I meet monthly with a group of pastors to talk about ministry, leadership, family systems stuff and more. (We also catch an occasional Nats game.)
Today our facilitator shared this handout which inspired much discussion:
The most effective leaders strive to be in quadrant B: high “pain tolerance” in self and in others. Pain tolerance in this case means willingness to experience discomfort in order to move a system forward, fostering growth and needed change.
I’d argue that quadrant C and D leaders are rare—if you have a low pain tolerance for yourself, you’re not likely to want to attempt the work of leadership. But many of us probably cluster in quadrant A: willing to endure plenty of personal discomfort, but less willing to inflict it on others. We squirm when we have to hold people accountable and support them as they risk and grow.
Being a pastor undoubtedly compounds this quadrant A dynamic: we are tender-hearted types who want to comfort the afflicted. And news flash: everyone’s afflicted. (Philo reminds us to be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.) So quadrant A leaders can come up with every excuse in the book for letting people off the hook.
And yet, for us Christians anyway, transformation is the name of the game, and that means some pain. Flannery O’Connor writes, “All human nature resists grace, because grace changes us and change is painful.”
What do you think? And where do you see yourself in this diagram?
Source: Leadership in Healthy Congregations
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After suffering a devastating loss in the 400M, Brazilian runner Terezinha Guilhermina and her guide Guilherme Soares de Santana win the Women’s 100m at the Paralympics. Great photos there including this one:
So much to love about this. The guide had fallen in the 400 which cost them the victory, and you can see the joy here! Also love that this year, guides are also receiving medals.
What [researchers] found was that those adults who had been the least fit at the time of their middle-age checkup also were the most likely to have developed any of eight serious or chronic conditions early in the aging process. These include heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and colon or lung cancer.
The adults who’d been the most fit in their 40s and 50s often developed many of the same conditions, but notably their maladies appeared significantly later in life than for the less fit. Typically, the most aerobically fit people lived with chronic illnesses in the final five years of their lives, instead of the final 10, 15 or even 20 years.
There’s some insightful discussion in the comments about whether the study says what it claims to say. An example:
What if those middle-fit people had been fit their whole lives and it was their youthful fitness that gave them the real benefit?
I’m going to keep being fit, just in case the article is right, and because nobody has invented a time machine yet. And also because I feel much, much better in every measurable way.
During the FB discussion about “God has a plan” (which helped inform this) a friend shared this blog post. I appreciate this critique from someone within the church:
It may not be immediately obvious, but when people offer these phases, these stock answers, it sends a clear and demoralizing message: “I don’t take your struggles seriously, and I’m not prepared to muster the theological depth to share them with you.”
This might be a harsh assessment, but this is a great problem, and worthy of such consideration. If you use these Christian platitudes, these unholy clichés in your care for your brothers and sisters, I urge you to carefully consider dropping them. If you find your friends using them on you, forgive them, then challenge them. Muster some courage and tell them you find those words to be theologically empty and pastorally cold. It’s the only way we’re going to grow and learn to struggle together.
I think there can be another, more benign message in these platitudes: I love you so much, and am so hurt that you are hurting, that I will seek to reduce the hurt any way I can. It’s just that platitudes aren’t effective in reducing the hurt and in fact can make things worse.
Not really new stuff here, but it’s good to be reminded (and help people who didn’t go to seminary to understand) that the New Testament we have is organized by genre rather than chronologically. And Paul’s letters were written earliest, before the gospels.
Seeing and reading the New Testament in chronological sequence matters for historical reasons. It illuminates Christian origins. Much becomes apparent:
Beginning with seven of Paul’s letters illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a “window” into the life of very early Christian communities.
Placing the Gospels after Paul makes it clear that as written documents they are not the source of early Christianity but its product. The Gospel — the good news — of and about Jesus existed before the Gospels. They are the products of early Christian communities several decades after Jesus’ historical life and tell us how those communities saw his significance in their historical context.
The benediction from night 1 of the Democratic National Convention. This has been shared widely but it’s here in case you missed it. Excerpt:
Give us, oh Lord, humility to listen to our sisters and brothers across the political spectrum, because your kingdom is not divided into Red States and Blue States. Equip us with moral imagination to have real discourse. Knit us, oh God, as one country even as we wrestle over the complexity of how we ought to live and govern. Give us gratitude for our right to dissent and disagree. For we know that we are bound up in one another and have been given the tremendous opportunity to extend humanity and grace when others voice their deeply held convictions even when they differ from our own.
And my last link is especially for you church folk…
This month, Katherine’s friends and colleagues are writing about a beautiful change they have experienced. Here is mine:
Just so we’re clear: that’s not me.
