In the first episode of “Leading and Thriving in the Church,” the Rev. Rivers talks with Stephen Lewis about trends they’re seeing in churches, what thriving ministers have in common, advice for new ministers and more.
Stephen is the president of the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) and creator and co-founder of DO GOOD X, a start-up accelerator for diverse Christian social entrepreneurs. He is an organizational change strategist and a leadership development specialist, focused on inspiring the next generation of faith-inspired leaders and entrepreneurs to live and work on purpose. Stephen is the co-author of “Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose” (2020) and “A Way Out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation” (2021).
Prince Rivers: What does it mean to lead now, especially in the church? Especially in this political and social climate? I’m Prince Rivers, and this is “Leading and Thriving in the Church,” a podcast from Alban at Duke Divinity. Our mission is to help you be the leader God has called you to be. It’s been my privilege to serve as a pastor for more than 20 years, and I absolutely love supporting people who lead congregations. It’s one of my passions. But doing ministry in the post-pandemic era has unearthed new leadership challenges, and it has led us to pay more attention to the need for thriving ministers and congregations. This podcast features conversations with some of the most innovative pastors, leaders and authors I know. They’re going to help us do church faithfully and effectively, and in a way that is life-giving to those who lead and the people we serve. I’m so glad you’re listening. I can’t wait to introduce you to today’s guest on “Leading and Thriving in the Church.”
The Reverend Stephen Lewis is the president of the Forum for Theological Exploration, which is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, a graduate of UNC Charlotte and Duke Divinity School, which is where we met. He’s the co-author of a book called “Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose.” Stephen is a longtime friend, and he has a gift for bringing people together, and being a catalyst for transformational leadership. Stephen, I had the chance to experience your leadership firsthand when you started a program called Project Rising Sun, through which you organized a cohort of pastoral leaders for leadership development. This program began by taking us to the mountains of North Carolina where we participated in a week long outward bound experience. Most of us had never been camping before. And it was such a powerful experience that many of us remain dear friends today, several years later. Welcome to “Leading and Thriving in the Church.”
Stephen Lewis: It is great to be with you and your listeners, Prince.
Prince: You’re at the Forum for Theological Exploration, where you’ve been serving about 20 years. Congratulations on that. And you’re working with young people to help them make a difference through Christian communities. You know, as well as I do, that Christian communities are changing and facing many challenges. Smaller congregations are dealing with serious financial constraints that have only been magnified by the most recent pandemics; denominations are facing pastoral shortages. With all of the interactions that you have with pastoral leaders, what are you learning about the church these days? For example, I’ve noticed that while the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be behind us – we’re thankful for that even though the virus is still around – the impacts of the pandemic are still lingering in the church. So I’m curious about what you’re learning about the church, whether that’s pandemic-related or otherwise.
Stephen: Well, one thing I’ve learned is that the church is not short on – doesn’t have any shortage on creativity and innovation, that creativity and innovation are present, but sometimes, maybe more than others, is dormant within churches. It seems like only when our back is up against the wall, we are forced to actually break out of, kind of, mode of comfortability to do something different and to see what’s possible. So I see the churches, congregations, people within pews, really have more capacity, that oftentimes goes untapped for the purposes of really thinking about creative and innovative solutions to solve problems that our community might be wrestling with. The other thing I see is that there is an effort to return to what was.
Prince: Say more about that.
Stephen: We are creatures of habit, right? So I mean, it’s like, okay, this is over, let’s get back to what we were doing, whether it was working, or it was only working for a small majority, and not work for everybody, whatever. But there’s a thing of really trying to return back to what we used to do. And I think a large part is because we are creatures of habit and it’s hard to break out of the molds of the things that shape us, in everyday life and communal life, etc. So I think there’s just this longing to kind of return back to that. Or there’s this effort to kind of grapple with both ends, like we know we can’t go totally back 100% to what was but we really don’t know like what this new thing is, and now you know, I’m a pastor, preacher, producer, type thing. I don’t know if I really want to do that. I mean, I was already exhausted. So people are grappling with how do we do both and do it really well, when resources, financial and people are scarce or limited in some particular settings or whatever? So there’s a grappling of how do we do this? And how do we do it? And particularly when there’s not necessarily a roadmap for how to do it.
