Knowing and Believing

“…once upon a time there was a man who had a vision and began pursuing it. Two others saw that the first man had a vision and began following him. In time, the children of those who followed asked their parents what they saw. But what their parents described appeared to be the coattails of the man in front of them. When the children heard this, they turned from their parents’ vision, saying it was not worthy of pursuit.”

What do we learn from this?

As Jacob the Baker says, we discover parents who believe in what they have never experienced and children who deny what they have never experienced.

Let me invite you to see yourself in this story. Imagine that you are the one pursuing the initial vision. How exhilarating to catch a glimpse of life’s deepest meaning and to know in the depths of your soul that it is within reach! As you pursue the vision and begin to make sense of it, you undoubtedly bring the sacred texts of your tradition to bear. These texts help to lend a vocabulary and definition to your search. Over time, you hear these texts in new ways—it’s almost like a veil has been lifted and you see your life as if for the first time. What a liberating, empowering experience!

Now, you notice others following you. These students have been drawn to you, to learn from you. What is your responsibility to them?

You may be tempted to try to recreate your experience in your students’ lives. But you can’t do it! Your vision, your experience of grace was a result of God’s initiative—both your vision and your ability to discern the vision are God’s gifts to you.

What can you do?

Parker Palmer says that the primary task of the teacher is to create a space for learning in which obedience to the truth may be practiced. This space is characterized by a particular mood or tone—openness and a willingness to entertain different, even opposing views. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the teacher to the learning space is the willingness to testify to his or her personal relationship to the truth.

Consider knowing. Every good teacher asks two basic questions: what is worth knowing and what is the best way to teach and learn the known? Is this only a question of imparting information, dates, and data? If a teacher’s personal relationship to the truth is a significant aspect of the learning encounter, then knowledge must be more than information. The Hebrew language gives us a clue—the word “yada” (to know) has a deeply intimate connotation. “Adam knew Eve and they bore a son.” Biblical knowing is personal, intimate; God knows us intimately and comes to us personally, in the flesh. Knowing and believing entail more than head knowledge. They indicate a relationship of trust and a willingness to be vulnerable with your students.

Notice how this changes the way we talk about teaching. As the teacher, you have probably been assigned a meeting location and time. Your first thought might be that you have a certain amount of time to cover the material in the lesson. Think about what that phrase—“cover the material”—means. When we cover something, we hide it from view. Is it possible that the teacher’s dutiful attention to following the lesson plan provided in the time and space allotted actually hides the truth from view? Might that result in learners who believe in what they have never experienced? How would a teacher “uncover the material”?

Uncovering the material is related to the teacher’s own vulnerability. Perhaps you can best prepare your students to hear the truth of the Gospel by modeling a trusting openness—by uncovering your personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Offer this relationship to your students not as a technique to adopt or an achievement to admire. Simply invite them to make themselves vulnerable before God and to trust Holy Spirit with their questions. As a teacher, uncovering the material may mean that you have to sidestep the lesson plan to provide the space required to practice obedience to the truth.

Does your church want to assess its educational ministry? Send me an email at hindscoaching@gmail.com.

10 Ways to Care for Your Pastor

In the movie, “First Reformed,” the main character played by Ethan Hawke is a pastor struggling with his own despair and self-doubt. The movie is rich with themes about theology, creation care, hope, suicide, forgiveness, opulence, church decline, and pastoral identity. (For a thoughtful review click this link: Patheos.com.)

One of the things that struck me in the movie was that Hawke’s character struggled with his burden in almost total solitude. It reminded me of something I heard a pastor say several years ago in one of my doctoral classes. In complete vulnerability, he said something like this: “I am pastor of the largest church in our district. The district looks to me for leadership and other pastors tell me they admire my ministry and often ask for advice. What they don’t know is that I am dying inside. I have no one to talk to. I can’t tell my Superintendent. Who is there for pastors like me?”

This minister is not alone. I have worked with pastors for over twenty years and I hear similar stories all the time. I remember in my own pastorate feeling isolated and overwhelmed by the emotional and spiritual energy pastoring took. It helped that I had a co-pastor, a mentor on the Presbytery staff and a group of colleagues. Still, by year four I was already experiencing the symptoms of burn out.

