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Six Things to Change in Your Church Re-Entry Mindset

Dear Church Leader,

As your church prepares to exit lockdown and re-engage with in-person gatherings, it is vital to prepare for the coming months with the right mindset.  As you do, consider these six things:

The Slow Re-Entry

Be prepared for a trickle, not a downpour, of in-person attendance.  As restrictions lift, everyone will not come back at the same time or with the same expectations.  Some will come with enthusiasm, some with caution, and some with apprehension.  Understanding this reality is vital in protecting your heart from potential discouragement and disappointment.  Additionally, if we expect people to all come back right away, we will not be prepared to help those who will take time to feel comfortable and reengage with in-person gatherings or to minister to those who choose to engage exclusively online.

Therefore, adjust expectations and allow for people to engage at their own pace.  To aid in this, it might be helpful to heighten regular hygiene practices, remove any stigma for those who prefer to continue wearing a mask, and be sensitive to people’s personal space by keeping designated extra social-distance seating for those who would prefer it.

The Great Migration

One of the practical dynamics of a pandemic is that although people moved geographically, we didn’t see this manifest in the local church as most kept engaging digitally after they moved. Although a small percentage may decide to stay digitally connected with their previous church after they have moved away, most will begin looking for a new church home as restrictions ease.  This will have two effects. First, it can be discouraging for pastors who will be faced with what would have, typically, been a series of losses over eighteen months, condensed into a short few. Second, it calls on the church to prepare for an unusual influx of people in the coming weeks/months as those who have moved geographically to your area are looking for a new church home.

Thus, as you prepare to welcome your congregation back, put extra energy into your newcomer strategies and hospitality ministry.  Consider ways to let new people in your community know of your church as they begin to look for a new church home.  Be sure to do this physically (signs, postcards, etc.) as well as digitally (Google and Facebook Ads).  Above all, remember that digital is the new front door.  If you haven’t done so already, be sure your newcomer engagement strategy includes, and even focuses on, your digital platforms.  Keep your website, social media, and live streams up to date with excellence and authenticity as people will attend digitally before they attend physically. 

The New Hybrid Normal

It is also important to recognize that, like most things in society (movies, education, work, etc.), people will desire a hybrid (physical and digital) approach, embracing the benefits of both.  As a result, people will engage with church physically less often and when they do, they will be looking for personal relationships and physical community.  The shift away from large performance-centric gatherings will continue and the growth of artisanal community expressions (both digitally and in-person) will continue to emerge and grow in dominance.

Thus, as you regather physically, pour increasing energy into community and relationships.  Additionally, don’t ignore digital and the unique gifts it offers your people to stay connected, foster community, and minister to people untethered by geographic restraints.

The Rebuild

As you look into the coming year, it is imperative that you begin to adopt a rebuilding mentality.  If you entered Covid with a mature church with great structure and momentum, it would be foolhardy to assume that mentality will work coming out of Covid.  As we exit Covid, your church will need to act more like a church plant than an established church.

Just as when a sports team enters a rebuilding year, you will need to adjust your mentality accordingly (change how you allocate resources, get back to the basics, simplify, adjust your expectations, focus on different priorities, etc.). Take time over the summer to review your ministry strategy and re-emerge focusing on the fundamentals that make your church unique.  If you don’t know what that is, this is a great time to discern it with your leadership team and relaunch into the Fall.  Don’t fall for the temptation to go back to what was.  Move forward engaging with a world that will look very different than it did a year, two, or five years ago.

The Great Divide

One of my brilliant colleagues made the apt observation that we will need to press into reconciliation in the coming year.  The world is increasingly divided, and the church is no expectation.  Your church cannot achieve its mission if it is divided, and Jesus wants us to show the world that we are His disciples by our love.  As a result, I believe this is our moment to be a shining city on a hill, glowing with the light of Jesus’ redemption and reconciliation.  God’s mission depends on it!

