Curriculum is Not the Problem!

It’s common these days. We look at the problems in our church’s education ministry and blame the curriculum. It doesn’t do this or that well enough, there’s no video component, it’s too hard to decipher, or it’s so easy that we’re done with a lesson in 15 minutes. So the search goes on for the new, the improved curriculum, that can’t cost too much or demand too much, but it had better be thorough in its representation of the gospel.

Curriculum is not the problem, friends. Our expectations concerning the curriculum are. If you use a curriculum produced by a denominational publishing house or one that is meant for mass consumption, then there’s no way it will please you in its entirety. Something in it won’t work for you. In fact, every curriculum developer I know expects the users to adapt and modify it for their own particular setting.

The onus is on you and me, the users. Don’t buy curriculum thinking it will solve your attendance problems or transform volunteers into master teachers. It won’t do it.

Today, it seems that churches use curricula that meet one of two criteria, aside from cost: its theological underpinning or its ease of use, which often boils down to accessible arts, crafts, and videos. If I were to choose, I would err on the side of the theological bent of the curriculum. Does it represent our theological tradition? How does it understand God? Do the interpretation of Bible stories focus more on what God does or on human actions? What view of God will the learners take away from the formative event in which the curriculum is but a tool? What understanding of the church does the curriculum convey?

If you find a curriculum that supports your theological tradition, then you might have to adapt or add activities that better engage your learners. It’s up to you and your education partners to make assessments and adjust as necessary. For example, if you locate a curriculum whose ecclesiology is on point with your tradition, but all of the activities focus on the individual’s response, you may decide to add community-based learning activities. That way the experience of community coheres with the theological point you want to make.

Let me know how I can help you and your church assess your educational and formational ministries.

—Mark Hinds


Immersion or Sprinkling?

One of the questions at baptism: immersion or sprinkling? For some people, immersion is desired because of the symbolism of being buried in a death like Christ’s. For others, sprinkling is the chosen mode because God’s grace is sufficient, regardless of the amount of water used.

It’s also an important question for your Christian formation efforts. What’s preferred? An immersion into the life of faith? Or a sprinkling, a little bit of this and a little bit of that of the faith?

I can hear it now: with the busy-ness of families today, the best we can hope for is a sprinkling. So we’ll keep on doing what we’ve always done, even though church members only appear at the church door once a month or less.

Sprinkling is the problem for most churches. It’s resulted in shrinking rosters, disconnected generations, alienated families, and the opinion that church is just another option for our consideration. It’s like being vaccinated; we innoculate people against the church by giving them a little bit of church. No depth, no breadth of practicing the way of life Jesus calls us to.

Let’s imagine immersion: Choose an event in the life of the church. The baptism of a new Christian, for example. Decide that for five weeks, you will prepare the congregation to receive the new member into the life of the church through an immersive event.

Identify the date, the Scripture for the day (maybe Ephesians 2:1-10), and select a key verse (v. 8: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God). Next, count back four Sundays. Imagine an event or series of events that immerses your congregation, all ages, in baptism through the key verse. You’ll need a team of helpers and a space. You’ll need water, blue fabric to simulate water, water music (Handel?), a baptism hymn, white fabric to make stoles with baptism designs, and so on. You’ll need a catchy way to memorize the key verse, repeated every week, and included in the worship service as a call to worship or affirmation of faith. You’ll need construction paper and envelopes to make welcome to the church family cards for the newly baptized. You’ll need willing people to tell their baptism stories and openly reflect on the meaning of being saved by grace through faith, a gift of God. You’ll need to display all creations in a well-traveled route in your building, prepare members of the congregation, young and old, to read, sing, and participate in the worship services.

For four Sundays, you welcome all ages into the space with an invitation to be immersed in a significant teaching of the church, to practice living what it means to be baptized and belong to the church, to exercise the memory muscles of the congregation so that the words and hymns of the faith become part of who you are.

Then, on the day of baptism, celebration! The whole congregation rejoicing with the newly baptized. Words of promise, words of hope delivered in sermon, hymns, and greeting cards. Does it require planning? Yes. Effort? Yes. Collaboration and cooperation? Yes and yes. But what a payoff!!!!

Your congregation will never forget baptism or that time they practiced hospitality and radical welcome. That’s how immersion can change your church! Give it a try! And let me know how it goes.

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.

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.

Motherhood Penalty in the Pulpit

Recently on 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl reported on Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s commitment to closing the wage gap between men and women in his company. I was impressed with Benioff’s decision to raise wages for women employees and create a fair work environment. If only all businesses and organizations were this committed, including religious institutions.

I hear comparable stories from women in ministry. Although things are slowly changing for women in denominations that ordain them, there is still a bias against women being pastors. There is also a separate set of expectations and pay level for women.

In an article in Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt wrote, “In 2016, married women and moms with kids at home earned 72 cents for every dollar made by men in the clergy. Their pay gap—28 percent less than men—was twice as big as single women’s, which was 12 percent less, or 88 cents on the dollar.”

Stahl also spoke with Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont about gender issues in the workplace. Kullman brought up the phenomenon called the motherhood penalty (she called it “mommy penalty”)—the unconscious bias against pregnant workers and working mothers. She told a story that reminded me of an experience I had when interviewing for a pastoral position.

At the time my first husband and I had two young children, ages seven and two. We were candidates for a co-pastorate. The search committee interviewed us together and then separately. During my interview one of the committee members asked what I would do if my two-year old wandered up to the pulpit while I was preaching. The first thought that came to my mind was, “Did you ask my husband the same question?” I kept my thought to myself and answered the question. I was also asked about who would take care of the children during worship and what I would do if they misbehaved.

