You want to do what? (Why I’m in the mediation biz Part 2)

As I said in a previous post, experiencing embarrassment as a 4th grader and experiencing church conflict as a pastor’s kid made me want to run from speaking out, ministry, and sometimes Christianity altogether.  I still hate conflict.  So, how did I end up here?

God’s call.  Plain and simple answer. The following story, which I edited and reedited to make it shorter and failed, helped shape my call. It is a story of how I set myself up to fail, of people knowing and not warning me of the situation I was entering, and unhealthy communication issues that led to my getting fired from my first ministry position. Looking back on this story, I see how God was at work in my life, shaping my current ministry. So read on if you want. I understand if you don’t because it’s long.

In my third year of seminary, I took my first ministry position as part time student associate pastor. I would be at the parish Friday through Monday and help provide pastoral care, lead the youth group, and preach every Sunday at two of the congregations in the 4-church rural parish, under the guidance of a retired “Full Bird Colonel” Army chaplain who had been there for 20 years.  Tuesday through Thursday I would be at the seminary, about two hours away.

Turns out a lot happened on those Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I was away. I was fired after 9 months. 

What happened?

  1. Month one: I set myself up. I told everyone when I started out at the parish that I wanted to stay for 2 years. Big mistake! I made a “promise” without knowing exactly what I was getting into.  Keep that in mind as you read further.
  2. Months 1-4: Clash with the supervising pastor. My“Full Bird Colonel” supervisor was an authoritarian, where as I was an equipper. In my search for adult volunteers for the youth, I thought first of “Tim and Judy.” My supervisor told me that Tim and Judy were too busy with their toddler and suggested that I not even ask.  I asked anyway—not realizing I was given an “order.”  Their answer was a gracious “no,” which I accepted and I found other adult volunteers.  My supervisor scolded me at staff meeting and suggested that I follow him around with a steno pad and take notes so I would remember what he told me.  I didn’t. Friction ensued and escalated.
  3. Months 1-9: Parsonage issues of the emotional kind. I was the first to live in the brand new parsonage, which the parish was loudly proud of. They were so proud, in fact, that they put a plaque in the hallway–never to be removed — in honor of one of the nicest men in the church who led the building committee (and who didn’t want a plaque.) Three things I did that alarmed them:
    1. Month 1: Accidentally stepped through the ceiling of attic storage (and bruised the heck out of my leg, but they seemed more interested in the hole in the ceiling). 
    1. Month 2: I locked the door behind me as I left the house and forgot my key on the kitchen counter. No biggie; I just went over to “Thelma’s” house—a church member who lived nearby—and borrowed her “emergency” key. At the next staff meeting, my supervisor told me that he heard about the mishap and again scolded me for “losing” the key, wondering if I was up to living in the new parsonage.
    1. Month 5: Risked getting the carpets muddy by not canceling an open house to show everyone the new parsonage after Christmas Eve Worship. I figured it was a good time to let everyone know I was taking good care of the place.  At a “meeting” right before the service that someone forgot to invite me to, they decided I should cancel. I didn’t. The open house went without a hitch, there was lots of laughter and good food, and people loved the décor. But the parsonage committee was not amused! 

It just went downhill from there. The final straw:

  • Month 8: I messed with the church building. Some “mover and shaker” church ladies asked me for suggestions on how to attract young families, who were rapidly moving to our bedroom community. I suggested a room swap between the nursery, which was in a dark room with no windows, and the “office,” a bright and airy space that was underused.  Of course, I told them, they would need to get approval from the church trustees. They didn’t. People were upset. It was my idea so I was blamed. Not only had I been putting the parsonage at risk; now I was messing with the church building.

Other things started to snow ball.  I didn’t preach long enough, I didn’t visit the nursing homes enough, I spent too much time on school work. I began to dread going back to the parish.

Back at the seminary, the internship faculty saw me burning out and losing my confidence. They advised me to go to another place they had found for me, even though I had “promised” to stay two years. After lots of soul searching, I finally decided to go, but only after I had served at least one full year at the parish.

