Shifting Gears: From Crisis Response to Strategic Planning

COVID 19 – Phase Two Continued

Part Four: Shifting Gears from Crisis Response to Strategic Planning

Today is fifty-some days of social distancing.  It is hard to believe that we have been in this stage for so long already.  If you are beginning to feel weary, confused, overwhelmed and exhausted as a leader, this totally makes sense.  Your feelings are normal and predictable. 

Fifty-some days ago, you went into “crisis mode.”  As you entered crisis mode, there was a flurry of information to process and a rush of decisions to be made.  As my colleague Ryan and I recently discussed, it was the right gear to shift into, but it is also a gear you can’t be in for too long.

As a result, the weariness, lostness, confusion, and even discouragement you may be feeling are not unusual or a sign that there is something abnormal with you.  In fact, these feelings are to be expected.  They are simply an indicator that you were in the right mode/gear for the road you were on.  The challenge is, this road isn’t at its end and there are still many miles ahead.  As a result, we need to find a new gear for the long haul (no one knows how long this road will be, but it is months not weeks until we will be able to gather in larger numbers again).

I don’t know what that specifically looks like for you (your role, your church, your ministry, etc.), but I do know that preparing for a short road trip looks different than a long one.  You plan different, you prepare different, you have a different mentality and expectations going in.  It is time (if you haven’t started already) to repack and prepare for the long road ahead.

It is time to shift gears!

In the coming weeks (if you have not already done so), I would challenge you to begin shifting from crisis mode to strategic planning mode.  Take time with your team and begin creating or readjusting for a long-term exclusively online strategy of ministry, pastoral care, community engagement, staffing, budget, etc. to make it through the long journey ahead. 

I don’t say any of this to add stress or anxiety in you.  Instead, I write with words of hope, that a different and more sustainable gear is possible.  And with an encouragement that it is time to press the clutch (slow down, think, pray and rest) and shift gears into the one that strategically plans for the long road ahead, trusting that God will lead you forward.

As I said early on in this crisis, this will most likely be the most difficult season of your leadership life and career but is also holds the possibility to be the most meaningful and fruitful.  Consequently, it is time to lead with unprecedented dependence on the Holy Spirit, humility and courage. 

Shift gears and lead on!

Cultivate Joy

COVID 19 – Phase Two Continued

Part Three: Cultivate Joy

Now that we have settled into social-distanced life, moved our ministries online, have care networks set-up, fostered community in our churches, and stepped back, it is time to embrace joy and help shepherd our people through the long road of Covid-19.

If you have your pulse on people, you’ll have the sense that people are not doing the greatest these days.  If you gently prod people a little below the surface, you’ll discover that people are struggling in their relationships, family, marriage and emotional wellbeing.  I don’t think this is universal, but I sense it is extremely common.  As I said to a friend last week, we all need to be reminded that we are in a pandemic, not a paradise and it is okay (even normal) to not be okay.

Therefore, as we look into the future and lead our churches on the long journey ahead, it is time to help our people through this unusual season of stress and anxiety.  Whether it is your staff team, your leadership teams or your church as a whole, now is the time to foster morale, encouragement and hope.

This, of course, is a complex and multifaceted process with lots of angles (teaching, activities, prayer, community, physical wellness, worship, counselling, etc.) but one that I think is often overlooked is laughter.  It may seem odd to foster laughter in a pandemic, but laughter has a direct line to our stress and anxiety. 

Did you know, when people are stressed, they often respond with “nervous laughter?”  I’ve personally seen people respond with spontaneous laughter upon the news of a loved one dying and have witnessed front-line workers use dark humour to process unbearable situations.  There is a direct neurological link between stress and laughter, and it travels in two directions.  People often respond involuntarily to stress with laughter, but people can also use laughter to help proactively deal with stress.

Consequently, as we build resiliency and hope in our people in this season, let us not forget laughter and joy.  Just as Paul and Silas sang with joy while in prison, we can sing and laugh in the midst of a pandemic (Acts 16).  They had a joy that couldn’t be bound in chains nor silenced by suffering – the joy of the Lord was their strength (Nehemiah 8:1).

As a result, I think we need to help our staff teams cultivate joy in this season and laugh as often as possible.  All shepherds need campfire stories and laughter to pass the time and release the pressure valve of stress and so do your leadership teams.  Additionally, your people need to be able to laugh as part of your care response.  Thus, what can you do in your church community to build and unleash joy in this season?  Have your volunteer or staff leadership consider ways you can foster laughter in this season as a strategic means to help your people in this challenging time.

