I’m writing to you from my heart. I was a pastor for 15 years, and I’ve been helping pastors with their ministries for another 15. Yes, that means I’ve had 30 years seeing churches from multiple sides: as a pastor, as a member, as a consultant, and as an outsider looking in. I realized there are some major lessons I wish I’d known back in the 80s. I want to share those with you, so you don’t have to three decades to learn them.
First, I wish I’d deeply believed that it was truly NOT all up to me. I knew this in theory when I started, but now I really know it at another level. When you are serving a church that is 50 or 100 years old, there’s a cloud of past witnesses surrounding you. The past is formative and essential, and you can’t change it. You are also surrounded by a crowd of people who can make the ministry happen (or not). Pastors place enormous pressure on themselves. Leadership is important and so is truly being part of a community. God is present with us, no matter what the results. Extend yourself some grace.
Second, I wish I’d not taken criticism to heart. We are all humans. We love praise, and avoid criticism. I love it when people love what I do, and I still don’t like criticism. However, I learned over the years to toughen up and keep it in context. Part of my work is to help other pastors do the same. Criticism can actually be a sign you are making progress. If no one criticizes you, you probably aren’t doing enough to rock the boat. I learned, not to like it, but to see it as the price of progress.
Third, I wish I’d known that “this too, shall pass.” I heard this as a child-it was one of my mother’s favorite quotes. But what I didn’t know was how essential it is in ministry. People get upset. I get upset, angry, afraid, frustrated. “This too, shall pass.” The emotions of the moment will not last. My husband sometimes says, “Will this matter in ten years?” I hate it when he asks this, and I also know it’s a good question. More often than not, the answer is no.
The same is true about the moments of elation and even great success. They will pass. Tomorrow there will be yet another challenge. It’s tempting to think, “We’ve made it,” but progress is two steps forward, one step back. It’s the nature of life. If I can accept that, I can be more present to what’s actually important right in front of me.
Finally, I wish I’d known that being myself as God intended is my #1 job. As my mentor, Larry Matthews, used to say, “Being myself is a full-time job.” My job is not to make other people change. It’s not to “succeed.” It’s not to grow my church. It is to be faithful to my call.
It’s wonderful to write this all out. Thank you for reading this list. I hope it resonated with you. This level of authenticity, mentorship, and reflection are what motivate all my workshops, speaking engagements, and online products. My most successful and impactful program is called Leaders Who Last . It’s a year of support, and clergy all over the US and Canada are reporting more clarity, calm, and confidence in their ministry. In being myself as God intended, I am honored to continue to support these masterful leaders in their own endeavours. If you’d like to join Leaders Who Last, or even just check it out, you can click here.
Here’s to all your important work, and the lessons we’re always learning,
Church communication is necessary, and difficult. Improving communication is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You always have to work on it.
So with that in mind, I created 10 ways to keep your communication humming. Take a look at this list – give yourself a pat on the back for the ones you’re already doing, and then experiment with adding in the new ones.
Ready? Let’s go:
- Know the purpose for every communication. If you are writing anything, write this sentence first: the purpose of this __________ is ___________. You will automatically communicate better. If you are calling someone, know your purpose before you dial the number. When you’re facilitating a meeting, clearly state the purpose up front, and come back to it again and again.
- Define yourself.Say as clearly as you can what you think, want, believe, or hope for. The effort of getting clear for yourself will improve your communication.
- Don’t worry about convincing people, just say it. Let go of how people will respond to your ideas. Don’t try to talk people into anything. It never works in the long term, and your ideas get lost in the process.
- Focus on people who are motivated. Don’t chase after people who don’t want to listen. No matter how valuable your message, they can’t hear you. Whether they are church members or your own teenagers, the principle is the same. Look for those who are motivated, whose eyes light up. They are ready for your message – so share it with them.
- Communicate with the listener/reader in mind. Even as you are defining yourself, think about those who will receive the message. What motivates them? What language do they use? Help them hear your message.
- Avoid insider jargon. Assume people don’t know Christian shorthand, Bible stories, or church acronyms. It’s better to over-explain than under-explain. One of the best ways to make newcomers feel like outsiders is to talk in cryptic language.
- Listen as much as you talk. In any meeting or conversation, monitor how much you are talking. Stop and listen from time to time. Don’t be a pastor who monologues.