My husband was the ideal candidate for most churches—thirty-something male, married with young children. I, on the other hand, was a questionable risk. The underlying assumption was that I would be distracted by my parental responsibilities, but my husband would not. What does that say about him as a father? What does it say about the Church? More important, what does it say about the Church’s theology?

Christians say that they place great value on family. If so, then why do they value mothers less than other women and even more so less than men? Unfortunately, the Bible and our traditions offer little help to change this mindset. Therefore, we need alternative theologies, including feminist theology; we need to hear the voices of those who have been marginalized by our sacred texts and traditions. We need to read and study the Bible through different worldviews. We need to lift up the contributions women have made to our faith, and value today’s female leaders for their unique perspective and gifts for ministry.

Mothers bring great value to pastoral ministry, a value that no one else can. We understand all too well what Jesus meant when he said he wanted to gather his children together like a mother hen gathers her chicks (Luke 13:34). We are nurturers and care-givers, organizers and leaders.

We have seen improvements for women in ministry. The wage gap is smaller, and women now hold more church offices than ever before. In recent years, women have been called to senior positions at large churches. However, we have further to go before we can pat ourselves on the back for being equitable and nonbiased. It takes men and women speaking up when they witness inequity. It takes intentionality in setting policies and salary standards. It takes more women in leadership, and a change of congregational culture.

To judicatory leaders: What policies and procedures need to be created to ensure equitable treatment for all pastors? What can judicatories do to create a shift in congregational culture so that pastoral candidates are considered for pastoral skills and gifts instead of gender and parental status.

To pastor search teams: What are the unconscious assumptions that you bring to the search for your next pastor?

To women clergy: What do you need to value yourself as worthy of the same respect and compensation as men? How can you be empowered to speak up against conscious and unconscious discrimination?

To those who recognize the gifts of all women and value them as equals: Thank you.

 

 

Pastors, Learn to Use This Word

A recent article on thriveglobal.com caught my attention. Sociologist Christine Carter offers three steps to saying “no.” It is a word that pastors and other care-giving types find hard to say. However, learning to say “no” is essential to healthy leadership and pastoring.

Several years ago, I taught a workshop at a national conference titled, Saying No Without Feeling Guilty. I adapted strategies from William Ury’s Power of a Positive No to the experiences of church workers. The workshop was a response to stories I often heard from pastors, educators and other church folk about their struggles with setting boundaries and taking care of themselves.

Today, I work with coaching clients on these same issues. Pastors are people-pleasers and they want parishioners to like them. Too often this translates into over-functioning and taking on responsibilities that belong to others. Sometimes pastors say yes to doing things simply to get them done because they don’t want to ask someone else to do it or they don’t trust that it will get done (the way they want). Unfortunately, this leads to an disempowered laity and a frustrated and exhausted pastor.

When you have clarity about your values, responsibilities and personal goals – what Ury calls your YES – you can make better decisions about your responses to requests. Here are a few coaching questions that can help you learn to say no:

  • What are the values that guide you in deciding to what you will say “yes?”
  • How do you discern what are your responsibilities and what belongs to someone else?
  • What is your YES, and how does it influence your decision-making?
  • What is the worst that can happen if you say “no” to things that do not belong to you?

My goal as a coach is to help pastors be the best they can be personally and professionally. Contact me if I can help you set goals for yourself that will lead to health, happiness and a successful ministry.

 

To Be Let Go

Congregations and denominations talk a lot about mission. It is a broad term that can mean different things to different people. We also like to create mission statements that define our unique calling.

At its root, mission means to let go or to send. The Church has a mission. In the Great Commission (commission meaning to give authority to represent), Jesus directed his followers to go into all the world. Since its beginning, the Church has been a “sent” people.

What the Church has paid less attention to is the notion of being “let go.” What does it mean for a congregation to be let go? From what are they being let go, and for what?

In a recent interview with Faith & Leadership, Sister Maryanne Stevens talked about the turnaround at St. Mary’s College in Nebraska where she serves as President. She spoke about the importance of knowing your mission:

My philosophy of leadership is to focus on what’s core to your mission and make sure people are well-versed in that so they can choose whether to give their all or else, basically, to go away.

What a bold statement! Know your mission, get on board with it, or leave. It seems to be working for St. Mary’s and Sister Maryanne.

Unfortunately, most congregations are unable to be this bold. They create broadly focused mission statements with which everyone can agree. They explore mission possibilities, then choose those that make the most people happy or satisfy the squeaky wheels. Very few congregations define their core mission, proclaim it, and invite people to get on board or leave.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Order states that the “Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life” (F-1.03). Sometimes taking the risk to be faithful means letting go of programs, policies, and people who hold a congregation hostage and prevent it from being who God calls it to be.

I recently worked with a congregation with a desire to do something different to reach out to their community and grow their congregation. As I listened to church members’ many hopes and frustrations, I realized that they would never discern their core mission because they were afraid to take risks. They were fearful of offending members or losing what they have.

Unfortunately, this is not a unique case. For a people who should be emboldened by faith, fear cripples many.

What would it mean for your congregation to risk losing its life to be faithful to Christ’s commission? Are our buildings, budget, and programs more important than our proclamation? Are we so worried about losing who we have that we cannot reach those who need to experience the love, mercy, and acceptance of God? Can we let go of whatever is preventing us from being sent?