What practices can help church leaders learn from failures and address conflict in ways that lead to fruitful ministry? The Lewis Center’s Jessica Anschutz interviews Tyler Sit about centering marginalized voices, meeting the needs of the community, managing conflict, and other leadership lessons he has learned as a church planter.
Jessica Anschutz: Can you share the inspiration for your book, Staying Awake: The Gospel for Change Makers. Why it is important for church leaders to stay awake?
Tyler Sit: The title Staying Awake came from a moment of prayer in my apartment – an apartment that years later I found out was the closest residence to George Floyd Square. But that came later. I was in prayer contemplating the story of the garden of Gethsemane and how Jesus called his disciples to stay awake in that garden right before he was crucified. And I realized through my prayer that God never stopped asking disciples to stay awake, to stay awake to the crucifixions that are happening in our world but also to the resurrections, to stay awake to the work of God in the highs and lows of it all. So that provided the theological or mystical framework. Then I took it to my community and said, “What habits, practices, lifestyles, do you think are important for this?” And together we put together these nine chapters of different practices.
Jessica Anschutz: In those nine chapters, you outline the practices that lead to the soul work necessary to changing society for the better. In your discussion of leadership development, you talk about the value of failure. How can church clergy and laity learn from their failures?
Tyler Sit: Failure is a terrible thing to waste. Failure usually comes at a pretty high cost. And I think it’s natural for people to want to shrink away from failure or to sweep over failure or to get it behind us as fast as possible. But there’s so much richness in failure when we try to take a more contemplative approach to leadership, when we understand failure not as a mark against our worthiness as a human or an indictment of our leadership but rather as simply information that can tell us things. Then, failure speaks volumes about interpersonal dynamics, about distribution of resources, about strategy. If we slow down and walk with our failures a little bit more, ironically, the stories and the richness we learn actually help us to avoid failure. We have to decrease our fear of failure in order to be able to avoid failure.
Jessica Anschutz: Can you give me an example or two of how you’ve learned from your failure, perhaps even through your experience as a church planter?
Tyler Sit: We had a backyard farm program which was an urban gardening outreach program. We went to our neighbors’ yards and converted part of their yard to a permaculture food system. There’d be a fruit tree and vegetables planted not in straight rows but creating a self-sustained food system. And it was very jazzy and sexy, and people were excited about it. But one of the non-negotiables of our program was that eventually we needed to see leadership not just from the church but also from our neighbors in this program. That was a marker of success for us.
After running the program for three years, we saw a ton of neighbor interest. But we didn’t see a lot of neighbor leadership, and it was really pretty discouraging. After three years of really refining this program and creating something that at least the urban agriculture enthusiasts in our community were really excited about, we weren’t seeing neighborhood response. So, we slowed down and we started listening and asking questions. We just kind of looped back to our neighbors and said, “Hey, no judgment, but what’s going on here? As we invite you to leadership, what’s missing? Why isn’t that an opportunity you want to take?” And we heard stories about how our neighborhood is racially diverse and economically diverse from lower middle class to generational poverty. And we heard folks talk about “You know, sometimes my mental health is in such a place that I can barely get out of bed.” Or “I can barely get my kids to school or get to work, so the idea of taking on a whole program, as much as I love it, is just not in the cards for us.” And that was a pivotal listening campaign.
We decided to sunset the backyard farm program and launch something called the Incarnation Fund. The Incarnation Fund supports people of color in accessing mental health services offered by practitioners of color, who are often out of network. We added a nature-based retreat to the incarnation experience, so in a nine-month period folks are receiving therapy, spiritual direction, and nature-based retreats. And it blossomed into a whole new thing. Instead of the backyard farms where we were sending six emails and calling and texting people and they were avoiding us, this became something people saw a need for in their lives. And we maintain the value of nature, we maintain the value of relationships, through the program design. It’s gone gangbusters and is now a signature ministry of New City. Looking back, it’s easy for me to see how that was the right choice. But, in the moment, it was very scary to come to terms with how something wasn’t working, to release it, and to figure out a new way to show up for our neighborhood.
Jessica Anschutz: Something I hear in your story is the importance of listening and hearing back from the people you are trying to serve what they truly needed. How does listening help you as a leader make those pivots and changes to truly meet the needs of your community?
Tyler Sit: I think about the story of Jesus and Bartimaeus who was blind. I’ve heard some theologians suggest that, instead of seeing Bartimaeus as a pitiable beggar who’s persistent in asking for Jesus’s help even when the crowd tells him to quiet down, we should see him as someone who knew what he needed. He knew how to name the challenges he was facing, and he knew how to address them. And isn’t it an amazing mark of discipleship to simply know what to ask for, to know what you need, and to know how you want to grow? So, I see listening as a two-way growth opportunity. It helps me grow as a leader or the leadership team grow because we’re getting to know our neighborhood and context more. But it’s also giving our neighbors an opportunity to articulate what they need. And that, in itself, is an act of discipleship and spiritual growth.
