A Coach’s Coach

May 12, 2018 initiated a devastating year for me (Mark). My adult son David died after a 10-year struggle with osteosarcoma. Then, on March 1, 2019, I was laid off by my employer of 13 years.

The anguish of the past year remains mostly unresolved in my heart. I miss my son terribly; he was my best friend. I miss the work that gave my life meaning and the people with whom I spent most waking hours for more than a decade.

People suggested that I see a therapist following David’s death. I sought help at a local grief center, but quit after two sessions. I felt the grief counselor was focused on empathizing with my loss, filling up the silence with stories of her own tragedies. I needed someone to walk with me through my grief, yet remain outside my experience—because it was MY experience.

This is where I brag on Peggy, my wife and my partner. Peggy is a bonafide certified coach. Without an official “coach-coachee” relationship, Peggy would occasionally throw a question my way when she noticed me struggling. Questions like:

“What one word describes your grief today? How is that different from last week?”

“What color is your grief?”

“What are some ways you can honor David’s life?”

“Where do you imagine your grief will have led you after another five years?”

And then following my lay-off:

“What have you learned about yourself in the way you responded to the news?”

“How can you be kind to yourself? How will you do that?”

Peggy has a way of inviting her clients to take a step back and look at their situations from a different angle. My grief persists, but thanks to Peggy’s ability and commitment to professional coaching, each day is a bit better. Three steps forward, two steps back, sometimes—but I am moving forward.

Authentic Happiness

Everyone hears negative messages sometimes. What we do with them is key to changing the way we view ourselves and our lives.

I’m not talking about feelings that are considered negative – sadness, anger, fear. Our emotions serve a purpose and are unto themselves neither negative nor positive; they are simply a part of being human.

Negative self-talk is another matter. Negative self-talk may stem from messages we received as children, verbal and physical abuse, or comparing ourselves to others. It is difficult for someone who has low self-esteem or poor self-confidence to change those messages.

How can we manage our negative self-talk to hear authentic positive affirmation?

Consider ashre and shalom.

Ashre (ash-ray), a biblical Hebrew word, refers to the kind of life, behavior, and mindset that creates a deep and abiding happiness. Jesus uses the term in the famous Sermon on the Mount (“Happy/blessed are the peacemakers….”) as do many of the Psalms (“Blessed are those who dwell in your house….” Psalm 84:4). Ashre is a happiness that does not depend on happenstance. It is deep and abiding no matter what is happening in your life.

Shalom is another biblical Hebrew term that helps to describe this type of happiness. Shalom (peace or wholeness) conveys well-being and having peace of mind.

My goal as a coach is to help people find ashre and shalom. The key is authentic positivity and a growth mindset. With intentional practices we can condition ourselves to think positively. The way we speak internally and with others can actually change the brain. However, lavishing flattery on ourselves is being dishonest and can actually do us harm. Our positive messages need to be real and true. Much of the popular material in books and online about happiness gives us a false impression of what we want and need.

Healthy people seek a deep abiding contentment in which they remain hopeful and positive even during the hard times. Coaching creates a safe environment where persons can explore their thoughts and emotions and learn the practice of authentic positivity.

Paddling Your Way

I enjoy the water—jumping in a canoe, paddling to the middle of the lake, pulling in the paddles, and leaning back to bask in the warmth of the sun. Everything is tranquil and calm; time stands still.

Yet, even in that calm, quiet place, I’m still moving. The slow, rocking movement and the rhythmic beating of water against the sides of the canoe remind me that if I don’t eventually pick up the paddles and steer, I could get caught in the quickening current and pull of the lake’s overflow drain.

There are times when we need to rest. In the biblical tradition, this is called Sabbath. Psalm 23 sings of still waters where our souls are restored. Floating on still water reminds me of being supported, being loved and carried when I can’t find the stamina for the journey. It reminds me of prayer, being lifted and comforted by God in the quiet when my spirit has no words.

Yet just as a floating canoe moves with the currents, our lives are never completely motionless. Even when we feel like we are going nowhere, we are moving. If we are not intentional about guiding our own movement, we may be taken where we do not want to go. A balanced, buoyed life embraces the quiet times and the times when we are in movement; when we take the paddles in our hands and direct where we go.

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.

12 Ways Pastors Can Pay for Coaching

Pastors are turning to coaches to help them navigate the challenges of ministry. Coaches prompt motivated pastors to discover within their own wisdom, passions, and desires the keys to living healthier lives in the fulfillment of their callings. Coaching is a valuable resource for a pastor and congregation and is well worth the investment of finances, time, and energy.

However, many pastors don’t turn to coaches because of the cost. As professionals, coaches charge a fee for their services, which can be prohibitive for a pastor’s salary. However, the outcomes of coaching can be invaluable in helping pastors succeed in their desired goals.

