Well, we made it through Thanksgiving, which means…it’s that time of year again. Yes, I’m talking about Advent. A time that can be challenging because along with all the church stuff to do, there are family celebrations to prepare for, and sometimes post-Christmas travel plans. Whether you are a pastor, church musician or lay leader, it’s a busy time.
One year we attended a late-night Christmas Eve service at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. My son, age eleven, fell asleep. We woke him up to leave, and he walked sleepily through the door. The priest greeting everyone looked at him and said, “You look like I feel!” I laughed at the time, but remembered very clearly my days when I was a pastor, and I often felt that way at the end of Christmas Eve.
Maybe there’s no way to avoid the Christmas hustle and bustle, but here are some ways to take care of yourself during Advent.
Here are 6 ways to thrive this season:
- Do something for yourself every day. On all your lists of to-dos it is imperative at this point to prioritize yourself. It’s way too easy to let this slide, which is why it’s the first step. You’ve got to keep nourishing YOU all season long. You could sing your favorite carol. (Yes, it’s OK to sing Christmas carols for yourself in Advent even if your church doesn’t sing them in worship.) Look at pictures of past holidays. Listen to Christmas music in the car. Or, do something that has nothing to do with Advent and Christmas. Do something bigger every week; go to the movies, take a long nap or bubble bath, eat your favorite food, go for a hike or even take 5 minutes to be outside alone every day.
- Really use an Advent calendar. This tradition can serve you throughout this time. Here’s a nice online option from Loyola Press. Or use a beautiful paper one with windows, (maybe one with chocolate), even if you don’t have kids. Use it as a moment to remind yourself to breathe and enjoy.
- Ground yourself in the present moment. Like right now. Take a moment. Breathe. Experience God’s love expressed in Jesus. Smile. Notice the light in people’s eyes and on people’s homes.
- Let go of perfectionism. Seriously. Christmas happens every year. Everyone (well, almost everyone) will love the services. Focus on what is working – the electricity is on, the sound works, people arrived safely! We created a space for people to practice their faith. We made it another year. And on and on. Look for what’s working, appreciate that, and don’t let other perfectionists get you down.
- Take advantage of the fact that everyone is busy. Focus on what actually needs to be accomplished and who really needs to be at the table. For example, which teams or committees can skip their meeting this month? Trust me, no one will complain, and you can get an extra evening at home.
- Remember: it’s not all up to you. God works through Advent and Christmas worship. The story of God’s love made real in Jesus has emotional and spiritual power that has lasted for centuries. People bring themselves to worship and other church events and get what they need to out of it.
So, with those six steps, I wish you an awesome Advent. I’m here for you this season, so do feel free to email me with any stories, challenges, or questions.
Here we go,
Right now, are you worried about money?
Whether it’s your church’s money or your personal money–the thought of cash coming in and cash going out can be stressful, especially if more is going out than is coming in.
Here’s my secret to moving beyond worry, and it’s the perfect week to practice:
Changing my attitude to one of gratitude.
Giving thanks is a radically effective way to focus on your strengths, what’s working, and what already is giving you an advantage. Plus, you can be grateful for big achievements and smaller blessings. For example: We have a church building that safely houses our growing community! The lights turn on with the flick of a switch!
I read recently that successful businesses focus 70-80% on their assets on only 20-30% on their liabilities. Focusing on the liabilities is a sure way to failure, so why do so many of us do it in our personal lives?
It’s not that we don’t need to be candid about the challenges. It’s important to face them.
However, we don’t get energy to solve problems by spiralling downward in fear and worry. In fact, just the opposite happens. We lose energy, become paralyzed and don’t take action at all. That’s a formula for disaster.
Here’s what to do instead: Observe Thanksgiving not just this week, but every week.
Here are some ways to do it:
- Give thanks every time you receive a check or electronic payment.
- Light a candle when you pay your bills.
- Go around the table when you have a meal and share one thing that delights you.
- Make a list once a day of five things you are grateful for.
When you experience worry, acknowledge it. Then think of at least one thing you can celebrate.
Now, I’m not saying you will never have thoughts of worry again. I am saying that with time, you can develop the habit of moving quickly from worry to gratitude. If you can do that, your relationship with money will be completely different.
In my constant quest to practice what I preach, I want to share how deeply grateful I am.
I’m thankful for the lives we’ve touched, for the relationships that have developed, for the new adventures that continue, for the possibilities that still exist. I’m grateful that God is present with us no matter what the future may hold.
I’m also grateful for:
- You! Thank you for reading. I love hearing from you, when you have a thought or comment, and especially when you have a different perspective.
- The church leaders around the world who are seeking to faithfully serve God and touch the lives of others with the message of faith and love.
