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Focus on Leadership: Summer “Break”

Summer is almost here. (The weather seems to have arrived before the season.) In the summer, the rhythms change in our ministries. Worship times change, services are combined, and the choir might sing less regularly. Sunday School may go on hiatus or take a different form. There are camps and conferences and Vacation Bible School. And, speaking of vacation, many of our members will travel in the summer, or they will bring friends and family visiting them. Attendance can vary wildly from week to week, not to mention the holidays.

Summer can be a time for the church to take a breath, for committees to take a break or do some leisurely long-term planning. Pastors might spend some time in contemplation for the busyness of fall, anticipate the next church year, and what kind of study leave will help them grow and guide the congregation through it. Many pastors who are taking well-earned sabbatical time take it over the summer months. Other leaders might be resting up for new challenges ahead. Summer can mean time to do necessary rest and reflection. But the one thing we don’t put on break is our faith.

How do we adjust to the different rhythms of summer, get the rest we need, and not just put God on hold? How can we fully engage our faith life within those rhythms?

Summer can be a great time for a short study. It could be lighter fare, meandering through a fun small group study with friends, or maybe a deep dive into a particular topic re-energizes you instead of adding stress. There are myriad book and Bible studies that fit into the timeframe.

2 Corinthians is coming up in the Revised Common Lectionary, and makes a great summer preaching series. Having your church follow along with the preaching could bring up some interesting conversations. We like this devotion and small group study, A Heart for Reconciliation, that also has sermon thoughts. Good for individual and group study.

If you or a whole group of you are up for a challenge, you could read the Bible in 90 days together. If you or your church hasn’t done this before, it can help you look at the Bible in whole new ways, truly seeing it as a whole, and not just a bunch of disparate pieces. What are the themes that run throughout? Which of the stories we’ve read so many times will surprise you? And, reading together creates accountability and a team to climb Mt. Bible.

For those looking for simple ways to renew and engage your faith, you might look to Living Every day as Disciples’ (LEAD) Summer Intentions. You can go to their website each day, or you can sign up to have them delivered to your email each day. Daily devotion and practice that shakes up your normal rhythms, while fully engaging and enjoying the summer.

Maybe you want to try on a new prayer practice – walking and praying every day, journaling or writing letters to God, lectio divina. Or you might want to try something else new. Memorize scripture, learn unknown hymns and praise songs, or write terrible (or wonderful) poetry. There are so many ways to encounter God that we probably haven’t explored deeply. And we grow as disciples and leaders each time we try something new, even if it’s just for the summer.

How will you spend your summer “break?” And how do you want to meet God along the way?

man and woman sitting on yoga mats on a wooden floor, stretching while leaning toward one side

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges: Communities

Discipleship is not just for individuals and ministry teams – your church or ministry community needs to be growing, together. The same practices that you use in your individual lives and ministry teams can be engaged by the entire community. However, a whole community tends to have an even wider range of ages, interests and experience with Christianity and Christian practices than you or a smaller ministry team might have. How can you engage and grow together, not just as individuals or small groups?

First, it is important to see your community as one body – not a bunch of individuals or age groups with separate but equal missions. Whoever you are and whatever your mission, it shouldn’t exclude a particular subsection of your community. For example, if your church is all about being out in your neighborhood, don’t just practice what you preach with able-bodied adults alone, but find ways that small children and older or those with differing skills and abilities can be fully part of that mission. That is how we all learn how to be who we say we are, by doing it.

When churches were full of people, all busy in their little corners, it can seem like we are doing good work. The truth is, creating individual programs for particular groups has never been a very healthy model for building community, but the flaws were hidden by the numbers of people in our churches. As church became less about “what was expected” than a faithful choice, we could see the deep cracks in our communities. We have small groups doing great work near each other, but not with each other. So how do we bring them together?

There are several church-based intergenerational initiatives with the goal of creating holistic mission and ministry for congregations, instead of the program-driven model that we have been operating under for too long. The specific language and activities of these initiatives may be different, but the basics are the same – congregations need to be spending time together sharing about their lives, praying, reading and discussing Scripture, and talking about how to apply what they are learning in their everyday lives. Not just the youth group talking to each other, or the 3rdgrade class, or the adult lectionary class, or the Presbyterian Women circle, but all together. The third graders need to be talking to the retirees and the teenagers need to be talking to the preschoolers and the young parents need to be talking to the grandparents.

How different churches create space for that to happen depends on the congregation. It could be during worship, or the Sunday School hour, or on Wednesday nights. Figure out where and when those intersections can happen best. Evaluate what you are doing currently and decide if you still need to be doing it. You may need to say goodbye to a beloved, but worn out, program.

