Category Archives: Pastor

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.

Your gauges are broken

One of my first cars had a broken gas gauge. It was extremely frustrating! There was no way to objectively measure how much gas was in the tank at any given time. This was definitely an inconvenience but, in Canadian winters, it was also a major safety consideration. Consequently, I embraced the axiom, “it costs the same to run the car on the full half of the tank as it does on the empty half.” I think there is truth in this for today (especially for pastors).

In these Covid-19 days, your gauges are broken. Your patterns of behaviour, routines, and rhythms have all been disrupted. What you have formally used to judge how you were doing personally (emotionally, physically, and spiritually) are no longer reliable. Consequently, you are probably doing worse than you think in some areas and better than you think in others. Don’t trust your broken gauges and assume your tank is emptier than you think!

Additionally, you need to ignore former gauges you used to judge your perceived pastoral effectiveness. If you don’t, you may show up on Sunday and, as you survey the socially distanced and largely empty room (if you are meeting in person), feel like you are failing. Or, in the absence of physically seeing the sheep that you shepherd, you will falsely believe you have lost them all and panic. Remember, your pastoral effectiveness gauges are broken. Don’t trust them. Instead, look to Jesus and just be faithful. Be faithful and know that is enough. In fact, that has always been enough! Maybe the pandemic will teach us to re-evaluate our perceptions of success and the gauges we use to measure it. Maybe we will recalibrate our gauges and simply focus on being faithful to Jesus and the calling He has placed on our lives.

As you serve with broken gauges, embrace the maxim I learned from my car with the broken gas gauge: drive with your tank half full rather than half empty. Keep your tank full by: Rejecting comparison – this is more important than ever. Giving yourself grace – lots of it. Breathing deeply – repeat regularly. Resting well – more than you think you need. Loving deeply – your family, friends, and church community. Leading boldly – this is the season for it. Loving other pastors – and letting them love you.

Remember: your gauges are broken, and no one knows when the new ones will be in stock.

The Pilot and the Preacher

On multiple occasions, I have attempted piloting a virtual aircraft with a computerized flight simulator.   Although these have taken place in different places, environments and contexts, they have all ended with the same predicable result – virtual destruction.

Unlike the perceived simplicity of flying, it is a complex reality with complicated instruments, controls, aerodynamics, gravity, weather, etc.  What on the surface seems simple is, in reality, quite complex.

As someone who has preached regularly for years, I’ve learned a number of important things in the process.  I want to share them here using the metaphor of piloting an airplane.

Flight Check List
Any pilot, when preparing for takeoff and the upcoming flight, has to meticulously prepare for the journey.  They file flight plans, check gages, brief their crew, study their plane, know the weather, etc.  They meticulously prepare!  The same must exist for the preacher.  The biblical communicator must know the Scripture he/she is preaching from (biblical exegesis), interpret it effectively (hermeneutics), study their unique context (cultural exegesis), and consider the best possible route for their sermon (methodology), etc.

To preach meritoriously, one must prepare meticulously.  

Air Traffic Control
When a pilot prepares for take off, is in flight and prepares to land, he/she must be in constant communication with air traffic control.  The same must be true for preachers as they pray before, during and after the preaching journey they take with their congregation.

To preach effectively, one must pray endlessly.

Take Off 
One of the roles of an effective pilot is to prepare the travelers for take off, telling them to buckle up and preparing them for the journey ahead.  The same is true for the preacher.  As the preacher prepares to take off, they must communicate to the congregation, and prepare them for the journey.  This will be different depending on the preaching methodology used, but the same principle exists regardless.  The effective preacher invites the congregation to enter the journey ahead with preparation, expectation and anticipation.

I must be noted that the pilot, as with the preacher, is only effective if he/she knows his/her passengers, understands them and even, I would suggest, includes them in the planning and preparation for the journey ahead.

To preach commendably, one must commence communally.

Aware of Passengers
As a pilot constantly keeps aware of the state of his/her passengers through the journey, the same must be true of the preacher.  As the preacher journeys through the content of the message, he/she must keep the congregation engaged and aware.  This is not to suggest that the goal is to keep the passengers comfortable but the preacher must be constantly aware that he/she is not taking this journey alone!

To preach well, one must know and be aware that they are not on a solo flight.

Turbulence
Sometimes a pilot will have to fly through turbulence and when they do, it is helpful and imperative to have people put up their tray tables, buckle-up, and prepare for the rough, and often uncomfortable, ride ahead.  The same is true for preachers.  There will be times when the preacher will preach through difficult texts and/or difficult topics.  When this is the case, it is helpful to let people know what is coming, to be prepared for it and journey through it together.  Personally, I have found I can preach on very difficult topics if I prepare the congregation for it.  If I let them know that turbulence is ahead, there is, in my experience, a collective desire to work through it together, allowing the opportunity to pilot through difficult passages and topics together.  This is where I find it helpful to remind the congregation that we, together, submit to God’s authority and discern truth together in community under the leading of the Holy Spirit.

To preach successfully, one must preach through turbulent topics securely.

Landing
For pilots, the one area that is often the most challenging, memorable and exciting is the landing.  If there is going to be a problem, there is a good chance it will be in the landing.  This is the area where, in my experience, most preachers struggle.  In many cases, preachers look to approach the runway and land “on a wing and a prayer.”  They pour hours of preparation into the take off (introduction) with the false assumption and fleeting hope that the landing will take care of itself.  Good preaching should end the journey of the sermon with a distinct ending that calls for a response and leads to mission.

To preach sufficiently, one must land the sermon steadily.

Disembarking
It is my usual practice to do a benediction at the end of the service.  This is when I give a charge to the congregation as they engage the world on mission.  I always end by calling people to “GO in peace” because, like a pilot who greets people as they leave the plane, I know as people will engage their world, the scripture we journeyed through will collide with their circumstance in challenging ways.

To preach effectively, the exit is engaged intentionally.

When it comes to preaching there are different kinds of pilots with different piloting skills and abilities.  Some are stunt pilots who are extraordinarily gifted in their ability and people come in droves to see them in person or download their podcasts.  In addition, there are private pilots who faithfully serve smaller churches as well as commercial pilots who serve larger churches.  All follow the same process with different contexts and all have vital importance.

If you preach… Keep learning.  Keep growing.  Try new things.  Get better at your craft, art and skill!

If you are a member of a congregation… Recognize that what might seem easy is, in reality, quite complex and, like flying a plane, when done well is not just a skill but also an art form that takes years of practice.  Therefore, pray for your pastors, encourage them and invest in them!

I’m A Pastor – The Awkward Silence

Inspired by a conversation with my doctoral cohort, I created (“created” meaning I used a website where I typed dialogue and it created the movie for me) the following short video about the, all too common, awkward silence that follows in casual conversation when people discover you are a pastor.

I have experienced this more than once myself.  You meet someone in public (line at the grocery story, airplane, community event, etc.) and begin a casual relaxed conversation until the inevitable question of what you do for a living arrises.  This question, for most people, is innocuous but in our culture, for a pastor, this is often a “conversation killer.”  Whether it is because people begin thinking through everything they have just said through a reverse filter or if it is because of some other reason, the phenomena exists and it is awkward.  I am sure there are sociological and spiritual reasons why this occurs and that there will be lots of opinions it (feel free to share them here).  Regardless, all pastors can agree that the phenomena exists, it is awkward and it is all too common.