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What if God has stopped calling as many young people to traditional vocational ministry?

In a recent meeting with national theological educators, we were musing about the reasons for decreased enrollment among young people in all our ministry training programs (across North America and theological traditions/denominations).  During the conversation, I asked the intentionally provocative question:

What if God has stopped calling as many young people to traditional vocational ministry?  And, what might that be saying to the Church?

In our rush to solve perceived problems, we often circumvent prophetic questions with pragmatic answers.  I believe this is one of those times.  In our rush to solve a pragmatic problem (one to which I am very committed to addressing), what if we have rushed past a much bigger question (a question worthy of deep reflection)?

Before we dive into this bigger question, let me address what the problem of decreased enrolment in undergraduate ministry training programs is not (at least not completely). 

First, it is not simply a marketing problem. If this were the case, you would not see this issue across so many schools and traditions, with enrollment decline progressing at the same rates and with consistent timelines.

Second, it is not simply a distrust of academia.  There is a wider societal movement of distrust toward higher education, but I am not convinced this is the only reason for the decrease in ministry training track enrollment across North America.

Third, it is not simply a case of rising tuition costs.  Although an issue that must be addressed, tuition increases are seen in all sectors of higher education.

Fourth, it is not school or denomination specific.  Almost all denominations and traditions are experiencing a decline in young people entering ministry training programs.  Whatever is happening, it is not micro.  It is macro.

Finally, the issue is probably some combination of the above with elements of the much bigger questions asked earlier.

Perhaps…

I would like to suggest a more provocative and prophetic view of this question for us to consider. Perhaps God is calling fewer young people (directly or indirectly) for one or more of these other macro reasons…

Perhaps…We have not been faithful with the ones we have had. 

What if we have not been faithful with the shepherds God has called and entrusted to us, the church?  A quick glimpse of the pastoral health statistics will show you that being a pastor is not an easy job.  Now I am not just talking about long hours and lack of pay (all of which are often true) but about unrealistic expectations they can never fulfil (preach like Steven Furtick, counsel like Henry Cloud, lead like Carey Nieuwhof, etc.).  What if we have not been good stewards of the pastors God has called, so God is not entrusting us with more? 

Perhaps…God is answering another prayer. 

The church has long lamented the staffing ratio to church attendance/membership (if it hasn’t, it should).  This has been growing consistently for years and is a sign of the increasing professionalism of ministry.  We have prayed for a reversal of this trend for years and, yet, we haven’t changed our behaviour (it has only worsened).  Perhaps God is forcing the church to go “cold-turkey” on its addiction to professional ministry.  Perhaps God is answering our prayers by forcing more and more lay people into active ministry roles.

Perhaps, what we are doing (in general in the church) is not compelling to young men and women. 

The church has not been known for its ability or willingness to have tough conversations about complicated social issues and address issues of justice (race, disability, environment, etc.).  Often the critique of the academy is that we are too focused on these issues, but, as someone who spends time in the classroom, these are the questions young people have, and they are very passionate about them.

Perhaps, we haven’t clearly taught about the call to ministry. 

In our good efforts to talk about the call of God on all people with the invitation to see their vocations as equal acts of worship and ministry, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in this direction, and we have unintentionally downplayed the call to vocational ministry.  The Church must learn to do this intentionally as well as support young men and women who are exploring and pursuing that call.

Perhaps God is calling more women.

The percentage of young women pursuing ministry training continues to increase.  On the one hand, it is encouraging to see so many young women pursuing God’s call to vocational ministry and entering ministry training degrees and programs.  On the other hand, it is very discouraging to see extremely talented young women not given the same opportunities to lead as their young male counterparts.  Perhaps we have all the people we need for ministry positions; they are just not all men.

Perhaps God is calling more people from mid-career and vocational transitions. 

The trend of seeing fewer young men and women entering the ministry is countered by more mature adults pursuing vocational transitions into ministry. 

Perhaps young people are not ready to make significant career decisions in high school. 

