Category Archives: church

Fight Covid Fatigue with F.O.C.U.S.

An Open Letter of Encouragement for Pastors

Dear Pastor,

This season has been long!

In the last year, you moved your ministries online, adjusted to everchanging health measures, learned to work and minister from home, and navigated growing mental and physical health concerns in people’s lives (including those in your life and in the lives of your family).  It is been a tough season, and everyone is exhausted.  Tiredness has begun to devolve into fatigue and hopefulness has unravelled into helplessness.

If you are feeling this, you are not alone.  I don’t mean to normalize exhaustion or depression (resigning to its tenacious grip) but to acknowledge the pervasive nature of this season and that your feelings are not because of a personal deficiency or lack.  You are tired because you are running a marathon not because you are out of shape.  As a result, you may be tempted to give up (look for a different job) or give in (stop pursuing and caring about your church’s mission and vision).

As a means of hope and help, allow me to offer some much-needed encouragement and some practical suggestions in navigating the coming days using the acronym F.O.C.U.S.

F – Focus on Vision

“Where there is no vision the people perish” Proverbs 29;18a, KJV. 

This passage is often quoted in regard to organizational and corporate vision, but I think it can be equally applied personally.  When helping people through conflict and difficulty, one of the first things I try to do is provide a picture of what reconciliation and/or a God honouring future might look like.  Give yourself, your church and your people vision for this season. Help them see with hope and vision for their marriages, relationships, ministries and church. This is one of the more important things you can do. Do it for others, do it for your church and do it for you.

O – Outreach

Reach into your neighbourhood and community.  One of the temptations in difficult seasons is to become self-centric as opposed to others-focused.  However, when we serve others and offer love and hope, we often experience it ourselves.  Love is best experienced when given away.  Find ways for you, and your church, to reach into your community on mission and show and share the love of Jesus (write cards to people in care homes, serve at your local food bank, do something fun for your community, etc.).

C – Community

Build community at every opportunity.  In a sea of online content and digital connections, people are desperate for community. You are desperate for community. Help people gather together in smaller groups and grow your discipleship ministries.  Help people discover each other and foster community.  Find ways to do this yourself. Although we can’t do this fully in-person, there are means to do this digitally.  As a pastor, be sure that you are also doing this.  Connect with other pastors and friends you haven’t seen for a while (call, text for video conference). You will be blessed as you are a blessing to others. 

U – Underline Care at Every Turn

Everywhere you can, care!  Find ways to show your personalized care for people in your church.  Organize personal calls, write personalized cards, deliver personalized care baskets, etc.  Whatever you do, find ways to personally care for people.  Not only will this bless the people in your church, but it will also bless you, your staff and your leaders.  Ministry in the blind can be depersonalized.  Find ways to ramp up personalized care for people in this season.  It will bless your church and it will bless you!

S – Share Hope

I connect with a lot of pastors and denominational leaders and this is a very hard time.  Pastors and church leaders are tired!  This season has been relentless, and it isn’t over yet (although it might seem like we are weeks away from a new normal, it will be months). Although we are at the end of ourselves, it is often at our end that we discover more of God.  God will meet us in this.  Jesus has been, is, and will continue to be faithful.  Whatever situations or challenges that you are facing in your life and ministry, Jesus has not abandoned you and because He is with you, you have a Living Hope.  We do not necessarily have hope in a better tomorrow, but we do have an unswerving hope in a good God who will never leave us nor forsake us.  Jesus is the head of the Church and He knows what He is doing, even when we don’t. Just as the sun will rise and set tomorrow, our hope remains steadfast in Him.

Above all, focus on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith!  Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid.  Jesus is with us and He will not fail.  Therefore, persevere with renewed F.O.C.U.S.

In your corner,

Whatever You Do, Don’t Do This

Whatever You Do, Don’t Do This: A Lesson from GameStop for the Church

Several weeks ago, amateur stock traders rallied together to boost the stock of GameStop, artificially inflating the stock price and disrupting the stock market.  Although Wallstreet investors were betting on GameStop’s inevitable demise (GameStop is like Blockbuster for video games), the amateur traders manipulated the system for their benefit.  They drove the stock price up and, if they bought low and sold high, profited while those on Wall Street lost.

Beyond the sensational headlines of this modern-day participatory culture case study with a David & Goliath edge, is an undeniable reality that, in spite of the temporary surge in stock enthusiasm, GameStop’s out-of-date business model will not be profitable in our increasingly downloadable world.

