Why some pastors are better leaders than others

better leadersIt’s no secret: some pastors do better than others. They enjoy ministry more, their churches seem to thrive, whatever their size. So what does it take? Here’s my take on the four basic principles pastors can utilize to step up their leadership game:

  1. They take a stand. To be a leader, you have to have a position. You have to, over time, develop a sense of where you are headed, and actually get up and tell people what you think. You have to say, “I believe in this.” “This is where I sense God is leading us.” “This is what I will do (and won’t do).” You need a strong spiritual life and growing emotional maturity to be able to do this. And good leaders take stands.
  2. They relate to people who have different perspective without getting defensive or overly anxious. Effective leaders anticipate the pushback, rather than get surprised by it. They don’t try to talk people into something they are not prepared to support. They are curious about new ideas and perspectives and can even separate the viewpoints from the person – which allows them to continue to value every interaction with that person, instead of dread it.
  3. They tolerate other people criticizing them. Being a pastor means going through some tough criticism, even attacks. In my observation and experience, those who can ride this out end up doing better in the long run. Sometimes they need help. (Some of my own coaching practice is helping people get through times of intense criticism and conflict). Edwin Friedman called this “not getting reactive to the reactivity.” He thought the reactivity was inevitable when a leader took a stand, and the ability to manage oneself through it was critical for leadership. Criticisms will come and go – can you stay steady through it all?
  4. They adapt without being a pushover, and persist over time. You won’t always get your way. That’s the reality. Sometimes paying attention to feedback and backing off is the better part of valor. You can come back with your vision and ideas later. You have to discern when to push through and when to step back, and to let go of needing to take the credit. I’ve heard more than one story of a board member bringing up an idea the pastor mentioned earlier and having it be enthusiastically accepted. These pastors laid the groundwork, even though it took longer than they thought. Adapt and persist.

These are my top four recommendations for long lasting leadership. Of course, every church is different. Some churches have more potential than others. There’s no magic formula. It’s about the relationship, about the wider community, and a myriad of other factors.

However, all you can work on is you and how you take a stand, relate to those who differ or are critical, and cultivate flexibility and persistence. Whatever your ministry setting, you can always pay attention to these matters.

Which of the four leadership tasks above are you doing well? Let me know!



Six ways to get more attention for your ministry’s message

ministry's messageToday we live in a world inundated with messages and people clamouring for your attention. What can you do to cut through the noise? Especially when you are trying to communicate with your congregation and the wider community. One of the best ways to get more attention is to write stronger headlines and titles.

Whether you are writing a title for a sermon, a newsletter article, or a blog post, spend a few moments thinking it through. When I was thinking about titles for my book Leaders Who Last, I read something that said, “A title is a promise.” So, what are you promising with your title? Depending on what you’re writing it could be a small promise – but it needs to communicate clearly what the person reading will get.

One of the best resources I’ve found is How to Write Magnetic Headlines, an e-book from the site Copyblogger.com. It’s free, though you have to register to receive it. It’s well worth it. This e-book includes more than 50 pages of recommendations. I had always hated writing headlines, and suddenly I found it easier, more creative, and fun.

Here are my six tips:

  1. Write the headline or title first.  It took me a long time to do this, but it’s a huge time-saver. If you know what the piece is about before you write it, you can dump the content much faster, and then you can edit according to the promise you made.
  1. Use numbers. (3 ways to, 4 reasons why, 5 steps to) This can make it easier to write the sermon or article, because it will focus your thinking. Just like your elementary school teacher told you, outlining helps. It also helps frame the piece for people because they know up front what they’re getting.
  1. Ask a question. “Do you want to…? Want to learn how…? Wish you could…? Wondering what to do when…?” People love answering questions, especially ones that relate to them. Plus asking a question already invites the reader or listener in. Don’t be afraid to ask! This is still a promise, as it hints at what the audience will get.
  1. Use secondary headlines. This is easy if you have numbers. It helps you as a writer and also helps the reader.
  1. Use one of the magic words/phrases: easy, free, how to, you. (See a lot more here). Of course you want to be careful. You are in ministry, not advertising. But you, like advertisers, are in the communications business.
  1. Write at least 3 headlines before you pick one. Not only is this a fun exercise for your brain, but you’ll end up with a better result. For example, the three ideas I played with for this newsletter were: .the one above, “Write Stronger Headlines and Titles” and “Cut Through the Noise.”

Now, I’m always careful to make sure I’m not promising too much or dumbing down my content. I want to be clear but not simplistic, whether I’m writing a sermon, blog post, or article. These recommendations all come ultimately from the advertising industry. Of course you will go deeper with your content. But if no one pays attention to what you are writing or speaking about, your message won’t go very far.

What’s the next piece you have to write? What’s the best headline or title for it?





What’s a pastor to do when she’s got the flu?

