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    Entries in Church Leadership (14)


    Can Pastors Keep it Real and Lead Well? An Interview with Mandy Smith

    Church leaders are people. This means they possess both strengths and shortcomings. On some days, they fulfill their calling and serve really well. And then there are the days when everything falls apart. Eugene Peterson observed, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.” Our pastors come with flaws.

    That is not always easy to remember. We compare one minister to another and often have selective memories. Our expectations differ from those of other congregants. We want our pastors to please everyone. Simultaneously our concerns are considered the foremost criteria by which we evaluate our ministers. The way in which pastors choose to lead becomes more complicated when we consider the scene beyond the local context: celebrity pastors, excellent podcasts, and en vogue models of leadership influence our understandings of success. Those models can be too narrow.

    The dominant and prevailing understandings of pastoral leadership are insufficient. That’s why we need other voices, not only for the sake of pastors trying to find their place but also for congregants. There is more than one way to be a healthy congregation, and more than one way to lead. It is hard to remember that sometimes.

    Mandy Smith serves as lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2015). Her book is a welcome addition to the broader conversation concerning church leadership. She is forthcoming about her experiences and provides an alternative way of understanding the pastoral task, which includes a profound reliance on God, an openness to the Spirit at work in the congregation and community, and what I’ll describe as holy patience with oneself as God works out his purposes within the life of the minister.

    I’ve read a number of church leadership books, and I found this one unique and valuable. Last week I corresponded with her, and asked a few questions about The Vulnerable Pastor.

    B: I really enjoyed The Vulnerable Pastor. What led you to write the book?

    Most of my writing grows from wishing someone else had written it for me. I’ve felt quite alone in figuring out how to lead and yet still be myself so if there’s any way I can be with someone else as they wrestle with similar questions, it’s my joy to do that. And although it’s risky to put my story out there, it’s worth it for the possibility that I may hear back from readers and find our stories are similar. Although writing can be a solitary task, I see it as one part of a larger conversation. I love that conversation.

    B: One of the commitments I found throughout your book was to the practice of prayer, either liturgically, congregationally, or through a cultivated posture of listening to God throughout your day, whether in conversation, study, or through your writing or art. How does prayer shape the work of a vulnerable pastor?

    If we claim to rely on him, it makes sense that we would engage with him. I have a tendency to claim to need God but then spend most of my time talking about him, planning to do stuff for him, troubleshooting in my own strength, fretting over things that are beyond me. So part of prayer is the words I say but a big part is just the choice to pray, turning from the way I act when I think it’s all up to me and choosing to take on the posture of prayer. The act itself of turning reminds me I’m not alone and it’s okay to ask for help. I need that reminder a lot. In prayer there is no shame in our human limitation.

    B: You spoke of prayer as a reminder that God is with us and responds to our petitions for help, and that prayer itself is a reminder of our limits. I can see how those reminders are helpful for the pastor. How do those reminders influence your relationships with your congregants?

    It’s amazing how the things that we think are so shameful and that we try so hard to hide from congregants often become moments of breakthrough when we let them be seen. As much as we think we serve folks by looking strong and competent, it only perpetuates the impression that we live an unattainable kind of holiness. As leaders we don’t want them to see our doubt, our family troubles, our bad days. But strangely enough, and although it’s always uncomfortable, when I’ve said “I have to be honest with you, I don’t have the answers” others have had a chance to offer ideas--or find grace that they also have questions. When I’ve said “I really am struggling today” others have seen faithfulness does not mean always feeling happy. Of course, there are unhealthy ways to rely on folks we’re supposed to be leading but many of our more human moments can be ways to show that we’re all following the Lord together. Then our role is no longer to be the one they rely on. Instead our role is to model reliance on God. In some ways leading by having it all together and looking strong is harder than modeling reliance on God. In some ways it’s easier.

    B: Your book is notable because of your willingness to shatter any existing delusions of pastoral invincibility and to reveal how human limitations and weaknesses are present in church leaders. How does this kind of vulnerability help the church become more faithful to the gospel, for pastors and congregants?

