Everything I Needed to Know About Ministry, I Learned At Folly Beach

For the last few weeks, I have written about Folly Beach and the youth retreat I led there for four years back in the late 70s. As I have noted, I was flying blind when I began, aided by a stellar group of adult sponsors of the youth group, and by an extraordinary group of young people who were open to the experience of community.

After thirty years of work as a minister and an Episcopal priest, I reflected on my life and work, surprised by one insight in particular that emerged. I discovered that I had been using the learnings of my first four years of leadership in youth ministry, distilled in my summer youth community work, for the entire span of my life.

As I now spend my time teaching and coaching ministers and priests across a variety of traditions, I thought it might be useful to share these insights in an abbreviated form. And for those of you who are parts of Christian communities, you might find this interesting to reflect on the state of your current group of believers. Surprisingly, these principles have been applied during my years of consulting in healthcare and other organizational development work in a variety of industries and non-profits.

I will keep the insights brief, urging you to contact me if you are wanting more specific details or additional experiential notes.

One: Vision- A clarity of where you want to go, or what you want to accomplish is the sine qua non, that is, in plain common sense, if you don’t do this, you are going to fail. Vision is the leader’s work of articulating what you are attempting to do in the work you are doing. In educational design parlance, it is your learning objective. In my break down talk it’s simple: it’s “what you want?” Keeping clear about this is important in most areas of life, a Ferris Buehler maxim, if you will.

For me at Folly, my desire was to provide an intentional experience of community while on a retreat to a beach setting. This represented a change from how this week was spent in the past, basically a free week of fun in the sun in a beautiful setting. There’s nothing wrong with a fun week of downtime, but I wanted more out of what I viewed as “prime time”. I was clear as to what I wanted but needed to sell my leaders on the notion, particularly in the first year which was to be a major change. I also needed to sell the young people as they had little expectation of the week other than a tan. I wanted to bring about a deeper change in the group and in each individual.

Making such a change happen is not an easy thing to accomplish. Luckily, I was naive and didn’t know what a long shot success was when I began this event. Obviously, my timing was just right and it came together. But in the real world, apart from Folly mojo, such clarity and planning through change is essential. And clarity of vision, its clear articulation, and careful building of a supportive scaffolding to support its execution is critical. I have spent most of my life studying the process of change in people, marriage, groups, and organizations, and there are some principles that make things move more smoothly, with the least amount of your blood on the floor when the counting is done.

Two: Always be clear as to the “Why?”. Every major change represents a movement away from the status quo, that is, what people are familiar with. Change entails moving away what is comfortable and moving to something new and unfamiliar. My experience suggests that people who can tolerate this, much less like it, are few. My mother put a sign up in the church’s infant nursery that quoted the Book of Revelation: We Shall All Be Changed. When I asked her about it, my biologist mother said that no one likes change, except babies with dirty diapers (I am cleaning her image up for you sensitive types) and even they aren’t real wild about it! I have found this to be an understatement, which was rare for my mother.

When I was teaching a group of seminarians in Austin, I would kid them by suggesting that there was a hundred year old parish, just waiting for you to get your seminary diploma so that you could come correct them and tell them how church should be done. Truth is most people are fairly content as to how it currently is going in their world. Anyone who is daring enough to propose a change had best accompany the change with a good explication of “why?”.

Communicating this “why?’ should be done early, clearly and cleanly, in a variety of ways, and repeated frequently. All five of these directives should be accomplished in your communication plan. Care should be taken to make sure that the “why?” is understood by the people and check to see how far down through the organization the message has traveled and landed. Did I mention the importance of communication?

Three: Community is the basic building block. The secret sauce to the time at Folly Beach was the small groups in which people were asked to relate to one another beyond the surface niceties. At Folly, we used basic questions that allowed the group members to say something about who they were, and what they cared about. The process banks on the fact that each person has a richness that is below the waterline of the surface. When we share with one another at this level, the magic of human intimacy takes place, and there is a chance for the experience of grace as one is accepted for who one is. Now the intimacy, the recognition of the other, the acceptance, and the grace are rare commodities in our culture. This results with the time and experience to be valued, remembered and cherished. The testimony to this is in the number of amazing responses I received from both the kids and sponsors who wrote to me after the last two posts to testify to the power of the Folly Beach in their lives, not to mention making an old broken down priest cry.

