For most of my working career I have had the privilege of managing managers, owners, middle-managers, and so on. I write that statement tongue-in-cheek, given that I have been a frontline low-level employee throughout the years. I affectionally call myself the Chief-Grunt-in-Charge-of-Nothing. While the managers sometimes run around contradicting each other due to a lack of ability to get on the same page, I correspondingly find myself in the position of managing their expectations, putting up with their scoldings, and generally growing in frustration. It tends to happen in work places where there are more managers than frontline workers. Over the years, however, I have learned to speak up for myself and express my concerns, even my frustration. Continue reading
A few of you who read this blog are aware that I have been involved in online IRC ministry for the past nine years. During that time I have had countless conversations with people who have had bad experiences with the church. The other day I answered a question from a person who questioned the behavior of people in the church. He was especially concerned about hypocrisy. As a matter of courtesy, I will not post his content here. Frankly, some of my readers might be seriously put off by his tone and language. However, I think there is some validity to his complaint about churches in general and certain religious leaders in particular. Unfortunately, there is often an apparent dismissal of such complaints by many in church leadership. Truth claims are emphasized–and rightly so–but living justly and with integrity as stewards of finances, human relationships, the environment, social responsibility, and ministry with and for the marginalized, not to mention our role as image bearers of God? Not so much in specific cases.
So I replied to his email. I invite you to look over my shoulder in the text below as I attempt to acknowledge his concerns, while inviting him to consider how Jesus, himself, felt about this very issue.
Hi there _____,
Thanks for contacting us with your comments.
I would agree that some people in the church do sometimes act hypocritically. It’s part of life, this business of being human and subject to human frailty, including the ugliness of hypocrisy. It is sad and unfortunate.
Jesus shared your concern two thousand years ago when he confronted the Pharisees for their hypocrisy toward others. You can read what he had to say in Mark 7 in the Bible.
I am sorry that you have been hurt by people in the church. I hope that you will not let the hypocrisy or inconsistency of a few church attenders taint your view of Jesus, especially given the fact he also is concerned about this very issue.
A brawl broke out among parents at a North Carolina elementary school on Tuesday night, December 18. The first through third grade children had just completed their portion of the program, when three parents began fighting. You may read more on the story here. Apparently, it started when a father approached a male student about pushing his daughter. The boy’s father told him to talk to the principle, rather than directly to his son. From there, matters took a turn for the worse, resulting in a ten-minute profanity-laden brawl full of frightened families and children. Local police and school board members are now investigating with the use of interviews of witnesses and video footage shot by another parent.
Over the years, I have had to deal with irate parents concerning similar circumstances. My aim always has been to de-escalate the situation. Not always an easy task. It is one thing to redirect children who are acting up. It is quite another to deal with a mother or father who becomes unreasonable, and in some cases even threatening. Thankfully, I have never had a major incident such as the case in North Carolina. However, I think it is wise to foster an environment of open communication so that parents know they can approach me with concerns and that their concerns will be truly heard and considered. I think the frustration some parents feel stems from their perception that leadership doesn’t really care. It is my task, insofar as it is realistic, to remove those obstacles and to create a more positive environment so that any potential problems may be addressed quickly and redemptively for the best interests of all who are involved. Thus, I do all I can to mingle with parents, fathers and mothers alike, so that they can get to know me as a person, rather than simply as a pastor or authority figure. Relationship is key to clear communication. And even if a parent is angry, I want to provide for them a safe forum to vent their feelings constructively, rather than explode like the parents in the North Carolina elementary school.
Here are a few words and phrases I noticed recently while rummaging through my children’s ministry leadership jargon file (e.g., my brain). They have value, but they also can easily be misunderstood if not used in the appropriate context or for the appropriate audience. Given that I wish to communicate with clarity, I am challenging myself to identify jargon, or to put it more charitably, specialized words or phrases I frequently use, so that I may discern more effectively their suitability for specific writing projects or speaking engagements. Sometimes, it simply is a matter of defining a term in advance so that the audience appreciates fully the intended nuance of the word or phrase. I often tell my closest friends who ask me to define a term to “look it up.” Usually I say it tongue-in-cheek, but also with a bit of seriousness. However, there is something to be said for taking care to refine my writing and speaking so that my readers and listeners can focus more on content, than on trying to define unfamiliar verbiage. So with that, here is a partial list of specialized terms I occasionally use in my vocabularly.
