Pastors: What do you talk about at the dinner table?

pastor familyIn the busyness of life, you do have dinner with your family, right? So, what do you talk about at the dinner table?

I recently read an article about Robert Caro, author of multiple biographies of President Lyndon Johnson. His wife is his researcher. Yet Caro says they never talk about LBJ at dinnertime.

That struck me. I do have dinner with my husband most nights I’m not traveling. And, I noticed how I spent much of that time talking about my work and what happened that day (with a little about his day…). I decided to change my habit.

My husband is a public reference librarian, and in quiet moments he looks up science news online. I started asking him, “Did you read anything interesting on the Internet today?” It’s made our dinner conversation far more interesting and even inspiring. Plus, I’m getting a deeper understanding of what makes him tick (after decades–). Last night he told me about some new research into trilobite fossils. (Here’s the link for you science geeks.)

Bring your pastoral skills home.

Day in and day out, you listen at work. So it’s time to practice listening to your spouse and your children, and talking about what they are interested in. Broaden your perspective. Treat them as well as you do members of the congregation.

Whatever you are talking about, keep it positive. No ranting about church or politics.

Does this mean you never talk about church at home? Of course not. It’s close to your heart and you want to share it with those you are closest to. However, venting about church to your spouse is overrated and it doesn’t help you solve the problem. (Stay tuned for that article).

Here are three suggestions for your next family meal:

  1. Ask each person what they want (for tomorrow’s dinner, for vacation, in life). Then listen.
  2. Tell each person what you appreciate about them.
  3. If you do talk about church, share the good things that happened.

If you try these steps out, please do email me and let me know how the experiment goes. I’d love to hear how this works for you.

Question for reflection: If you are partnered, what is your partner most interested in? When can you engage them in conversation about it?

Until next week,



Have you done your ministry planning for fall?

ministry planningAre you ready for September? I know, some of the organized types started planning for fall this last January. But if the pastors I speak to are representative, you’re not completely ready yet. When I was a pastor, I don’t think I was EVER completely prepared for September when it came. I always put off the hardest stuff (like stewardship!) until the last minute.

However, I’m a convert to planning and prioritizing. My friend, Sage Cohen, puts it this way in her wonderful new book on writing, Fierce on the Page:

“When you don’t know what’s most important, you can’t prioritize how to spend your time, you don’t know when you’ve met your goals, and you can literally end up working through the night—usually on the wrong project…Whatever is loudest or most uncomfortable or most important to someone else gets your attention first, and thus you remain in a cycle of doing instead of planning.”

Sound familiar?

Instead of staying in that cycle, take a little time and step back. Think about the time between now and Advent and map it out. Here are my favorite three steps to get the ball rolling.

  1. Look back. Review the last three months. Make a list of what you accomplished, and celebrate it. “Accomplished” here includes resting, watching the Olympics, camping, or whatever gave you joy this summer. And it includes work-related tasks you completed and any projects you did around the house. It’s important to take the time to claim the progress you’ve made. It will give you momentum for fall. (True confessions: I’ve been doing this myself this year, but in this quarterly planning cycle I forgot. I had to go back and do it. I got a burst of energy when I saw everything I did this summer, including taking three full weeks off the grid!)
  1. Look ahead. I just did this for myself, using my own Breathing Room: Create a 3-Month Ministry Plan. I wrote a purpose for the next three months, looked at the commitments I already have, and one or two additional projects I want to take on. THEN, I made my plan. Looking at the whole quarter helped me get a sense of what is realistic to add to my current schedule. It gave me a greater sense of control.
  1. Use your plan every week. I know how often church strategic plans end up in a file, untouched and inefficient. Personal plans can suffer the same fate. At the beginning of the week, get out your plan and take a look. Make a decision about how you can move your projects forward a little. You won’t carry out the plan 100%. That’s OK. You’ll get much farther with less effort than you would have without a plan.

Question for reflection:  What do you want for the next 90 days?

Here’s to your next 3 months!


P.S. Need a bit more guidance for your next quarter? Check out my Breathing Room: Create a 3-Month Ministry Plan in 5 Sessions, and get my help to make this season your best yet.



Three ways to build relationships before summer’s over

church relationshipsSummer’s almost over. It’s two-and-a-half weeks until Labor Day (sorry to say). And unless you’re taking a late-summer vacation, you’re probably getting ready for fall. And fall rolls into the holidays, and before you know it, it’s 2017.

