Healing Spiritual Wounds: a great resource for pastoral ministry

healing spiritual woundsDo you have people in your congregation who have been wounded by the church? Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, author of Healing Spiritual Wounds, knows the territory of church intimately. She knows both the pain and the gift of it. Merritt offers a way toward healing while retaining or recovering a connection with God. Her gentle yet challenging tone can help pastors both review their own story and understand more deeply the experiences of those who have been hurt by the church and people of faith. Merritt’s candor about her own story shows the way, as well as the stories she shares about the experiences of others. Her writing is beautiful and powerful.

I particularly liked the exercises at the end of each chapter and intend to use some of them myself in my own life. She starts in the first chapter with great sentence completion exercises. One that caught my eye was this:

“My religious upbringing taught me that I was…” I could freewrite about that for days. Try it. Just take 10 or 20 minutes and write, by hand, anything that comes to mind.

Another wonderful suggestion that anyone could use: read the Psalms prayerfully and highlight the parts that resonate.

I love Merritt’s notion of moving from victim to survivor. I think is this the essence of a growth-producing response to the challenges of life. As we minister to people who have been wounded by church or in any other way, it’s important to help them find the path of growth. At the same time, we need not to dismiss or be cavalier about what they have suffered.  Her approach to dealing with negative emotions (Chapter 4) is to learn to acknowledge them, listen to ourselves and learn to comfort ourselves. This is a mature relationship with emotions. It can allow us and others to integrate difficult experiences rather than being driven by them

If you experienced a challenging upbringing at church or in a Christian family, read Healing Spiritual Wounds. If you are in ministry and didn’t, it’s even more important for you to read this so you understand what others have experienced. Get it here.

(Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

You vs. your email

emailWriter/director Nora Ephron once wrote that people used to say it was much simpler to return twenty emails than ten telephone calls. She went on, “Executives now return hundreds of e-mails every day, and life is not remotely simpler. They return e-mails day and night. They never go home from their e-mail.” (“I Just Want to Say: The World is Not Flat,”  in I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections.)

Sound familiar?

I’ve felt this myself. I recently wrote that I try to plan my day before I check email. I think this is one way to be in charge of your email. You are making the decision on when to look at email.

I’ve continued to think about this, because I find myself buried in email. Here’s what I’ve been experimenting with:

  1. Turn off notifications. I keep saying this, because I continue to participate in meetings where someone’s phone beeps. It distracts me, and I know it distracts them, because they look down at their phone. I want you to have your full attention on what you are doing right now, whether it’s what you are thinking about or the person you are listening to. You’ll do better work. I promise.
  2. Unsubscribe from things you don’t read. You don’t need clutter in your email. So,  simply pick five subscriptions, and unsubscribe. I just did this myself a few minutes ago.
  3. Use a timer. It’s easy to get lost in email, and before you know it, an hour has gone by. I find if I set my timer for 15 minutes, I process email quicker. And then I know I am done for the time being.
  4. If you have a backlog, sort your email. I keep going back to this post by Mark Forster, “How to Clear an Email Backlog.” It really helps. (I’m not sure his method works in gmail, though.)
  5. Here’s something else I keep saying: Don’t answer emails that upset you right away. I know, I know–the flood of emotion makes you FEEL like you have to reply immediately. But, you do have time to think it through. Write your response, in a document, not an email draft so you don’t send it by mistake. Give it a night, or at least an hour, then read it again. Have someone else outside the system, preferably not your spouse, read it. Edit to calm it down, then send (or, consider not sending).

How do YOU manage the email challenge? I’d love to hear your ideas.



P.S. Learn more about managing email and the many other demands on your attention, and make the best use of your precious, limited time. Increase your influence without increasing your workload by registering for my Leaders Who Last Ministry Growth Series.