My friend Keith Snyder, a music geek, recently tweeted a line from Brian Eno: “Analog synthesizers break in interesting ways. Digital synthesizers just break.”
Keith has made that line into a prayer:
May I continue to break in interesting ways.
That may be a strange place to start talking about a beautiful change, but stick with me.
I hit two personal milestones recently. First, I ran a 10K race. That was big for me. Until a year ago I had never run for more than a few minutes at a time. Ever. I was the smart one, you see, and the musical one, but never the athletic one. My body was the thing that carried my brain around. Aside from the occasional mountain hike while on vacation, and an intermittent practice of walking to stay in basic shape, I was a sedentary type.
But at 40, with a father who dropped dead from cardiac stuff at age 56, getting in better shape felt non-negotiable—the reasonable thing to do from an actuarial standpoint. That’s how the running started. Of course, it’s become something deeper than that.
Before I ran the 10K (6.2 miles for the metrically challenged), I’d never run farther than 5 miles in training. When I reached mile 5 at the race, I thought, This is as far as I’ve ever gone. Beyond this point, it’s all new. That’s a wonderful thing.
Indeed, my whole life feels that way in this, my fifth decade. I’m not a rookie in ministry anymore; I’m not the mother of little ones anymore; as of this fall I will be a published writer. Lauren Winner talks in her latest book about reinventing oneself every ten years. That’s happening, through my own volition and beyond it.
Among other things, running for me means embracing a blessed mediocrity. I’m not a fast runner; Robert has described my gait as “a bit loping.” I’ve never experienced a runner’s high. I like races because the crowd and the music provide a boost that my body chemistry seems unwilling to muster. I love the feeling of having run, but running itself is frequently a chore. At last month’s race, I was second to last in my age group, and way down in the bottom third overall.
Yet I do it. And there’s something liberating about doing something badly by most objective standards. I’m a perfectionist, you know. I like setting a goal and reaching for the top, and if I’m not good at something, eh…easy come, easy go. With so many luscious possibilities in this life, more than I could ever undertake, such a standard may not be the best way to discern what’s mine to do, but it’s what works.
Or has worked in the past. Something in me had to “break in an interesting way” for me to start running—to do this thing that’s never been part of my self-understanding. Something shattered in my brittle, do-it-well-or-don’t-do-it exoskeleton.
And thank heaven it did. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, in more ways than one.
I now ask myself: What else could I do badly for the sheer satisfaction of it?
The second health-related milestone happened a few days ago. I hit my weight-loss goal of 40 pounds.
I’m no numerologist, but there is significance in the numbers. James weighs about 40 pounds, so every time I pick up his stocky four-year-old frame I think to myself, This is the weight I carried around all the time nine months ago. It seems fitting somehow: in another year, James will be in kindergarten. There are no babies or toddlers in my house anymore. It feels right that as I move into another phase as a mother, my body would look different.
Also, it took me nine months to lose the weight. Is it an exaggeration to say that a new person has been born? Perhaps. But as with the running, something in me had to break in order for this change to occur. Caring for myself—I mean really caring, not punishing myself until I shrink down into some “acceptable” size—requires a certain vulnerability. I can do all the right things, as many people do, but there will always be aspects of our health that are beyond our control. Life is a genetic and environmental crap shoot. That’s an uncomfortable truth to face. Denial feels easier sometimes.
Another thing that had to break: a rigid expectation of what I would look like as a 40 year old with a normal BMI.
Hint: it’s not like a 20 year old.
Don’t get me wrong, I look different than I did when I was a new mother, with all my ample post-pregnancy curves. But as I’ve left 40 pounds behind on so many jogging trails and city streets, I’ve been amazed at the parts of me that haven’t been magically transformed. There is still…a thickness. A settledness. This body will never be that of a college student. Or a newlywed. Or a non-mother. As that great philosopher Indiana Jones says, “It’s not the years…it’s the mileage.”
A few months ago I recorded a video for Bruce Reyes-Chow’s We Are Presbyterian project. It was fun, and I learned a lot in the process.
In the video I suggest that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not “gravely ill,” as some have suggested.
Instead we are… well… take it away Barbie:
We’re not terminal. We’re just pregnant.
Apparently the video has hopped the Presbyterian fence and is wandering around other backyards, specifically Lutheran and Episcopal ones. It’s been fun to hear from friends and colleagues who’ve spotted it. I’m glad it resonates with others too… is there a baby boom happening in the mainline?
The video appears at the end of this post, but for those who prefer to read, here is essentially what I said:
Recently a group of pastors wrote a letter to the PCUSA, expressing concern about where we’re headed as a denomination. According to the letter, we are “deathly ill”.
The group has facts and figures to back up this–lots of numbers related to membership loss, the declining number of baptisms we do, and so forth.
