beach ball in a swimming pool

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 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!

woman wearing a coat and scarf, sitting on a bench praying

Focus on Leadership: Praying Together

Are you a “designated pray-er?” A pastor or church leader that everyone looks to when it’s time to bless a meal, or at a meeting? Even if that’s not you, you can probably name the “pray-ers” in your congregation. Prayer is a central practice to Christian life, yet public prayer is seen as a challenge only a certain few prayer experts can undertake.

For the last two months, Rev. Dr. Diana Nishita Cheifetz has written on prayer in Regarding Ruling Elders for the PC(USA). Last month, she wrote about the gift of prayer being offered out loud, in personal and community settings. This month, she talks about that feeling of being put on the spot in being asked to offer prayer, as a “designated pray-er.” She speaks of how nerve-wracking it can be even for “professionals” such as ordained Ministers of Word and Sacrament to be asked to offer public prayer.

As Christians, we know we are called to pray. We might even have regular and fulfilling private prayer lives. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us not to pray like the Pharisee, publicly calling attention to himself? Instead, we are to pray humbly, even in a closet, away from others. And that is how many of us conduct much of our prayer life. The most public prayers we participate in are corporate prayers in worship. But sometimes there is a need for prayer in groups and public spaces beyond our closets and sanctuaries.

If all we do is of Christ, we ought to be praying a whole lot in public. Before meals, before our work days, before meetings in and out of church communities, after a day of work, after joyful moments, and after stressful ones – in other words, praying constantly as the apostle Paul says. And some of that prayer might be on behalf of groups, out loud, in the midst of those groups.

Rev. Nishita Cheifetz suggests having a short prayer template ready for those who are asked to offer prayer (including yourself) to make the task less stressful. That is a great suggestion. Also, like anything else in this life, being good at public prayer takes practice. Those “designated pray-ers” might have some natural skills of putting words together well at a moment’s notice in front of others, but even those with natural skills probably got good through lots of public prayers.

We can learn to pray more easily in public. When in doubt, we have a great prayer in our pockets – the Lord’s Prayer. A great meal blessing is a shared Doxology. And if you start one of those, others are likely to join in, taking the pressure off of you. You can also start with a simple template – giving thanks, stating the goals of the gathering, and how you hope to be blessed and bless others through those goals. You can use simple one-word prayers where each person offers a word of thanksgiving, joys or concerns, or hopes. You can institute a practice of prayer in groups that meet regularly, where you use different types of prayers that are written or outlined, and rotate prayer responsibility. As your group participants get more comfortable praying out loud in a group setting, they might be invited to pray for the group using their own words. All of these are probably some of the ways the designated pray-ers in your communities also learned to pray well.

As Christians, we are called on to pray, and to pray for and with each other when we are gathered. Practicing public prayer is not about showing off or being judged by a group on how well you put together your words. Rather, it is an opportunity to connect and open those gatherings more fully to God’s work among you. In our work together, in times of crisis, in times of celebration – these are always better when we welcome God’s presence. Because, of course, God is already there, we can just forget to look, and prayer helps us do that.

Read Rev. Nishita Cheifetz’ articles together as teams and remember what a gift prayer is in our public spaces. Take some time to discuss how you might practice prayer as a group, and as individuals leading your group in prayer, and then do it. Challenge each other to each take turns and get more comfortable in public prayer. And pass it on. See if you can create a congregation of “designated pray-ers” that the world might be filled with prayer.

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.

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