Six untruths pastors like to tell themselves about relationships

If you’re a pastor, you probably spend a lot of time connecting with people in your church. That’s good. Relationships are essential to leadership. However, I think pastors sometimes believe things about relating to others that simply aren’t true. You may actually believe them, but they won’t get you very far in your leadership, in your ministry with individuals, or in your personal life.

Which of these do you believe?

  1. I need to give everyone equal attention. Well, in practice this simply isn’t true. And just because everyone is equal before God and equally beloved by God, doesn’t mean you need to spend equal time with them. For one thing, you’re not God. You can’t give attention to unlimited people. You have to make some choices. I’d like to suggest that spending time with people who are motivated to grow is a good use of your limited time for one-on-one connection. And spending time helping leaders grow, or helping mature members grow into leaders, is the best of all.
  2. I need to spend as much time with someone as they want. I’ve heard this directly from pastors. Or when I raise the possibility that they can set limits, they are surprised. Just the opposite is true, in fact. For those who have trouble setting limits, it’s a ministry to set a boundary, including a time boundary.
  3. If I cut this person (staff person or member) some slack, they will appreciate it and shape up. All right, this one can be true sometimes. I do notice that many pastors let people get away with bad behavior repeatedly in the name of Christian charity. I’m all for Christian charity, but as I noted above, it can be a ministry to set limits. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to say, “No, not here.”
  4. If I just spend more time with people sharing my vision, they will come around to my point of view. Now, of course it is important to clarify and share your vision over time. And some of that happens one-on-one or in small groups. Yet, don’t forget the most important part of relationships (including relationships that focus on moving the vision forward): listening. People won’t come along unless they believe you have heard and understood their perspective, even if it is very different from your own.
  5. My family of origin and I are very different, and they have nothing to do with how I relate to people at church. Remember that you learned your first lessons about how the meaning of relationships from your family. Some of those lessons may have been challenging ones. You may have developed a variety of different ways to relate to others over the years. However, remember that under stress, you probably revert to the earliest patterns, and you need to be aware of what they are. In addition, your family may have taught you some useful lessons in relationships that you haven’t appreciated, such as how to be aggressive with a bully, not simply nice. What did you learn from your family about relationships that can help you now?
  6. I’ll spend more time with my spouse/children/myself/God NEXT week. The pressures of ministry can seem all-consuming. And on a week when you’ve got multiple funerals or a big building or staff or pastoral care crisis, it’s okay to say this. However, if you find yourself saying this every week, you’ll be in trouble soon. On the other hand, if you do regularly relate to the people who are most important to you, you’ll find yourself better able to sustain yourself over time. It’s not easy to have a life outside ministry, but I see people all the time who do. They are happier and more satisfied in ministry and in their personal lives

What truths have you learned about ministry relationships? Comment below!


Let’s take charge of your financial life

financial lifeDo you have piles of ministry receipts that you never quite get turned in to church?

Do you always feel like you aren’t sure where you are financially?

Are you worried about your future – because of all the impending costs?

If you answered a begrudging, “Yes, Margaret…” to any of those questions – take a breath. You are not alone in this experience. Now you have an opportunity to shift this situation.

Here are two things I know, both from my own (not-so-glamorous) experience:

First, dealing with personal finance can be a huge challenge, and many of us avoid it. For years I resisted running the numbers on retirement because I was sure the news was going to be bad. Somehow I thought if I never looked at it, it wouldn’t be an issue. But there was always this underlying sense of unease and even fear–would we be OK? I know from many conversations with colleagues, clients and friends that I’m not the only one to avoid facing personal finances.

Second, I also know from my own experience and that of others that when you face the facts, whatever they are, it brings tremendous clarity, power and freedom. You can take action when you don’t know what you need to do. It became much easier for me to consistently save for retirement when I knew what the facts were.

In addition, pastors who are weighed down by financial uncertainty and fear will find it hard to provide important leadership at church in financial matters. You may avoid asking people to give. You may sit back at finance meetings instead of providing needed pastoral leadership.

