Focus on Leadership: Accountability

Even many long-time Presbyterians think that the “ruling” of Ruling Elder means to reign, or to be in charge of. Instead, as it was likely originally intended even of community or royal rulers, to rule is to measure. Ruling elders are called to be good at measuring the mission and work of the church and in our lives, against Scripture, against our reformed theology and teachings, and against the movement of the Spirit discerned in our common prayer.

In order to do this work well, Presbyterians are called to work together, and to be accountable to one another. However, just as “ruling” can get twisted, so can our idea of accountability.

Christians have been instructed how to proceed in areas of conflict, in Matthew 18. Jesus instructs us to go directly to those we may have disagreements with, whether over ideas or behavior, with further steps if resolution cannot be reached. But there are many example where this has been twisted to shut down important conversation, disagreement that is not acrimonious, but rather productive and instructive.

In order to have productive conversations and accountability, leaders in the church are called to:

  • Pray
  • Learn together
  • Pray
  • Name conflicts and tensions that arise
  • Pray
  • Disagree in respect and love
  • Pray
  • Support the decisions of the body
  • Pray

There is a reason we open and close even our business meetings with prayer and worship in the church. We cannot do anything without God’s guidance. Especially not have difficult conversations and face deep conflict together. So, pray, learn, discuss, discern, decide and pray again. Together. This is the accountability we are called to.

Focus on Leadership: Celebration

We are surrounded by stories of challenge, both inside and outside the church. It can seem like all of our passion, care and work are producing less and less. Our denomination (and most Christian denominations in the United States) is shrinking at a time when less people understand concepts of stewardship, membership and leadership, which means less resources and people to do what we want to do. This can be very disheartening as we follow Jesus in the best ways we know how.

However, we know that God is always at work, through us in our faith and our faithful actions, growing the kingdom of God in all places and times and people. We are also a church that proclaims to be “reformed always to be reformed according to the Word of God.”[1] We recognize that the ways we have done things, including the shape and makeup of the church may not look tomorrow the way they looked yesterday or today.

And so we look for those kingdom seeds, those celebrations among the challenges. Because that is where God is. God is also in the challenges, encouraging us to move and change and look for the many ways God is at work. So don’t forget to look for celebrations in the challenging situations, too.

As leaders, this is our call. Not to run away from the difficult conversations or issues, but face them with hearts full of joy. Joyful lives and joyful leadership do not mean that we will not ever feel frustrated, angry or sad about things that are happening to or around us.

We can mourn the loss of members due to death or disagreements. We can grieve as we remember programs and events in the past that brought the church together, but no longer does so. Joy does not mean that we are simply happy and ignore all that brings pain. Joy instead is rooted in the hope given to us by God. The hope that no matter what happens, God is with us and God is still at work, renewing and transforming us and the Body of Christ.

So look for the celebrations. Look for the places where your ministries have found new ways to gather, worship, serve, fellowship and use space (or lack of space). Where is your passion in following Jesus Christ meeting some of those challenging times? Who is bringing joy into your community?

They don’t have to be huge, miraculous events. Remember, Jesus started with 12 disciples, and look at how the church continues to grow today. Outside of the United States, the church is growing, especially in the Southern Hemisphere and Asia. How can we connect to our Christian family in those places, and as they immigrate into our communities? How can we celebrate together?

Don’t forget, we want to hear about all the places God is at work in and around you. So share the good news! With your communities, and with us, so we can all celebrate together. We even have a form where you can submit the stories – they can be short or long, and you can add pictures, too. Let us celebrate together!

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[1] PC(USA) Book of Order, F-2.02

Focus on Leadership: Rest

In our leadership posts over the last year we’ve talked about the importance of Sabbath, taking care of yourself, and taking care of others – paying attention to the things causing stress and anxiety, and taking a breath before diving in. Implicit among these thoughts is the idea of getting the proper amount of rest, but we wanted to take some time to talk about sufficient rest more specifically.

In North America, summers mean longer days of natural light and often drastically different schedules, even for those who work full time year round. Vacations, social events, vacation Bible school, camps and retreats – all of these can add both opportunities for increased rest and opportunities to upturn your routine, so it’s a great time of year to talk about proper rest.

Americans in the United States are simply not getting enough sleep. And when we are awake, we often do not take enough time to just rest – we don’t take enough breaks, vacation time or regular days off. Too many of us feel that if we are not being “productive” we are wasting time.

But if we do not get enough down time, rest time and sleep, our productivity is often for naught. We are less productive, less effective and less creative. Our brains and our whole bodies need time away from productivity. Sleeping for 7-8 hours a night (for adults – school age children and teens need 9-10 hours of sleep per day) helps our bodies slow down and do important healing work necessary for good health.

Taking time away from the tasks in front of us allows us time to let our minds wander. Though it may seem unproductive, our brains tend to continue to work on problems and tasks, making connections we may not make when we are intentionally trying to seek solutions.

