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

COVID-19 Phase Two, Part One: We Need Less Content and More Community

Covid-19 has changed everything.  Some of these changes will be temporary and some will be permanent, we just have no idea which is which.  In previous posts, I have been sharing about different phases in the church’s response to Covid-19 and I want to share, over the next few posts, several important (and undervalued) focuses for the church in her response during our extended stay in Phase Two (our new online, temporary-ish, socially-distanced normal).

Covid-19 hit at a unique time in history.  It struck while we were already in a tsunami of content.  Between books, videos, vlogs, YouTube channels, movies, tv-series, streaming services, podcasts, and now online church services, there are more options than ever clamouring for people’s attention. 

Additionally, it struck in the midst of a universally recognized disciple-making crisis.  In my opinion, one of the many reasons for this crisis is our obsession with content as the perceived answer to making disciples, as if to suggest that more sermons, Bible studies, podcasts, preaching videos and books will solve the crisis at hand.

I say all of this to point out the rather large polka-dotted elephant in the ZOOM breakout room.  As we shifted to online ministry, we all did what we do best, even if we all recognize it as part of the problem.  We created more content!

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with content (specifically contextual content), but more content was not the answer to the discipleship crisis in a pre-Covid-19 world, and it definitely won’t be the answer in a post-Covid-19 world.

This is where we need to pivot.

I believe the most fertile place for growth in the church and our disciple-making is in Christ-centered community and, during our collective social [distanced] famine, people are beginning to acknowledge their God-formed need for it. 

In our new world, people have more content than they have time to consume.  And, if you are competing in the content game, people will always find a better product.  However, if you help people engage with Christ-centered community, people will begin to thrive and grow in their relationship with Jesus and each other.

Thus, the greatest opportunity of this season is not online attractional viewers!  That is the low hanging fruit that everyone is celebrating but it will not stay ripe for long.  Inevitability, online consumer-driven curiosity (the initial uptake of online spectators) will wane into complacency if it isn’t paired with true community and engagement.

In the church I serve (westlifechurch.ca) we are intentionally making this pivot.  We do this through our Westlife Groups but however your church fosters community, this is where to focus your energy and attention.  This is time to build your discipleship groups, small groups, 3D relations, mentoring, disciple-making communities, etc.  Whatever methodology you choose, the churches that thrive in (and coming out of) this COVID-19 season will not be those who produce good content but those who foster healthy, growing and Christ-centered communities.

If, as the saying goes, “Content is King,” then “Community is, definitely, Queen.”

Therefore, whatever size your church is, put time, attention and resources in building Christ-centered communities where people can be known and know others, learn together, pray together and grow together.  This is the future and the future is now.

A Medical Grade Covid-19 Prayer

Father,

You are our Good Shepherd and we are your sheep.  As you lead us and we look ahead, the path seems uncertain and perilously dark.  Yet, we embrace your promise that we do not have to fear because You are with us (Psalm 23).  Although you never promised we will avoid pain, sickness, death, nor the ominous shadow it casts, you do promise to always be with us and because of that, we don’t have to be afraid.

As a result, we courageously march ahead into this microscopic war with its macroscopic implications.  The toll on human life is growing exponentially and we pray for those on the front lines of this battle.

We pray for the victims, especially those in hospitals, under the compassionate and skilled care of our medical professionals.  We pray for their recovery and for their peace.  As they suffer alone and, sadly, as some die away from the comforting embrace and physical presence of their family and loved ones, may you be their comfort in their pain.  We pray for all those who will labour for their last breath, may they know and embrace Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. 

We pray for the victims in this microscopic war.  Lord, have mercy!

We also pray for all the health care workers who are caring for the sick and dying with courage and strength.  Thank you for these brave men and women who are physically caring for these individuals.  This war is such that the victims are not on a battlefield geographically far away but in our local hospitals in isolation beyond our ability to physically comfort.  It is heartbreaking!  Our health care professionals are not just physically caring for our loved ones but holding their hands for us and telling them they are not alone.

Although this is not a war of ethical ambiguity.  Whether one is a pacifist or not, the decision of whether to fight this war is clear.  Although entering this war may not be ethically complicated, the war itself is.  For health care professionals it is filled with ethical challenges and conundrums.  With very limited resources, difficult decisions have to be made.  We can’t imagine the emotional and physical strain this would cause a human who entered a profession with a desire to heal.  Would you give each of them the wisdom of Solomon and the clarity of conscience as they practice their profession with compassion.  These are perilous times with impossible decisions, and we need you, Jesus!

Protect these health care workers who will rush the front line of an unseen enemy without either the defensive or offensive weapons needed.  With lack of Personal Protective Equipment, ventilators and therapies, this is a battle like none other.  Protect them as they courageously and vulnerably fight on our behalf!

We pray for those on the front lines of this war.  Lord, have mercy!