What can congregations do to help pastors thrive?

  • Provide financial assistance for a coach, spiritual director, and pastoral counselor. Each of these offers a ministry of presence from a different perspective and with varying techniques. I have coaching clients who also have a therapist and spiritual director. Pastors may not need or want all three, but every pastor should have at least one professional with which they can process their emotions, discern God’s will, and keep accountability.
  • Provide adequate compensation and benefits. Financial insecurity adds more stress to an already stressful occupation. A congregation that values its pastor should show in its budget and stewardship.
  • Honor the pastor’s day off by leaving him/her alone. That means no emails, calls or texts unless it is an emergency. An emergency is a serious illness, accident or death of a member. The power going off in the church building is not an emergency for the pastor to cover.
  • Provide for a Sabbatical every five to seven years. Researching, writing and preaching a sermon almost every Sunday for five years on top of all the other pastoral duties is taxing. Sabbatical gives a pastor a substantial amount of time away from day-to-day ministry to refresh, renew and study so that they can come back with new ideas, energy, and knowledge. This time apart can also be renewing for the congregation and keep the pastoral relationship thriving longer.
  • Ministry is a work of the people, not just the pastor. The pastor does not need to attend, let alone lead, every committee meeting and ministry activity. If chairpersons take their responsibility seriously and are adequately resourced, they will create their own agendas and lead their meetings. The pastor needs to be present only when needed as a resource for a particular project or discussion.
  • The same holds true for mission projects, congregational care, and fellowship and educational activities. Volunteers can lead projects, visit the sick and homebound, host gatherings and teach classes without the pastor. This is not to say that the pastor does not visit or attend activities. It means that the pastor should not be responsible for everything. A pastor who over-functions takes the ministry away from the people. A congregation that under-functions burns out their pastor.
  • Some congregations observe October as Pastor Appreciation Month. This is a nice way to publicly acknowledge a pastor for her/his faithfulness and hard work. However, giving affirmation, and showing gratitude and care need not be relegated to just one month a year. We have all experienced the emotional high of hearing someone say, “thank you” and “you’re doing a great job.” Share a little love with your pastor on a regular basis. Invite her to dinner at your home. Send him a thank you note. It does not have to be a huge gesture. It is the little things that can make someone’s day.
  • Treat the pastor as a partner in ministry. Pastors are not above congregation members or below them. All Christians are called to follow Christ and use their gifts for in God’s service. The functions may be different, but the call to discipleship is the same.
  • Practice grace and forgiveness. Pastors are human and make mistakes. Many parishioners put the pastor on a pedestal. The fall from that height can be terribly damaging. Be realistic about expectations and refrain from petty complaints.
  • Do hold the pastor accountable for maintaining appropriate boundaries and behaviors. Forgiveness does not mean turning a blind eye to misconduct. Studies show that the stress and exhaustion of ministry can lead to poor decision-making and succumbing to temptation. The above tips can help prevent this, but if it happens name it and deal with it directly and lovingly.

Congregations want a long and vibrant pastoral relationship. Pastors want the same thing. By working together to maintain healthy boundaries and lifestyles, pastors and congregations can thrive in ministry together.

It’s All About the Follow Through

Why invest in a program or consultation that will end up collecting dust on a shelf? Invest in a coach to help your congregation accomplish its goals and move into the future God has for you.

The leaders of Trinity Church were excited about participating in the latest church growth strategy offered by their denomination. They had tried other programs before but this one was different. This one would be the program to transform their ministry and grow their membership.

For six months they worked tirelessly to promote full participation by all their members. They followed every program strategy and worked closely with their denominational consultant. At the end of the process, they were handed a beautifully packaged report filled with qualitative and quantitative data and reasonable and exciting recommendations.

With the report in hand, the church board voted to accept the recommendations and put a committee in place to oversee their implementation. They sent a letter of thanks to the denominational consultant, who wished them well and offered to give them further advice should they need it.

