By Nora O. Lozano
I recently taught a lesson for my Sunday school class titled “Equipping the Saints for Ministry” (Eph. 4:1-16). According to this passage, the reason church leaders receive different gifts is to train believers for their particular ministries, so that everyone together may edify Christ’s body, the church.
As we discussed the passage, someone commented, “I can imagine that members like you [she was referring to me] can make a pastor feel threatened.” She explained her point by alluding to my education and ministerial experiences. She highlighted that this situation is not unique to me, but to any Bible/theology professor, chaplain, ordained minister or retired pastor who is a regular church member.
I told her that perhaps she was right, and shared a story. Some years ago, I was traveling in Mexico and I decided to attend a Baptist church that I felt comfortable with, theologically speaking. The pastor at the time was a friend of mine. I did not give him advance notice that I was attending, I just showed up. It was a great service and I got to see dear friends, so I was happy. As I greeted my friend, the pastor, I mentioned that I was glad to be there, and that I had enjoyed the sermon. In response, he smiled and openly told me: “You make me feel so nervous.”
His words surprised me. I could sense that my presence at the service made him feel a little uneasy. I replied to him: “Oh no, do not tell me that! I am coming here only for the fellowship. I just want to worship with all of you. If I cannot come here, then where can I go?”
I continued by sharing with my Sunday school class a common human characteristic: As social beings, we long to be accepted in our preferred groups because we want to feel that we belong somewhere. At the end of the day, people like me and other leaders, are regular people who just want to belong (conversation used with permission).
While it is true that leaders have this desire of belonging, unfortunately, sometimes we do not act in ways that advance our acceptance in a group. In fact, instead of being a blessing, we can become a problem for churches or organizations if we do not conduct ourselves properly. Here are some things that I have learned along the way through my own and others’ experiences.
Recognize and honor your true place.
Years ago I was co-teaching a leadership class where we discussed the importance of knowing our place in an organization/church in order to avoid burn out for both the person and the organization. My fellow professor pointed out that a student in our class was also a staff member at his local church. He explained, “When I am in church I have to submit to this student’s authority because he is one of the pastors, but when he is in this class, he has to submit to my authority because I am the professor.” In other words, they had different roles and levels of authority depending on the places where they were.
The failure to recognize one’s place in an organization produces much stress for the person and the organization. It is not a matter of who has more titles, education or experience; it is a matter of who has been called by the organization/church to be the leaders.
This notion has helped me to set good boundaries. Yes, I could do things differently, and I may have great ideas, but it saves me much energy and potential trouble to remember that I am not one of my church’s pastors, neither an administrator in my university, and that my power or authority to effect change is bound to my position as a faculty or church member. Unfortunately, when a person trespasses organizational boundaries, she/he may become an unwanted presence in the group.
Get a life!
If you are like me, with the gifts of education and ministerial experience, and you feel that you have much to contribute, but you feel, too, that your organization/church does not offer you enough space to flourish, there is a way out. This path requires humility and prayerful discernment. We need to be humble enough to accept that not everybody needs or wants our ideas, advice or mentorship. If that is the case in your current group, get a life/ministry! Pray for discernment to find a place where you can invest your gifts. There are many needs and places of service in this world; it is a matter of finding the right one.
Learn how to say goodbye.
Sometimes when faced with a voluntary or forced exit from a position (paid or volunteer), the loss, pain, anxiety are so much that we do not know what to do with ourselves and our wounds. In leadership trainings, we are often taught how to be successful in our positions, but hardly how to say goodbye to a position or organization.
I direct the Latina Leadership Institute, and in a recent curriculum review, we saw the need for a new class: “Exit Strategies.” It has two major components: how to recognize and process the mixed emotions of an exit (voluntary or involuntary), and how to reposition yourself within the organization, if you have to stay, or before life’s new opportunities. The sooner that we deal with our emotions and new place in life, the sooner we will be ready to become healthy and productive organization members once more.
The gift of belonging in a group requires respect, boundaries, good will and a shared concern for the group’s well being. It is not something that happens automatically. It involves the hard and conscious work of recognizing our limitations, gifts and appropriate places to exercise them. God’s world is too big, and unfortunately too needy, so there is room for us all! It is just a matter of finding the right place. I believe that under God’s blessing, wisdom and guidance, we can.