Leading in a Connected World

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I’m tired and jazzed as I wrap-up my week. Eleven of us, all leaders in God’s church close by and far away, wrestled with what it means to lead missionally for five whole days. We came together having read, written, blogged, posted, and wondered about it before we arrived. We entered the conversation having engaged in conversation with other church leaders, people in our congregation, and even people outside our faith communities. And with all of that “pre-work,” say nothing about our years of experience leading in ministry, you’d think we would be leaving with some concrete and well-defined understanding of missional leadership. But we did not.

Instead we left with…

– a renewed appreciation for God’s presence in the world, and in us (personally and as a group)

– an awareness that our similarities and differences are gifts we offer each other

– a curiosity for exploring the familiar and “strange”

– an assurance of the costly nature of leadership and

– a reminder of how connected we are, even as we live in different places.

It was not obvious who played the role of the teacher and who played the role of learner, because teaching and learning was shared and spilled out from our assigned room and scheduled times into parking lots, lunch tables, and evening conversations. It was truly a shared learning experience, gracious and generative, with each person in the room mining the gems they most needed and best suited for their context and leadership role.

In the weeks ahead, other communities will join into this learning, as student engage in their projects, and the learning will flow not only in and through their congregations but also back to the whole. Research will be done and papers will be written, but the real fruit will only be known, truly known, years from now. Thanks to my co-collaborator, Steve Thomason, for doing this organic dance with me. And thank you students for joining in the dance with us.

As I wrap-up my day, I will linger in the music from our closing worship and the stories we shared, grateful for a narrative counter to the one broadcast in society these days. My heart is filled with hope. God is up to something in this world. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Engagement

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I’ve been thinking a lot about “engagement” these days. The first reason is personal. Two days before Christmas, my daughter and her boyfriend got engaged. As you might imagine, it created a lot of buzz in our house; there were calls to aunts and uncles, Facetiming cousins, and face-to-face visits with grandparents. Today, several weeks later, conversations around being engaged continue, as does their discovery of what it means for them.

The second reason is professional. Having just co-authored a book with Hayim Herring on leading in this digital age, we discovered that engagement is a very important issue for congregations. As the ways of thinking about congregational membership (giving money and regularly attending worship) become increasingly out of sync with societal values, leaders are wrestling with new ways of thinking about what it means to be connected to and associated with faith communities. Pastor Greg Meyer of Jacob’s Well, MN said it well. He said, “Of all the things we are stewards of with our community, their attention is one of the biggest, and it is almost the hardest. It is almost easier to get people to give than to get their attention.”

Leaders shared with us that the ways they had “always been doing things,” like committee work, passive communication, and assuming loyalty accompanies membership, didn’t have enough holding power to keep people connected to the congregation’s mission. However, when they shifted their focus from membership to engagement as an organizing principle it not only changed key practices, but it had a ripple effect throughout the organization and changed the culture as a whole. What would it mean to have an engaging culture?

Let’s step back and think about the word engage. One understanding of being engaged is a promise or pledge of one person to another. But there are other understandings according to Merriam-Webster – they include to take part in something, give attention to something or to come together. (Merriam-Webster definition – https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/engage) Shifting toward engagement as an organizing principle is to become a community where people come together or take part in something that is meaningful to them; it is a community where passion or purpose hold the community, not membership status. The shift may seem subtle, but this slight change in focus made a big difference in these organizations.

Engagement is multi-faceted and is not easily measured. Yet engagement in the congregations and nonprofits we studied had themes. One was about how they creatively connected with people within their organization; another was the unique ways they were in relationship with people and organizations outside their organization. Amongst these themes were three sets of practices: valuing process over procedure, integrating and relying on collective intelligence, and telling stories. In the end, congregations and nonprofits developed an ethos of openness – where the mission was clear, the work meaningful, and the boundaries messy.

There is no formula for establishing such a culture, but there are communities doing it. And we can learn from their experience. After fussing with this work for ten years, Jacob’s Well is clear about who they are – not fixated on creating members or model Christians, Jacob’s Well is a church focused on helping people create meaning in their lives. They believe a Christian understanding of God, a community willing to wrestle with this understanding, and awareness of contemporary culture is the way to approach this work. Everything they do is filtered through this mission and identity.

We share more about engagement in our book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose. For more information, go to Amazon or Rowman and Littlefield. You can also check out Hayim’s latest blog on Innovation.