It may seem like an odd and counterintuitive suggestion, but I believe it is a key competency for building resiliency and fostering hope in this season.  Therefore, do what you can to foster joy, find it in Christ Jesus, and laugh as often as possible.

YOU ARE NOT OK!

You are not ok!

These last several weeks have been stressful and life-altering.  We are in the middle of a global pandemic.  The constant reality of this, the social distancing implications, and the perpetual threat of disease have major psychological implications.  Consider the many ways our new reality is affecting us.

As this reality is just in its infancy and the pandemic, with its social distancing implications, will be with us (in some form) for months, we need to acknowledge our new reality and its effects.  There is a reason NASA does major testing and research on social isolation for those planning to live on the international space station.[1]  Confined spaces and physical distancing impacts people more than we realize, and astronauts go through major psychological testing and are given significant training to deal with it.[2]  This is a class no one taught us in school.

The sudden shift to online work, the instant lack of personal interactions in physical space, and the notable fatigue of Zoom calls all affect us (have you experienced Zoom Gloom yet?).[3]    Online social, work and school life is not the equivalent of personal interactions in physical space and thinking it is can make us confused as to why we are more exhausted or irritable as a result.[4]

If you have kids, you are now on triple duty (parenting, working and teaching) at home.  Don’t ignore the impact of this in your life.  No one in modern history has done this before.  There is no manual for this.  There are multiple reasons why we have public schools and the sudden shift to online learning is affecting your kids in significant ways socially and psychologically.  Thus, it is understandable why parenting has gotten harder, why your kids are struggling and why this season as a family is more difficult.

You are also grieving.  You are grieving the loss of what was and what was going to be.  You probably had vacation plans, activities you enjoyed that you can no longer participate in (vacations, golf, concerts, graduations, camping, etc.), and a Canadian summer we won’t fully get to enjoy.  Don’t underestimate the impact of grief.  Grief is an important and powerful process that we ignore to our peril.

Most significantly, you are probably more affected psychologically than you realize.  Remember Maslov’s hierarchy of needs that you studied in school?  Pre-Covid-19, in Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, you were probably at “Esteem” or “Love and Belonging.”  Now, within a matter of weeks, you have dropped to either “Physiological Needs” or “Safety Needs.” 

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Don’t under-estimate the implications of this, even if you are unaware of it.

With these and other realities you are facing, it is no wonder that you are struggling!  That you are not ok!  And because you are not ok, it isn’t a surprise that you are experiencing the following:

  • Unusual melancholy.
  • Interrupted sleep schedule.
  • Strange dreams.
  • Strained relationships.
  • Tension in your marriage.
  • Difficultly with your kids.
  • Family conflict and parenting struggles.
  • General lack of patience and increased frustration.
  • Difficulty experiencing peace and joy.
  • Strange reactions to things and situations that don’t make sense and catch you off guard (frustration, crying, etc.).
  • Promptings to and/or participation in unhealthy coping mechanisms in your life.
  • Pulling away from friends and relationships.
  • Avoiding activities that you would typically enjoy.
  • Heightened worry and anxiety.

Before we even look at ways to survive this season, it is important to note that this is where you are.  This is where your team is.  This is where your spouse is.  This is where your kids are.  This is where your friends are.

We are all not ok!  We may pretend that we are, but we are not.  I hope this explains a lot of what you are feeling and experiencing.  I hope this gives you permission to admit to yourself that you are not ok and understand, with empathy, those around you.  And, most importantly, I hope this acknowledgement can give you permission to press into your future with adjusted expectations and begin the preparation needed to survive well in this prolonged season.

Now that we have collectively admitted that we are not okay, we need to make another important admission.  As long as this pandemic continues, we won’t be okay for a while yet.  This season will last longer than most of us realize.  As a result, we need to adjust our expectations accordingly.  There may be ways to survive well but if anyone suggests that you are going to thrive in this time, they are selling you snake oil.  I think we need to be honest.  This will be the hardest season of your family’s life, your parenting journey, your marriage, your work career, your church leadership experience, etc. and, thus, to suggest that you are less than if you are not thriving, is simply ignorant of the enormity of our situation.

