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Pastoral Leadership, Covid-19, and the Stages of Grief

Change is Hard!

As a pastoral leader, this has been a difficult season on many fronts. You have led your community of faith through an unprecedented health crisis, managed relentless pivots, made difficult decisions, and dramatically changed the models of ministry you were not just comfortable with but were competent in.

People like change until you change what they love (or are good at). And let’s face it, we were not just competent at our old methodologies, systems, and structures, we mastered them. This is why (pre-pandemic), even in the face of rapidly declining baptisms, disciple-making, attendance, and giving, we were so adverse and reluctant to change our methodologies.  Our competency and comfort kept us on a trajectory of complacency.

Covid-19 changed that!

Covid-19 has forced us to change the way we do things and pushed us out of our comfortable ineffective ruts. I believe God will use this to drive us closer to Him in intimacy (trusting more in Him than our methods) and toward greater innovation as we seek to discover what ministry will look like in a post-Covid-19 world.

With all major change, we need to grieve what was in order to accept what is and dream of what could be. All grief has commonalities, and the five stages of grief is a helpful tool to understand that journey. It can help you gain awareness empathy for what you, your church, and your team are experiencing.

As a leader, you are journeying these stages personally. You are grieving a way of doing things that you were very competent at and stepping into a new methodology and a different culture (digital is different) where you aren’t as comfortable or fluent. It is a loss and one that can be disorientating and discouraging.

Second, consider the stages as a team leader. Journeying the stages together doesn’t always mean you will journey it faster or healthier. Sometimes people can experience an arrested development in the grief journey. Therefore, be cautious that your team isn’t getting stuck together in one of the stages. Also, stay on the lookout for misunderstandings with each other as everyone processes grief at different speeds and in different orders.  

The Five Stages of Grief

The following are the stages of grief that I think pastors and church leaders are currently processing and journeying. As you read through them, consider where are you and your team are in that process.

Shock and Denial

Overnight, the comfortable way of doing things changed. We went into crisis-mode. We moved online with pragmatic naivety, believing that we could just do everything digitally in the same way we did it in-person. We were mistaken. We were in denial.

I think some are stuck here, hoping things will get better or get back to “normal,” unaware or unwilling to admit that 2019’s version of normal is not coming back. The way we did ministry pre-Covid-19 is not returning just like the way people shopped, exercised, watched movies, and learned will not. This is not a bad thing! In fact, it holds many opportunities for those willing to embrace them. If nothing else, it has pulled us out of our complacent slumber of apathetic ineffectiveness.

Anger

After the initial shock and denial comes anger. This emotion and feeling can be quite substantial. Your family and staff have probably felt this from you. You have probably sensed this in your team. We get frustrated, feel out of control, feel overwhelmed, and start blaming when we grieve the loss of what/who we love. Don’t underestimate this and the impact of this stage on your life and ministry.

Bargaining

The next stage is bargaining. This is the stage where we try to bargain our way out of our loss. Instead of moving to acceptance, we try and find another means to bring back what we love. This may manifest as a false hope that everything will be over soon, that things will just go back to “normal,” or when we try and justify that things are working when all indicators tell us they are not (for instance counting 3-sec views as equivalent to a person in physical attendance).

Depression

After bargaining comes depression. Once we realize we can’t bargain what we lost back into existence, we begin to accept the reality of the loss and the change at hand. As a result, there is often a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. The future is unknown. You are unsure of what to do. You question your competency and can feel overwhelmed by the situation. This stage can grab people and hold them tightly. Be aware of this in your life and in your team. Although hope exists (on a spiritual level (Jesus will lead us) and practical level (there are methodologies and new approaches that are and will be effective)) it can be hard to see them at first.

Acceptance

The final stage is acceptance. This is where we begin to accept the loss of what was and start to see the hope of what could be. In terms of the church, this where we begin to acknowledge that our old methodologies of preaching, community-building, evangelism, disciple-making, leading, and interacting won’t work anymore but something new can. Acceptance begins to dream, have hope, and move forward with faith and innovation.

Where Are You?

