Summer is here! The sun is shining, the weather is unusually warm, and you are more tired than you realize. This has been one of the most difficult years in recent ministry history, involving persistent change, conflict and confusion. As a result, stress has compounded and compacted like sediment over our hearts and leadership, and I want to give you peer permission and encouragement to rest in the coming days and begin to let Jesus, the living water, gently soften your heart, bringing rest and restoration.
As you enter your summer, I would encourage you to take these five things with you!
First, take your holidays. If you have them, use them and guard them. Intentionally shut down and decompress. I took some time off in June and discovered I was more tired than I thought. You may be tempted to save your holidays for later (“I can’t really go anywhere anyway”). Guard against this. Take your time and disconnect as much as possible. You need it more than you realize. I know I did!
Second, take a personal inventory of how you are doing. Be honest with yourself. How is your soul? Have you been self-medicating in the increased isolation of the season? Do you need help? Just as there were increased mental health changes of lockdown (which you probably experienced), there will also be mental health challenges as things move back to full engagement with people (especially for anyone who has any form of social anxiety). Take time to reflect, grieve losses, do a moral inventory, consider your relationships and ask God and others to walk with you through all of this.
Third, take time to plan for the future with hope and caution. There will be lots of appropriate excitement for a vaccinated Fall. Embrace the excitement but chase that excitement with some caution and backup plans. There is reasonable concern about variants and the possibility of more restrictions in the fall/winter. As you plan ahead, don’t put all your planning or hopes in a fully in-person future. I am not making a case for future restrictions, but it is good leadership to be prepared. We are not out of Covid yet, even though it may increasingly seem like it.
Fourth, take it slow. As you prepare for the future, I would caution you to not jump back to all your old patterns and methodologies. Just don’t relaunch everything you did before, hire back all the same staff positions, and structure everything the way you did two years ago. It may feel comfortable, but it would be foolish. A post-Covid reality will look different than a pre-Covid reality. Not everyone will come back in person and those that do will all not come back at the same time or in the same way. People’s attendance and giving patterns will change and we would be foolish to not account for this. Don’t get me wrong, the future is hopeful, but the future will look different than the past.
Finally, take stock. Take time with your leadership team(s) to list all the ways God has been faithful in the last 16-18 months. Covid seems like five years packed into one and we can forget all the things God did in the last year. It will be an encouraging time that will give you hope as you look to the future.
Covid has been long! It has been filled with pain, sickness, disruption, death, conflict, change and more change. Don’t underestimate the impact of this on your spiritual life, emotional wellbeing, relationships, family and ministry.
Take these five things into your summer, embrace rest and let God cultivate hope back into your life and ministry!
As the highpoint of the Christian calendar, it is the most attended Sunday service of the church year. As we approach the second Easter of the pandemic, I believe it is time to lean in hard this Easter. Don’t fall into the temptation to simply accommodate things online this Easter, but intentionally and creatively design things to thrive digitally this year.
The following are eight things to consider as we plan and prepare for Easter 2021:
Be Digital by Default Depending on where you live, you may be able to have some people in the room for Easter services (in my area that is currently limited to 15%) but the majority of people will join you digitally. This is especially true of anyone who will come for the first time. As a result, don’t dismiss your digital presence and experience. Recognize the uniqueness of digital culture and plan accordingly. Be digital by default and use this Easter to connect with more people than ever before. Boost social media posts (targeting people in your community), encourage your people to share the services with their connections, be creative and embrace the four shifts of digital culture: Experience as Story, Experience as Participation, Relational Authority and Tribalism (I talk about these in my book Digital Mission and the Digital Mission Course).
Be Creative As we move into the Easter season, this is a season to embrace creativity as you engage online. Reject the temptation to simply do what you would have done in-person and assume it will work online in the same way. It won’t! Find ways to tell the Easter story that are more creative and engaging (especially for digital culture). This doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but this season does provide the unique opportunity to do things you have never done before.
