The Rise of the Consultant 

I can’t remember when I first heard the term.

I do remember how I felt about it when I heard that there was such a thing as a church consultant. It was not pleasant.

I was of the impression that it wasn’t anything that a pastor couldn’t do and I was a pastor.  I knew the people in the congregation. I knew their hopes and dreams and was doing my best to understand what ministry we might do together. I wasn’t excited about anyone Lee helping with that discernment. It seemed like a waste of time and an even bigger waste of money to hire someone to help us ask the questions we already knew we needed to answer as a church. No, when I first heard the term, I was anything but excited about the idea of a church consultant.

I didn’t like it but it seemed like they were everywhere. Church consultants were popping up all over the place. They were the hot new thing but I couldn’t quite escape the fact that these were people who had left full-time ministry. That’s how it seemed to me. These were people that couldn’t hack it as a pastor, but they still thought they had something to offer the church. So they became a consultant. At that time, they were all older than me. They’d been in ministry a long time. They had a resume that I couldn’t fathom and most of them were connected to the now extinct Alban Institute as was true for the church consultant that I first considered hiring.

I had a fabulous conversation with this gentleman over email and then on the phone about how we might lead the church I was serving to understand their vision. The church knew that this was a question that they must answer. They were anticipating the retirement of the Senior Pastor and were wondering what their ministry might look like after he left. Ever eager to help, I rose to the challenge and did what I could to help them on this quest. It didn’t work. They didn’t choose to hire him and it became clear that I had stepped into something I hadn’t intended. So it was time and time again as an Associate Pastor.

That was then, but now, there are consultants my age. They have resumes like mine and they are immersed in the wondering what the future of the church might be. I’ve learned a thing or two since the first time I heard the term church consultant for the first time. Most importantly, they don’t have all of the answers. They have ideas and questions. They’ve seen some things work in other places but they don’t know what God is doing in this place. None of us do. Church consultants are curious. They are seekers. They are looking to find God in the midst of numbers and figures. They are trying to ask questions that they can’t answer and waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up and make herself known.

They have some skills too. They’ve studied change and tried to understand how much people hate it and what we can do to manage the inevitability of change still finding its way into our laps. And even though consultancy is an idea taken from the business world, the ones in the church are really people of prayer. They are open to transformation. It’s what they hope to find every time they sign a contract with a local church.

I never expected that I would be counted among this group of people. From the very beginning, when I first wandered into the halls of seminary, I have been called to the local church. I saw myself as a pastor. I still feel that I am a pastor but when I got married to a man in the military, my ministry changed. I got excited about interim ministry and eager to help congregations transition into a vibrant future with God. I got some training and got to use my new skills. And then, we moved… again. I interviewed with another church and they are delightful but I didn’t think I could give them my all. I’m newly married. We are only here for a short time. I just didn’t think I could do both well. So, I turned down the opportunity to be their interim pastor.

It was then that the conference minister in the region I find myself asked if I might consider being a consultant. The pastor that they hired is good and talented but she is not trained. She doesn’t have these skills yet and the church needs this work. They need to ask big holy questions about their future. They are not just looking to call a new pastor. They are looking to sell their building and they have to discern what their ministry might be in that unknown future. There was dead air on the other end of the phone when the conference minister said I could do such a thing. I could be a consultant. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure I could do it. She told me to think about it. “Pray about it,” she said “and if it feels right, write up a proposal.”

Tonight will be the first time that I attempt this new thing. I’ll lead the first session in a series of workshops. I’ll meet with the pastor and share in big questions about what God is doing in this group of people. I’ll be one of those church consultants asking questions and looking for the Holy Spirit.

The Imperfect Pastor

There are plenty of days that I don’t feel like I’m a good pastor. I have never felt perfect. I can’t imagine ever feeling that confident in this holy and sacred work. Most of the time I feel like I’m not quite living up to this calling.

I don’t even want to get into that. I don’t want to talk about the ways that clergy are held to a high standard of morality and faith which makes it hard to be a person. I don’t want to talk about any of that because what is really on my mind is one particular pastor by the name of Jack Miller.

DSC_2625_D3Full-LJack was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco twenty something years ago. He
was, in fact, the pastor of that congregation up until 2002. And he’s the subject of the chapter I’m working on right now. For, you see, Jack was my mom’s pastor.

