Category Archives: Pastor

Beware the Journey Down

An Open Letter to Pastors

Dear Pastor,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With you on the journey,

Bryce Ashlin-Mayo

Smashing the Wall of the Covid Leadership Marathon

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

Hebrews 12:1-3, NIV 

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

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

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

Unravel your Entanglements

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

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

Feed Lots and Keep Hydrated

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

Pace Yourself

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

Rediscover Your Why and Persevere

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

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

Run the Race

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

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!