What practices can help church leaders learn from failures and address conflict in ways that lead to fruitful ministry? We speak with 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.
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What practices can help church leaders learn from failures and address conflict in ways that lead to fruitful ministry? In this episode we speak with 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: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Jessica Anschutz, one of the editors of the Leading Ideas E-newsletter, and I am your host for this Leading Ideas Talk. Joining me is Tyler Sit, pastor and church planter of New City Church, a community in Minneapolis that is led mostly by queer people of color. Tyler is the author of Staying Awake: The Gospel for Change Makers.
Welcome, Tyler. I really enjoyed reading your book and I’m glad to be with you today to talk about church leadership and advocacy and your ministry. I want to invite you to start off by talking a little bit about the inspiration for your book and why it is important for church leaders to stay awake.
Tyler Sit: Thank you so much. And thank you for the invitation to be here. I am so looking forward to this conversation. The idea for Staying Awake, the title Staying Awake, came from a moment of prayer. I was praying in my living room. At the time I was living in an apartment that years later I find out was the closest residence to George Floyd Square. But that came later. I was in prayer just on my couch and I was 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. Like, staying awake to the work of God in kind of the highs and lows of it all. So that provided the kind of 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 kind of put together these nine chapters of different practices.
Jessica Anschutz: Wonderful. As you mentioned in your book, you outline nine of those practices that lead to the soul work that we need to do in order to change society for the better. And one of those is leadership development. In your discussion of leadership development, you talk about the value of failure, which I found very powerful and compelling. So how can church clergy and laity learn from their failures?
Tyler Sit: Failure is a terrible thing to waste. Usually, failure comes at a pretty high cost, and I think it’s natural for people to kind of 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. And I found in trying to take a contemplative approach to leadership that, when we understand failure not as a mark against our worthiness as a human or whether or not we’re a good leader but simply as information that had things to tell us, that failure speaks volumes about interpersonal dynamics, about distribution of resources, about strategy. If we kind of slow down and walk with our failures a little bit more, the stories and the richness that we learn actually help us ironically to avoid failure. It’s like we have to decrease our fear of failure in order to be able to avoid failure.
Jessica Anschutz: That makes sense, so can you give me an example or two about how you have learned from your failure, perhaps even through your experience as a church planter.
Tyler Sit: Yeah. This is a larger example that I’ll kind of pare down for this interview. We had a backyard farm program which was an urban gardening outreach program where we went to our neighbors’ yards and converted part of their yard to a food system. So, there’d be a fruit tree and then we plant vegetables in a permaculture kind of way, so not like straight rows, but kind of creating a self-sustained food system. And it was very jazzy and sexy, and people were excited about it. But one of the nonnegotiables of our program was that eventually we needed to see not just leadership from the church but leadership from our neighbors in this program. And that would be kind of a marker of success for us. After running it for three years, six planting seasons — we did one in the spring and one in the fall, we saw a ton of neighbor interest. But we didn’t see a lot of neighbor leadership. And it was really, honestly, it was pretty discouraging after three years of really refining this program, really making something that at least the urban agriculture enthusiasts in our community were really excited about, but 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, like, “Hey, no judgment, but what’s going on here? Like, as we invite you to leadership, what is missing that this isn’t an opportunity that you want to take?” And we heard stories about how our neighborhood is racially diverse and economically 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 because 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. And 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 just kind of like blossomed into a whole new thing than what we saw with backyard farms. Instead of sending six emails and calling and texting and people avoiding us, this became a thing that people can look at their lives and see that they needed. And we maintain the value of nature, we maintain the value of relationships through the program design. And now it’s the kind of a signature ministry of New City. Now it’s gone gangbusters. But I really look at that, you know, it’s easy for me to look back and see how that was the right choice. But, in the moment, it was a very scary kind of releasing and a very scary coming to terms with how something wasn’t working and needing to figure out a new way to show up for our neighborhood.
Jessica Anschutz: It’s really challenging, when you’re excited about a ministry and when you’ve invested not only three years of doing it on the ground but all of the work that was going on in the background, to pivot. But something that I hear in your story is also the importance of listening and hearing back from the people that you are trying to serve what they truly needed. How does listening help you as a leader to be able to make those pivots and changes and to truly meet the needs of your community?
Tyler Sit: Yeah. I think about the story of Jesus and Bartimaeus who was blind. I’ve heard some theologians talk about, instead of seeing Bartimaeus as a pitiable beggar who’s asking for Jesus persistently even when the crowd tells him to quiet down, to start seeing him as someone who knew what he needed. He knew how to name the challenges that he was facing, and he knew how to address those. 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 as a leader grow 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.
