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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.

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!

COVID-19 Church Response: Phase Two

In a previous post, I wrote about an initial plan for the church to consider in their response to COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and its impact on the local church.  Now that we have moved past the initial phase (the easiest phase), I thought I would write a follow-up post as we prepare to enter into phase two of this.  

Church, please listen, this is our moment!

Online Pivot Next Steps

  • Another Impending Pivot – In the last week or two, churches have made an important pivot to exclusive online services and gatherings.  Good work, Church!  Let this be a reminder to us of how fast we can change when needed.  There are more pivots ahead.  One of them any day.  If you have moved your services to some form of online offering (pre-recorded or live-feed), there is an impeding pivot you need to consider and prepare for.  To “flatten the curve,” your jurisdiction will soon move to limit public gatherings to no more than 2-5 people (churches included).  Any medium to large size church is going to face a problem (they often take 10-20 people to produce their live-feed).  How will you pivot your online services to this reality?  Be thinking of this asap because this change is coming and coming soon!
  • Embrace Experimentation as Open Source – This is an exciting season for people with entrepreneurial giftings and inclinations.  But one thing I have noticed about myself and others with this inclination is that we are also prone to competitiveness.  This is a danger to the Kingdom!  As we explore and settle into our new online ministry landscape and build ministry structures for this new frontier, let’s share our designs, successes and failures.  This is not the time to hold trade secrets but the time to free trade ideas.  I am learning so much from my friend about ideas, ways of approaching problems, things that worked, things that failed, etc.  This is the season for cooperation over competition.
  • Create a Rhythm – Now that you have moved all your ministries online and have done some experimentation, I would argue that it is time to establish a sustainable rhythm for your church.  When we launched our online ministries, we went fast and hard.  This was intentional in our part (we wanted our people to know that even though we couldn’t meet physically, the church was still there for them), but now that we are launched, we are in a season of establishing a sustainable rhythm.
  • Where is the Laity? –  If you are like the church I lead, we launched our new ministry structure fast and did so as a staff team (it allowed for this), but the next step is to empower our volunteers (many of whom have more time than ever before) to take leadership in this area.  If our online presence reduces the role of volunteers, we have failed.  We failed because it is not our job as pastors (Ephesians 4:12) and also because it doesn’t leverage the democratizing power of the internet.
  • Reject Comparisons – If you are like me, you would have started to compare yourself and your church to others on Sunday.  We are all on display and it can be demoralizing.  This is a fool’s game!  The bad news is that there is always someone who is a better communicator than you, a church with better production value than you, a church with better music than you, etc.  The good news is that people, especially in this season of COVID-19, don’t care!  They know you, trust you and I believe this is the season of the shepherd pastor as opposed to the CEO pastor.  Therefore, do your best, avoid unnecessary barriers or distractions for people but, also, reject the need to compete with others and embrace the posture of the servant-hearted pastor who loves and cares for his/her sheep.  People will follow you if you do!
  • Celebrate Success – As you move online, you can begin to be demoralized.  We have great expectations and reality can have a way of confronting that.  For example, you host an online prayer meeting and only two people join.  You are disappointed, expecting more, but forgetting that you didn’t do that ministry before and, in reality, you just had three people gather for prayer that wouldn’t have before.  In addition, be honest about success, the matrixes have changed, and online analytics are confusing and deceptive (Not all video “views” are considered equal).  You are not comparing apples to apples, but apples to pomegranates, and pomegranates are a complicated fruit.
  • Find Your Bearings – The first phase of COVID-19 has been a season of so many pivots I’m starting to feel dizzy. As is the case with any dizziness, stop, fix your eyes on the constant (Jesus), and find your balance again. Remember: “Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)
  • Embrace Critical Reflection – In the coming days, I will be writing more about online ministry and the potential and perils it creates.  This is actually my area of academic specialty and I have written extensively about it (see my book, “Age of Kings: Pursuing God’s Heart in a Social Media World as an example).  I want to offer myself as a resource in the coming days to help us process this shift and all it will become (it has consequences and opportunities few people are considering as they implement with pragmatic panic).

