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A Fourth Wave Prayer for Pastors

Loving Father,

As the Psalmist invites us, we enter your courts with thanksgiving. However, if we are honest, we also enter your courts exhausted and with a limp.  This season has been hard.  This fourth wave and its restrictions (including people’s reactions to them) will be the most challenging yet.  Although the previous waves were difficult, many of us felt like we got a glimpse of momentum over the last couple of weeks only to have it eclipsed by recent (needed) public health measures.  Although we may understand the importance of these measures as we partner with other sectors of society (loving our neighbours in the process), it doesn’t make it easy.

As shepherds and leaders of your flock, many of our people are tired, frustrated, anxious, and stressed.  We have healthcare workers who are exhausted, business owners who are devastated, parents who are stressed, and others who are extremely angry at the government and their decisions (some believing they didn’t do enough early enough and others believing that they are doing too much).  We need your wisdom, strength, and resolve to lead our hurting, diverse, and, at times, divided and disgruntled congregations. 

Therefore, as we lead through the fourth wave of Covid, may you grant us…

Persistence like Noah, who built an ark while enduring ridicule and abandonment of others. 

Faith like Abraham, who despite not seeing any sign of hope, trusted in you. 

Resolve like Moses, who led your people out of slavery only to have them grumble and complain the entire way. 

Ears like Elijah, who heard your voice not in the earthquake and wind, but in the still small voice. 

Heart like David, who, although deeply flawed and riddled with errors of judgement, sought after you. May we have the humility to regularly ask you to search our hearts and test our motives so we never confuse leadership resolve with prideful arrogance.

Peace like Silas, who was able to sleep in a prison cell while facing a very uncertain future. 

Trust like Paul, who led some of the most dysfunctional churches in history and did it with eyes firmly fixed on you.  May we have an abiding trust in you as we lead our churches in a way that decouples our identity from their “success.”

Jesus, you are the head of the Church and so we rest in your leadership, goodness, and grace.  If the last twenty months have taught us anything, you are good and you will see us through! Therefore, lead us into the future with persistence, faith, resolve, listening ears, soft hearts, supernatural peace, and abiding trust.

You have called us, you are faithful, and you will do it (1 Thess. 5:24)!

In your glorious name, Amen!

The Fog of Fall

The church has historically used a boat metaphor to help understand itself and its purpose (I use this image extensively in my book, Expedition: Following Jesus on a Mast-Raising, Sail-Setting, and Treasure-Seeking Journey to the Ends of the Earth).  As the church charts its way into the fall, it is heading into a fog.  There are so many unknowns and all the landmarks that we trusted to navigate have been obscured by the fog of the unknown.  This is disorientating but it can also be frightening.

Navigating a naval vessel in the fog is not for the faint of heart.  It demands unique skills and nautical practices.  One must use foghorns to announce one’s presence to other vessels and, conversely, carefully listen for others to sound off on their location.  One would also dispatch lookouts with sharp wits, focused eyes, and keen ears. 

This is what the fall will feel like for ministry leaders.  The fourth wave of Covid has created a fog and blinded us to many of the things we have relied on to navigate safely in ministry’s waters.  We once relied on casual foyer conversation to help us gauge how people were doing.  We once relied on in-person attendance to measure how the church was doing corporately and how people were doing individually.  These trusted symbols of success (as problematic as they were) have been overshadowed and made obsolete by the settling of Covid’s fog, obscuring our finely tuned leadership senses and making us feel vulnerable and confused.

As you lead into the fog, I want to encourage you to not lose heart.  Because you can’t see people, it doesn’t mean they are not tracking with you.  Because the church can’t gather in person, it doesn’t mean people aren’t gathering with you online in some way.  Because you don’t hear constant feedback or engage in casual in-person conversations, doesn’t mean you are not being effective.  Because you don’t feel like you are being effective, it doesn’t mean you are failing and, more importantly, faithfulness always trumps effectiveness anyway!

