Category Archives: Pastor

Taming Your Problems; Saddling Your Challenges

A Season of Stampeding Problems

This is a season of stampeding problems that can seem like they are charging us on every side.  In a season of intense pressure, it is important to consider how to effectively process problems, so they don’t trample you.

Like many people, I have been binge-watching several TV series.  One of my recent favourites is Yellowstone.  Yellowstone stars Kevin Costner and is a cross between Bonanza and Sons of Anarchy.  In addition to its anti-hero protagonist and cliff-hanger episode endings, it has you secretly wanting to build a cabin and train horses (this is, literally, the life of my dad).

One of the narrative devices, metaphors, and subplots of the show is the process of taking a wild horse and breaking it, so that it is able to be ridden and, in the hands of an expert equestrian, do astonishing things.

This image is well suited for seasons of immense and relentless pressures.

What does it look like to tame our problems and saddle our challenges with a tenacious hope in God and the empowering of the Holy Spirit?

Confining the Problem

Like wild horses, the first step in taming problems is to corral them.  In a season of stampeding problems, this can seem harrowing but it vital.  If you are feeling overwhelmed with people issues, conflict situations, regathering protocols and family matters, it is important to separate them.  Problems, like wild horses, stampede together.  Take time to list (corral) them by naming them. Problems, like a herd of wild horses, are less overwhelming and dangerous when they are separated and corralled.

One of the benefits of corralling your problems is that it is easier to separate them with fences in your mind.  If you find yourself being stalked by your problems while you are trying to sleep or being present with your family, corral them on paper.  Once you have listed and separated your problems, create appointments with them.  This way you know when you will pick them up again. 

Challenges are Tamed Problems

Now that you have corralled your problems, it is time to tame them into opportunities.  Like breaking a wild horse, it can be risky, but it can also be rewarding. Persistence and perseverance are fundamental in this process.  You have to face your problems to break them.  It is vital to face each problem individually and find a way to reframe it into a challenge.  One of the main differences between problems and challenges is how you see them ending.  For each of your problems, face them head-on.  List what you are afraid of, what all the possible outcomes are and what the risks are.  Then, intentionally, reframe each of them into a challenge by prayerfully seeing what God could do in each.  A challenge is just a problem tamed with hope.  Tame your problems into challenges by pulling yourself into the future with a persistent hope in Jesus.

Opportunities are Saddled Challenges

Now that you have tamed your problems into challenges, it is time to saddle them into opportunities.  Consider how each challenge can be an opportunity for God to work in your life, someone else’s life, your ministry/church, etc. and begin to act your way into them with this perspective.  Our hope is not in the removal of the problem but in God’s work through them.  Consequently, don’t see problems as obstacles to be avoided but as opportunities to explore.  Saddle your challenges into opportunities by praying your way through them with a persistent hope in what God can do.

The Journey Ahead

On occasion, I have had the privilege to go horseback riding in the mountains.  It is an amazing experience.  Not only is the settling amazing but the fact that you are journeying on the back of a once untamed horse is a marvel.  Riding a horse on a trail near a cliff edge is a poignant image of someone who has learned to corral their problems and saddle their challenges. They know that there will always be problems and, as a result, there will always be opportunities. Thus, the wisdom here is not to make all the problems go away (avoid them or ignoring them) but learn how to tame and saddle them as they take you into the wide frontier ahead!

In an unprecedented season of problems, may we learn with God’s help to corral, tame, saddle, and ride them into the future with a tenacious hope in Jesus.  The frontier is calling, and Jesus is leading us on.                                                                             

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!

Eight Things to Consider as You Prepare for Easter

Easter is coming (April 4th)!

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As the highpoint of the Christian calendar, it is the most attended Sunday service of the church year. As we approach the second Easter of the pandemic, I believe it is time to lean in hard this Easter. Don’t fall into the temptation to simply accommodate things online this Easter, but intentionally and creatively design things to thrive digitally this year.

