Effective Online Ministry: Understanding, Creating and Launching Ministry Online
Wondering how to effectively do ministry online?
Join me online for these three exciting professional development opportunities (hosted by Ambrose University). Classes will run 9am-3pm with a break from 12-1pm each day.
August 12 – Understanding the Digital World: Bringing Theology and Media Ecology Together August 19 – Understanding the Nuts and Bolts (Bits and Bytes) of Online Ministry August 26 – Designing an Online Ministry Strategy
Cost for all 3 workshops is $150. Single registration is available if you only wish to participate in one or two workshops at a cost of $59/workshop. Come as an individual or bring your entire team.
These are also available for a 3 credit class from Ambrose University and Seminary.
As we begin to settle into our new Covid-19 normal, the leadership challenge has evolved. When we entered two months ago the leadership paradigm was an emergency one, defined by decisive action and fast pivots. As we transition into a longer-term Covid-19 reality and consider different stages of re-engaging public gatherings of different sizes, we need to readjust our leadership paradigm.
In pandemic response methodologies there are two phases: the “hammer” and the “dance.” The “hammer” is the lockdown phase designed to stop the virus, restrict transmission and “flatten the curve.” It consists of stopping all public gatherings, ramping up testing and commencing mass contact tracing. Once the “hammer” phase is proven effective, the “dance” phase begins. It consists of watching the numbers and continually adjusting public policy and restrictions until a vaccine or effective treatment is widely available.
As the church responds and adapts to the “dance,” there will be much debate and no shortage of opinions on how and when to release gathering restrictions and protocols. There will be some who will say we need to get back to normal, while others will be extremely cautious. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle and we need wisdom to navigate the middle well.
Although I don’t want to get into how and when is the right time to transition back to public gatherings (this is different in each jurisdiction, size of church, context, etc.), there are some important leadership principles to keep in mind as you process these important decisions with your leadership team(s) and congregation.
Gather information, seek counsel and ask God for wisdom
During the emergency leadership of the “hammer,” you didn’t need any collaboration in your leadership. It was necessarily fast as the goal was primarily public safety. However, as we begin the “dance,” the leadership posture needs to shift towards collaboration including gathering information from trusted sources, seeking counsel from others (Proverbs 15:22) and humbly asking for God’s wisdom (James 1:5).
In the information age, information is not at a shortage. Discerning between opinion and fact is hard work. It is easier to just listen to someone else’s opinion as opposed to reading government and health authority documents yourself and seeking skilled advice from health care professionals. This is the season to seek and embrace truth, recognizing our own propensity to confirmation bias that accepts the information that “feels” right.
Create a plan
Unlike emergency situations where decisive action is key, this is a situation where careful planning is paramount. As we enter the “dance,” there will be a continual tightening and loosing of restrictions over the next several months with varying degrees of public health protocols to follow. As a result, have a clear plan for what your response to the different possibilities will look like. Having a plan lessens the temptation for knee jerk decisions and increases communication, clarity and trust with your leaders, volunteers and congregants.
What is permissible is not always wise
It is important to note that as the government and health authorities begin to allow for businesses to open and groups to meet, what is permissible is not always wise. In other words, because you are able doesn’t mean you should. This phase is not a rush to the start but a carefully planned re-entry that makes sense and promotes public health and safety. Public Health officials are giving reopening guidelines to reduce risk, but the risk still exists, and it is on us, as leaders, to do our own risk assessments within these guidelines.
The danger at the start was going too slow; the danger now is going too fast
Just as there are numerous stories of organizations and leaders that regret moving too slow at the start of the pandemic, there will be those who will also regret moving too fast on the re-entry. If the danger at the start of the pandemic was going too slow, the danger now Is going too fast.
Face it: leadership is hard
The life of Moses has many leadership lessons. Many would point to his courage in confronting Pharaoh, but I think it lies later in his life. I believe the greatest challenge for Moses was leading the Israelites in the desert. The desert is a difficult place to lead. It doesn’t take long for people to grumble and complain, eventually longing for Egypt again (Exodus 16).
In this Covid-19 season, this is our danger too. It was relatively easy to lead people to flatten the curve (the “hammer”), but it isn’t long before people long to go back and, like the Israelites, grumble and complain that it is taking too long. The leadership challenge now is to lead our people through the long “dance” ahead and safely through the desert.
Be of good courage
This all may seem overwhelming but be of good courage! The leadership road is long and treacherous, but you are not alone. You led well through the “hammer” stage of the pandemic, now it’s time to change your leadership paradigm and lead in the “dance” stage. Join a caravan (or, to employ the later dance metaphor, a conga line) of other leaders and embrace the promise that God is with you and leading the way!
“…in the blind…” is a radio communication phrase made popular by the movie Gravity.