It was the last straw for the supervising pastor, who then called a last minute SPRC meeting (personnel committee) where I was fired. They believed they could get a new intern over the summer, so no need for me to stay the full year.

The seminary didn’t send them any interns for a few years. Turns out I was the second intern to report being treated in this fashion. Some advance notice would have been nice.  

Key learnings:

1.  I now realize that my supervisor and I had very different points of view.  In his point of view, a young female student had come in and disregarded his position and seniority. In my point of view, I was equipping the saints to do ministry and making human mistakes.  Knowing what I know now, I still believe I was treated unfairly but also believe I unknowingly set myself up to fail.

2. I needed to learn how to diffuse, communicate through, and deal with conflict. AAAAACK.  I would see similar patterns of behavior in my first appointment as the solo pastor.

3. I wasn’t alone in not knowing how to deal with conflict. The previous intern, the internship faculty, and the church hierarchy knew about this situation, but didn’t know what to do about it. Too many pastors like myself were burning out and too many churches were dying due to issues like this.  No wonder the church was declining.

So here I am, doing my best to understand my past, learn from my experiences. It feels weird putting myself out here like this, being so vulnerable, knowing that someone who reads this may remember these events differently. My hope is that someone learns something from my experience that empowers her in ministry.

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Confessions of a Fundraising Slacker

I confess I’m not good at keeping track of hard copy paperwork of any kind! I once lost a concert ticket and the box office had mercy on me and reissued them. That’s why all my tickets to anything are digital/virtual/pdf/ whatever!
So, that being said, despite my good intentions (and I truly thought I would sell some this time), I lost a pack of chicken bbq tickets. This is the way these fundraisers work in my family:
1. My son comes home with a pack of 15 tickets at $8 each, and tosses them at me, and tells me to sell them.
2. I read the paperwork that says he’s expected to sell these. On the due date we must return the unsold tickets or remit payment for the sold tickets.  Any ticket not returned is considered to be sold, so it’s either money or ticket.
3.  I look at the tickets, and think, “Well, we’ll buy 4, and that will be family dinner. Plus I think my friends will want some. I can definitely sell 10.”
Then we all promptly forget about said tickets.
4. I misplace the tickets, but don’t realize it until the day before the due date.
5. I panic and search for tickets. This time, I had put them in my purse so I would remember to sell them (yeah, right), and they fell out. I finally found the book of 15 tickets in the car under the driver’s seat.
6. I return all the tickets. I don’t buy any because I’m a little resentful that I didn’t have a choice in this matter to either pay or buy. So I create a lose-lose situation: we get no chicken, only stress, and the organization gets no money from us.
So how does this relate to my field of conflict transformation and mediation?

Accept that what is, is.  BBQ Chicken fundraisers are big around these parts. They raise a lot of money and people like them. It just is. There are others who are great at selling tickets and they are a huge successful fundraiser in these parts. The fundraisers are not going to stop, this is an accepted practice, and I’m not good at it. It is what it is. How I respond is up to me.

It is helpful for a person to know themselves in order to respond appropriately. In my case, I resent being “told” what to do and I know I’m not good with paperwork.  Since I know this about myself, I can hold myself accountable. Rather than repeat the pattern of ignoring the situation, letting my feelings dictate my behavior, and / or losing the tickets, I have at least three options when confronted with this next time: 1. I can graciously return the tickets and say “no thank you.” 2. I can immediately write a check for my family’s tickets and return the rest. 3. I can try to do better and sell the tickets. Since I know myself, I most likely will choose options 1 or 2.
It is important to get buy-in and not force people into agreements. Many people, like me, do not respond well when they feel forced into something or are expected to go along with something just because someone tells them to do so, even if we want to support the organization/person telling us what to do. Either we feel resentful, or guilty because we aren’t going along, or  apathetic. I see this when, in my mediation sessions, both parties desire a relationship or resolution, but one party wants to call the shots and force the other to do something. Even if the desired action is a good idea, the other party will resist. Buy in and empowerment is important.

