Category Archives: excellence in ministry

Church Skills: (NOT!) How to Crush the Morale of Your Pastor

Please read this. The whole thing. The humor helps, it really does. I’m only weeping a little. Here’s an excerpt to get you to read the rest:

In the past most congregations’ attempts to demoralize their ordained leadership have been haphazard and ad hoc, although still surprisingly effective. In the interest of bringing more rigorous and systematic approaches to these efforts here are some of my modest proposals:

1. Schedule a weekly meeting for your pastor to sit down with the treasurer (or, better yet, the assistant treasurer) to “go over” every business expense. Be sure to inquire if certain expenses are legitimate, such as the purchase of a Marilyn Robinson or Gail Godwin novel from the pastor’s book allowance (“Should we really be paying for your chick-lit?”) Or a long-distance call to a neighboring pastor friend from seminary. Do such expenses really profit the church? And what about this big expense for 14 volumes by this Barth guy? Do you really need all of these? And his title sounds so, well, dogmatic!


Church Skills: “Congregations Gone Wild” (NYTimes)

If you watched the videos from the last post, thank you. And now you’re one step ahead.

The next step is to read this article in the NYTimes online.

Now, compare the two.  And think about how your congregation works.

Does your congregation ask and answer the Three Key Questions? If so, what is the role of your minister and other leaders?

Or, like the Times article says, do people in your congregation “increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them”?  If so, what is the role of the minister and other leaders?

All of this, really, is about mission.  Soothing and entertaining the members and visitors is NOT a sufficient mission for a congregation. It isn’t healthy for clergy or members or leaders or visitors or the world.  It is not what our congregations are meant to be or do.

And sadly, more and more, it seems the consumer culture is influencing churches rather than the other way around.  But we can change that. A church with a mission can be a counter-cultural force that encourages people to believe, remember, and live lives that have a higher purpose and a deeper calling.

And that will keep us all from burning out.

Is Unitarian Universalism Ready for Revolution?

Social Media Revolution

I don’t think we’re ready. I think our churches are convinced that social media is just a passing fad.

What are the implications for churches, religious practice, spiritual development, blogging…if this is revolution?

What do ministers need to learn? How can our congregations become content providers?

Will we change or will we become irrelevant?

By the way, I found this video because it was posted on the Starr King School for the Ministry Facebook page.

Excellence and Oppression

Clearly, Rev. Christine and the event she attended about “Excellence in Ministry” got me thinking. Today’s thoughts revolve around the ideal of excellence and how oppression works.  If, by virtue of being part of an “historically marginalized group,” I am seen as very different from the image  of the “ideal minister,” how will that affect perceptions of excellence?

For example, as a transgender man, my very identity causes anxiety in many congregations and search committees.  I have often been perceived as a “risky” candidate—not because of the quality of my ministry, but because of worries about my identity.  Those worries are not something I create, but are created to serve the status quo by stigmatizing, punishing, and planting fear of any who differ from the norm.

But wherever they come from, fears about identity get in the way of perceiving excellence.  A “marginalized” identity looms so large that the quality of a person’s ministry is overshadowed and hidden.  This is the reason it is openly admitted that ministers from “historically marginalized groups”  have to be twice or thrice or ten times as good as ministers whose identity fits the ideal.

Even as women have slowly become the majority in our ministry, this is still known to be true of their ministry.  Imagine how it is for ministers even further from our Unitarian Universalist “norm!”  There is little room for them to be ordinary. Or have a bad year. Or—and this is especially sad—have time to acquire the skills and wisdom they need to become truly excellent. So many people from historically marginalized communities leave ministry within just a few years.

There’s another part to this.  Every time I’m rejected because of my identity, I begin to question my own excellence, even competence.  My confidence suffers and with it, I’m sure my ministry does too.  This is internalized oppression at work and it wears at the soul of any minister who is marginalized for differing from the norm.  I’ve seen it time and time again: a slow-growing soul weariness at having to explain, educate, and sometimes defend one’s right to minister and even one’s right to exist.  And even when that battle is won, there is the soul-deadening work of “covering:”

“It is a fact that persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma (in many cases because it is known about or immediately apparent) may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large. . . . this process will be referred to as covering.” Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963).

The need to manage identity, stigma, and difference magnifies the vulnerability of these ministers exponentially.  The hard work of covering makes the need for self-care and other soul-satisfying activities and relationships vitally important.

And yet, most of these vulnerable ministers end up in small, struggling congregations. These are the congregations for whom the hunger for ministry outweighs the “risk” of having a “non-ideal” minister.  The ministry of these churches is often conflicted, poorly paid, and full of the stresses of trying to grow and change in order to survive.  Thus, our “historically marginalized” ministers are most often serving congregations where they are managing many things at once, far from colleagues and chances for ongoing support.  And in some cases, colleagues themselves may struggle to understand and accept a minister whose identity is outside their comfort zone.