In this current season, we’re doing a listening campaign. We just did a survey of our congregation, asking about the ways they want to grow spiritually in the coming year. And we broke it down to inward practices — prayer and worship and contemplation and meditation and rest — and outward practices — social justice or relationships or that kind of thing. And people give really, really amazing, interesting responses. But it’s clear that filling out that survey in itself was a kind of self-awakening for some people. People said, “Wow I really do need to spend more time doing this. I really do need to slow down.” And I think that’s just the power of a good question.
Jessica Anschutz: You talk in your book about self-care being really important especially when you’re trying to lead change. And you talk about the need to take time to just be. How do you empower others to take that time to just be?
Tyler Sit: Sabbath is a way of disinvesting from empire economy that says, “You have to constantly produce. You have to constantly be busy. Otherwise, something’s wrong with you.” We have to reorient our lives to think of Sabbath as the center instead of work as the center of our lives. On a theological level, I try to preach about that. Certainly, within my own life I try to model to my staff when I’m going to be taking Sabbath. Because if I’m not doing it, then I must not really believe in the power of Sabbath.
We’re getting ready to relaunch our hybrid worship services, and we’re taking a totally different approach to volunteering. Earlier in our scrappy church plant volunteer kind of way, we were running on adrenaline. And we ran off that adrenaline to make our volunteer systems work. Now, we’ve grown as a church and our systems need to grow, too. So, we’re trying to recruit twice as many people for each job than we had before because we want to create rotations and backups. And our gamble is that, by creating systems that allow for people to have rest when they need it, folks will stay in the volunteer systems longer instead of completely ghosting us five months later. To me, there’s a really clear correlation between people volunteering and people just showing up to something. General volunteering at its best is a great excuse for people to get into the community and connect, so I try to be pretty aggressive about asking people to volunteer. And I try to build a structure where people are volunteering in a way that’s reasonable and perhaps seasonal and in a way that makes them feel like there’re really making a difference. And I know that I’ve hit the sweet spot when people say, “I’m so glad that I volunteered today because I might not have rolled out of bed otherwise. But this got me here. And I’m so glad that it did.” That’s what I want volunteering to feel like.
Jessica Anschutz: It’s wonderful to create that culture where volunteering is invitational and where people can increase their involvement based on their availability and willingness to serve. One of the things that I have experienced in working with people is conflict. And conflict comes in various forms and shapes and sizes. But what words of wisdom do you have for church leaders — clergy and laity — on how we can navigate conflict well?
Tyler Sit: One of the privileges of church planting is that you get to choose your team. I recruit people who demonstrate that they can manage conflict well. And I try to exit people off teams when they show that they can’t manage conflict well because the ability to manage conflict outweighs talent almost 10 out of 10 times. When I say manage conflict, I don’t mean they never have conflicts. In fact, that’s actually kind of a red flag. One time I went to a Brené Brown lecture, and she talked about how people don’t feel a true sense of belonging until they see conflict navigated well because conflict is fundamentally about people’s needs being met. People start conflict when their needs aren’t being met. If the system can show that conflict will be addressed meaningfully, respectfully, mutually, that tends to cement people into a community because they know it’s a place where they can advocate for themselves, and that’s really important. So, when I see conflict not going well, I try to approach it from a lens of what needs are not being met here more than who’s right or wrong because there’s so much more information than just a moral evaluation of it.
The second thing I talk about in my book is trying to proactively pursue the things that are bubbling up to be conflict but aren’t conflict yet and then really trying to create space for folks to name just where there’s friction in their lives, because it just feels so much better to say, “Okay. We’re going after this. We’re addressing this right away. And I’m showing you that I care about you.” Otherwise, I find I have people saying, “Hey, Tyler. Can we talk?” And then they lay in this whole thing that’s been brewing for nine months. So, I try to be proactive about that as well.
Jessica Anschutz: When you write about conflict in your book, you lift up this wonderful practice of “sunshine.” Can you describe this practice for our listeners and perhaps give us an example or two of how this has impacted your ministry?
Tyler Sit: I try to stack my agenda so that we’re really doing meaningful work and having conversations that we can’t have over Slack or email. We’re really trying to make hard decisions and have hard conversations. And that can be meaningful, but you leave panting a little bit. “Oh, my gosh, that was so intense!” So, I just found it really helpful to end staff meetings with a practice called “sunshine” where, in a circle, one person names how they see God moving in their life and in the life of the person next to them. So, Person A offers sunshine to Person B; B to C; C to A.