- My country, the United States, for freedom of expression and freedom of worship.
- The public library and the Internet, together the greatest sources of free reading material anyone could imagine, and a boon to a compulsive reader like me. If I had to buy everything I read every year, I’d be broke.
- My family, immediate and extended. We’ll gather Thursday with just a few of us here in Portland, but my father at 93 will be with us, and I’m so thankful for his continued life with us.
- And as always, I’m aware of and grateful for the money that flows into and out of my life and yours, and into and out of our churches, making ministry possible.
So…what are you grateful for? (Let me know in the comments!)
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Wow. Social media is crazy right now. And it reminds me of one key component that most people are bypassing.
Before you spend ANY time (or any more time) on social media, whatever the platform, it’s important to think about your purpose. Remember, your purpose for using social media is not the same as Mark Zuckerberg’s. These companies are in business to make money by getting your attention. You, however, have a different purpose.
Possible purposes for using social media include:
- To connect with church members and friends to get the word out about events.
- To create an online conversation with your church community about faith.
- To connect with younger members of the congregation and wider community.
- To enhance your online presence in the community.
- To experiment with any of the above to discern what’s the best direction to go next.
- To have fun and be personable online.
Being clear about your purpose (and loving that purpose) helps in two ways:
1) It can motivate you to learn some things that might be challenging, if you aren’t already comfortable with social media.
2) It can keep you from spending too much time on it, because you are crystal clear about what gets your attention and what you fly by.
Of course, you may have a couple of purposes, but I recommend you don’t have more than three big reasons. .If you are clear on your short and long-term ministry purpose, make sure your social media purpose fits with it.
You can ask yourself, “Would someone with this (bigger) purpose engage in this social media activity?”
So…what’s your purpose?
How can you use social media to further your purpose?
I can’t wait to see what you create!
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As you know, the US presidential election has been a wild ride. I know I have readers outside the U.S., and I’d love to hear from you. And for those of us who are in the process of voting, it’s fascinating.
Here’s what I know through and through:
- Anxiety is high.
You may say, “duh!” However, I think it’s useful to step back and observe the flow of anxiety, whatever your political views. Edwin Friedman in A Failure of Nerve, has a whole chapter called “A Society in Regression.” He talks about the characteristics of chronically anxious families:
- Herding (essentially group-think)
- Blame displacement
- A quick-fix mentality
- Failure of nerve in leadership
Sound familiar? It’s true not just in politics, but in church, education, business, you name it. The media feeds off it and enhances it.
I’ve noticed this reactivity in myself. A couple of years ago I decided not to click on links on social media that tapped my outrage (see this post). I’ve stuck with it—until recent weeks. It’s addictive. I realized that spending time reading about the election was keeping me from my own goals. I’ve cut back, though not completely.
When we are anxious, we are more likely to operate in those five areas. Which do you more often finding yourself doing?
- We can choose how to respond.
A principled response is always better than an anxious response. Here’s what I’m trying to do:
Regulate my media exposure. I intentionally consume media in a (mostly) thoughtful manner. I try to make choices about which media I consume, when and for how long. I prefer reading to watching or listening (then I can think about it).
Pray. Months ago I felt called to pray for all the presidential candidates through the primary season. Most days I simply mentioned them all by name to God. I’m still doing it. I haven’t told too many people about it because it seemed a little holier-than-thou, but I feel led to share it now.
I’m also using the Forward Movement’s litany and daily prayer before the election.
Vote. I’m voting for Hillary Clinton for president. I think she is the better choice not only in terms of my own views, but a primary quality leaders need: ability to self-regulate in the face of challenge. I’ll be honest that I’ve not always been a big fan, but to me the choice is clear. And I’ll also be honest and say that to have a viable woman candidate is exciting.
Love. Especially for those who hold positions I dislike (or stronger), I want to practice love. In 2000 Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, invited Bill Clinton to his Leadership Summit. Hybels talked about people calling the church and yelling at his staff. One man said to Hybels, “I hate that man!” Hybels asked the audience, “Excuse me. Did the rules about love change?” I’ve thought about this in recent weeks. I know there are millions of people in this country, some of you reading these words in fact, who disagree with me politically. I want to open my heart to people who hold views I profoundly disagree with.
Edwin Friedman used to recommend you assess the maturity of people in your congregation this way: If they came up to you and said, “How can you say that! That’s outrageous!” that was one clue. If they said, “I disagree with you,” that was another. The latter were the people you wanted in leadership, because their level of differentiation was higher. I want to work on my own growth by saying clearly and calmly, “I agree” and “I disagree.”
- Thoughtful conversation is possible, even among those who disagree.