I have just one more point.  Those of us from historically marginalized social locations are not really free to talk about these challenges. (It’s one of the bigger aspects of “covering” to maintain the fiction that we are fine, everything is fine…)  If we do admit that we are exhausted, disillusioned or angry, we are often labeled as “whiners” or “trouble-makers.” It’s only been said to me once, but it has been said to me:

“You should be grateful to be a minister at all.”

To be perceived as “excellent” most ministers of color, ministers with disabilities, genderqueer or transgender ministers, gay, lesbian and bisexual ministers, (and many more who challenge the norms of our culture of ministry) are expected to hide our struggles and offer unending hope and encouragement to our movement—sometimes to the very people whose words stung so badly or whose rejection hurt us to the core. And with that, I’ve probably said too much…

*cross-posted at

Excellence by Mistake

This will be short.  I was reading the New Yorker article that Rev. Christine posted about predicting excellence. And it came to me.  Most of my really excellent ideas for new ways to do ministry started as mistakes.  Or at least as silly little brainstorms that I was pretty sure would fail.  (The “Word of the Month” and “Upside Down Sunday” fit neatly in this category.) Both have been really helpful, successful, and engaging. Both started out as just a sudden, strange idea I had.

So what part of “excellence” is just being willing to experiment with something that may sound a little crazy?

"Soul-Satisfying Ministry"

I’ve been watching and listening to the online discussion about “Excellence in Ministry.”  I have to admit that something in me cringed at the term. Maybe it’s the old memories from grade school when instead of “letter grades” we got either  “E” for “Excellent,” “S” for “Satisfactory,” or “U” for “Unsatisfactory.”  That sense of constant evaluation still permeates the word “excellence” for me.

Not that I am completely opposed to evaluation.  I’m just aware that there very few people that I would trust to understand the complexities of ministry well enough to truly evaluate “excellence.”  It’ s sure not going to happen on a survey with a scale of 1 – 5.  “Rate the minister’s sermons with 1 being ‘excellent’ and 5 being ‘boring as hell.'”

For the sake of full disclosure, let me explain a bit about my own situation.  In the past two years, I’ve dealt with a child who developed a serious addiction, the end of my marriage, and a minor, but scary health situation.  I’m also in the seventh year of ministry in my current congregation–a time known for being complex and even difficult–and often referred to with knowing glances and the phrase, “Ah, the seven year itch…”

With all that on my plate, I am well aware that my ministry, while certainly adequate and even still inspiring at times, has not been “excellent,” if what is meant by “excellent” is “top-notch, above average, better than most…”  I think I’ve done a good job managing all that’s happened and still doing my job, but I’d have to grade myself as “Satisfactory,” not “Excellent.” Now that the crises are past, I feel the energy and passion returning and feel “excellence” back within reach.

Even so, it takes time for even small disappointments to be healed and reconciled.  One of the most important tasks of religious communities is forgiveness and we are learning truly Unitarian Universalist ways to do that.  I think we’ve been pretty smart about it, getting help to work through the issues, the feelings, and finding a way to begin again in love.  Of course, some in the congregation are blissfully unaware that there was any stress at all, while others don’t know that any of the healing work is happening.  It’s very hard to communicate the complexities of these relational aspects of ministry to the wider congregation.  And all of it gets tangled up with perceptions and feelings of “excellence.”

All that was a long preface to what I really want to say.  In her recent update from the Excellence in Ministry meeting, Rev. Christine mentioned the term “Soul-Satisfying Ministry.”  Wow! Does that ever feel better!  Am I ministering in a way that is true to my soul?  That satisfies the “soul needs” of my congregation? Do I offer ministry that stretches, deepens, feeds, challenges, comforts, and otherwise engages soul?  Do I have the support and resources I need to satisfy my own soul? When, as a fellow human being, the minister is dealing with stresses that drain the soul, how can that be addressed openly and compassionately?

Those questions get me excited.  They open my mind and heart and make me want to really explore how I can do those things better.  They hint at the partnership between minister and congregant–a relationship that goes beyond evaluating “excellence” with questions like “Do the sermons interest me?” or “Did the minister return my phone call right away?”

“Soul Satisfying Ministry” seems to me a goal worthy of our history and faith tradition.  It invites us to discuss deeply the expectations, needs, and spiritual life of both the congregation  and the minister . It frames ministerial leadership in terms that aren’t only managerial, but spiritual and not only about satisfying the congregation’s desires, but helping them grow and change and maybe learn to desire new things: like being of service, being generous, being welcoming to all, celebrating pluralism…

As you can tell, these ideas get me excited!  Please, discuss!