My second call process was very different from my first call process. I was a little less naïve, but I hope not too cynical. There was the tension of being present to the congregation who doesn’t know you’re leaving and the unknown of a new congregation. And then there’s the pressure of living up to the promises of your paperwork.
Add to that the congregation where I was interviewing had a history that preceded it: high levels of conflict, a revolving door of called pastors and interims, and a loss of 30-40% of membership after a vote to disaffiliate with the ELCA failed (barely) in 2010. Staff was exhausted, underappreciated, and “siloed”—working hard to get their tasks done but mostly independently of one another. The budget was stretched by a building program completed at the beginning of the financial crisis. Lay leadership was enthusiastic but tired.
The monthly conversations in our Intentional Impact leadership cohort provided a lens through which I asked and answered questions in the call process. The same conversations also challenged me to look at my leadership in the context which I was preparing to leave. There is no more meaningful way to assess your effectiveness as a leader than to imagine what will remain when you are gone.
It was affirming and painful.
Jethro Shows Up
I was living Exodus 18, the passage in which Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, comes out to the wilderness for a visit. He spends some time sitting and watching Moses as he solves one crisis after another, from morning to night. I imagine Moses being so proud to know that his father-in-law is watching him work. When Jethro calls him over to chat he certainly expects accolades.
Jethro first asks Moses to reflect on his leadership: “Why do you do this?” Moses says, “The people come to me to inquire of God.” He could have said, “Because I’m their called pastor, here to mediate between them and God.” Yay! I usually think at this point. I’m like Moses!
And then Jethro says, “What you are doing is not good. You’ll wear yourself out and you’ll wear the people out, too” (my summary). Yay? I’m like Moses?
Going to Intentional Impact leadership training each month was like spending time with Jethro. And like Jethro, it wasn’t just about calling out the behavior; it was giving tools for better results. And they were the same tools—invest in leaders and let them lead others.
These insights kept me from promising things that I wasn’t even sure the new congregation would want delivered. In fact, the only promises I made were that I would get to know them and, thanks to my Intentional Impact experience, that we would work on leadership.
So that’s what we’ve done for the past two years. We’ve gotten to know each other and we’ve worked on leadership.
Honestly, it’s hard not to be like Moses as you step into a job that requires that people trust and respect you. As much as you’d like to focus on high and lofty goals, you’re also trying to establish credibility and, well, that you’re needed. It’s easy to park yourself in the middle of the people and deal with every crisis, trying to get an express ticket to the relationships that took years to build in the first call and that it will take years to build in the second.
By focusing on getting to know each other and working on leadership, the measure of success was if I knew more about someone today than I did yesterday and if I was finding and investing in leaders. I don’t have special leadership radar that helps me to identify leaders, but it usually dawns on me after one leaves my office that I’ve been mentoring a leader.
The following are three stories of mentoring leaders that have come about in very different ways. My goal in telling them is to show that this is a nuanced business—and it will be for you, too.
One young mom in the congregation noticed all of the other young families sitting around her own family in church and came to me to see if she could start a moms group. I provided her with email lists and she worked the “Cheerios rows” to invite her peers. She also created a system where each mom takes leadership of a meeting or event, including coming up with the topic. She’s mentoring leaders and setting up a sustainable ministry that will continue as long as there are moms who plan events. She consults me about the logistics and she runs the topics past me, but mostly I just cheer her on and work with her through roadblocks. See how easy that is? Keep reading …
In Process, Part 1
Another member decided to take action after reading the ELCA’s social statement, “Mental Illness and the Body of Christ.” He pulled together a team of others who shared his passion for supporting people whose lives had been touched by mental illness. Ideas flowed. Many, many ideas. More ideas than we could ever implement without becoming burnt out and stretched thin. As I tried to help the team pare down the ideas to what to do first, I felt more like I was using an ax. After a few meetings, I asked the team leader how he’d like me to be involved. As a mature leader, he was honest about his frustrations with my “help” in clarifying the vision and work of the team. I didn’t “need” to attend their meetings anymore, he said.
As painful as this conversation was, with time the ministry team under his leadership did come to focus on some tangible steps, working to provide one-on-one support and partnering with a local organization to support people in our congregation and community. The initial tension in the situation, however, snapped me out of the tranquil picture of sitting with a cup of coffee every couple of weeks to encourage someone in their leadership. I was put in the place of Jethro … and it was no less painful to be on that side.
To the leader’s credit, he eventually responded by using my words of challenge as an opportunity for growth. It is as likely that a leader will drop out when “pruned” in this way. Either way, you get to know another person and you have invested in a leader.
In Process, Part 2
Working with a staff that has lived through much conflict and loss has been a process of soothing wounds, building trust, and honestly, some timely attrition. To have good people leave for good reasons gave us an opportunity to redefine roles and get out of the old ruts and siloes that had formed.
Investing in staff has led to great rewards. But before you get in your head the comfortable image of drinking coffee and chatting about leadership again, the truth is that we are required to be Jethros for each other. But first I had to support the staff and work to build trust with them. It’s not a one-time event or one experience to which I can point to say where trust happened- it was and still is a process.
An opportunity for a new ministry initiative came when Samaritan Counseling Centers approached us to develop a satellite office in our facility to serve the Tri-Cities (Geneva, Batavia, St. Charles). This opportunity was a test of the staff relationships we’d built over almost two years- I just didn’t realize it at the time.
With Samaritan’s incredible reputation and a need for the kinds of care they provide, I felt strongly that we should do it. I brought it to staff and they took it apart, asking difficult questions, posing problems that could arise, and other things that felt less than supportive to me. I felt defensive and frustrated.
Ultimately, though, it did make it through staff and council and Samaritan moved into a space at Geneva Lutheran.
Do you see the reward? I didn’t see it at first either. It happened when I was busy being frustrated and defensive. The staff was doing due diligence. There was not one objection the congregation could bring that the staff had not already brought. After nearly two years of having their backs, it became clear that they had mine. They made it possible for our partnership with Samaritan to move forward smoothly.
A Tentative Conclusion
Leadership is messy and dynamic. And I guess that’s why the multiplying leadership model taught by Jethro and in the Intentional Impact leadership cohort is so important. If you are trying to do the leadership thing on your own, what you are doing is not good.
But there is good news. The leaders in your congregation (and on your staff, if you have one) are all around. Sometimes you’ll be amazed by how easy it seems, sometimes you’ll be frustrated with the process of pruning and waiting for growth, and sometimes you’ll think you’ve invested in the “wrong” people.
If any of these things happen, I encourage you to define success by what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown. Then keep going.