I’ll be honest: this is a tale of personal experience.

I’ve been down and out of commission with the flu, or something equally gross and debilitating. (And yes, I got my shot). Instead of feeling completely pitiful, I’ve spent my sick time trying to practice what I’m about to preach to you. Because as we all know, you will get sick at some point. So what’s a busy pastor to do?

  1. Accept the sickness. You are human. You come into contact with illness. I had to accept that I couldn’t write a newsletter last week, and I had to reschedule several appointments. Use your prayer practice to help you accept it, and to claim the reality that God loves you no matter how “productive” you are or aren’t. At times of illness I learn how attached I am to my own productivity, and how much I judge my worth by how much I get done. Embrace the reality of God’s love no matter how you feel or what you can do. Catch yourself when you start to complain. It won’t help you feel better; it reinforces your negative feelings, and it moves you away from acceptance
  2. Marshall your support. I find many clergy are happy to give help but reluctant to receive it, even in the short term. Does your church have a group who helps those who are ill? It might be a ministry to them to ask them to bring a meal. When you do ask for help, from anyone, practice being specific. “Can you bring me some chicken soup?” “Will you bring me some bath salts?” “Would you be willing to lead the staff meeting on Thursday?” And if you’re up for it, connect with your extended family in some way. Who is the most supportive person in your family? I talked with my brother (actually, he called me), and even though I wasn’t up to much of a conversation I felt encouraged by the connection.
  3. Set goals for yourself. This is especially for the time when you are recovering. They can be extremely small: Here are a few ideas:
  • Make your bed. (Then give yourself a high five when you do it!)
  • Read three verses of Scripture.
  • Spend 10 minutes answering emails (the easy ones).
  • Call one shut-in. (Oone of the ones who makes you feel happy to talk to)
  • Find an old sermon on Sunday’s text to revise. (Yes, it’s OK.)
  • Take a 3-5 minute walk outside if you can.

Instead of beating yourself up for what you can’t do, celebrate what you are able to do as you get better. Also take a minute to thank your body for all it has done in the past and is currently doing for you.

Finally, consider again and again the words of Paul in Philippians 1:4-12 (NRSV):

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

What do you do to support yourself when you are ill?

In sickness and health,


P.S. I am feeling on the up and up. Stay tuned for next week’s email – it’s a good one!

Do you have your Lenten plans in place? Here are five ideas!

Lenten plansIt’s less than six weeks until Ash Wednesday. Are you ready with your Lenten plans? If not, here are five suggestions for congregation-wide emphases that you still have time to implement. Some of them you can simply choose to adopt yourself and invite others to join with you, some others will need a little more planning.

  1. Write a thank you note each day. Encourage people to write a thank you email, or (better) a written thank you note every day to someone who touched their life. It could be someone within the congregation, a family member, or someone from their past. Step up to do it yourself as they do. You could even order post cards with inspirational images and quotes on them, and distribute them to the congregation so they can get started. Writing a thank you note each day is the practice I’m going to take on for myself this Lent.
  2. Engage in a “news fast.” Take a break from reading, watching and listening to the news. In the current climate, it could be a wonderful gift, and a great thing to do for your spiritual life.  Invite people to take time off from the anxiety driven news cycle. Trust me, if something big happens, you will hear about it. In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership¸ Steven Sample talks about giving up news for six months! He didn’t miss anything significant. Invite your people (and yourself) to take more time for prayer for our nation and the world instead. You could offer three levels of opting in to this practice: 40 days completely news-free, check in on Sundays, or read paper news only (a much cooler medium) for 40 days.
  3. Give of yourself every day. This could be a practice, such doing something kind every day. (Here’s a host of ideas.) Or it could actually be giving at least a small amount of money away every day, which I did last year. I found it a powerful practice for finding greater freedom in relation to money.
  4. Read (or listen to) the same passage of Scripture together daily.  There are lots of audio version of the Bible (see this guide). You could share links to the week’s text via email or social media and invite people to listen daily. If you are doing a special Lenten Bible study group, you could invite people to read or listen daily. Keep it simple.
  5. Help your people connect their money with their faith. This willl take a little more planning than the other ideas. However, it’s not too late to offer my Finances and Faith System for the Lenten season. It is a congregation-wide offering that focuses not on giving, but on how ordinary people can bring prayer into their daily encounters with money—perfect for Lent. Click here for more information.

Please do let me know how you observe this time. I love hearing new ideas and learning from amazing leaders, like yourself. You can leave a comment on below  and I promise to reply.



A Christmas prayer for you

Christmas prayerIt’s been a pleasure sharing with you my thoughts about church leadership this year–and even more to hear your comments about the places these have resonated and stimulated your thinking.

Here’s a lovely prayer for Christmas services, from The Rev. Bosco Peters, from New Zealand:

God of darkness and silence, you have pierced the quiet of this night by the utterance of your Word in our flesh. May your word of compassion and reconciliation resound in us and through us.

