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God’s Grace

Through success and failure, through disappointment, discouragement and disillusionment. Through church abuse, tokenism, and risk taking. Through major accomplishments, and a few blunders. Through questions, answers, good moves, not so good moves. Through transitions, stability, security and scarcity – the Grace of God has been there all along. I can’t wait to see what God does next!!

How about YOU?

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The Flipsides of Seminary

SeminarySpeaking as a person who has some seminary education both behind me and ahead of me (Certificate in Urban Ministries, Master of Arts in Educational Ministries, and currently working on a Master of Divinity), I’ve observed some positives as well as some negatives regarding seminary education (not necessarily in this order)

Myths

1. Every Christian leader or aspiring leader should attend

2. It prepares individuals for ministry in a church context or otherwise

3. It qualifies one for pastoral positions within local congregations

4. All who attend have a general knowledge of the Bible and a deep enough level of maturity

Upside

1. You can meet and connect with some great ministry leaders

2. You can also meet some examples of leaders who behave in ways that you learn not to emulate

3. It can help you think more deeply and even dismantle some theological practices that you once held so dear but need to let go of

4. It can humble you as you become aware of how little you actually know/still have to learn

5. You can move from a place of being shallow to a place of greater depth as you preach, teach, care for people, etc rather than just repeat tired cliques and ‘churchy’ language and responses that you used to.

6. It provides the opportunity to consider and reconsider your “call” to ministry and define it more clearly

Downside

1. It can lead you to a place where God is no longer central in your life and ministry practice and beginning to rely on oneself rather than Holy Spirit power

2. It can lead to arrogance – believing that you are smarter and even more spiritual than those who have not been

3. You can study and learn church history and ignore current culture and eventually become irrelevant in your effort to do ministry

4. There exist contexts where your voice will be disregarded as that which is not credible or worthy of paying attention to without a seminary degree/theological training.

5. Moving to a place where you are reading so many books about the Bible and about God that you treat the Bible and God (by your actions) as though neither are essential for the life you live or the ministry you hope to do.

6. You can loose sight of the practical ministry practices that you possessed prior to going to seminary and begin clinging to theories that would never work/be effective in practice.

7. Concepts and teaching methodologies are not usually relevant to a diversity of cultures/ethnicities – can be very euro-centric at times (depending upon where you attend)

That’s just to name a few, are there others that I have missed?

Revealing the Real You

Many of us, leaders especially, are prone to habits of projecting a public image self and a private image self. I grew up in a church culture where I was left with the impression that appearing to be near perfect in public was the celebrated norm. Never weak, just trusting God, never worried, just “blessed and highly favored of the Lord,” too blessed to be depressed, put on your happy church face and keep it moving. On some level I believe it is good to project the positive, however when it crosses the line and becomes hypocrisy or when it moves us to a place where we are too proud to admit that we are human, thus becoming individuals who are placed on a high and lofty pedestal of perfection, I believe it crosses the line.

I listened to a sermon recently that addressed the topic of “influence,” and the speaker talked in depth regarding how easily people are influenced – whether for good or for evil, positive or negative. She eventually ended at a place of addressing areas of personal identity and asked – “how much of who you are is the real you, and how much of who you are is due to who and what you allow to influence you?”

The question is worth pondering. Additional questions worth pondering are: How much of who you allow others to see is the real you and how much of it is a facade? Who are you really? What are your goals, dreams, aspirations, plans, desires, unique personality traits and thoughts? Any self other than our true selves falls short of our ultimate best. So be bold enough to take off the mask and bless the world with the real you!

Is Church Diversity Possible?

Is local church diversity possible? Not too long ago I had the experience of joining the staff of a local church as the only African American staff member. During the interview process the church had mentioned a desire to become a diverse congregation where everyone was welcome to come. However as I spent time on staff I would soon discover many challenges that accompanied this plan.

Now that I have recovered from the experience of being there, I can honestly say that the experience helped solidify my convictions even more deeply regarding church diversity. Many lessons were learned and insights gleaned. Here are some that flow, not only from my experiences there, but from internal places within the fibers of my being.

Courageous Leadership
When it comes to diversifying local congregations, cowardice really has no place. (I will refrain from using terms such as being a wuss, punk, chump, etc). The Church needs leaders who love people deeply – all kinds of people and refuse to become satisfied with status quo and always doing what has always been done. Leaders who aim to lead the way in the area of diversity take hits that can be avoided if only we keep the majority culture in our individual settings happy. We could avoid criticism and having people question our motives if only we didn’t launch into difficult conversations about race, cultural injustices, and issues of discrimination. Are you up for the task – pain and all?  Today’s Church needs leaders who aim to please God rather than appease people/be a people pleaser. Are you that kind of leader? There are some noteworthy leaders in the conversation of diversity that model courage for leaders, individuals such as Soong-Chan Rah, Mark Deymaz, Brenda Salter-McNeil, Daniel Hill, and David Ireland, to name a few

Long-Term Commitment to the Process
I suppose I don’t need to say much here. But I include it because I realize that starting out in the pursuit of diversity is one thing, and continuation is another. Some never start. Others start and quit when things get tough and even give “God” the credit for their lack of commitment to continuance, assuming that if they encounter opposition then it must be a signal that they should stop. However, opposition can and usually does serve as at least one indication that we are on the right track. Keep God’s vision for a diverse, yet united humanity in mind and keep going!