Disruption

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Snow days are disruptive. You can’t write them into your planner, and you can only get so far being prepared. Yesterday we had our first snowfall and life was disrupted. Several inches blanketed my driveway (meaning someone had to shovel) and the roads weren’t plowed (making me late for church). To say my day didn’t go as planned was an understatement. Being the first means there is more to come, and since I am a Minnesotan it will be fine, but yesterday I had to readjust. Hurrying, or working harder, doesn’t change anything on snow days, you simply have to adapt, reframe your expectations, and live in the moment. For those of us from places where snow and winter go together, we accept this reality and learn to lean into the season (maybe even finding ways to enjoy it).

Households can be disrupted. This week last year our household was. We were finally empty-nesters (and even the dog was living in DC with our daughter). We were happily figuring out a new pattern of living together and were just beginning to remodel the house when we received two phone calls (one from each daughter). Before we knew it our young adult children were moving home, with all of their possessions. With no kitchen or living room, dust all over, and a basement full of “extra stuff” four adults (and one dog) were faced with figuring out how to live into “a new normal.” As parents of young adults know these opportunities happen, and such disruptions are both challenging and gifts. Today I will say this disruption falls more on the side of gift, but it did take all of us being open to change and learning to live with new patterns.

Our world is being disrupted. In many ways, and on multiple fronts, society is experiencing disruption. We can no longer rely on our once predictable patterns. Frustrations, and even hurt, comes when situations play out differently than we thought. Spending habits, leadership decisions, healthcare, the way people learn, and even how we “rent movies” are all areas experiencing disruption. Living into these disruptions takes energy, often energy I don’t have, and challenges me to open myself to new ways of understanding. Navigating disruption is hard, because like snow days, it is hard to predict and the magnitude of the disruption matters. (One inch of snow is very different than 12 inches!) Unlike the disruptions in my household, I don’t always have the patience to endure the transition of the disruptions in society or have the will to do the hard work necessary to find a way forward.

For Christians, Christmas is disruptive. Jesus’ birth disrupted people 2,000 years ago and the message of God’s radical love for the world has been doing so every since. We as people of faith are invited into a new way of being in the world, one which frames our lives and our communities in ways differently.

As leaders of congregations and nonprofits, many of us see and have experienced the disruption in our time, yet knowing about disruption doesn’t always help us understand what it means for us. And with so many things on our to-do-list, it is easy to simply work harder. But such an appropriate does not getting us to where we, and our organizations, need to go. For the sake of the missions we are called to, it is time we slow down and open ourselves to adjusting our expectations.

In Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose, my co-author (Hayim Herring) and I name this disruptive moment organizations are experiencing as a paradigm shift. Paradigm shifts require, among other things, rethinking leadership and examining our frameworks for seeing the world. Like other disruption, we believe there is life on the other side, and it can be rich and abundant, but getting there means reflecting, reframing, and creating new patterns.

So today, and in the days ahead, I hope you will join us in learning about this disruptive paradigm shift and wondering about what it means for you and the organization you are called to lead.

The Power of the Christmas Tree

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Yesterday we did it, we got our whole family in the house at the same time and decorated the Christmas tree. While this may not be special occasion to you, it was for us for two reasons. First, last year our house was “under construction” which meant, among other things, no Christmas tree and no Christmas decorations. Second, yesterday afternoon was the only time when all four of us could be present to do the honors in a two week period.

Tonight, soaking in the glow that only a Christmas tree offers, I’m taken by the power a Christmas tree has in our home.

As crazy as it sounds, with girls are in their twenties, picking out and decorating the Christmas tree is still an event you have to do together! Maybe it is just a habit that became a family tradition, maybe it is because the tree is the penultimate symbol of the season for two girls who love Christmas (don’t get theological on me yet), or maybe it is because in the midst of all the laughter and storytelling we are reminded of how we love being part of this crazy, mixed family. I’m not sure why, but I do know that trimming the Christmas tree has the power to draw us all together, if even only for an afternoon, to pause our busy lives and be together.

As I have given over my vision for decorating and let others exercise their creative imagination, I’m take by the reality that the decorations in the box are more than ornaments, ribbons, and tree toppers. Ornaments have special meaning and decorations bring back memories of earlier years. Hanging them on the tree recognizes their importance and the past, present, and future come alive in our living room. Values become visible, stories get retold, memories are made, and hopes direct our eyes to the days ahead. Trimming the Christmas tree with our decorations has the power to transform a Blue Spruce into an Elton storyboard.