In the best example of a culture change I achieved, it was due to the role of covenant groups at Christ Church, Tyler. We gathered groups of people around a Bible study format but focused on sharing how the Scriptures touched the current issues of our life. We had trained leaders of the groups that would meet weekly for training in terms of how to form groups healthily and gave them opportunities to present questions and issues that had arisen in the group. Truth is, this was how we led our church into a time of growth, bringing in people who had never imagined that being in a church would be an option for them. This presented other problems as the “new” people started coming to worship services as well, but the “side door” to the church was to be invited into one of these small covenant groups. I first understood this critical dynamic through our experience at Folly.

Side note: With the current hunger for real intimacy in face-to-face relationships, not satisfied in cyber space, this use of small groups in church settings seems to be an easy strategic move for small churches to reach out to their community to provide a valuable service. The deep need has been lifted up by David Brooks in his recent analysis in his book, The Second Mountain, as our time in the cultural history of our country seems to be begging for opportunities for such a sacred space of meeting.

Four: The role of a covenant sets the boundaries of behavior. In the Folly Beach experience, we had a covenant, or agreement, as to what behavior was acceptable that we all agreed to. That way, our expectations were explicit and agreed upon. In the youth group, this meant being present for the group, to not go off on one’s on from our site, to have a buddy if you walked down the beach. Within the group itself, we has norms of being honest, not interrupting others when they were talking, and keeping in confidence the things said within the group.

In moving this out into a parish, an explicit covenant is healthy in offering and image of openness to all people and in maintaining a clear level of expectable behavior. It’s best to get the largest group of members to come up with a set of agreements. This can then be presented to a large group of the parish for ratification and agreement, either by a formal vote or by mutual assent. It’s good to have this covenant formally written on a board or paper, and then invite the members to sign it. Placing the covenant in some prominent display says a great deal about the spirit of this congregation and tells any visitor what to expect. It’s also a great way of onboarding new members and helping them know how we intend to live together.

Five: Make the space for celebration. We did this in a number of ways at Folly, the most pronounced was The Dance in which celebration was the main event, of enjoying our life together. The music doesn’t have to be Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, but music of such verve and excellence, regardless of genre, seems to be the grease for the wheel of community. Finding ways to share space and time in a celebratory way should be a high priority in the mind of a leader. Creativity is the juice that turns you loose, taking some chances that moves you beyond the safety of the known and expected. Moving over the threshold of danger tends to yield the most fruit in terms of spirit. Many church leaders seem risk adverse but the opportunities for fresh experience of Spirit beckon.

In the life of a church, some rituals provide the channels for this experience of spirit. I intentionally moved into the Episcopal church to make sure that I had a powerful ritual at my disposal. At the same time, I recognize that such ritual can easily devolve into routine that robs it of its power of possibility and surprise. This is the occupational hazard of ritualistic based leaders: that the form becomes the thing worshiped rather the Spirit that infuses it. The dialectical tension between Spirit and Structure is just a part of life and a good leader is always seeking an artful balance.

Communion and the Circle of Friendship are the forms that allow for the experience of both Transcendence and Intimacy. Our continuing time together in a group beg for new expressions and occasion. Creative leadership takes this seriously and looks to the horizon constantly for such opportunities. In my most creative moments, I imaged myself as an architect of human experience, planning and designing time and space for encounters between persons and God’s spirit. It sounds a bit esoteric as I write it, but it’s as simple as a moment to pause and reflect, as basic as the human embrace.

Six: Drive for engagement. The central win in any group’s life is the participation of the members. The old, infamous 20% rule states that only a small percentage of people really are involved and give to the life of the group. At Folly, there was an intentional goal to involve every person in the life of their small group. Leaders intentionally reached out to those who might be slow to engage in the life of the group. Reaching out to seek out those hanging on the edge frequently resulted in discovery and connection. The same thing was true for encouraging group participation while allowing the individual to choose to hang back. I prefer the image of “engagement” as opposed to inclusion as it signals an active participation as opposed to merely being folded in to some blob of community. Engaged people care and will go “the extra mile”, but they are also prone to not be compliant, which can seem threatening to leaders steeped in a more hierarchical model of leadership. Leaders in an engaged group need to put on their big girl/boy pants and get ready to rumble. Again, an agreed upon covenant of behavior helps us stay grounded within a lively community.