So, here are four questions to answer. And fifth, I give you something essential to remember. These are not easy questions and some take years to answer–not because the information is hard to get. However, the internal resistance can keep us from spending the few hours it takes to gather the data.

Be kind to yourself. Remember, telling yourself capable/accomplished/smart person you are will keep you motivated you to find the data (rather than the reverse, as so many of us do). Just pick one of these to start, and finish it. Then see where you are.

  1. What do you have? This is known as “net worth.” Some people prefer to call it “net wealth.” Whatever you call it, remember that your worth is not dependent on your wealth. You add up everything you have (cash, property, value of your pension). Then you subtract everything you owe (mortgage, student loans, credit cards).  It might be a negative number. That’s OK.
  2. What do you spend? Track your spending for the last month. If you can track for three months – that’s even better and tracking for a year gets you bonus points. Divide your spending into some simple categories–not 50. Be gracious to yourself. What’s spent is spent. Identify it, don’t ignore it.
  3. What do you need? Figure out the basics that you need to survive–food, shelter, basics to run your car, insurance, loan repayment. Write out those numbers.
  4. What do you want? Figure out how much the “extras” cost you. Then think beyond them. If money were no object, what would you want? To take your whole family on a trip? To get a weekly massage? To fund your grandkids’ college funds? To buy a new TV? It’s OK to want things. I find a lot of clergy tamp down their wants. They feel guilty if they want a better car, or a nice trip. Just dream a little. You don’t have to spend the money if you don’t have it or don’t want to right now–or ever. Have some fun with it.

Bonus tip: Remember that your real value has nothing to do with your “net worth,” how much you overspent last year, your debt, your accumulated wealth, whether it’s a lot or less than nothing. Take a deep breath, and remember how much God loves you.

Now, your task is to choose one of these questions and answer it. A down and dirty estimate is fine. If you have a lot of resistance, just notice it and extend yourself as much grace as God does. Let me know which question you are working on.


Pastors, what do you do if they don’t want to follow you?

Today, I am writing you a long letter. Usually I try to keep things concise because I know how busy you are, but here’s the thing–this challenge is one of the biggest that leaders face. It’s one almost all of my coaching clients have grappled with. And it’s an important conversation to have. So please, give yourself these next few minutes with this letter. I’d appreciate it, and I know your congregation will too.

So, I know that every pastor has had this experience: You know the direction you want to go, whether it’s big or small. You float the idea in a conversation, in a board meeting, or in a sermon. You get one or more of the following responses:

  1. Their eyes glaze over.
  2. They respond with some version of “no.” Sometimes they say, “It would never work here,” or, “We tried that and it wasn’t successful” or even, “Over my dead body.”
  3. They say “yes” but then…nothing ever happens.

It’s frustrating.
It’s discouraging.
And sometimes, it’s infuriating.

What’s a leader to do? After years of having this experience myself, and then coaching leaders and even boards through this, I’ve come up with four steps to take.

First, calm down. Remember, this is part of the inevitable process that happens when leaders move forward. It’s not about you personally. It’s not about how well you made your case. It is not about whether they like you or not. It does not mean they don’t value you. You’re won’t minimize the resistance by talking longer or louder. Consider yourself in good company with every other leader.  They make a move, and someone opposes it, actively or passively.

As you get calmer, do all you can to let go of the outcome. This doesn’t mean you don’t want what you want. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the ministry. What it means is that you can be freer. See how close you can get to thinking you can handle it whether they say yes or no. Paradoxically, that gives more emotional space for people to hear you and over time to come along.

Know someone who needs to hear this point? Click the image to share on Facebook.




Second, get clearer. Go back and re-think what you are proposing.
What do you want?
What are you really asking?
Are you setting goals for others they don’t have for themselves?
(That’s the classic burnout position.)

Clarify for yourself what you can control and what you can’t. What decisions can you make, and what do others need to make. Then write down some “I” statements (remember those?) about what’s important to you, and what you are going to do (and in some cases, not do).