Well look… the numbers are what they are.
I can’t argue with the statistics.
I only argue with the diagnosis.
We are not deathly ill. We’re…
well… we’re pregnant.
That’s right folks.
On the nest!
Bun in the oven!
The symptoms are there, if you know what you’re looking for.
First, there’s the fatigue. I see a lot of tired people out there, trying to keep life going, keep ministries going, keep the sermons coming, the nursery staffed, the money flowing in, the furnace in good repair… often with fewer people–less energy–than before. It’s tiring!
I see some bad queasiness too: morning sickness, which folks will tell you doesn’t just come in the morning, but sometimes round the clock. There’s a sense that the world has changed right out from under our feet, and we don’t quite know how to deal with it. What is this “emergent” stuff? How do we deal with the internet and social media? What about this younger generation? How do we respond to the culture without being coopted by it? Not to mention our new Form of Government, the passage of amendment 10A, and on and on. It’s to be expected that we’d be feeling a little woozy, a little green, a little sick.
And there’s a lot of anxiety too… that question every prospective parent asks: Can we do this? Are we ready? Do we have what it takes to step into this new chapter of life?
So here’s a bit of motherly wisdom, a guide, if you will: “what to expect when your church is expecting.”
I offer these reflections knowing that the metaphor is complicated. Not everyone who’s pregnant wants to be pregnant. And there are many who struggle to become pregnant, or who grieve the loss of a child. So I just acknowledge that and tread as lightly as I can.
But here’s what pregnancy offers us that “deathly ill” doesn’t.
1. It’s deeply biblical. Scripture is full of images of pregnancy. The whole creation groans in labor pains, Paul writes in Romans 8, and he uses the image again in I Thess 5. Even Jesus couldn’t resist using the metaphor: “When a woman is in labour, she has pain. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy.”
(That’s not true, by the way.)
The Bible is also full of women that society had written off as barren, women who thought their time had passed. And similarly, some say this whole PCUSA thing doesn’t have much life left in it. And that may even be true on some level. Maybe we are in our declining years. But guess what? Sarah and Elizabeth were in their declining years too, and yet God used both of them to grow new life and give birth to a whole new world.
2. Another way pregnancy connects with our church right now: Pregnancy ain’t pretty. As much as we talk about women glowing, it is not a glamorous time. Your face breaks out. Your joints go slack. You get gas. You can’t sleep at night. You have to pee every 10 minutes. And let’s not even talk about the dreaded “cankles”:
It’s a bit of a freak show, to be honest.
And yeah, this period we’re in right now as a church? It ain’t pretty. We’re cranky and itching for a fight with one another. We used to be young and fresh, the belle of the ball. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, we were thriving. People were flocking to our doors. But we’re not there anymore.
Now we’re in tremendous upheaval as a denomination. It seems like almost everything is on the table–our practices, our polity, our way of worshiping, our music, our structure…
But what’s not on the table for us is whether God is working.
What’s not on the table is what kind of God we serve: a living God, an incarnate God.
God is capable of doing a new thing: it springs forth, now, in nine months, in nine years, over a lifetime. New life is what it’s all about. It’s the business we’re in.
3. Your sense of time is all messed up in pregnancy. On the one hand, it’s a quiet, slow, lumbering time. The nine months pass slowly. You can’t move as fast as you did. I had sciatica that would act up whenever I was walking too quickly; I finally decided it was God saying, “Slow down! Don’t go through this time at a breakneck pace. Stop, look, listen and feel.”
Even mental processes seem to slow down. Nouns and verbs come more slowly: “Honey bring me that, that… what is that? That thing! Beside the doohickey?” And maybe we as a church need to move beyond words for a while. Maybe we need to just be silent for a while, stop making so many pronouncements about the church. Sure, Mary sang, but she also pondered in her heart. Maybe it’s OK to shut up and let God do what God’s gonna do.
The time goes slowly… but it’s also an incredibly busy time. There’s a lot to learn, and pregnancy is a great time to do research. Hospital or birth center? Epidural? C-section? Breast or bottle? Stroller or sling? Pacifiers or thumb-sucking, cloth diapers or disposable? Television: harmless, or idiot box that will keep your kid out of Stanford?
And we’re doing the same research in the church. Every week I hear about a new group that’s meeting, a new conference to attend, a new website to keep track of. And the books! Oh, the books! Each one promising to give you that just-right approach to ministry, promising to grow your church, keep session meetings joyful and productive, and so on and so forth.