Care Systems

If you have not worked on a building care system for your church to meet the COVID-19 pandemic, you need to be.  Drop what you are doing and get on this today!  In the coming weeks, people in your church and in your community will begin to get sick (and some will die) and your usual system and process for caring will buckle under the stress.  This is our moment, church, don’t think you will be able to casually walk into it, prepare and plan and do it today!  As an example, at Westlife, we have recently built two arms of care (congregation and community) that mirror each other but are scalable and robust enough to grow as need escalates.  Additionally, as you plan for this, consider the community God has placed your church in.  As a result, be open to the ideas of others and the leading of the Spirit and find creative and contextual ways to love and serve the community God has placed your church in.  Your context needs to be considered, but if you are relying on your existing systems to handle this, I plead with you to reconsider and get to work recruiting, planning and structuring care to meet the impending need.

Resources Triage

This is a challenge for every leader and this season will be one of the hardest to lead through.  The need will vastly exceed your resources!  Going to online services and the massive hit to the economy will impact your budget, you will need to plan and act accordingly by triaging financial resources.  If you are not preparing for this, you need to be.  How can you reallocate resources and be prepared to make tough decisions? 

Additionally, how will you triage human resources of volunteers and staff?  Some of them will get sick and do you have a plan for that?  You will also, statistically speaking, get sick at some point.  How will your church respond?  This should force every church to have some kind of leadership succession plan.  This is not a drill.  I am not being alarmist here.  You need to consider how you will lead your church and manage the limited resource at our disposal for their use in this time of extreme need.

Intentional Rest

Once your systems are in place, take intentional rest before the wave of COVID-19 infection hits in the coming days.  In the church I serve, our staff have been working long hours to prepare for the next phase of this pandemic and, as part of our response plan, over the next week or two will intentionally and strategically be taking needed rest to care for themselves and their families before we escalate care to meet the impending need.

Remember

I have said this to many of my friends and I want to communicate it here.  For many reasons (the least of which are mentioned above), this will be the toughest pastoral season of your ministry career.  Let’s be ready.  This is our moment.  That can seem overwhelming, but God’s promises are true.  The need is great, but our God is greater.  Let’s go leaders, it is time to lead our churches, pick up our spiritual armour and storm the gates of hell with faith, hope and love!

An Open Letter of Encouragement to Pastors of Small and Medium-Sized Churches

Dear Pastors of Small and Medium-Sized Churches,

Be of good courage!

In this season of social distancing, I know many of you were/are working furiously to find livestream and video conference options for the church(es) you serve.  You had to make a major shift when larger churches just had to pivot.  I want you to know that we saw/see that and want to say:  Thank you!  Well done!  We are proud of you!  Be encouraged!

A couple of words of encouragement as we enter this season…

First, don’t stress about finding the magic bullet of video software solutions.  There are a plethora of options and many companies have made them free for the next six months.  Find one you think will work and use it.  It will be ok!  As a friend of mine said recently, “Don’t let the great be the enemy of the good in these days.” Don’t fret over this.

Second, don’t get caught in the comparison game.  As the saying goes, “Comparison if the thief of joy.”  You will not compete with the megachurch productions you witnessed on your social media news feed last Sunday (although, even these will change with the CDC’s new suggested guidelines of “no more than 10 people per gathering”).  Because you know what?  I think this is the season for you and your pastoral leadership.  You know your church by name and by personal stories.  The months and years of your faithful personal connections have built pastoral trust and relationships.  This is exactly what people will need in this season.  In other words, you are uniquely gifted and primed for such a time as this.  Therefore, do your best to livestream and video conference (removing distractions of course) but do what you have always done, focus on faithfully loving and serving your people and community.  We are entering the season of the shepherd, not the CEO and you have all you need to love and care for your church and community. 

Be of good courage!

Your call is simple but more important than ever: Love your people.  Guide them pastorally.  Lead them courageously.  Reject comparison.  Practice compassion.

And, in all things, do NOT fear!  Jesus is with you and He will guide you.

In your corner,

Bryce