- When you listen, listen fully. Spend your listening time seeking to understand the other. Don’t be too distracted by formulating an answer. If you need to answer, it’s all right to say, “I need to think about this.” Then come back to them with a clear purpose and response.
- Over-communicate when anxiety is high (and at all other times, too). Don’t assume one communication is enough. Communicate multiple times and in multiple ways. At times of transition or stress in the congregation, anxiety will make it even harder for people to hear. Double your efforts to get the message out. Never take it personally if someone doesn’t get the message.
- Remember to keep it brief. We remember sound bites, not entire speeches. Leave people wanting more. Now more than ever, people need a short, clear message.
Question for reflection: which one of these can you commit to attempting this week?
In the busyness of life, you do have dinner with your family, right? So, what do you talk about at the dinner table?
I recently read an article about Robert Caro, author of multiple biographies of President Lyndon Johnson. His wife is his researcher. Yet Caro says they never talk about LBJ at dinnertime.
That struck me. I do have dinner with my husband most nights I’m not traveling. And, I noticed how I spent much of that time talking about my work and what happened that day (with a little about his day…). I decided to change my habit.
My husband is a public reference librarian, and in quiet moments he looks up science news online. I started asking him, “Did you read anything interesting on the Internet today?” It’s made our dinner conversation far more interesting and even inspiring. Plus, I’m getting a deeper understanding of what makes him tick (after decades–). Last night he told me about some new research into trilobite fossils. (Here’s the link for you science geeks.)
Bring your pastoral skills home.
Day in and day out, you listen at work. So it’s time to practice listening to your spouse and your children, and talking about what they are interested in. Broaden your perspective. Treat them as well as you do members of the congregation.
Whatever you are talking about, keep it positive. No ranting about church or politics.
Does this mean you never talk about church at home? Of course not. It’s close to your heart and you want to share it with those you are closest to. However, venting about church to your spouse is overrated and it doesn’t help you solve the problem. (Stay tuned for that article).
Here are three suggestions for your next family meal:
- Ask each person what they want (for tomorrow’s dinner, for vacation, in life). Then listen.
- Tell each person what you appreciate about them.
- If you do talk about church, share the good things that happened.
If you try these steps out, please do email me and let me know how the experiment goes. I’d love to hear how this works for you.
Question for reflection: If you are partnered, what is your partner most interested in? When can you engage them in conversation about it?
Until next week,
Are you ready for September? I know, some of the organized types started planning for fall this last January. But if the pastors I speak to are representative, you’re not completely ready yet. When I was a pastor, I don’t think I was EVER completely prepared for September when it came. I always put off the hardest stuff (like stewardship!) until the last minute.
However, I’m a convert to planning and prioritizing. My friend, Sage Cohen, puts it this way in her wonderful new book on writing, Fierce on the Page:
“When you don’t know what’s most important, you can’t prioritize how to spend your time, you don’t know when you’ve met your goals, and you can literally end up working through the night—usually on the wrong project…Whatever is loudest or most uncomfortable or most important to someone else gets your attention first, and thus you remain in a cycle of doing instead of planning.”
Instead of staying in that cycle, take a little time and step back. Think about the time between now and Advent and map it out. Here are my favorite three steps to get the ball rolling.
- Look back. Review the last three months. Make a list of what you accomplished, and celebrate it. “Accomplished” here includes resting, watching the Olympics, camping, or whatever gave you joy this summer. And it includes work-related tasks you completed and any projects you did around the house. It’s important to take the time to claim the progress you’ve made. It will give you momentum for fall. (True confessions: I’ve been doing this myself this year, but in this quarterly planning cycle I forgot. I had to go back and do it. I got a burst of energy when I saw everything I did this summer, including taking three full weeks off the grid!)
- Look ahead. I just did this for myself, using my own Breathing Room: Create a 3-Month Ministry Plan. I wrote a purpose for the next three months, looked at the commitments I already have, and one or two additional projects I want to take on. THEN, I made my plan. Looking at the whole quarter helped me get a sense of what is realistic to add to my current schedule. It gave me a greater sense of control.
