Will the Outside Ministries Sustain Us?

I realize this sounds weird. I said to another clergywoman at a party that I think I’ve developed enough of an outlet for my calling beyond the congregation (through writing), to make congregational ministry sustainable for me now. She gave me a side eye and said carefully, “That doesn’t sound like a very compelling case for serving in parish ministry…” Maybe not on its own, but I have a theory.

There is a shortage of clergy that is only getting more serious as the size and viability of mainline Protestant congregations decline. How will we care for the people within these communities, with only the leaders who just love the Church so much they are immune to the frustrations of dwindling commitment and influence in the lives of even the people who do show up? I bet we need the skeptics and cranky and disgruntled-enough-to -really-push-us-forward leaders too. If our egos (in both needing affirmation and needing to make an impact) are not bolstered by preaching to 40 gathered on a Sunday, then we do need some additional outlets. Many congregations can only pay a leader part-time, so we talk about being bi-vocational for financial reasons, but isn’t the conversation about meaningful impact just as crucial?

I have noticed a pattern. Some of the pastors I relate to and admire most have a common survival mechanism. They have developed a calling-related but outside-the-parish form of ministry for a greater impact and sense of meaningful work (and yes, they probably get some positive attention and affirmation too). These pastors have cultivated a variety of other ministry outlets:

  • Part-time chaplain at a nearby university
  • Marriage and Family counseling
  • Writing for magazines, online platforms, and even books
  • Steering an initiative for ministry leaders
  • Consulting and teaching on areas of specific expertise (digital media, inter-generational ministry)
  • Cultivating a demographic, faith-related fellowship (young adults, adoptive families, LGBTQIA+)

When the congregation was the center of civic life and pastors were respected public figures by default, it must have felt different to lead. I wouldn’t know, since this hasn’t been the case for awhile. As mainline Protestant churches diminish in size and significance in people’s lives, we have to constantly give ourselves pep talks about how “two or three gathered in (Jesus’) name” is enough and how even playing a bit role by hosting a wedding or funeral could “plant seeds” that we just don’t know how they will grow. Smaller parish ministry is hard on the leader because no one else is as invested in the life of the congregation as those on the payroll, except some in unhealthy ways. For me at least, the smaller congregation’s life in this day and age is not the level of impact I went into the ministry to make, the influence I hoped to have (for the Gospel).

Author, pastor and professor Walt Wangerin Jr. is a role model for me. He wrote the stories of parish life while living it, the lives of people like his parishioners, the Bible as a novel, the things a pastor thinks about (before becoming a writing professor at my college). A writer needs something to write about. And obviously, writing doesn’t pay the bills. I could do this too, I thought. But I didn’t start right away. I didn’t know that I had valuable things to say that anyone would want to read, beyond sermons.

When I was preparing for ordination someone recommended I get a hobby that produces results – something like knitting, they said – in order to have a sense of accomplishment and measurable outcomes. Ministry involves a lot of open-ended effort, relational investments that we might never see come to fruition. But I don’t gravitate towards handicrafts; I’d rather read a book. The advice of one leadership program I participated in was to turn where you are into the “next call” that you want to be in. But that was still about the small, struggling congregation and what I could get them to do. I wish I would have heard that advice as, “Turn this into the time when you write, get published, build a platform. Trust that you have unique perspectives, things to say that no one else has seen from your angle, even if you haven’t magically transformed the congregation you serve, rocketing to success against all odds.” The advice I truly needed was to find a way to do ministry that stretched beyond one particular congregation, although I was indeed on several non-profit boards and coordinated synod projects.

My theory: For longevity in smaller parish ministry, this “outside” work needs to be a required, protected, essential part of the call, because it is what can sustain a leader thru the disappointment, or bearing the brunt of anxiety in a dwindling congregation. Not everyone will find that compelling. But to me, it is essential.

Photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash

A Mother’s Résumé

Demonstrates Advanced Administrative Skills;
Multi-Tasks Mentally, Physically and Emotionally;
Curates Attitudes;
Engages With Diplomacy;
Excels at Holding Diverse Realities in Tension

My résumé definitely has a bias towards the experiences and qualifications from my last full-time employment 4 years ago. Also listed are the part-time gigs I’ve done while “on family leave” at home with my kids, and my writing credits. But something is clearly missing: The Mom Qualifications. The education, skills and experiences developed in this role deserves their own résumé, so here’s my attempt at a narrated version.


Demonstrates Advanced Administrative Skills: Designs, coordinates and communicates regular appointments to promote optimum health, education and social engagement of all members.