God, we pray for a vaccine and therapies to be developed and deployed in the days to come.  For all the scientists working in laboratories around the world, give them strength, clarity, and ingenuity.  You often work through human minds and hands, so we pray that you would use their collective and cooperative ability to find the therapies and vaccines needed in this battle.

We pray for the end of this war.  Lord, have mercy!

As we all do our part to shelter at home and give our medical professionals and scientists the time to effectively care for the sick and find a cure to this disease, may you help us to endure this storm as a society.  We pray for every relationship impacted by this.  We are all broken and during times like these, the cracks in our brokenness are split wide open.  We specifically pray for all those in the scourge of abuse.  For spouses, children, and other vulnerable people in the evil clutches of abusive relationships and with nowhere to go, God have mercy and protect all those who are imprisoned in their home.  May they find rescue and protection from their abusers.

We pray for the protection of our population as we shelter at home.  Lord, have mercy!

We also pray for every student trying to figure out how to learn from home in a new environment.  We especially pray for those younger students where the curriculum and social skills don’t transfer as easily from the physical classroom to a home and virtual one.  Help our educators in this adjustment and the parents who are trying to help their children grow and develop socially and academically, all while juggling other responsibilities.

We pray for our educators, parents and kids in this season.  Lord, have mercy!

We pray for all those who are fighting the war as essential workers.  They are the vital supply line in this war.  Often barely making a living wage, these individuals are risking their own safety so we can have food, utilities and needed services during this time.  Protect them and bless them as they serve us.  May they know the impact of their sacrifice and be celebrated as heroes in a society that often overlooks their important contribution to our societal fabric 

We pray for our essential workers: bless them and protect them.  Lord, have mercy!

This will be a long and drawn-out war with many direct and indirect victims and we need your strength, perseverance, guidance and peace.  May you help us in this war and may we fight it with love and compassion.

Lord, have mercy!

In the name of Jesus, the Great Physician, Amen!

Six Changes Resulting from COVID-19

I want to put my futurist hat on and make a few observations and predictions about the future of our world Post-Covid-19.  After reading several Covid-19 projection models in the last day or two, a couple of realities are clear.  First, this is a deadly and vicious virus!  It is not like the common flu and should be taken very seriously.  Second, this will be a long and hard-fought battle.  Regardless of what projection model you use, until a vaccine is developed, proven effective and disseminated globally, I can’t imagine any scenario (unless a miracle treatment is discovered) that would have us going back to public gatherings the way we once knew them any time soon.  If we do, we risk unleashing a new wave of infection, sickness and death.

Consequently, this virus and the needed prolonged actions we are taking to mitigate it will have massive and long-term societal impacts.  Therefore, let me unpack six changes I see happening in society and the church that will occur and accelerate as a result:

Home Architecture

Tiny homes may have made sense Pre-Covid-19 economically and with people’s active lifestyles, but with spending all of our time indoors, this lifestyle option will quickly lose its ship-lapped luster.  Larger spaces will become more the norm (within reason and economic restraint).  Additionally, open concepts seem great until families spend more and more time at home.  Consequently, the need for separate space will return in home design and architecture.

Usher in the Age of Automation

Our world was already facing the inevitable disruption of automation.  Artificial Intelligence and automation were already poised to radically change the economy and replace human involvement in manufacturing, transportation, sales, supply chains, etc.  Pre-Covid-19 we were within a decade of a massive shift in the workforce, which is now accelerated and with the public seeing the benefit of “essential services” being met by machines with no risk to this or future virus’, the once opposition that would have been present will be exchanged for widespread embrace and celebration.  People like Bill Gates and others have proposed economic systems and models for a world where machines do most of the work and the human population finds its purpose and value in other areas.  Most of these involve taxing machines and providing a guaranteed income (much like is happening in the stimulus plans now).  This was our inevitable and resisted future, but Covid-19 will accelerate the transition and our celebrated embrace of it.

The Work and Study from Home Movement

Any assumption that working from home was untenable will be proven wrong.  It isn’t perfect and all of its blemishes will be brought to light, but compared to the personal, environmental and economic advantages, we won’t go back to not primarily working from home.  Consider how fast fifty percent of our public buildings (churches, schools, libraries, corporate office, etc.) were proven to be not as necessary as we thought.  We will still need these in the future, as I believe an exclusive work and study from home experiment will prove to have some deficiencies, but we will not go back to the way it was.  Business will start to look at their office space costs, school building cost, economic and environmental impact of building infrastructures and determine that many of these are unnecessary.

Embrace the Personal with Distance

Once we are on the other side of this, I believe people will be craving personal connection.  That being said, it won’t bounce back quickly.  With a prolonged season, budget’s, habits, personal caution/protection, desires, etc. will change and people will not “return to the old normal”.  Yes, people will long for human connection, but the way they experienced it will not be the same.  People will be more hesitant to go to restaurants, publicly gather in large groups and you will begin to see masks regularly worn in public (like it is common in many parts of Asia). 