In this holy night angels proclaimed the peace of your unconquered Sun of righteousness. Strengthen all who work for peace and justice.

In this holy night you came to us in a child cradled in a borrowed bed of straw as there was no room in the inn. Open our hearts to the needs of the homeless and the hungry.
In this holy night shepherds and outcasts heard your good news. Give us grace to spread your gospel of joy and liberation.
Click here for the rest of the prayer. May your celebration of Christmas be truly blessed this year, and may you have a peaceful time of rest after. Thank you for your ministry!



Here’s what positive relationships at church really look like

positive relationshipsWhat do you see in the relationships in your church? When you think about people interacting, what comes to mind?

When I ask pastors this, many of them are quick to point out the challenges or frustrations. And I understand. It’s easy to focus on the negative people and interactions and spend a lot of time discussing them (if not complaining).

But here’s what we know. Focusing on what’s working and how to get more of it is vastly more productive.

Here are five characteristics of positive relationships at church:

Growth: People are growing in their relationships with each other and with God. They may serve in one capacity together, then create their own projects. Or they may move from only attending on Sunday to becoming a member of the church. Growth is evident.

Responsibility: People can take responsibility for their own part in relationships. They don’t blame others and actively work on their own “stuff.”

Positivity: People in your church spend more time talking positively than negatively – especially in regard to how they communicate to and about one another.

Lightness: They have a sense of humor. When things go wrong, they can see the lighter side and even seek it out.

Direct: People work on person to person relationships. They don’t triangle in other people with gossip or complaints.

You can assess your own congregation for how often you see this kind of behavior, and celebrate it when you see it. And, even more importantly, you can assess yourself and how you relate to others. Remember, you can always relate to others this way, whether or not they approach you positively.

I recently came across this prayer:
With the help of God, my family and friends,
I am
growing confidence and assurance
in myself and others,
developing new possibilities and opportunities,
advancing compassion and encouragement,
and building vision and hope.
I pray that I will complain and lament less.
I pray that I will forget how to scold and whine.
God help me to grow, develop, advance and build.

It comes from Kennon L. Callahan’s Giving and Stewardship in an Effective Church. Published almost 25 years ago, it’s still in print, and I recommend it for your stewardship endeavors. However, the best part of it is this prayer. Callahan suggests you place it someplace you will see it every day, pray it and live it every day: “Help this be the prayer of personal growth of your congregation.”

I can safely say that if you do pray this and live it, your congregation will have more positive relationships. If you encourage others to do the same, the congregation will have even more. If you are willing, I invite you to commit to pray this prayer daily.

Questions for reflection:
Am I growing, responsible, positive, light and direct in my relationships at church?
How might I grow in one of these areas a little more before the end of this year?




Three ways to connect with your family at Christmas (even if you’re not going home)

Christmas familyClergy families can find it difficult to connect with extended family at Christmas. We often live far from family, and we WORK Christmas Eve. Sometimes family comes to visit, and we come home after Christmas Eve services just wanting to crash when they want to celebrate. Or we travel on Christmas Day and arrive exhausted. Or we don’t see them at all at Christmas time.
Because of this, we have a unique opportunity to intentionally craft ways to connect with our families. Below are my suggestions and my hope is these get your wheels spinning so you come up with options that really serve you and yours.


Strategy One:

Ask them what they remember about Christmases past. Whether you’re together or apart, this question inspires conversation. You can ask this of people in any generation-parents/aunts/uncles, sibling/cousins, or children of any age. You can do it before the holidays, on the day of, or even after. Whatever the timing, the conversation fosters connection.


Strategy Two:

Thank them for what you remember and appreciate about Christmas growing up, even if you have to think hard. If you are far away, write a letter (yes, on paper) and share your appreciation. If you had a difficult childhood, see if there’s one thing you can appreciate and share that. If you had a wonderful childhood, tell them. If your parents are gone, tell your siblings or cousins what you appreciated.


Strategy Three:

If you will be with family in person, take a different approach than you usually do. If you usually pull out all the stops and  make a big Christmas dinner, announce you’ll be going out to eat. If you collapse in a chair and talk in monosyllables, engage with people (even if you are tired). One year I hosted Christmas and tried to do as little as possible. I found it incredibly freeing! And surprise, surprise, everything got done. My 85-year-old mother was happy to peel the potatoes.


What’s the purpose of this?
And what does it have to do with ministry?


Here’s the reason: We all learn how to relate to people (and holidays!) in the families we grow up in. We carry those patterns into our ministry. So…when you can develop a wider repertoire in your family of origin, you’ll have more choices in how you relate to others at church.
Let me know which of the strategies you try or create this holiday season. Think of it as a fun experiment.



Your 6-step formula for an awesome Advent

awesome AdventWell, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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,