Let’s Kill Sunday School (Before it Kills the Church), from Faith Inkubators, has some great case studies of churches doing this work in a multitude of ways. The provocative title speaks to the pain that might be felt initially upon giving up some of the things we’ve “always done.” But, ultimately, these congregations found that the pain was worth the transformation in their congregational life. Discipleship is not easy and involves tough choices about what is good for us versus what is easy and satisfying for the moment, but not for the long-run.

Who do you say you are as a community? Are all parts of your community participating in that mission? Are they participating in that mission together? Are you praying together and eating together and talking and laughing together? Do your 80-year-old members know the name of the 15-year-old members and vice versa? Do they talk to each other?

If your church feels like a collection of hit songs that don’t fit on the same album, your work will not be sustainable. Figure out how to be together and grow together, even if it means stretching beyond comfort zones and taking a few risks along the way. The journey and the destination are both worth it.

people sitting on beach, stretching their hands in the air while looking upward and focus on one man in foreground

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges for Ministry Teams

We recently talked about personal discipleship and how growing as a disciple means stretching beyond what is comfortable and safe. God keeps calling us to go further, which sometimes means relying on faith to walk on water. But we do not practice discipleship in a vacuum. We are called together to do God’s will.

We work together to discern God’s will and to carry it out. When we see the great need for healthy and abundant food, we may just drop off some food at the food bank. But we realize that if we want to end hunger we cannot simply address the symptoms of the problem as individuals, we need to work with others to discover and address the root causes of the problem so that it doesn’t exist anymore. This is how most of our ministries begin. People coming together with common values and a common cause.

Even successful groups and ministries can experience a sense of lost purpose or meaning over time. Sometimes the most successful ministries experience it because they have accomplished what they were called together to do. Then it’s back to discernment. Has this ministry fulfilled its call? Is there a different need related to our original purpose that this group is equipped to meet (or can become equipped to meet)? Are we being called to something entirely new?

We don’t need to wait until we get to a major transition to ask ourselves these questions. If we are regularly asking ourselves these questions we can see the path ahead more clearly. Or, even if the next steps are unclear, move forward with faith and joy into whatever comes. Is what we are doing meeting our mission? If it isn’t, what do we need to start or stop doing? Do we have the right partners to fulfill our mission? To help us have conversations about it?

Asking these questions is just part of keeping our ministries vital and centered on Christ. Just as in our individual lives, our ministry teams need to develop discipleship practices together. Prayer, study, acts of service, eating meals together – these simple acts done regularly and as a group helps you grow together. These acts prepare your ministry teams to live out their values and central missions because everything they do is centered on faithful practice.

A team that is growing in faith together, getting to know each other and trust each other more deeply works better together. When you are facing difficult decisions, when you are looking at your direction, when you are uncertain of the future, when you are ready to make a big change – a team growing in faith will be able to face these with hearts and minds ready to listen to each other and the Holy Spirit.

So, where is the growing edge for your ministry or ministry team? What do you need to let go of? What is a risk you need to take with faith? What are the steps you need to take to answer these questions together?

man bent over in downward dog yoga pose

Stretch Goals and Growing Edges

“…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” ~Hebrews 12:1

“Run in such a way that you my win [the race]. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” ~1 Corinthians 9:24b-25

Paul and the author of the letter to the Hebrews both use this metaphor of an athletic competition to describe the life of faith. We do not stop once we have received the gift of faith, but rather we keep going, running even, to the finish line. They do not just speak of running the race, but of training to compete.

Even the most talented runner cannot simply run a race and win. They must train regularly, not just running, but warming up with the appropriate stretches, lifting weights, eating the proper foods. If not, their bodies will not be prepared for the challenge ahead. Faithful disciples are growing disciples, and growing disciples are ones who keep training, learning, stretching, just like athletes do.

In order to train and prepare, we have to set goals. And in order to grow, those goals have to make us stretch. What is an area in our spiritual lives where we feel the tug of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps we are feeling a call toward teaching, but we don’t have much experience or confidence in our skills. Or our prayer lives could use some renewal. Or you have been asked to lead something you have never led before. Or to fundraise when asking for money makes you incredibly uncomfortable. If we aren’t a little uncomfortable with what the Holy Spirit asks, we probably need to stretch a little more. How can we meet these challenges faithfully, without fear, and also grow as we answer the call?

If you are called to teaching, you can see if someone is willing to partner with, mentor, and/or train you. If you are hoping to pray more regularly, or engage it more deeply, you can use simple tools to schedule prayer time, like this author suggests, or try new prayer practices. You can do this with available resources, or you could consider engaging a spiritual director. You can use similar practices to engage scripture more deeply. If you are being asked to lead something unfamiliar, or raise money for a passion project, think about what partners you can engage in the work. We don’t have to do any of this alone!

