A Quest of Fearless Failure

by Andrew Kukla

As a pastor, there are certain questions you get very used to being asked. Not the fun questions I don’t tire of answering, like “why does the Apostles’ Creed say ‘descended into hell?’” from which I usually embark on a conversation about radical grace. No, I’m talking about routine questions revisited because people don’t like the answer you give, questions that get you jaded and…worn. One of those for me is “can we get more training?” It’s a question that comes from a new member, a Sunday school teacher, a communion server, a deacon offering homebound communion, a new ruling elder; it’s a question that comes regularly and from all corners of the church. And the question is genuine. I remind myself of that every time.

But I think the question is often the wrong question.

Don’t get me wrong ― I’m not adverse to training. However, I can no longer abide training as downloading data to empty vessels. The problem with training people in very particular trivia that apply to something that they don’t regularly do is that it just doesn’t stick. Why would it? It’s not that it isn’t relevant at all, it’s that its relevant to something so rare that when you finally need it you have long forgotten it. And much of the ins and outs of our polity has absolutely no correlation to the everyday life of our church leaders. So, what is worth taking time to train for?

This gets us to one of the hard realities of life in any job formation/training question: you won’t know what you don’t know, and therefore need to learn, until you get in there and muck it up. You are going to have to make some mistakes. You are going to have to wrestle with applying information to life before you can sort what parts of the information are even helpful. There is an old line I love: failure is a diagnostic tool.

If I could train people in only one thing, it would be learning to fail well.

And this is the real rub. People don’t want to make mistakes. For all our wonderful rich theology of grace, we still imagine ― more often than we admit (like all the time) ― that mistakes at church feel like they have eternal consequences. And so, we are terrified of doing things “wrong” and doing things “unsuccessfully” and we simply don’t trust ourselves to lead.

This is the real question I think people are asking? Its not more training per se, but “how do I trust myself with this task I see as vitally important and consequential?” What absolutes can you tell me that will give me the confidence to believe I’m doing it right? What information can I jot down on a piece of paper so that that this paper will lead me when I don’t trust myself to do the job? The answer to that is that I cannot… and I will not. The starting point to all of this needs to be, “You will be wrong, you will fail (as will everyone else). Get over it, and then we can get started.”

When we engage in training, what I want to do is less about teaching information and rules and more about freeing our imagination… to remind people that our job is to listen and wrestle with our calling as this small part of the Body of Christ at this time and in this place… and imagine that we can see what God is seeing for us and with us. That constantly doing this task allows us to risk the church in daring to make that imagination come alive in what we say and do together here, at home, and everywhere in our community. That’s what I want us to do…and to train for that? We need to unlearn as much as we need to learn; we need to make sure we are asking the right questions, rather than the easy or typical questions; and we need to be playful as much as studious.

Ideally… we might even manage both.

So, for the next month, for all that we are talking about officer training, let us remember that we are not trying to fill up church leaders full of things they need to know. We are hoping that together, through prayer, study, fellowship, and mission, we are falling in love with God more deeply ― day by day. Let us spark our collective imagination as a bunch of church leaders to think about what it means to embark upon a quest of fearless* failure as we endeavor to make God’s calling on us come alive in flesh and bones.

In the next month we will focus on what I’m calling the three tasks of imagination:

Feeding our Imagination: Exegeting our World View
Enabling Fruitful Imagination: Cultivating a Space for Fearless* Failure
Focusing Our Imagination: Remembering Our Goal

I believe this is the role of church leaders: less officers of the rule of law than those who blaze trails the Spirit guides them to, encouraging others to follow. And yes… there are some ancient, old, and contemporary guides in how to travel those trails that will be helpful ― Books of Order and personnel manuals ― but let those be tools, and not masters, of our task. The world needs people alive with God’s imagination far more than it needs a plethora of people steeped in by-laws. And while I do not believe that’s an either/or scenario, I do know where I want to start and what needs to stay front and center.

Without further ado…let’s find the second star to the right and go straight on till morning!

*by fearless I do not mean we won’t have fears. I’m a pretty fearful person. What I mean by fearless is that fear will not be our master. We will overcome our fears, not the other way around.

andrewAndrew Kukla has lived in Illinois, Virginia, the Philippines, Georgia, Florida, and now Idaho – which he calls home along with his wife, Caroline, and four children. He is Pastor / Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho.

