Category Archives: Leadership

Churches & Leadership today: What we won’t talk about, but need to.

I was on my summer internship doing hospital chaplaincy, and I had the opportunity to serve on the palliative care team.  Palliative care, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is an interdisciplinary approach to caring for patients and families with serious illnesses and injuries.  I was assigned to a case where an elderly women had suffered a massive stroke, and was in a coma.  Her recovery unlikely, her children faced the difficult choice of removing life support and placing her on hospice.  As the chaplain, I sat with the family, offering an empathic ear that listened to their concerns and sadness about their mom’s state, I mediated arguments between the siblings and their spouses as they accused each other of less than honorable motivations and past hurts, and did my best to gently and as pastorally as I could steer them toward the decision that made the most sense: place their mother on hospice and say their final goodbyes.

Well, this went on for 3 hours as we waited for the palliative care doctors.  I was getting nowhere with the family; in fact, I felt like things were going backwards.  As my frustration mounted, ticked off that my very pastoral presence wasn’t bringing calm into the situation so that a rational choice could be made, the palliative care doctors finally walked in.  The practitioner, with just as much empathy and genuine care, said, “I’ve reviewed your mother’s situation and health and I can tell you in my most honest medical opinion, she isn’t going to make a recovery.  My only question to you is, what would your mother want in this situation?”  The siblings agreed to take their mom off life support and place her in hospice.

My initial reaction: “You’ve got to be kidding me.  You just roll in and in 5 minutes get the family to make the decision I spent 3 hours trying to get them to make?”  After reflecting, I learned a important lesson about the necessity of varying skillsets and roles on teams.  What the family needed in that moment was “outside my lane” as a chaplain.  The doctors, as compassionate truth tellers, were the people they needed, with the information and expertise they needed to make their choice.

Many of us are well aware of the challenges facing ELCA congregations (and likely all denominations) with respect to shrinking membership, resources, and a lack of pastors for the number of vacant calls.  There are a lot of faithful, smart folks who are working to address these realities.  However, I think there is one reality out there that many of us know, but aren’t willing to acknowledge:

There are a number of congregations out there that are no longer viable.  

The reasons vary, but the reality is the same: while God always promises God’s people a future and a life with it, the same isn’t true for congregations.  While we certainly don’t know the timeline or shelf life, as God’s people are pulled in new and different directions and the context around them changes, the communities they create will be affected.  The truth is, just like our own lives, congregations also may come to a point where their life comes to an end.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a healthy way to talk about this.  It’s kind of like the person who didn’t exercise enough or eat right through their lives.  Maybe that’s part of their demise, but the causes when we’re facing the end aren’t worth dwelling on.  It’s about facing and living through the ending with grace and dignity, not making a list of regrets and shortcomings that brought on the end. Also, it isn’t about clawing tooth and nail for survival, right to the bitter end. 

I digress.  My point here is to raise the issue that we don’t really have the appropriate skillset or role in our current leadership structure to deal with issues of viability and end of life with congregations.  We have mission redevelopers, developers, Directors of Evangelical Mission, assistants to synodical bishops for conflict resolution, and intentional interim pastors.  However, these are roles that assist congregations in transition, not facing a choice about whether to continue on or not.  None of these roles directly addresses the issue of viability and end-of-life with congregations for whom that is a reality.

Do we need a “palliative care” type role among our current pastoral leadership models to address congregations facing serious issues as they face the future – God’s future for both God’s people, and for congregations?

Do we need a pastoral skillset to lead congregations through discernment of their viability?  Do we need compassionate truth tellers who will assist and empower congregations and synod leadership to make an informed decision about the congregation’s viability?

I believe that God is calling us into a conversation about this, and it’s one we need to have no matter how much we’re unwilling to admit more than just a few of our congregations are facing the question of whether or not they’ve reached the end of God’s mission for them in their current state.  If we start with God, then we know that there is a future for us as God’s people; our faith doesn’t die with our congregation, but rather it is the beginning of something new.  The truth is – and we know this – new life often can only happen when we first put to death our own fears and need to survive.

As people of faith, death AND resurrection is who we are.  It is the same for congregations.  We, both individually and communally, often avoid the first.  We need leaders who will come alongside and help us with the issue of viability we simply won’t talk about….but need to.





Filed under Leadership, Missional Thinking & The Church

Just another blog on leadership….

….or maybe not.

