What I’ve learned about ministry from my voice teacher

learned about ministry

I’ve been taking voice lessons for almost 20 years, 16 of them with the same teacher, Judi Stabler. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from her. Three are particularly relevant to ministry:

First, be yourself. Judi is clear with me that I have the voice I have. No one is going to make me into a giant-voiced operatic singer. It’s not going to happen. She works hard to help me find music that suits my relatively modest voice. If the music says fortissimo (really loud), she says, make it forte, one level down. I don’t have the voice for fortissimo. She also has said many times, “If you try to sing like someone else, it sounds bad.”

Likewise, I’m never going to be flashy in my ministry. It’s just not me. I think I’m thoughtful and engaging, but not flashy.

What does this mean for you? God calls you to be you in your ministry. Not someone else. Sure, you can learn from others and what they are doing in their ministry. But don’t try to imitate them. Learn your unique strengths, your individual “voice” in preaching and in ministry as a whole.

Second, take criticism as a learning experience. Judi does not mince words when giving feedback. She’s been known to say straight out, “That sounds bad.” Thankfully, she doesn’t say it as often as she used to. As someone who tends to hate criticism, it’s been a wonderful growth-producing experience to get regular feedback that isn’t necessarily positive. If I hadn’t gotten that feedback, I would not have grown much as a singer. I had to learn to toughen up in order to continue studying music.

You and I both know that criticism is a constant in ministry. There’s always something that somebody doesn’t like. It’s not always from people who are trying to teach us something. But what if we could view each critic as a teacher in some way, even if we disagree with the content of the criticism? And perhaps there’s a nugget of truth in there, a place where we really do need to improve? At a minimum, most of us can improve in this way: we can get less reactive to the inevitable criticism.

Third, take risks. While Judi has taught me to accept myself and my voice in some ways, she’s pushed me hard in others. She’ll sometimes say, “Don’t sing like a Baptist minister!” She wants me to be freer in my singing, and a better actress. I’ve made a lot of progress. A peak was singing the French song La Vie en Rose last year, sitting on a stool with a beret and a fringed red shawl.

Doesn’t this conflict with the first point? When you are yourself, living in your own skin, it’s easier to take some risks. It’s not imitation, but experimentation. And of course, when you take risks in ministry, you get to practice the second point, dealing with criticism!

What is one small risk you are taking or could take this year in your ministry? Comment below and let me know. I’ll keep you in prayer.



P.S. If you want to see a video version of this (and see the red shawl), click here.

P.P.S. The photo is from a recital I gave a couple of years ago.


Why I’m giving up online news for Lent

LentThis year I’m giving up online news for Lent I don’t always give up something. Sometimes I add something on. A couple of years ago I gave away money every day. Last year I wrote a thank you note every day. I’ve even given myself a treat a day for Lent.

It’s never hard to decide what my Lenten practice should be. Once the idea comes to mind, it’s clear what I should do. The year I decided to give money away every day for 40 days, I knew it was the right thing, because immediately I knew I didn’t want to do it! It would be a sacrifice, and that would be in the spirit of Lenten practice. It was one of the most powerful disciplines I’ve taken on.

Over a year ago I decided I would only read paper news. It’s a cooler medium. I don’t listen to radio news or watch television news. I would read our newspaper, The Oregonian, and The Economist (it’s a weekly, and British so has a somewhat outside perspective on U.S. news).

Well. I didn’t keep it up. I got seduced by a $19 subscription (for a year!) to The Washington Post. I’ve also gotten intrigued by FiveThirtyEight. And recently I discovered that The National Review provides a well-written and thoughtful conservative perspective. (Note: I’m not providing links to these sites! I don’t want you to get sucked in, too…)

All these sites keep posting things all day. It’s addictive. It’s distracting. And it doesn’t help me focus on my goals, which have to do with increasing my ability and opportunity to help leaders like you.

So, the idea came to me: Give up online news for Lent. Go back to baseline: reading paper news. I knew it was the right thing for me for Lent. Then I came across this article by Shane Parrish (my new favorite blogger): Why You Should Stop Reading News. Everything he writes is interesting, but this one was brilliant and timely (even though he wrote it a few years ago).