The Fall Out

As you enter this next year, I want to warn you.  It will be hard!  Not only will it be filled with rebuilding, but it will also be filled with broken and hurting people.  When disaster strikes it is not until after the devastation that people begin to deal with the internal pain and brokenness it created.  We would be naïve to assume that things will just spring back to life in people’s lives after the immediate effects of Covid are over.  People will be hurting emotionally, spiritually, and physically as we re-emerge from Covid.  Let us be prepared for the difficult times ahead by doing what we do best: pastoring, loving, and caring for people with the grace, hope, and love of Jesus.  Let us also be prepared that some of those hurting will be us.  Do not ignore your own brokenness as you care for others.

The Hope

Although our mindset needs to change as we engage in the coming months, the main things do not.  Jesus is still on His throne, and He is leading His Church.  Although the coming year will be filled with challenges, take heart.  Jesus is good, He has overcome, and He will lead us! 

As Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b, NIV) 

Five Things NOT to Miss as Your Church Regathers In-Person

As we move out of the Covid-19 pandemic and into our new normal, each jurisdiction will follow its own timing and process.  Whatever your area’s timeframe and reopening plans look like, it is important not to miss the following as you prepare to regather in-person.

Don’t Move Too Fast

Be cautiously optimistic.  The future is positive (we are almost at the end of this), but don’t put all your eggs in a fast-reopening basket.  If you are in Canada, most provinces have reopening plans that are tied to various factors (vaccinations, hospitalization, R-factor, etc.) which can change for various reasons (it would not be the first time we have had to move back a stage or delayed a plan’s progression).  Therefore, have plans for multiple scenarios and know that a delay or regression in a planned reopening is possible.  As with all things in the pandemic, be prepared to pivot fast and embrace short-term planning (recognizing the futility of long-term plans in a fast-changing environment).

Don’t Expect a Flood of Attendees as you Open

Recognize that as things open back up, some people will still be cautious (for many reasons).  Don’t be discouraged if attendance doesn’t instantly rebound to pre-pandemic levels.  Realistically, some people may not come back, and some people won’t feel comfortable for a while.  Pre-emptively protect yourself from discouragement if your attendance isn’t bursting at the seams and all your people are not as excited as you are to be back in-person right away.

Don’t Ignore People’s Concerns

As you prepare to regather in-person, know that some people will be cautious.  Handshakes, hugs, and close contact will not be as welcomed as they were pre-pandemic.  People will need increased physical space.  This will change over time, but it is key to honour people’s personal space as they re-engage.  Consider making it clear that masks are ok for those who will continue to wear them, create seating areas that honour more socially distanced spaces, and don’t push people faster than they are ready to go.

Don’t Lose what You have Gained

I can’t stress this enough!  For all the challenges of this last year, we gained so much knowledge, creativity, innovation, and new approaches in the Covid season.  Make it a point this summer to list all the things you learned, tried, and found success in and commit to keeping those learnings into the future.  Don’t lose your advancements in online ministry.  Don’t ignore all Covid taught you about congregational care and engagement.  Don’t forget all the insights about ways to serve your neighbourhood and community.  This may seem simple and obvious, but the temptation to fall back into all the well-worn pre-Covid ministry ruts is real.  Be intentional and strategic about the things you will keep doing as well as the things you will go back to.

Don’t Miss the Opportunity

As you move to regather, don’t miss the opportunity to rethink things.  Although you will be tempted to go back to the way things happened pre-pandemic, this is a time to make some systematic changes.  Use it to rethink your Sunday services, your community engagement, your children’s ministry, your youth ministry, your discipleship pathways, your congregational care strategy, etc.  In the rush to the familiar don’t miss the opportunity for change and increased effectiveness.

There is no doubt that this is an exciting time.  I am looking forward to re-engaging with my congregation in-person, but I am also aware of our human nature and don’t want to miss out on all that God wants to teach us as we move into the future on mission.

Five Things For The Church To Focus On This Summer

With the country coming out of lockdown (hopefully) and emerging into a new normal, the following are five things to focus on and plan towards as we enter the summer months.

Congregational Connections

Take the time and intentionally invest in connecting personally with everyone in your church over the summer.  We have done this regularly throughout the pandemic and will do so again over the spring/summer months.  Every household in our church will get a fun delivery (around our theme), a call from our congregational care team, and a call from one of our pastors.  Although this is a big investment of time (obviously done differently depending on your church size and context), it has been key to helping people stay connected, cared for, and has been a huge encouragement to our pastors, callers, and connectors.  In a season without casual in-person conversations, this is vital to keeping your community connected and cared for.

