Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Still Learning....

Ten years ago, I was privileged to be part of Group Four of the Arkansas Conference's Connected in Christ ministry.  Taking the Birkman personality assessment was a significant part of this project.  Birkman identifies your usual style, your needs, your interests, and your stress behaviors.  The report is generally used for leadership development, team building and conflict management.  Most of the report was familiar to me - I wasn't surprised to learn I was a "blue" or learn the traits that were identified as my strengths and interests.  What I had not seen before were my stressers. 

Now most of us do not like to admit the things that stress us.  We prefer to give the appearance of being cool, calm, and collected, especially those of us who strive for continual competence.  While I found it helpful ten years ago, I had forgotten just how accurately it nailed me.  Until this afternoon.  My associate pastor and I were discussing our upcoming planning meeting and I mentioned the Birkman for a future retreat.  I pulled out my report and there it was:
               Under stress people with the Square in this quadrant:
                        ignore social convention
                        become indecisive
                        find it hard to act
                        see the worst possibilities

Yep, that is me.  Truthfully, it would be nice if it were a description of someone else but no, not so.  When faced with too many stress factors, I stand on the shore line with the tsunami coming and I do not move.  If that were not enough, it also suggests I may become impatient and restless, self-protective and distracted, and overly cautious.  Yes, I have been there and in the not so distant past.

The thing is not to beat yourself over the head or think the sky is falling.  Everyone has stress factors and we all react to stress in different ways.  Some become distrustful and domineering, others become dismissive, and some become obsessed with following rules.  We are human.  In this age of economic uncertainty, political polarization, and cultural changes, we are all facing stress.  We see it at work, in our homes, at school, and even within the congregation.  The key is developing the ability to recognize stress behaviors in ourselves and stress behaviors in others.  The colleague that just dismissed you may not be reacting to you but to other situations that have nothing to do with you.  For those of us in ministry, whether by vocation or service, it becomes crucial not to judge each other in stress but to find ways to help our brother or sister in Christ deal effectively with their own stess behaviors and stressers.

Fortunately, most of us have at least one person in our lives that will hold up the mirror and ask what we see.  They cannot fix it - their job is to help us see our own reflection and how others are responding to it.  Yes, the tsunami was coming but thankfully, my feet have finally lifted out of the sand....but truthfully, there will probably be a next time....

Monday, June 20, 2011

Deep Change

To my younger colleagues in Christ who dream dreams and see visions:
Eight years ago, I experienced my first election to General and Jurisdictional Conference in Arkansas.  As a probationary Elder, I did not have a vote.  Since my opinion did not count, I was not privy to the politics taking place behind the scene.  No one had sent me an email or letter.  No one had called to influence my vote.  If I remember correctly, there were no elections on the first few ballots.  Speeches were made to be inclusive as we began electing white male Elders as our delegates.

On one particular excursion around the arena, I could overhear a group talking even though the rounded configuration meant I could not see them yet.  Neither could they see me.  A loud voice exclaimed that he thought he would have to put on a skirt to get those last votes to be elected.  Another voice warned him that he should be careful saying things like that.  His response was there wasn't any of "them" around.  He said that just as I came into view.  Of course, I was a nobody so it really didn't matter to anyone gathered there that what had just been witnessed was inappropriate.  And if that is where the story ended, this would have long been forgotten.

A few minutes later, the same man was sympathizing with another lay delegate over the pressure to be "inclusive".  Fifteen minutes later, he was standing before the conference with many pastors who were fighting for diversity holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome."  It was a bit confusing for someone in ministry less than five years.

As a woman who has spent most of her career(s) in male-oriented professions, I do understand the longing to have a place at the table and how foreign that appeared to those who have been at the table for years.  Inclusivity was initially met with hostility, then skepticism that evolved into indifference.  Inevitably, someone discovered it could be exploited for political gain.  Experiencing this in the church has always bothered me. Until this year, I had stopped attending national conferences because reverence, even in worship, seemed to be secondary to other agendas.  This spring, I attended three conferences that gave me hope - two were United Methodist and one was with the Lilly Foundation.  A different model was at work - it was a model of coaching and mentoring, encouragement, and accountability.  The only agenda in place was the making of disciples.

In April, I was invited to a conference called "Lead Women Pastors in Large Membership Churches."  Currently there are 1200 United Methodist churches with memberships over 1000. Only 93 of those churches are pastored by women and many of those are serving with their spouse as a clergy couple.  For the last three years, the Board of Discipleship has researched the leadership styles of those women in the United Methodist Church that have managed to successfully push against the envisioned "glass ceiling" of the local church.  About forty women were present for this particular conference.  Many had been leading large membership churches for years.  A few had experienced difficulties and were exploring other options.  They were an incredible collection of women from various parts of the country, various ethnic groups, and various ages. 

The amazing thing was there was not one word of entitlement, discrimination, or political agendas spoken there.  Instead, we listened to how women lead differently, where deficiencies had been discovered, and how we could help mentor the younger and less experienced but gifted women in our conference to prepare them to one day take lead roles.  Many of the women had experienced difficulties because they were not prepared when they were given a place at the table.  Yes, some of this had to do with the fact the women had not been mentored in the same fashion as some of their male counterparts but that is something we can change.  No one was acting victimized there.  It was a "let's roll up our sleeves and get to work so that the generations of women behind us will be ready because they will get the opportunities not granted women even ten years ago” type of meeting.  The Conference was enlightening and inspiring.  It was empowering and uplifting.    