One of the most inspiring conversations I’ve had this election season was with Rev. Jeff Coppage, pastor of Covenant Moravian Church in York, Pennsylvania. This fall they’ve had a class on faith and citizenship. Here’s what he said about it:
The goal of the class is to address the election season from a faith perspective that deepens our support for one another even when we know that we are voting for opposing candidates. I remind us weekly that our commitment to one another’s welfare as brothers and sisters in Christ far surpasses our political affiliations. Each week a church member shares a bit of their story about their life as both citizens and follower of Christ. We’ve heard from a German immigrant who grew up in Berlin during the Russian occupation. Her story of emigrating to the US and working “as a white slave” (according to her late husband) for a local doctor’s family was gripping. Then we heard a Vietnam Vet share about his lifelong anguish ties to an incident when a 8 year old boy threw a grenade beneath his army jeep. We’ve heard from a scientist who worked for the NIH, an engineer who is a district school board chair, and a civil servant with the state government. Each class has provoke more free flowing discussion and questions for the week’s leader than any class I’ve been apart of here. We close each class with a prayer for the “speaker”, our community, and our nation.
I’d love to see more of this kind of conversation in churches around the world.
P.S. For another thoughtful conversation, listen to Krista Tippett interviewing liberal E. J. Dionne and conservative David Brooks for an episode of NPR’s On Being. Here’s the link. Tippett quoted from former Senator (and Episcopal priest)John Danforth:
“If there was a Christian agenda for politics, what should it be? I, for one, cannot be certain. Then one might ask, ‘What does faith bring to politics if not an agenda?’ For me, it brings a struggle to do God’s will that always falls short of the goal. It leavens the competing self interests of politics with the yeast of the Love Commandment, but it seldom fulfills the Love Commandment. It makes us better participants in politics, but not the custodians of God’s politics.”
Do you come home from church and complain? Belly ache about the frustrations of ministry, a difficult church member, or your crazy schedule?
Complaining about church is nearly inevitable—however, I recommend you do it as little as possible, especially because…:
- Complaining reinforces your negative thoughts. Venting to your spouse will not make you feel better, or not for long. It can even cause you to feel worse. (See this.)
- Complaining creates negative feelings in your family toward the church. When I was a pastor, of course I complained from time to time. However, I did try to keep in mind that my husband had relationships with these people, too. If I ranted and raved too much, I knew it would have a negative impact on those connections. I’ve seen cases where pastors’ children have not only left the church but left their faith behind because of how the church treated their father or mother.
- Complaining reinforces your feeling of helplessness—and theirs. They can take no action which will improve your situation. In fact, the opposite is true: if your spouse were to step in, it would create a triangle that will not benefit your ministry. A defensive spouse can never do any good.
- Complaining doesn’t build your relationship with your family members. In fact, it can be detrimental to those relationships. Trust me: if you complain a lot, you are not a delight to spend time with.
So what do you do, when you feel the need to vent or complain? Check this out:
- Find a neutral party. When you need help thinking through a challenging church situation a coach, colleague or friend can hold that space for you without the major relationship impact of venting to family.
- Strategically assess what to say to your spouse. You can share your own experience and thoughts without complaining. The conversation will be more productive, I guarantee it.
- Consider what the complaint gives you. Can you turn your complaint about the other person into a request to them? If the youth director turned up late and caused a problem with the youth retreat, you can set up a conversation and request that she be in time in the future (and follow up next time). What opportunity is hiding in the complaint? Be curious and creative.
- Celebrate the positive things at church and share those with your family. We often put more energy into responding to the negative than we do the positive.
- Instead of complaining, pray for the person or situation you want to complain about. In some cases, simply mentioning the name to God may be all you can do. That’s enough.
Questions for reflection: Am I in the habit of complaining about church at home? What positive habit can I substitute?
The last time I wrote to you I outlined the #1 reason pastors burn out: overfunctioning. There’s a second reason pastors burn out, and it’s related to #1. To be honest, I’m not sure which one is first or second. I know I’ve been caught in both, and you probably have, too.
Ready for the cold hard truth?
Pastors feel responsibility for people getting along. For fixing broken marriages, or tending wounds between siblings. In family systems thinking, this is called being caught in a triangle. And it happens all the time at church.
Some triangles go with the job: You, the board, and the congregation. You, your predecessor, the congregation. You can’t get out of them. Other triangles are ones that you get invited into: A mother and her daughter, and the mother’s expectation you can straighten out her kid. The administrator and the custodian have a problem, and you are expected to fix it.
The trick is to be in these triangles you are a part of without being caught-without feeling like it’s up to you to fix other people’s relationships. That’s a kind of overfunctioning. It can be deadly. It’s certainly stressful, and it distracts you from your own ministry goals.