All that being said, it is time to batten down the hatches and prepare to survive the storm.  As you prepare for the long-haul of this pandemic, consider the following as a means of survival:

  • Spend more time praying than you used to (even if you don’t feel like it).
  • Be honest (with yourself, your family and others about how you are feeling and the realities of our situation).
  • Don’t pull away from others (even when you think you should) but press in (it may feel counterintuitive).  Find some colleagues and friends you can be appropriately open and honest with.  Embrace community!
  • Try and keep a regular sleep schedule.
  • Keep a daily routine and keep organized.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Have fun!  Do something you enjoy each day (write, create, bake, read, etc.).
  • If you can, get outside (appropriately social distancing, of course).
  • Journal your thoughts, experiences and feelings.
  • Speak to a mental health professional.

The above list is not comprehensive and won’t make everything “better.”  Again, this is a global pandemic where we are all under sustained social isolation with a shadow of sickness looming in the distance.  As the storm comes and brings its damaging rain and devastating winds, we need to admit that the storm is here and that survival is, in fact, success.  Therefore, as you enter the storm, acknowledge our reality, how it is impacting you and alter your expectations from thriving to surviving, asking for God to help you as you do.

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:1, NIV


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/hrp/social-isolation/in-context

[2] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19375-how-astronauts-experience-could-help-trapped-miners/

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/

[4] https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting

It’s Time to Step Back

COVID 19 – Phase Two Continued

Part Two: Pastors, It’s Time to Step Back

In our current Covid-19 reality, the church made a fast and relatively effective transition to an exclusively online presence.  Bravo!  This is something to celebrate.

After the next several months of this new (temporary) normal, it is fair to say we will not be going back to the way things were but it also fair to say that we will not be staying where we are either.  In the wake of Covid-19, a new ministry paradigm is being conceived.  And, like all babies in the womb, the best picture that we can hope for, at this point, looks like a hazy ultrasound.

As we navigate the present with this hazy view of the future, I want to make three observations and exhortations for us in this season – all with the same refrain: “It’s time to step back!”

Step Back to Look Ahead

With all the changes, pivots, Zoom meetings, video recordings, tech manuals, etc., I think leaders are overwhelmed and exhausted.  Like all times I have been exhausted and overwhelmed, I’ve rarely made a good decision.  In these times, I know that I am prone to either keep the status quo (as ineffective as that might be) or compulsively make a bad decision (with inevitable regret). Therefore, I think it is wise for leaders to slow down, catch their breath, pray intently and purposely step back to discern the best way forward.

Pastors, it’s time to step back.

Step Back to Make Room

I want to make an observation of our collective experience in moving the church to an exclusively online presence: We did it relatively fast and efficiently, but we, largely, did it as clergy.  At Westlife, we made the assessment a couple of weeks ago that our services had become a bit of a clergy show and that is a problem. 

I get it, we needed to make a fast change, the medical risk was high and situation unknown.  I get that it was important to make the shift but now that we are settling in for a long haul of this reality, I encourage you to make an honest assessment.  How many laypeople are on your stage this Sunday and how many lay people are currently leading ministries in your church?

As we settle into this exclusive online presence, for the time being, I believe we need to embrace the mantra, “Step back and make room!”  It is time for clergy to equip the saints for works of ministry. (Ephesians 4:12) We need to graciously exit stage left and allow laypeople back to lead from the front stage. 

Pastors, it’s time to step back.

Step Back to Lead Together

As we settle into our Covid-19 world, many churches are making needed staff changes, layoffs, leadership restructuring, etc., I want to implore all leaders to step back and make room for different voices.  This is an all hands-on deck season and we need all generations to lead together.  Let’s make room at the table for each other and lead together.

Senior leaders, as we innovate and align the church for this new season, it is vital to step back and make sure you allow younger voices on the stage as you make decisions.  I am not suggesting that you are irrelevant or that you should step aside.  We need you!  I am just asking you to step back and recruit in.  Make sure you have young leaders around you who are decision-makers in influential positions.  If you are an older leader, as you restructure your team, keep and promote younger leaders and listen to them.  Do things they are suggesting that you may even question (assume your biases may be wrong).  Give them the creative license and freedom to innovate.

Younger leaders, speak up and lead.  We need you!  We don’t just need younger voices; we need younger leaders.  As you are given opportunities, press into them, give your opinions (respectfully of course) and lead up!  The church needs you and your time is now!  As you do, I would also encourage you to step back in humility, make room for and listen to the older voices who can give perspective, wisdom and seasoned advice for times like these.