Fast forward six months. The members of the implementation committee are frustrated and tired. They complain that they do not have enough direction and help to do the work they have been given. They lost one of their most energetic members when her family moved. Others are talking about stepping down because they have too many other obligations. The report sits on a shelf in the pastor’s study collecting dust.

What went wrong? The denominational program energized the congregation. The recommendations that came from the program seemed realistic and attainable. The board was fully committed. And yet the program never got off the ground.

Unfortunately, this scenario happens in too many organizations. It is not that the programs and consultants are not helpful. Instead, they are incomplete. Once the program is over and the consultant has departed, the already busy congregation is expected to implement the recommendations. Without someone to assist them and keep them accountable, they can too easily get stalled and frustrated, or simply lose interest and motivation. As a result, congregation members get angry with the board for doing nothing with a program for which they spent a lot of time and money, and the board feels disenfranchised and incompetent.

Having excellent recommendations for change is useful only if they are implemented. People need to not only envision the organization’s goals, but they also need to see movement toward those goals. Marshall Goldsmith writes, “We don’t just need specific targets; we need to see ourselves nearing … the target. Anything less is frustrating and dispiriting. … Progress makes any of our accomplishments more meaningful.” (Triggers, p. 112)

The key to making the most of any program or consultation is FOLLOW THROUGH. The best way to ensure follow through is to retain a coach to work with your implementation team. A professional coach skillfully guides an organization to accomplish its goals. They offer the team direction, encouragement, resources, and accountability. Coaching is action-oriented, which means the coach’s goal is to help the team overcome obstacles to reaching their desired outcomes in a timely manner.

Contact me for a free consultation to learn how I can assist your congregation.

Holy Anxiety, Batman!

Guest post by Mark Hinds, EdD

It was Wednesday! I couldn’t wait to watch my favorite show—Batman! The ABC Television network had been hyping and teasing the show for weeks. And what a show it was! Pow! Punch! Zowie! The best part? It was on twice a week! Part one aired on Wednesday with a terrifying, campy cliffhanger which would be resolved on Thursday night. It was a good time to be alive!

So, it was Wednesday. It was late winter 1966. I hurried home, ready to finish my homework before 7:00 p.m. My nose in a book, my mom came into my room to tell me that the family would be going to dinner with a neighbor family. “What time?” I asked. “6:30” was the unwelcome response.

My stomach was in knots. I had to see that show. After all, Batman was my second or third favorite superhero, who wasn’t “super” at all. How else would I know the set-up to the Thursday night episode? I was churning, hard to breathe, or at least that’s how I remember it. Thankfully, I survived. But I couldn’t face this loss alone. I had to tell my brothers! Mom said, “And don’t say anything about missing the show to your brothers!” Yikes!

Steve and Phil, fourteen months my junior and twins, could be oblivious to things at times. They enjoyed the show too, but they also liked to do other things, and weren’t obsessed like me. How to clue them in without telling them?

In the car, on the way to the restaurant, I looked at my watch, feigning that it had stopped. “Hey, Steve,” who was sitting in the front seat, “my watch stopped. What time is it?” And you know what happened. “It’s 6:30! Batman’s on in half-an-hour!” he exclaimed desperately. Mom, sitting next to me in the back seat, hit me in the shoulder and gave me that look!

Why was it so urgent to make sure my brothers knew what I knew? A dictum of systems theory is that anxiety travels. Something upsets the status quo leaving the anxious host’s stomach in knots, lungs unable to breathe. The most instinctual way to relieve some of the angst is by sharing or giving it away. Let someone else carry the burden for a while. This aspect of anxiety can be seen while watching a herd of cows from a distance. If a cow senses danger, you can see the anxiety ripple through the herd. Anxiety travels. Steve was a willing host for my anxiety. My 10-year-old self was expressing what is known as an undifferentiated self, which reacts to conflict or crisis at an instinctual level. My judgment was clouded by emotionality. And you know what? I did feel better, my mom’s punch aside.

Congregations experience this too. Anxiety can suffocate a church when its empty classrooms echo with the past glories of throngs of children; when the coins in the coffer don’t ring as often or as plentifully as they once did; when the church majors in minors. When a church leader even so much as thinks about leaving, church members can catch the scent that something has changed. Shared anxiety can mimic the balance the system once knew, yet it is an unhealthy state for any group.

