As we move out of the Covid-19 pandemic and into our new normal, each jurisdiction will follow its own timing and process. Whatever your area’s timeframe and reopening plans look like, it is important not to miss the following as you prepare to regather in-person.
Don’t Move Too Fast
Be cautiously optimistic. The future is positive (we are almost at the end of this), but don’t put all your eggs in a fast-reopening basket. If you are in Canada, most provinces have reopening plans that are tied to various factors (vaccinations, hospitalization, R-factor, etc.) which can change for various reasons (it would not be the first time we have had to move back a stage or delayed a plan’s progression). Therefore, have plans for multiple scenarios and know that a delay or regression in a planned reopening is possible. As with all things in the pandemic, be prepared to pivot fast and embrace short-term planning (recognizing the futility of long-term plans in a fast-changing environment).
Don’t Expect a Flood of Attendees as you Open
Recognize that as things open back up, some people will still be cautious (for many reasons). Don’t be discouraged if attendance doesn’t instantly rebound to pre-pandemic levels. Realistically, some people may not come back, and some people won’t feel comfortable for a while. Pre-emptively protect yourself from discouragement if your attendance isn’t bursting at the seams and all your people are not as excited as you are to be back in-person right away.
Don’t Ignore People’s Concerns
As you prepare to regather in-person, know that some people will be cautious. Handshakes, hugs, and close contact will not be as welcomed as they were pre-pandemic. People will need increased physical space. This will change over time, but it is key to honour people’s personal space as they re-engage. Consider making it clear that masks are ok for those who will continue to wear them, create seating areas that honour more socially distanced spaces, and don’t push people faster than they are ready to go.
Don’t Lose what You have Gained
I can’t stress this enough! For all the challenges of this last year, we gained so much knowledge, creativity, innovation, and new approaches in the Covid season. Make it a point this summer to list all the things you learned, tried, and found success in and commit to keeping those learnings into the future. Don’t lose your advancements in online ministry. Don’t ignore all Covid taught you about congregational care and engagement. Don’t forget all the insights about ways to serve your neighbourhood and community. This may seem simple and obvious, but the temptation to fall back into all the well-worn pre-Covid ministry ruts is real. Be intentional and strategic about the things you will keep doing as well as the things you will go back to.
Don’t Miss the Opportunity
As you move to regather, don’t miss the opportunity to rethink things. Although you will be tempted to go back to the way things happened pre-pandemic, this is a time to make some systematic changes. Use it to rethink your Sunday services, your community engagement, your children’s ministry, your youth ministry, your discipleship pathways, your congregational care strategy, etc. In the rush to the familiar don’t miss the opportunity for change and increased effectiveness.
There is no doubt that this is an exciting time. I am looking forward to re-engaging with my congregation in-person, but I am also aware of our human nature and don’t want to miss out on all that God wants to teach us as we move into the future on mission.
The Digital Plot Thickens: Important lessons COVID-19 is teaching the Church about the use of technology.
The Exposition: Two worlds colliding.
As someone with a keen interest in both media ecology (the study of technology/media and its effects) and ecclesiology (the study of the church), this season in the life of the church fascinates me. This is a season where these two worlds have collided, creating a storyline few writers could have conceived. In many ways, it has become a narrative case study for the impact, role and place of technology, especially in our churches.
The Set Up and Rising Action: A fast pivot online.
Every good story has a narrative arc (see the graphic above) and uses plot devices to create depth, interest and suspense. The story of the church’s embrace of technology in the COVID-19 crisis is marked by many of these. Two months ago, when public gatherings were suspended, the church made a fast pivot and moved online. This pivot had relative success at first but as anyone who has experienced this knows, that initial embrace soon transitioned to “Zoom gloom” and digital skepticism (as people responded to being thrown into the digital deep end and, consequently, wondering if digital ministry is truly effective long-term) with a side of nostalgia (as people began to crave going back to the way things were).
Everyone has experienced this differently, of course, but it is important to note that this experience isn’t unique to the church. A similar experience is paralleled in education (moving to exclusive online learning) and business (many professions working remotely) with lessons, learnings, successes and failures that will be explored and examined for years.
Plot Twist One: Not only can the church change but the church is quite good at it.
As the fast pivot online occurred, there was a plot twist for churches: the local church discovered it can change when it needs to. In fact, it turns out that the church is quite good at it. Nothing creates change like a crisis and this crisis created change in abundance. Churches re-evaluated priorities, redeployed staff, revised budgets, reworked strategies, etc. This hidden ability (and even gift) for change tells me that the challenge for the church going forward isn’t its ability to change, but rather the motivation for that change to happen. Thus, the church’s lack of change in response to decline, lack of disciple-making, ageing leadership, etc. isn’t because the church is incapable of change, it is because it doesn’t see it as a crisis. Ouch!