- Use your plan every week. I know how often church strategic plans end up in a file, untouched and inefficient. Personal plans can suffer the same fate. At the beginning of the week, get out your plan and take a look. Make a decision about how you can move your projects forward a little. You won’t carry out the plan 100%. That’s OK. You’ll get much farther with less effort than you would have without a plan.
Question for reflection: What do you want for the next 90 days?
Here’s to your next 3 months!
P.S. Need a bit more guidance for your next quarter? Check out my Breathing Room: Create a 3-Month Ministry Plan in 5 Sessions, and get my help to make this season your best yet.
Summer’s almost over. It’s two-and-a-half weeks until Labor Day (sorry to say). And unless you’re taking a late-summer vacation, you’re probably getting ready for fall. And fall rolls into the holidays, and before you know it, it’s 2017.
Here’s something to consider in these next weeks: make intentional time to connect with people – before the busyness starts up again. Strong relationships are central to ministry success, and I have three ways for you to set a solid foundation for relationships in these last few weeks of summer.
- Connect with key leaders. Before the usual round of meetings begin, spend some time with one or two leaders. Try something new: go to a ball game with your congregation president, or meet your treasurer for lunch, and don’t talk about money. Do something that is fun for both of you. Simply say, “We always talk about church, and I’d like to simply get together for fun.” Whatever you do together, it will help support your work this next year.
- Schedule the visits you’ve been putting off. Most pastors have a backlog of pastoral visits. Even if you don’t do a lot of visitation, I’ll bet you have a list of people that nags at you. Before your schedule heats up for fall, make a couple of those visits, or at least make some phone calls. Good pastoral care, while worthy in itself, also is like money in the bank for leadership. It builds credibility. Catch up a bit; it will energize you (and your people).
- Connect with a friend outside the church. Who is someone you’ve been meaning to get together with all summer? Do it now. It won’t get any easier in September, or December. To keep yourself going through the year you need friends outside your congregation. Get together for coffee, go for a walk, treat them to lunch, or even schedule a Skype talk or phone call with your closest friend, wherever they are.
Remember: Don’t feel like you “ought” to do all of these before fall. Pick one that energizes you or attracts you, and knock it out. It will be worth it!
Here’s a question to ask yourself:
Who can I connect with in the next two weeks who gives me energy for the upcoming months?
And here’s a question to answer RIGHT NOW in the comment section:
What are the best ways you find to stay in touch with your key leaders?
I’m back from three glorious weeks in England. So are you surprised that in my first post after my trip, I had to reference Winston Churchill?
On our recent trip to London we visited the Churchill War Rooms, an underground warren which was used as the planning base for the British effort in World War II. Here’s a picture of the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square, a few blocks away.
The rooms were left behind almost intact after the war ended, and made into a museum in the 80s. So there’s a sense of immediateness about them. Looking at the maps with pins in them to show the advance of armies, I got a sense of the challenge of their decision making. They had to make choices with high stakes over years, without knowing whether they would be successful.
We know a lot of things about Churchill’s life, but this experience really brought the day to day decisions and challenges front and center. There are three things that Churchill did as a leader, that I hope you are doing as well:
- Be brave. Leadership requires courage. Churchill was courageous, and inspired the British people by his speeches (Listen here) This didn’t mean he never had doubts or struggled. But he knew the importance of his role at this time in history, and that it was essential that he kept going.
- Get great people around you and challenge them. The museum highlights a number of the people in both leadership and support positions who made Churchill’s job easier. He expected everything of them. They worked doggedly and were deeply committed both to him and the war effort. In church you sometimes have to accept the leaders you’ve got, but you can do your best to challenge the folks you have to do their best to meet the opportunity at hand.
- Take care of yourself. Churchill was a larger than life personality. He only dressed up when necessary (he even liked to work in his pajamas or in the bath). He took a nap every afternoon from 4-5, then got up refreshed and ready to work a second shift. (His staff, on the other hand, didn’t get the same opportunity and still had to keep working…) He knew it was important to sustain himself for the hard work ahead.
Here’s a question to ask yourself:
What can I do to become more courageous in my leadership?
And here’s a question to answer RIGHT NOW in the comment section: What secular leader inspires you? Why?
P.S. I want to report briefly on my effort to do #3 (take care of yourself) by taking three weeks completely off from work. I was able to unplug and had a wonderful time. It was hard to make the decision but not to carry it out. And I’m glad to be back!