Example: No one would ever get their teeth cleaned without her scheduling, switching providers when insurance changes, reminding and in some cases bribing and physically carrying certain members to such “wellness” visits. They also might never get together with friends, enjoy maintained facilities or vehicles, or have any toilet paper.

Multi-Tasks Mentally, Physically and Emotionally: Keeps track of all members allergies, permission slips, uniforms, clothing needing washed, favorite comfort items, contents of the pantry, fears and abilities. Example: Making dinner with a child in one arm, a snack that is nutritious but not too filling to quell the cries of another, in time for the entire family to eat before the evening schedule begins. Becoming ambidextrous helps.

Curates Attitudes: Functioning as the PR department, convinces, plans and carries out every opportunity for organizational bonding, enrichment and recreation. Curates organizational blog and creates photo books, cards and mementos for extended organizational membership. Interprets past experiences and current events, defines terms and explains bodily changes while in moving vehicles. Example: “Mama, what’s slavery?” “Why don’t (classmate)’s parents live together?” “When are we going back to _____?” Respond immediately – but watch – the light’s changing.

Engages With Diplomacy: Negotiates with members at all levels of authority to reach goals identified as primary values of the organization. Mediates between members in conflict and integrates long-distance member participation in the life of the organization with expertise in family systems theory. Example: As one member emerges from their room with an item to announce to another, “Hey, remember this? It’s mine,” she assesses the situation, time until they need to leave for school, and how much teaching, coaxing, or quashing of dynamics needs to take place.

Excels at Holding Diverse Realities in Tension: Balances the confidence and humility of knowing that she fulfills the most important job in the world that simultaneously looks like she does nothing all day, and is in service to the most demanding bosses of all time, over whom she holds the most authority and influence of anyone else. She somehow comprehends that it is fleeting and yet will never end. Example: A member of the organization refuses to partake of a dinner that is carefully prepared to include things she actually eats. Repeat ad nauseum.

Acts with Self-Awareness: Demonstrates ability to compartmentalize, analyze own biases and pursue goals for the good of the organization despite personal reactions.

Example: Attempting to practice any parenting advice beyond what is internalized from her own childhood.

Love You, Church

You love watching our daughters grow up. I can hear it in your voice when you greet them, chuckle under your breath at their antics (especially the younger one), and I notice the way your eyes twinkle watching them run, skip or dance down the aisles. Sometimes they interact with you adorably, and sometimes they’re not in the mood. They are real kids. I know how much my own mother, who lives at a distance from us, misses our kids and delights in seeing kids their ages at her own church. Our extended family in other states delight in the private family blog I keep up, watching the kids grow week by week via photos and videos, phone calls and visits. But you are the people we see in person every week. You remember when the little one was “Baby Jesus” in the Christmas pageant, and her big sister was a sheep. You’ve heard their “milestones” when one got glasses, they both got bunk beds, and celebrated their birthdays.

Still, I was nervous about Girl Scout cookie sales. My goals for this thing were our oldest daughter making eye contact and speaking to adults. This is a challenge for her. For several years she had a speech delay and I probably stepped in too often to speak for her, trying to alleviate embarrassment. Then when her little sister came along, she started using the distracting little one as a way to look away, and avoid engaging adults. Now she has to engage. When our girl stood up in our pew during announcements/milestones and announced that she’s selling Girl Scout cookies, our pastor noted how brave of her that was. Then after service, you all walked right towards her. She’d made 2 sales before we even had the change envelope ready. I took little sister upstairs where I was helping in her Sunday School class, and my husband helped our Brownie take the time and space she needed to do what she was determined to do, even though it was hard. He reported two things: Her whole face including her ears were flushed red with nervousness. And everyone was so patient and sweet with her. You love, watching our children grow up.

It seems silly for this to make my eyes well up with tears. But it is not just one day of selling Girl Scout cookies. You are a safe place for us to try things that are scary, to be cheered on in our joys and embraced when things fall apart. You delight in our children as they grow, and that has a cumulative effect on my tear ducts and all of our lives. This is love. We love you too.

Why Mothers Make Great Pastors AND It Is Doubly Hard To Be Both Simultaneously

Our days are filled with the details that hold the family together: checking in on people, planning ahead, teaching, patching up a disagreement with the neighbors, waiting, being there just in case, and endless repetitive tasks which we do because somebody has to do them. We know implicitly that we are building trust, building their capacity to face adversity when it comes, but the waiting can be excruciating.