Talking to most pastors, leadership conversation usually centers on the quality of what one does.  It’s about HOW one leads, HOW one gets people or an organization to do what it’s supposed to, or how we put it in my line of work, what they’re called to do.

But I believe leadership is about YOU – the leader.  It is fundamentally about WHY you lead and WHO you are.  That is what is known as character, or integrity.  The best leaders are able to answer the “why” and “who” questions, and aren’t afraid to honestly reflect and wrestle with them.  I ask myself: “What can I learn?” versus “Was I successful or a failure?”  I know the first question is an exercise on reflecting on one’s character.  The second, I’m not sure what it’s about fully, but the temptation to be dishonest with one’s self and shift blame is present.  Considering the last almost 3 years of pastoral ministry, I thought I’d pass on some of my learning to you leaders out there for something to chew on.  So without further ado…..

1. There are usually 2 sides to every issue….or 3. Or 5.  When people bring their “issues” to me, I remind myself that it’s simply their perspective.  You know the old adage, “there’s your side, my side, and the truth.”  While it’s important to always here someone’s story and perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should accept it as objective, absolute truth…..because there’s always another side to the story.  In today’s world, it’s acceptable to overreact to every issue,  and we’re learning the outcomes are divisive and tragic.  I’ve learned not accepting the first, second, or even the eighth side I hear slows me down and allows me to be a non-anxious presence, rather than an anxiety-producing one.

2.  Don’t let people steal your joy.  I am one of those rare pastors who doesn’t derive my sole joy in life from my job. (Note sarcasm) Each of us has something that brings us sustained, unlimited joy in our lives.  It’s that thing that keeps us going.  No one but you and I are responsible for making room for it, however; it’s ours, and if we’re not careful, we can let people and distractions steal it from us and we become a shell of who we really are.  Worse yet, we become unhealthy and unfit to lead.  Sure, there is a degree of sacrifice that comes with being a pastor, but you’re not called to be a martyr. Don’t let people steal your joy.

3.  Lead out of acceptance, not affirmation.  I used to be one of those people who sought affirmation of others to define my self-worth.  However, affirmation often is hitched to the wagon of success.  What happens when that wagon departs and you’re left holding failure?  I’ve learned that people’s praise is often fleeting…tied to their expectations, their level of satisfaction, and their definition of success.  Acceptance is taking things at face value.  It’s knowing who you are, your limits and capabilities, what you can offer and what you cannot.  It’s also knowing – and accepting – the same in those you lead.  Acceptance is not holding on to things too tightly, because they’re not really yours to begin with.  Acceptance is understanding leaders aren’t in total control, which leads me to a couple supporting ideas:

  • Accept failure as simply consequence of decisions/actions vice an indictment on you, and learn from it.
  • There are limits to what’s within your control; but be ok taking control of what is within the sphere of your role.
  • As a leader, you often get what you earn, good or bad.

Finally, acceptance has led me to understand that only standard I need to evaluate myself by is God’s.  The minute I cannot be true to who God has created and called me to be, is to be in denial of what’s truth.  Acceptance is accepting that good news as…truth.

4.  Whether you succeed or fail, know why.  Any fool can get lucky and hit the jackpot.  Conversely, fools also tend to pass blame when failure comes.  In either case, it’s leadership by shotgun approach and totally random.  Good leaders at their core are intentional about learning – they take the time to know why something succeeded or failed.  When success comes, they can replicate it.  When failure results, they can learn and change.  Leaders who know why things succeed or fail (or take the time to discover it) provide stability and wisdom to the people and places they lead.

5. It is important to have a fundamental belief in the people you lead and the community’s mission/vision.  Perhaps a softer way to say this is “you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.”  But it’s deeper than that.  People and the church deserve your best.  If cynicism sets in to the point where you don’t believe in people or the community’s ability to give their best or to fulfill what God has called them to, then it’s time for you to leave.  That doesn’t mean you’re a jerk nor that there’s something wrong with your people.  It’s just a sign that perhaps it’s time for you both to part ways before apathy – or worse – sets in.

6.  Compromising doesn’t mean compromising who you are and who you’re called to be.  Know your “why.”  This has two parts.  Let me start with the first one: compromise.  There is a big problem in congregations, and that is the idol of “nice.”  People hold up this idol and compromise becomes the sacrifice at the altar of “nice.”  What it means is that the leader always should “be nice” and thus be a compromiser.  What this compromising ends up being is that the leader and their decisions are subject to the expectations, satisfaction, and definition of success of others.  Over time leaders compromise what they are about and the ministry they feel called to do.

