coaching, Discernment, Ministry

When it’s time to make a move

As coach, colleague, and friend, I’ve been in many conversations about when and whether to seek the next job, the next call, or the next appointment. While most of my experience around this has been with other pastors, anyone can find themselves wondering if it’s time to make a move.

How do you know when it’s time to make a move?

For me one of those moments felt like restlessness, with a metaphor that paralleled my personal life. I had served in a very hands-on role as pastor of a 100-member church. It’s possible my excitement about finally being out of seminary and serving in a local congregation exacerbated my natural tendency to do things for others whether they needed me to or not. In the years I served there, my children grew older and became more independent. When I listened to my internal monologue carefully and heard myself saying, “I’m tired of tying other peoples’ shoes for them,” I knew it was time. After a conversation with my denominational leader, I moved to an intentional interim ministry position with a congregation that expected me to facilitate leadership rather than performing all the tasks of ministry myself.

What can you learn from your inner monologue?

Sometimes the feeling is not restlessness, but rather inertia. We may have a sense there’s nothing more we can do in a particular place, or see in ourselves that we’re no longer inspired as we once were. I think a lot of pastors are feeling that way as we shift from phase 37 of the pandemic to whatever phase is coming next, contending with the latest iteration of congregational and community anxiety and complaints. I would suggest this is a time when all clergy should be examining whether they still feel called to the place where they serve now. It’s a question we cannot answer by looking back to the church we served two years ago; instead we have to look at what the needs are now and what they may be in the year that is to come. We may have the skills to serve in this place, under these circumstances, but do we have the desire to use them? If not, it might be time to consider what’s next.

How would you gauge your energy for the work you are doing?

I want to acknowledge that making a move is complicated for some of us by our circumstances or our identities. Our possibilities may be limited by family commitments and geography. For women, People of Color, and LGBTQIA+ people, there may be limitations due to the theological, social, or political stances of congregations or denominations. That may mean our discernment is less about how to move and more about how to stay put while still acknowledging the truth of our yearning to lead and minister in a different space.

Both kinds of discernment can mean saying no to one thing in order to make the space to say yes to what’s next. You’ve probably heard the story of a woman who wanted nothing more than to find a partner in life. She could not figure out why the connection she desired was just not happening. A friend pointed out that her closet was so full that there was no room for anyone else to take up residence in her space. She emptied half the closet, and soon after, she met the person who would become her significant other. I share this not as a “law of attraction” type of illustration! Instead I find the richness of this story in the work of looking through what we keep stored inside us. What can we take off the shelf or pull off the hangers and let go? How can we make more space for what matters to us? Or simply make more space so our spirits can breathe? What would it be like to stop maintaining everything we have assigned to ourselves?

What could you say no to and make space for something new?

Wherever you are on the continuum, reader, whether starting something new, or ready to make a move, or content where you are, I’m praying for you.

Administry, coaching

Not a dirty word: administration as spiritual practice

I only signed up for the class because my seminary required it.

Church Administration sounded boring. I associated “administration” with business. It seemed unlikely that I would go to work for a large church, and even if I did, the jobs I would apply for as a new seminary graduate would be associate positions. “Administration” carried the flavor of middle management; it sounded like someone else’s work.

“Administration” did not sound like ministry to me.

The instructor was an adjunct, the senior pastor of a large church in the suburbs of Boston. It was long enough ago that I took notes in an actual spiral notebook, listening carefully if skeptically to the pastor teaching us. It was the spring of 2001, and the methods shared by the instructor already sounded old-fashioned to me, with an emphasis on three-ring binders and locked file cabinets.

The next semester, I would carry my first laptop to classes.

A year later, I moved into the pastor’s study at my first call. I served a small congregation as their first female settled pastor. The only other staff member was a musician. One volunteer did the monthly newsletter, and another copied the bulletins on Friday. The church had no telephone directory, because they all knew each other’s phone numbers. Busy juggling three school-age children, community involvement on behalf of the church, and adapting to the basic tasks of ministry, I flailed. It wasn’t long before I found myself sitting at my desk wishing we had something other than dial-up internet and one phone line, chin in hand, wondering how I would write another sermon, worrying about having enough volunteers for the soup kitchen, and letting the kind of special junk mail that churches receive pile up on my desk.

Gradually I came to understand what my professor had been teaching. No one else was in charge, and the size of the church made the lines of authority less clear. I needed to administrate myself first in order to accomplish the work of ministry.