Where are you in these stages? Where are your teammates? Where is your team as a whole? Maybe this framework helps you understand how you are feeling and what you are experiencing. Perhaps it gives you something to discuss as a ministry/staff team as you work through the stages together.

Don’t rush through the grieving process! People journey grief at different speeds and the stages aren’t always linear.

Remember: You need to grieve! Grief is healthy! You need to grieve the loss of what was so you can embrace what can and will be. 

Lean into grief but don’t get stuck in it!

Four Leadership Postures for 2021

As we leave 2020 behind and press into 2021, I want to consider four leadership postures for the year ahead…

Self-Care (Healthy Rhythms and Intentional Rest)

The temptation of entering into 2021 is to turn the page on 2020 and enter the coming year ignorant of the long-term effects of leading through a pandemic.  Turning a calendar page might feel good but it doesn’t erase the impact of a difficult situation, season or year.  We know this to be true in other people’s lives, but we are often blind to it in our own.  I want to emphasize this.  In every major catastrophe or event, people often weather the storm, only to experience long term impacts.  In extreme situations, this is known as PSTD, but the principle of delayed and long-term impact shouldn’t be ignored.  As we enter 2021, it is vital for any leader to focus on self-care.  To take adequate time off.  To pursue healthy rhythms.  To get help even if you don’t think you need it.  If you are experiencing any symptoms from what I posted here (You are Not Okay), get some help and see a counsellor or a psychologist.  Don’t delay and care for yourself as we enter this new year.  Again, turning the page will not erase the hard words and difficult storyline of the previous chapter.

Preparing for the Long Haul

With the talk of a vaccine, there is a sense that things will go back to “normal” and, therefore, there isn’t a need to make the changes required for the long road ahead.  This is short-sighted and dangerous.  The road ahead will be longer than we hope, and we need to be prepared.  Even if I am wrong, and I hope I am, be prepared mentally and practically for the road ahead.  Good leaders don’t lead with blinders, they lead with clarity and the bravery to look ahead with courage and truth (for more on this, see my previous post).

Normalize Change

As you lead into 2021, it is vital that you normalize change.  After a season that jarred you out of the rut of the past, you will be tempted, even long, to go back.  Ignore the urge to go back to old systems that didn’t work (even if our rose-coloured memories tell us they did) and old structures that were outdated.  The innovation of the last year is the innovation posture needed for the future ahead.  Don’t let your foot off the pedal of change but rather get used to driving at the speed of invention.  This is the posture needed for any effective organization or ministry in the future.  Develop a posture of innovation and embrace the normalcy of change in 2021.

Empowering Young Leaders

In the last year, you may have reduced your reliance on younger leaders and stopped listening to emerging voices.  The desire for a steady and seasoned voice was understandable but the future will demand that we attune our ears to the young voices in our organizations and teams.  Promote young people, give responsibility to younger leaders and take some leadership risks with them in the coming year.  If you are a seasoned and older leader and you (re)build your organization, ministry and team around your desires and your preferences, you have missed the mark and have sacrificed your organization’s future for your present comfort.  The best leaders will empower young leaders in the coming season and give them room to experiment, develop and grow.

The Promise Ahead

2021 holds so much promise but that promise can be easily buried by our short memories and desire for comfort.  If we accept the temptation of comfort, we reject the vital opportunities before it.  Look ahead with realism and walk forward in hope.  God is doing a new thing and asking us to join.

Facing the Hard Truth with a Tenacious Hope

There is no doubt that 2020 was a difficult year.  It was difficult for many including those in pastoral leadership.  In fact, it was probably the most difficult year of your pastoral career (I know it was mine). 

As we enter 2021, there is an overall sense of optimism that we have turned the corner on 2020 and that things will be going back to “normal” soon.  I share that optimism, but I also want to offer a dose (maybe stronger than you would like) of realism.

I sense many of my pastoral colleagues have entered the New Year with a blinded optimism that with a New Year and a vaccine roll-out that things will be back to our 2019 normal soon.  As a result, there is a sense that if we can just hold on for a bit longer, we will survive, and things will get back to “normal.”  I fear this sentiment may be an easy pill to swallow, but it is more placebo than medicine. 