Words are our greatest tools for this undefinable process of building spiritual (or frankly any kind of) maturity. We know how to use our words to manipulate in the best sense, quote other authorities and call forth the better natures from those we love and care for. We find ourselves thinking of new and creative ways of saying the same things like, “Let’s make good decisions,” over and over again, reminding everyone of whose they are, and the vision we agreed on pursuing. Alas, the crucially formative moments rarely happen on a schedule. We have to be able to drop everything when someone needs us. Most of our time is spent on things nobody notices, unless they complain because it didn’t get done. It might be cleaning out the fridge, making sure something is washed, rescheduling appointments, overseeing repair work or making sure someone nearly-forgotten gets invited. It might be making sure our home is presentable enough for people to visit, that it feels like our home but also reflects what we say we are all about instead of having everybody’s individual projects scattered about.

You tell me whom I described above, a mother or a pastor? It turns out there is a lot of overlap.


Mother/Minister Job Description:

Set and Enforce Boundaries

Everyone in our care needs limits and boundaries to mature in a healthy way. All the books, workshops, and research back this up. We could each give a half dozen specific examples right now of cases where failing to set clear boundaries led to somebody acting out in ways that hurt everyone involved, and to correct it afterward took twice the effort. But those in our care resent when we set or enforce boundaries. They repeatedly explain why the boundaries do not apply to them, or why this time should be the exception. They need us to do what they refuse to let us do.

Cultivate Trust

We understand the great privilege it is to be trusted, not just with the happy news, but also with the vulnerable, heart-breaking details of our people’s lives. Then, because we hold all their secrets and have seen them at their worst – they don’t consciously process this, but – we become lightning rods for sideways emotions with no other safe place to go. The mothering memes assuring us that our kids act their worst around us because we are their safest place can only elicit a cynical chuckle.

Navigate Family Systems

We have so much practice navigating family systems – not only our own, but the big “extended family” – because it is a matter of survival. We have to recognize our own baggage from our families of origin and how we react because of our roots, so we can separate the symptoms from actual illness or “objectively” talk about what might be underneath any given reaction. It can be a justice issue, to stand up to the way our system has always handled a particular issue, because not all the ways any family system behaves are healthy. And when we look at the whole system, it is clear who is being excluded. Nobody likes when we name this, so sometimes we just know it for ourselves, and it helps us to not feel unhinged.


Mothers make excellent pastors because the skills and details we learn to pay attention to in our family life are so often drawn upon in our professional roles. Which is also exactly why it is so draining to do both simultaneously. To need to drop everything at a moment’s notice for both children and parishioners means someone is always feeling short-changed (often it is us). Clear boundaries around our time and actual responsibilities are necessary for balance, but no one likes when boundaries keep them from getting what they want. It is a lot of emotional weight to carry everyone’s stories, the details of every personal history, trauma, allergy, triggers, etc. How do mother-pastors do it?

Moms make incredibly capable pastors. But what we need at home and church are more capable co-parents. A lot of them. Not just the kind who do things when they are asked, or assigned a particular task with a pointed amount of guilt or in a serious tone. But the kind of co-parents that see our household/congregation as their own equal responsibility, as much as it is ours to take care of, and do the work of holding everything together on their own initiative. And these blessed co-parents will do so not only because someday Mom won’t be around to clean up all the messes (that apparently only she can see) but because we are all part of this family too. It is our role to see it and deal with it and care for each other too. That is how Mama can do all she does without screaming into the night too often.

Holy Chatter

The first step is chatter.

Dr. Jennifer Harvey begins her book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by explaining how parents who want to raise anti-racist kids need to abandon promoting “color blindness” and actively teach racial consciousness. Color blindness makes it fearful and painful for white people to talk about race, while a racial consciousness approach makes thinking and talking about race and the effects of racism part of our everyday lives. The very first step from one to the other involves our chatter, that on-going conversation with young children about everything around us: noticing things, wondering about things, defining things, trying out our own interpretations of the world as we experience it. The chatter adds up to confidence for our kids, that adults notice what they have observed too, the differences between people, and that it is safe to process their wondering about those differences with their trusted adults.

It all starts with chatter. Good, because my daughters are 8 and 4, and chatter is my life. But wow, has our chatter changed over time! Our older daughter’s speech developed much later, so at age 3 she would ride in her car seat or swing at a playground, smiling or laughing, but without uttering a word for the longest time. I filled the airtime with songs or lots of exclamations: “Look at the red truck!” “Oooo… birds!” because I desperately wanted her to learn to speak. When our younger daughter was an infant she despised the infant car seat with ferocity. I kept up a running commentary on everything I could manage anytime we drove somewhere not only so my 4-year-old would engage, but to distract the baby from the fact of the Evil Car Seat. Now I am pelted by a regular stream of questions from the back seats, playground equipment or around the dinner table. Their favorites are: “How do people make __________?” and “What does ________ mean?”I tell them “I don’t know” when I truly don’t know, instead of making something up, or give several possibilities and promise we’ll find out more. And no subjects are off limits; I get lots of practice keeping my composure. Often it just feels like we are filling air time, but all the little tidbits are building an affect over time.