I believe a similar storyline has started to play itself out with the Church.  As the Church prepares to enter a post-Covid world, there will be many church leaders who will rush back to reopening and abandon their digital expressions, ministries and methodologies as they do.  As we embrace the promise of re-opening in society, we are at risk of “flooding the market” and buying stock in our previous out-of-date and ineffective ministry methodologies.  We will be tempted to trade in false hope!

As a church leader, you are entering a precarious season with a major temptation.  With accelerating vaccine rollouts (yay!) and the promise of things opening up again (yay!), the temptation of the church will be to go back to the way it was rather than the way it needs to be.

The lure will be strong!  We will be tempted to go back to what we knew, even if it stopped working long before Covid struck.  This will be the case for education models, business plans, architectural design, and churches.  In our rush for normalcy, we are at risk of selectively forgetting our previous ineffectiveness.  We’ll forget that overall church attendance, giving and engagement (across all denominations) were all trending downward before the pandemic.  To think the trend will magically reverse as we enter a “new normal” with an altered world is naive foolishness.  Will it feel good again to do things we are highly competent at?  Yes.  Will it be as effective as before?  No.  Although it may feel good to us, it will not, necessarily. mean it will be good for the church.

This is not a new human temptation.  Consider the Israelites in the desert.  It wasn’t long after their exodus from Egypt that they longed to go back.  Even though it was terrible, they longed for the familiar and predictable.  We are the same.  We, too, are tempted to just go back to the old way of doing things, even if it didn’t work, rather than adapt, learn, grow, change and redeploy for a new post-Covid world.  I don’t blame anyone for the temptation.  A year of learning new ways of doing things is exhausting; feeling like a fish out of water is uncomfortable.  However, to abandon all the lessons we have learned, the new methodologies we have discovered, the skills for innovation we have embraced and to revert back to the old way of doing things in a world that has been altered forever (especially when the old way of doing things was universally determined as ineffective) would not be wise.  It will be easy, tempting and comfortable, but it won’t be good leadership.

What wasn’t working before, won’t magically work now.  Society has taken ten years of change and condensed it into one.  If our evangelism and discipleship ministries weren’t effective before, resurrecting them post-pandemic won’t make them work.  Additionally, not everyone will come back in-person.  Some will prefer online engagement.  You may disagree (especially if you, personally, prefer in-person expressions) but there are people in our church communities who will desire to stay connected exclusively online or use online engagement as a way to augment their in-person participation.  We can’t ignore this group in our rush to in-person gatherings.  If we do, we do so at our peril.

We are all tired of change and we will all be tempted to just move back into the well-worn ruts of previous (pre-Covid) ministry methodologies.  I believe we are at a crossroads to either change and adapt to our emerging world or devolve back into a church that was already waning in effectiveness, blissfully adopting out-of-date methodologies for a world that no longer exists.  Nostalgia may feel good, but it is a sterile environment for conceiving vision.

As you look ahead, recognize the long-term impact of your choices and commit to move against your natural impulse and use this time to implement the long-term change needed.  Refuse to go back to the way things were.  Refuse to embrace ineffectiveness because it feels comfortable.  Whatever you do, don’t do this!

Ministry in Digital Culture: This Time It’s Personal

Although Jaws IV is arguably the worst of the Jaws film franchise and worthy of our collective amnesia, its tagline has defied the fate of the film and remained in the cultural ether: “This Time It’s Personal.”  This memorable line has permeated culture more than the scent of chum in water during shark hunting season. 

This phrase also encapsulates the reality of digital technology and the times we are in.  We live in the digital age of personalization where everything we do is customized to us.  We have personalized home screens on our devices, personalized movie suggestions on Netflix, personalized stores on Amazon, personalized Apple/Spotify music channels and personalized newsfeeds.  All of which have algorithms that curate the content we consume.  Separate from the dangers of this (we’ll address them later), people increasingly expect a personalized experience in digital space.  Unlike mass media where things were necessarily impersonal and generic, digital culture is incredibly personal and specific.