This current season, we’re doing a listening campaign where we just did a survey of our congregation and said what are the ways that you want to spiritually grow next year. And we kind of broke it down to inward practices — like prayer and worship and contemplation and meditation and rest — and outward practices — like social justice or relationships or that kind of thing. And people give really, really amazing, interesting responses. But as we were reading through it, it became clear that filling out that survey, in itself, was kind of a self-awakening for some people. They’re like, “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: Absolutely. Not only the power of a good question, but also having some self-awareness about what we need in order to continue to do the work that we’re called to do.
Tyler Sit: Yeah.
Jessica Anschutz: I know you talk in your book about self-care being really important and then an important aspect 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: I talked about that throughout the book but in my Sabbath chapter especially — Sabbath as 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 kind of reorient our lives to think of Sabbath as the center instead of work as the center of our lives. I think that just on a theological level I try to preach about that, and 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. So, you know, trying to model that, it gets really granular, Jessica, all the way down to, like, ….
You know we’re getting ready to relaunch our hybrid worship services, and we’re taking a totally different approach to volunteering because, earlier, we were kind of in our scrappy church plant volunteer kind of way, which is, like, there’s a lot of adrenaline. And we just kind of run 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 that kind of thing. And our gamble is that, by creating systems that allow for people to have rest when they need it, folks will be able to stay in the volunteer systems for longer instead of kind this flash in the pan and, all of a sudden, five months later, they’re completely ghosting. And we say that to people. So, yeah, that’s a meta in a micro way that I try to do that.
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Jessica Anschutz: And it’s important, right, to help people not end up in a position where “Congratulations! Welcome to our community of faith. You’re in this position for the rest of your life or for as long as you’re willing to hold it.” It’s really important to be raising up new people and to have backups so that people aren’t carrying the weight of those burdens on their shoulders. And it’s a wonderful way to empower more people to be involved in the ministry as well.
Tyler Sit: Yeah. It’s just really clear to me the correlation between people volunteering and people just showing up to something. General volunteering, I think, at its best is like a great excuse for people to get into the community that they know, that they want to connect with. So, I try to be pretty aggressive about asking people to volunteer. And I try to build a structure that’s like, “I’m asking you to volunteer, but volunteer in a way that’s reasonable and perhaps seasonal and, you know, in a way that makes you feel like you’re really making a difference.” And I know that I’ve hit the sweet spot when people are, like, “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.” And it’s like, “Yeah. That’s what I want volunteering to feel like.”
Jessica Anschutz: Absolutely! And it’s wonderful to create that culture where volunteering is invitational and people feel like they can increase their level of involvement, based on their availability and willingness to serve. One of the things that I have experienced in working with people — and I’m sure your experience is not unlike mine — 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: Yeah. And I’d be curious in your thoughts on this as someone managing a very different church system than I am. But I know that, for New City, perhaps the privilege of church planting is that you kind of get to choose your team. It’s just that the bench isn’t very deep, you know. It’s a give and take. But 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, in my opinion. Just the ability for folks to be able to be in meaningful connection together.
When I say manage conflict, I don’t mean they never have conflicts. In fact, that’s actually kind of a red flag. Not to be another person citing Brené Brown on a leadership podcast because I know that she gets brought up all the time, but 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. And if the system can show that conflict will be addressed meaningfully, respectfully, mutually, that tends to kind of cement people into a community because they know that this is 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 kind of a moral evaluation of it.
The second thing that I talk about in my book is trying to proactively pursue the things that seem like they’re bubbling up to be conflict but aren’t conflict yet and 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 be like, “Okay. We’re going after this. We’re addressing this right away. And I’m showing you that I care about you.” rather than having someone be like, “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: That’s great and it’s so important to address conflict as it as it arises or, as you say, it gets worse. Right. If we set it aside or ignore it, the outcome can be much worse. When you were talking about conflict in your book, you also lifted up this wonderful practice of “sunshine.” And I want to invite you to describe this practice for our listeners. And perhaps to give us an example or two of how this has impacted your ministry.
Tyler Sit: Yeah. At the end of every staff meeting, 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 kind of leave it like panting a little bit. Like, “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 just kind of names how they see God moving in their life, in the life of the person next to them. So, Person A offers sunshine to Person B; B to C; C to A.
And there are three things that are accomplished in sunshine. One is it gives people an excuse to drop the compliment that they’ve been noticing but just haven’t found a socially convenient spot to name it. 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. We’re like, “Wow. I just thought I was out here on my own doing this.” Especially in a church setting. Like none of us are full time. None of us are like around in an office hanging out together. So, just letting people be seen. And three, it kind of puts up a positivity ribbon or a bow on the whole thing where it’s like, “Hey, we might have had some really hard conversations and you might have seen people show up in a way that did or did not match your style, but we’re still naming 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 like the rest of my career.