As you lead into the fog, I also want to encourage you to deploy the crew and loudly blow the foghorn for your congregation.  This is a season to be calling and connecting with your people by checking in.  People are afraid, frustrated, and feeling disconnected.  Blow the foghorn frequently and often.  Also, blow your foghorn in your community.  Embrace this season as an opportunity to serve and care for the community/neighbourhood/region God has placed your church in.  If you struggled with ways of letting your community know you are there for them, this is the time to find new and creative ways of caring (care for long term care home residents, health care workers, teachers, single mothers trying to navigate a global pandemic alone, etc.) and serving your community.

As you lead into the fog, rely on your maps and instruments.  Get back to the basics in ministry.  If there was ever an opportunity to reset our churches on the fundamentals of what we are called to do, now is the time.  Whatever the method, the mission and ministry of the church have always included the markers of sacraments, proclamation, service, worship, and community.  Whether in-person or online, and however one approaches their programs and church structure, these are the historic markers of the church.  Get back to the basics and rest in God’s boundless goodness and exuberant grace.

When the fog sets in, so does fear.  We fear the unknown.  We fear not being able to see.  We fear vulnerability.  However, in the obscurity of the fog, we also begin to rely on our other senses; our other senses heighten in the shadow of the fog.  Thus, when you can’t see, listen.  When we can’t see the future with predictability, listen for Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who is leading us (John 10:27).  Maybe one of the unforeseen gifts of this season is the tuning of our lives to the melodious voice of Jesus who, like all shepherds, leads with His voice.  Maybe we have become so accustomed to relying on our eyes in ministry that we have forgotten the call to listen and know the Shepherd’s voice and follow Him.

Although the fog has set in, it won’t last forever.  Press in, press on, and have hope.  Although the future may be obscured by the fog, our captain (King Jesus) knows the way and He will lead us through it. 

Keep going, keep leading, and, above all, be faithful.

As 1 Thessalonians 5:24 says, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”

Keep Calm and Lead On

Dear Church Leader,

As we enter the final weeks of summer and prepare for the unknown of fall, there is an often-ignored leadership competency that is vital in this season.  It is the unappreciated ability to keep calm and lead on.”

We are about to approach the most volatile of ministry seasons.  Last year was difficult with lockdowns and restrictions but this year will be uniquely challenging with variants, increased restrictions, amplified polarization, unknown post-pandemic engagement/attendance patterns, and an overall fatigue in everyone, everywhere.

This bitter cocktail of uncertainly and weariness has created a reflux of anxiety and a tendency towards either willful ignorance or fear-filled reaction.  In seasons like this, a crucial leadership competency is the ability to lead humbly, calmly, and steadily with thoughtful deliberate action.

In every nautical adventure movie, there is a climactic scene where the ship is on a catastrophic trajectory (causing great anxiety and fear in the crew) and an abrupt maneuver is needed to avoid calamity (a torpedo is inbound, or a collision is imminent).  In these scenes, the crew is frantic and wanting to impulsively act but the captain knows it is not the right time.  Decisive action is needed but if the action happens too early or if the wrong action is taken, the ship will be in great peril. 

Calm, steady, and humble leadership is needed in times like this.  If you lead with anxiety and fear, you will react rather than respond.  If you lead with prideful arrogance, you will miss important information and make poor impulsive decisions.  Instead, keep calm and lead on.

As you desire to calmly lead in this season, here are three ways to do so from 1 Peter 5:1-11.

First, be humble and honest.  It is healthy to be appropriately transparent with your team about the uncertainty ahead.  Lead your team not from your uncertainty but from your humility, casting ALL your cares on God.  Lead with faith over fear.  Faith doesn’t blind us to the obstacles or challenges; rather, it changes the focal point.  Faith acknowledges the uncertainty while simultaneously focusing our attention on Jesus and His sovereignty.

Second, be alert and of sober mind.  As a church leader, you will be tempted to act based on how you feel and sense things to be.  Beware the danger of uncalibrated perceptions. In this season, all the feedback signals and effectiveness gauges that we grew accustomed to using and trusting have been disrupted.  As a result, you can’t fully trust your gauges.  How you sense things are may not be an accurate representation of reality.

