Focus on Leadership: Push Past Easy Answers

“Jesus!” – No, not what you might be saying when you took down your Christmas lights and decorations, but rather the ubiquitous and enthusiastic answer to any question at children’s time in community worship and Sunday School. Jesus the Christ, whose birth into the world as a tiny human we just celebrated. Jesus, a man who was (is – because, Jesus) also God. Jesus, who called the disciples, and continues to call us. Jesus, who is at the center of our worship and our lives, pointing us always toward God and God’s coming into the world. Of course Jesus is the answer to every question, right?

Well, not if I ask who guided the Hebrews out of slavery, or the prophet who John the Baptist was quoting, or who was baptizing people in the wilderness before Jesus started his ministry. And that matters because if our only answer to questions of faith are Jesus, and love others, we are probably missing the meaning of Jesus and what it looks like to love others.

Who are these “others,” for instance? And what does loving other people look like? For too many of us, we feel good about following Jesus when we are simply being nice to people in the grocery store, or posting “thoughts and prayers” on the Facebook post of someone grieving or in crisis. But what does it look like to push past the easy answers we give so glibly, and love the way Jesus loved?

Jesus found himself challenging the core values and understanding of the world at the tables of the rich and powerful. Jesus broke up petty fights between disciples over who would sit at his right hand. Jesus rebuked the idea that his death could not happen. Jesus had a deep understanding the tradition, people and law that formed the Jews. He quoted prophets and law and had a family line that included both royalty and impoverished outsiders.

Jesus did not accept the easy way or easy answers – from his own disciples, from the people they met along the way, or from the most brilliant Jewish leaders – he challenged them to go deeper. It was not that they were always wrong, but that too often they didn’t understand the depth and consequences of their answers.

For a young lawyer, it was not enough to love the people you knew and liked, but it was necessary to see people you detested as your neighbor. Clever rabbis who knew the law inside and out needed to understand that if Sabbath was not life-giving, it was worthless. The rich and powerful needed to see that empire is a human creation, therefore only worth the value we give it. The faithful had to hear that it was not enough to follow the rules of faith, but one has to empty oneself to be filled with God.

And none of this has changed. We are tempted to give and accept the easy answers. We say that people are “good” if they are nice to us, even if they say or do terrible things to others. We do not challenge conventional wisdom or group think even when we know we could do more.

As leaders, in our daily practice, in our pastoral care, in our committee work, in our teaching, in our congregational decision-making, we need to push past the easy answers. When something doesn’t feel quite right, it is ok to slow down and talk it out. When someone invokes the name of Jesus, but does not act like Jesus, we need to hold them accountable. When it would be easier to walk away from a conflict, we need to forgive and ask for forgiveness and seek a way forward.

And, if we do these things, those who look to us for leadership, for an example, will seek to do the same.

Focus on Leadership: A Generous People

Boxing Day, which falls on the second day of Christmas, December 26, is most prominently a European tradition that traces back to at least the Middle Ages. We may not strictly observe the holiday here in the United States, but it is known as a day for serving the poor. Or, closer to reality, those who have more in their lives deign to give some small portion of our bounty to those who have less. This sounds like a generous, caring act, but is it really?

Works of charity are encouraged in our faith lives. But we often see charity as a duty of faith, something that makes us feel good, for sharing some of what we have with others who do not have as much. We miss the heart of the act. The Greek χαρίς (charis – the root of ‘charity’) is not an act of kindness to people who have less than we do. It is an act of kindness that rises out of love. Love that is grounded in the grace of God. The kind of love acts we see Jesus do in the Gospels. Jesus wasn’t kind to the people around him simply because they needed something he could give them. He loved the people around them, and gave them what they needed because of that love.

Generosity isn’t a measure of how much we give away. When we have generous hearts, we can’t help giving what we have to others. Our money, our time, our attention, simply because we love them. A generous people seeks to love others, which means having relationships with other people.

As Christians, we follow a Christ who did not befriend people only like himself (and one could argue, if he did, he would not have any friends – any other fully divine, fully human peers out there?). He walked alongside the very poor and the very rich, those who were well-respected, and those who everyone tried to avoid. Men, women, children, people from his local area and people from far away. As he met and ate and talked and spent time with these people, he saw how he could give of himself for each of them. There was no one answer.

Unlike a box of leftovers, no matter how abundant or thoughtful or needed they may be, given to acquaintances or strangers, what if we start from a place of love? See and talk to people in our lives already, and people we meet, as equals. Build bonds of relationship – you don’t have to make everyone your new friend, but it is likely if you begin to talk and spend time with people, you will begin to see them and care about them in new ways. You will stop making assumptions about who they are and what they need based on their job or neighborhood or outward appearance or manner of speech.

That kind of grace and love will lead to kindness and generosity. You probably won’t even be able to help yourself. In this Christmas season (yes, it is still Christmas), let us start from love, and see what happens.

Leading the Way: Advent and Christmas

The days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are increasingly filled with busyness – meals, shopping, decorating, pageants (so many pageants), cookie exchanges, caroling, mission projects, crafting and, oh yeah, worship. All of it is good. The gathering, the fellowship, the sharing of joy and hope and resources, the cookies. But it can become overwhelming.

At the beginning of the year, we published a piece on showing up. And we still believe it is important to be present as leaders in the church. However, it is important to be fully present when you do show up. At this time of year it can be so easy to be constantly distracted by all the other things we “have” to do while attempting to enjoy and fully engage in the thing right in front of us.

Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Elizabeth Eaton just talked about this in her December article for Living Lutheran, Disengage the Autopilot. Turns out even presiding bishops can be so preoccupied they don’t even notice anything on their commutes to work. And that is what this time of year can so often feel like – you aren’t even noticing what is happening around you. Even as you are trying to make it all so magical.

Advent is a time for preparation. And preparation involves planning and making choices. If we try to everything we could do, everything becomes less meaningful because we are simply trying to do it all, not invest real time and energy into what matters most. So, as leaders, we want to model this kind of choice to the rest of our congregation.

You might even ask yourselves, together as a leadership team, what things must be done and which things you might let go of. Which of the Advent and Christmas events that your church does match the mission, energy and time of your congregation? Which ones have become disconnected from giving life to the church and its members? Then make sure to also make those a priority for your leaders.

Perhaps every single activity you are doing is amazing and life-giving, but no one person could attend them all. Don’t try to. Instead, make sure that the leadership team is represented at all of them, but only go to the ones that you can participate in and be fully present.

Make sure your pastors are not trying to get to everything, either, beyond stopping by – especially if you are the pastor. Pastors are not separate from the rest of the leadership, nor are they superhuman. If you want your pastor (or yourself) to be fully present and deliver amazing Advent and Christmas sermons, worship, education, etc., they need to not be overwhelmed by the season, either.

Show up, yes. But make sure you are working with your fellow ruling elders and pastors to make sure when you show up, you are not distracted by the next thing on your list. This is not just for you, but it is so that you can model how to have a meaningful Advent and Christmas to others, giving them permission to breathe and enjoy this season as well. Let us slow down, not set the holidays on autopilot, and truly be there when we show up.

Peace, friends.

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?

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.

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.

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[i] Book of Order, F.1.02