Category Archives: church

The Fog of Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE THINGS TO TAKE INTO YOUR SUMMER

Dear Church Leader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!