God created us in God’s image. Even God rested after creation was complete, and we cannot be whole creations without that rest.

As we take care of ourselves, as we care and support others, as we seek to keep Sabbath as holy, set-apart time, ask yourself, am I getting enough rest? Are my friends, family, pastors, leaders, colleagues, getting enough rest? How can we help each other lessen our anxieties about productivity and take the time we need to sleep, to daydream, to not spend every waking moment being busy?

Without rest we cannot be whole people, we cannot use our full energy and creativity, and we will spend all our time in the now, without a true connection to or hope for our past and our future.

Focus on Leadership: Pilgrimage

The language of journey is prevalent in the church. Many would even say it is overused. However, we haven’t really come up with a good alternative, and there’s probably a good reason for that. Our faith life really is a journey or pilgrimage, without a specific endpoint.

The whole point of our faith life is about the experiences and relationships that happen along the way. There will be significant milestones, obstacles and achievements, places in the road that are smooth and flat, and places where faith is like climbing a steep, narrow mountain path littered with boulders. And, like most significant journeys, there is time for reflection, frustration and growth.

Throughout Christian history there has been a tradition of physical pilgrimages both to honor holy places and to represent our faith life through a literal journey. Some of the major pilgrimages include Jerusalem, Camino de Santiago and Canterbury (just in case you forgot why those people were traveling together in the Canterbury Tales you read in English class). There are many other holy sites with formal and informal pilgrimage traditions.

But, why pilgrimage? Why actual walking when now we can get anywhere we want by car, train or airplane? We could join pilgrims on a bus tour, and hit multiple pilgrimage sites in one day in some parts of Europe and the Middle East.

Sometimes we just need to slow down.

We need time to walk and think, alone, or with like-minded companions. And when we talk about like-minded companions, we aren’t talking about people who agree with you politically or share the same education, socio-economic level or culture. Rather, we are thinking of people who too understand their faith as a journey, or life as a journey, as experiences like the Camino de Santiago is being undertaken by many people of no or ambiguous faith experiences and understanding. (Books like Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage have made the Camino more widely known and popular.)

Spending time with people who may not be like you in any other way than being willing to walk together can give you the time to get to know each other, and definitely to see each other in new ways. You will see each other at your best and your worst. You will find yourself challenged in ways you did imagine and in ways you never imagined. And even if that person you are walking with and getting to know is yourself alone, taking time, taking steps, striving for a goal that is both the end of the journey and simply a stop on the way – these are all ways to examine your faith, to find out how you will respond faithfully to a whole host of people and situations, to strip away all pretense and get to the center of your joys and your struggles.

If you have an opportunity to do one of the great pilgrimages – Jerusalem, Santiago, Iona, Taizé, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Fe – do it. But even if you are not able to go on one of these larger trips, think of a place that is holy to you. Design a walk (as you are able) that includes that space in the walk itself, or as the destination. Take your time. Don’t rush. Think about where you have been, and where you are (or might be) going. If you are not physically mobile in the same ways, what might a pilgrimage journey look like for you? On your own, or with friends. [insert story about guy who was carried by friends around Europe]

Don’t expect all of your questions to be answered. A pilgrim walk is just another milepost along the way of our longer walk of faith. Some lessons might be gained immediately, while others will come over time, as you can see in the blog post of this recent pilgrim. Some you may wrestle with the rest of your life.

Focus on Leadership: Reconciliation

One of the most difficult things in our human existence is admitting when we’ve been wrong. This is especially difficult if we are leaders and our organization is wrong, and perhaps has been for a long while.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA) constitution, we affirm, “‘The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God’ in the power of the Spirit.” (Book of Order, F-2.02). This means we are called to constantly and consistently examine ourselves and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When we find ourselves being guided to change, it is imperative that we follow the Spirit.

The Presbyterian Church has some deep wounds to heal over racism in the church, throughout the country. The only way we will be able to begin to address those wrongs is through some difficult examination, discussion and practice. But we have some good examples of places to start.

Our neighbor, the Presbytery of New Brunswick, along with the Synod of the Northeast, publicly apologized to and forgave the debt of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church incurred through the discrimination against their first black pastor, the Rev. William Drew Robeson and the subsequent challenges that arose from that original discrimination. As part of the public act of reconciliation, putting words into practice, there was a joint service of Unity, Reconciliation and Healing. PC(USA) Co-Moderator, the Rev. Denise Anderson, talked about it in her blog.

Rev. Anderson also talks about the 222nd General Assembly’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, which caused the Christian church to do irreparable harm to Native peoples of the Americas and the Pacific Islands. That repudiation includes apology, acknowledgment of the harm, and as we move forward, continued attention to including Native voices.