Needless to say, going into Annual Conference I was so hopeful regarding our own gathering of both the Conference and clergy.  Although I had my own questions regarding the main agenda item, Imagine Ministry, I was inspired by the honest discussion and genuine connection displayed on the Conference floor. Our leaders had called for deep change and it was happening.  Trust was building, people were engaged even in our differences, consensus was building, accountability was happening, and we were fully focused on one result - making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Patrick Lencioni could not have told a better tale.  It was a new day with a new narrative.

Would deep change occur as we voted for delegates to General Conference?  Unfortunately, it was the old narrative being repeated without any seeming conviction of deep change needed.  Colleagues were labeled by gender, color, and assumed theology.  Agendas were set.  Deals were brokered.  We were told how we should vote and all too often, it was by gender, race, and theology.  The clergywomen's luncheon was not the uplifting experience the national conference had been.  These women deserved better.  There was no talk of mentoring the next generation or striving to make certain those in leadership positions were prepared to lead all people striving to make disciples.  I felt like a child being told what a potty was years after I had been out of diapers.

Now I realize this is the way things have always been done and for many who have grown up with this system, it is simply part of the process but for those of us with different life experiences and who have seen a better way, it is a huge disappointment.  Perhaps rather than promoting a position from the standpoint of diversity, we need to be mentoring each other and mentoring the next generation of leaders.  For me, the politics of demanding a seat at the table simply because I am a woman no longer rings true.  We have a place at the table and will continue to have a place at the table - not because we are entitled but because we have leaders among us that have a greater vision of all the church can be and was created to be.

There will come a time when color and gender no longer matters.  There will come a time when the process is more known for its spiritual discernment and less about politics.  There will come a day where our children can look at us and see authenticity in our conduct as disciples of Jesus Christ.  It is my dream but as I have been privileged to see, it also the dream of so many others.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Paying Homage

The Christian calendar celebrates the birth of Christ differently than our culture celebrates Christmas.  In our culture, we typically think Christmas is over on December 26th.  We take the wreaths off our doors, put away the stockings and dismantle the tree for other year.  The ancient Christian tradition sees December 25th as the beginning, not the end of Christmas.  The end does not come until twelve days later with the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th, the revelation and arrival of the wise men from the East.

The wise men came to pay homage to a King as foretold by the prophets and an unusual star.  The event was filled with wonder, awe and gratitude.  We typically celebrate Epiphany in our churches on  the first Sunday of the new year but this year, I found myself in a sister church on January 6th in a worship service that celebrated the life of a man who had given his life in service to pay homage to Christ every day.  The man's name was Jim Lane. 

I did not know Jim personally but I knew of his ministry.  He spent countless volunteer hours establishing connections between United Methodists here in Arkansas.  Jim had email before others had computers and he recognized the power of social networks while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was still experiencing puberty.  Jim established an email network among us.  It distributed all kinds of information - some relevant, some irrelevant, some irritating.  We learned as we went along what was appropriate and what wasn't.  It was a powerful tool of ministry.  Our conference eventually took over the project but it was Jim's vision and leadership that connected us first.  We should all be appreciative.

Since Jim had been such a connecting figure, I expected the service to be packed.  I was wrong.  There were many there from Jim's time at Levy United Methodist Church, a few retirees and the family.  It was, however poorly attended, a beautiful service.  Jim, as those who knew him would expect, had preselected the hymns and Scriptures.  Revs. Davis Thompson and Leon Gray, and Dr. Earl Carter did an outstanding job retelling Jim's story and how his faith in Jesus Christ had shaped his life.  Jim's life and death had something to say and those who gathered were blessed to hear it.

But where was everyone else?  Had we already forgotten what Jim had done for us?  Is our connection so broken that we no longer feel drawn to be there when one of the links that bind us together is lost? 

In this day of text messages, twitter, social networks, and email, we have unlimited ability to communicate but, I wonder, have we lost the art of connecting?  John Maxwell in his book, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect, reminds us that the ability to connect with others begins with understanding the value of people.  If I have learned one thing in ministry, the greatest value we bestow one to another is with presence.  Being there is the tweet you don't have to write or the sermon you do not have to preach.  Jesus tells us whenever two or three are gathered, he will be there.  If we are present with each other, he will be present with us.

Yes, we are all busy but perhaps we need to think seriously about how we are practicing ministry through presence.  Being present to hear the re-telling of our stories helps us understand who we are and provides hope and strength for the ministries at hand.  It also inspires gratitude for how their ministries have impacted ours.  It adds value to our connection and adds value to our lives.  When a colleague shows up to be present with us, it reminds us we are not alone.  There have been crisis times in my own ministry when my colleagues have come to be present.  In the chaos of my secretary being stabbed, it was the presence of those who came to be with me that provided a miracle of grace that guided me through what had to be done in my congregation.   I have also felt the absence when I needed the presence of my brothers or sisters and felt left in the cold when the cavalry did not arrive.

Our nation is mourning the tragic deaths and wounds this week from the shooting in Arizona.  There is great debate among the talking heads about the language we have employed in our political debates and our every day verbiage.  Maybe it is just a symptom that we have forgotten presence as the most powerful tool in our communications tool chest.  We write covenants, ministry plans, and vision statements but perhaps all those things would be unnecessary if we could strengthen our ministries with a real and unwritten covenant of presence.  Previous generations seem to have understood this far more than the baby-boomers currently leading many of our congregations today.  Somehow we think we are individually more powerful than we are collectively.  That is neither biblically or theologically sound.  Christianity was always a community based faith.   So - while others blame and point fingers, I will look in the mirror and repent.  There are times I should have been there but wasn't. 

The wise men paid homage by traveling a great distance to be present with the Christ child.  They did not send an email or post an update on Facebook.  They were there to pay homage.  They were there to connect and as a result, they were blessed and so were we.