That leads me to the second part of this.  I think compromise runs rampant when leaders forget their “why.”  One’s “why” is as simple as what makes you get out of bed in the morning.  It’s the motivation behind what you do, your call, your reason for existing.  Whether it’s comfort, apathy, fear, or a host of other things, the result is we tend to forget our “why.”  That’s when we start compromising – ourselves and our vocation.

This isn’t an exhaustive list.  What other things do you think are important when it comes to thinking about leading with character or integrity?  What does it mean to you to lead with one’s character and integrity intact?

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Bi-Vocational Pastor: Your Fundamental Belief in People

I’ve been coaching the sport of wrestling for over 12 years now.  I’ve always enjoyed working with athletes, teaching them the sport, about life lessons, and helping them achieve their goals.  It is truly satisfying work, but I noticed something disturbing in myself about 9 years ago – I found myself spending increasingly more time focusing on our best and most talented wrestlers, and less time focusing on less gifted ones.  In fact, I found myself seeking ways to avoid those less gifted kids, even though the level of commitment and desire to get better was the same from both groups.

It is natural for us to spend time with those who seem more responsive to our coaching and leadership efforts.  If we’re honest, we do so because we derive a sense of satisfaction, a measure of success and reward for ourselves.  I don’t see this tendency to be the problem.  What I do see as the problem is that if we dig a little deeper into the why, it raises this question:

What do you fundamentally think about people?

What I found for myself 9 years ago is that deep down, I simply thought less of my less talented wrestlers.  They weren’t worth my time and energy because there was a lower probability that they would achieve what I had defined as success.  As I dug deeper into my fundamental beliefs and attitudes about people, I discovered I viewed my talented wrestlers through a similar lens.  They were worth my time because they were a commodity that would ensure my success and self-worth as a coach.

I recently listened to a podcast by a popular non-denominational pastor who began to talk about the lifestyle choices of the people near the church they were discussing.  He described them as a “challenging context.” He and his partner could not comprehend why these people wouldn’t want to have families, why they seemed more interested in their dogs and drinking coffee, and “secular things.”  In fact, they even went as far to suggest they felt threatened, that their “perfectly normal” life of having a wife and 4 kids was looked upon with scorn by these people.  Yet clearly in their minds, that is the life that God desires for all of us!  These people “need God” and it validated their attractional ministry to in the premise their lives were somehow “lacking.” 

 I also sat in a church-related meeting where one person, encouraging the rest of the group to reach out to families in the community, suggested that this was desirable because “each of those families….that’s $1,000 right there.” Enough said right there. 

Now if you were one of the people these folks were referring to, and were a fly on the wall for those conversations, would you want to be part of their community of faith?

What you fundamentally think about people will affect how you interact with them.  And those fundamental beliefs will show through to people, regardless how “nice,” “welcoming,” and “well-intentioned” you try to be.

Our tendency towards sameness when it comes to who we surround ourselves with blinds us to this fact.  It deceives us into believing there is something wrong with the other, and creates an “us versus them” mentality.  Even worse, we think “they” don’t notice. The truth is, people are smarter than you and I think.  People are always watching and evaluating, and they are especially evaluating leaders.  I know 9 years ago my wrestlers were watching, just like they continue to do so today.  The same is true in my role as pastor and Navy chaplain.  You don’t have to like every person, and you don’t have to treat each person the same.  You do, however, have to hold a universal belief about the worth and value of human life.  What that is for you, I’ll leave that up to you to decide for yourselves.   I do know, however,  your integrity and effectiveness as a leader depends on your answer.


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Bi-Vocational Pastor: “Rethinking leadership….but not re-inventing the wheel.”

The decision to which college or university one wants to go to is an important moment in any high school senior’s life.  It was no different for me.  Out of the myriad of choices, that decision was solidified when I was reviewing information on the U.S. Naval Academy and read this in their Admissions Handbook:

Midshipmen are persons of integrity; they stand for that which is right. They tell the truth and ensure that the truth is known.

I applied right then, and it was the only school I applied to that summer.

Over the course of my “four years by the bay,” that initial attraction to something greater than myself became solidified through a leadership curriculum, countless lectures, seminars, case studies, and experiences (including competing as a wrestler through college!), and instilled in me an uncompromising need for truth and integrity.  That need still drives me to this day, its uncompromising quality being both a burden that causes contention and frustration in my interactions with others, but it is also a strength that makes me the leader I am today.