The Rise of Creativity and Context

For churches, there will come a resurgence of creativity in context.  Pre-Covid-19, most churches looked much the same.  Yes, there was difference, but our methodologies were not radically different (500 years will do that).  Post-Covid-19, that will change.  Creativity and context matter more than ever and there will be an explosion of difference.  New methodologies are emerging, and they will reproduce rather than replicate in this environment.

The Emerging Era of the Shepherd Pastor

If the CEO was the pastor who thrived Pre-Covid-19, the shepherd pastor will thrive Post-Covid-19.  Leadership will still hold a major place no doubt, but people will begin to form and gather around shepherds who know and love them.  This is the season for the shepherd pastor to know and lead their churches.  If that isn’t clear yet…wait until the dust settles and see those who have thriving churches – they will be churches where the people are known and cared for, not those who have the best-produced video and services (which have an important place but it is hard to compete in a global church production competition).  The tables have turned, and things will be different.

COVID-19 Phase Two: Next Steps

Dear Fellow Pastor,

As you enter into another week of COVID-19, I thought I would write some needed words of encouragement and some important things to consider.

First, I want to recognize the compounding toll of this season on your life and ministry.  If you are like me, the initial rush of adrenaline common in crisis has worn off and the endless stream of challenges remains.  Consequently, you are probably feeling a bit worn out and stretched thin.  If so:  Stop.  Breathe.  Pray.  Care (for yourself, your family, as well as your spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being).  Lead. (in that order)

I’m not sure if this is universal, but I have worked harder in these last two weeks than ever before in my pastoral career.  I want to remind us that this is a marathon, not a sprint and we have yet to approach the first giant hill in the race (we will face the first of several waves in COVID-19 in the next couple of weeks).  Thus, it is vital to take a breath and prepare as we will be stretched beyond ourselves in the coming days.

As we approach the unknown future with huge leadership challenges and pastoral care needs, I want to humbly remind you of a truth you know and have preached about several times. 

Sometimes God allows us to experience more than we can handle in our lives, and when we do, we discover that at the end of ourselves, we meet the unfiltered and endless goodness and greatness of our God.  God is with you and He will not fail!  Therefore, be strong and courageous.  Take each day, each step in the marathon ahead, with trust in God’s goodness and grace as well as the promise that He cares for you, your family, and the church you lead infinitely more than you.

Second, I would humbly offer the following to consider in this season ahead as you lead your community of faith:

  • Don’t journey these uncharted waters alone!  Any expeditionary mission into uncharted territory knows the importance of travelling as a team.  Therefore, gather some other pastors/leaders around you for mutual encouragement.  This will most likely be the hardest season of your ministry career and you can’t do this alone.  If you don’t feel it yet, you will.  You need Jesus and you need others to cheer you on!  If you feel alone and you don’t know where to turn, I’d be more than honoured to hear your heart, encourage you, and pray for you in this season (just contact me anytime).  We are all trying to find our way and the worst thing we can do is push through the fog of this season alone.  Rather, let’s be fellow sailors on this expedition together, calling, helping and encouraging each other forward through the fog.
  • We will get through this, but it will be a long and difficult journey.  I think we all need to be reminded of this hope.  This season will not be weeks; it will be months (some predict a year).  However long this season will be, it will end at some point and ministry will readjust to a new normal (whatever that is!).  I think we need to honestly face the enormity of this challenge and its implications but also be reminded, with hope, that it will not prevail, and Jesus will prove to be faithful!
  • Don’t be lulled into complacency, flatten the curve and escalate care.  We may flatten the curve of COVID-19 in some way (I pray we are successful) but that will just slow down the impact of what will affect many of us (I also pray for an effective treatment with hope but plan with a sober assessment of the current facts).  Thus, this is the time to be prepared and plan!  Have a plan to care for the sick.  Have a plan to care for those in financial peril.  Have a plan for those in relational crisis (whatever cracks a marriage or family has will be burst wide open).  Have a financial plan for your church as economic realities hit.  Have a plan for congregational and community care for your church and make yourself redundant (in order words, not having all care dependant on you, as you may get sick at some point) as well as have a plan to reach your community in this season.  These are the moments leaders are made for and when great leaders are forged!   
  • Continue to grow your online presence and invest resources (however limited) here.  Be creative, be innovative, empower younger leaders, and be willing to fail.  Although you are managing limited resources, this is the time to invest where people are.  If you are in an older demographic as a leader, have younger leaders on your online ministry leadership team and use their assessment of what is working and not working.  Be honest about your prejudices here: your perspective of what is working online is probably blinded by your age and you need younger voices to help you see what you may be blind to.

In all of this, remember the promise of Jesus to His disciples who would face great hardship and challenges as they followed Him, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV)

Pastors: Take heart!  This pandemic will not win.  Jesus has overcome!  These are the moments the Church was made for.  Therefore, let us collectively shine our lights in the flog of fear and uncertainty with the eternal hope and love of Jesus!