This isn’t derogatory.  Young people are taking longer to decide what to do with their lives. It is a huge investment.  It is why I think Christian Universities and Bible Colleges need to design their first-year curriculum with this in mind, helping young people to discover who they are, explore their calling and discern what careers might be a good fit for them.

Perhaps, God is doing something new. 

Perhaps God is doing something bigger than our traditional methodologies can hold.  I am not saying this with resigned pessimism but with innovative optimism.  As new models and methodologies are being explored, God will lead in some creative and exciting directions.

Perhaps…

Let me know in the comments what you think might be missing here.

It’s Complicated

In the end, like most things, this issue is very complicated, and the answer is multifaceted.  I think the Church needs to speak more clearly on call, learn to care for its pastors better, partner with young people in the pursuit of vocational ministry, release more ministry leadership to women, embrace new methodologies and forms of church, etc.  And our theological schools need to address this in real ways by helping students to discern their call, building trust between the academy and the church, teaching students the needed competencies to serve faithfully in our complex world, and pursuing new models and methodologies for excellent theological education (if we trade excellent theological education for pragmatic expedience, the Church will suffer deeply) and ministry training that partners with and actively serves the Church.  Again, the answer is complex, and it will take the Church and the academy partnering together.  The problem is real, the solution(s) is complicated, and the need is now.

Hybridge Ministry

Hybridge Ministry: Bridging the In-Person and Digital Divide

As your church considers the future of digital ministry in a post-pandemic world, you are probably contemplating what is referred to as a hybrid (combination of in-person and digital) model of ministry. This is often experienced through live-streaming in-person worship services or providing the ability to allow small groups or discipleship classes to have digital participants join the in-person participants through video conferencing software.

Although some churches will embrace different digital and in-person strategies and ministry methodologies, most will adopt a hybrid ministry model for a variety of reasons (most commonly, limited time and resources). To better communicate the desired outcome of this ministry model, I have started to use the term “Hybridge Ministry.” Hybridge Ministry seeks to close the digital gap and connect both groups.

Like all bridges, they are only as strong as their foundation. Thus, I want to suggest four foundational columns for effective Hybridge Ministry.

Column One: VALUE Digital

Digital ministry and the technology that allows it is still in its infancy. Social media, live-streaming, and video conference technology continue to develop rapidly, and the emergence of the Metaverse™ and other iterations of the digital domain (including the Neuralink™) will continue to evolve. One thing’s for certain, we never really go backwards with technology. Like it or not, technology always frogmarches us into the future.

Digital will have an increasing place in our collective futures. Consequently, I believe thriving churches will have a robust and reflective (understanding its potential and its perils) digital ministry strategy that embraces the way people will increasingly connect and learn. Digital is a growing means of engagement and community for people in our world.

As culture and the church comes out of the pandemic, you may be tempted to make digital the scapegoat of your post-pandemic church problems: people’s lack of engagement, decrease in giving, lack of disciple-making, etc. Although it may be convenient, these problems can’t be laid at the feet of digital ministry. The reality is that these were all very prevalent and well-documented pre-pandemic problems. The pandemic only accelerated them. Digital has its issues and challenges, but it is not necessarily the reason for all the Church’s challenges. As a result, be cautious about making it an easy scapegoat, ignoring the more significant and critical issues and problems.

As you engage in Hybridge Ministry, be very careful not to make digital second-class citizens. Recognize that some people engage online because of family challenges, social anxiety, health issues, lack of mobility, disability, etc. One of the benefits of this season is that the church has become more accessible to people. It would be unfortunate to regress, close the doors, and devalue this access as the church re-engages in person.

As a result, treat digital with dignity. Assign online hosts, call on Zoom small group participants during discussions, and welcome and acknowledge your online community, helping both communities feel valued and integrated.

In summary, Hybridge Ministry is best done when ministry occurs in the middle of the bridge. This is challenging (as we will discuss), but it is foundational to its effectiveness. Although there will be a temptation to accentuate the in-person (out of convenience or for philosophical reasons), don’t overlook the digital.