Resolution: When I receive a pack of chicken bbq tickets, I will simply return it asap and save myself the panic.

Music, Church, and Family

I post this in celebration of Autism awareness and acceptance month. Those of you who followed my other blog know that I have three kids, two of whom are boys on the autism spectrum and one who is a girl that is “gifted” and very creative. This post is about my middle guy, written in December 2017.

Music is a huge part of my family’s life. We sing, play instruments, and / or enjoy listening to one another at concerts. Church is also a huge part of our lives, of course, since I’m a pastor. What’s awesome, though, is how much my middle guy is invested in our church.

Here’s how much he’s invested in our church:

  • He memorized the locations of all the church campuses and how to get to each from anywhere in the area. He’s a freakin’ GPS.
  • He wants his senior pics taken at each campus.
  • In his piano lessons, he is working on a prelude, offertory, hymns, and postlude as well as the Doxology and Gloria Patri so he can play for church.
  • He once pointed out the location of a campus to some strangers and invited them to go to that service, even though it wasn’t the campus where we attend.

And that’s just the beginning. He also has phenomenal musical skills, so naturally he took part in the Christmas Cantata percussion section last weekend. He played vibes and chimes, and best of all, learned how to play crash cymbals (I got an education in how they aren’t easy even though they look like it) and tympani for the performance.

Let that sink in for a moment. At church, he learned how to play difficult orchestral instruments. Most churches that I have been part of have been squeamish about worshiping with kiddos on the autism spectrum, and teaching them has been waaaay out of the comfort zone. Like knocked out of the comfort zone ballpark.

I knew that my son’s teacher at the church, Mr. Matt, had a music ed degree. I was surprised to learn that was a support staff person for people on the autism spectrum prior to moving to our area.  I’ve known Mr. Matt for a few years and never knew this.

Church family, music, autism acceptance in one place? God is good. That’s how church can be!

Expertise, church size, and location are not what make a church able to minister with those who are different. The key is the willingness to follow Christ and accept those who are different, even when it is uncomfortable.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that my son started in the bell choir. The director and my son had to adjust to working together. The director needed my assistance to learn how to work with my son and my son needed assistance in order to accept direction and learn how to be in a group setting. It wasn’t easy, but the director and my son hung in there. The director was (and is) willing to learn how to work with my son, encourage his abilities. My son has now been a ringer for about 6 years and has some skills! I was shocked when he played 4 bells and 3 chimes at a fast tempo! He’s a confident ringer and has just blossomed!

Not only has my son learned, but the most important thing is that he has a place where he belongs. I’ve witnessed many times how the other teenage bell ringers treat him like family– greeting him, bossing him around, putting up with his bossing them around, etc. I’ve seen my son tell adults in charge that they are in the wrong key or off a beat, and the adults either realize they are indeed wrong and thank him, or tell him where he’s wrong, and they all move on. My son feels comfortable enough to offer and accept correction here. He knows that he belongs.

My prayer for the church is that we put our comfort aside and welcome all, regardless of their circumstance and be a place where those who are different belong. Because they do. We all do. It is the way of Christ. May you, dear reader, know the love and belonging that comes from Jesus.

Checklists

Sometimes I read something seemingly unrelated to my life because I think it might be interesting. Such is the case with my latest read.

I just finished reading The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, MD. Gawande explains the vital use of simple checklists in operating rooms. These simple checklists have saved patient lives by catching seemingly routine things that are easily forgotten, like administering antibiotics prior to surgery in order to prevent infection. Gawande led a study with WHO to implement these checklists all over the world. The result was that surgery-related deaths and infection rates plummeted– so much so that Gawande questioned the findings ruthlessly before submitting the results.

Interestingly, it was the teamwork and communication around the checklist lead to greater outcomes. Gawande studied multiple disciplines that utilized checklists in order to develop the surgical checklist. In the construction firm he studied, even the lowest-ranked was counted as a valuable team member and could stop the process if she or he saw that something on the checklist was missing or incomplete. The success rates increased dramatically!

