In my recent conversations with pastoral colleagues, I have sensed collective exhaustion and a shared discouragement. As such, I wanted to write a note of encouragement to my fellow pastors as a reminder that you are not alone!
I know many of you are tired and lonely. This has been an extremely difficult season. Although few have seen it, you have worked long hours and carried a heavy burden.
If you are a staff pastor, there is a chance you have been temporarily or permanently laid off. You have paid a higher price than most in this season. I want you to know how grateful we are for your ministry even though you may not have a formal role at this time.
For other staff pastors, you may have received a salary roll back that meant real sacrifices and difficult financial decisions. You helped shoulder this season for your church. In addition, your job description probably changed, and you now know more about Zoom and livestreaming than you could have imagined six months ago. Thank you for your perseverance, flexibility, sacrifice and faithful service to your church family.
For lead pastors, you, too, may have received a salary roll back that meant personal sacrifices. As part of all the pivots and changes, you have made difficult decisions and had hard staff conversations. And then regathering started. If you thought the tough part of leading in a pandemic was at the beginning and the fast ministry pivots, you are quickly learning the complicated and, sadly, contentious reality of regathering. Sure, the PPE and requirements are difficult to understand and execute but that is not the hardest part. Not even close. The hardest part of regathering is leading a diverse group of people with very different options forward together. Keeping unity in a polarized environment is not for the faint of heart. I/we see you and say thank you for shouldering this weight of responsibility.
In addition, most pastors (even those who are introverts) have felt a profound sense of loneliness in this season. It is hard to pastor people and lead a team when you can’t connect for the small talk that builds relational bridges and leads to community. For people whose role is dependent on relationship, this has been both professionally challenging and personally demanding.
As a result of all the above, you may be wondering: Why am I doing this? Is it really worth it? Why do I feel off, distant, lonely and, perhaps, unusually down and discouraged? Why are old habits and sin patterns surfacing? What is going on?
Although there may be some temporary comfort in the fact that this difficult ministry season won’t last (a new normal will emerge), it is still real today. Don’t ignore how you are feeling and what you are processing. Reach out to a friend or colleague and share how you are feeling. If you don’t have anyone you feel comfortable talking with, feel free to reach out to me. I’d be happy to just confidentially listen and pray. I am also sure others would be more than happy to do the same.
I want you to know that we see you and are so grateful for you. More importantly, I want you to know that Jesus sees you and is so very proud of you. This may be an extremely hard season in your ministry career and although Jesus doesn’t promise to remove the trouble, He does say to you as He did to His disciples, “Take heart. I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
May you take heart, Jesus has overcome. May you know that you are not alone. I am here for you, others are here for you and, most importantly, Jesus is here for you.
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.
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!
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.
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