Teaching Our Community to Care for Us

Ten years as an at-home mom prepared me in surprising ways to be a lead pastor. In both situations, I’ve learned that:

  • You’re part of the community but also responsible for building the community.
  • Most of the work you do is noticed only if it’s not done
    • At home, people expect dinner to appear on the table and socks to appear in their drawers.
    • At church, they expect the bulletin to be filled with important events and for a sermon to appear every Sunday morning.
  • You will have moments of resentment, and resentment is a sign that you need to share your heart.

It would be natural for my children to feel entitled, and for me to feel resentment, if I were treated as a full-time servant. One day, I decided that everyone would benefit if my kids learned to appreciate what I do for them. And so we have taught our children to say “thank you” not just because it’s nice to be thanked but also because it’s good for them to learn gratefulness.

In other words, if I were to put up with their entitlement for the 18 years they’re with me, I would end up with a lot of resentment in my own heart, and they would leave home as something less than whole and happy adults.

Now, of course, parishioners aren’t children, so I don’t want to overdo the metaphor. Still, it is important for parishioners to be grateful for their church and for their pastor. The responsibility for teaching them this often falls to the pastor when the church is small, there is little denominational oversight of these things, the congregation is young, or the community is very transitional. In my case, all four are true.

Let me share how I’m learning to navigate this.

Last year, I noticed I’d been on staff seven years and was due a sabbatical. We, like most smaller churches, don’t have a head of HR who keeps track of such things. I’m the closest thing we have to head of HR, and for any other member of staff I would say, “Time for a sabbatical!” But no one remembered this for me, so a part of me felt a little resentful.

I decided, as the head of HR, to inform everyone that the Lead Pastor was due a sabbatical. I did so partly because I believe that it’s good for a church if their Lead Pastor takes a sabbatical. In my submission to the good of the church, I raised the issue. Of course, they were happy to let me go. And the sabbatical was good both for me and the church.

I’m also navigating these questions this Christmas. The folks in my congregation are incredibly positive and encouraging. (If they weren’t, then I guess I would need to consider how to pastor them toward that.) Because we are by a university, many of them are young and always coming and going, so each Christmas it’s a different set of faces. As a result, those of us on staff don’t receive many Christmas cards or gifts.

It is important to note the following:

  • We don’t care about being lavished with expensive presents, but a heartfelt recognition of any way we have served folks is always meaningful.
  • Ultimately we find our affirmation in the Lord, but there are also healthy ways the Lord shows his affirmation through his people.
  • This is not about being treated in a special way – because pastors feel that they are above their people or lords to be spoiled – but about being part of the community.

In a very awkward moment, I raised with our elders that:

  • It’s good for the community to take a moment at Christmastime to celebrate good things.
  • It’s good also to remember the things that can be invisible, like a vibrant church community.
  • It’s my job to help them do that, even if it means teaching them to thank me.

In the past, the elders designated a member of the board to buy each staff member a gift and to sign a card on behalf of the church. It was nice, but it didn’t involve the congregation. This year, the elders are seeing that, as spiritual leaders of the congregation, part of their role is to teach people to take care of the pastors, just as we take care of the people. The elders have taken on the challenge with gusto and it’s beautiful, even if uncomfortable.

If we’re honest, it feels good to imagine we don’t have any needs. It feels very spiritual to say, “I won’t ask anything from them. I’m here for them, not the other way around.” There are certainly ways that we can’t burden our congregations with our needs, but how are we helpful if we’re not human? Won’t we serve them best by (wisely) letting them see our needs? As someone who needs words of encouragement, it is okay to let my congregation know that, not for the sake of my own ego but so that I can keep investing day after day, year after year in this place.

The scriptural metaphor of the ox treading the grain makes me think that God is okay with this approach. We have committed ourselves to our congregations. We’re taught to be servants, to sacrifice for this work. If our good and the good of the church are interwoven, perhaps there are times when we need to take care of our own good for the sake of the church.

The worker for the church community is to live off the fruits of the church community. The fruits of the orchards we tend are not limited to financial gifts. We are nurturing warmth and appreciation, spiritual maturity, and gratitude. The Lord wants us to share in those fruits, too.

Casting Our Cares on the Next Generation

Leading a university church puts me in an unusual situation, since few of my folks grew up in this congregation and few will stay. As I meet with young adults, many of them college students, one-on-one and hear their stories, it’s surprising how often their spiritual struggles stem from painful experiences at previous churches. I spend a surprising amount of time helping them imagine themselves in the church of the future.

It’s made me wonder: what stories will these young folks tell when they graduate and move on to other congregations? What will our congregation contribute to their spiritual story? Will they tell of ways we added to their burden or gave them wings?

Let me share with you a few of the stories I’m hearing:

  • Yesterday I met with a young man who is now estranged from his Christian family and friends because he confessed he had doubts and needed help figuring out how his faith relates to his life.
  • This week I met with a young woman who had been let go from a ministry because her personality wasn’t enough like the personality of the ministry’s founder.
  • Last week I met with a young couple whose church plant was suddenly defunded because their way of doing ministry in the inner city didn’t look exactly like the way the supporting church does ministry in the suburbs.
  • Two weeks ago I met with a young woman who has been excluded from her home church because she is asking questions about politics and wondering if there is only one way to vote as a follower of Jesus.