As the days become shorter and the winter air colder, it amazes me how the power of a few strains of Target lights change the atmosphere in our home. Coming home from a busy day to the warmth of our house illuminated by this sign of Christmas invites me to slow down and sit for awhile. For those of us with hurried lives, being still is a gift we do not often afford ourselves, and somehow the tree has the power to get all of us to slow down. And this energy cannot be contained in the house. Shining through the picture window, the lights of the Christmas tree have the power to make a dent in the vast darkness outside as well. Even in my fifties, I have not lost my love for driving through neighborhoods where the lights of Christmas interrupt the night sky. In its own little way, our Christmas tree is a sign of hope in a dark world.

I have been working on an Advent practice this year – sitting quiet for a time each day. It is not much, I know, but it is enough to calm my soul and ground my life in a season when the world is pushing me in all directions. Tonight, with the light of the Christmas tree filling the room and the memory of yet another “Elton decorating party” fresh at hand, I am grateful for this simple, but powerful tradition.

In this season where we prepare for God’s coming to live among us, how might your traditions prepare you?

Taking a Leap of Faith

My colleague, Rabbi Hayim Herring, and I, are thrilled to announce that Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platform, People and Purpose, is now available.

Order in time for Hanukkah and Christmas and receive a 40% Discount  (Save 40% on all purchases for a limited time by using the code RL40LC16 when you order!)

Two years ago, we didn’t know one another. But we took a leap of faith (one Protestant, one Jewish) to collaborate on a significant project. The value of learning from a member of the same human family, but a different spiritual tribe, has been immeasurable.

Are you curious about:

  • How congregations and nonprofits are seeking to maintain community when relationships seem so fragile today?
  • How spiritual and nonprofit communities can make decisions rapidly, thoughtfully and inclusively in these changing times?
  • How professional and volunteer leaders are navigating the tensions of being faithful stewards of their organizations’ traditions, and responsive leaders to the disruptive pace of innovation?

We were, too, so we took another leap of faith and invited fifteen Jewish and Lutheran congregations and nonprofit organizations throughout the United States to be part of a research project. Some were established congregations and nonprofits that were becoming less hierarchical and more innovative. Others were start-ups that emerged at the dawn of social networks, are now adding more structure as they have grown, but don’t want to lose their entrepreneurial D.N.A. Whether old or new, they are navigating a paradigm shift in minimizing more cumbersome, hierarchical ways of working and fostering more fluid and creative networks to advance their missions.

Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose provides practical guidance to professional and volunteer leaders who view their organizations as platforms where people can find greater personal meaning by engaging with others who care about the same mission. We believe the book is unique as it:

  • Bridges faith communities.
  • Blends theory with tools, texts and hands-on resources.
  • Combines research with lived stories of congregations and organizations.
  • Addresses the desire of both established and newer organizations to deepen engagement with individuals, and transform their communities by redesigning how they are organized.

Several of our colleagues graciously shared their reactions to our book:

Allison Fine, co-author of, The Networked Nonprofit, and renowned expert on social networks and organizations noted, “One of the most pressing issues facing our society is the disruption of traditional organizations dedicated to our communal well-being; congregations and nonprofits. Herring and Elton have written a very important and practical book on a critical topic; how to restructure our most important institutions to match the urgency of working in a networked world.”

Peggy Hahn, Executive Director of LEAD, a national organization dedicated to growing Christian leaders, said that, “This book dares to link congregations and non-profit organizations in strategic conversations essential for thriving in a fast-changing world. This is a way forward.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder, executive director of Mechon Hadar, and author of Empowered Judaism added that, “This book artfully breaks down the barriers that often exist between new and old non-profits. By taking a critical eye to both, the authors present findings untold in other books on congregational change, facilitating a powerful experience for the reader looking to reflect on organizational success.” (You can click here for additional reviews.)

We hope you’ll take a leap of faith, too, and not only purchase Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purpose, but enter into discussion and innovation with leaders in your community, and maybe even someone from a different faith background! The dynamics of disruption and leadership responses are similar in Jewish and Protestant communities, so stay tuned for more news about how you can participate in a network of leaders interested in these issues. You can do so by connecting with Hayim (options for social media of your choice, top right) or connecting with Terri (telton@luthersem.edu, www.facebook.com/terri.elton, @TerriElton).

Thank you,

Terri Martinson Elton and Hayim Herring

 

 

Platforms, People, and Purpose

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It’s arrived! After months of conversations, planning, research, writing, editing, and waiting, I received my first copy from the hands of a FedEx delivery person. Nervous and excited, I opened the package and held the book in my hands for the first time. Our baby has arrived and is ready to meet the public.