Stephen: So there’s that. And then I think there’s this lament, there’s a deep lament, and I think people are discovering how to grieve what used to be. Grieving not only the loss of people that we’ve lost through the pandemic, but also just grieving our way of life. Like we’ve lost three years in this kind of vortex. And some of us, like the COVID fog, like 2019 seems like so long ago. But there’s a lamenting that I think people are doing, whether privately, or in some cases publicly, and there’s some of us who was trying to discover what does it mean to grieve publicly and communally, and not just from the pulpit, but from the pew and within our families, and agree with what it is that we have to let go of for this moment, to live more fully into what we’re being called now. It can be scary, because so much of what we’ve been trained as seminary graduates, and what we’ve been formed as people in the pews, was for pre-pandemic era.
Prince: So true.
Stephen: We’re in a moment now where we’re in this kind of bridge time where we’re trying to figure out so what does it mean to train people and prepare people for a post pandemic era? What does it mean to shape and form people, where the spaces of where we do ministry are no longer limited to just whatever your address is, you and your Baptist Church. Now it’s online and it’s offline and it’s in small groups, it’s what we do on Sundays, it’s much more fluid. And so I think this fluidity brings about a kind of lament and grieving we’re still trying to deal with. And then there’s a lot of people who want to shape a narrative that says that the church is not declining. The church is declining. We see it statistically, we see it numerically; the church is declining. And the church is and can be a powerful force in the world, in our communities for our formation and service. Both are mutually true. So while just focusing on the numbers of the church shrinking, or the church becoming smaller, at least in North America, doesn’t tell the whole story, you can have a shrinking church and still be a powerful witness.
Prince: Well, and a lot of congregations are having to figure that part out because they have plenty of space in their buildings, the community has changed, maybe population is dwindling. How can they stay relevant?
Stephen: So yeah. So I mean, I think young people are, as they enter into this, they’re thinking about this. So what does it mean to lead shrinking congregations or congregational attendance in one particular form, while also be a leader of the way in which congregations, and membership or attendance, is growing in a new, emerging form? So as church may be declining, in terms of how people get dressed, drive, make a commute, show up on a Sunday morning, that doesn’t tell the whole story, because then you have in this online space, or in these small community groups or circle groups, or whatever, where church is happening in a lot of different ways. So is the different forms by which Christians are congregating, and these next generation leaders are trying to figure out how do I attend to all of that, the spectrum, or how do I attend to one aspect of that, or how do I recognize it, if I go into ministry, I may be starting in one form of the ways in which Christian congregations that may be entering into a moment of hospice, where I have to be a chaplain for that form of congregating, and at the same time, I have to be more entrepreneurial for this new form and explosive way in which people are congregating. So there’s that. And then I think there’s the longing for churches and their leaders to do more, to reach the next generation.
So you and I have had this conversation. I mean, churches are organized and built around the people who give to the congregation and usually it’s not your young folks or whatever. And that’s not to say that people don’t have successful or great youth ministries and that type of thing, but I think what the next generation realizes it’s just such an untapped market and more needs to be done in order to reach a new generation who will not know an era prior to the internet, let alone social media. So most of their life, Gen Z and Gen Alpha will be online. So I think there’s a longing for the church and its leaders to do more outreach to the next generation and be more socially relevant to communities that they’re embedded in, as you’ve already stated. And then I’ll just say lastly, the different ways and technologies for doing church and ministry. Think about when you entered ministry 20 years ago, and now all the different things and how people are leveraging technology to do ministry today. It’s a vastly different world. And for us to not acknowledge that, and to lean into that, and seminaries not to attend to that, I think would be a disservice, or this new generation is going to serve in a very different way.