And any parent will tell you, that research is all well and good. But then the child is born. And it all comes down to that child’s personality, that child’s gifts, what that child needs. The books, ultimately, don’t tell you what you need to know. Your child does. So we in the PCUSA need to learn flexibility. We need to learn to respond to this thing being birthed, whatever it might be, instead of some idealized notion of what it might be. Is it a bunch of new churches? Ministries beyond the traditional church? Who knows, but as any parent will tell you, our kids are not carbon copies of us. They are their own people and they deserve to be treated as such. What is being born in the PCUSA is going to look different everywhere. We’re not all going to win beautiful baby contests. We are not birthing many 1950s Presbyterian churches anymore. No more perfect Gerber babies.
5. The final and, I think, most important parallel is this: Pregnancy, labor and parenthood are all embodied experiences–blood, sweat, tears, vomit… and poop. Once that labor starts, you can’t think your way out of it. You don’t do the work up in your head. You’ve got to participate in it with every bit of your being.
And that’s what this new phase of our Church is going to require too. It’s not enough to think about stuff. It’s not enough to talk about mission. It’s not enough to claim to value diversity. It’s not enough to give lip service to evangelism. We’re going to have to practice these things that we believe. To jump in, body and soul.
But I think the best thing pregnancy offers us as a metaphor is this: it’s hopeful. It’s a great big crazy leap into the unknown. It’s a vision for the future. It’s something you grow into. Nobody’s “ready.”
The question is, what are we going to do during this time of gestation?
Thanks for listening, and a special thanks to my friend and colleague Elizabeth Goodrich for the pregnancy metaphor.
The tagline for the Blue Room is “a space for beauty, ideas, creativity, and the life of the Spirit.” I tagged it thusly because that’s the purpose of the Blue Room in our house. It’s my home study, the homework place, the kid arts and crafts room. But it feels high-falutin’ to have that tagline. I don’t feel worthy of it.
You can read the whole transcript, but here’s the pertinent bit for me, and I suspect, for many of you who plan worship, education and mission in the church. Prior to this, Krista Tippett and Rex Jung had been talking about Einstein’s term, “spiritual genius,” and what it meant:
Ms. Tippett: One of the people I’ve interviewed is Jean Vanier. Are you familiar with him? He started the L’Arche Movement, which is a global movement of communities centered around people with mental disabilities, especially Down syndrome. I think, if Einstein had known him, he might have said ‘there’s a spiritual genius.’ But even if you put that language to one side, I think that’s a form of creativity — there’s socially useful, novel and useful, creativity.
Dr. Jung: Yes.
Ms. Tippett: Right, that — that fits your definition, but it’s not immediately what comes to mind. We think of artists, we think of scientists.
Dr. Jung: It’s not, but I totally agree that that is a form of creativity and a very valuable form of creativity and perhaps something that we’re moving towards in our increasingly complex society. It’s not just going to be a product. It’s not just going to be an artifact like a painting or a dance number. It’s going to be moving groups of people together and motivating groups of people in certain ways, and that’s a creative endeavor in this L’Arche Movement that you’re talking about. This is a kind of — sounds like a new creative endeavor that we should start to recognize.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I mean, people think differently and live differently as a result of this.
That’s the goal, isn’t it, of that kind of creative endeavor? That people think and live differently. That’s why we worship leaders pore over books to find just the right prayer of confession. Or comb our archives looking for a quote for the bulletin cover that will set the right tone. That’s why groups of pastors fly off for a week of lectionary study with other trusted colleagues every year. (OK, one of the reasons.)
The transformed life is the artifact we’re looking for.
But works of spiritual genius also happen on a level that’s beyond us and our efforts. During Sunday’s service I saw at least three people with tears in their eyes. That’s not all that unusual, in my experience. Church is a place where people can tap deep wells of emotion. You don’t force it or manipulate it. You just create a space where it can happen.
What was a bit unusual is that all three of these people were big strong men. It was holy ground.
In my work with NEXT Church, I’ve sometimes felt an insecurity among pastors of mainline churches. Are we dinosaurs because we offer a more traditional worship experience? Sometimes, yes, if it’s not indigenous to the people we serve. But it’s like we equate spiritual genius with tattoos and funky glasses. I feel this sometimes myself. I am in awe of the way some people think. I am creative, but within a form. I’m not nuking the Presbyterian order of worship, as many have (faithfully). It’s the sandbox I’m playing in.
For others, there is no box.
But artistry comes in many shapes and sizes. During the NEXT conference, we sang a setting of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” that was utterly fresh and new, with guitar and percussion. And the music we made was like a wall of sound—I’ve never heard a congregated people sing that song like that. And at the end of the conference, the organist played the Widor Toccata, and dozens of people stood and soaked it in… even came up into the chancel to behold an artist at work.
Both experiences were traditional. And both were of the moment. Both were moments of spiritual genius.
Be of good cheer, friends who work in the church. There is an artistry to what you do.