From the Files – Community Organizing, TBT Edition

filesHere are a few posts from the past NEXT blogs that are worth a re-read:

Andrew Foster Connors suggests that good stewardship requires more than better preaching and shares how their congregation has used discipline of organizing to create a relational stewardship campaign.

Jessica Tate explores how the organizing universal of Organize, Dis-organize, Re-organize, Repeat helped to give new life to the deacons’ ministry.

Patrick Daymond shares the power of relational ministry in this video from the 2013 NEXT National Gathering.

And if you haven’t yet looked at the community organizing bibliography Jeff Krehbiel compiled last year, here it is.

photo credit: nhighberg via photopin cc

Beyond Arm Twisting: Calling and Recruiting Officers and Volunteers

Maybe get Mr. Incredible to serve on your nominating committee...

Maybe get Mr. Incredible to serve on your nominating committee…

Some time ago we saw a Facebook conversation about different approaches to calling officers in the church. Here were a few of the responses…

I don’t have any great ideas here….but I know of a Presbyterian church that is doing their recruiting seasonally rather than by task. So, they have Advent/Christmas, Lent/Easter, etc. teams that work across the whole life of the church, from Education to Mission, to Worship to Stewardship. They have found that folks are able to commit to a season (working a few months ahead and then the season of) and then being “off” for a while. Don’t know if that addresses the panicky thumbing part….but it allows for people to self identify which season they would like to work. (also posting selfishly so that I can see what others have to say! )

During my second year in a congregation, the Nominations Committee and I devised a survey for members of the congregation. Rather than asking what specitic position in the church they might be interested in, we had a list of tasks for people to check. We then took the returned surveys and matched desired activities to various committees, etc. That way we had people who were elected to jobs they would like. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it did help.

I like that idea…The challenge always is “knowing your people” and getting folks on the nominating committee who know the people well enough to know their gifts. I am not sure why we treat nominating as so “secret”. We should probably survey folks and get it from them. What WE think they like to do if different than when they think.

At our church, some years ago one of our ministers adapted Marcus Buckingham’s “Now Discover Your Strengths” (currently called “Strengthsfinder”) into what we called the Strengths Ministry. Many members of the church went through the Strengths Ministry workshop, and individuals’ top 5 strengths were recorded in a database at the church. Then, people could be identified by their strengths (reducing burnout) and the appropriate balance could be created on committees and the like. We are not perfect in our use of this and we haven’t had a workshop for a while, so newer members aren’t in the database, but it has overall been a great (long-term) strategy for us in identifying people for various roles in the church.

We’ve done away with a formal board structure. We now have just a leadership board and other teams. Our teams don’t have any terms. We can serve on a team that we love forever. So now more people are doing what they are passionate about for as long as they want. There is still some arm twisting for nursery volunteers and such, but I’m a do-er and I hate formal board meetings. But I’m perfectly happy to work on mission projects, lead huge fundraising efforts for mission trips, etc. Also happy to direct a youth choir, plays, etc. So the new system really appeals to me.

We switched to a call process a few years ago. The first meeting of Nominating we do a lectio on call (e.g. Eph. 4). Then we talk through qualities we need for elders, and for deacons. Then we look at specific leadership roles that need to be called (e.g. head of Worship or Mission or Children’s Ministries committee). we pray over names for a couple of weeks. We come to consensus about a person to approach, then invite them to meet with two nominating committee members to issue the call. We ask them to think & pray on it for a week or two. It takes time, but after a few years of this our Session is really strong, and people know it’s a real call – not a desperate last minute ‘need a warm body’ phone call. We have left positions empty if we cannot find the right person to fill the position – which leads to conversations about the position itself.

How do you all call, recruit and train leaders? What has changed about your approach?

And how will these ministries change even further in “the church that is becoming?”


photo credit: timaoutloud via photopin cc

Dis-Organize and Re-Organize, Repeat

by Jessica Tate

One of the “universals” of community organizing is this: All organizing is dis-organizing and re-organizing.

That makes me tired just hearing it. I’m a “J” on the Myers-Briggs. I like closure, decisions, orderliness. I want systems in place that function smoothly. I prefer stability and predictability.

That is fine and good, except when the stable stable system isn’t working well. Faced with that reality, I’m learning to embrace the constant flux of disorganizing and reorganizing.

Here’s an example of how dis-organizing and re-organizing put new life into the deacons’ ministry at the church I served.

Years ago the deacons had divided the congregation up into nine geographic “parishes.” Two deacons were assigned to each parish and asked to be the primary caregiver for their parish. The theory of the system was that people who live near to one another have more opportunity to be involved in each other’s lives on a day to day basis….to literally be neighbors to each other. 

Over time, the congregation began to draw members from further away and the parish map started to annex territory into its parishes. It looked like a gerrymandered congressional map. Since deacons weren’t nominated to fill geographical positions, it usually didn’t work out that the two deacons assigned to the parish actually lived in that geographic area and even if they did, it was unlikely they necessarily knew the people in their zip code. It was usually the case that each pair of deacons ended up with a parish of 40-50 individuals or families, three-fourths of whom they did not know. 

The deacons tried valiantly to make the parishes work. They hosted potlucks and five people would come. They tried making cold calls to everyone in their parish to introduce themselves. They sent letters every year with their pictures and asked people to say hello on Sunday morning and to call if they needed care. 

It didn’t work. People in the congregation “fell through the cracks.” The deacons felt disconnected from the people for whom they were asked to give care. They often felt like “the last to know” when a baby was born or a surgery was scheduled. Though they were trying hard and wanted to succeed and felt called to this caregiving work, they continually felt like they could not do their job well. But we kept at it. The system was predictable and stable. It was easy to manage. It just didn’t work.

One night at the monthly meeting, when frustration at the parish system was being voiced yet again, one deacon said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” 

The room froze. A rebellion. 

“I’m tired of trying to find ways to get strangers to let me be their deacon,” she continued. “I’m just going to be the best deacon I can to everyone in my Sunday school class and everyone who sits near me in worship.”

A few seconds ticked by and then another voice said, “Well I’m in the choir, I can be their deacon.” And another, “I’ll take my circle and the quilting group.” Suddenly, everyone was volunteering to be the deacon for the people in the congregation to whom he or she was already connected.

“Wait, wait,” someone said. “We can’t just choose these various groups that we like. We’ll leave out some people that aren’t in any of these groups.” “Yeah,” another person said, “choosing our own parishes feel too much like a popularity contest. That’s not fair to everyone.”

The debate went back and forth for a while when at the end, they decided that it made a lot more sense to anchor caregiving ministry with organic relationships and small groups that exist in the church. Those relationships and groups already provide care and often have more insight into what’s going on in someone’s life. To make sure no one was missed or left out of the new “relational parishes,” they spent their next meeting going through the membership rolls of all 700 members and making sure every person had a deacon. 

Dividing the congregation up by relationships worked and it didn’t even take that long to go through the roles. Between the two parish deacons, the ratio of relationships flipped. The deacons now knew three-fourths of the people in their parish and had much less anxiety about trying to meet and get to know the few families or individuals they had not yet met. They still send out letters to let the congregation members know who their deacons are. And those cold calls? Most of them aren’t “cold” anymore. It’s a friend calling a friend to check-in, pray, and offer companionship for the journey.

There are some downsides. There are fewer instances of the completely random friendships developing in the congregation because of a random geographic sort. The deacons have to re-divide the list every year when new deacons come on and bring with them whole new sets of relationships. They can’t just play favorites — they have to hold themselves accountable to get to know the handful of people in their parish to whom they aren’t already connected. It’s more work administratively to figure out which parish someone is in…you can’t just tell by the zip code anymore. But in exchange for real care actually happening? In exchange for caregiving done with a joyful heart? I’ll take the chaos of dis-organizing and re-organizing over predictability and stability any day.

 Jessica is the Director of NEXT Church. Prior to this call she served as Associate Pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church and Co-Chair of the VOICE (a northern Virginia community organizing effort)


By Jessica Tate

We paused in a joint meeting of ruling elders and deacons to connect with active participants in the life of our church, to say thank you to them for their leadership and involvement. We made phone calls right in the middle of the meeting. The response was overwhelmingly positive, both from the leaders making the calls and the recipients of the calls. This was a simple and effective way to strengthen connections within the congregation and to practice gratitude.