Mid-season leaders, you are the bridge that is desperately needed in this season.  We need the Gen Xers now more than ever (although everyone forgets you exist – you are like the middle child of generations, often forgotten but key and important in keeping the leadership continuum alive and healthy in this season).  This is also your time to step up, bridge the gap and move the church forward.  We need you to simultaneously honour older leaders and elevate younger leaders, helping to transition the church in this challenging season for a fruitful future.  As you step up, you also need to step back and make room for both younger and older voices in the conversation, silencing the middle-child’s tendency to be overly skeptical and cynical.  The church needs you to lead and mid-season leaders play a vital role as we move into the future together.

The opportunity for the church is vast and we need all leaders to step back, providing space to lead together into the future.

Pastors, it’s time to step back.

A Hopeful Humility on the Sea of Uncertainty

Dear fellow pastors,

The ancient church used the metaphor of a boat to understand themselves and the mission of God (this metaphor is the inspiration of the free book I wrote for new believers, “Expedition: Following Jesus on a Mast-Raising, Sail-Setting and Treasure-Seeking Journey to the Ends of the Earth”).  I want to use this metaphor as an encouragement to you as we navigate these uncertain waters together.

Covid-19 has come over the horizon like a sudden storm.  We were not expecting it and we were, understandably, not prepared.  The winds of the storm have brought the rain of illness and the hail of death, but it has also brought the disorienting fog of social distancing and its implications for the life and practice of the ministries and churches we serve and lead.

This is the fog, in the sea of uncertainty, that every pastor and church leader must now navigate.  These waters are unknown and disconcerting.  We knew the water we were on before.  We had countless charts and instruments to guide us.  We understood our local boats with all of their limitations and advantages.  We were able to see and interact with our crews face-to-face regularly.  Then, suddenly, with the arrival of this storm, we have been disorientated and are now adrift on the sea of uncertainty in the fog of online ministry.

As we adjust together, I want to acknowledge our reality and shout from my boat through the dense fog, “You are not alone!” Like a giant armada of boats playing Marco Polo, I want to encourage us to call out to each other with encouragement, to actively share resources and ideas, and to collectively listen to the voice of Jesus together.

As I survey the horizon, the fog is dense.  We used to be able to see and interact with the people we serve regularly and now we have to rely on phone calls, text messages and ZOOM.  These are great tools, but it is ok to grieve the reality that these not the same as face-to-face interactions and ministry and that not everyone can use them equally.  For those whose boats (churches) are in small centers where ministry was physical and local in the community, social distance has robbed you of your ministry presence.  For those who boats (churches) are in larger centers with larger crews, your entire systems have had to be altered, reworked and resources reallocated, which is a much larger job than most realize.

As we voyage these foggy waters together, I want to remind us of a few things.  First, in times like these, no one really knows what they are doing.  Those that might blow the loudest horns, are still in the same fog that you are, they just have a bigger horn.  This is new uncharted territory.  Second, it is okay to grieve.  In the sudden leap for change, especially change that is thrust upon you, it is ok to grieve what was.  Like all grief, it takes time, and everyone processes it differently; don’t ignore grief’s process (you are probably in it).  Third, we need to “Marco Polo” our way forward together.  Find a band of fellow sailors and cheer each other on in this season.  In humility, navigate this sea together.  In humility and community, there is hope as we listen to Jesus together.  Fourth, share resources and ideas with others.  When emergencies strike, those who hoard in isolation don’t fare as well as those who network and share with others.  This principle transfers to pastors and churches in this season.  Fifth, survival is sometimes success.  Let’s not be like the rescue boat that, after months of searching, finally picks up the marooned sailor and asks him why he has repainted his damaged ship and isn’t wearing his full uniform.  Everyone’s situation is different, and these are challenging times.

Fellow pastors, let’s embrace humility together, join forces on mission and encourage each other forward.  Whether you are in a small vessel in a rural lagoon or a large aircraft carrier in an urban ocean, this season has put us all in the same fog and we need each other to navigate through it while continuing to passionately pursue our rescue mission of seeking and saving the lost (rescue boats are most needed in the storm).  Let is remind each other of what we can so easily forget in the storm, that our primary goal is not the survival of the boat but the pursuit of the mission.

Therefore, be of good courage, celebrate the good around you, show yourself (and others) lots of grace, spend more time with Jesus, love your family well, passionately pursue God’s mission and lead with boldness.  In the fog, Jesus is still calling and leading, even if we can’t clearly see Him.

May we remember and remind each other of the truth that Jesus has not abandoned ship, He will lead us and He will not fail!

Your fellow sailor and friend,

Bryce Ashlin-Mayo