The Bad News

I think 2021 may be more difficult than 2020.  Although a new year brings optimism and vaccinations have started, we are still months and months away from getting to the other end of the virus.  We will soon enter the third wave, and just as the second wave was void of all the romanticism of the first wave (the romanticism of learning a new instrument, growing closer as a family, eating healthier, etc.), the third wave will be viewed and lived with disdain (people are not just tired but exhausted and exhausted people make bad decisions).  Conspiracies will grow in momentum (tired people want easy answers that affirm their desires).  Divisions will grow and rage will amplify (when people are exasperated, they cease to listen).  Brokenness will run rampant (marriages will fracture, addictions will rage, etc.).  Consequently, the pastoral leadership challenge will not be on the practical front (how to effectively do online ministry or in-person services with restrictions – although these are very important) but on the people front when our brokenness bleeds out. 

You may say, “that seems very pessimistic. The vaccines are out and within a few months we will all be vaccinated, and things will return to normal.”  I want to challenge that on two fronts.  First, the law of large numbers is real and the job of 50 million vaccinations in Canada is mammoth (75% of the population with two doses) it isn’t until the majority of people are vaccinated can we all stop wearing masks and social distancing.

For example, if you are in Alberta (with a population of 4.4 million), we need to get the vast majority of the population vaccinated (assuming they will want to which is a massive issue that is being fueled through fake news) to get to herd immunity, that means the government will need to give some 7 million shots (as it is a two-shot vaccine).  Take out a calculator and do some quick math.  For those who think we will back to normal by the Fall (September for example), this would mean that by July (it takes several weeks after the second dose for the vaccine to take effect), we would need to be vaccinating about 40,000 people/day beginning today.  Today (January 4, 2021) in Alberta they vaccinated between 3,000 and 4,000 people (The Alberta government doesn’t plan on vaccinating the general public until September 2021).  I am not trying to alarm you or disparage those in government or our health officials.  This is a moon landing type operation.  The speed of vaccinations is sure to accelerate but it is a massive task and one that will not be completed until close to the end of 2021 (at the earliest, assuming everything goes right, and people trust the science and take it).  I hope I am wrong, and it is earlier, but this is a time for practical realism.

Secondly, if we are assuming that right after we reach herd immunity and vaccinations are done people are going back to a 2019 version of normal, we are mistaken.  People will shop, watch movies, eat out, go to school, exercise, travel, and worship differently as a result of this.  These things were on a 10–20-year trajectory of change; the change was just condensed into a year (no wonder we are exhausted).  We need to acknowledge this and adapt.  We ignore it at our peril.

My point is, sadly, we are NOT almost done with COVID.  We are, if all goes very well, only halfway through this.  You may not want to hear this.  I know I don’t.  But it is the truth and good leaders lead from a posture of truth and reality in order to lead forward with clarity and vision.  To ignore the long-term nature of this is to ignore the health of your organization, team and personal well-being. 

Take time to process this (it is something to grieve and grief takes time), pray (trust in Jesus), strategize/plan, and move forward with faith and hope.  The reality is, this longer timeline with permanent implications will mean more change, longer rationing of resources, harder days ahead, more division and strife, etc.  But it will also mean that we will discover new ways of doing ministry, get to the core of some of our long-ignored problems, be more innovative, collaborate more often, and, most importantly, discover that Jesus is, has always been and will always be, enough.

The Good News, finally!

The good news is (there is good news!), we know what to do. We have an idea of what online ministry looks like now (if you are wrestling with this, I wrote Digital Mission to help), we know how to do in-person ministry relatively safely (we have established protocols and routines), and we have everything we need to not just survive but thrive as the Church (most importantly the Holy Spirit who has not been isolating).   Additionally, the virus is not as deadly as we once feared and with more time will come even more therapies, understanding, better mitigation, faster testing, etc.  We will make it through this!