Embrace Fun

As a leader, I sense a strong narrative vacuum entering the summer and intentionally plan to fill that void with something constructive and positive (the problem with vacuums is that something will fill it – good leaders know this and are proactive at shaping and filling them).  In stark contrast to the negative narratives existing in the cultural ether and to build on the growing sense of enthusiasm and excitement of loosening restrictions, I want our church to be organizationally prepared with things exuding fun, excitement, and momentum as we move into the summer.  It takes planning and almost a sixth sense of where we are going to be, so you can be prepared to meet that space with your plans.  I have a strong sense that there will be excitement as we hit the summer and renewed optimism after a long Covid winter.  As a result, we will be cultivating lots of fun in our church.  We have a fun theme, missional activities to help our people connect with their neighbours, fun gathering events (that we can execute regardless of restrictions), and lots of levity planned.

Connected with the above, I also think people are starved for group celebrations.  We have gone over a year without birthday, anniversary, graduation, etc. celebrations.  Lean into celebrating this summer and into the fall.  Budget more for this and do more than you have ever done.  People are starved for it!  Celebrate everything you can think of and have fun doing it.

Evaluation and Planning

Take the summer to evaluate and plan for the fall.  This fall calls for proactive strategic thinking.  You only have so much time and resources.  How you deploy budget, ministry, staff, communication resources and volunteers is crucial.  Take time to think this out with several scenarios (depending on restrictions, etc.).  Additionally, consider your online ministry and its future.  Don’t lose all the gains you have made in this Covid season.  Intentionally grow these areas and do it in a way that works in tandem with your in-person ministry.  This will be key to the future of flourishing churches in our new normal.  To aid in this, I created a free online ministry evaluation guide that you can use with your team.  View/download it here.

Connect with Your Neighbourhood

In the last year, people have moved, readjusted routines, and reconsidered their priorities.  As a result, people are in a unique space to consider church and this aspect of their life.  There may be people who have moved into your community and are now looking for a church, there may be people who are now rethinking the need for God in their life and want to re-engage with a faith community for them and their family, etc.  Invest this summer in communicating to your surrounding community that you exist and care about them.  Embrace a season of invitation both corporately through your communication and advertising strategy but also encourage and empower your people to invite their friends and neighbours (some of which will be new over the last 18 months).

Rest

After the most challenging ministry season of our generation, be sure to rest over the summer.  Take all your holidays, slow down, and be sure to care for yourself and have others care for you.  I wrote about this and the unique season ahead in my previous post.  Don’t underestimate the precarious and dangerous season ahead.  Church leadership is hard.  You are often leading on the ledge alone while calling people to a place they don’t want to go.  This is why God gives some the spiritual gift of leadership.  If you have this gift, the church needs you in this next season.  It is time to lead your church into its future with great purpose and persistent hope.

Bring on the summer!

This summer will be unique in the life of your church.  Lean into it, make the best of it, and care for yourself as you do. Bring on the summer!

Beware the Journey Down

An Open Letter to Pastors

Dear Pastor,

You are almost to the end of the pandemic!  Praise God! 

Although we haven’t summited Covid Mountain quite yet, the peak is in sight.  During the weeks and months ahead, we reach the summit and begin the journey down.  As we do, I want to remind you of a lesson that all professional climbers need to be reminded of and one with potentially serious consequences:  Beware the journey down!

For all professional climbers, the allure of the summit is intoxicating.  They train hard, push harder and expend an exorbitant amount of energy to conquer the mountain.  With the expenditure of all remaining energy coupled with a lack of oxygen, climbers are at their most vulnerable during their descent.  This is why many accidents and deaths happen on the journey down.