Parrish says: “…most of what you read online today is pointless. It’s not important to your life. It’s not going to help you make better decisions. It’s not going to help you understand the world. It’s not going to help you develop deep and meaningful connections with the people around you. The only thing it’s really doing is altering your mood and perhaps your behavior.” I run into a lot of people who are upset all the time because of the news. Sometimes I’m one of them.

Another way

I’ve also been listening to the audio version of The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. It’s a conversation between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama. It’s the opposite of what Shane Parrish describes as the news altering your mood. Rather, these two spiritual leaders describe how to live in such a way that your mood is not dependent on what is going on around you. They acknowledge the challenges, but lift up (and demonstrate) the possibility of great joy.

The news doesn’t help me live joyfully. It doesn’t help me carry out my calling in the world. Sometimes it does just the opposite. I’m going to keep reading my paper sources. But for the next 40 days, I’m staying off the news sites. And I’m using Social Fixer to manage what I see on Facebook so I don’t get hijacked by someone else’s outrage.

Do I think we should withdraw from the world? Of course not. However, I want to engage in thoughtful ways, not determined by the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the 24-hour news cycle.

What do you think? How do you manage yourself in the face of the onslaught of news?



P.S. For a positive alternative, check out Lent Madness. It’s a fun version of the March madness basketball bracket, using saints.

What to do about THAT church member

Every pastor has one: That church member you dread to see coming. The one who monopolizes your time. The one who pushes all your buttons. The one you think about in the night, wondering what to do. Sometimes it’s a staff member. Sometimes it’s a leader. Sometimes it’s a long-time member.

What’s a leader to do?

Here are four questions to ask:

  1. What’s the bigger picture? You can get so focused on individual behavior you lose sight of the fact that this person has a place in the system. It’s not simply about them and their behavior. For one thing, in many cases the church system has put up with their behavior for years, even decades. It’s a reciprocal relationship. No one has been willing to say, “You can’t act like that here.” For another, they probably are not the first one to occupy that position.One pastor I talked to said, “Oh, yeah–before he came, there was someone else who bullied lay leaders into doing what he wanted.” Step back and think about it. What’s the history? What are the patterns?
  2. What’s the hook for me? In addition to the church system, you’ve got your own programming which makes you vulnerable to this person. Think about your own family story. Who are people you find most challenging? How do you deal with them? Do you confront? Avoid? Placate? Notice if there are any similarities to the way you approach your “problem” person. When we are allergic to someone else, it’s not just about them. Some difficult people we can simply ignore or easily handle. Something about THAT church member challenges you emotionally.Can you dig a little deeper and see what might be going on for you? It may be a challenge to unearth these patterns, and you might need some help. Some of the coaching I do helps clergy reflect on this.. Even when you figure it out, it’s not a quick fix, but it can help you get perspective. I know I get hooked by big, aggressive men. It comes from the multigenerational history of my family, and it took me a long time to figure it out. Now I’m able to say to myself pretty quickly, “Oh…I see what’s happening here,” and I can calm down and do what I need to do. But it took years (literally) to get there.
  3. Who else can help handle this? I find many pastors feel like it’s up to them to deal with people who are creating problems. You do need to work on your own reactivity to that individual, as I’ve just discussed. In addition, in some cases you can share the responsibility. A member who is creating havoc is the church’s problem, not just yours. You may have ideas, but you might also say to one or more key leaders; “I’m just not sure what to do. You’ve know her longer than I have–what do you think?” It’s can be a way of sharing the anxiety appropriately.One of my favorite Edwin Friedman lines is this: “I can leave, but you’re still going to have to deal with this person.” I was never brave enough to use it, but you might be.
  4. How can I pray for them? You can work to unhook yourself from your reactivity to this individual through prayer. If you find it difficult, simply mention their name to God. You don’t have to figure it out. However, if you regularly pray for them, over time, you will be calmer in relationship to them, at least a little. If you are less reactive, the relationship will improve, at least a little. In addition, you will be in a better place spiritually in your leadership of the congregation.



3 steps to easier preaching

preaching easierI know what it’s like to preach week after week, year after year.

It’s exhilarating–and exhausting.

It’s satisfying–and terrifying.

It’s fun–and a grind.