Most importantly, God is on the throne and faithful.  Jesus will build His Church.  These may seem like points from your last sermon, but they are points we get to live into and discover more fully in this long-hauled season. 

This is also an opportunity to press into systemic change and lead forward in ways we may have been too timid before.  Press in and see God do amazing things.  This is the time to do the following with your church:

  • Move your church away from an unhealthy Sunday-centric focus.  We were good at this (even if it didn’t effectively make disciples) and the future will not be found here.
  • Innovate digitally and see the many opportunities present online, not just the obstacles.  Digital is here to stay (even if you don’t like it)!
  • Make disciples. For the last several decades the Church has wrestled with how to make disciples and, although we know a disciple-making crisis was upon us, we did not make substantive changes that were needed.  This is the time to reimagine disciple-making with the systemic paradigm-shifting change needed.
  • Embrace evangelism – How are we sharing our faith in a Covid world?  How are we equipping our people to be on mission at work, home, and play?
  • Get lean – Church budgets per attendee has steadily increased for years.  What if this season will force us to re-think budgets and ministry staffing structures in new and creative ways?

Although this season may be devastating for churches and church leaders who refuse to adapt and change, I am convinced that it also holds the possibility to be some of the most fruitful for those who lean into change with hope, faith, and love.

The Light Is Here; it has Always Been Here

The bad news: the light is not at the end of the tunnel! The good news: the light has always been there.  It is the light in us, the light of the world (Jesus) and Jesus is calling us to shine His light in the darkness of this moment with His truth and His grace.

“Pivot!”

Made popular by Ross’ couch moving fiasco on the TV show “Friends,” “pivot” entered the cultural vernacular as a way to describe a needed change of direction draped in frustrated angst. 

Said with the same cultural anxiety that embodied Ross’s outbursts, we too have experienced the constant “pivots” (I can hear every pastor and leader exclaim this with the same exhausting intensity).

The Danger of Drift in a Pivoting World

As we constantly pivot to adjust to the changes imposed by our constantly changing circumstances, it is important to remember our anchor.  Pivoting only works if you are anchored to something, otherwise, it is “drifting.”  In this Covid-19 season, what are your pivot points and how secure are you anchored to them?  Are you adapting or drifting as you pivot?

I want to suggest several anchor points:

  1. Jesus – Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever and is securely on His throne.  He is not worried, and He will not fail.  Spend time today in worship-centred prayer simply acknowledging the greatness, goodness and graciousness of our God.  As we pivot the “where,” let’s stay anchored to “who.”
  2. Mission & Vision – Our mission is constant as the church – to make disciples.  Spend time reflecting on the mission and vision of your life and the church/organization you lead.  Be rooted in this constant and follow/pivot as God leads.  He will make a way.  As we pivot the “how,” let’s stay anchored to the “why”.”
  3. Values & Identity – Who we are in Jesus defines us and remains the same regardless of circumstances.  Additionally, the values we hold as individuals, families and church/organizations don’t have to change as we pivot. Our identity and values anchor us as we face the storms and challenges of life.  Spend time reviewing your identity in Christ, your calling and your core values.  As we pivot and adapt, let’s stay anchored to our identity and values.

Let us keep one foot firmly anchored to Jesus, our mission/vision and our values and identity.  By doing this, we can freely pivot the other foot, positioning ourselves to move wherever God leads in our constantly shifting world.

Learning the Lessons from Pivoting

As we learn to pivot in this season, there are some important lessons to embrace.  We have been in a season of accelerated change for the last decade or two.  Covid-19 moved accelerated change to warp speed.  If fast change is hard, hyper change is exhausting! Thus, if you are feeling the impact of this season, recognize that part of the reason is the speed at which we are processing change.  We are in the midst of the greatest cultural and technological change in history.  Don’t underestimate the impact of this on your life, leadership, team or organization.  Instead, use it to learn new skills and competencies. 

As a result, don’t view change as a series of individual crisis moments (acts of change); rather, see it as a new posture of constant fluidity and mobility (posture of change). 