While my station in life has changed, the necessity of integrity and truth has not.  As a pastoral leader, it is both a burden and gifts the same.

Yet so many don’t see the gift, but rather see only the burden….primarily in the form of being a pain in the ass.

There is a dire need for conversation about integrity-based leadership in ministry today.  Most of the leadership voices offer tools and strategies on how to influence people for “growth” or to manage conflict and anxiety ensure a level of comfort.  Rick Warren, Thom Rainer, Carey Nieuwhof, Andy Stanley – all offer lots of great thoughts on such things.  Yet, they gloss over the conversation of integrity with thin platitudes such as “let Jesus lead you” or refer to “biblical” models.

My suspicion is that so many avoid the integrity-based leadership conversation because it requires a level of deep self-criticism, self-reflection, and consistently questions who one is and the motivations behind their actions.  Most people avoid this because it’s either simply too painful, too hard, too negative, or they’re just too political.

Yet, so many communities of faith are operating with a lack of integrity behind who they are as “church” and what they call “mission” or “ministry.”  I want to change that; I think we need to change that.  The challenges the church faces are contextual, but they are also due to the consequences of leadership that lacked integrity.  I say this having listened to numerous colleagues in ministry and their challenges, colleagues who have left calls burnt out and way too early, and even my own experiences.

Now I am sensitive to the fact that we all make mistakes and our own brokenness creates leaders of a numerous variety and no one model fits.  I am by no means an expert; I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel and I definitely don’t have answers. But I can ask questions.  I can raise concepts for further reflection.  I can start a conversation, one that isn’t new by any means, yet one that in which God might transform us.  Of this I remain as uncompromising as ever.

Pastors must be persons of integrity.  They must stand that that which is right.  They must tell the truth and ensure the truth is known.

And that quest begins with looking at ourselves.




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Baby Jesus, John the Baptist, 2013 & Leadership…What do they have in common?

If you opened this up after reading the title, I thank you for letting your curiosity get the best of you. 

So, what’s going on here? I think I can sum this up pretty quickly. First, the Birth of Jesus: God comes to us in the form of a small baby. It goes well beyond salvation, forgiveness of sins, etc. It shows us that God is found in unlikely places. God works in and values things that the world doesn’t – like the humble instead of the grand; vulnerability instead of power.

And John the Baptist…..his whole message can be summed up like this: PAY ATTENTION.  Pay attention because God is near; the Kingdom of God is at hand. Pay attention because God doesn’t reveal himself in the things the world pays attention to.

Which brings me to the New Year (2013)…..a lot of people are making goals and resolutions. I don’t. But I do reflect, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of that. I reflect on tragedies that happen in small elementary schools, small towns, inner cities, and suburbs. I reflect on arguments between politicians and differences over solutions to fix big problems in this world. I reflect on arguments over correct theology. I reflect recent, sudden deaths of people in my life. I reflect on how cancer takes so many people before their time. I reflect on the struggles my wrestlers go through in the midst of our season.

The truth is, I’ve been wrestling with a lot in my life, and I bet that it’s true for people all over. I try to make sense of not only everything that’s happening in the world and what my Christian faith has to do with it all, but also where to go moving forward – in my work, in my relationships, and honestly, just in each day – one step at a time.

Let me be very blunt for a second. We have this preoccupation in our society with “big problems.” We like to get caught up in the big issues, and how everything is going to possibly fall apart. And we have this obsession with trying to fix those big problems. We get fixated on arguing about what legislation, law, or reform will solve things, and we believe in the lie that we will make it all go away.

Frankly, I think our church and Christians get way too caught up in pointing fingers on who’s to blame for the problems in our world. We get way too fixated on advocating and taking hard stances on human solutions and passing them off as being “prophetic” and bringing God’s “justice” to the world. We get too caught up speaking for God, and honestly, trying to be God ourselves. And the whole time God is saying: PAY ATTENTION.

Engaging in the world’s problems and working for justice is certainly a part of being Christian, and being the church in the world. But what does it mean when we spend all our time trying to fix a health care system and lobby for gun control, and we don’t realize we’re marginalizing those who we label as offenders? What does it mean when we spend all our time talking about how the government should be providing for people, when the church doesn’t lift a finger itself? What does it mean when we spend all our time proclaiming how the rest of the world should be the church, and we aren’t being the Church?