-partnering with parents
-exegeting the culture
-scope and sequence
Again, these are just a few examples. I think you get the idea. Some are sophisticated terms. Some are everyday words used in a specialized way for the church environment. In your writing and ministry, what phrases or words do you need to define or even rethink so that your message is made more clear to your intended audience, especially to the unchurched culture?
I was motivated to write this post when I came across a mailing from a major manufacturer of a product which my company sells. In the letter the VP of the manufacturer was explaining price increases for his company’s product line. In particular, he described the drastic measures they have been taking to reduce operating expenses in an effort to minimize passing along cost increases through the distribution chain (e.g., everybody who buys from them or their wholesale and retail dealer base. Jargon is hard to escape!). There is one specific phrase he used which caught my attention. He said, among other things, that they had engaged in “headcount reductions.” Two simple, easily understandable words had been combined to produce a head scratching, apparently politically correct phrase for laying people off from their jobs. The use of jargon, in this case, produced in me the feeling that the plight of real people was reduced to an impersonal phrase in order to save face for a corporation. I laughed. I shook my head. And then I began to examine my own tendency to do the very same kind of thing, albeit on a much smaller scale, and certainly not with the intent of masking, minimizing or causing pain to others.
Sitting next to the six year old boy on the wooden pew to the side of the church gymnasium, I smiled and asked, “When your teachers at school give you a time-out, do they come and talk with you about it?”
It had become a regular occurrence, not just at school, but also at church. He just seemed to find ways to land himself in the naughty chair, sneaky little dude that he is.
“Hmm. So they just let you sit by yourself until your timeout is over?”
“Yea.” His brown eyes stared elsewhere. Anywhere but at me.
“Come, look at me for a moment.”
He kept staring elsewhere.
I asked again.
Reluctantly, he complied.
“I am here to talk with you about it, because I care,” I said. Then, I turned my head to stare in a different direction in much the same way he had been doing just a moment ago, while I kept talking. “It is kinda hard to carry on a conversation when one of us is trying to ignore the other, isn’t it. I mean, it really is kinda silly, wouldn’t you agree?”
He smiled and giggled just a little. Then he nodded as I turned back to face him.
“I care about you, ______. You are special and God has an awesome plan for your life.”
He stared back at me doubtfully.
“Has anyone ever told you that before?”
“No,” he admitted.
“Well I am telling you that. And I am willing to share in your timeout to make sure you know that God loves you and thinks your special.”
He smiled just a little bit.
“Do you have a Bible at home, ______?”
“Well my brother has a little one.”
“Well that’s good, but do you have one just for you?”
He shook his head to confirm he did not.
I smiled and said, “Well we are going to have to do something about that. Now you go back with the other kids and we will talk again soon.”
I have the Bible which will soon be his right next to me, with an accompanying one for his brother as well. Prayerfully I ponder what words of encouragement I will write to them, not just for now, but also for the days to come as they grow up. I ask God to give me words to write which are prophetic and priestly, pastoral and fatherly, so that, as the years roll by and they have occasion to revisit the dedication pages of their respective gift Bibles, they will experience afresh the anointing of the Holy Spirit touching them at the point of their current need, and so that they will remember from whence they had come with a view toward God’s ordained future for them.
Today a customer began to raise his voice at me in anger in response to product information I was providing him. I smiled. I softly informed him that I would be happy to have my manager call him to provide additional information. He slowly calmed down.
Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (NIV).
About once per week–sometimes more frequently–I have opportunity to put this Scripture into practice in my place of secular employment. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes it is downright hard, especially when a person is being abusive. But why should I lower myself to the level of a verbally abusive individual? Why not take the high road? Why not prefer to receive a bit of abuse, rather than lash out in retaliation?
Do I set limits? Of course. There have been times when I have walked away from someone who is being verbally abusive. However, I refuse to allow myself to become bitter toward them in thought or action. If a person does not calm down in the face of a gentle answer, choosing instead to escalate his tirade, then I seek out alternative measures, always in respectful and kind, but firm and resolved ways.