    If God is not limited by our brokenness, that’s truly good news! Whether it’s to help us live out our call or help us in our parenting or save us from sin, it all feels like the Gospel to me! The world teaches us it’s shameful when we need to rest, get old or sick or can’t fix things or don’t understand. But God is not surprised that we’re human and longs to be shown to us and through us as humans. When we come to terms with the limitations and opportunities in the human nature he gave us, we’re more able to fill our role and let him fill His. And we have a greater appreciation of the work of God-as-human (Jesus) and of God-in-humans (the Spirit).

    B: In the latter half of your book you explore how vulnerability informs your teaching and preaching, and examine the relationship between teaching and the overall process of spiritual formation within the Christian community. What do you mean by “process,” and how does your emphasis on process help those in your congregation grow as disciples of Jesus Christ?

    In the western world we’re all about product. Productivity has become sacred. On the other hand, in any creative endeavor (including partnering with God in his recreation of ourselves and this world), the process is significant. How we get there can’t be distinguished from where we’re going. I’ve found that there’s a lot of pressure to arrive--to have all the answers, to be all we should be. But there’s peace to be found in submitting to the humbling process of learning a little at a time. It’s a grace actually--as much as we want it all now, our hearts and minds could not take in the fullness of the goodness and beauty of God all at once! The emphasis on process allows folks in our congregation to set aside the anxious work of creating their own personal brand. Embracing the process gives them grace to trust that whatever God is doing in them is a partnership--a listening and responding to the work of the Spirit. The pressure to arrive gets in the way of the journey and once we’re released from it, we are free to enjoy the unfolding of where God leads us, day by day, together.

    B: Lastly, what words of wisdom would you offer to those actively discerning a call to serve in pastoral ministry/church leadership? And, since I am married to a woman in ministry, do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement specifically for women?

    As we’re discerning a call, we often look at what skills, personality, passions we have and compare it to other people we’ve seen in leadership. But the models of Christian leadership have been very narrow in recent years. We need men and extroverts and management-oriented folks and we also need women and introverts and artists and folks who often feel like outsiders in the church. So my advice to those discerning that call would be: look not only to contemporary spiritual leaders but also to the many models of leaders in scripture--most of whom had good reason to not feel capable (they were too old, too young, too different, not educated etc) and yet were used powerfully by God. There’s supposed to be a moment when something amazing happens and people say “Hmm, that person is not capable of what we just saw. There must be a greater power at work here!” The question is, are we willing to let our limitation be seen so his power can be obvious?

    On the question about women: The world’s way of thinking about our role as women often has to do with our rights. Which, of course, is not the way of the Lord. For a long time I thought in terms of “The church has to give women a chance! It’s our turn!” but the more I learn about this moment in the history of the Western church, the more I say “The church desperately needs what women bring!” As women entering ministry we’re often painfully aware how different we are from leadership norms and can feel like second-class citizens. But the natural skills women often have (don’t want to speak in stereotypes here) which the world sees as weak or unimportant--warmth, collaborative skills, listening, empathy, flexibility, patience, humility, community building, hospitality, openness to difference--are exactly what God wants to use to lead the church through its current identity crisis. The more I read scripture, the more I see the depth of God’s heart, the more I see the power of a woman’s emotional and spiritual energy to express that heart to the world.

    Many thanks to Mandy for joining me and answering my questions. The Vulnerable Pastor is available at Amazon.


    Taking Stock of a Culture

    In Daring Greatly, Brene' Brown offers ten questions useful for assessing a company culture:

    1. What behaviors are rewarded? Punished?
    2. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
    3. What rules and expectations are followed, enforced, and ignored?
    4. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
    5. What are the sacred cows? Who is most likely to trip them? Who stands the cows back up?
    6. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
    7. What happens when someone fails, disappoints, or makes a mistake?
    8. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure) perceived?
    9. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
    10. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things, and giving and receiving feedback normalized, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

    I came across this list while reading Mandy Smith's The Vulnerable Pastor. I share them because I have friends in church leadership, though they can be applied more broadly. If you are part of a workplace, a family, or a fan base, you are part of a culture. Cultures can be healthy and yield flourishing. They can also be unhealthy, and harmful.