Here’s something to consider in these next weeks: make intentional time to connect with people – before the busyness starts up again. Strong relationships are central to ministry success, and I have three ways for you to set a solid foundation for relationships in these last few weeks of summer.

  1. Connect with key leaders. Before the usual round of meetings begin, spend some time with one or two leaders. Try something new: go to a ball game with your congregation president, or meet your treasurer for lunch, and don’t talk about money. Do something that is fun for both of you. Simply say, “We always talk about church, and I’d like to simply get together for fun.” Whatever you do together, it will help support your work this next year.
  2. Schedule the visits you’ve been putting off. Most pastors have a backlog of pastoral visits. Even if you don’t do a lot of visitation, I’ll bet you have a list of people that nags at you. Before your schedule heats up for fall, make a couple of those visits, or at least make some phone calls. Good pastoral care, while worthy in itself, also is like money in the bank for leadership. It builds credibility. Catch up a bit; it will energize you (and your people).
  3. Connect with a friend outside the church. Who is someone you’ve been meaning to get together with all summer? Do it now. It won’t get any easier in September, or December. To keep yourself going through the year you need friends outside your congregation. Get together for coffee, go for a walk, treat them to lunch, or even schedule a Skype talk or phone call with your closest friend, wherever they are.

Remember: Don’t feel like you “ought” to do all of these before fall. Pick one that energizes you or attracts you, and knock it out. It will be worth it!

Here’s a question to ask yourself:

Who can I connect with in the next two weeks who gives me energy for the upcoming months?

And here’s a question to answer RIGHT NOW in the comment section:

What are the best ways you find to stay in touch with your key leaders?

Can you lead like Churchill?

lead like ChurchillHi there!

I’m back from three glorious weeks in England. So are you surprised that in my first post after my trip, I had to reference Winston Churchill?

On our recent trip to London we visited the Churchill War Rooms, an underground warren which was used as the planning base for the British effort in World War II. Here’s a picture of the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square, a few blocks away.

The rooms were left behind almost intact after the war ended, and made into a museum in the 80s. So there’s a sense of immediateness about them. Looking at the maps with pins in them to show the advance of armies, I got a sense of the challenge of their decision making. They had to make choices with high stakes over years, without knowing whether they would be successful.

We know a lot of things about Churchill’s life, but this experience really brought the day to day decisions and challenges front and center. There are three things that Churchill did as a leader, that I hope you are doing as well:

  1. Be brave. Leadership requires courage. Churchill was courageous, and inspired the British people by his speeches (Listen here) This didn’t mean he never had doubts or struggled. But he knew the importance of his role at this time in history, and that it was essential that he kept going.
  2. Get great people around you and challenge them. The museum highlights a number of the people in both leadership and support positions who made Churchill’s job easier. He expected everything of them. They worked doggedly and were deeply committed both to him and the war effort. In church you sometimes have to accept the leaders you’ve got, but you can do your best to challenge the folks you have to do their best to meet the opportunity at hand.
  3. Take care of yourself. Churchill was a larger than life personality. He only dressed up when necessary (he even liked to work in his pajamas or in the bath). He took a nap every afternoon from 4-5, then got up refreshed and ready to work a second shift. (His staff, on the other hand, didn’t get the same opportunity and still had to keep working…) He knew it was important to sustain himself for the hard work ahead.

I’ve written about Winston Churchill before: see here and here for more.

Here’s a question to ask yourself:

What can I do to become more courageous in my leadership?

And here’s a question to answer RIGHT NOW in the comment section: What secular leader inspires you? Why?



P.S. I want to report briefly on my effort to do #3 (take care of yourself) by taking three weeks completely off from work. I was able to unplug and had a wonderful time. It was hard to make the decision but not to carry it out. And I’m glad to be back!

When Are You Taking Time Off–Completely?

sabbathToday I want to ask you an important question:

When was the last time you were completely out of touch?

It’s becoming rarer in our culture. A friend spent time in a cabin in the woods where she’s been going for years. This year was the first time it had Wi-Fi. Too many potential customers were demanding it, and so the owner put it in.

I get that. I want Wi-Fi, too. I’ve gotten anxious myself when I was in a place where my phone didn’t work.