Plot Twist Two: Technology will not solve our problems.
Within weeks of making the transition to exclusive online ministry, a second plot twist emerged: the church discovered that the initial promise of online ministry (increased engagement beyond traditional boundaries) was short-lived as online engagement began to drop (personally, I believe there are a number of reasons for this and I don’t believe that it is indicative for the long-term). Just as the church has discovered in recent years that its discipleship crisis wasn’t a content one (we have more content than ever before and yet the disciple-making needle hasn’t budged), it has now discovered it also isn’t a delivery one (moving online wasn’t the magic solution that some had argued).
Don’t get me wrong, your church needs an online ministry! If your church doesn’t have a digital dimension to its ministry, this pandemic has exposed that desperate need. With the mobility of people, the ease of online access, the increasing embrace of digital learning, community and work, the church faces the unprecedented opportunity to missionally enter the arena people are increasingly living in.
That being said, before the pandemic I was in many meetings where people were pitching how the church’s disciple-making problem was its lack of technology. In other words, if the church had better social media, an app or livestream options, its ministry would explode with effectiveness and expanded reach. In many ways, this pandemic has exposed and laid bare the depth of our discipleship and spiritual formation problem, and it is much deeper than we thought. Technology has its place (one we need to expand) but it will not solve our disciple-making problem – that problem is much deeper than a digital content delivery platform can solve.
Climax: Things can’t stay the same.
All of these factors have led the church to a crisis/climax. What is the place of technology in the life of the church and how will we reach more people and disciple them as followers of Jesus in our new post-COVID-19 world? The church needs a plan to build disciples (this isn’t the place for this, but my hypothesis is that it involves/includes a re-embrace of spiritual disciplines within Christian community) and an integrated and fully realized digital plan and strategy to support that plan.
In many ways, this season of life has exposed the depth of our disciple-making deficiency and, sadly, our complacency in it. If we end this season in the same place we entered, still believing the same misdiagnosed realities we once embraced, we will have missed a great opportunity for change. We must re-ignite our passion for disciple-making and see it as the crisis that it is. As a result, we must make the pivots needed to address it (pivots we discovered we are quite good at) and creating the digital infrastructure to support it (seeing digital platforms as a means to support disciple-making rather than save it).
Falling Action and Resolution: A new digital normal emerging.
One of our lessons is that technology is not the solution to our greatest problems, but it can help build our capacity to discover it. Our world is increasingly digital, and people will become acclimatized to a digital environment. Working from home, learning from home and worshipping from home will not fully replace personal physical interaction (this season has proven that), but it has its place and will be key to helping the church connect and fulfil its mission in our emerging world. Thus, your church needs to utilize technology in greater ways for the right reason. Technology won’t make disciples, that is our job (empowered by the Holy Spirit), but it can, like our physical buildings, create the environments for this to happen.
Cliff-hanger: What will we do as a result?
All good serial television shows end its episodes with a narrative cliff-hanger. This is no different. The cliff-hanger for the church is, what will we do now?
We can’t go back! We need to embrace our digital world for the environment it is while embracing our difficult calling to “go make disciples” (not conflating these in an ecclesiastical misdiagnosis).
As we move into the coming days, it is time to create an online strategy for your church or ministry. As we continue in the “COVID-19 Dance,” this may be needed as we move in and out of physical gathering restrictions, but it is also needed for the future, as we enter the digital landscape in the ever-expanding mission of God.
If you are not sure what this can look like or how to do this, I want to invite you to some workshops I am teaching for Ambrose University and Seminary in August. Join me for one, two or all three days as we do this together (it is also available for university or seminary credit). Learn about how technology affects us, how to leverage different digital technologies for your church or ministry and design a fully implementable digital strategy. It will be informative, practical and interactive. Come alone or bring your team.
Effective Online Ministry: Understanding, Creating and Launching Ministry Online (Presented by Ambrose University)
Instructor: Rev. Bryce Ashlin-Mayo, DMin
Description: A theological and methodological exploration of online ministry with particular attention to creating an online ministry strategy. It will examine how the internet and social media is profoundly changing culture and explore how the Church can effectively engage this new medium for the advancement of God’s kingdom and mission.
Details: Join us online for these three exciting professional development opportunities. Classes will run 9am-3pm with a break from 12-1pm each day.
August 12, 2020 – Understanding the Digital World: Bringing Theology and Media Ecology Together
August 19, 2020 – Understanding the Nuts and Bolts (Bits and Bytes) of Online Ministry
August 26, 2020 – 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.
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. 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. 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?). 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.
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.”
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:
Interrupted sleep schedule.
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.
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