    When cultures are healthy, it is helpful to ask why. What principles, practices, and patterns contribute to the overall well-being of those who are part of the family, workplace, or congregation of which you are a part? What can you chronicle, capsule, communicate, and continue going forward?

    When cultures are unhealthy, people are often afraid to ask why. Facing reality would require facing the truth about oneself and the collective, which is always difficult. When an unhealthy situation is acknowledged, responsibility is assumed. When a problem is identified, resolution should follow. Confession and repentance are for more than private devotions: they are communal practices that can lead to reconciliation, renewal and revival.

    Take a look at these questions. If there is a culture that you want to be good, assess it. Gather with others who likewise would like others to flourish through participation in your shared life.

    Then get to work.


    Leading and New Decisions

    photo credit: ostateczna pozbywka pozbywki via photopin (license)

    Whether you are leading a family, business, congregation, or running club, you have experienced differences of opinion. You believe the future should look one way. Someone else prefers a different option. Then, you find yourself stuck.

    Seth Godin offers this thought: you won't convince the other person they are wrong. What's the alternative? Godin writes: "Help someone make a new decision, based on new alternatives and a new story."

    In congregational leadership, there might be a disagreement on music style. Instead of debating the merits of a particular form, why not ask, "How can we best connect with people in our community who do not have a church home, or who do not know Jesus?" Rather than telling a story concerning personal preferences (which should be respected), you're telling a story of humble service to others, so that they can hear the gospel.

    If your congregation experiences visitors each weekend in worship but you remain flat concerning average attendance, rather than saying, "It was great that we had visitors this weekend," ask, "What would it take for us to increase the number of second time visitors?" People visiting, versus people returning and growing in faith as part of the community, are two different stories.

    Rather than bemoaning young people leaving Christianity and disengaging from congregational life, ask "What would it take for us to have young people engaged in worship, taking steps as disciples of Jesus, and sharing the gospel with their friends?" Passing on the faith to another generation is a story everyone can engage with, even if they disagree concerning how to accomplish that goal. The important thing is to define what success looks like, and to celebrate when you achieve your aim.

    The challenge rests in discerning the future God has for you, and acting in accordance with God's will. This includes defining they key decisions, the alternatives, and the arc of the story you are convinced God is calling you to enter.


    Conversation, and the Healthy Church

    I believe that teams that are willing to have open conversations about the most pressing challenges before the church today will have a lasting impact. In the future, the churches that grow will be the churches whose leaders courageously hold the most honest conversations and then take action.

    - Carey Nieuwhof, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversation That Will Help Your Church Grow

    Most people, in every church I have been a part of, desire that their church be healthy.

    And one aspect of church health is growth.

    Growth can be measured in different ways.

    The missing element in churches that are not healthy beyond vision (health) and intention (commitment) is the means (conversation).

    I read a variety of books. I read academic theology and biblical studies. I also read popular theological works and even church leadership books. I have a tendency to be suspicious of growth techniques and plug and play ministry programs.

    But I am deeply confident in the Holy Spirit, and the possibilities that can emerge when those people who are mature and wise in Christ come together and are open to God's will and direction.

    My congregation is in a season of transition. There are good signs. Everything is not perfect. But the possibilities are many, and the avenue toward becoming a healthier congregation is conversation among the right leaders, with the right degree of urgency, and a full dependence on the grace of God.

    I pray that we would have the courage to speak the truth to one another in love, the wisdom to discern the will of God, and the strength to do the will of God, as it becomes clear to us.


    What Do You Measure in Ministry?