Seven: Seven is a magic number in folklore. I saved my number one factor for this last spot in my seven. Covey had his Seven Habits, I have my Seven Intentions.

Seven is the notion of self-awareness. It was the intentional goal of my entire effort at Folly. It was prompted by my study of human development, chasing down the seminal work of Erik Erikson who came up with the notion of identity, notably in his theoretical musings, an identity crisis. Adolescence is a time which is the threshold of discovering who one is, your identity. There is a way in which society and culture allow for this time of looking inward, experimenting outwardly with who one is and how you want to show up in the world. You receive prompts from your family, the stories they tell about your “folk” or kin, and the culture from which you emerge. That includes how you behave, how you interact, what you say and how you say it, what are the boundaries, and what are the obligations. The individual is embedded, like it or not, in some kind of context and has the tough work of deciding how to negotiate being an individual in the middle of being a part of the whole. Some will merely accept the identity as given, others will rebel against that very giveness and attempt to define themselves over and against those expectations.

I wanted Folly to provide an intentional occasion for this work of pausing and reflecting on who one is, this identity issue. This “self work” is not exclusive to adolescence but continues throughout one’s life as one exercises the human agency of reflection and decision as to how one will be in the world. Our culture had decided to extend adolescence into the early twenties, which includes a time in college for a hopefully more thoughtful time of serious reflection. But truth is, that important work continues throughout the course of life. Even in my mid sixties, I am pausing for reflection in order to gain more self-awareness as to who I am, what values I want to serve, and how I want to spend my time. Folly was to initiate that process in these young folks, a process that “had only just begun.” Rather than a mindless romp in the sun and sand, I was wanting them to pause, reflect in a mindful way….and then romp in the sun and sand. I think Folly was successful in that work and process.

In my book, church should continue in that process of providing moments and avenues of self-awareness. Church can be that special place where we pause from our busyness in order to assess where we are as well as where we want to go. This human act of deciding is the distinctive thing that humans have the capacity to do. Rather than going along with a prescribed program or agenda, we can decide who we will be. This includes cultural expectations, cultural trends, media prompts, party rules, and particularly religious certitudes. It is up to us to decide, the gift and burden of being a human in full. Churches have a unique opportunity in sponsoring and nurturing this process.

Finally, a word about leadership, which requires self-awareness. I have been shocked to find a lack of self-awareness among leaders, specifically in the church, but apparent in government, healthcare, business, and non-profits. Self-awareness requires persons to take a moment of pause to look in the mirror at one’s self and measure what one sees. It has to do with an honesty with one’s self as to the mixed motivations that reside in all human beings. Rather than posturing as having a “perfect” motivation, a self-aware leader is painfully aware of the mixed motives that are propelling their actions and decisions, some that can be self-serving. Some have called this Emotional Intelligence or EQ, and it is the basic requirement for a leadership that operates with integrity. A truly humble leader is not obsessed with proving one’s “purity” but rather has a firm grasp of the possibility that one might be self-delusional. Leaders who pause, who remain open to possibilities, are those that I trust to offer a style of leadership that is truly in service of something bigger than themselves. It is called servant leadership and is modeled in the person of Jesus.

I could go on and on about this last dimension as something that I learned in an experiential and existential way. My work these days is of coaching people through a process of self-awareness by which they can live their lives with more intention, with more authenticity and integrity, and with more verve and passion. Coaching is the new way that I am using to help people along the way. And most of what I learned and use in coaching, I learned at Folly. Imagine that.

2 thoughts on “Everything I Needed to Know About Ministry, I Learned At Folly Beach

  1. The comment you made about this “self work” is not exclusive to adolescence, hits home. As someone in my early 60’s widowed and the children gone, life has made changes for me but now have become again open to different opportunities. Like life begins anew but with more knowledge and better tools to work with. Unappended and hopefully knowing more what not to do!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Life changes in its challenges and keeps the journey interesting. I never figured it would be like it is now for me, but that’s the exciting part. What a wild ride this turns out to be. I hopefully join you in knowing more what not to do as well as getting clearer as to what I want out of this. I sure do value my friends, particularly over time. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. David


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