A church that is examining its own history of racism and brokenness is First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery (Alabama). In 2008, a new pastor and a desire for repentance began a process of reconciliation that began with an 18-part sermon series to start unpacking the theological, historical and practical issues that needed to be addressed. The process continues, and may never be fully complete. And that is part of being a reformed church, always reforming.

We are all broken. We all need to repent. But our brokenness is not the end of the story. Repentance and reconciliation are not simple, they are ongoing, but are who we are. Never finished becoming the people God created us to be and is loving us into.

Focus on Leadership: Finding Your Passion

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness
and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
― Frederick Buechner

You have probably heard this quote from Frederick Buechner before. Those who have been through PC(USA) seminaries or PC(USA) elder training (or both) will find it to be a favorite among our colleagues. It speaks to our hopes – that what we care about might matter to the world, that our passions can be used in meaningful ways.

Of course, what brings me deep gladness might not meet the world’s deepest hunger, but finding that deep gladness nevertheless is essential to our call.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

We know the disciples and the apostles that joined them as the early church was formed and grew traveled far and wide, which is why we know the story of Jesus. But after the Resurrection, the first place Jesus sends the disciples is home, to Galilee. He says he will meet them there.

Before they go anywhere else, they need to get out of the room they are hiding in, get out of Jerusalem, and go back to where they started. Jesus does not say why this is. Is it to say goodbye to their families before they begin to travel far from home spreading the Gospel? Is it to be reminded of who called them in the place they were first called? Is it to get back to their foundation before encountering a greater world and its cultures? We don’t know. But we do know it is important.

So, start where you are. What brings you joy every day? Especially think about what brings you joy in the work you do in the church. These don’t have to be huge successes, but anything that brings you joy as you practice, serve and pray together.

Explore The World

The apostles didn’t stay in Galilee or Jerusalem. They planted churches there, then went north, south, east and west, seemingly traveling both by land and by sea, based on Scriptural and non-Scriptural evidence.

As leaders, we need to stretch ourselves, too. This may mean traveling from our homes for short- and long-term missions, classes and training or visiting other churches and ministries. It may mean trying new things – exploring ministries you have not previously participated in, learning new ministry skills, or trying out different ways to be mindful or practice your faith each day.

Share What Brings You Joy

As you find what brings you joy now and stretch to find new ways to live out a joyful faith, share what you learn! Tell other people what brings you joy and encourage them in the things that bring them joy. God brings together people who are not all alike so that we might joyfully work together.

I may love to run committee meetings well (this is truly a gift) and you may love to bring life to an overgrown community garden. And we may not find joy in doing the other’s work, but we can appreciate the good work produced by each other. Leaders who find joy in their work will bring greater joy to the whole community.

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Find your passions, don’t stop growing and stretching, and share your joy with each other. In these ways we will meet the deep hungers of the world.

Focus on Leadership: Letting Go

As we get ready to enter Holy Week, many of us are preoccupied with the details of the week – worship services to plan and prepare for, a different schedule, Easter egg hunts, extra people in our sanctuaries and halls. We can forget to take it all in for ourselves – walking with Jesus into and through Jerusalem, eating with the disciples, following Jesus out into Gethsemane, and then into a jail, to his trial, and finally to the cross and the tomb.

We can so easily lose sight of what it’s all about. Not just the individual days, and events of the week, but why Jesus did all of it in the first place. Even when we take each day as it comes – truly diving into the practices of Lent, ending with the deep prayer and solemnity of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and not skipping too quickly to Easter – we can miss the point.

The point being, we are called to submit to God’s will. Submission can be a difficult word. Too often in the church it has been used to abuse others. Slaves, women, people in colonized nations – all have been told to submit to God’s will, but a will defined by people who desire control and power over other people’s lives and bodies. This is not the example we see in the life and death of Jesus the Christ.

It is important to be very clear and very precise when we are talking about Christ’s submission to God’s will. For if we read only the conversation in Gethsemane, if we only hear Jesus’ words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we miss most of the story. We think that God’s will was for God’s Son to die. But death was not the will, rather it was the inevitable consequence of challenging the prevailing viewpoint of the world.

The values of the world are: Get more, Do more, Be more. Our pride, our ego, our self-worth are all tied up in making sure we are “successful.” But Jesus says: Love more, Love more, Love more. Love God more, Love your neighbors/enemies more, Love yourself more. And putting more love into the world generally means putting yourself out in front less (turns out loving yourself more is directly tied to loving others more).

We must let go. Let go of our pride, let go of our worries, let go of our need to succeed. Loving others does not always mean a happy ending. Human beings have a way of messing up the best things. But God loves us still. And that is what we are submitting to. A love that never ends. We can’t make ourselves perfect – through money or success or a perfect prayer life. We will mess up. And God will love us still. God will bring us back from the dead and breathe life into us again. Our submission is accepting an unconditional love, and letting go of the things that prevent us from accepting that love.

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.