In all my reflection, I feel that we’ve lost a sense of paying attention to the simple, the humble, the things and people in our spaces around us. And for me, that’s what I think God is telling us in the story of God coming among us as a small baby of humble beginnings, and in the story of a “voice crying in the wilderness.” Pay attention to the small things, the unlikely things.

Pay attention to your family and friends.
Pay attention to people at work, in your neighborhood, on the street.
Pay attention to people who are angry, without hope, in despair.
Pay attention to people who are hurting and in pain; suffering and mourning.
Pay attention to people who are asking us questions about faith – even skeptical ones.
Pay attention to people without compassion or caring; who are selfish and cold.

Pay attention to them, look them in the eye and really see them. And love them. Reach out to them. Care for them. Listen and talk with them.

Pay attention to need for both accountability and grace in God vision of justice….and in ours. 

It won’t be perfect. It’ll probably scare the hell out of you because well, entering into the reality of our world is scary. Heck, nothing profound or big will come out of it most the time. But, it’s what it means to be the church, and what it means to be a person of faith.

And those of you who lead God’s people, who serve in ministry: PAY ATTENTION. Pay attention to the things and people immediately around you; be fully present in and with them. And be courageous enough to talk about them with others with accountability and grace in the words you say. 

I’m going to take that as a challenge for myself this year and really wrestle with it. And perhaps, that’s exactly where God is and has been telling us he’ll meet us the whole time….now that’s a crazy thought, isn’t it?!

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Bi-Vocational Pastor: Thinking about “Transitional Ministry”

Interim Pastor.

Take a second and think about all the initial thoughts you had as you read that title – what came to mind?  Most of it probably not very good.  While I’m one of those people who see a great benefit and need for interim ministry and pastors who serve as interim pastors, congregations often have different reactions, and think of it something like this:

Interim Pastor: someone who is retired (or near retirement), and spends up to a year “holding down the fort” while the church’s call committee (or whatever body that is for your denomination) finds the next pastor – “our” pastor.  A long-term pastor; a full-time, present all the time pastor.  An interim is just that – the “in the meantime guy (or girl)” while we wait for the coming of the one who will lead us into the next 30 years of our church life. (Ok, maybe not 30, but most think it’ll be a “really long time”)

Does this sound familiar?  To be fair, many congregations realize the gift of an interim pastor and the interim time of ministry – it’s a chance to reflect on the current state of things, and to think deeply about what the “next steps” might be.  There are congregations that graciously and courageously allow themselves to be led by this person, and this person faithfully leads them in healthy and important discernment during this transition.  However, all too often there is a sense of anxiety during the time of the interim pastor – fear over a loss of momentum in mission and ministry, an identity crisis in the wake of the departing pastor’s absence, and the decline in participation of communal life and worship.  The interim pastor is not the “real pastor.” The interim  is a time that must be quickly moved through in order to resolve this anxiety, usually by calling a pastor as quickly as possible.  Then there’s the whole issue of an ineffective interim pastor/leader; congregations’ stigma is based in an unfortunate, but true, reality.

I think all this is problematic on a number of levels.  One, decisions are made out of anxiety and fear, which usually never produce positive, long-term outcomes.  Two, it creates a stagnant, “stuck” period for churches that often takes the new pastor years to rectify (the road to recovery is long after a period of “backsliding”).  Three, it becomes a year of wasted resources (back to that retired interim pastor – “we just paid a full year’s salary and benefits for a guy with 30 years ministry experience to preach and visit people?”).

However, there is another reason I think this falls short, which ties into the present reality of our changing religious context in society and congregations struggling to understand and engage it. Churches in transition need more than just a one-year interim period to figure these things out.  They need a leader who will walk with them through an internal transformation and culture shift. They need a pastor who will lead for a set period of time with clear goals and outcomes in mind.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Model Constitution, paragraph C9.11 of Chapter 9 states, “While the approval of the bishop of the synod, the congregation may depart from [normal calling procedures] and call a pastor for a specific term. Details of such calls shall be in writing setting forth the purpose and conditions involved.” This provides the opportunity for a new type of pastoral ministry: Transitional Ministry.

