities, our nation, and our world.

Blessings –
Rev. Dr. Barbara A. Smith
Transitional Director of Presbytery Ministries

Focus on Leadership: Learning to Fail Faithfully

As we talk about the life of Jesus we rightly focus on the miracles he performed – healings and feeding thousands of people, walking on water and calming storms. We remember his great sermons and all the people who followed him. But we tend to forget the failures of Jesus.

We forget that his first sermon almost got him thrown off a mountain, that his mother had to prod him into performing his first miracle, that 9 out of a group of 10 lepers didn’t follow his command to return after being blessed by the priests, that his disciples didn’t understand his stories, that leaders continued to badmouth him, his disciples bickered, then denied and betrayed him, and finally that he died the death of a criminal.

We tell these stories, but mostly in the light of a victorious Christ on the other side of resurrection. The Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the four gospels, actually ends after the women going to care for Jesus’ dead body find the tomb empty, and run off in fright after encountering an angel. You will see in your Bible that there is not one, but two (!) extensions to the end of Mark in order to give followers more closure.

The original ending of Mark does not comfort us, but leaves us with questions. It leaves us unsettled, not satisfied, and it leads us, with the disciples, back to the beginning in Galilee. Perhaps we might read Mark again, without the extra endings, and truly look again at the stories of Jesus, including the failures. For the story of Jesus is not of a person who never struggled or faced setbacks.

Note that these failures are not sinful. Jesus remains sinless despite these less successful moments. He didn’t fall into sin because his response to these failures was not to worry over those who did not follow him, but to keep moving forward, keep trying again. He also knew that he was taking risks, speaking and acting against known roles and systems. Jesus knew this work was not and would never be easy. He tells the disciples that. He tells them there would be people who wouldn’t listen, people who would speak against them, and people who would harm them.

In order to follow Jesus, we need to take risks. We need to reach out to people who may not want to talk to us, we need to challenge systems that make us comfortable, we need to protect the vulnerable. And sometimes, many times, we will fail. We will see new ministries go bust. We will encounter people who listen eagerly, then abandon us. We will probably be poorer than we hoped. And we will wonder if it is all worth it.

But look at the life of Jesus one more time. Despite the fear of the women who found the empty tomb at the end of Mark, we know this story. The good news has crossed continents, cultures and time. Those who saw the empty tomb did not let their fear stop them, they were faithful to God and followed the angel’s message. We do not know how our words and acts today will ripple out over time. What we do know is that we are simply called to be faithful.

The truth is, we do not even know how to measure success and failure well. When we rely on our own instincts, we hurt ourselves and others. Following faithfully is the only right path. And we will certainly die if we follow that path – die to ambition and worry about success and legacy.

The Presbyterian Outlook has a wonderful piece, “How we die is who we are,” that just came out. It talks about following, failure, and our response in faith. So, we may fail. We will die. But our faith will live on beyond our imaginations.

Focus on Leadership: Find Partners

Whenever we are frustrated or discouraged in our ministries, it is wise to turn to our scriptures, our guiding theology and practices laid out in the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions, and to each other. We can so easily forget why we have been called and who has called us in the midst of challenges, conflict or failures. We can forget that even Jesus the Christ himself almost got tossed over a cliff after his first public sermon.

Time and again, throughout the Bible and in our constitution, we are reminded that we are not in this alone. First and foremost, Christ is the head of the Church – Christ calls us and equips us, and is the life, the hope, the foundation of the Church.[i] Second, we are part of a body, in our worshipping communities, our denomination, and together with all Christians of every time and place.

We are called to participate in the body, not alone. This means listening to, learning with, praying with and working with other Christians. Of course, as with every human work, it will not be perfect. We will disagree over the right paths forward. We will find ourselves in conflict over right belief and practice. We will not always understand each other. This includes those arguments over the carpet in the sanctuary as much as vast differences in theology between different branches of Christianity.

But we are part of a team, and in order to fulfill this calling together. Jesus built a team of very different people, and we see both their faith and their failure laid out in Scripture. They had pride, missteps, disagreements, and they failed their and our beloved friend and Savior. And it will be the same for us. But don’t let that stop you from seeking and building partnerships to help each other follow Christ well.

You will probably start with people like yourself – though Jesus was not from a town on the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth is in the surrounding region, and Jesus first called men much like himself – poor, doing manual labor, local. But he also calls others, from larger towns and cities, with community-based jobs like a tax collector. The original 12 disciples have different views on life, different social statuses, different politics.

Soon they were joined by so many more people – women and men from all over Judea, and then beyond even Judea. People with different levels of education, income, lifestyles, language and prospects all followed Jesus, quite literally following him around Judea and Samaria. Likewise, talk and work with people both similar to yourself and people very different than yourself, people who may look at the world in very different ways.

Christ is our first partner in ministry, and is at the center of all we do. That is what we look for in potential partners as well, people who hold Christ at the center of their lives. We may disagree on the details sometimes, but that helps us think about what we value in our theology and practice as well. And remind ourselves that if we can do something good together – feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, healing the sick, comforting the grieving, welcoming those who are wandering or lost – and doing these better together, then we might put aside some of our differences in order to follow Christ well.

Find your partners. Find them in comfort zones and in places you’d rather not go. And there, where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, you will be filled with the Spirit of God.

____________________

[i] Book of Order, F.1.02