This is Dr. Harvey’s premise. When you are chattering about Doc McStuffins, parents might mention how she is a doctor who takes care of her stuffed animals, someone her friends go to for help, a girl, and African-American. Do we know doctors who are women? Our dentist is an African-American woman, isn’t she? Doc McStuffins is very good at observing and solving problems, but also asks for help. When do you ask for help? Racially conscious chatter is just the beginning of raising racially conscious kids. Obviously we cannot stop there (It’s only chapter 2 of Harvey’s book!) but we can certainly start there.

Many mainline Protestant churches need to up our chatter “game” on so many fronts (definitely race, accessibility, loving our neighbors as ourselves), but specifically talking about our faith. This is supposedly the point of a church, but many of us seem so uncomfortable doing it that we’d prefer to be “faith blind.” Evangelism can be one of those ministries that we leave to the extreme extroverts or we cling to the quote attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary use words.”

But if we cannot articulate that our faith is the reason we live where we do, spend our time how we do, vote the way we do, then there is a disconnect for all those who observe us. When someone calls us – or Christians in general – out on not acting as Jesus did, if we’re so unaccustomed to talking about it, we can only stumble around claiming that we are not part of that group, exactly. We need to learn to casually mention our faith while making decisions,discussing political and social realities, making observations about our neighbors, empathizing with what some people are going through, so frequently that it becomes a normal thing we talk about. We are not doing it to convert people, but to define for ourselves and others what it means to live as a person of Christian faith. Perhaps we could practice embedding a catch phrase into half of our conversations at church or use it at least once per committee meeting: “because of our faith.” It would take awhile to not feel forced (as my observations about Doc McStuffins still do occasionally), and to move from awkward to genuine. But that just means we need practice. That phrase would likely evoke more questions we will need to engage: “What do you mean by that?” Perhaps we could substitute “because of our faith” any time we are tempted to think instead: “but it’s too political.”

We need to talk about income inequality (but it’s too political) because of our faith.

Let’s get into it about immigration (but it’s too political) because of our faith.

If we want our children, or any “child of God” declared so by Christ’s resurrection, to become people of genuinely active faith, then we have to start the chatter, and establish that our faith is something we talk about all the time that it’s present, which is all the time.

Photo by Kenny Krosky on Unsplash


*Yes, I am aware of the pun when talking about church, but it is the best term for the subject!

“How do you cross-train, especially in the off-season?” the ballerina with the microphone prompted her colleagues.

Yoga, tap, jazz, hip-hop, and more yoga. These responses made sense; they are related enough disciplines. Then the speaker held up a pair of boxing gloves. Why has the ballet company started cross-training in boxing? The lunchtime exhibition did not answer all our questions, but started with the simplest answer: proximity. Our city’s ballet company shares a building with a boxing gym. Obviously no one wants the dancers to be bruised, but boxing training teaches these professional dancers and their neighboring athletes even more ways to be in tune with their bodies’ movements. It builds community in such an unlikely way. Such collaboration explodes the stereotypes of the audience for either group.

What if congregation members and leaders alike improved our fitness for being Christ’s body in the world through cross-training? There are the more obvious ministry-adjacent gifts to develop: storytelling, public speaking, teaching, child and elder care, social work, music, or art. But perhaps our imaginations would be better ignited by engaging the least seemingly “relevant” connections, those that would make bystanders furrow their brows: perhaps city planning, repetitive assembly of products, botany, or the histories of indigenous people groups far from where we live? We could become more agile in expressing our own faith by noticing connections alongside folks with whom we cannot assume a common vocabulary, facing the necessity of always defining our terms. We would need to re-train our own minds and emotional responses to think about how our traditions might affect those who are not accustomed to moving in ways we have practiced for so long. We can certainly all benefit from the humility required to be in the place of students, learning from experts outside of the church.

As our country becomes less religious, congregations need to become increasingly relevant to the multiple needs of marginally-churched people, not less. Maybe your neighbor is not looking to attend worship services but they do really need community. We cross-train in that! In addition to worship, we also hold space for difficult conversations, too rare in the public square. Congregations can be a place for forming inter-generational relationships and surrogate family for those whose relatives are physically or emotionally distant. We could be safe spaces to try out new ideas, try on leadership (where there’s grace if we fail) and where people know we can be “real” about our struggles. We could certainly be more obvious about our cross-training, beyond Sunday mornings, weddings and funerals.