When she learned she was dying, when she was trying to come to grips with what that would mean, someone told her to talk to Jack. Someone advised that he might be a good listening ear. And he was. She would sit there in the balcony of that church next to Jack and talk to him about everything she hoped and feared. She dragged us to church on Sunday. She taught me that the church was a place where we could ask hard questions. And that was because of Jack. When she needed it most, Jack made a space for her. He listened. He prayed. He sat at her bedside. As she was dying, he was always at our house.

This was weird to me. My grandparents had been church goers, but my parents were not. They didn’t care much for that kind of thing until my mom was dying. When she knew she was dying, everything changed and Jack seemed to be always there. (He wasn’t, of course, but it seemed that way to seven year old me.) Jack made a big impact on me. He was a huge help to my mom but Jack was not perfect.

Many years later, the news broke that Jack was being charged with sexual misconduct. It was in The New York Times. I ended up Googling him yesterday. I realized that there were still questions I wanted to ask him. I wondered if maybe I could find him. But, all I found was news story after news story about this scandal. It is revealed how he struggled with his sexuality which may or may not have led to his drinking. The members of that church knew that he wasn’t perfect. They knew that he had some demons. I don’t know if they made the same space for those struggles as Jack made for my mom, but eventually, he was removed. He was forced to resign. He was removed of his ministerial standing. He is, now, what we would call a bad guy.

What I’m writing right now in the book I’m writing has nothing to do with this later history. It pains me that Jack’s ministry ended this way. Though, I am not totally sure that’s true. I seem to recall that he continued to pastor a home church made up of former members of that church he was forced to leave. I wish he hadn’t made that move but he is human, just as I am human. He was called into this work and he loved it. That was obvious to me even as a little girl. So, I want to write about that man that presided over my mother’s funeral and sat at her bedside.

I want to write about the man who jumped at the chance to take a ten-year old girl out to pizza to talk about the mom she missed. He ate a lot of pizza together. We drank too many sodas and Jack was who he had always been to me. He was someone who would listen. He was a pastor. He guided me back toward the light. He helped me to claim resurrection even if he couldn’t find that same hope for himself. The fact is: I never knew his struggles. Just as the people I pastor don’t know what’s going on in my inner life, I have no idea what was going on inside Jack. It pains me to read these news stories and I don’t want to write about it.

I don’t want to tell that part of the story, but I don’t want to edit out his name. But, that’s what I’m doing. I’m struggling to write this part. I’m trying to describe him without naming him because I don’t want him to be reduced to a scandal. Aren’t we all better than our worst moments? Isn’t there goodness to be found in everything? Is there no hope of redemption? Isn’t there? He is not a character. Jack is a real person who might one day read these words about him. He is as flawed and human as I am. He was not perfect. I doubt that he is now but I want to write his story without having to explain this scandal because it’s not part of my story. It’s not the Jack I knew. Still, the blinking cursor wins

Until Sunday

Last month, when this video appeared on Facebook, I was amused.

I laughed out loud but it didn’t feel like my story. Not anymore. There was a time in my ministry when I heard these comments said every single day. There was a time when I felt like I needed to fight for the rights of women to lead in the church with every good bit of exegesis that I could muster from Paul’s would-be mandate that women should be silent. But, it hasn’t felt like my fight anymore. That is, until Sunday.

I had heard that this little church had had some hesitancy about hiring a female pastor. It was said in passing once or twice before. Even if it hadn’t been voiced, I could see in their history. They had been blessed by countless women who have preached and presided in the years since their beloved pastor died but they had never, ever hired a woman to lead them. Until Sunday, I hadn’t thought much of this. There could be a thousand reasons of this. After all, in the United Church of Christ, according to the 2015 statistical report47.9% of all active, non-retired authorized ministers are female. 

Until Sunday, I wasn’t especially worried about the majority of men holding that 52.1%. It was on Sunday that I heard both the fear and the welcome of women in ministry. It wasn’t the focus of the conversation. But, somewhere in the middle of discussing John Dorhaurer’s Beyond Resistance, we got onto inclusive language. That was when the dear 90 year old woman seated beside me told me that she didn’t think that women should ever lead. She didn’t think that women should be pastor and she didn’t think that a woman should be president. It was then that I heard every hesitation about women in leadership that had bubbled under the surface.