In the weeks and months ahead, my co-author, Hayim Herring, and I will be introducing you to our findings and to the congregations and nonprofits we studied. Until then, I simply wanted to share the good news with you, and invite to you take a peek (click here for more information).

The election, the aftermath, and the work that lies ahead

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This morning I got up and headed to the kitchen to do some baking. Baking, like running, is for me a calming pastime; a form of therapy if you will. It’s been a long week, after a really long campaign season, and I needed to do something mindless and productive. I’m happy to say before noon I had three recipes of muffins in our freezer ready for the holiday season.

For me, this has been a hard week. I have ridden the roller coaster of emotions; I have listened to friends, family, and colleagues process the election; and I have tried to get a handle on my own thoughts and feelings. I have tried to speak less and listen more. I have tried to be kinder and offer support where I could. As I see it, at least today, many people are hurting and our United States is divided on many fronts. This reality brings me deep sadness and is one of the reasons for my grief. I wonder where we, as a people, go from here.

But I grieve for other reasons as well. For more than a year, and particularly these past few months, the political climate has set the tone of our conversations and behaviors, as it filled the air with accusations, suspicion, anxiety, and name calling. The language and behavior present in this campaign did not bring out the best of us, as a nation and as a people. Instead of focusing on the issues important for our common life together, the tone that echoed across our land won the day, igniting anger and fear. No one person or party is responsible. Rather somehow the ball got rolling and we, the people, didn’t stop it, change it, or redirect it. I have been baffled by this experience and it has caused me to pause and reflect. As a society, I believe we can do better. And I want to work toward rebuilding trust in the communities I am apart of – among family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors – knowing we are shaped by different experiences and not of one mind.

I’m depressed about our political systems, not because Trump won but because of how we got to our final two candidates in the first place. I’m curious about what this moment will mean for our political parties in the days ahead. Will leaders use this experience for good? Will I use this moment for good? All of my life I have lived among friends and family who have different political views and claim different parties. Somehow we have managed to stay together even with our differences. But as I look at our two main political parties, both are in trouble. Both are without a center, have gone to extremes, and in many ways have lost touch with “the people” whom they seek to serve. While I don’t believe government will save us, or that it is the only way to cultivate our common good, I do want more from both our Democratic and Republican leaders. And as that gets worked out, I commit to doing my part to work for the common good in the arenas I find myself.

Finally, I’m stunned and broken by the behavior and language of the president and vice president elect around women, ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBTQ persons. For months I have been without words. And I have been silent in the face of hurtful words and accusations, except for conversations within my family. My deepest pain has been this dimension of the election. I didn’t need Hillary Clinton to win to prove I matter or women can lead, but I do need to stand up when people are mistreated and treated as objects. Why did I not stand up? How will I find my voice? As a Christian, I believe loving my neighbor involves both serving and advocating for my neighbor. Electing leaders to our highest offices who treat women as objects and demean ethnic minorities rips my heart, making me scared for our shared future. Many of my friends and colleagues know this pain deeper than I do, having been mistreated because of their skin color, minority religious beliefs, and/or sexual orientation. Yet God created us all; we are all subjects of God’s love. Nothing changes that, but this election told me this core belief of mine is not shared in society. We have a long way to go in creating communities where this belief is embodied and we act from this baseline. In the months ahead I hope to turn my brokenness into action, into tangible ways I can love and serve those who feel vulnerable as we move into this new political leadership.

Please, please don’t reduce the message of this post to simply whining about Trump’s victory. My attempt here is reflect on the pain and shock I experienced integrating it with what I heard from listening to others (who were both celebrating and grieving) in order to understand our country today. My conclusion is I have work to do. And I hope the church, with its many expressions and congregations, will be there alongside me working on the healing, uniting, and moving forward our society so all people are valued, cared for, and loved. Maybe you will be too.

But first, it’s time for a run.

Reflections

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I promised to share some of my favorite bike rides from summer 2016. So on this beautiful fall day, let me share 5 new rides I did this summer that I’d recommend.