However, I’m going to try it. In reality, I should have titled this article, “Why I should take time completely off.” I’m going on vacation tomorrow for 3-1/2 weeks. We’re taking a trip to England. (!!) I’m not checking work email during that time. And I’m only taking calls from family members.

To be completely honest –

I had initially planned to check email about once a week. I figured I could still juggle work and relationships and vacation. A win-win-win. Then in conversation with a friend, one of the most spiritually grounded people I know, she mentioned that she goes on retreat for three weeks every single year. She’s completely out of touch during that entire time. When she shared this, i felt like the voice of God saying to me: “Margaret, it’s time to take a break.”

My brother also inspired me by taking a trip to Japan for three weeks in May. He has a corporate job. He didn’t check email until the last few days of the trip, when he was ready for a change of pace. I could see how the break, and a trip to such a different environment without distractions from home, was powerfully stimulating.

I believe that when we take time really off, it benefits us, our families, our creative endeavors and those we work with.

So I’m making a public commitment:

  1. I will not check work email or voicemail from July 15 through August 8.
  2. I will not be on social media for the same period. So don’t look for vacation pictures from me (well, maybe the best one, after August 8).

This makes me nervous.

What if some wonderful opportunity comes my way and I miss out because I’m not available? What if one of the pastors I work with has a crisis and needs me?

Then I come back to the message, “Margaret, it’s time to take a break.” It’s been 15 years since I took three weeks off in a row.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, here are two questions I want you to ruminate on:

What is your plan for time off (and I mean off) in the next year?

How do YOU unplug?

You can even email me your answers at – and I’ll reply in mid-August when I’m refreshed and rejuvenated.



P.S. If you are part of Leaders Who Last, you will still get the impactful modules each week, fear not. Then we’ll touch base when I return.

Are you facing a summer giving slump at church?

summer church giving

Most churches face a drop in giving in the summertime. People are on vacation, and giving to church isn’t always their top priority. Cash flow can be an issue, and it’s easy for pastors and church leaders to panic.

Here are some suggestions:

To do now:

  1. Normalize it. Even if you face cash flow challenges, expect it and accept it. Don’t cry “the sky is falling!” (even to yourself). Remember, this happens every year. It’s predictable. You figure it out every year, and you’ll figure it out this year.
  1. Stay in touch. Keep your church’s ministry in front of your people, even if they aren’t there as often. Maximize whatever communication avenues you use. Here are a few specific ideas:
  • Send out stories about the summer mission trip or your summer children’s program.
  • Send a mid-summer snail mail ministry update, and ask people to keep supporting the church. People still open their mail!
  • Send handwritten giving thank you notes now.
  1. Instead of panicking, bring this challenge to prayer. Invite your finance team to pray. If they are all hard-headed business types, assure them you are as interested in the bottom line as they are, and share your convictions about the importance of prayer. If they won’t bite, pray anyway, and invite someone outside the team to join you.

To plan for the future:

  1. Track annual giving patterns. Rather than dividing your budgeted income by 12, look at the last three years and see how the giving has come in. In most churches, December is the biggest month. If you look at 1/12 each month, you’ve got bad news 11 months of the year. Instead, look at what you expect to receive in July and plan for it. You’ll panic less. When I was a pastor, this helped me keep perspective through the year.
  1. Set up automatic giving. It’s great when people intentionally put money in the offering each week. At the same time, the best way to keep cash flow more even through the year is to make it possible for people to give automatically. At least give them the option. Then, next year in July, they can give even when they are on vacation. Most people want electronic giving options (see this research from Vanco Payment Solutions.)
  1. Next year, share the summer ministry opportunities early. Invite people to give to support them and the overall ministry of the church through the summer.

Big picture question for you to mull over:

How can you keep the long view when you are facing a short-term challenge (financial or otherwise)?

Immediate question to answer in the comments below:

How does your church encourage people to support the ministry financially through the summer?

I’d love to hear your ideas!

Lead like Moses: Dealing with Resistance

lead like MosesI’ve been thinking about Moses’ leadership. I love the Bible: It doesn’t tie things up into a neat little package. Moses’ story is not like a church leadership manual. No quick fixes – it takes 40 years! I was talking with a coaching client just this week and discovered he had been thinking about Moses, too, after reading Exodus in his daily lectionary. He was struck by the fact that Moses doesn’t actually make it to the Promised Land, and said that was helping him let go of outcome in his own ministry.