The personal nature of digital technology is partially why although people want to participate in the content they consume, they also prefer to wait in digital anonymity deciding if/when to step into digital view.  Digital space is intimate space and deeply personal.  Stepping into view means not just stepping out of anonymity but into intimacy.  For example, when one comments on a video or live feed, it means linking their profile to their comment and exiting the comfort of (perceived) digital anonymity for the spotlight of digital intimacy.  This is why digital space also provides the user with the unique ability to decide when and how known they want to be.  This is a new [digital] cultural norm, and we need to recalibrate our means of engagement to adapt.

In digital culture, pastors and church leaders must provide increased space for people to feel comfortable online before an expectation of engagement.  The challenge is, we are accustomed to impersonal communication and engagement with people in public in-person space that operated under a different social contract and norm.  As a result, our in-person and mass media influenced strategies and methodologies were often depersonalized as a result.  However, digital is different.  It is highly personal and, by the very nature of digital, more intimate.

Therefore, as you consider your ministry, how can you make your preaching, communication, online interactions, etc. as personal as possible?  How can you allow a safe initial engagement online to build trust and allow people a safe way to engage?  How can your preaching become even more proprietary (personal) to your people?  In other words, how can you make it more specific to your congregation as opposed to the generic forms of communication of mass media?  How can your online communications and mailing lists be more personalized (MailChimp and others can do this)?  How can your church advertising become more targeted and personal to the people you are trying to reach (all digital advertising, unlike mass media advertising, is personalized and targeted)?  As we move increasingly into digital culture, we will need to make our ministries and communications more personal as we do.

As you explore this in your ministry, a warning.  As Marshall McLuhan argues in his book Four Laws of Media (Technology), all media (technology) when taken to its extreme reverses on itself.  This too is the danger of personalization.  Taken to the extreme, we become addicted to personalization and it can fester into hyper-individualism and selfishness. 

Unlike what online algorithms tell us, everything is not about us.  One of the inherent dangers with the personalization of information, news, movies, music, etc. is that we begin to lose the skill of empathy and listening to others in the process.  As you pursue increasing ways to personalize your ministry, be aware of this potential and protect against it.  Teach about empathy, avoid ministry silos that can be common, intentionally breach the generational divide, etc.

There is another famous line from the original Jaws that is apt in this discussion, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” 

As we get a bigger boat online, may we be aware of our tendency to fill it with people just like us.  May we be reminded that love suffocates in sameness.  May we, in our desire for personalization, not lose sight of the mission that takes difference to accomplish.

“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.

The Awkward Covid-19 Dance

We are currently in an awkward dance with the COVID-19 virus and it’s about to step on our feet.  Hard!

In the early stages of the virus, we were introduced to the concept of the Covid-19 hammer and dance.  This is the concept used by public health officials to describe the process of controlling a virus with public health measures.  In March we experienced the hammer (the lock-down) as a means to control the infection numbers, “flatten the curve,” and bring the spread of the virus under control.  By doing this, we were able to enter the dance (the season of gradual reopening that we are now in).  The dance is the increasing and decreasing measures of gathering sizes, precautions, restrictions, etc. to keep the numbers at a controllable level by balancing public health with society’s need for the economy, physical community, and education.

As the church, we made the adjustments to the hammer in March by moving exclusively online (with varied success – more on that and why in a future post).  We are now adapting to the dance as most churches are cautiously moving to some sort of public in-person gatherings.

As we enter the Fall, we will be faced with the second wave of the virus (historically, the second wave is the most dangerous and deadly).  As a result, there is a very strong possibility (even probability) that the hammer will be coming back and, as a result, the church will be moving back exclusively online.  I know this is not the news you want to hear, and you will be tempted to ignore it as alarmist.  Yet, I would encourage you to not yield to that temptation. Rather, I implore you to make a plan and prepare for the possibility.

In the coming days, I would urge pastors and church leaders to be prepared in two ways.  First, have a plan for all your ministries to go back fully online.  Whatever you think of online ministry, this is something you can be prepared for.  Just as you have a plan to progressively open up, have a plan to move back fully online.  Second, begin preparing your staff, leaders, elders, and church members for this possibility.  A tenant of change management is to telegraph your moves and if people know you have a plan, they will respond much better when you have to execute it (give a sense of calm and purpose as they do).  Preparing people for this is good leadership and will help your church/ministry lean into the challenge ahead rather than scramble in desperation or surrender in defeat.

As you continue to do the Covid-19 dance, are you ready for the possibility of the hammer?  Be prepared, have a plan, and when/if it comes, you will be able to pivot with intentionality, confidence, and effectiveness.