If my mom were in charge, she would have undoubtedly advocated punching a few key congregation members, much like Cher in Moonlighting: “Snap out of it!” I, however, do not advocate punching. A winning strategy when anxiety has your congregation in its grips is take a step or two back, get a wide view of your people, the herd, and refuse to take on the congregation’s angst. As a leader, become a well-differentiated self.

A leader with a well-differentiated “self” responds to conflict and crisis at a reasoning level, thinking rooted in a careful assessment of facts. Such a self is less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment and can work from thoughtfully developed principles. She is less susceptible to “group think,” acting in the best interests of the group as a thoughtful choice. Confident in his thinking, he can understand and support others’ views without selling out his values and principles.

Peter Steinke imagines the intentionality of the well-differentiated self:

“Anxiety is there. Yet, now that it is where I can see it, I can keep an eye on it. I won’t let it slip- back into unconsciousness. With anxiety up front in awareness, I can tame and harness it. While I may feel like pouncing on someone, I choose not to submit to my instincts. I have good access to my thinking facilities. My emotional state is not in overdrive. I will survive this; I can take the sting out of anxiety and be a calming agent.” (Uproar, 51.)

What about Batman? It happened that the restaurant where we ate that Wednesday evening had a TV hoisted in the corner of the dining room. I didn’t say a word but looked at my brothers and my mother. “OK, let’s ask if they’ll turn the channel to Batman,” mom said. What I had fretted about, what led me to instinctually dump my worry on my brother, never happened. A moment of grace during an ordinary “crisis.” Perhaps there’s also a word of grace for pastoral leaders in conflictual settings.

A Different Kind of Bucket List

Many people kick off the new year by removing the clutter from their homes. An organized home helps them begin the new year with a clean slate.

People who commit to de-cluttering have found success with the 3-box method— keep, get rid of, or store. As you go through your clutter put items into the appropriate box. Once you have finished sorting, take care of each box appropriately and promptly.

We can use a similar strategy to organize our lives, helping us to focus our time and attention on the things that really matter. Think of it as a different kind of bucket list.

Bucket 1 includes the things that you want and need to spend your time on, things that are your responsibility or that help you achieve your personal goals. This is your keep bucket.

Bucket 2 holds the things that you need to deal with—eventually—but are not priorities. You can retrieve an item when it becomes important or when you have extra time. This is your store bucket.

Bucket 3 is the place for items on your to-do list that are not really yours. If you are not sure if the items belong to you, ask yourself: “Is this my responsibility?” or “Is this something I really want to do?” If you answer “no,” these items do not belong to you. This is your get-rid-of bucket.

Once you have sorted your items you can more easily prioritize your commitments and live a clutter-free life. Give your Bucket 3 items to the people to whom they belong or dispose of them. Put your Bucket 2 in a location where it is not always in front of you and let the items go for now. Focus your time and energy on Bucket 1. Do the things you want to do and need to accomplish first.

As you begin the new year consider de-cluttering your tasks. Reflect on how you spend your days.

  • Are you doing the things that are most important to you?
  • Have you been spending too much time on other pursuits that can be put aside or given away?
  • Can you let go of tasks that belong to others?

Remember that over-functioning and micro-managing keeps you from pursuing your passions and keeps others from contributing to the ministry.

A pastor client was struggling with finding the time to do the parts of ministry she loved—sermon preparation and pastoral care. She complained that she spent too much time on administrative duties. Her church had a secretary and treasurer. She also had a committee structure that included administration, finance, and personnel. She applied the bucket list method and determined that she had been doing jobs that belonged to others. When she was able to sort her to-dos into the right buckets, she could clearly see that she was letting go of her passions in order to over-function for her staff and committee chairs. She made changes that enabled her to focus on her priorities and thus enjoyed her ministry much more.

Start 2019 with a clean slate. De-clutter and give yourself the gift of time and energy to pursue your passions and take care of yourself.