Finally, be reminded that Jesus is on His eternal glorious throne.  Jesus is building His Church (even if we can’t see it, feel it, or quantify it), and He (the Chief Shepherd) will lead us through. The fall season ahead will be uniquely difficult, but we can have hope because Jesus is with us and leading us forward!

Keep calm and lead on.

FIVE THINGS TO TAKE INTO YOUR SUMMER

Dear Church Leader,

Summer is here!  The sun is shining, the weather is unusually warm, and you are more tired than you realize.  This has been one of the most difficult years in recent ministry history, involving persistent change, conflict and confusion.  As a result, stress has compounded and compacted like sediment over our hearts and leadership, and I want to give you peer permission and encouragement to rest in the coming days and begin to let Jesus, the living water, gently soften your heart, bringing rest and restoration.

As you enter your summer, I would encourage you to take these five things with you!

First, take your holidays.  If you have them, use them and guard them.  Intentionally shut down and decompress.  I took some time off in June and discovered I was more tired than I thought.  You may be tempted to save your holidays for later (“I can’t really go anywhere anyway”).  Guard against this.  Take your time and disconnect as much as possible.  You need it more than you realize.  I know I did!

Second, take a personal inventory of how you are doing.  Be honest with yourself.  How is your soul?  Have you been self-medicating in the increased isolation of the season?  Do you need help?  Just as there were increased mental health changes of lockdown (which you probably experienced), there will also be mental health challenges as things move back to full engagement with people (especially for anyone who has any form of social anxiety).  Take time to reflect, grieve losses, do a moral inventory, consider your relationships and ask God and others to walk with you through all of this.

Third, take time to plan for the future with hope and caution.  There will be lots of appropriate excitement for a vaccinated Fall.  Embrace the excitement but chase that excitement with some caution and backup plans.  There is reasonable concern about variants and the possibility of more restrictions in the fall/winter.  As you plan ahead, don’t put all your planning or hopes in a fully in-person future.  I am not making a case for future restrictions, but it is good leadership to be prepared.  We are not out of Covid yet, even though it may increasingly seem like it.

Fourth, take it slow.  As you prepare for the future, I would caution you to not jump back to all your old patterns and methodologies.  Just don’t relaunch everything you did before, hire back all the same staff positions, and structure everything the way you did two years ago.  It may feel comfortable, but it would be foolish.  A post-Covid reality will look different than a pre-Covid reality.  Not everyone will come back in person and those that do will all not come back at the same time or in the same way.  People’s attendance and giving patterns will change and we would be foolish to not account for this.  Don’t get me wrong, the future is hopeful, but the future will look different than the past.

Finally, take stock.  Take time with your leadership team(s) to list all the ways God has been faithful in the last 16-18 months.  Covid seems like five years packed into one and we can forget all the things God did in the last year.  It will be an encouraging time that will give you hope as you look to the future.

Covid has been long!  It has been filled with pain, sickness, disruption, death, conflict, change and more change.  Don’t underestimate the impact of this on your spiritual life, emotional wellbeing, relationships, family and ministry. 

Take these five things into your summer, embrace rest and let God cultivate hope back into your life and ministry!

Effective Online Ministry Workshops/Course 2021

As the church begins to regather in person, it is vital that we don’t lose all the digital advancements we made while critically evaluating and reflecting on our digital ministry. Through a series of three workshops, we will seek to understand digital culture, evaluate what worked in the last year, and begin to design a long-term online ministry strategy for the future for either a fully digital ministry or a hybrid approach.

It will examine how the internet and social media is profoundly changing culture and explore how the Church can effectively engage this new medium for the advancement of God’s kingdom and mission.

Session #1 (Aug. 5) – Understanding Digital Culture (and how it is different than in-person): Bringing Theology and Media Ecology Together.

Session #2 (Aug. 12)– Learning about Evaluating the Nut and Bolts (Bits and Bytes) of Online Ministry: Especially Hybrid (Digital/in-Person) Ministry Strategies and Methodologies.

Session #3 (Aug. 19) – Designing a Long-term Implementable Online Ministry Strategy

The course is also available for credit at Ambrose University and Seminary.

For more information and to register: