Tonight, and for the next few posts, I’m continuing to unpack an earlier list of advice for those considering ministry. As already noted, proverbs or lists of advice have their place (for example in scripture), but also reduce the complexity of life and ministry as it is lived in real time. For that we need stories. So stories are what I’m offering as a follow-up over the next couple of weeks.
Another caveat. It is honest of me to say that every piece of advice offered, I’ve come to by way of failure. That’s right, failure. I’ve learned them by getting them wrong. And I still do. This is advice I’m still trying to follow. Preaching to my own proverbial choir.
Herein lies one of the big problems with proverbs or lists of advice: they can be read as demands for perfection. That leads to another related problem – intent and impact are not the same thing. Just because I intend to share something about my learning that has been helpful and I hope might be encouraging, doesn’t mean you will feel the impact of it as hopeful, helpful or encouraging. (Although a good number of you did, and thanks for letting me know.)
When intent and impact don’t line up, that can become an opportunity for learning – about each other and about the subject at hand. Speaking of the subject at hand, let’s turn there now.
In my list of advice for young women hearing a call to ministry, I said this:
2. Find an older woman (just a little older – not your grandmother’s age, unless she is brutally honest) who will give you honest feedback about your public image. Someone who believes that failure is an important path to learning. Yes, I said failure. Someone who will speak truth with the genuine hope of helping you to become a better pastoral leader. Someone who you can ask questions like:
- * How did I sound? More winsome or more whining?
- * Was my skirt too short? My heels too high? My tattoo a tad too visible?
- * Did I come across as appropriately humorous in that story, or was I screeching?
- * What is my greatest strength when I’m in the pulpit?
- * What did I miss in the service today?
- * How could I draw people in more?
- * Did I sound defensive when I gave that report?
People get nervous when there is talk of public image and pastoral ministry. For good reasons. Public image covers the landscape from how one speaks to the content of what is said. From the way I respond to questions to the way I hold the communion elements. From the way I tell stories to what I’m wearing. These are not all of equal importance. But the kind of judgement required for sorting it all out is complicated, in my experience.
One of my early memories of learning the significance of how I looked when I was leading came when I was a teenager. I was fussed out by an adult because I didn’t button all the right buttons on my polo shirt when we sang a concert. Funny how I recall more about the critical moment than I do about all the positive instructions we got for how to dress, stand, sing, speak, and smile. We got plenty of instruction. And as a cheeky 16-year-old, I probably knew just what I was doing when I didn’t button up to my chin. And in the scope of things, I really don’t know how much it mattered.
I also remember ten years later when the head chaplain let me know that I shouldn’t wear jeans to the hospital, even if the call came at 3:00 a.m., and that was all I could find. Look harder. Plan ahead. Don’t wear jeans to the ER. You are the chaplain. Not a patient or family member. I didn’t make that mistake again.
I don’t know if these really were mistakes. Probably not. But I certainly felt condemned by the criticisms in the moment. I also internalized the criticism and carried it with me for a while.
Under the category of comedy: I’ve also baptized while my waders were springing leaks and sticking to my pantyhose, called my hiring a “perverted process” (was trying to say “powerful process,” I think), taken up an offering with five other robed ministers because we forgot to recruit ushers (oops), and nearly set my robe on fire while pouring communion juice. (Yes, I’m Baptist. It was grape juice.) That’s just a few bungles I can recall off the top of my head.
What I do know more surely is that I rarely had anyone who might tolerate (much less invite) a discussion or some honest questions about what I might wear or how I might present myself. I don’t lack confidence (to understate it) but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t appreciate a chance to talk aloud about these things and much more.
This is why I advise recruiting someone who will give straightforward feedback. We need a place to explore the questions I raise and dozens more like them about how we speak, what we say, how we demonstrate our capacities when we are in front of people leading. Each particular circumstance calls for it’s own unpacking. A conversation partner with a bit of wisdom would be a gift.
Ultimately I want to be able to lead, teach, preach, and present without either attracting undo attention or making a distraction for those in my care. I want to be able to gesture, speak and attend to the presence of the holy. But this takes practice and is helped by someone noticing with me how it is going.
Edwin Friedman has been my greatest mentor at this point. He died 15 years ago, but his books Generation to Generation and Failure of Nerve are both so insightful about leading through conflict, change and criticism.
I wish that public image didn’t matter. But I learned early on that it does make a difference what sort of leadership one can offer. I’ve seen good, honest, caring people fall into leadership traps and loose their ability to lead because they couldn’t see or hear what was going on with their own public presence. I’ve made other mistakes that I so wish someone would have pointed out to me in love. But no one did.
When I have received critical feedback it has often been from someone who was also hurting. This happened several times in my first call congregation. On one hand, I had to care for the hurting parishioner, and on the other hand I had to cope with my own raw feelings of regret and remorse over what I’d said or done that was received as hurtful. In those moments I needed someone to connect with, sort through the situation, and imagine my options going forward. I’ve been grateful for a few friends and mentors who have welcomed that kind of learning together.
I like to summarize what Friedman says about leading a faith community this way: As leaders we need to combine direction and connection. We need to be clear and honest in our communicating in order to lead people anywhere new. We also need to remain connected with both those who show great support and also our critics. We don’t give ourselves over to either group, but seek their feedback. Then keep going in the direction we think we are being called.