Living While Aware

What if the spiritual life was merely life, a life lived in awareness? Thomas Merton once said, “Before you can have a spiritual life, you’ve got to have a life.” Being spiritual is not about disengaging from daily living. It is more about engaging fully.

In his book, On the Brink of Everything, Parker Palmer writes, “The spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is, stripping away our illusions about ourselves, our world, and the relationship of the two, moving closer to reality as we do.”

When we notice our world, people around us and our own being, we are practicing the spiritual life. The Spirit engages us in our moments of awareness. When we get too busy, too caught up in just moving from one activity to another, when we pass others by without a glance, we lose the ability to hear and see – to notice.

Thomas Merton’s story of his epiphany is an excellent example of living while aware.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.…

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time…. But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

Those of us who aspire to live spiritual lives push ourselves to do spiritual practices. In a society where activity is more valuable than being, we criticize ourselves for not spending more time with God—reading sacred texts, praying, meditating, and so on. I am not suggesting that these things are unimportant. On the contrary, research shows that these downtime activities are healthy. However, when we stress over them and berate ourselves for not doing them enough, we lose the benefits (spiritual and physical).

Perhaps the best practice is simply living while aware. We are always doing something, even if we are just sitting. We are breathing—how often do we take notice of our breathing and give thanks for the air that gives us life? When we are out in the world, do we notice—really notice— the people around us? Do we see them as Merton describes them, “walking around shining like the sun?” When we look in the mirror, do we see in ourselves the image of God?

Living while aware opens us up to the mystery and sacredness of everything.

Just for Today

I was walking through the mall the other day when I saw this tee shirt in a store window. “Not Today, Satan” struck me as a humorous and positively rebellious sentiment.

Satan, at its root, means “adversary,” “one who plots against another.” In religious traditions, Satan is the adversary of God who tempts and abuses humankind in the divine drama. To say “Not today, Satan” is like saying NO to your enemy, the person, place, or things that keeps you from being the person you desire to be.

As I walked, I thought about the demons in our lives, and I wondered what it would be like to get up each morning and start the day by saying “Not Today, _______.”

  • Not today, self-doubt.
  • Not today, sadness.
  • Not today, procrastination.
  • Not today, guilt trip.
  • Not today, hurt pride.
  • Not today, grief.
  • Not today, fear.
  • Not today, hatred.

Too often we allow negative emotions to rule our day. They keep us from contentment and accomplishment. They can be overwhelming, particularly when we have been in a period of heartache or depression. These emotional states take their toll on even ordinarily optimistic people. We wonder if we will ever be ‘normal’ again.

What drew my attention to this tee shirt is that the sentiment was expressed as a small step. One day—today—I will not let the demons get to me. It does not require making overwhelming commitments that we may not be able to keep. It only requires that we give one day to reject our adversaries. Maybe then one day can turn to two days and two days to three. And eventually, being “normal” is not so hard to reach anymore.

Dana was feeling overwhelmed by her fear of losing her position as a first-call pastor. She had been serving the small rural church for two years. In just a matter of months after she started she began to realize that the church was not a good fit for her. She worried that leaving so soon would make it difficult for her to find another call. “What if no one else wants me?” she asked during a coaching session. As we got further into the session I asked, “What would happen if just for tomorrow you decided to let go of your fear? What would that feel like?” By breaking it down to just one day, Dana was able to imagine more courage and joy. She listed things she would do that day, and the things she would not do. I could hear more animation and energy in her voice. Her fear was not so overwhelming any more.

We all experience demons in life, those emotions and negative thoughts that seem to plot against us. Some are caused my external things that happen to us, others by inner voices that sabotage our true selves. We can allow these demons to control us or we can choose to put them in their place.

To say it in a positive and proactive tone, we can proclaim: “Today, I choose _______!”

  • Today, I choose self-confidence!
  • Today, I choose joy!
  • Today, I choose to get it done!
  • Today, I will let go of the guilt!
  • Today, I choose forgiveness!
  • Today, I choose consolation!
  • Today, I choose courage!
  • Today, I choose love!

Either way you put it, give yourself permission to be the person you want to be, if only for today. Boldly proclaim it. Don’t let your demons choose for you.