Prince: You’re so right, Stephen. I was just telling someone the other day, that I have a whole case of cassette tapes in a closet at home, all of my favorite preachers, that I thought I was doing something when I was collecting these. I don’t listen to them. Obviously, I don’t even have a cassette player. But now no one is really even recording messages in that way, because you just listen to it on-demand.
I do want to pick up the other part of the emphasis of this show, because we’ve known each other for a few years, couple of decades to be precise. And you’re one of the hardest working and most consistently positive people that I know. And it seems like you’ve learned how to lead and thrive. So what have you learned about thriving in leadership in your work at FTE, but also, what do you think thriving ministers have in common?
Stephen: That’s a good question. Well, what I have learned is leadership is not managing. And I think we got a lot of people who are managing versus leading. Leading has everything to do with uncertainty, it has everything to do with calling, it has everything to do with moving to a space of humility, and a not-knowing space. And related to that I would say is thriving is not abundance: of things, of people, of resources, etc. So when I think about those two things together, I’m thinking that part of what I have learned to do is to lean into uncertainty. I don’t have the answers to everything that I’m trying to do in the cross of our organization. I spend a lot of time, every weekend I’m getting off the grid, I’m somewhere in the woods, by a river, in our – through a natural park over by my house, and part of that just being, you know, and learning from nature. And I’ve learned a lot and in that space, or whatever, about what it means to be in spaces of uncertainty, to have a non-anxious presence, to know that in my best day, in my best efforts, it’s insufficient given all the things that I have to carry, and all the things that’s going on in the world. And so there’s a kind of leadership that requires you to rest in the uncertainty and the reliance on your conspirator, which is God, spirit, the eternal, to conspire with you to help get things done.
So a large part of leadership is not just leaning into uncertainty, but it’s also listening through uncertainty. And part of that, when I’m sitting in nature and spending time, a lot of kind of contemplative time in nature, you learn a lot about thriving. And what I realized is that that abundance alone is an insufficient theological framework, in the face of bleak material scarcity, particularly in under-resourced communities, our environment, the broader world. In nature, we see that nothing lasts forever. Even with every cycle, every season, we see this type of natural theological reality that I think, you know, Kohelet speaks about, there’s a time for this, there’s a time for that. And we learn through that. So what I’m reminded of is there’s a Russian-born composer, he was a pianist and a conductor. I love what he says; his name was Igor Stravinsky, and he was kind of like my muse. He says, “Freedom consists of moving about within the narrow frames that has been assigned. Freedom will be so much greater and more meaningful the more narrowly we limit our field of action. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.” I love that. I love that.
Prince: That is extremely countercultural.
Stephen: It is. It is. But the point is, is what I would say is that we only understand thriving or abundance when we’re constrained. Those who have never experienced scarcity will never fully grasp the totality of what it means to have abundance, because abundance is always a moving target. It’s often disguised as a hyper-vigilant pursuit of more than what we need, and abundance oftentimes is a synonym for thriving, and I want to suggest that we come to fully understand thriving within constraints. And part of that, I think, is recognizing that when I think about thriving ministers, what they have in common, they have a good perspective of self. They got people around them that can say, yes, maybe, and also our naysayers. They can call you on your inflated ego, and give you level set. Thriving people have a good perspective of self. I think the other thing is that they understand their limits. To thrive, you have to understand that you don’t get to thrive all the time 100%. Some days you feel more like you’re thriving, other days you may not feel that you’re thriving or wherever, but they understand the limits. No matter how big or small your community is, you can’t do everything, you won’t be able to do everything, it’s not possible. So you have to understand your limits. They care for self. They may not always do it well, but they’re at least attentive to caring for self. And that’s for self, particularly outside of the professional of work of ministry.