So, I asked this dear 90 year old woman why she felt this way and she struggled for an answer. She told me that that was how it had always been and she didn’t understand why it needed to change. Even so, she saw that it was changing. Everything around her is changing so much so that she kept repeating the question, “Why can’t I change?”

On the third or fourth repetition of this question, the conversation within that small group turned to my leadership. It wasn’t about women’s leadership but what I brought to this group of people. I get up each Sunday to preach but I do not like being the center of attention. I hid under my book as they started listing off my strengths. I didn’t want this to be all about me but I heard every word.

 

They were ready to not like me. They were ready to reject me on the fact that I was a woman. And yet, there is something different about the way that I lead. They’ve noticed that only in these few months that I have been their interim pastor. I preach differently. I ask more questions. I want to know what they think. I don’t assume that I have all of the answers.

When that dear old lady asked again, “Why can’t I change?” I told her she didn’t have to because it is enough that she loves me. There is some truth in that but it is not enough to love only those that you can see. It is not enough to celebrate the strengths of those that God puts in your way. Until Sunday, I did not realize how comfortable I had become with my own privilege.

In that same 2015 statistical report, it states that over half of co-pastors (51.5%) and interim / supply pastors (53.4%) were female, and over two-thirds (70.3%) were associate / assistant pastors. Next year, I will be counted in this percentage. I am so grateful to have meaningful work but that is not true for every woman. There are women that can’t bust through the stained glass ceiling because the local church refuses to celebrate the strengths of women in ministry or the gifts of people of color or the gifts of LGBT pastors.

In his book, the same one that was supposed to be the focus of our conversation that Sunday, John Dorhauer makes the point that autonomy is what will kill us. Autonomy is what allows every congregation to dismiss women’s leadership. There is no hierarchy to insist that God might be up to something. There is no one to hint at the strength of women because the “basic unit of the life and organization” in the United Church of Christ is the local church. Nothing in the denomination’s Constitution and the Bylaws “shall destroy or limit the right of each Local Church to continue to operate in the way customary to” the local church. Until Sunday, I had ignored that this is still my fight. It’s still my struggle. It’s still my task to push through the stained glass ceiling (and every other ceiling) by reminding myself and everyone else that yes, yes, you really do need to change.

Last Minute Plans for Lent

Lent is just one week away. Most plans have already been laid out. It’s been printed in the newsletter and in the bulletin. Resources have been ordered. Palms have been burned. (I know because the traffic on this old post on how to make ashes skyrocketed two week ago.)  Some have already done their food shopping for gallons of maple syrup and pancake mix for the Shrove Tuesday celebration. To those people, I just want to say: don’t forget the pancake games. No. Seriously. So much fun.

In truth, I am one of those pastors that usually plans far in advance. I don’t tend to procrastinate because it makes me nervous. I need a plan even if things change in the midst. I need to have some sense of what’s to come. It’s not just in church that I do this, by the way. But, this year is different. This year, I’m not a settled pastor. I’m an interim which I’m learning involves a different kind of leadership. I can’t plan as I might otherwise. Interim ministry isn’t just church as usual. It’s marked by transition and everything feels tentative. So, I can’t plan because what I need to do is listen.

This is a bit terrifying to the über planner. It was especially horrifying when I recently realized that Lent was so soon very and I had nothing planned. I freaked out and then I started planning. I’m sharing those plans in full awareness that we are in this together and sometimes we need a little help from our colleagues to make it all happen.

The church that I serve as an interim is a small, country church. They don’t tend to do anything programmatic on any other day but Sunday so planning Lent was really a matter of planning worship. There won’t be any adult education or special events to add to this congregation’s life. All that we experience together during this holy season will happen in worship.

After worship, on most Sundays, I lead a sermon talkback conversation which is where the idea for this preaching series began. It was in one of those conversations a few weeks ago that I heard some really solid theological claims without much heart. Good theology has its place but this is a church that really wants to grow. It believes it can grow but not without heart. It’s not enough to spout good theology. There has to be some passion to it. There has to be some sense of why it matters.