The following are eight things to consider as we plan and prepare for Easter 2021:

Be Digital by Default
Depending on where you live, you may be able to have some people in the room for Easter services (in my area that is currently limited to 15%) but the majority of people will join you digitally. This is especially true of anyone who will come for the first time. As a result, don’t dismiss your digital presence and experience. Recognize the uniqueness of digital culture and plan accordingly. Be digital by default and use this Easter to connect with more people than ever before. Boost social media posts (targeting people in your community), encourage your people to share the services with their connections, be creative and embrace the four shifts of digital culture: Experience as Story, Experience as Participation, Relational Authority and Tribalism (I talk about these in my book Digital Mission and the Digital Mission Course).

Be Creative
As we move into the Easter season, this is a season to embrace creativity as you engage online. Reject the temptation to simply do what you would have done in-person and assume it will work online in the same way. It won’t! Find ways to tell the Easter story that are more creative and engaging (especially for digital culture). This doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but this season does provide the unique opportunity to do things you have never done before.

Be Memorable
This will be a unique season in the life of your church. Resist the temptation to just make it through. Have your team(s) ask, “how can we make this year’s Easter one of the most memorable for our people and community?” What are some memory creating moments in the season that will help foster engagement, expectancy and community? To that end, perhaps consider ways you can celebrate baptism, have a Church-wide online party with fun surprises, give creative Easter baskets to families in your church, find a way to creatively share the message of Easter that leads to response, etc. Whatever you do, use this season to increase engagement, make memories and foster community.

Be Missional
Because you will be more intentionally online this Easter, extend your reach. Lead a campaign for your people to share your services online by inviting their neighbours and friends, use Facebook Watch Parties, boost services with paid social media ads and engage with your community. Find ways to serve your community in this season. We discovered that people are itching to serve others and one of our most effective community engagement strategies is to help people serve others. Maybe it is creative Easter baskets for long-term care home residents, a fun and safe Easter-themed social activity for the community, etc. This is the season to reach far and wide into the community that God has strategically placed you in.

Be Social
People are desperate for community. Consider how you can help people get connected in your church and move from connection to community. Community is possible digitally (I argue in Digital Mission that it is just built in reverse). Find ways to connect with people and welcome them into your church community.

Be Hopeful
If there was ever a season to preach about the hope of the resurrection, this is the year. Don’t shy away from hope. People are desperate for it! Whatever your theme, the message of Easter is the message that we are hardwired to hear, and this season people are more attuned to hear this message than ever before. Don’t shy away from preaching the Good News of the resurrection!

Be Personal
This is the time to connect with people in personal ways. Everything online is personal (your newsfeed, the items curated for you on Amazon, your search engine results, etc.). Make your digital relationship with your congregants personal as well. This is easier in smaller church contexts but anything you can do to make Easter more customized for individuals and families will communicate your love and care for them. As people become increasingly expectant of a personal touch, the church can do this in unique and extremely meaningful ways. Take time with your team to discuss how you can make your Easter more customized for each of your community’s individuals and families (for example, if you are doing a gift bag, basket or box, customize with a handwritten note, with items curated for their unique family make up, and if you include pre-packaged food of some kind recognize those who are celiac, diabetics, etc.). This will communicate care and concern!

Be Gentle
This has been an extremely hard season. Be gentle with yourself! This has all been rather overwhelming and you are learning things that are beyond your regular areas of competency. Avoid comparing with others and simply and importantly love the people in your care. Be creative in your context. Don’t be tempted to look at the church down the block or online. Find ways to be digital, creative, memorable, missional, social, hopeful and personal in your context and avoid the comparison game. Whatever God is calling you to, do that!

As I have repeatedly said to pastors in this season, you are doing better than you think you are in terms of ministry effectiveness (it is just that all of your conditioned gauges of effectiveness are no longer working because they are all conditioned to in-person metrics and feedback). Additionally, pay attention and care for yourself with lots of understanding and grace (this has been the most difficult season to lead in our generation and don’t under-estimate the impact on you).

Be gentle with yourself!

Facing the Hard Truth with a Tenacious Hope

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

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

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

The Bad News

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good News, finally!

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

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

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

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

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

The Light Is Here; it has Always Been Here

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