So as we walk through one of the busiest times in our year, here are three ways I found to make preaching easier.

  1. Plan ahead. I’ve talked before about the value I found in lectionary preaching. However you choose the text, I strongly suggest you do at least some minimal planning ahead. It took me years, but I finally got to the point where I was laying out a plan for three months at a time. I didn’t make detailed plans, but I knew where I was headed. It made preaching so much easier. I did use the lectionary, but I often looked for a sequence of texts in one Bible book. That way the study each week built on the week before. In addition, when you have a plan, you can look for supporting material over the weeks in advance. Online tools like Evernote or Pocket can help keep track of this.

In addition, when you work in advance, you can put your unconscious to work with no extra effort. I always tried to mostly finish my sermon at least a couple of days in advance. Then when I went back to it, it had magically improved, or I could quickly see how to fix it. (I got this  idea from Kenneth Atchity, A Writer’s Time.)

  1. Know your purpose. For each sermon, write one sentence about where you want people to be by the end.

    “I want them to understand grace more fully.”
    “I want them to reflect on their possessions in the light of their faith.”
    “I want them to see their work as vocation.”

    Then you can assess all the ideas you have accumulated and see whether they fit or not. It’s better to toss out an irrelevant story and have a shorter, more powerful sermon that matches your purpose. This simplifies your preparation because you have a way to evaluate all the ideas that come your way.

  2. Let go of the outcome. This may sound like it contradicts #2, but trust me, it’s helpful. One of the biggest shifts I made in my own preaching was to move away from trying to change people with my preaching. I wanted to get as clear as I could about what I thought was important, and put it out in as compelling a way as possible. I wanted to do so with language and ideas that they could understand. And then I worked to let it go. Walter Brueggemann has a brilliant essay called “The Preacher, the Text and the People” where he talks about the triangle between these three. He says preachers put themselves on the side of the text against the people. Instead, he recommends you stand with the people and allow the text to address both of you. When you approach preaching this way, you are able to trust God to use the biblical text to touch people’s hearts. It’s not all up to you. I found this a tremendous relief. I simply had to do the best I was able, and let God do the heavy lifting. This doesn’t make preaching easy–of course we still work hard to reflect thoughtfully on the text and shape a relevant and engaging message. But we don’t have to work miracles.

Preaching is never going to be easy. It shouldn’t be easy. You are standing before God’s people interpreting the Scripture and calling them to live it out more fully. However, if you use these ideas in ways that work for you, it will be easier week by week and year by year.

What about you? What ways have you found to make the routine of preaching easier (or at least workable) for you? Comment below and let me know.


The truth about time management

An endless amount has been written about time management. I’ve read a lot of it myself, and written a certain amount, too. I’ve been interested in this topic from the beginning of my ministry.

The thing is:

There’s a hoax being perpetuated that time management is essentially about technique.

Sometimes this hoax is presented this way: All you need are the right tools: paper planner, online calendar, tools to block addictive websites.

Sometimes this hoax lies behind needing the “right system,” from Getting Things Done (a complicated system I used to use to great effect) to Steven Covey to InboxZero. All these systems have value when used consistently.

However, none of these are enough. Most of them ignore the emotional and spiritual side of time management. Getting the right systems in place can really help with this, but they are not enough.

So here’s the truth. And you know this deep down.

Managing time is really managing yourself, especially your emotions.

Everyone has persistent negative thoughts and feelings in the moment that keep us from getting important things done. For example:

  • “I can’t say no to this person because they will be upset with me.” So I say yes to something I don’t want to do that isn’t in line with my goals.
  • “I’ll never get it all done.” So I feel so overwhelmed I do nothing, or spend hours online.
  • “I’m afraid about the budget for next year-what does it mean for our ministry, not to mention my salary.” So I procrastinate preparing for the finance meeting or calling the treasurer for an update.

We’re not always this conscious of these feelings, but they keep us from engaging with the challenging work we have to do.

So, what can we do about this? First, we can pray about it. Trust me, the practice of meditative prayer can help with emotion awareness and management. Everyone has lots of thoughts and distractions in meditative prayer, and meditation gives us the opportunity to practice noticing them.