I believe the same danger and truth exists for every pastor at this stage of the pandemic.  At the start of Covid with shutdowns and restrictions, there was the initial stress of adjusting, changing, preparing and pivoting.  Accompanying the stress was an adrenaline surge that fueled innovation and change.  Like the first phase of any climbing expedition, it was filled with a combination of exhilaration and trepidation.  In addition, like most immediate crisis moments, everyone rallied at the start.  However, as the journey carried on and now that we are close to the summit, everyone is exhausted, tired, and frustrated (even if they don’t know or acknowledge it).  As a result, we are at the most perilous part of the journey.

I regularly talk with pastors and denominational leaders from across North America and the consistent theme I am hearing is that pastors are exhausted.  Constant pivots, impact on the family, the weight of leading teams, and the responsibility of shepherding congregations from a digital distance have been difficult.  It has taken everything to get to the summit.  As we reach the peak of Covid Mountain I want to offer encouragement and warning as we enter the most dangerous section of the journey.  As you summit, celebrate God’s faithfulness in the ascent, recognized the impact of this last season on you and acknowledge the temptations and challenges ahead for the descent. 

As you prepare for the journey down, take a look and take stock.  Like all summiteers of mountains, look back, taking in the view and give thanks. Praise God for all He has done (in your life and in your church).  Write a list of all God has done in your life and in your church (do this personally and with your team). God has been faithful and has been working. You have learned new skills, your church has tried new things, you have learned key lessons and God has produced much fruit.  Take stock and give thanks!

Next, turn your attention to your descent and prepare yourself for the journey down.

As you descend, be aware of your vulnerability to react rather than respond.  When your energy levels are depleted, you will tend to impulsively react to situations and people rather than thoughtfully respond.  You have probably already seen this in yourself or others.  Be cognizant of this in your life, rest more, offer yourself grace, connect with friends, pray frequently, and press into your relationship with Jesus (the head of the church) in this season ahead.

As you descend, be aware of your increased susceptibility to sin.  The pain, frustration, and exhaustion of this season may lead you to unhealthy self-medicating through distraction and/or destructive actions.  Seasons like this turn flaws into fractures where the evil one finds footholds in our lives.  Recognize your increased susceptibility to this during the descent, keep short accounts, and find a trusted friend or counsellor to share your hurts, frustrations, and pain.

As you descend, be aware of the temptation to look for transition as a solution.  It could be that a change in roles, churches or careers might be the right decision but, in most cases during this season, it is not.  Transition away from something rather than to something is rarely a good decision.  Mountain climbers who experience mental and physical exhaustion on the descent can simply give up rather than find help or hope to carry on.  May you know, in advance, of this potential and choose to persevere and ask for help.

Recognize that this last year has been one of added pressures, making public health decisions for your church, increased critiques of you as a leader, and feeling incompetent at your “pivoted” role.  As a result, it may have led to experiences of anxiety and depression.  Don’t ignore this but seek help.  Find a professional counsellor (Clergy Care Network has great referrals) and work through the feelings, experiences and trauma you have experienced.  Don’t neglect this!  This has been helpful and healing for me at significant moments in my life and I know it will be for you!

As you prepare for the descent, ask yourself how you are really doing and enter the path ahead with an increased awareness that the greatest challenge and risk of this season is ahead and not behind you.  Beware the journey down!

Take a look from the summit to see what God had done but also recognize that the journey down will be precarious.  Watch your step, trust in Jesus, and take it one step at a time.

With you on the journey,


Bryce Ashlin-Mayo

Smashing the Wall of the Covid Leadership Marathon

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Hebrews 12:1-3, NIV 

If you have been following this blog through the pandemic, you read early about the need to treat this like a marathon rather than a sprint.  What we didn’t know at the time was that it would be an ultramarathon.  If you are like many in this ultramarathon of a pandemic, you are probably begun to feel an overwhelming sense of exhaustion and perhaps you have “hit the wall.”

Long-distance runners know the phenomenon of “hitting the wall.”  Hitting the wall usually occurs at the last portion of a long race when the body has depleted its storied glycogen and it begins (both physically and mentally) to shut down.  The body experiences sudden fatigue and the mind (partially due to a physiological reaction) is filled with negative thoughts, crippling self-doubt, and a strong compulsion to giving up.