Transitional Ministry would be similar Interim Ministry in that it would likely be short-term (1-4 years).  However, it would differ in that rather than just provide a person as “placeholder,” it would provide a focused period in which the congregation would call a pastor to lead them through a set period of transition with specific goals and purposes in mind.  In addition, the pastor wouldn’t just be someone present solely to perform functional tasks (preaching, teaching, sacraments, pastoral care), but rather would be called with a particular role with specific skill sets to best serve the congregation during this period of discernment and change.

How would this look? Think “John the Baptist.”  Someone who can help “prepare the way” for a new chapter as Christ’s church.  Someone who can proclaim both good news in Word and Sacrament yet also speak prophetically  and honestly into the reality of the community of faith and community at large.  Someone who, when the time is right, would decrease so that the congregation might increase in its mission and life to the world for years to come.

This is where Bi-vocational pastors would be an excellent fit for transitional ministry.  Constraints on time require the Bi-Vocational pastor to more clearly and distinctly define their role within the congregation he or she serves.  A decreased financial commitment to a pastor during the transition would allow congregations more freedom in developing a more realistic and relevant budget for mission and ministry.  Bi-Vocational pastors have the ability to shift the paradigm of congregations away from the notion that fully present relationally means “fully employed.”  There is also the benefit of having a pastor who has one foot within the context and one foot in the congregation – the pastor is an interpreter and advocate for both communities.  Bi-vocational pastors also bring specific skillsets and expertise from their other professions and work.

Here’s a few ways to imagine this: A larger congregation, in need of developing a strong Children, Youth, & Family ministry, but with limited financial resources to grow staff could call a bi-vocational pastor as a 1/2 or 3/4 time Associate Pastor.  They could then use this savings and call a full-time Director of Youth & Family Ministry to develop the ministry. The bi-vocational pastor could serve for a 2-4 year period, supporting the senior pastor by sharing certain pastoral roles and ministry oversight, and perhaps focus in on a particular ministry need (outreach, evangelism, social justice, vocational discernment, etc.)  In time, in concert with enhanced ministry and increased staff, the financial resources may increase to call a full-time associate that the congregations needs down the road.

Or, a medium-sized congregation that also recently established a non-profit as a ministry could call a bi-vocational pastor for a period of 2 years with non-profit management and community engagement experience.  The last pastorate was 30 years, and the pastor was full-time in the congregation.  However, finances now only allow for a part-time pastor and the congregation wishes for the non-profit to be “a ministry of the congregation” but don’t currently have the resources to hire a full-time non-profit manager.  The pastor could serve in this dual role, helping establish the ministry and its relationship with the church and community.

Or, a congregation set near a military base, but not understanding the context, could call an Armed Forces Reserve chaplain to serve the congregation and help establish a ministry that supports military service members and their families through the deployment cycle for 3 years, at which point the chaplain would then mobilize for a one-year deployment and the congregation would call a pastor who would serve them long-term.

Or, a congregation having dealt with serious conflict and a split may agree to a 2-3 year pastorate that would provide the stability necessary to understand and heal.  The congregation would agree to pay the pastor full-time, allowing that 20% of his or her time would be open to pursue personal ministry (young adult, college, synodical, churchwide) as a means of self-care for the pastor and as a missional act of sharing the pastor with the wider church.

These are just a few of the possibilities….but what would such transitional ministry mean for congregations in our present day and age?  And what would it mean to raise up pastoral leaders with unique skillsets to serve congregations in this way?  Transitional ministry would provide stability to congregations in anxious times, focus in their discernment of God’s mission, and innovation and financial freedom around the pastor’s role.  And of course, we trust the Spirit at work….and maybe that transitional pastor might be the right one to stick around for the long haul.

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You’ve been drafted, now what? 5 Tips for Navigating First Call

You got the envelope or phone call this winter with your Region assignment.  You then got the phone call from a Bishop, and now you know what Synod you’re going to.  And now here you are, on the home stretch of your final semester of classes in seminary, with graduation on the horizon.

Oh yeah, you have to navigate the whole first call process too.

For some of you in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, you may already have your first-call in your back pocket – you know what congregation you’re going to.  But for all of you who fall outside that category, the whole first-call process can be confusing and anxious.  And unlike pro sports rookies we don’t hire agents upon being drafted…..although maybe Drew Rosenhaus or Scott Boras may be more helpful in alleviating your anxiety than the Holy Spirit right now.  Heck, maybe you’re so desperate you’d take Jerry Maguire at this point.