Column Two: RECOGNIZE that Digital is Different

One of the dangers of Hybridge Ministry is the assumption that in-person and digital cultures work the same way. This is not the case. Digital is not just a different platform; it is a different planet. I talk about this at length in my book, Digital Mission and the Digital Mission Course. Relationships, community, authority, communication, and how we understand the world operate differently online. This is why Hybridge Ministry is uniquely challenging if not done with sensitivity and intentionality.

Take time to consider more than what you are doing and the technology and platforms you are using. Take time to consider digital culture and how you will effectively engage your digital and in-person participants, knowing they will experience things differently. Asking “how” is challenging, but it is also vital in the success of your Hybridge Ministry.

Column Three: RESOURCE Digital

For effective Hybridge Ministry to take place, it needs resources. I am not primarily talking about technology or platforms (although necessary). Instead, Hybridge Ministry needs resources in people and attention. For example, if you are doing a Hybridge small group, class, or worship service, it is vital that you consider the digital audience as important. Staff it (paid or volunteer). Let people know that those who are online are valued and welcome. Be sure to welcome and acknowledge digital participants, making them feel like they are part of what is happening, and translate between in-person and digital cultures. The digital audience will be disenfranchised as second-class citizens if you don’t, and they will fade into the digital distance.

One effective means to evaluate the effectiveness of your Hybridge Ministry methodology is to ask how the in-person audience would feel if the meeting, service, or event were primarily online and the people in the room were only watching on a large screen. What if they were the passive audience? This would be rejected as inconceivable but consider the reverse. How does our Hybridge Ministry make the digital participants feel? Are they ignored? What would it mean to meet the two groups in the middle?

This may seem like an impossible goal, and one must choose one or the other. However, with some thoughts and tweaks on how you engage people and bridge the digital divide, you can ensure the online audience feels as engaged as the in-person congregation. Attempt to meet in the middle of the Hybridge.

Column Four: FOSTER Two-Directional Contextual Community

In the next year, there will be an influx of companies offering to outsource your digital ministry. As the church moves back to in-person gatherings, the resources allocated to digital will need to be split. This is understandable. However, digital ministry outsourcing will be ineffective. In a sea of content, what makes your digital ministry unique is your church’s proprietary stories, your pictures, your recaps, your people, your community, etc. Generic graphics outsourced to a team unplugged from your community will lead to disengagement and reduced effectiveness. Digital Ministry is like fine art; its value is in its provenance (the story connected to it). Effective digital ministry is all about contextualization and authenticity (made in your community, by your community, and for your community). Artisanal content is always better even if it means less content with less polish.

As you engage in Hybridge Ministry, move your community and content in both directions. Mix your content and cross-pollinate between digital and in-person. You probably take pictures of your in-person gatherings for social media, but what do you do to bring the digital into your in-person gatherings? Make contextual and authentic content in two directions. This will help to build community in both directions.

Hybridge Ministry

Hybridge Ministry is probably the most efficient model for most churches in this season. Yet, it is also the most complicated. It comes with a temptation to disenfranchise digital and see it as an afterthought or bonus. As you engage in Hybridge Ministry, be sure to build the bridge over the digital divide using the four columns and keep learning as you do. We will not go back when it comes to technology and so moving forward with an innovative impulse paired with a constantly evaluative lens is vital for the church to be faithful into the future.

If You Want to Make It Through This Next Year, Do This!

Sometimes the world works counterintuitively.  Sometimes you must go backwards to go forwards.  Sometimes you must steer right to go left.

For example, when you navigate a sailboat, you must turn the tiller in the opposite direction you want the vessel to go.  Or, when riding a motorcycle, if you’re going to make a hard right turn, you must turn the handlebar sharply to the left.  Sometimes things are counterintuitive.

This same principle is true for resilience and promoting physical and mental health during increased and prolonged stress.  What we want or are inclined to do is often the opposite of what we need.

As we persevere through this pandemic, the stress is prolonged and compounded.  It is both cumulative and exponential.  The way to survive this sustained stress is counterintuitive. 