I’ve been spending just a few short minutes in meditation every morning, and it’s astonishing how many thoughts I can have. I come back to a breath prayer, “Lord Jesus, have mercy.” and then I’m off thinking about–often, what I have to do that day, or what I did yesterday. Or, more likely, what I didn’t do yesterday and should have, and what are the ramifications of that and…and…and…. Then, once again I have to bring myself back to the present moment.

Over time, as we practice bringing our attention back, we learn habits that can help us with those challenging thoughts and emotions that throw us off track. The value of meditation is not simply to help with productivity, of course, but this is a in important benefit of regular practice. St. Teresa of Avila talked about being Martha and Mary at the same time: to be busy, yet meditatively aware of God’s presence as we work.

The task is to bring our attention back.

This task, right in front of me.

This person I’m talking to.

This email I have to write, not the one that just came in.

So I am a big fan of detailed planning for the day and the week ahead. I love tools and techniques. But ultimately, they won’t do enough to get you where you want to go. As spiritual leaders, let’s go deeper.

How do you bring a spiritual awareness to your work day by day? Comment below and let me know.



Take a stand at church (and keep your job)

take a stand Leadership means you have to say things that not everyone wants to hear. You know this. I know this. Even your board may know this. But a lot of people still resist it.

So how is leadership looking in your life right now?

Do you have a bold new leadership direction you want to call people toward?

Are you facing  people who want to control everything in the church?

Do you feel called to speak out about public issues of today?

In any of these cases, you take a risk when you speak out.

Now, you can never eliminate risk. But here are some ways to reduce it and stand in your leadership.

1.   Get your thinking clear. What do you think about the issue at hand? What are the principles and values that inform you? Write it down. Get feedback from a thoughtful colleague, coach or mentor. Feedback is no substitute for doing your own thinking; however, it can help step back and  see things you might have missed, reflect on your own anxiety, and consider the implications.

2.   Prepare the ground. If you are making a bold move, you can’t do it alone. You need allies. Lovett Weems suggests in the case of a new initiative that you ask the question, “Who are the people without whom this will not happen?” (I heard him say this at the recent Ecumenical Stewardship Center conference, and I’ll never forget it.) Have a conversation with those people, and get their input. Genuinely listen. You may want to adapt your plan based on the feedback. Likewise, if you are dealing with challenging individuals who are making church life a misery, you can’t manage it alone. You need others who will stand with you. And if you are going to take a controversial stand on a public issue, run it by the most mature individual in your congregation, regardless of their perspective on the issue. I wish I had done this when I was a pastor. I would have saved myself and others a lot of grief and frustration.

3.   Take your stand. Take a deep breath, and preach the sermon, or have the difficult conversation, or make your statement. Do your best to be in your own skin, as authentic and honest as you can be about your position. Speak from your heart. Don’t tell others what they ought to do, think or believe. Don’t try to talk them into anything. Don’t be judgmental or scolding. Instead, use the word “I.” “I think” “I believe.” You may feel anxious. That’s all right. It’s about regulating your anxiety, not eliminating it.

4.   Observe the reaction. When you take a stand, there will be a reaction. This is not personal. It is part of the automatic reactivity in a church system (and other systems, too). Get curious. You may be surprised. Your relatively neutral response to the reactivity can have an enormous impact. This doesn’t mean you change your point of view on the issue. Rather, it means you are able to manage your emotions when people react, even when they criticize or demonize you.

5.   Stay connected. Don’t avoid the people who disagree, even the ones who are upset. It is tempting to cozy up to the ones who like what you are doing, and even to complain about “those people.” Don’t do it. If some people are behaving badly, you may need thoughtful lay leaders to help you respond, but that’s very different from complaining

6.   Let go of the outcome. You can’t control whether others agree with you or not, come along or not, do what you want or not. They will decide. Continue to be curious about what happens and where people take it. Remember, this is just one conversation out of many in a years-long ministry. Trust that God is with you and with them as you move (inch?) forward together.

When have you bravely taken a stand? What happened? And when is the next time you’ll take another?



Service to your community: a new resource

serviceI started reading Meredith Gould’s Deliberate Acts of Kindness while I was waiting at the hairdresser. When she said, “I’m thinking about looking for a place to volunteer,” I said, “Have I got a book for you!” I knew it could help her find the right place for service.