I felt really validated by this book. You see, when my sons were little, we developed checklists for EVERYTHING. Kids on the spectrum know when something, no matter how small, is missing. My kids also followed instructions very literally, and if a step was missing that we just figured they’d know, like taking off their shoes before hosing the mud off of them. So our checklists became very detailed, indeed! My checklists continued to be helpful for my ADHD self, and we have packing checklists saved that we print out for every trip, a decorating checklist for Christmas, and detailed checklists for cleaning chores.

Checklists even came in handy when we were in intensive family counseling, when we had a crisis surrounding our oldest kid. We made checklists for outings, play times, after school routines, hygiene, and safety. Each family member gave input and agreed to the checklists. We even had a checklist in place to determine if we needed to call a crisis line if my son was having difficulties. It was, ahem, intense. But it was also helpful to know that there was a plan in place if something were to go wrong.  And many times, going through the simple and intensive lists, we corrected mistakes before they developed into major issues. If we did have to take uncomfortable steps in a crisis situation, they weren’t surprises. Everyone was prepared and on board, even if they didn’t like it. This dramatically minimized the power struggles.

For 2018, I am making new checklists. One of the first I am going to develop is a Response Checklist, which I will go through before I respond to something that really ticks me off. I don’t think I’ll have to reinvent the wheel. There’s always the THINK list: Is what I’m going to say True?…Helpful?… Inspiring?… Necessary?…Kind?  I will also consider carefully and prayerfully my definition of “necessary.” For example, it’s not always necessary to prove I’m right! Another is a checklist of what to do if we face a financial crisis. That one is definitely a family project.

I am hoping that my checklists will be useful tools to navigate 2018. I know that by praying and planning when I am calm, God’s guidance and our preparation will allow us to handle whatever comes our way.

What checklists do you use/ think would be helpful?

Happy New Year!

 

 

Cage the Tiger

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FreeImages.com

One of my favorite books is Friedman’s Fables by the late Edwin Friedman.  This classic contains fables for life.

One of my favorite fables is “The Friendly Forest.” In this story, a lamb and a tiger live with other animals in a friendly forest.  The lamb is understandably very afraid of the tiger.  The tiger is aggressive toward the lamb.  The lamb expresses concern to her neighbors. The other animals think that the lamb is being silly when it cowers from the tiger’s growls, stares, and other actions.  The tiger is just being a tiger.

After attempting to ignore the tiger, accept that the tiger is what it is (aggressive in nature), living in fear, and trying to get the other animals to support her, the lamb decides to leave the forest.  The other animals think she’s being silly, plead for her to stay, and decide to appeal to the tiger’s reasonable nature by having a meeting to work out the conflict.  The lamb is not so sure about this— her life is in danger! And if the tiger just being a tiger, and nothing is going to change, what’s the point? Finally, one of the less subtle animals speaks its mind.  The animal says that if they want the lamb and the tiger to live peacefully in the forest, they need to give up on making them communicate and cage the tiger.

This fable describes how I felt in my first parish as a pastor. There were tigers.  I was a lamb. When I complained, or asked for help dealing with the tigers, I was advised several times to talk to the persons, or think of what their gifts were and put them to work so they’d feel useful, or just ignore them because they’d always been that way and let things go in one ear and out the other, like everyone else did. No one thought of caging the tiger—especially not me.  I blamed the situation on my being ineffective or just plain incompetent.

Wrong.  After I left that parish I discovered that at least three young pastors had left the ministry after serving there. Another pastor shared that he stayed because he was just plain stubborn and wasn’t going to allow them to push him out. The person that followed me was burned out and anxiety-ridden at the end. A retired pastor said that that church was really hard on him and he had to take time to heal after his time there.  And when I shared with a past bishop what my first appointment was, the bishop’s reaction was, “Oh, dear!” and a shake of the head. I was one more lamb sent to a congregation of tigers.