    One of the most challenging and unavoidable questions in ministry is how to measure success.

    If you boil everything down to average attendance and conversions, then you will ignore other vital information.

    How do you measure growth in Christlikeness?

    What does it mean for someone to be "satisfied" with a process or a program? How do you factor theology and mystery on a spreadsheet? (My answer: you can't.)

    Is the fact you're growing numerically indicate your church is moving in the right direction? Is the fact that your congregation is in numerical decline mean that you are failing, or is a pruning taking place? Are necessary, hard truths being spoken?

    If no one makes a profession of faith in a given year, are you presenting the gospel wrongly, or is God providentially working beneath the surface? Could it be that the seeds sown this season will be ripe during another season, and for another leader?

    I've been troubled by the numbers game in church for well over a decade. I remember Howard Hendricks declaring  that is it easier to build a circus than it is to build a church. People will come to be entertained more readily than they will come to be invited to holiness.

    The answer isn't to merge education and entertainment, to "edutain" the masses. Giving away cars and iPads won't help, either. Those types of efforts feed the consumer impulse, and reinforce the idea that the spiritual life centers on us, not God.

    I'm old fashioned in my approach to ministry. Or, I'd like to think so. I try to listen to the people that I lead, learn about their lives, uncover the questions they are asking, and then attempt to present a sound, theologically informed, and biblical approach to life as it is lived in the kingdom of God. That approach always lead us to an encounter with Jesus. My evaluation of the efforts I have been a part of is that the result has been growth--slow growth, but growth. Numerical, and from what I can observe, narratively. People give testimony to their growth in Christ, and other people can see it.

    This past year I've focused on two primary statistics. In youth ministry, I've monitored average monthly attendance on Sunday mornings and on Wednesday nights.

    In college ministry, I've watched average monthly attendance of total students encountering our congregation in Sunday Morning Bible Study or as part of a Community Group.

    So, attendance is one. The second is our number of first time guests, and how many of those guests have become regular participants in our community. I've been doing this all year with college students who have stuck in our community. I'm just now catching up with youth ministry.

    I'm establishing a baseline for the coming year. I want to know if our attendance patterns remain the same, and what times of year are opportune for connecting with new people and inviting core students to deeper levels of commitment.

    Will Mancini of Auxano provides these twenty categories for measuring congregational health:

    1. Percent of new attenders in prior two years
    2. Guest percentage
    3. Profile of new attenders and guest including reason for attending
    4. Age of the church vs. age of the community
    5. Age of church vs. the age of new attenders in the prior two years
    6. Spiritual growth satisfaction
    7. Sense of connection to the church
    8. Giving patterns
    9. Adult conversion percentage
    10. Influence of ministries
    11. Group assimilation percentage
    12. Group assimilation obstacle identification
    13. Assimilation rate for groups and membership (if applicable)
    14. Serving assimilation percentage
    15. Serving assimilation obstacles
    16. Invitation activity
    17. Invitation obstacles
    18. Total assimilation percentages
    19. Strategic direction question cluster one
    20. Strategic direction question cluster two

    I've been giving this list a lot of thought. A lot of these categories aren't just numerical--they drive you beyond the numbers to uncover the stories that make them significant. I like that. If you're going to lead a congregation well, you need to know where they live.

    This week I've been taking time to evaluate and reflect on this past year of ministry. I'm thankful for what I've seen, and I have an idea of next steps for the coming year. I know there is still a lot of hard work ahead. I've been defining strategic priorities, stemming from conversations I've had with ministry leaders.

    Measurement is tough. It's challenging. It's hard work when its piled on top of pastoral care visits and message preparations and meetings. But it is necessary. It helps you define your goals and determine your evaluation questions. 

    The challenge is defining the right categories to measure, and making sure that you are telling the stories that transcend the numbers alone. That's what really counts. God is at work at all times and in all places. We need to notice, and to tell those stories, showing people where they can connect with God, take another step, grow, and move toward maturity as disciples of Jesus.