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

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.