shadow of person in the water next to a beach

Focus on Leadership: Caring for Yourself

How are you? A question asked and answered almost daily by most of us that most of us rarely answer fully. It’s much easier to just say, “Fine,” than to lay out either our great joys or great concerns, or even a simple, “meh.” But, it’s a question we don’t answer honestly even if and when we ask it of ourselves.

As leaders in the church and other areas of our lives, we tend to put others and their needs before our own. But what happens if we aren’t listening and responding to our own needs? How can we be any good to anyone else?

You may not be someone who makes resolutions for the new year. Resolutions are too often broken, dropped, or forgotten within weeks, days or even hours of making them. However, if there is one thing we all need to do better this year, it is to listen to yourself.

Take time each day to check in with yourself. In Christian tradition, there are many practices of prayer and discipline that include this check-in. The Ignatian Examen is a classic example of a daily spiritual practice that centers checking in with yourself. However you do it, being honest about what went well, what didn’t go so well that day helps us move forward to the next day.

shadow of person in the water next to a beach

How are you?

Checking in with yourself and being honest in answering those questions are just first steps. If the answer to the question, “How are you,” is, “Not so hot,” do something about it. None of us are happy every day. We all have days where we seem to fail at every turn. If you are tired, take some rest. If you are overwhelmed, ask for help. If you just feel blah, try something new. And if the not-so-hot days are outnumbering the okay or good days, you might need something more.

Take care of yourself. The people around you want you to be whole and healthy for you, as well as for your ministry and leadership. And God wants that for you, too. Jesus spent a lot of time asking people how they were, and healing bodies, minds and spirits in response.

So – How are you today?

two teddy bears with handkerchiefs seated facing each other

Focus on Leadership: Caring For One Another

After a tough week at work, including a conversation with an employee that revealed some deep hurts in his life, a Human Resources Director told her pastor, “I had never really thought much before about where an HR Director goes when she needs to talk to someone about difficult things at work.” Of course, she was talking to her pastor, which can be a great and confidential outlet. Having a good therapist on hand to talk to is also never a bad idea for anyone. But there was a lot of truth to her statement. Organizational leaders often don’t know where to turn when they need to talk through a difficult situation arising from the organization itself.

When you are at the top, you don’t (and often can’t) put the burdens of leadership back on people below you in the organization. And there may be no one above you to talk to, either. Keeping it to yourself may cause more problems. So, what can you do?

First, as Presbyterians we are blessed to have a system where no one person is at the top of our organizations. We have designed the system intentionally to share the decisions and challenges that come with being leaders in the church. In our churches, pastors are not the end of the line – we have sessions to make most of the decisions together with the pastors.

We too often think of our sessions as merely decision-makers, though. Ruling elders, especially those serving on session, are charged with the spiritual leadership of the church, not just the business of the church. This changes how we might view our work. It is not just important to be responsible stewards of financial resources, but to be in tune with other members and the pastor(s) to see if there are needs that are not being expressed.

As teaching and ruling elders, we have to care for one another. If one of us is having a tough time, or if a difficult situation is causing anxiety, anger, sadness or strife in the church, it is our responsibility to help lift the burdens others are carrying.

No leader can do our work alone, and without good conversation partners. And if we try to, we may end up hurting the organizations and the people who work in them, and who they serve.

We need to remind each other to get the rest we need. If someone is taking on too many tasks, we need to find ways of relieving them of some of that stress. If we need to take more time making a decision because it is clear that we are not ready, we need to take courage to voice that. This also works at the presbytery, synod and national church levels, not to mention in our other organizations.

If you are in a structure where the buck stops with you, think about how your experience within the church might help you seek out other leaders at your level that you can talk to. Think about who might be a helpful sounding board when you can’t talk to people in your own organization. Who might you help in the same ways?

Our work is better when we do it together, especially during the tough times. Don’t be afraid to seek help from others. And don’t be afraid to offer help to others. That’s what we’re called to do.

a woman and a man listening to another man speaking with a view of hills and houses in background

Focus on Leadership: Listening

We live in a time where there is a lot of noise – information coming at us through news, fake news, social media, in audio, video and written forms. But how much are we actually absorbing? Quite a few studies have been done about confirmation bias – that we are more likely to listen to, agree with and pass on narratives that fit our predetermined understanding of the world. Whether or not those narratives are true or false. If something fits our idea of how the world works, we fit it into the picture. If it challenges our world view, we reject it.