In church, whether it is dealing with an irate parent, an angry work colleague, a bitter volunteer, or a child whose rage as gone out of control, those of us in Children’s Ministry Leadership will occasionally face difficult situations which require special attention to gentle answers in the face of harsh words. For me at my church, it doesn’t happen frequently (thankfully), but occasionally such situations will occur. I have to discipline myself to be diligent in practicing God’s presence with scriptural meditation, joy, thanksgiving, intercessory prayer and worship. To the measure I am immersed in following the example of Jesus (Philippians 2), I find that I have a greater measure of grace to deal with difficult situations and people. Even the angry ones. The harsh ones. By following the way of humility, I diffuse their ability to aggravate me and cause me to lose control. More importantly, I may even win some of them over in the love of Christ.
A gentle answer. Try it when the opportunity presents itself. God will give you courage to show grace in the face of unfair harshness. The joy that follows from a conscience which is clean will be contagious and might even win over your verbose counterpart.
I often hear various statistics about the rapid burnout rate of pastoral staff in general, and children’s ministry staff in particular. I also have directly witnessed it. Having served on staff at only two churches in the last 16 years, I have some ideas about how to foster longevity. In my first church, I had actually attended for 13 years, the last 4 1/2 of which were on staff as Children’s Director and Elder. I then moved to Portland. After one year, I was appointed to be Children’s Pastor, a role I have enjoyed for over 11 years. So in essence, I have been actively involved in two churches for over 25 years. I should add that in both places of service I have been a volunteer. Obviously this affords me distinct advantages over a full-time staff member. Nevertheless, it also has more expectations and disappointments than your average volunteer.
I invite you to weigh in on your longevity in your current place of service. The poll to the right in the menu bar will be available for one week, so check it out.
Here are a few questions I consider which can affect the longevity of church staff members:
- In the hiring process, whether it is for a volunteer or paid position, take time to get to know one another. Look beyond the obvious pedigree and experience and examine the character, habits and family life of the person. Likewise, the candidate should be asking similar questions. What kinds of people are these? Do they want me to shut up and do as I am told? Or is there some collegial give and take? Do I have a voice? Or I am a minion at the beck and call of the power brokers? (I know, this sounds negative, but years of anecdotal evidence indicate this is an issue in many churches, regardless of denomination. Typically all parties are on their best behavior during the interview process. This is one reason why hiring should be taken carefully and with due diligence. Don’t move too quickly. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions.). Am I a hireling? Or will my family and I be allowed to enter into authentic community with this congregation? This is just a start, but I think you get the idea.
- Will I be allowed to experiment in the broader context of providing tried and true ministry expressions?
- What is the extent of the accountability provided for me? Does it border on micromanagement? Does it border on a lack of any apparent concern? Or is there a happy medium of accountability without undue control? Do I report to the Senior leader, and Executive Pastor, an Elder or Deacon? Has this been made clear? Does the church follow their own written policies in this regard? If not, why?
- How is conflict handled? Is there an avenue for me to express appropriate disagreement? Are there regular peformance reviews? Am I allowed to review my supervisor? If not, why?
- How is money handled? Am I provided a high level of support and accountability with the budget? Am I expected to handle the exchange of moneys when conducting business? What safeguards are in place to protect me from temptations and false accusations regarding the appropriation of funds?
- Is the level of support, encouragement, renumeration and involvement commensurate with my expectations and needs? That is to say, is the church doing their part to see that my legitimate and contractually agreed upon needs are being met? This pertains not only to financial considerations, but direct involvement in the process of doing ministry. In my church, I have openly stated that the currency which speaks to me, is the direct involvement in leadership and church members in ministering to their own children. I always enjoy the priceless expressions when certain individuals begin to understand the implications for their own involvement. :) In essence, I am saying keep your money. I want YOU to be involved.
- Am I doing my part to fulfill my responsibilities? Do I have a positive attitude even in the face of negative feedback and corrective discipline? If I am receiving negative feedback, have I considered thoughtfully its level of validity? If I disagree with any portion of negative feedback, have I weighed prayerfully how I might offer a constructive response which soothes the circumstances, rather than escalating them?
- Am I respectful to others?
- Are others respectful to me?
- Are there intentional opportunities offered to build loving relationships which move beyond employee/employer considerations? Will I be treated as a member of the church?
This is just a start. I welcome your thoughts too. Tell us what encourages you to minister long-term in your church or ministry situation.