These two views of change are fundamentally different.  The first is situational and static (it made sense when change was slower and incremental).  The challenge, however, is that it assumes change is semi-permanent.  Thus, if your decision-making, communication and organizational structures orientate towards this posture, it will grow weary in a culture moving at warp speed and constant change.

Rather, position yourself, your leadership, your team, your decision-making process, etc. around an adaptive and constantly pivoting posture.  This posture embraces empowerment, flexibility, constant innovation, trial and error, etc.  As we transition to the future, see it less as a static change model and more of a fluid change model.  This will enable you to adapt to our new reality where constant change is the norm.

Embrace the Art of Pivoting Not Just the Act of a Pivot

Whether, like Ross, you are frustratingly tired of calling pivots or, like Chandler, exhausted just hearing the word and just want to yell “Shut Up!” each time it is mentioned, may we know our anchor point and adopt an adaptive posture.  This posture will serve us as we move forward with Jesus on mission into our rapidly changing world.

In Search of a Digital Missiology

The digital pivot happened fast!

Although many churches struggled with engaging digitally over the last decade, the circumstances of COVID-19 forced a change.  What church leaders had been apathetic about, opposed to, or fearful of became a necessity.  As a result, the church enthusiastically transitioned to digital.

The church pivoted. Although churches pivoted out of necessity, some did so without critical reflection.  Even though we have become very aware of our missiological failures and the colonialism that dominated previous missionary movements, I fear we are in danger of repeating our past mistakes.

The missionary movements of the past often resulted from technological advancements that opened new mission frontiers.  In the rush and excitement of these new opportunities, the church often neglected the hard work of learning the language, understanding the culture, and contextualizing the gospel. 

We are in danger of making these mistakes with digital ministry!

In the rush to digital engagement, we didn’t consider the fact that digital culture is different from in-person ministry steeped in print culture.  Online ministry is cross-cultural.  With the same pragmatic excitement that sparked the missionary movements of old, we entered digital culture with an in-person ministry methodology.  We moved Bible studies to ZOOM and we live-streamed worship gatherings.  As we did, we soon discovered that the transition wasn’t as effective as we expected.  We discovered that in-person is different than digital. Instead of seeking to understand and translate ministry to digital culture, adapting our methodologies accordingly, we forced them onto a digital culture.  Consequently, they were ineffective and demoralizing.  They demonstrated our propensity to repeat our colonial past.

In the transition to digital, some of our churches had to lay off staff.  In a sad parallel to the colonial missionary movements of the past that ignored local expertise, most churches laid off their digital locals (younger staff fluent in digital culture) and kept the digital tourists (older staff unaware of digital culture).  Consequently, I implore all the senior leaders who will rebuild their staff and leadership teams after the pandemic to rebuild them with digital locals and not just with digital tourists.  Do not repeat our colonial past.

As the church digitally went beyond traditional borders (geographic and linguistic), it was blind to context and culture. In the same ethnocentric enthusiasm of our ancestors, many ignored the hard and difficult work of contextualization. The following are two of many examples. First, digital ministry’s strength and potential lie not only in its ability to spread wide but in its ability to go deep. Community is built and experienced differently online. Second, in digital culture, people want to be part of the content they consume. Ignoring this cultural distinctive will lead to poor engagement and a lack of effectiveness.

We need a better digital missiology!

The digital shift is not going away.  People will not work, learn, shop, play and worship in the same ways again.  Digital has shown its limitations, but it has also shown its capabilities.  The digital mission field has opened, and it is ripe for harvest. 

We are in danger of repeating our past mistakes.  I want to call us, in humility, to slow down and discover a better missiology.  I want to call us to learn about digital culture as we enter it on mission.  To do otherwise is not simply ineffective, it is counterproductive.  Digital is different and your digital ministry must be shaped accordingly.

To learn more about digital culture, Effective Online Ministry and Digital Mission:

Check out my upcoming online workshops with Ambrose University (back by popular demand) – Effective Online Ministry (October 21, November 4, November 18).  Register here.

Read my recent book: Digital Mission: A Practical Guide for Ministry OnlineAvailable now in eBook format at Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and the Canadian Bible Society (print book available soon).