I am really sick and tired of the tigers being free to destroy the lambs.  So sick of it, in fact, that I heard God’s call to conflict transformation ministry, and interim pastoring, in order to strengthen churches and cage the tigers. The church at large was slow to respond to my offers. I realize now that historically, we “nice church folks” just haven’t known what to do with those pesky tigers.

So, I write this post to give you pastors and other church leaders out there some guidelines for caging the tiger.  If you are in a situation where this process below seems too insurmountable because there are too many tigers at each step, have a consultant like myself come and guide the process.  (Pick me! Pick me!)

Constructing the Cage: Conflict Guidelines

  1. Study the scriptures about conflict. Lead Bible Studies on conflict. Make conflict an okay subject to discuss. Matthew 18 is a great starting place.
  2. Make ground rules, or conflict guidelines, based on these scriptures. Seek wisdom from people in the congregation that are trustworthy, wise colleagues, and your spiritual mentors.
  3. Share the ground rules and get buy-in from the non-tigers. (The tigers will only thwart this.) Discuss different scenarios.
  4. Make the ground rules official. Work according to your church’s polity / bylaws so that each step is above reproach, whether you are led by staff, council/board, elders, etc. (That way, for you UM’s, if they call your District Superintendent and complain, you can document the steps you have taken.) Have a congregational meeting and review the process that has led to the ground rules, remind them of the scripture, and if appropriate, have a congregational meeting to approve the ground rules. Note: Make sure that the ground rules state specifically how your congregation will handle conflict. Make it clear and appropriate to your context. You may want to keep your supervisor (District Superintendent, etc.) in the loop, too.
  5. Go over the ground rules and call attention to them ad nauseum. Read them at administrative meetings, post them in the hallways and bathrooms, put them on your office door, above the water fountains, make a puppet show… anything to make them part of your congregation’s culture.  Take time at your gatherings to go over a ground rule or two and explain it.
  6. Practice, practice, practice. Model how to carry out the ground rules through role plays. For example, show them what to do if a “tiger” comes along and starts complaining.  Here’s a scenario when Matthew 18 is being followed.

Tiger: “I’m really sick of what’s going on around here.”

Person: “What do you mean?”

Tiger: “Pastor is awful.” (Proceeds to start gossiping and trashing the pastor.)

Person: (If necessary, cuts in) “Have your talked to the pastor?” (First step in conflict resolution is one on one conversation with the other person.)

Tiger: “No.”

Person: (Points to the rules on the wall as indicated in step 6.) “Well, then, that’s your first step.  When will you make time to do that?”  (Hint: offer to accompany the tiger if the tiger won’t go alone.)

With this simple role play, you will have equipped people in the meeting to take the first step of caging the tiger before a possible bloodbath.

  1. Follow the ground rules yourself. As a pastor I have had people come to me complaining about other congregants.  Rather than listen to gossip, I learned to direct the person back to the one they were mad at.  If they didn’t want to go alone, I offered to go with them.  It was surprising how many times huge conflicts immediately dissipated.  Funny how that happens.

These are the first steps to caging the tiger.  I’m here if you need active support!

Melancholy Prophet

I debated whether or not to publish this, so I waited a couple months. (Just fyi.)

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From FreeImages.com

On this cloudy April day, I am feeling melancholy. I am in one of those ruminations where I keep thinking about all the ways we human beings cover up our own lives—how when there is pain, or a serious issue, or something that may mean change, we are really good at hiding it.  But there are consequences. It’s like covering up an infected, festering wound with a bandage. It looks good, it hides the pus and blood, but it only leads to more sickness and perhaps death. Nice thought, huh?

Here’s a couple reasons why I’m in this funk.

  1. Today I finished watching Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix. In this series, a teenage girl dies of suicide. She leaves behind recordings on cassettes, in which she details 13 reasons / people who led her to her decision. This girl didn’t tell her parents, teachers or counselors what was going on. She just hid her pain instead. After her death, the teenagers who are mentioned on the tapes try hard to keep the truth covered up. Finally, that Band-Aid is “ripped off” as the parents finally get the opportunity to listen to their daughter’s tapes. The end.