I have been writing about leadership and resistance lately, and Moses certainly faced plenty. In fact, there were three kinds of resistance he faced:

  1. External. There were plenty of outside forces preventing them from reaching their goal. For one thing, the Egyptians did not want them to leave and sent an army to stop them. They had to travel through the wilderness and faced hunger and thirst.

In leading churches today, we’ve got plenty of outside forces: changes in how people relate to institutions, broad forces of secularization and a post-Christendom world, the simple increase in busyness which means people don’t have as much time to give to church. I’m sure you’ve got your own list unique to your setting.

What to do in one sentence: Instead of bemoaning “today’s world,” think of five –or 20—creative ideas for doing ministry in your current context.

  1. Internal to the community. If you want great examples of resistance and sabotage, just read Exodus. The people were happy as long as it was easy, but when things got hard, they just wanted to go back to the way things used to be. (Sound familiar?) He even faced sabotage from his own brother, Aaron, who gave in to the people’s desire for their own god when Moses was away talking to the real God.

Substitute 1950 and 1960s America for Egypt, and we could be talking about many of our churches. Some people are still harking back to the days when the pews were full and Sunday School classrooms overflowing. The wilderness of having to step beyond our doors instead of waiting for people to come to us is a challenge for many church folks. Some dig in their heels at new mission efforts.

What to do in one sentence: Instead of trying to convince others, focus on your own clarity about where you want to go.

  1. Internal (to Moses). Moses had his own issues. He had a temper (see Exodus 2). He was impatient. It seems sometimes he had good cause, but the text tells us he even lost it on one occasion when God told him to do something (Numbers 20).

Each one of us has our own internal resistance. We’ve got issues that get in the way of our leadership. We are impatient, conflict-averse, money-phobic, oversensitive.

What to do in one sentence: Instead of blaming others, find one area of personal growth and work on it.

Big questions for you to mull over:

Where am I heading in my ministry? How can I develop myself to help me get there?

Immediate question to answer in the comments below:

What’s an idea you have for creative ministry where you are right now?

And here’s a post on the best way to improve your leadership at church.

Now Enrolling: Leaders Who Last

Dear pastor,

There comes a time in every minister’s life when he or she has to say, “Enough is enough.” And that’s the day when you decide to change your life for the better by committing to sustainable ministry.

I know what it’s like. Before I figured out how to be in ministry in a new way, I spent a lot of time being frustrated and thinking about how to make things different. I purchased a lot of books on the topic. I went on retreats.

The problem was, I really wasn’t serious about changing my approach to ministry – I actually didn’t even know what I needed to do. Oh, all the ministry books stacking up on my bookshelf made it look like I was serious. I used up my entire book budget, which made me look like I was doing something. But I never took serious enough action.

But then something happened that rocked me to my very core. And maybe you can relate to this…

One day it seemed like everything was fine. I was a little stressed out, but basically I was rolling along in my ministry. Then suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, I had a wakeup call. I was standing in the back of the church one Easter Sunday, when someone from the executive board said to me, “You know, someday we’re going to have to do something about those cracked toilets.”

I can’t even begin to tell you how this little conversation shocked me. I was speechless. I wanted to say, “Why are you telling me about this now?!” It really was the proverbial wake up call. I felt like I was trying so hard, and they just weren’t getting it. It took me a while, but I realized I had to do something differently, or I was going to wear out or burn out.

And I started learning some new ways to be in ministry that were sustainable. It wasn’t always easy. I quickly found out the learning curve is steep when you’retrying to learn how to change your approach.

But I did it. Over time, I went from near-burnout to having more fun and a bigger impact. I ministered in that congregation for another nine years (thirteen in all), and have applied what I’ve learned to helping hundreds of other clergy over the last thirteen additional years.

So believe me when I say I know what it’s like to be stressed and exhausted in ministry. I struggled with ministry burnout, too. But once I discovered the secret of sustainable ministry, my whole life changed. And now you too can learn these same secrets, without all the trial and error.

To learn how, check out my year long program, Leaders Who Last. At just $97, it’s the wisest and easiest investment in your future you’ll make this summer!