Jessica Anschutz: It’s a wonderful practice. And I think it’s a great way of bringing the positive back, as you say, even after the difficult and challenging conversations that we need to have as church leaders and planters.
Tyler Sit: Oh, yeah. And I just feel like 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. Because they’re like, “Oh, my gosh. This person is just going to bring up conflict again.” And I try to balance that out with having very supportive personal interactions with each other.
Jessica Anschutz: That’s great. I want to shift gears a little bit. One of the other topics that caught my attention in your book is the centering of marginalized voices, which I found to be very powerful and compelling and, also, very Christlike. I’d like to invite you to share how this practice plays out in your ministry and how other church leaders might practice such centering.
Tyler Sit: Yeah. Essentially marginalized voices is kind of like — think of Jesus going all the way to Samaria to talk to a woman at the well at noon, which is a very hot time to be going to a well to talk to someone in a neighborhood that you’re “not supposed to be in.” You know, Jesus talking to the folks who are chained up in cemeteries and Jesus talking to children. It just seemed like 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 also seeing how the Spirit is moving in the places that society has abandoned or intentionally marginalized.
You know, I try my best to center marginalized voices in my work because I think that’s what Jesus is modeling all over the place. 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. So, even for the survey conversation, 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, like what do you all think?”, I said specifically, “Let’s have some folks of color just start the conversation a little bit to set the container of where we are.”
I also try my best for people of color and for queer folks to be able to stop a conversation if it is getting problematic or in a way that, like, “Hey. We’re not going to go 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. And that’s not because we’re anti, you know …. Like, there was this cisgender straight white guy in that conversation. And I’m not like anti him. I just know that, when he goes out to the world, he has a lot more opportunities to be meaningfully heard and a lot more influence in the spheres that he has than like the Black trans person who is in that room. And the kingdom of God is kind of like a mountains-being-lowered-valleys-being-lifted kind of dynamic. So that’s what we’re trying to model.
And I should also say, 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 still participate and still speak sometimes but just not the first or the last person and to contribute from their wisdom, as well as to be in community with other people of privilege identities and to help each other, check each other, when they see something going on. We do another thing called “caucusing” which is where we’re going to have a circle for people of color and a circle for white people specifically. And that’s not centering marginalized voices. That’s like we’re creating separate groups. Centering voices is like an all those folks are together and we’re just doing the Jesus thing and letting marginalized folks control the conversation.
Jessica Anschutz: What a powerful example and witness and practice that I’m sure you will continue to grow into as your community continues to grow and develop. Our time is coming to a close, but I really want to give you the opportunity to talk about dancing and what it means to dance with your community. Because your story about dancing with activists in the wake of the killing of Jamar Clark — I was so struck by that moment when you said you unzipped your jacket and people saw who you were as a clergy person.
Tyler Sit: Because I was wearing a clergy collar.
Jessica Anschutz: As a pastor I’ve had those similar experiences. Where people sort of look at you and go “Whoa. What’s this?” But why is it important for those of us who are clergy, those of us who are laity, those of us who are followers of Jesus, why should we show up and dance with our community?
Tyler Sit: Yes, amazing question. So, let’s just talk practical or physical, and then let’s talk about the theological implications of that. So, first of all, 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. Effective action means you’re telling your body like “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 from them, which is how trauma happens, when agency has been removed. So just effectively moving your body in community is already helpful for trauma healing. And then, secondly, anything that has to do with rhythm is helpful for folks recovering from trauma. Because it lets the inside sensations sync up with the outside sensations. So even like children jumping on a trampoline. But certainly, dance and rhythmic pulsing of dance help people to kind of reorient themselves.
So, yeah, as you know, that was back in the Fourth Precinct and Jamar Clark. It was like “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 got 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. So, just in ministry, I think that it’s important to note. And then, when we look theologically, like I don’t know, I think that there’s kind of a “social justice purity culture myth” that says like, “If you don’t feel bad all the time that means you don’t get it.” Or like, “You’re not woke enough if you’re not just like completely irate the whole 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 the people of color and the organizers of color, there are always moments of celebration and joy. And those are not a contradiction to the hard work. It’s like a survival strategy. And I think that 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, you know, 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. Well, thank you so much, Tyler, for your time. Most importantly, thank you for your ministry and your witness. It’s been a joy to talk with you today, and thanks again.
Tyler Sit: Thank you so much, Jessica. God bless you all.
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- Staying Awake: The Gospel for Changemakers (Chalice Press, 2021) by Tyler Sit, available at Cokesbury and Amazon
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