And yet…during Advent we are preparing to celebrate an event does not fit into any understanding of the world. A poor, unmarried woman pregnant with a child who is both fully human and fully divine. A child who is fully divine, yet lives as a human, grows and learns, falls down, has bad days and good days, just like any human being. A child who will grow up to save the world, not in the way that past heroes, or any heroes to come, had conquered, but by showing that all the powers of the world could not defeat God. No humiliation, no silence, not even death could stop the Word of God from spreading, in stories, in actions, in transformed lives.

This event, the birth of Christ is celebrated each year not as a memorial, but as an ongoing reality. Though we talk about Jesus changing our lives as a caterpillar changes into a butterfly, our change is not a one-time thing. Just as Jesus’ ancestors and Jesus’ disciples found their worlds being turned upside down not once, but many times, so too will ours if we continue to read, listen to and think about Scripture, pray, and connect with people in faith throughout our lives. How we think, how we live, how we behave will all be challenged again and again.

Our faith calls us to be open to these challenges and these transformations. Ecclesiastes talks about this so well. Life is compared to a vapor, which is often interpreted to mean that it holds little weight or meaning, but which is probably better understood to mean that we should not hold too tightly to anything. There is a season for everything. We have to be willing to let go of even things that we have always known as true or have worked for us in the past. It may not be true now or in the future. It doesn’t help us to hold onto it.

The biggest thing we have to let go of is assuming we know how others feel or think or what their experiences are. NPR political reporters reflecting on their work, especially in the 2016 election season, said the biggest thing that helped them do good work is to ask questions without assuming what the answers would be. Then they actually listened to people answer those questions and tell their stories.

If we want to change how we respond to each other, if we want to continue to be challenged and changed through our faith, we can start by being good listeners. And hopefully as we model good listening, others will feel heard, and want to learn how to listen as well.

white dove

Focus on Leadership: Peacemaking

The way of peace is not an easy one. As the Confession of 1967 lays out, “Wise and virtuous [people] through the ages have sought the highest good in devotion to freedom, justice, peace, truth, and beauty. Yet all human virtue, when seen in the light of God’s love in Jesus Christ, is found to be infected by self-interest and hostility. All [people], good and bad alike, are in the wrong before God and helpless without…forgiveness.”

As the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” So often when we attempt to do good, we cannot do it. The problems are too big, or we get afraid, or our ego gets in the way. As leaders, how can we lead others in the ways of peace, if we ourselves cannot accomplish peace?

Fortunately, it is not up to us alone. Our faith reminds us that while even humans trying to do good will stray from the path, we were not created to do this by ourselves. We have a Savior and Encourager in God, who can guide us when we mess up. We are reminded that taking on big problems requires many small steps, that we are not alone when we are afraid, and that it’s not about our ego, our reputation, our goals, but rather we follow that goals of Jesus Christ, we live into the reputation of Christ.

Another entry in our Book of Confessions, A Brief Statement of Faith, states this so well: “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”

We are also reminded that not only is God with us, as our Creator, as the One who guides and saves us, as Encourager, but we have a whole team of peacemakers – others who believe as we do, that we are called to reach out and seek reconciliation with our neighbors and enemies. That the ways of peace mean that we have to face comments, insults, perhaps injury or death from those who profit from strife and warfare, those who thrive on chaos, those who think peace is a myth. But we face them together.

Just one person sharing acts of peace can encourage and embolden others to join them. Justin Normand, of Irving, TX, found this out when he decided to spend some time near a local mosque with a sign of peace and friendship for his Muslim neighbors. A picture of him with his sign was shared across social media as a sign of light in a discouraging time when so many acts of hate happening. Afterward, Mr. Normand shared how his faith, as a Presbyterian, compelled him to do something, anything he could to show his neighbors they were loved.

This was a powerful witness kicked off by just one person. And how many spirits were lifted through his actions? How many others will join him in sharing love for their neighbors because of his simple act? And he learned to do it through the teachings of our faith. In churches just like ours.

We cannot do this without the work of the Holy Spirit, or without the saving grace of Christ, but our words and actions matter. We can do this work of peace, with God’s help, one step at a time.

Some resources to share with your congregations to talk about and live out peace and peacemaking can be found on the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s page and also on the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s website.

clear glass globe on a rock in front of a pier going out into an ocean, the pier and sky inverted in globe

Focus on Leadership: Doing a New Thing

Here in the United States, the season of Advent follows closely on the heels of our celebrations of Thanksgiving, which seems quite appropriate. The national celebration of Thanksgiving is not without controversy. The stories we tell about the origins of the celebration tend to center a mythical peaceful shared meal, and flatten out the real stories of the interactions, personalities, ideals and ideas of those involved, whether European settlers or indigenous occupants of the land being settled. Likewise, the stories we tell during Advent can flatten out the realities of a difficult story, as we remember the joys and the angels, and forget that that joy was a surprising gift in the face of a difficult new reality.

