chalk drawing of hands shaking on chalkboard

Focus on Leadership: Find Partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[i] Book of Order, F.1.02

4 people holding hands, each pair of hands crossed and holding hands of person next to them in a circle

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 rulers of communities or kingdoms, 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.

two hands holding lit sparklers at dusk

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. 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, our call is 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?


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

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) GA222 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.

little girl with large multi-colored umbrella fully expanded, handle through one arm with fingers up at cheeks while smiling

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.


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.

man free-fall sky diving with sun in background

Focus on Leadership: Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

graffiti on wall of gandhi's head and text that says "Don't Stop Breathing"

Focus on Leadership: Take a Breath

It’s Lent. What does that mean to you? Are you giving up chocolate or doughnuts? Adding in an act of kindness each day? Some other practice? No practice? Perhaps Lent stresses you out because you just want to do it “right” as a leader in the church. It’s time to take a breath.

Teaching elders and ruling elders bear equal responsibility of caring for the spiritual health of a congregation, working together to provide opportunities for spiritual growth, seeking out the lost, and setting the course of spiritual well-being. None of us can claim a perfect spiritual life, but too often our leaders are so busy making sure everyone else has what they need, we forget to take care of our own spiritual needs.

Sometimes we just need to stop. Stop everything we are doing, and take a break. We need to simply breathe, rest and take time to reflect. Prayer, reading Scripture, engaging (not leading) worship, resting our minds and bodies – these practices are necessary for us to be grounded in God and become whole. We can be doing all the “right” things, and feel completely disconnected from God’s joy because we do not remember why we are doing the “right” things in the first place.

So, take a breath. Remember what brought you to this place. What were all the small and great joys along the way – in worship, in fellowship, in service – where you felt the call to leadership in the church. Strip away all that doesn’t need doing today, and simply breathe.

Putting it into Practice

Let us lead this Lent by being people who take a breath, people who truly practice Sabbath. What about all those extra things that need to get done this holy season?

What about that new small group? Go, but let the members find their own calls to leadership in taking on new roles as facilitators. (Help new leaders breathe by encouraging them, and reassure them when silence crops up. Sometimes we just need to have some space to think.)

What about extra worship services during Lent? Do you need to fill every moment with active liturgy? Perhaps give more space to simple sitting and quiet contemplation. We all need more time to just be. (Help your members relax into this by encouraging breathing in and out, slowing down, quieting the thoughts in their heads.)

What about community meals? How will we make sure there is enough to eat? How many church meals have you been to where there hasn’t been enough food? (Help your hospitality committee breathe by grabbing some family-size cans of soup to have at the ready if need be. All will be well.)

Perhaps this Lent we give up perfection. We create a little more space for each other. Let go of the things that don’t need to get done TODAY, let there be times of silence, forgive ourselves for failures to get it “right.” Because, isn’t that what this faith is about? Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, and when we get it wrong, take a breath.

cars in traffic jam with brake lights on

Focus on Leadership: Making Room

How much time do we spend complaining about traffic? About the crowded streets, about other drivers, about how it is slowing us down? When you are in that traffic, is your tendency to think about other drivers as adversaries or partners?

If we see them as adversaries, we are probably less likely to give people the space they need to merge or switch lanes. We might cut others off before they can do it to us, and we will definitely yell at them for whatever infraction they might incur. If we see them as partners in getting where we are all going, we might pay more attention to what other drivers are trying to do. We anticipate sticky spots where you know many people are entering onto one side of the highway, and will quickly need to exit on the complete opposite side, and make space for them. Likewise, we will pay attention to those entering or exiting, and make room or adjust our speeds to accommodate them.

It is likely we all are guilty of being adversaries on the road at one point or another. (And some wise people who know that they tend to be overly aggressive on the roads choose to use public transportation.) This doesn’t just apply to traffic, of course. We see this behavior on sidewalks and in grocery store lines, anywhere there is a group of people who all have their own ideas about how and when to get where they are going. It is usually exacerbated by our own busy schedules, too.

Does it ever feel like this in your church life? When you are in a committee meeting, session, or Bible study, does it seem like everyone has their own agenda? We aren’t really paying attention to the needs of other individuals, and assume that my needs apply to the whole group? If we see each other as obstacles to our desired outcome, we find ourselves in the same traffic jams we encounter on our busy roads.

Just as driving becomes smoother, and less stressful when we work together to get where we’re all going, seeing each other as partners in ministry leadership helps us all get where we need to go. Paying attention to the needs of those around us – in churches, on presbytery committees, in outside ministries – helps us make room for each other.