Meredith Gould covers the bases in this book, an updated version of an earlier book. She begins with the meaning of service in several major religions. She offers a valuable process of discernment of whether and what you are called to do in service. And she gets down to the nitty-gritty of what to do when service is not as idyllic and inspiring as you thought it would be. She talks about how to deal with the stress of service, what to do about problems in organizations where you may be serving, and even what are the telltale signs of spiritual abuse.

Despite the serious topic, Gould’s witty tone draws the reader in and keeps the pages turning. It’s a quick read (102 pages), although the thoughtful writing exercises in every chapter are worth the time to take yourself deeper. One of the early exercises has you ask yourself, “Which acts of generosity and kindness meant the most to me?” And along the way, in the chapter entitled, “The Shadow Side of Service,” Gould has wonderful sentence completion exercises like “I’ve trouble cultivation compassion for….”

Deliberate Acts would be a terrific study book for church people who want to do more or are burned out on doing the wrong thing for too long. In addition, for clergy who may say “yes” too quickly to community service opportunities, the book can help you discern where best to put your energies outside the congregation.

I’ve heard many people in recent months say they want to do more than fret and stew or obsessively check social media and the news. Here is your answer: Read Deliberate Acts of Kindness, do the exercises, and discern where you are called to take action—the right action for you, right now.

I want giving to your ministry to be bigger than ever

giving to ministryDo you want to raise more money in your fall campaign? (I hope your  answer is, “Yes.”) Well, there are no guarantees, but I can promise that you are more likely to help your people be more generous if you do the following four things.

  1. Prayerfully set a goal. It’s hard to make progress if you don’t know where you want to end up. Even if your church has been struggling to meet the budget, make your goal a little bigger than you think you can achieve. If something big has happened, like your biggest giver died or moved away, take that into account. But make the goal a bit of a stretch. You may have already set your goal. Consider increasing it, at least a little. Even if you’ve got your plan in place (I hope you do!), but haven’t set a goal, do it now.

When I say prayerfully, I mean that literally. Do more than have a cursory opening prayer for your meeting. Even if your team is filled with hard-heated business types, push them a little and try one of the following:

  • Take a few moments (or more) in silence as you consider the number.
  • Stop and pray aloud in the middle of the meeting for guidance and wisdom.
  • Ask people to go home and pray about it in between meetings (and do so yourself).

If you take the time to do this, you may come up with a different number than you would have. Even if you don’t, you’ll have a different relationship with the goal as you move forward.

Then, invite the whole board to join you in prayer as you reach for this goal. Ask other people in the congregation to pray about it, too.

  1. Celebrate what is right. Avoid saying, “We are really struggling this year and we need your help to keep the doors open.” I think you need to be honest about challenges, but you can frame it in a positive light. Look for as many things as possible that have happened in the last year that you can honestly celebrate: “We had two kids go to camp this year!” “We fed 100 families a month from our food pantry!” “We created one more position on staff–and here’s the effect that had on our ministry!” Tell the story, using pictures, experiences, and emotions. Resist the urge to use a lot of numbers, and instead focus on the impact.
  2. Ask. Ask. Ask. You know what Jesus said: “You don’t have because you don’t ask.” It’s not just true about prayer: It’s true about giving, too. I recently read a story about Fred Trump, the president’s father, who received a visit as part of his Presbyterian church’s annual campaign. He usually gave $200. The visitor asked him for $10,000. He said, “You’ve got a lot of nerve, and I admire you for it so much, I’m going to write a check for that amount.” (Gwenda Blair, The Trumps, p.510) Even if you are not making personal visits as part of the campaign, explicitly ask your leaders to support it. (And your board members are generous givers, right?) Boldly ask people from the pulpit to prayerfully assess their giving and respond.
  3. Celebrate the response. Publicly report the results in a positive way. If you reach or surpass your goal, make a big deal about it. Mention it in worship, on more than one Sunday, so people who aren’t there every week hear about it. Even if you don’t reach your goal, you can still thank you congregation for supporting the ministry of the church. My best tip: Thank individual givers in writing. It has an even greater impact now that people hardly ever get any regular mail. They notice.

I’ve seen these strategies work for ministers and congregations for years. Start with #1 today!