Ministry is not your identity, and your identity is not limited to ministry. Ministry is only a part of who you are. And so thriving people, I think, generally have a greater sense of identity that’s beyond just what they do on Sunday, and what they do from Sunday to Sunday. They have friends, and they have other interests and hobbies outside of what they do. If they’re always reading, if they’re always thinking about a sermon, if they’re always doing pastoral care, if they’re always doing hospital visits, if they’re always worried about the checkbook, all those things, or whatever that comes with ministry, they’ll burn themselves out, and they won’t be any good for anything else or whatever. You have to be able to step away, to be able to recharge, renew. I think somebody called that sabbath. So how do you find weekly sabbaths? How do you find daily sabbaths? How do you find that, you know, in your morning, in the afternoon, to be able to step away, recharge, to be able to do that? And then, what I will say, is that thriving people, they know how to dance often with joy as their partner. As a minister, you’re gonna see a lot, you’re gonna see the whole spectrum of life, the good, the bad, and disturbed, and grief-ful and painful. So how do you dance with joy, even if you’re not a good dancer? Joy will take you as a dance partner and just dance with you however you know how to dance, but dance with joy as a faithful life partner. And it seems to me that thriving ministers know how to do that.
And then finally, what I would say, is that thriving ministers, they work within their constraints; they work within the constraints that they have to work within. They know that they have constraints, they work within those constraints, and they make peace with it. And those constraints can change, they can grow with different assignments and that type of thing, but they know how to work within their constraints. And for me, that’s kind of some of the things that I’ve learned and what I see, and you and other folks that I think have a good harmony, because I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as balance. But there is a way to harmonize your life in such a way where you can be faithful to the work that you’re being called to, and the ways in which your life is forever unfolding in this pastoral life.
Prince: What you said about daily sabbaths or sabbaths within the day is so spot on. There’s a book I use in a class I teach, by Brendon Burchard, and he talks about being able to steel yourself for two to three minutes in between meetings, in between phone calls, in between going from one thing to the next, when you get home before you get out of the car, so that you can actually let go of whatever it was you were doing before, and walk into the new thing with your whole self. And I found that to be such a helpful practice, because over time, when you don’t do it, the smallest thing can be a trigger for a really negative reaction that you didn’t anticipate coming out of you. So you have to let the stresses go all throughout the day, if you’re going to be whole at the end of the day. So I appreciate you bringing that forward.
Both of us get a chance to sit in front of a lot of clergy. If you were sitting in front of clergy, maybe a new minister today, what kind of advice would you give them, given what we’ve talked about today, given what you know about the church, given what you know about leadership and the risk of burnout? What kind of advice would you give that young minister today?
Stephen: Yeah, I would tell that young minister to cultivate the discipline to slow down, to turn inward, and to listen. And from that deep well of listening, to draw from the source of their own inspiration to create the change that they want to see, that they call to be and do within the communities that they’re trying to serve. Another way of saying it is this, I would tell them to listen to spirit, and if they listened long enough, they’ll come to know spirit. And when you know something really well, then you know that you can then co-create and conspire with spirit to get what needs to get done. All that is necessary to discern what really is next, next Sunday, the next Monday after the worship service, after the hospital visit. Everything I’m talking about requires you to unplug. Unplug from social media, unplug from all the things that are vying for your attention, to be able to slow down and to listen. That’s a hard thing to do in moments and times where it feels like the world and our community is on fire. But I’m reminded of the words of my colleague and friend Bayo Akomolafe: “Times are urgent; let us slow down.” But that’s what I would tell these young ministers, to embody a kind of frequency that lets them know that we don’t do this work on our own. And on our greatest day and our best gifts or whatever, it has to rest in a deeper knowing to do the good work and the hard work that’s before us. That’s what I would say.
Prince: The Reverend Stephen Lewis, president of FTE, the Forum for Theological Exploration, has been our great guest today. And I want to thank all of you for listening to this episode of “Leading and Thriving in the Church.” Our mission is to help you be the leader God has called you to be. “Leading and Thriving in the Church” is produced by Emily Lund and recorded in the Bryan Center Studios on the campus of Duke University. I’m your host, Prince Rivers. If you want more great content about leadership, be sure to check out our website, alban.org, where you can sign up for the Alban Weekly newsletter. And make sure you subscribe to this podcast on your preferred podcast platform so we can keep you informed as we release new episodes. Until next time, keep leading.
Sign up for Prince’s weekly reflections and resources in the Alban Weekly.