Celebrate Rather than Tolerate
A few years back after visiting countless churches during my time in New Jersey and leaving disappointed, I decided to give it one last try by visiting a fairly large church. I went with low expectation, because I was weary with the search and on the verge of giving up finding the place for me. As I entered the area it became clear to me that this was “the” place! As I walked from the parking lot to the church building I noticed that I was surrounded by a variety of cultures – Asian American, African American, Caucasian, Latino, Middle Eastern, etc. I entered into a space where I was greeted at the doors by Greeters of mixed cultures, encountered people from these different cultures interacting with each other. As morning worship began, the diversity was visible and audible again as staff members of different races and styles were present and those who lead musical worship were not only a mixture of races, but the music selections were from genres that appealed to urban gospel, instrumental, contemporary worship, etc.

It became obvious to me that this church did not only invite all people to come and then ask them to conform to cultural norms that were not there own, but each person could come and be celebrated for who they authentically were and were encouraged to celebrate who others were. The presence of people different that you are should not cause us to simply endure their presence among us, but to rejoice in the beauty of our differences! Willingness to let go of things always catering to our particular group, styles, etc we much be willing to join with others and celebrate their styles as well.

Willingness to do What Does NOT Come Natural
I suppose the Caucasian gentleman that once said to me “it’s natural for people to gravitate to those who are similar to themselves” was correct. When I enter a crowded space it’s natural for me to look for other African Americans and move in their direction as a point of connection. But after thinking about this concept of doing what comes natural, I shifted my thinking to biblical text and saw that God’s design is the extend us beyond what simply comes natural to functioning supernaturally. What I mean by that is that we should be willing to let God empower us to reach beyond ourselves and do some of the things we would not naturally have the tendency to do. Even a brief skimming of the book of Acts gives us a glimpse of what it means to reach beyond our specific cultural groups. A look at the life and ministry practice of Jesus also gives us a clue – as He talked to Samaritans and other marginalized groups. The very purpose He came for was to break down walls that divide us from each other and eliminate the barriers (Ephesians 2). So, maybe God doesn’t excuse the Church from diversity as easily as we excuse ourselves from it?

Shared Power and Authority
It’s one thing to invite people of various cultures to the table – changing them positionally from being an outsider to an insider, it’s a totally different dynamic to share the authority that comes with the position. I learned this during my time on staff at the Caucasian congregation as I was repeatedly left out of important meetings and decisions, as my authority even in the area where I was invited to lead was even nonexistent. The dynamics of being a women on a male staff, and not only a woman, but the only African American made it nearly impossible for me to lead. I had a position, but I soon discovered that the authority that was to accompany the position was not a reality. Sadly, this eventually lead to feelings of tokenism. If you are a church leader, particularly if you are a member of the dominant group/race/culture, remember not just to embrace the lofty idea of giving positions to people of minority groups/race/cultures, but be prepared to also share the power and authority that is appropriate for such positions.

I believe that church diversity CAN happen! I must admit that it disturbs me to encounter diversity everywhere I go  schools, malls, neighborhoods, restaurants, etc and then attend churches where homogeneity is the norm. When I enter into neighborhoods that are clearly diverse, and then enter a church in that same neighborhood and see a homogenous group of people it creates a sense of unrest. And though this unrest is uncomfortable I am inclined to believe that God is in the discomfort in that the discomfort compels me to action. So maybe dissatisfaction is actually a good starting point? What do you think?

The Challenge of Leadership

The last two years of my life some could categorize me as “AWOL” – absent without leave. However, I would say I was “AWL” – absent with leave. After having served on the staff of local churches as a Children’s Ministry Pastor and some of the many complexities of such a role I found myself in a place where many ministry leaders find themselves at some point in the journey of serving – in a place of utter burnout! After launching a ministry to community kids and families, graduating from seminary with a masters degree, relocating from one geographical area to another, experiencing health challenges, etc, I found out that God had one plan for this high energy, deeply committed individual. That plan was rest! As would be expected, I learned a few things from my journey as a pastor. As I reflected on ministry and life as a single woman in ministry there were many lessons gleaned.

Self Care is essential. Ministry is like a ravenous beast that can devour both men and women, especially the borderline type A personalities like myself. As a single woman I have to guard this area constantly. Take care of yourself or you’ll find yourself unable to take care of anyone else.

Being a “people pleaser” is a self defeating goal! My mother used to say “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” I found out that she was right and now Aiming to please God alone is a more peaceful place.

Not every place who is willing to hire you is a place where you can thrive. It’s important to make sure that the place where you are invited to serve is a place with matching values and vision.

People are more important than programs. Loving God and loving people should be the foundation of all that we do as leaders.

Clarify and ask the hard questions on the front end. Though there are always questions that can be missed, it’s important to think through some of the things that matter to you about the church, beliefs about children/families, expectations of staff members, and what types of boundaries can be established and tons more.

Being single as a ministry staff person has challenges unknown to married staff members. I learned that many churches place unrealistic expectations on the single person, assuming that boundaries are not as necessary because we don’t have children of our own or a spouse to give our attention to. I also discovered that chances are that a single person will get paid less – enough said. Connect with a place that celebrates and respects boundaries.

Support Systems are Nonnegotiable! No one makes it in ministry alone. It’s not God’s design for us to go solo. Every leader needs at least one or two people whom they can be utterly and totally honest with.

One person cannot do it all! Equip others to be leaders and delegate, delegate, delegate! As a Children’s Pastor I find that some churches hire for this position assuming that this person will be the person who spends time with the kids. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a pastoral role in the truest sense of the word – equipping others for service, preaching, teaching, training teams, pouring into other leaders, and a ton of administrative duties that go with the job, supporting parents, kids, and team members.

Ministry is not easy, and some challenges can’t be avoided – it comes with the package. But God can provide wisdom for navigating our way through the tough stuff. It feels GREAT to be back in the game!!

What are you learning about life and leadership?