This should not come as a surprise.  The way to health is often the opposite of what we are prone to.  For example, you expel energy (through exercise) if you want more energy.  Additionally, if you struggle with inclinations to withdraw from others in times of stress, the opposite is a better choice: embracing healthy relationships and community.  Health is often found in the opposite direction that we are prone to travel in times of stress.

When times are challenging, and we are experiencing extended seasons of stress, we all have a tendency and impulse to focus on ourselves.  However, counterintuitively, the healthiest thing we can do is care for others.  Research states that when we care for others, check in on them, practically care for them and pray for them, we feel better.  And it is not for the reasons you think. 

It is not because you will realize someone else has it worse than you.

It is not because you will get a warm fuzzy feeling for doing a good deed, although that may occur.

Instead, there is something intrinsically life-giving when we love and care for others.  When we care and show compassion for others, we begin to recalibrate our self-talk and become more compassionate with ourselves.  We rewire our brains towards compassion. 

“Research also shows that when we do focus on caring for others in times of stress, it changes our brain chemistry in such a way that produce feelings of both hope and courage.” (Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before by Julie Smith, pg. 253)

Thus, if you want to survive this season of prolonged stress as a church leader, family member, business owner, etc., one of the best things you can do is find others to care for, not just others to care for you.  Although it may be counter-intuitive, it is one proven strategy in building resiliency.

Now, I need to make an important distinction that this is not about removing healthy boundaries with people.  Or, if you are suffering from compassion fatigue, this is not calling you to feel guilty for not caring for others or having the ability to do so.  It is essential to draw healthy boundaries and keep them in those circumstances. Instead, I am referring to those just struggling to find hope and courage in this stressful pandemic season. 

Therefore, if you are wrestling with hope and courage, find resilience by counterintuitively giving them away!  As you encourage and bless others, you will be blessed as a result. 

Five Things to Consider This Christmas

Dear Pastors and Church Leaders,

How are you doing…really?

If you are like most pastors and church leaders these days, the longevity of this season of change, division, lack of volunteers, decrease in giving, etc. has depleted your limited reserves and you are past empty.

Covid has taken its overpriced toll and you are not alone.  According to Barna Research, 38% of US pastors (it is probably the same in Canada) have seriously thought about quitting (an increase from earlier in 2021). https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-well-being

As we enter our second Covid Christmas, I want to offer five things to consider as encouragement and advice for both your soul and your ministry:


Take Time to Disentangle Your Life from Your Ministry

The pandemic has been an accelerator and amplifier.  It has accelerated change and amplified challenges.  One of the challenges for pastors that has been amplified is ministry entanglement.  It is understandably hard for pastors to separate their ministry from their marriage, friends, family, personal life, etc.  They are by nature interconnected and intertwined.  Thus, when there are stresses and challenges in ministry, it can suffocate the other areas of their lives.  In fact, the very challenges Covid has amplified (feeling disconnected, incompetent, and beat up from division and hurting people) may be strangling the life and joy out of you and making you feel increasingly isolated and alone.

When you are being suffocated by ministry entanglement, it is not a simple task to disentangle yourself and begin to breathe again.  It is a complicated web, formed over time and tied in knots by lies regarding your identity.  It is possible to untangle yourself, but it is not easy.  Like all knots, the first thing to do when you look to untangle them is to find the ends.  One way to do this is by creating an identity statement that states who you are separate from what you do and your role as a pastor.  Write a paragraph statement that you can read daily as a reminder of what your life is supposed to look like when untangled from what you do.  Second, create a relationship inventory to see gaps in your relationships and discover how many of them are personal over professional (ministry-related).  It is vital to have relationships that exist outside of what do you and feed into who you are apart from your ministry role.  Thirdly, you will need help.  These kinds of knots can’t be undone alone, and you need the help of a trusted friend and/or counsellor to guide you.  Finally, begin to rediscover joy in life by intentionally doing things you enjoy (or if it has been a while, things you once enjoyed) with people you enjoy, seeking to laugh each day (with the goal to laugh so much it hurts once a week) and embrace God’s gift of fun.