We may not all have the same hopes and needs on Sunday morning, Wednesday night, or other times we gather. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t work together to all get where we need to go.

Take some time to think about those around you as partners in growing and living out your faith every day, inside and outside our ministries. Really listen to one another, and see how we can help each other get where we are going. This might mean active encouragement, or simply creating space to experiment without judgment. We may find that our own needs were less important than we thought, or fulfilled in a different way than we imagined.

We will probably still be guilty of being less-than-pleasant in traffic or in line at the grocery store when we are in a hurry. However, we might find that we can get where we need to be in plenty of time, both in the church and out when we simply make some room every day.

hand with salt in the palm and overlying text "You are the salt of the world a city built on a hill #signsofthekingdom"

Focus on Leadership: Salt and Light

This past Sunday many of our churches shared Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount regarding what it means to be a follower in the world. Those who follow Christ are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city on a hill. In other words, our love adds essential flavor to life and should not and cannot be hidden.

Many people try to get through life keeping their heads down, avoiding anything that might cause conflict. Jesus says a characteristic of his followers is that they stick out. But we are not drawing attention to ourselves for our own sake or ego, but rather people see us and are drawn to us for our flavor and light. God’s love that fills us shines out in our words and actions.

We posted a piece on Facebook with remarks from Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson at the PC(USA)’s 2016 polity conference, talking about not getting stuck.

Doing what is familiar and comfortable is a trap for groups of leaders, whether things are going well, or whether you are dealing with a new problem, and want to feel safe and in control. Being people of salt and light means that we need to think through decisions with clarity, and some creative flavor.

Rather than blending in, going along with what is comfortable, we are called to be beacons of hope. Those who are ordained in the PC(USA) make a vow to pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. We tend to lean on the previous vow, to further the peace, unity and purity of the church, by interpreting it to mean that we shouldn’t make too many waves, without understanding that both vows must work together.

Peace, unity and purity mean neither a lack of problems or conflict, nor an unanimity of thought. Rather, these speak to a wholeness of the church that cannot be achieved among people with different experiences and ideas without energy, intelligence, imagination and love. In order to come together, we must use our saltiness, we must make decisions that create a community that does not rely on common understandings of how the world works.

As Christians, we follow a Messiah upended the common understandings of the world – either fit in, keep your head down, don’t cause too much trouble or make sure you are at the top of the heap with no room for anyone else. In Christ’s view of the world being salt and light means both sticking out and making room for others.

So, let’s not get stuck, but instead let’s stick out. Let our lights shine as beacons toward a God and community that love differently, and use our saltiness to figure out new ways of working and being together.

calendar page with a fountain pen drawing a heart on it

Focus on Leadership: Showing Up

It’s the text. That one you were expecting. The one that always comes. Maybe a day before, maybe only a few hours or a few minutes before. “Sorry! [Something] came up, and I just can’t make it!” The text from that one friend or fellow volunteer. And that “something” is almost never an emergency. It’s usually an oil change, or a last-minute lunch with friends, or running to the store to pick up project supplies for their kids. Repeat: Not an emergency.

When you consistently break your prior commitments, you are telling your friends or fellow volunteers that they (and your work together) don’t matter much. Where you choose to spend your time is telling, and can be difficult to challenge. Work, family, friends, necessary chores – none of these are frivolous. And, yet so many of the conflicting commitments could be scheduled at other times.

In a friendship, and in the church, there is generally enough good will to give people the benefit of the doubt when they flake one time. But, if you consistently cancel on a friend or church events, they are simply a lower priority in your life. If these are things we really value, and say we value, we need to follow through by rearranging our priorities and commitments.

In a busy world, more of us are becoming this person, too. It’s so easy to fall into, especially when everyone around us is, too. Perhaps we could be the good example, instead of following the crowd.

Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’
Matthew 5:37

Show up.

When you say you are going to do something, show up. Do the thing.

If the commitment is a meeting or set of meetings that don’t work for your schedule, be honest about it. Either indicate which things you can commit to, see if you can change the schedule, or simply decline.

If you make a commitment and something comes up, assess whether the new conflict is a) really a higher priority than your original commitment, and/or b) can be done another time. Unless it is an emergency, stick with your original commitments.

If you show up people will trust you when you say you are going to do something. If you simply say no when you know you can’t follow through, people will respect that you have boundaries. If you tell people you can’t do something because you already have a previous commitment, they may start doing the same. You can’t build a friendship or get work done if you can’t get together.

If you want to build an amazing community, show up. The rest happens from there.