Third, connect. The knee-jerk reaction here is to withdraw or withhold. I get it, but it doesn’t serve you or the relationship. So as much as it may feel like climbing Mt. Everest, make sure you stay in touch with people. Connect in general and about the issue at hand. Pay extra attention to pastoral care. Stay interested in people and cultivate connection with them as individuals and as leaders and members of the congregation.

Then, have conversations with key individuals about the topic at hand.  Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, speaking at the Ecumenical Stewardship Center Generosity Now Conference recently shared a brilliant question: “Who are the people without whom this will not happen?” He recommended you have conversations with those people, whether or not they are in formal leadership positions or not.

The purpose of these conversations is not to convince them of your position, but to briefly share some of your thinking and to truly hear their perspective on this issue. In many cases they know the congregation better than you. If you respectfully ask their opinion and deeply listen, you will more likely enlist their support later. Don’t try to convince them of anything in this conversation. Use your pastoral skills and listen.

Finally, keep going. Ministry is all about the long game. You may decide, after further thinking and listening that now is not the time for this initiative. That’s OK. You don’t want to waste your effort. Come back again later. Or you, may decide, in consultation with others, that now is the time. You will have to be prepared for further resistance, but  now you will have enough allies to make it possible. Persistence is essential in leadership. But remember, you’re not leading if no one is following you.

Now, having said all this, when have you faced resistance? How have you handled it? What worked for you to enlist support for ministry ideas? I’d love to hear from you. Take a moment to reflect on how you’ve grown through these speed bumps and comment below, or email me your stories.


P.S. I’m going to add something new to complement this blog—live video! On most Mondays at noon PT I’ll be doing a brief Facebook live video on the topic of the week, whether it’s. I’ll share my initial thoughts on the topic, then will look for your input so I can make Thursday’s article as relevant as possible.

Make sure you friend me on Facebook so you’ll see when I go live. And let me know what questions you have about these ministry topics: leadership, money, relationships, productivity, personal growth or communication. What do you struggle with? What do you want to know?

Did you do this life hack this morning?

Getting more done

Here’s one of my best tips for getting more done in ministry. I’m wondering if you did it this morning.

Plan your day . . . before you check your email.

If you did that this morning, awesome. And if you didn’t–well, try it tomorrow! I find there is a close correlation between my ability to do this and how productive I am, and I’m hooked on this strategy.

Because this is more than a technical fix.

When you make decisions about your day before checking email, you are saying, I am going to define my day. I am not letting others define it for me. You are setting your priorities for the day. You are blocking out time when you are not going to be available. You are making time for your most important projects.

Now, I know that one of those emails could derail your plan. That’s OK. All good plans are flexible. It’s the practice of deciding, day after day, that you are in charge of your own schedule, that’s important. Then you can assess when you do read those emails what is the relative importance of the requests people are making of you.

The corollary of course, is to plan your day before you look at social media. Personally, I find this easier, although I slip up once in awhile. Social media is designed to get and keep your attention. That may not serve your highest priorities very well. (Tip: I use Social Fixer, a browser add-on for Facebook where you can make choices about what you want to see. It also only allows you to see 50 posts at a time, then you have to make a choice to continue.)

I’ve been learning a little about the brain and the way experiences that provide intermittent rewards are the most addictive. Email provides this. The social media companies are intentional about designing experiences that do it. Likewise, we need intention to take the time alone to do the daily, thoughtful planning that are essential for making progress in ministry.

How do you plan your day? What choices can you make about email and social media that will help you? I’d love to know, just email me back.


Pastors, here’s how to help your leaders grow

leaders growAre your leaders growing? It’s critical to help them develop, and to develop your relationship with them.. You can’t do the ministry without them. Here are three ways to work on it.