It’s good for us to acknowledge that we are in a time of upheaval, both in the broader culture and in the church. Those in their teens and twenties are wrestling with questions we never had to face at their age. How will we help them navigate this phase with their faith intact?

It may begin with a little soul-searching. What if we gathered our congregational leaders and took some time to talk through these questions?

  1. What has changed in the church and culture since we were in our teens and twenties?
  2. Are we anxious about the future? If so, how? How are we anxious about the future of our own congregation? Of the faith around the country or the world?
  3. How can we pray about those anxieties we’re feeling? Do we trust that ultimately the Lord is at work in the world, even in all the upheaval? How has he allowed the Gospel to go forward in times of upheaval in the past? What is his part in guiding his Church? What is the part he calls us to do? How can we partner with him in leading his Church through these changes?
  4. Is there any way that we burden our young folks with our anxieties about the future? Do we take it personally when their faith doesn’t look like ours?
  5. How can we create a safe place for them to wrestle and explore? How can we ask open-ended questions? For example, instead of giving tests of faith like “Do you believe (x doctrine)?” or “If you believe (x), then you can’t be a Christian”, ask questions like, “What is it like to be a Christian in your generation?” and “How can we be a support to you?”

The turning from childhood to adulthood is hard at any time. But when everything around you is also changing, it’s an even greater challenge. In times of great change young people need the older generation to be a stable, comforting presence in their lives. How can we be that for them for the sake of their own development and for the sake of the future church?

Why Collaborate?

There are many challenges we face as leaders, such as:

  • Burnout and loneliness
  • Similar burnout and loneliness among others who lead with us
  • Lack of new leaders
  • Lack of vision or creativity and resulting struggles with casting a vision
  • Lack of buy-in for our vision

I believe that one simple thing can provide solutions to all these challenges: the practice of collaboration. And I’d like to share the story of how I began to learn it.

A few years ago, I returned to the U.S. after a mountain-top experience visiting my homeland of Australia. Although my time there was wonderful, the tearful goodbyes and return to my life in the U.S. awakened my grief at the loss of home and family. The many hours spent beach-combing for exquisite shells there remained with me, and I found myself wandering my inner-city Cincinnati streets and continuing the same habit of collecting – not shells but broken things. I didn’t realize that I was doing it until things began gathering in a box by my back door.

During this time, a friend invited me to make art for his counseling center for inner-city kids. I knew that such art needed to be honest about the challenges of life but also hopeful. So it seemed fitting to make something out of the junk I’d gathered from the same streets where these kids live. I began to see the trash in new ways, no longer signs of something discarded but opportunities for something new. My habit of collecting broken things changed with my new perspective—I began looking for the perfect piece of glass or green bottle cap to complete my creation. Somehow—and I don’t know exactly the moment it happened—I began to be drawn into the re-creation.

As I began to see the potential for healing and hope in this repurposing of junk, I wanted to invite my community in some way. The city was still recovering from race riots, and tension had become a normal part of life in the neighborhood. So I considering making more of this art and having a little one-woman art show.

But I’m glad I didn’t. If I had, then I would have missed the opportunity to learn the power of collaboration. I realized that the power was not in looking at the art but in creating it.

And so I created “The Collect: A City-Wide Trash to Art Event.” Through local media, I invited local folks to donate their junk at any of six cafes across the city. Among the treasures offered, we got a watch-band collection and box of camera lenses and a pair of old shoes. A team of 18 artists chose the trash that most inspired them and transformed it into amazing art, which we auctioned for charity.

During this six-month process, as I worked with local media, cafe’s, artists, and neighbors, the project took on the color of many stories and became so much more interesting and multi-faceted than if I’d done it alone. I started watching how we all felt a little homeless, how we all longed to belong somewhere. I had an opportunity to hear stories of how others were also taking what felt broken—in themselves and their communities—and were finding new ways to create something new.

By the end of this collaborative process, I felt part of something. I felt home.

If I had just done a one-woman art show, I would have tried, and probably failed, to solve my problems alone. I would have missed the opportunity to let the community shape the idea. Instead, I invited others to see behind the scenes, to join the process. Although I started it, I lost track of whether I was making it or it was making me.

We think the product is the point, but community grows in the process. Our call as leaders is not to show our plans but ourselves.

As pastors, we think it’s our job to fully shape a five-year plan and sell it to folks. But what if we brought people into the process much earlier and allowed them to help shape the vision? What if we trusted that the best ideas grow from the community and that, when folks help shape and execute ideas, there’s no point at which we have to push for “buy-in”? Might we feel less lonely, less burned-out? Might the ideas be bigger and more beautiful? Might they connect more with our communities (since that’s where they grew)? Might the process of working together itself develop leaders and community?

Beyond all this, the most beautiful part of collaboration is this: one of our deepest human longings is to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. When we have a seed of an idea and plant it in a community, we get to watch it take on life and color which we, alone, could never have created. In collaboration, the folks in our community get to enjoy the unfolding with us, watching God in his creative element. Whatever we’re making takes on the story of the soil from which it grows. Although we were the instigator of this idea, we can look over the life that grows from it and know it was bigger, more beautiful, and more multi-faceted than we could have created alone. We feel a small part of something large. And there is no shame in the smallness. It’s a moment as transcendent as taking in the stars on a clear night or singing in a choir when we feel our connection to one another and to God.

Collaboration is permission to be human, together.