Today I want to ask you an important question:
When was the last time you were completely out of touch?
It’s becoming rarer in our culture. A friend spent time in a cabin in the woods where she’s been going for years. This year was the first time it had Wi-Fi. Too many potential customers were demanding it, and so the owner put it in.
I get that. I want Wi-Fi, too. I’ve gotten anxious myself when I was in a place where my phone didn’t work.
However, I’m going to try it. In reality, I should have titled this article, “Why I should take time completely off.” I’m going on vacation tomorrow for 3-1/2 weeks. We’re taking a trip to England. (!!) I’m not checking work email during that time. And I’m only taking calls from family members.
To be completely honest –
I had initially planned to check email about once a week. I figured I could still juggle work and relationships and vacation. A win-win-win. Then in conversation with a friend, one of the most spiritually grounded people I know, she mentioned that she goes on retreat for three weeks every single year. She’s completely out of touch during that entire time. When she shared this, i felt like the voice of God saying to me: “Margaret, it’s time to take a break.”
My brother also inspired me by taking a trip to Japan for three weeks in May. He has a corporate job. He didn’t check email until the last few days of the trip, when he was ready for a change of pace. I could see how the break, and a trip to such a different environment without distractions from home, was powerfully stimulating.
I believe that when we take time really off, it benefits us, our families, our creative endeavors and those we work with.
So I’m making a public commitment:
- I will not check work email or voicemail from July 15 through August 8.
- I will not be on social media for the same period. So don’t look for vacation pictures from me (well, maybe the best one, after August 8).
This makes me nervous.
What if some wonderful opportunity comes my way and I miss out because I’m not available? What if one of the pastors I work with has a crisis and needs me?
Then I come back to the message, “Margaret, it’s time to take a break.” It’s been 15 years since I took three weeks off in a row.
I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, here are two questions I want you to ruminate on:
What is your plan for time off (and I mean off) in the next year?
How do YOU unplug?
You can even email me your answers at Margaret@margaretmarcuson.com – and I’ll reply in mid-August when I’m refreshed and rejuvenated.
P.S. If you are part of Leaders Who Last, you will still get the impactful modules each week, fear not. Then we’ll touch base when I return.
Most churches face a drop in giving in the summertime. People are on vacation, and giving to church isn’t always their top priority. Cash flow can be an issue, and it’s easy for pastors and church leaders to panic.
Here are some suggestions:
To do now:
- Normalize it. Even if you face cash flow challenges, expect it and accept it. Don’t cry “the sky is falling!” (even to yourself). Remember, this happens every year. It’s predictable. You figure it out every year, and you’ll figure it out this year.
- Stay in touch. Keep your church’s ministry in front of your people, even if they aren’t there as often. Maximize whatever communication avenues you use. Here are a few specific ideas:
- Send out stories about the summer mission trip or your summer children’s program.
- Send a mid-summer snail mail ministry update, and ask people to keep supporting the church. People still open their mail!
- Send handwritten giving thank you notes now.
- Instead of panicking, bring this challenge to prayer. Invite your finance team to pray. If they are all hard-headed business types, assure them you are as interested in the bottom line as they are, and share your convictions about the importance of prayer. If they won’t bite, pray anyway, and invite someone outside the team to join you.
To plan for the future:
- Track annual giving patterns. Rather than dividing your budgeted income by 12, look at the last three years and see how the giving has come in. In most churches, December is the biggest month. If you look at 1/12 each month, you’ve got bad news 11 months of the year. Instead, look at what you expect to receive in July and plan for it. You’ll panic less. When I was a pastor, this helped me keep perspective through the year.
- Set up automatic giving. It’s great when people intentionally put money in the offering each week. At the same time, the best way to keep cash flow more even through the year is to make it possible for people to give automatically. At least give them the option. Then, next year in July, they can give even when they are on vacation. Most people want electronic giving options (see this research from Vanco Payment Solutions.)
- Next year, share the summer ministry opportunities early. Invite people to give to support them and the overall ministry of the church through the summer.
Big picture question for you to mull over:
How can you keep the long view when you are facing a short-term challenge (financial or otherwise)?
Immediate question to answer in the comments below:
How does your church encourage people to support the ministry financially through the summer?
I’d love to hear your ideas!