#1 Spring Lake Regional Park to Hastings, MN – Bike #44 was a lovely Friday evening ride along the Mississippi River, corn fields, rolling hills and bluffs. For those of us that live on the southside of the Twin Cities, it’s a gem right in our backyard. Trails take you through the regional park and Hastings and this fall the trail opens going north. For more, here’s the link: https://www.threeriversparks.org/parks/spring-lake-park.aspx

#2 Carver Park Reserve – Bike #32 combined the popular Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail and exploring the Carver Park Reserve. While I knew about the trail, I had never been to this expansive reserve before. It was a quiet park on a lovely day. Walk it, roller blade on it, and even go to the nature center if you have the time. For more, here’s the link:  https://www.threeriversparks.org/parks/carver-park.aspx

#3 Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge – Bike #36 and #46 started from the parking lot of Stagecoach Road and Highway 101 (close to ValleyFair by the Highway 169 bridge). One ride took me over the Minnesota River to Bloomington, the other ride brought me through Shakopee in the woods near the river to Chaska. It is a great ride, but note these trails are impacted by flooding, so check the website for updates – https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Minnesota_Valley/map.html

#4 – Elm Creek Park Reserve and Rush Creek Regional Trail – Bike #50 not only raised money to support Pancreatic Cancer, it helped me explore the Elm Creek Park Reserve and the Rush Creek Regional Trail. A few days later I did part of the Rush Creek Trail from the Shingle Creek Trail. And on Bike #52 – my century ride – I returned this time coming at the trail from the Coon Rapids Dam and then exploring Maple Grove and Rice Lake trails. Elm Creek has many miles of trails and they are in great shape. It’s a gem for those on the northwest corner of the Cities, but it is also worth the drive for those who are not. Rush Creek has more intersections, but it is well maintained and a good ride. For more, here’s the link: https://www.threeriversparks.org/trails/rush-creek-trail.aspx

#5 – Paul Bunyan Trail – Rides #8, 9 and 10 took place on this popular trail. One ride was on a Sunday afternoon. The trail was busy, but it was still a great ride. The other rides were early in the morning on weekdays, so the trail was not very crowded and I could set the pace I wanted. (One more I rode with two of my brothers and my sister-in-law and we got moving pretty fast.) I explored the end south of Brainerd and north of Brainerd. If you want to do it all it is over 100 miles long. Many sections are wooded, so the wind wasn’t too fierce. Here is a great map of the whole trail, with details for various sections – http://www.paulbunyantrail.com/trail-maps/

I could go one, but will stop for now. To see pictures of these rides, go to my Instagram account and search for #BikeMn52.

Here’s to memories and anticipating!

Passing on Blessings

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What does it take to bless future generations?

I have been pondering this question quite a bit lately. And there are many reasons, I suppose. One reason could be because of the conversations my husband and I now have with our parents. They are healthy and active “senior adults” – still very active in their communities and present in our life. But they, and consequently we, are aware of the gift these years are and don’t want to take them for granted. So much can change quickly, as we have witnessed with their friends and other family members. So we find ourselves appreciating the moments and savoring this chapter of our lives together. What will life be without them? A question we don’t want to delve into too deeply, but one that could be over the horizon sooner than we’d like. They have been such blessings to us in our lifetime, in profound and ordinary ways. How do we tell them of our gratitude? How do we thank them for their love and support? How do we let the blessings they have bestowed on us flow to others?

Another reason could be the frequent reminders that I am not as young as I use to me. In fact, I’m getting old. If I am average (something I’ve never been accused of) I have more years behind me than ahead of me. I don’t remember if it was the trifocals or the AARP application that first tipped me off to this reality, but I do know my visits to the gym and 5K running times have let me know I’m in a new age bracket. Mostly I don’t mind being in my 5th decade of life. I’m certainly more comfortable with who, and whose, I am. I’m glad for a family to ground me and for work that is meaningful. But I also live with a greater sense of urgency and desire to make an impact. I have less patience for the mundane and more interest in the meaningful. And sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. I want to make good choices, for me and for the people I love around me. What does that look like? Does that change any of my priorities? What do I need to step back from? What do I need to step into more deeply?

The final reason, and the reason that most often captures my attention, is parenting young adult children. How do I treasure these years without over, or under, parenting? What does that look like? When do I listen and when do I speak? How do I grow to love what and whom they love? What can I learn from them, as I also remind them of what’s important to me? I am appreciating the days we have together, sharing living space, talking about the daily, helping each other navigate the twists and turns of adult life. And I see their confidence in who, and whose, they are grow. But I also know there will be hard times ahead, times I can’t be there or protect them from or even experience for them. I’m hopeful these “good days” provide the soil from which abundant living will grow – in good seasons and difficult ones.

So today, I wonder…how do I pass on gratitude, values, leadership, and the blessing of family? And how do I open myself to new ideas, accept help, move aside, and accompany? On a journey…learning as I go.