Advent is about the preparation it takes to do something radically new. The preparation of individual hearts, a family, a community and a world. And even with God’s own messengers delivering the message, “Do not fear,” it did not mean that Mary and Joseph and Jesus were going to have an easy life. Before the birth of Jesus, they have to confront their own feelings of inadequacy, confusion and worry over reputation. After the birth of Jesus, they have to undertake a harrowing road trip to a faraway land, not certain when or if they would be able to ever see their families again. All of this for two young people who had likely never gone further than Jerusalem.

Beginning something new tends to come with more questions than answers. We have never done it before, so it can be difficult to know if we doing it the right way. If there is a right way. The church in the United States is on the edge of something new. That, we know. What it will look like, what we will look like, afterward, is something we are not sure of yet. It is tempting to tell easy stories – to reach into the past to find comfortable models of doing church that worked then, or to assume that all people who follow Christ will be able to find a common way of working together simply because we have the same ultimate goal.

The reality is that none of this is easy. Our Advent scriptures do not let us off the hook, either. But, they give us an excellent guide on how to deal with uncertainty and fear of the unknown. They tell us to prepare ourselves because we cannot know how we will react when we meet strangers who do things differently, who may not like the same foods or speak a different language. We are told first not to fear. We are told to prepare our hearts – not to harden them, but to leave them open, soft. We are told that we will take the familiar ways of life, and turn them on their head. We have to be ready for how we think the world works to be overturned. And we have to be ready to meet the fears, anxieties and differing expectations of what that means or looks like.

These are the things that do not change, however: our God loves us no matter what, and calls us to join in loving all creation and created beings in the same way; part of that love is looking out for your neighbor – if we are not making sure your neighbors are safe, have food, aren’t lonely or sick, we aren’t doing it right; change is coming – will we continue to extend our love, or will we try to hoard what we have and hide? Be prepared – be awake, look for God, love others. It is both the oldest command, and part of bringing in the new thing God is creating in our midst. We are going to find ourselves doing many new things, doing old things in new ways, and becoming new people. How will we respond?

4 flat oval-shaped stones sitting next to each other vertically on a piece of paper with feet and hands holding each other drawn in

Focus on Leadership: Compassion

If your church follows the Revised Common Lectionary for your Sunday worship Scriptures, you may be reading from and hearing sermons about texts from 2 Timothy, where the apostle Paul speaks about his suffering. We know from his letters that Paul suffered both from being imprisoned several times and from physical ailments, the two not always unconnected. But when Paul speaks of his suffering, it is not simply an update on his current state of mind or health, but to make a larger point. He does not diminish his own suffering, but he recognizes that his work, and the work of all faithful Christians, will lead to some sort of suffering.

Often it is because of the relationships we seek and build as Christians that will cause us suffering. Paul knows his friends who have heard of his imprisonments and physical pain will also be in pain, especially if they are far away and cannot lend assistance, because of their mutual love. When people we love are hurting, we hurt, too. And as our love increases, reaching more and more people as we are called to do, our opportunities to suffer alongside them will increase, as well.

Paul doesn’t lead us down an easy path, saying our faith will make everything better, or that we will be able to fix what is causing the hurt through faith. Instead, he points out that as Christ suffered with us, for us, those who follow Jesus will also suffer. Together. Compassion, which is from Latin roots, meaning to suffer or bear with. The same Latin root that gives us ‘passion’ also gives us the word, ‘patient.’ Patience, suffering – you will recognize these as major themes throughout Paul’s work. And it is always work we do together.

We tend to think of passion as joyful, as energy around something we care for deeply. If you think about it, this is not so wrong. Passion is not always joyful – pursuing a passion can be very difficult at times. But when we love together, suffer together, the key is that we do it together. There can be joy at the end of a difficult journey, or right in the middle of the slog, if we are with people we love.

Many of us live in neighborhoods and in towns that are suffering from economic uncertainty. Some of us live in places where violence is too familiar. As we hear about the devastation of natural disasters around the world, we remember how we and our neighbors even closer to the coast were affected by Hurricane Sandy, and we pray. We hope to know how we might be a comfort – in thought, word and deed.

Compassion is not easy. Loving others never is. But we are called to it again and again. As we look around us, as we see suffering in the world, we pray that we will not turn away. We pray that we will know how to follow faithfully. We pray that our love will continue to be overflowing.

Focus on Leadership: Discipleship

Discipleship sounds so…tedious. When we think of discipleship, we often think of discipline – either as punishment, or as a rigid set of conduct or rules.