Although made popular by actors George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, it is a bonified aviation and NASA radio communication practice. Often used during emergency situations, it is a way for the transmitter to communicate while acknowledging that, although someone may hear the transmission, the transmitter is not expecting a response.
In many ways, this is what preaching has become in our coronavirus-initiated virtual church experience. Preaching is now exclusively delivered via video to small screens everywhere and recorded or live streamed with few, if any, people in the physical room. This shift has proven to be a very different preaching experience (for both the speaker and the hearer).
I have chatted with several of my colleagues about this and wanted to share what I have learned from those conversations, my experience, and ask for any additional advice (please share these in the comments section).
Five Main Things I’ve Learned So Far About “Preaching in the Blind”
Make it Intimate
As I have scanned different churches and preacher’s approaches to an exclusively online ministry preaching model, I’ve discerned two main approaches.
First is the approach that looks exactly like it did before COVID-19 and public gathering restrictions. By watching the service and the preaching, you would assume that the room was full, and the preacher was communicating to a large gathering. For the most part, those who employ this approach are being strategic in that they want the experience to be the same for their church when public gatherings are allowed again. The risk is, it can come across as odd and, potentially, inauthentic as people know that the room is empty (especially as this social distance season extends).
The other approach is changing the frame, format and style of the preaching moment to fit an exclusively small venue (living room, etc.) video approach and embrace the personal/intimate feel of someone in a living room speaking to people in their living rooms. This is the approach we have taken at Westlife Church. I’m not saying it is the right way, the only way, or the best way. But it has worked for us and we are learning as we go. The risk is, when we eventually shift to a new post-coronavirus normal, we may also have to shift out of this model, and it will be another adjustment for our people who will have become accustomed to a different approach.
This more intimate approach is not new and is reminiscent of the approach taken by Sherri Chessen in the 1980’s with her classic Canadian Romper Room children’s television program. During each show, she would look through her handheld magic mirror and mention all the kids by name that she “saw” through it.
Sherri understood the need to create an intimate feel with her audience who were watching from their living rooms. Thus, as you preach, imagine you are speaking in a coffee shop or living room to someone one-on-one. Be personal and conversational. Be real and appropriately transparent. Be gentle and kind.
Give Lots of Virtual Eye Contact
As you preach in an exclusively online format, preach to the camera(s) just like having coffee with a friend, look into their eyes when you are talking but don’t stare into their souls! Preach to the camera and speak like it is a friend but be natural as you do. If it is helpful, place a facial cue at camera height and imagine a conversation over coffee. Additionally, as much possible, don’t look at your notes as you preach. You would assume that video would give increased ability to use notes, but virtual eye contact is so important that looking down too often can come across as too scripted and impersonal. If you need notes, try a teleprompter as some of my friends have done with great success (there are some great apps that allow for this now).
Keep it Short
From my conversations with other preachers, we have all expressed the phenomena: we are preaching shorter. There are lots of reasons for this, but I do think that a screen attention span is shorter – we are accustomed to a short screen attention span and so exclusive online preaching demands this adjustment accordingly. Some may say that all preaching should be shorter (perhaps they are correct) but exclusive video preaching is definitely different and adjusting our methodology is important.
Use Humour Differently
Instant feedback makes humour more effective and the act of communicating with humour more enjoyable (in my opinion). Unless you use a laugh track (BTW: some of the more seasoned video preachers out there do that), your humour will change. I know it has for me. I probably use it less often and differently than I used to. That doesn’t mean it is less effective, it is just different. There is a reason why talk shows, stand-up comedians and late-night talk show hosts have live studio audiences and why preaching without an audience makes humour different and, frankly, more difficult.
Change Locations – Be Creative
One of the benefits of video (especially if you prerecord) is to alter your venue and make it specific or fitting to your message. This week, we are planning to record outdoors by the Bow River as I preach on Psalm 1. Not being bound to a specific physical space (stage), allows for some creativity in location and atmosphere, and now is the time to use it.
Additionally, be creative. Our video producer on Easter Sunday effectively wove in some B-roll (in this case, stock video footage) and even a musical score during a story I was telling. It was super effective, and, if it is done well, can add to the preaching. There is obviously risk involved here and we need to be sure we don’t “jump the shark” in our creative endeavours. However, may we also not miss an opportunity to try new things in a season that uniquely allows for it and offers inherent permission to try.
Preaching in the Blind
As we go through the prolonged season of preaching in the blind, may we adapt accordingly and learn from our adaption as we move back into whatever new normal will emerge in a post-coronavirus world. Preaching in the blind is a different experience that demands a different approach and a different preaching methodology. Embrace it, try new things, and let God be glorified as you do.
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.
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.