Really?? What happened to the rest of the characters? Do the bullies and perpetrators ever make restitution or face real consequences? Do the parents find closure? Do the school personnel deal with the bullying / climate at the school? Or is the Bandaid just put back on? And if it is the latter, who else will despair enough to die?

Sigh.

  1. A well –meaning friend sent me an article about the White House “lighting up blue” for autism awareness. As an autism parent, I only felt disgust. I think this is a bandaid to cover up what is really happening. As I said on my Facebook post, “Lighting up the white house blue means nothing if the policies will negatively affect those who have autism. Just saying.” So go ahead, White House, light it up blue, but are you going to make sure that a Free Appropriate Public Education is in place for those with intellectual disabilities? Are you going to make sure that they have the Medicaid services they need? Or are you going to just be nice and put a lit-up-blue bandaid on to distract the damage that is being proposed?

I admit that, when I get into a funk, everything seems 100 times worse than it probably is. That’s also the danger of the life of someone who is called a “prophet” by her friends. Prophets see things that others don’t see, make connections between seemingly unrelated things and speak the truth about those things. Prophets are not popular when they do that. It’s ripping a bandaid off of a festered wound so it can be treated: messy, stinky, but necessary.

Tomorrow I go to finish my training and receive my certification as a TIIMS (Transitional and Intentional Interim Ministry Specialist). This means that I will go into Christian congregations that are in transition– a major conflict or crisis, loss of a long-term pastor, etc.–  and be there short term to help facilitate healing and remove barriers to moving forward. Part of me is very cynical about this. I wonder how many nice “bandaids” I will have to “rip off” in order to get to the root of the “infection” that is making the congregation “sick” and unable to move forward in mission and ministry to their communities. I am fully aware that the congregation will have to follow through with the prescribed course of action. And I am skeptical.

Yet I keep going. I know that I only see in a mirror dimly, but someday I will see clearly. I believe God is up to something good. And so I keep ripping off bandaids so the healing can begin.

Thanks for putting up with my musing.

Hole in the sidewalk

One of my favorite poems is “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson.  This poem tells about falling into the same hole in the sidewalk over and over again until the author takes responsibility for avoiding the hole and decides to go a different route.  It reminds me of when I go down the same path of having the same argument / getting into the same situations over and over– and get nowhere.

Over the past couple of years, our oldest son has been in some crisis or another. My husband and I tried the same things over and over to “help” him and all we did was end up in a hole ourselves. The stress of the situation took a huge toll on my husband’s and my health. There were days that I could simply function– only take care of my own and my family’s immediate needs.  Some days, if I simply knew what I was going to cook for dinner it was a good day.  My husband suffered physical stress symptoms that led to a health scare and he was much less productive at work.

We decided that we had to do things differently. We learned that we cannot help our child if we are down in a hole ourselves. We also realized the will never learn to avoid the “hole in his sidewalk” if we keep rescuing him when he falls. We finally practiced tough love and let our child, who has a disability and a personality disorder, suffer the consequences of his actions. It has been the hardest thing we have had to do as parents. We didn’t abandon him, but we took a step back, and got him other supports so he could live a more independent life. It was up to him to use those supports. Our son dealt with expulsion from school, homelessness, theft of all his savings, and met some dangerous people. When he was penniless and felt threatened, he finally saw that he was indeed in a deep hole and was willing to try those supports.  He is now learning to do things differently and has his own apartment.

We discovered that there are many parents like us who lost their retirement savings and became so stressed out that their health failed due to rescuing their children, disabled and abled, over and over without regard to their own well-being. Learning their stories has helped us tremendously in choosing a different path. Our other children are now less stressed and we are healthier.

So, friends and readers, I challenge you to think about the “holes” that you fall into over and over again.  Maybe it’s an unhealthy relationship. Maybe it’s an argument with a co-worker, spouse, parent, or child.  Maybe it’s your own ruminating.  Or maybe, like me, you have a tendency to procrastinate over and over and then get stressed and snarky! Whatever it is, let’s work to go down another street that leads to the life that we are meant to live.