Embrace Neo-nostalgia this Christmas

As you lead your church this Christmas, embrace the new and creative but do it with a sense of traditional nostalgia this Christmas.  Embrace the traditions of your church, sing classic Christmas songs, light lots of candles, and embrace the familiar.  There is comfort in familiarity and this Christmas I sense people need the grilled-cheese-and-tomato-soap-on-a-rainy-day-Christmas over the hyper-creative-gourmet-meal that sees familiarity as the enemy.  Take a new spin on traditional (the neo of the neo-nostalgia) but embrace the familiar rather than shy away from it.

Personalize Care this Christmas

If it has been a while since you have checked in with your congregation, now is the time to personalize care again.  Make phone calls, do creative deliveries, mail personalized notes, etc.  Every church context is different, but regardless of your context or church size find a way to personally care this Christmas.  In a season of disconnection, these connection points (although taxing for you, your staff, and your congregational care team) are the lifeline for your church family. 

Be Flexible and Have Backup Plans

This should be second nature by now, but whatever you do, don’t put all your eggs in one regather basket.  Every jurisdiction is different, but it is key to have backup plans for your backup plans.  Covid can change in an instant and having a way to move online or that allows for more people to gather in person is key to adjusting in this season.  Having alternative plans is a little more work upfront but it can reduce stress and anxiety for you and your team, allowing for quick and effective pivots if needed.

Keep Going!

In every pastoral coaching call I do, every pastoral ministry class I teach, and pastor group I speak to, I end with an encouragement to “Keep going!”  Covid has been a leadership marathon, and, like all marathons, the runners don’t need cheers at the beginning of the race.  Rather, the runners need it most as they approach the “runner’s wall” when the impulse to quit and give up is at its peak.  It is exactly at this point that they need to be reminded that a breakthrough is coming and that things are better than they appear.  I sense we are approaching the wall and as we do, we are also at our most vulnerable to despair and hopelessness.

Maybe this Christmas is the pastoral ministry wall for you.  If so, I want you to hear me, and many others who are cheering you on.

You can do it!

Don’t give up!

Keep going!

It is worth it!

Jesus is worth it!

PLOD: Encouragement and Advice for Pastors in the Fourth Wave

As we enter the fourth wave of Covid and press into the fall ministry season, I want to offer some words of encouragement and some practical advice.  To do so, let me share a very old hymn by AB Simpson, Plod.

This hymn embodies great advice in our current ministry climate.  In a season where you are trying to figure out what ministry looks like in constantly changing restrictions, hybrid (in-person and online) formats, digital fatigue, divided churches (over Covid and vaccines), and empty seats (most churches I know are running at a fraction of pre-Covid in-person attendance), it can be hard to know what to do and one can easily become disoriented and discouraged.

I want to suggest a simple course of action from the old hymn, Plod.  Plodding may sound strange and even defeatist in a social media and success-driven culture that compulsively celebrates “amazing.”  We are used to hearing triumphant leadership advice that promised to skyrocket your success and effectiveness.   In contrast, perhaps God is calling us to unfettered faithfulness.  A faithfulness in our calling as pastors to pray diligently, preach the gospel in season and out of season, attentively care for people without expectation, and regularly offer the sacraments.  What if this faithful persistence to our calling is the main thing to focus on in a season like this, trusting that fruitfulness (whatever and whenever God determines that to be) will result? 

It may seem glib and defeatist to some, but God is calling us to plod.  Not in a defeated acceptance of seeming ineffectiveness but in faithful service to our King and our calling, regardless of immediate reward.

Now…the temptation in a post like this is to end with a triumphant declaration that victory will come, that the night always precedes the dawn, and that “success” is right around the corner.  Perhaps!  But…what if it isn’t?  Is Jesus still enough?  Is faithfulness to the King and His Kingdom worthy of my life regardless of accolades or perceived “success?”  The answer of course is “yes” and maybe the unexpected gift of this season is a sifted view of success that elevates faithfulness and fruitfulness over effectiveness and success in our lives and ministries.

As you endure the fourth wave, embrace faithfulness for, in the words of AB Simpson, “Plod will win the day.”