Discipleship does require practice – just as we might associate discipline with the military, discipleship in following Christ is not an ends in itself, but a means to make us prepared for situations that will test us. Rather than facing a fight on the battlefield in a war, however, our tests come every day, and often in the places we least expect. The tests of our faith are often pop quizzes, and like any pop quiz, it pays to be prepared.

Reading, listening to, interpreting, absorbing, even memorizing Scripture is one of the first things we think of when we think of practices of discipleship. This is not simply so we can answer obscure questions, but so that we are immersed in the story of our faith.

The generations of people in Jesus’ lineage or in the books of Chronicles or Kings are not simply part of a long list of funky names, but real people who lived in history, were called by God to follow, and answered that call with varying success. People who faced real challenges that we still face – friends and family who do not live up to their promises, choices about how to use one’s wealth, what and who to stand up for and what and who to stand up against.

We bolster our intellectual knowledge of the story by seeing how we face these similar challenges, and through prayer and community. We are called into a Body of Christ, in which we are only one member, because we cannot do it alone. And we are called into relationship with our Creator, our adoptive Parent, our Friend, our Inspiration, because even with others, we humans cannot do it on our own.

We build these relationships through thoughtful listening, thoughtful questions, thoughtful conversations, and then following through with our actions – both with the other members of the Body and with God. Call it prayer, call it discernment, call it mindfulness, call it all three, practice makes us better at relationships.

Giving of our resources – sharing our money, our material goods, our time – on a regular basis helps us see where they fit into the overall picture. They are necessary, but also can become so much more meaningful when shared with others. If we keep them to ourselves we might not see the many ways our resources are gifts to us beyond keeping us fed and clothed.

Serving others changes our positions and attitudes toward one another. We spend so much of our time trying to “get ahead” to be “successful,” that we can think we are not very valuable if we do not succeed in the ways measured by salary, rewards, raises and promotions, and think ourselves more valuable than others if we do gain prestige, wealth and awards. Choosing a real practice of service can bring us closer to people we may not encounter in our everyday lives. We build relationships with those serving alongside us, and with those being served. We tell stories, we hear stories, we care about what happens next for the people around us because your stories become integrated during that time. And giving of oneself where one does not have to be “in charge” (though you might be called to do so even in the role of a servant), or an “expert” (though you may use or gain valuable skills), or “the most successful,” but simply to be faithful, is very different than the success we seek elsewhere.

Discipleship changes how we engage with the world. Discipleship prepares us to meet people where they are and to see where we are. Discipleship allows us to find God in places we were not expecting, even in the most trying of times. Discipleship shapes us and changes the shape of our hearts, thoughts and actions.

When we think of discipleship, let’s think of Jesus’ disciples – called, unprepared, from where they were, stumbling, making mistakes, but continuing to follow and learn. It was not just trials and tests, but they also developed deep friendships – with Jesus and with each other. They ate together, laughed together, cried together, wrestled with next steps together. And they shared what they learned. They were able to face difficult tests, even death, and yet were “successful.” We know that because we know their stories. We know The Story.

How is discipleship changing the shape of your heart? How can we invite others into a discipleship that is rich and meaningful, not tedious, even when challenging? How do we expand the characters this grand Story we share?

child's hand holding colorful flowers through a wooden fence

Focus on Leadership: Generosity

For many of us in churches it is, or will be, stewardship season. This is a good time to consider our practices of generosity and discipleship. In fact, these concepts are inextricably intertwined – to be a good disciple means to live a life of generosity, and to live generously helps us become better disciples.

In John 10, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he encouraged people – his disciples, the crowds in synagogues, in the hills, and along the roads, Pharisees, tax collectors, friends and enemies – to live abundantly, generously. This summer the Revised Common Lectionary had texts both warning us what our lives will look like if we do not share everything we have been given (given, not earned), and what it looks like to share all that we have and all that we are.

Whether Hebrew prophets, Paul and other apostles, or Jesus, the message is consistent – there is a big, generous, overflowing life to participate in, but like the manna in the desert, if one tries to hold onto or hoard it for oneself, it rots. There are several points here – 1) God gives us everything we have – it does not belong to us, 2) God gives to us because God loves us and wants us to be taken care of, 3) God has specifically called us to steward what we have been given, 4) God tells us that part of stewardship is making sure those around us are also cared for, given what they need out of what God has given to all of us. A life of abundance means a life together where no one gets overlooked.

Being generous is not just about food, clothing and shelter, it is also about seeing each other, including each other, comforting one another when someone is hurt, grieving, or has messed up. We see it in the Bible as feeding the hungry, caring for and healing the sick and injured, visiting the prisoner, welcoming the stranger, sharing what we have, sharing in feasts with the whole community, forgiveness.