2016The theology I was hearing that day from these good people all centered around who Jesus Christ is.  So, after listening a little more to God in prayer, I opted to entitle this sermon series Who Do you Say That I Am? This is, of course, something that Jesus says in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29 and Luke 9:20). I decided to break slightly from the Revised Common Lectionary and explore some theological claims that we make about who Jesus is as we try to answer his own question. Here’s the plan so far:

  • February 14: Jesus is… the Son of God (Luke 4:1-13)
  • February 21: Jesus is… the Messiah (Luke 9:18-27)
  • February 28: Jesus is…the Word (John 1:1-18)
  • March 6: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd (Luke 13:31-35)
  • March 13: Jesus is…the Light of the World (John 8:12-29)
  • March 20: Jesus is…the King of the Jews (Luke 23:1-49)

Here’s what I don’t know: I don’t know how this will lead into Holy Week. This congregation shares their observance of Lent with the local ministerium that hosts weekly worship on Wednesdays, including Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. I am not sure if this theme will play into how we journey into Jerusalem. That is something that I will need to listen for as we move through this season.

I chose some of my favorite theological claims and dodged a few others. For example, I really didn’t want to do suffering servant because I know that’s not who my Jesus is and I’m not convinced I could preach good news on that particular claim. I do know that I need to push myself though so there are two books I’m hoping to read this Lent to push my own theological imagination. In the spirit of this preaching series, I’ll be reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage which just came out in paperback yesterday. I’m also going to attempt to read Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. That said, there is so much that could be added to this preaching series. I mean, really, it’s what we are preaching no matter what the season, right? So, there are certainly others  that might be added and I would hope that this series would inspire some exploration on theological claims beyond these six. That’s something I’ll have to think about. What’s the best way to encourage such exploration within this particular congregation?

CoverThough this church is a small church that won’t have any specisl educational experience to build upon our shared experience in worship, I do have something to offer if you’re a last minute planner. Several years ago, I wrote a curricula called Toward Transformation with the good people of the First Congregational Church UCC in South Portland, Maine. It is a six-week study that navigates the Psalms in a desire to experience resurrection individually and communally. As worship tackles the question of who Jesus is and why that particular confession matters, this six-week experience might bring those questions to life in a slightly different manner. Admittedly, it’s not a perfect fit but I have to say it’s pretty awesome. Both times I’ve used it, it has led to some really awesome changes. You can download the resource from my Ideas + Resources.

Maybe you’re not interested in that so much as you want to know about the graphic. Want to make your own cool graphic for your church newsletter or social media campaign? I used Canva. Once you’re logged in, choose the Facebook Post option. You can choose any one of the free designs. (Why pay?) The one I chose seems to have disappeared. Sorry! Once you choose a template, you’ll need to replace the image with an image of Christ. Maybe you take a picture of one in your Sunday School classroom or in the stained glass in the chapel. I admit that this particular image makes it a little hard to read the text. Alas! Add your church information including address and worship time and hit download. Look how fancy you are!

How are your plans for Lent going?

More Questions Than Answers

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It wasn’t that long ago that started serving as an interim pastor at a small church celebrating 200 years amid questions of whether or not there will be a future beyond this anniversary. This morning, before worship began, one of the members called our attention to a news story about a church in a neighboring community that at least to him sounded so much like his own church. He really thought we should read it because after 170 fabulous years of ministry, all of a sudden that church is closing. In fact, today was their last Sunday.

These concerned church members want me to give them the solution. I’m the interim pastor. I must know. They want me to give them the answer. They want me to tell them  what the future looks like. They want so much to know what they need to do before they meet that same fate, but I don’t have the answer to their questions. I do not know what the church will be like. I only know that it is changing and it might not look the same in five or ten years. Or maybe it will. I don’t know. I wish that there was a divine checklist that would mark our way into that future, but there is no such thing. So it seems we really do walk by faith, not by sight.

It seems that my faith comes with a whole lot of questions. It is these questions that seem to define my ministry. It’s all I do. It’s what defines my ministry. I’m shouting into the abyss and questions I’m hurling at the people around me hoping that God might reveal some clarity.

Because I do not know the future of the church. I cannot know the future of the church so I have nothing but questions. I have no set answers. I have no vision of what the church will be. I only know that it will continue. God’s awesome redemptive work in the world isn’t over yet but I don’t know what that will look like. And because I don’t know this, because I don’t have this awesome divine checklist in my back pocket, most of my ministry feels right now feels like a failure. I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m leading these poor blessed people into some sort of quagmire that none of us understand.