Learning is often about doing. We learn best on the job, so to speak. So, actually teaching, praying, leading, fundraising, singing, doing mission. It will be challenging. We will make mistakes. But leaders are people who invest in their own growth so others may also grow. Trying, failing, and trying again are part of the process. If we are not being stretched, if we are not making mistakes, if we are not frustrated sometimes, we are probably not learning or growing.

Desiree Linden, the 2018 Women’s winner of the New York Marathon has this pinned to the top of her twitter feed:

“Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: keep showing up.”

Where is the Holy Spirit calling you to stretch and grow? What is the growing edge of your faith? What are ways you can answer that call and meet the challenge? These are questions we need to keep asking ourselves in order to be faithful disciples and leaders. So, let’s go seek some answers to these questions together!

man in glasses looking upward - just his face in shadows

Holy Week – Making Room for Jesus

Our lives are busy. And Holy Week is a busy week in the church. No matter what Holy Week looks like for your church – whether you have events planned each day, or only on Sundays – it can be hard to simply spend time with Jesus. We miss the forest for the trees or, rather, miss Jesus for all the planning related to Jesus.

Even the disciples struggled with this. After the last supper with the disciples, Jesus asks a few of them to accompany him on a walk. Jesus knows he will need some time by himself as he prepares for the terrible events ahead of him, but wants friends nearby, praying with and for him. They can’t join him in his personal struggle, but they can support him in it.

Jesus asks his friends to simply stay awake and pray nearby. But every time he goes to check on them, they are asleep! Yes, they have had long days, and spent much energy as they dined and conversed at dinner. Yes, they have been filled with food and wine. Yes, it’s late. We understand why they are sleepy, but we also know the urgency of Jesus’ need for friendship and support at this moment.

We also fall asleep in these urgent moments. We can get so caught up in the details, that we forget to stay awake and spend time with Jesus. So – if you’ve planned Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, what are ways that you can engage in, and not simply lead them? Can other people lead what you’ve planned? If your church will be open for prayer or self-guided stations of the cross, spend time practicing what you have prepared. If you are having a community meal, make sure to spend some time enjoying the meal and the company around you. Even at the last supper together,  Jesus truly engaged and enjoyed his time with his friends.

Find the time and space and practices that create holy moments for you to connect with Jesus. All he asks is that we stay awake and be with him. No, we will never fully understand what he was facing on the cross, but we can be with him, as Christ is always with us. This Holy Week, let’s stay awake.

Lent: A Time of Reflection and Rest

Lent is a strange time for pastors and other leaders in the church. We teach and preach that Lent is a time of self-reflection and examination, a time of renewing the connection to the salvation and new life given to us in Christ, time to shed bad habits that we just can’t shake. And yet…all of the work we do to create opportunities and spaces for this reflection and renewal makes this a very busy time for our leaders.

Instead of attending to our own prayer lives and Sabbath practices with increased vigilance, we spend extra time preparing special worship and meals. And this is not to say that extra time we spend working isn’t life-giving, or that it is unfulfilling. Most of us gain a great sense of life and renewal in doing this work for and with others. However, church leaders are notoriously bad at following our own teachings.

Lent originated with the preparation of new Christian converts for baptism on Easter. They spent time practicing being Christians – studying and memorizing creeds, praying together, fasting, shedding the material and psychological attachments that were anchoring them to their old lives. For those of us who have been Christians, for a little or a long while, we can forget what called us here in the first place. Even prayer, worship and study can become routine instead of new and exciting.

What are some Lent practices that help us reflect and breathe life into our regular routines of Christian life? Perhaps we change up our schedules. Take a few extra days off during these weeks. Or sleep in a few days a week when we have evening activities for church. If sleeping in isn’t possible, what else can you stop doing during Lent? Giving up a duty for a season can give you some breathing room to rest a bit, as well as seeing what really does need to be done, and what you might be able to give up.

Maybe you try something new – take a class, make extra coffee dates with friends, or schedule a game night, do something you are terrible at but love. You could take 10-20 minutes each day just to sit with yourself and pray, or dream about the future, or read or create something just for yourself. Don’t think about all the things you haven’t finished yet. They will still be there when you are done with your break.

It doesn’t need to be a huge change, but it does take a bit of thought and planning. Like the early Christian converts, we have to be deliberate about changing our lives to shed old habits, and embrace new life. We have to practice what we preach this Lent, both for our own sake and for those we lead.

large play red push button with 'easy' written on it in white

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.

a bundle of cinnamon sticks tied with twine, surrounded by pine cones, walnuts in the shell and small frosted star-shaped cookies

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.

red brick buildings with a black hanging sign with 'ask' on it in bright gold/yellow capital letters and a street lamp attached to it

Focus on Leadership: Asking for 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.

crew boat oriented vertically, being rowed by 4 men, with a coxswain in front

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 in decision making 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.