Administration is not a dirty word. Many pastors think of administration as the lesser task in their work, a distraction from the “real” ministry, or even describe it as being nibbled to death by ducks. Yet the work of organizing events, information, and people can be a form of ministry and doing it more effectively can become a practice that makes ministry possible instead of detracting from it. Administration literally means “near to ministering” (from the Latin, ad + minister). The adjunct professor defined it as drawing others out for ministry. I have come to think of it as drawing ministry out of myself and others, by organizing myself and helping them to do the same.

From binders and file cabinets to shared Google calendars for busy households, from hierarchical staff structures to part-time calls in shrinking churches, we have seen a shift in tools and circumstances over the past two decades. All ministry requires some form of administration, and I continue to look back to the wisdom shared in that class, accurate in its spirit even if old-fashioned in its details. Being a leader includes helping other people find their way into ministry.

My sense that administration can be a spiritual practice developed over a glass of wine with a friend, frustrated after a lengthy board meeting. Her denomination doesn’t matter, because whether it’s Session or Vestry or Church Council or Consistory or Governing Board, some meetings go on long enough to leave us feeling stretched thin as a piece of yarn, taut until the moment it tears apart.

My colleague felt that close to breaking. As a Senior Pastor/Head of Staff, her job includes a lot of administrivia, and work with staff, and a full calendar of appointments with committee chairs and other lay leaders, in addition to the unexpected detours that fill our weeks in ministry no matter the size of the congregation we serve. How much farther could she stretch herself?

“What if,” I asked, “what if you took an hour to get your bearings every week?”

What came next felt predictable.

“I don’t have an hour,” she said.

I said, “Let’s look at your calendar.”

We discussed the vagaries of her schedule and found an hour she could dedicate weekly.

“So, how would I use it?”

“You would take a quick glance back at the past week and then a longer look ahead. You need to think about these things — “

“Hold on,” she said, then started typing into her iPad.

Together we developed a kind of examen. I call it Administry, a reminder that it’s not just about making good use of a Planner Pad (a tool she loves) or a Bullet Journal (my preference) or the ever-popular Evernote, but about a covenant with ourselves to look at the essential areas of our ministry on a regular basis. It became a tool for assessing our ministry in five major areas, adaptable to our particular circumstances:

One iteration of my #bulletjournal
  • the core commitment of our ministry,
  • the people with whom we minister (staff, colleagues or lay leaders),
  • the people to whom we minister, especially the ones in need or the ones with whom we are in conflict,
  • our relationship to the world outside our church/agency/institution, and
  • what we need more of to feel healthy in body, mind, and spirit.

When I give this self-check the time and space of a practice, I acknowledge that all the parts of the work God calls me to matter.

The method is a quick glance back at the past week, with the majority of the hour given to a look ahead at both near-term and long-term needs and goals. By putting these thoughts on paper, we have a record that keeps us honest with ourselves. Who are we avoiding? What did we favor to bypass doing something else last week?

The core commitment of my colleague’s week is preparing for worship, and particularly preaching. Because interruptions occur, the time she has scheduled for study and writing often becomes filled with other things. Instead of reacting to a preaching emergency, she makes space to be prepared by not ignoring the other things but instead making space for them. The principle works no matter what your ministry might be. Some pastors of declining churches identify themselves – willingly or not – as hospice chaplains. Church planters have the opposite role, as midwives to a new birth. My core commitments in ministry shifted as I moved into interim ministry, bringing the church’s preparation for the future to the center. Now that I piece together work as a non-profit director, writer, and coach, administering myself feels more complicated and even more necessary. I encourage myself to focus on the tasks of administration that feel like a stretch.

Practices are not meant to be easy. I love the idea of yoga, for instance, more than leaving my house to do it. When I get to class with my mat, I worry that I will not get the poses right, or that I might fall over while doing them. Sometimes I have wept during Savasana. Yet when the teacher ends the session by saying, “Namaste,” I am glad I went.

Administration is not a dirty word. Administry helps me organize myself for ministry and draw others out for ministry, too. When I give this self-check the time and space of a practice, I acknowledge that all the parts of the work God calls me to matter.

Want some help organizing yourself? Book a package of four coaching sessions and we will adapt Administry for your setting.

First published at Bearings, the online magazine of The BTS Center. Many thanks to the Rev. Dr. Paul R. Adkins, who taught Church Administration at Andover Newton.