Or, perhaps I can offer a few things for you, having been through this process about two years ago.  There was a lot of uncertainty and anxiety for me as well – moving halfway across the country to a Synod, although I was familiar with it, I wasn’t really expecting to go to.   I hope you find these helpful!

1.  Chuck the “pastor/spiritual/theological” language.  I found in conversation that phrases like “Let’s prayerfully consider where the Spirit’s leading” or “we just have to trust God here” or “I really get a sense of God speaking” in this way or that, while nice, sometimes isn’t very helpful.  I think it’s a given that we all trust the Spirit’s guidance and that God is moving in this process.  However, God also gifted us with rational brains.  You’re out of the seminary world now, and honesty, direct communication is going to become more effective for you in the long run.  It can be more assuring to hear “be patient, because there isn’t anything that’s right for you (or anything at all) at this time.”

1a.  You are interviewing your Synod and prospective congregations just as much as they are interviewing you.  This goes along with the comment about honest, direct communication.  First call interviews can feel a lot like dating – both sides want to put their best foot forward, which means downplaying any of the growing edges or challenges (almost every congregation has them).  You should be honest and direct about who you are, but also in your questions about who they are. This is where the Synod can help; ask them about frequency and nature of pastoral transitions in certain congregations, or what challenges exist.  It’s a telling sign if your Synod can’t (or won’t) name anything they know about the congregation, particularly around challenges.

2.  Ask about areas of involvement for pastors within the Synod.  You likely developed passions for particular ministry or issues while at seminary.  I know for me, Navy Chaplaincy and bi-vocational ministry that reaches out to young adults and youth were areas of ministry that today, still energize and drive me.  Yet, rare is the first call that will align perfectly with your passions for social justice or global missions.  Ask the Synod you’re assigned to what groups or focus there is for you to feed those passions.  It helps connect not just you, but your congregations to the larger expression of church, can be a real asset to both the ministry of the Synod and the congregation, and will be a means of self-care for you as well.

3.  Consider the areas you’re looking at from a personal, social perspective too.  I chose my first call not just on the congregation, I really considered the location from a standpoint of how it would be for my wife and I socially and emotionally.  There were opportunities for meaningful work and professional networking for my wife.  There was a wrestling team I could coach, and has become great community of support and friendship for both of us.  We live 3 blocks from the beach.  (Yes, you read that right!)  For me, I know I cannot be a good, healthy pastor unless my personal life is reasonably healthy.  In those moments your calls get challenging – and they will – you’ll need something away from the congregations and that community to refresh you.

4.  Be prepared to say “no.”  John Elway considered it.  Bo Jackson played baseball instead of football.  They don’t tell you this, but if you’ve been reasonably faithful to the assignment process, and it doesn’t feel right, you do have the right to say no.  It can be frustrating when your life is put on hold because others drag their feet or blow you off.  That’s not trusting the Holy Spirit; that’s being disrespectful and taking advantage of you.  Sometimes you have to switch gears a bit, and that will come with some consequences, but in the end if you’re being told to wait in a way that drastically throws your life in flux, then have courage that you can say no, and there are places that need and want a pastor like you.  (Note: if you find yourself in that situation, I advise you to find advocates who will speak on your behalf – experienced pastors, mentors, bishops and synod staff from other synods.  Find a few folks who know you well and in that case you do find yourself in a tough situation, they can make calls on your behalf.)

5.  While challenging, this process should be exciting.  I’ll be the first person to say that the process, while challenging, does work the majority of the time.  I believe there are good, faithful people who take the task of matching first-call pastors with good congregations so that God’s grace might be proclaimed and God’s work in the world be done.  That might mean a little discomfort on your end, embrace that.  However, the process should feel exciting to you overall.  If it feels anything other than that, and you know those feelings are outside of who you typically are and how you experience transition and uncertainty, then it’s time to ask why and consider #4 above.

But remember that – this is your first go around, and that is exciting.  I can tell you this, my call now is nothing like I thought it would be two years ago.  There have been ups and downs, and this IS A FIRST CALL – there will likely be more calls to come.  We live between two tensions – an established church culture that values obligation versus a contemporary life that values personal choice.  You will feel the tension of that from time to time, but if you honor both without sacrificing one or the other – you’ll be satisfied with the process.

God be with you all in your discernment and “post-draft” negotiations!  Oh, and if you do need an agent, I might be available….


I’m sure there are other very helpful suggestions out there as well.  Feel free to comment and offer them here for folks to read!

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