The common element in all of these actions is that they cannot be done alone – these are all activities that involve two or more people. To live an abundant life means to live a life with others. As we think about how we will give in this stewardship drive, or just as everyday disciples, these are our stretch goals – give a little more financially, be better listeners so that we might know what is going on in the lives of those around us, and respond by spending time – feeding, visiting, welcoming, work to be graceful to someone who has messed up, engage in community fellowship.

Go out and live life abundantly. That’s what Jesus tells us, over and over. He sent his disciples, and we continue to be sent in the name of Christ to share love and life throughout the world.

hands folded as if in prayer sitting on top of a Bible with light streaming through a window in the background

Focus on Leadership: Prayer

Prayer is the foundation for everything we do together as Christians. Without prayer, we become easily disconnected from the important work of listening for God’s will in our lives. We rely only on our own knowledge and intuition, which most often leads us astray.

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. ~Ephesians 6:18

God holds a deeper knowledge that sees what we cannot – value where we see only junk, a path where we only see obstacles, and the hearts of others, which can elude even the most empathetic. We may also be asked to do things in ways that are counterintuitive. We are used to leading a certain way in our regular work lives – efficiently, proudly, finding the route that produces the most return for our investment. But God often asks us to work in different ways – to move slowly, to listen to those who may not be experts, to invest with no expectation of return. Is that any way to run a business…I mean, church?!

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. ~Luke 18:1

As a matter of fact, God says it is. And we see this lived out in Jesus the Christ’s life. The story of Mary and Martha is difficult every time because so many of us are like Martha, and we understand the frustration of trying to do the work of hospitality, which is built into our practice of faith, and Jesus saying, “Mary has chosen the better part.”

Pray for us; we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. ~Hebrews 13:18

Even when we try to do the things we are supposed to do to follow Jesus, sometimes it is not the thing we are supposed to do in the moment. And how are we to know? What Jesus was telling Martha was to take some time to have a conversation with him, and to listen. She was so distracted she couldn’t see what was most important in that moment. Whether pastor or church member, we can get so distracted by the task in front of us that we can miss a more important moment happening right in front of us – helping someone even if it means what we are doing goes unfinished.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. ~Romans 8:26

If we stop to talk and listen to our God, we would hear the voice of Jesus, our friend, helping us figure out how to keep a posture of ceaseless prayer – that we remain open to the possibilities that God offers throughout our day. If we remain open and flexible, we might keep ourselves open to some holy moments we might have missed otherwise.

Pray without ceasing ~1 Thessalonians 5:17

This posture of ceaseless prayer, an openness and willingness to discover these hidden holy moments, is also important when facing conflict. There are few people in the world who actually like handling conflict, but those who are adept at handling conflict seem to be the ones who have a hidden well of calm and reason. Though some may naturally have more patience and grace in difficult situations, this well of peace they draw upon is most often replenished through a strong prayer life. And a strong prayer practice can help even the most conflict-averse find a flexible strength when dealing with the anger and rigidity that comes with disagreements in the church.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you ~Matthew 5:44

Though many people think of the church as a place of peace, those of us who have been Christians for even a short while have been unpleasantly surprised by the ugliness we can find there. However, there is hope. Where our leaders exemplify lead to calm heads, openness in finding the ways God is leading us, and love throughout, because they are sustained and guided by prayerful hearts, we can teach others to do the same. If your leadership is anxious, the congregation will be also. If the leadership shows faith and love even in stressful times, so will the congregation. And do we make better decisions and do better work when we are anxious or when we are at peace?

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. ~Romans 12:12

And we do not just pray for our own benefit, but we pray to encourage one another, and that God will bless the ministries of others who are in this with us – in this presbytery, and throughout the Body of Christ. We pray to ask for intervention and healing when life hurts those we love, and those we do not even know. We ask for open hearts to abound all around us, so that we might all be listening in the same ways for God’s will. We pray for our enemies not just that their hearts might be softened, but our own as well. Sometimes we are the obstacle in a relationship, not the other person. We pray that we may be released from our sin so we don’t get in our own way.

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. ~Luke 6:28

Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. ~James 5:16

We pray to open ourselves up to the Other. We pray so that we are not alone, so that our voice is not the only voice in our heads, but is accompanied by the love and wisdom of a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, and everyone else, as well.

So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. ~Mark 11:24

Let us pray for our ministries, our spirit, our leadership, for one another, and for all we do together as we engage the communities in Newark Presbytery, and follow wherever God is leading us.

Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you ~2 Thessalonians 3:1