That’s the feeling I couldn’t shake when I got in the car. But, I turned on my podcasts and turned my attention to This American Life in which I got to hear the story of a San Francisco-based writer and father who sat in shock and dismay through his daughter’s the end of the year musical in her after-school program. Seems innocent enough but most musicals featuring grade-school aged children are not about corporate greed. Little kids pretended to be a bunch of power-hungry tech-mongers plotting the eviction of innocent people that got in the way of their dream. It upset some people. Obviously, it upset the parents in the tech industry. One parent tried to express his concern. To which the director of this after-school program wrote back to say it was fictional. In that letter, written to all of the parents, she added this further explanation: we do not attempt to answer questions with our art, but rather to ask questions.

We might not have any idea what the future holds. We might not know what the church will look like but this sure felt like an answered prayer. I turned off the podcast for a moment. It wasn’t very long but I wanted those words to sink in so that I just might hear them as a blessing and an affirmation. Before I ever dreamed of leading churches, I dreamed of creating art. My ministry has become my art. I do not intend to answer God with my ministry, but rather to ask questions. It is this art that is my life work and it is good.

The Time Has Come

201412547f33f67b137As you may have seen over and over again, I have been filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on John 17:1-24. You can find the audio — and even a video to watch — of the sermon I preached entitled The Time Has Come on the church website. Please click here. 

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… Accompanied

This was my very last time in this beautiful worship space but be sure to check out upcoming opportunities for worship and service on the church website.

Remain in Love

201412547f33f67b137As you may have seen over and over again, I’m filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on John 15:1-8. You can find the audio of the sermon entitled Remain in Love on the church website. Please click here. 

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… Secured

If you happen to be in Short Hills, or even nearby, please join us! Worship is at 9:30 am.  Here are some directions to find the church. Tomorrow is my last time in this beautiful worship space and I’d love to see you there.

Twelve Years

201412547f33f67b137As you may already know, I’m filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on Mark 5:21-43. You can find the audio of the sermon entitled Twelve Years on the church website. Please click here. There’s also a video if you follow that same link.

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ. The theme for this week was In Christ I am… Fragile — though I was preaching on the theme In Christ I am… Empowered. Because I apparently wrote down the wrong thing. So it goes.

If you happen to be in Short Hills, or even nearby, please join us! Worship is at 9:30 am. You won’t see me there every Sunday but I hope you’ll join us. Here are some directions to find the church.

Our Inner Nature

201412547f33f67b137As you may already know, I’m filling in as Guest Minister at Community Congregational Church in Short Hills, NJ.

I preached this past Sunday on Genesis 3:8-15. You can find the audio of the sermon entitled Our Inner Nature on the church website. Please click here. There’s also a video if you follow that same link. Or if you prefer, I hope that you can soon watch it on my YouTube channel. (But not yet.) This sermon is part of a summer preaching series exploring the Pathways to Christ.

If you happen to be in Short Hills, please join us! Worship is at 9:30 am.

You won’t see me there every Sunday but I hope you’ll join us.

Here are some directions to find the church. See you there.

The Last Retreat

Two years ago, I began this journey with four other women in a cohort group in College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Theological Seminary. It all started with a group of women that I met as part of The Young Clergy Women Project. We became fast friends. There were dinners and bottles of wine. There was conversations and this desire for something more. In all honesty, we were looking for an excuse to spend more time together. That is, an excuse to drink wine together. So we applied to this program with lofty ideas about how we would support each other in trying to understand what makes our leadership different as young clergy women. We knew were were doing it differently. We just didn’t understand why we were different.

a96cd-photoWe applied to this grant. We had big ideas and crazy dreams. There was nothing that could stop us — except that lots has changed in those two years.

One member of our group had a baby. Three of us left our churches. Only one of those three is serving a church now.

And then, there was this moment the last time we were together in Washington DC where we each wondered if we were called to traditional churches. It’s the assumption that began this grant. We wanted to better understand how to create change within traditional churches. We didn’t want to do abandon those churches and start something new. That’s what we had said. But something changed in that retreat in DC. Something about us changed.

Today I’m leaving for the last retreat we’ll share funded by College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Theological Seminary. I know this isn’t really the last retreat because we still have so many questions. And we really do enjoy drinking wine together. That won’t end this week. I know it won’t. It’ll continue. Something will happen past this point. But, I ask for your prayers. I ask for your prayers this week as we gather for our last retreat in Arizona as we try to better understand where God is leading each of us in life and ministry.

It is holy time indeed.