Here are four ways to approach your triangles. I’ve written these down before, but even I have to remind myself about them all the time, and you probably need reminding, too.
1.You can’t change a relationship you are not a part of. If you are in a triangle, or get invited into one, the only people who can affect the “other side” of the triangle are the ones who are in that relationship. This is an absolute fact.
2. When you try to change the relationship, it often gets worse. The more you try to get the administrator and the custodian to get along, the worse it gets. Now, I’m not saying you simply let it go. You may need to be clear with each of them about what you expect from your employees. But you let go of your feeling that it is up to you to solve the problem. You leave the responsibility where it belongs –with them.
3.The person taking the responsibility feels stressed. When people pull you into a triangle, they want you take on the stress. They are happy for you to relieve their anxiety-it releases them from the responsibility for their own relationships. But it’s not good for you, and it’s ultimately not beneficial for them. It also sets up a pattern that you are the go-to for any problems, and we know that dynamic is detrimental.
4. You can only change a relationship you actually belong to. And even then, most of the time you can really only change yourself, your perspective, and your behavior. You can connect directly with people. With staff members, for example, you can refuse to listen to one complain about the other, and talk with each one instead about their own goals for their functioning and their work. Simply because you’re invited or pulled into a triangle, doesn’t mean you have accept the invitation.
Questions for reflection: Where am I taking responsibility for other people’s relationships? What might I do instead?
Learn more: Israel Galindo wrote a helpful series of seven blog posts on triangles, based on an interview I did with him on triangles some years ago. You can find the first one and links to succeeding posts here.
Get more help: It can be tricky to tease out the triangles in congregational life. I do a lot of coaching with clergy on these matters. Contact me for a free conversation to see if I can help you think it through.
Burnout: the condition of someone who has become very physically and emotionally tired after doing a difficult job for a long time. (Merriam-Webster.com)
Can you relate to any of that? Do you ever wonder how much longer you can keep going in ministry? Here’s a little secret: pastors burn out not because of hard work but because of overfunctioning.
Overfunctioning: persistently taking on more responsibility than is genuinely yours.
As Rabbi Edwin Friedman says, “Stress comes less from overwork than from taking responsibility for the problems of others.”
I first heard that quote over 20 years ago and it ultimately changed my ministry and my life. You’ve heard that quote from me before and you’ll hear it again – it’s that important.. Most of us in ministry are born and bred to take responsibility for others. The thing is that it doesn’t truly help others and it doesn’t help us. Instead, it leads to burnout in us and stunted growth in others.
What to do instead? Here are my five tips.
- Redefine your “job.” As a pastor, I changed my own job description from “helping others” to “helping others grow.” There’s a big difference. When you help others grow, you may actually “help” them less. You insist they take responsibility for themselves. You provide more challenge. You also create an inherent boundary of what is and what is NOT your job.
- Lower your standards. I see pastors wearing themselves out by doing things others ought to be doing, whether it’s planning worship, leading the youth group, proofreading, being in charge of music. None of these tasks are detrimental in themselves. But if you persistently do them because others can’t perform to your standards, or there just isn’t anyone to do it, it is a warning sign to let go. While I’m all for excellence in ministry, when all the excellence rests on the back of the pastor, it’s not good for anyone.
- Take a breath before you say yes. Simply pause and ask yourself, “Is this my responsibility?” You may need to make a split-second discernment, and you won’t always get it “right.” It’s a spiritual practice. What is yours and what is the responsibility of others? Should you say yes or should you say no? If you ask yourself the question, you’ll overfunction less.
- Let your church’s future be its responsibility. Of course, the role of pastor is important. Solid leadership is essential. However, you can’t 100% ensure your church’s golden future, even if you stay there the rest of your life. You don’t have that kind of power. This is the biggest burnout position for pastors. Denominations want you to take this responsibility on. So does your church: “Pastor, if you only [preached longer/shorter/visited more/attracted younger people….]’ Do your best, then let go.
- Be willing to feel a little guilty. Overfunctioning pastors who step it down a little feel guilty. This is a good sign! Just because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you are doing the wrong thing. Just because others criticize you for not doing enough doesn’t mean you aren’t working hard enough. Treat it like thoughts during meditation–let it pass through your brain and let it go. Don’t get defensive. One caveat: If you overfunction less, others won’t step up immediately. Be prepared for some lag time, and some pushback. (“Pastor, why aren’t you [fill in the blank] any more?”) That’s all right. In fact, if you get some criticism about it, you’re probably on the right track.
Questions for reflection: What is one area you might be overfunctioning? How could you step back a little?