Fortunately, pastors often have access to resources to help pay for coaching:

  1. Some judicatories offer funds for pastors to receive coaching. Check with your diocese, presbytery, or denominational headquarters for grants or scholarships.
  2. Church boards or councils will often approve funds for their pastor to have a coach. Talk to your board, diaconate, or session.
  3. Use a portion of your continuing education funds for coaching. Most congregations provide continuing education support for their pastor. Coaching is an excellent use of these funds.
  4. Pay out of pocket. Invest in yourself by hiring a life coach to help you with ministry, family, and your well-being.
  5. Create or join group coaching. Group coaching enables a small number of pastors to share coaching sessions. These work best when the pastors want to work on similar issues or are in similar ministry settings. Each participant pays a portion of the coach’s fee.
  6. Hire a coach to work with your leadership team. A coach can help your congregation work through a particular ministry challenge. The congregation can apply for a grant from its judicatory or denomination, or from a foundation that supports vital ministries.
  7. Most coaches offer a free consultation to explain their coaching philosophy and determine if they are a good match for you. Take advantage of this opportunity and interview several coaches. Once you have decided which coach you want to hire, ask them about fees and payment options.
  8. Negotiate a payment plan or package with a coach. Many coaches offer packages that reduce the cost. If you are willing to make a long-term commitment to working with a coach, s/he may be willing to cut the per-session fee.
  9. If you are negotiating a new call, ask that coaching fees be a part of your salary package.
  10. Look for grants that will cover services like coaching. For instance, if you are applying for a sabbatical grant, include coaching in your sabbatical plan.
  11. Sometimes, church members want to do something special to say thank you to their pastor. In this event, ask that a fund be set up in the church budget to pay for coaching. Not only will it provide a wonderful gift to the pastor, but it would also be an above-board way to show appreciation.
  12. Seek out opportunities for pro-bono coaching. Some coaches participate in pro-bono services through an organization or their professional membership group. If you already have a relationship with a coach, s/he may be willing to give some free sessions while you are in-between pastoral calls or you have a particular financial hardship.

Contact me if you would like to learn more about individual and congregational coaching. It is a free, no-obligation consultation.

Love Yourself As You Love Your Neighbor

The second Great Commandment, according to Jesus, is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Many religions and sacred texts echo the same sentiment.

In my coaching with church leaders, I discover pastors and church leaders that hold to the commandment. Pastors love their parishioners. They love people in general. It is part of their calling, to love as Christ first loved them. Unfortunately, they are not always so loving toward themselves. Pastors tend to be their own worst critics. They blame themselves if their churches are not growing. They work long hours and are on-call 24/7/365. Holy days, like Christmas and Easter, are joyous celebrations spent with family for most; for pastors, they can be long, stressful work days.

Here are 12 suggestions for pastors to practice loving themselves the same way they love others:

1. Take your day off. No emails, no phone calls, no sermon preparation. Get out of town if necessary. Do something you enjoy, just for you. Focus on your family, your pets, your friends, yourself.

2. Take all of your vacation. Again, really take it. Do not respond to calls and emails. Maybe even refrain from social media. Read for fun, no study or sermon prep. Even if you take a stay-cation, do the things you want to do that have nothing to do with your ministry.

3. Take all of your continuing education time and funds. Pastoral ministry is one of the few vocations that allow for continuing education. Take advantage of it. It will improve your ministry and be a gift to your church. It is also good for you, particularly if you use your time to learn something new or focus on aspects of ministry for which you are most passionate. There are many ways to spend continuing education—programs, courses, retreats, conferences, independent study, study travel—are some examples. I have clients who spend a portion of their continuing education stipend on coaching, counseling, or spiritual direction. Use it while you have it.

4. Get a coach, counselor, or spiritual director. I know a few pastors who have all three, which they use for different purposes. Lectionary groups are great for sermon prep and mutual support, but a professional can help you focus on specific needs and goals. They also give you a level of confidentiality that you cannot get anywhere else.

5. Put yourself first. You need quiet time to listen to God and pray. You need to eat and sleep well. You need to exercise and spend time in the fresh air. Pastors get so occupied with the needs of others that they neglect their own needs. Remember the safety instructions from your last flight: Put your mask on before assisting another.

6. Be true to yourself. Preach and teach what you believe. Do the things that you believe God is calling you to do even if your parishioners don’t agree. This is easier said than done, but you will be a much happier person if you are authentically you.

7. Be open to others’ ideas. Authenticity doesn’t mean pig-headed. Listen to what others can teach you and be willing to change. Try to understand the point of view of other people. It will make it easier to love them, and for them to love you.

8. Forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Admit when you’re wrong or you messed up. Ask forgiveness of others when appropriate. Note what you learned from the experience. Forgive yourself. Move on. Too many pastors beat themselves up for past mistakes, or for not being perfect.

9. Forgive others. Holding onto anger, hurt, and grudges only hurts you. Forgiving others allows you to move on and focus on the present and the future instead of dwelling in the past.

10. Don’t compare yourself with others. You are the only you, and there is no one else like you. Likewise, you can be no one but yourself. Comparing yourself with others is self-defeating. Instead, focus on your uniqueness. What do you offer than no one else can? Celebrate what makes you, you.

11. Seek rhythm, not balance. Life is not balanced. At times, we have to set aside what we want to do for what we have to do. This happens often in ministry. No one dies or gets sick on our schedule. Instead of striving endlessly for balance between work and home life, try looking for rhythms and flow in your days and weeks.

12. Accept that life is hard sometimes. Sometimes you just have to get through it. And you will get through it. The full version of Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is perhaps the best way to state this.

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as [God] did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that [God] will make all things right
If I surrender to [God’s] Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with [God]
Forever and ever in the next.

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.