  1. Spend time with them.

Touch base with them between meetings. Find out more about them, their families, their interests. You will know more about their strengths and places they need to grow.  You can connect electronically, but I strongly suggest you simply pick up the phone. Even if they don’t call you back, they will know you were thinking about them. An idea to consider: one pastor told the members of the board he would read a book they suggested and meet with them to discuss it. It worked so well to foster a deeper connection that he did it again another year.

If you have to choose, prioritize developing leaders over visiting shut-ins, even in a small church. Don’t feel guilty and don’t pay attention to the people who say you don’t visit enough if that’s part of the culture of your church. You need relationships with your leaders in order to do your job. You can’t delegate this.

  1. Use meetings to help them grow.

Teach them. Have a brief learning time at each board meeting. You’ll need to enroll the president or chair to get this on the agenda, and you may face some resistance. Here’s my experience: If you have a clear agenda and a set closing time for the meeting, you can do a few minutes of teaching and still end on time. Discussion expands to fill the time available.  Some boards have studied my book Leaders Who Last. I used Ron Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church.

Pray with and for them.  Rev. Cindy Maybeck insisted that her board have a prayer time at every meeting and that they pray aloud. This was her primary  teaching. They resisted strongly, and it took years, but at the end they all felt like that was one of her biggest contributions to their own leadership and the life of the church. Also let your leaders know you are praying for them, and then do it. It doesn’t have to take a long time.

  1. Allow them to lead.

Be clear about what their role is and what your role is. Allow them to play their role. This will vary depending on your structure. For example, in an Episcopal church, the rector has more authority than in a congregational church like UCC or Baptist. If a decision is on the table that is not yours to make, put your case forward. Then say, “I recognize this is your decision.”  After the decision, even if you strongly disagree, communicate that you respect them and the choice they made. Then act accordingly

Three questions to consider:

Who are the current leaders I want a closer relationship with?

What do I want to teach my leaders or learn alongside them?

Can I stick to my role, and let them play theirs?


What every pastor ought to know about money

every pastor moneyHere are five important things about money every pastor ought to know. Any one of them can be difficult to learn depending on your background, life experience and aptitude. This is not a 5 quick tips article. However, over time (in some cases, years) and with practice you’ll be better able to lead in stewardship and overall church financial matters.

  1. How to give. It’s hard to teach what you don’t know. You may have been raised in a family that was generous, or maybe you didn’t. You may have ample resources, or you may struggle under the weight of a small salary and large debt. Whatever your situation, prayerfully and thoughtfully consider how you can be generous and what God is calling you to give.
  2. Your own cash flow. Figure out how money flows into and out of your life and make note of your financial priorities.. Know whether you are facing a surplus or a deficit each month. Be sure you are making intentional decisions about spending, saving and giving. This will help with #1. I know we can have a lot of resistance to doing this. But I’ve noticed that not-knowing takes more energy than knowing. Facts can calm you down and help you take action, even if the bottom line doesn’t look great. And if you have a surplus, you can still make more intentional choices about how you use the money you do have.
  3. How to read a financial statement. I didn’t learn much about this until I had been a pastor for a number of years. I’ll ever be grateful to Andover Newton Theological Seminary for offering a Woodbury Workshop seminar on this topic which transformed my relationship with our financial reports. If you don’t have a business background, take a course or find a mentor.
  4. How to ask people to give. You don’t have to apologize or feel like you’re been intrusive. Remember, it’s a gift to give people the opportunity to give to causes they believe in. You can work on your learning in a couple of ways. First, help people grow in stewardship in their lives as disciples. The second way you can learn to ask people to give is to ask specific people with resources to support special projects. Many pastors never do this. If you have done a capital campaign, you may have had the opportunity to do this. I hated it at first, but I’ve learned so much, and have found it a blessing (and still growth-producing) to ask.
  5. That money is a tool. We shy away from money talk and from asking for money, as if money were suspect or even dirty. But money, given well, makes ministry possible.  The flow of money can be a blessing.

Re-read this list. Which one can you choose to go deeper with now?