My personal example of reading outside my area is the book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. This memoir about the life of a botanist and her research assistant, woven together with a deep knowledge of how trees and other plants reproduce, survive, and flourish, awoke epiphanies in quick succession for this preacher. I know so little about the lives of actual scientific researchers, but they know things that are certainly meaningful to my faith.

Here are 4 starter ideas (definitely adapted from other contexts) for “cross-training” in churches:

  • “Career Day” speakers who share about their favorite parts of their jobs or hobbies, followed by discussion of what insights people of faith might gather from this field

  • Curated YouTube short-video festival: nominate and vote for those that surprised you or taught you something you never would have known about otherwise

  • “Neighborhood Walk-And-Talk”: Get to know the meaningful work of those businesses near your church, in their own words

  • “A Day in Their Shoes” visits to each other’s homes with households from an interfaith partner or congregation with a predominant ethnicity different from your own

As the dancers and boxers discovered, collaboration breeds relevance to a larger population than either parties were reaching before. When we cross-pollinate our interests and activities, folks who do not completely fit in either group get hints – or loud testimonies – that the boundaries between communities of like-minded people are more porous than we thought.

So go ahead, ballerina. Glide into the boxing gym.

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

The Side Hustle of Faith

Wow, my friends are enthusiastic evangelists! Some for the Gospel, sure, but more noticeably for skin care, essential oils, clothing or handbag lines, health supplements and similar side hustles that have changed their lives. I believe my friends are genuine when they say: “This has changed my life – here’s my story – and I am only telling you because I believe that others should have the opportunity to be transformed by it too.” These side hustles are clearly not just about extra income. They are on a spectrum from therapeutic to meaning-making, all the way up to life-transforming, according to their claims.

So, I’ve been thinking: I’d like to market church involvement as the side hustle of faith.

Yes, I would anticipate push-back from people for whom it is everything, who think that church participation should be all-encompassing for others too. Often those people are pastors. So let me be clear: Faith is not a side hustle; relationship with God and our neighbor for Christ’s sake, is actually everything. Yet we all live out our Christian faith in many settings: in relationships, at school, at work, in our community, and in the life of the church. See, it’s in the list? Yet church involvement is not the entire list of ways to exercise our faith. This clarification, although somewhat obvious, would have given me some much-needed perspective when I was the solo pastor of a small congregation. I often found myself frustrated by being the only one for whom the mission or future of the congregation was more than a side hustle.

Now I say, embrace the side hustle of faith! We each must find the side hustles that give us life and an escape from feeling stuck. What inspires me with the enthusiasm of an entrepreneur: a community garden or food rescue program; anti-racism training; fair trade; liturgical art? Some of those side hustles could fit seamlessly into the life of a congregation; others could be exciting new initiatives. Since regular attendance now means worshiping once or twice a month for the average church-goer, it is already a side hustle in time spent, but for many it has yet to carry that weight of meaningful endeavor and entrepreneurial energy. What would leaders or congregations do differently if we embraced involvement in church activities as congregation members’ side hustles of faith?

Obviously, churches could strive to not to be the source of burnout. “That’s not even helpful” my two kids say, imitating a phrase they hear me say often enough. It is not helpful to wax nostalgic about when people made church “a priority” or when sports leagues didn’t schedule games on Sundays. Begging people to fill in the slots of somebody-has-to-do-it tasks isn’t energizing at all. Guilt does not fuel the passion for a side hustle.

Surprisingly, neither does money, really. A side hustle must offer something else we desire: to make a difference with our talents, connections and passions. To have our ideas, energy and experiences valued. To lead, not just to consume. So maybe our congregations could consider dropping the umpteenth annual whatever event, and ask instead what new things our people are personally invested in. We could invite entrepreneurship and support the heck out of anyone who tries something new. Maybe this is just a personal bias, because I get bored, but I’d go so far as to say: No more annual events, without a twist to make it new and challenging. It’s very hard to get enthused about a habit.

Practically, the side hustle fits meaningful activity into empty slots in our day planners, including how and when we form community around said side hustle. We might use social media groups to connect with people on the fly, meal meet-ups (people have to eat anyway) or decentralize meeting locations. In order to build relationships we can invite people into the “outside” events of our lives, as if they were all surrogate relatives. Go to Adam’s high school theater production. Cheer Desiree on at her 5K. We might even speak of our faith in those places. And some of those events might just reveal our next great pop-up church event, a side hustle for someone because of their faith, not just as an addendum. Then we’d all share endlessly about that on social media!

Photo by Caleb Minear on Unsplash