Pushing through the wall takes mental fortitude and intentional planning.  I am not a marathon runner, but I know runners do several things to mentally and physically prepare and push through the wall.  As we run the Covid leadership ultramarathon, we are now at the “Hit the Wall” moment and I want to share some thoughts on smashing the Covid leadership wall and successfully completing the race set before us.

Unravel your Entanglements

In this marathon leadership season, you have probably experienced two common entanglements.  First, your flaws may have turned into fractures and sin may have gotten a foothold in your life.  Difficult seasons do this.  As the author of Hebrews reminds us, sin easily entangles and prevents us from running the race.  Sin will prevent you from thriving in this season and it can prevent you from completing the race.  Take time for self-reflection and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal any entanglements of sin that have wound themselves around you.  Perhaps you are struggling with jealousy, gossip, pride, pornography, lying, etc.  Whatever it may be, confess it to God and another trusted person.  Seek help if needed from a trusted friend or a professional counsellor.  Untangling ourselves often needs the help of a friend.

This season has probably raised the awareness of the common entanglement in church leadership.  The entanglement of one’s ministry, vocational role, and personal life.  Being a pastor is a unique job and career.  As a pastor, your friends, work, and church are all the same group of people and one’s work and life can become so intertwined that it is hard to distinguish one sphere from the other.  Marathon seasons can pull the cord that entangles these spheres tighter, making it very difficult to unravel our identity from our ministry and vocation.  Take time in the coming days to intentionally embrace your foundational identity as a child of God, find something and someone outside of your entangled sphere to help you unwind from the pressure it can cause and the confusion it creates. 

Feed Lots and Keep Hydrated

Runners know the importance of feeding your body before and during the race.  There is truth for pastors and church leaders here.  If you sense the wall is approaching and you are feeling depleted, eat and fuel your body, mind, and soul!  Intentionally consume energy-rich nutrients…even if do you don’t feel like it.  Feed your soul in ways that work for you: read the Scriptures, read books, connect with friends, go for walks, embrace a hobby, laugh often, do puzzles, play an instrument, etc.  Feed your soul and drink deep the love of God for the journey ahead.

Pace Yourself

Marathon runners will tell you the importance of pacing yourself.  If you are like most leaders, the beginning of the pandemic was powered by adrenaline and you probably pushed hard.  Really hard!  Granted, you didn’t know how long this would go on for and, thus, you probably didn’t pace yourself.  If you are feeling like you have no gas in the tank for the final stretch, I would urge you to slow down, and, if needed, even take a break.  It is better to complete the race walking than to end the race in injury or burned out in exhaustion.  As we approach the summer, there is wisdom in keeping the ministry momentum going for your church, but it is also vital to slow down and rest for the final stretch as you hit the Fall.  Pace yourself!

Rediscover Your Why and Persevere

One of the things that high-performance athletes do is visualize the race/event/game/match and the act of winning.  In many ways, they are both preparing their mind for the decisions that will need to be made but also reminding themselves of the why (crossing the finish line and experiencing the feeling of victory and accomplishment).  When runners hit the wall, their bodies begin to shut down and send signals to the brain to give up.  As a result, breaking through the wall is not just a physical feat but a mental one.  It takes mental fortitude to temporarily ignore the impulse to quit. 

The key to persevering and pushing through the wall is to remember the why (or in our case, it is also the who – Jesus – by fixing our eyes on Him) and to temporarily ignore the voice that says to give up now, it is too difficult, and it isn’t worth doing.  Amid the intense and ongoing pressure, you may feel the impulse to quit and give up.  There is wisdom in temporarily ignoring that impulse and push through the wall.  If needed, tell yourself that you will listen to this voice after you have processed this Covid season but, for now, you are intentionally deciding to not give in and to persevere.   Perhaps God is calling you on to do something else.  He may well be.  But there is wisdom in waiting until we are done the race to determine this and discern if this is truly God’s desire.  Until then, press on and smash the wall!

Run the Race

My encouragement to you as a colleague in ministry is to run the race set before you and smash the Covid leadership wall.  Don’t listen to the voice that may be calling at you to prematurely quit.  Rather, fix your eyes on Jesus, unravel your entanglements, fuel up, pace yourself and rediscover your why.