And this practice of sunshine accomplishes three things. One is it gives people an excuse to drop the compliment they’ve been noticing but just haven’t found a socially convenient spot to name. And that’s really helpful because it reaffirms this culture of, “Hey we’re noticing each other and we’re working together and collaborating.” Two, it helps people feel seen. “Wow. I just thought I was out here on my own doing this.” And three, it puts a positivity ribbon or bow on the whole thing. Hey, we might have had some really hard conversations and you might have seen people show up in a way that did not match your style, but we can still name that God is moving in their lives and they’re doing something great. So that’s sunshine. It’s something that we’ve done almost since Day One. And it’s something that I hope to do for the rest of my career. A lot of times conflict drives conflict. It kind of sparks conversations a lot and, eventually, if conflict is the only thing sparking conversation, then people start to brace whenever they’re around each other. And I try to balance that out with having very supportive personal interactions with each other.
Jessica Anschutz: One of the other topics that caught my attention in your book is the centering of marginalized voices. Can you share how this practice plays out in your ministry and how other church leaders might practice such centering?
Tyler Sit: Think of Jesus going all the way to Samaria to talk to a woman at the well at noon. It was a very hot time of day to be going to a well to talk to someone in a neighborhood that you’re “not supposed to be in.” You know, Jesus talked to the folks who were chained up in cemeteries. And Jesus talked to children. So much of Jesus’s ministry was not just about talking to the elites, though he, of course, had very choice words for the elites. But we also see how the Spirit is moving in the places that society had abandoned or intentionally marginalized.
I try my best to center marginalized voices in my work because I think that’s what Jesus modeled. And what that means specifically for New City is that we do a lot of work around race and queerness, some work around immigration, some work around ability, but we are really looking at an intersectionality leading with race and queerness/gender. And that means that at New City Church, whenever we have a conversation, marginalized voices get to start, stop, and steer conversations.
For the survey that I mentioned earlier, I pulled together a team of people to review the survey results and talk about it. Before I just opened the floor and said, “In general, what do you all think?”, I said specifically, “Let’s have some folks of color start the conversation to set the container of where we are.” I also try to allow people of color and queer folks to be able to stop a conversation if it is getting problematic and allow them to say, “Hey. We’re not going down this road,” or steer it to say, “This is a little more important to me than that,” and allowing that to set our priorities. I know that when the cisgender straight white guy in the room goes out to the world, he has a lot more opportunities to be meaningfully heard and a lot more influence than the Black trans person in the room. And the kingdom of God is a mountains-being-lowered-valleys-being-lifted kind of dynamic. So that’s what we’re trying to model.
Centering marginalized voices means that marginalized voices get to start, stop, and steer the conversation, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want people of privilege identities in the room. Centering means the marginalized folks are in the center, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want folks with different privilege identities to participate and speak, but just not the first or the last person to contribute from their wisdom. To be in community with other people of privilege identities and to help check each other when they see something going on, we do another thing called “caucusing.” We have a circle for people of color and a circle for white people. And that’s not centering marginalized voices. That’s creating separate groups. Centering voices is when all those folks are together and we’re just doing the Jesus thing and letting marginalized folks control the conversation.
Jessica Anschutz: You tell a story about dancing with activists in the wake of the killing of Jamar Clark and that moment when you unzipped your jacket and people saw that you were wearing a clergy collar. Why is it important for those of us who are clergy, those of us who are followers of Jesus, to show up and dance with our community?
Tyler Sit: Bessel van der Kolk talks about different methods of trauma healing. And one of the methods of trauma healing is to just move your body. You’re telling your body “I’m here and I want to move over there. I want to move in this way.” It is really important for people who have had agency removed, which is how trauma happens. So effectively moving your body in community is already helpful for trauma healing. Secondly, anything that has to do with rhythm helps folks recovering from trauma. It lets the inside sensations sync up with the outside sensations. It’s like children jumping on a trampoline. The rhythmic pulsing of dance help people to reorient themselves.
So, back to the Fourth Precinct and Jamar Clark. Is there really a more effective thing that we can do for the healing of Black bodies in the sight of this terrible trauma than to dance? We just have to get the chemicals in our body moving. Otherwise, they’re going to fester inside of us, and that’s when we get real problems.
Looking at it theologically, I think there’s a social justice purity culture myth that says if you don’t feel bad all the time that means you don’t get it, or you’re not woke enough if you’re not completely irate all the time. And I see that with a lot of the white social justice strivers in my community. But when I’m actually in community with people of color and organizers of color, there are always moments of celebration and joy. And those are not a contradiction to the hard work. It’s a survival strategy. I think ultimately God is going to bring about the kingdom not just from hard work but also from banquets and dance parties and weddings, as Jesus shows throughout his ministry. And if pastors can’t throw back a little bit, then, how are we going to expect our people to?
Jessica Anschutz: Very well said! And the importance of joy even in the midst of unthinkable situations, unjust situations, because the joy also nurtures us to keep going and to keep doing the work that God has called us to do.
- Staying Awake: The Gospel for Changemakers (Chalice Press, 2021) by Tyler Sit, available at Cokesbury and Amazon
- 4 Shifts for More Authentic Community Engagement by Dan Pezet
- Deal with People by Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- 9 Strategies for Meeting People and Learning their Needs by Elizabeth Mae Magill
- More Church Leaders | Stronger Church Leaders Video Tool Kit