Be Memorable This will be a unique season in the life of your church. Resist the temptation to just make it through. Have your team(s) ask, “how can we make this year’s Easter one of the most memorable for our people and community?” What are some memory creating moments in the season that will help foster engagement, expectancy and community? To that end, perhaps consider ways you can celebrate baptism, have a Church-wide online party with fun surprises, give creative Easter baskets to families in your church, find a way to creatively share the message of Easter that leads to response, etc. Whatever you do, use this season to increase engagement, make memories and foster community.
Be Missional Because you will be more intentionally online this Easter, extend your reach. Lead a campaign for your people to share your services online by inviting their neighbours and friends, use Facebook Watch Parties, boost services with paid social media ads and engage with your community. Find ways to serve your community in this season. We discovered that people are itching to serve others and one of our most effective community engagement strategies is to help people serve others. Maybe it is creative Easter baskets for long-term care home residents, a fun and safe Easter-themed social activity for the community, etc. This is the season to reach far and wide into the community that God has strategically placed you in.
Be Social People are desperate for community. Consider how you can help people get connected in your church and move from connection to community. Community is possible digitally (I argue in Digital Mission that it is just built in reverse). Find ways to connect with people and welcome them into your church community.
Be Hopeful If there was ever a season to preach about the hope of the resurrection, this is the year. Don’t shy away from hope. People are desperate for it! Whatever your theme, the message of Easter is the message that we are hardwired to hear, and this season people are more attuned to hear this message than ever before. Don’t shy away from preaching the Good News of the resurrection!
Be Personal This is the time to connect with people in personal ways. Everything online is personal (your newsfeed, the items curated for you on Amazon, your search engine results, etc.). Make your digital relationship with your congregants personal as well. This is easier in smaller church contexts but anything you can do to make Easter more customized for individuals and families will communicate your love and care for them. As people become increasingly expectant of a personal touch, the church can do this in unique and extremely meaningful ways. Take time with your team to discuss how you can make your Easter more customized for each of your community’s individuals and families (for example, if you are doing a gift bag, basket or box, customize with a handwritten note, with items curated for their unique family make up, and if you include pre-packaged food of some kind recognize those who are celiac, diabetics, etc.). This will communicate care and concern!
Be Gentle This has been an extremely hard season. Be gentle with yourself! This has all been rather overwhelming and you are learning things that are beyond your regular areas of competency. Avoid comparing with others and simply and importantly love the people in your care. Be creative in your context. Don’t be tempted to look at the church down the block or online. Find ways to be digital, creative, memorable, missional, social, hopeful and personal in your context and avoid the comparison game. Whatever God is calling you to, do that!
As I have repeatedly said to pastors in this season, you are doing better than you think you are in terms of ministry effectiveness (it is just that all of your conditioned gauges of effectiveness are no longer working because they are all conditioned to in-person metrics and feedback). Additionally, pay attention and care for yourself with lots of understanding and grace (this has been the most difficult season to lead in our generation and don’t under-estimate the impact on you).
As a pastoral leader, this has been a difficult season on many fronts. You have led your community of faith through an unprecedented health crisis, managed relentless pivots, made difficult decisions, and dramatically changed the models of ministry you were not just comfortable with but were competent in.
People like change until you change what they love (or are good at). And let’s face it, we were not just competent at our old methodologies, systems, and structures, we mastered them. This is why (pre-pandemic), even in the face of rapidly declining baptisms, disciple-making, attendance, and giving, we were so adverse and reluctant to change our methodologies. Our competency and comfort kept us on a trajectory of complacency.
Covid-19 changed that!
Covid-19 has forced us to change the way we do things and pushed us out of our comfortable ineffective ruts. I believe God will use this to drive us closer to Him in intimacy (trusting more in Him than our methods) and toward greater innovation as we seek to discover what ministry will look like in a post-Covid-19 world.
With all major change, we need to grieve what was in order to accept what is and dream of what could be. All grief has commonalities, and the five stages of grief is a helpful tool to understand that journey. It can help you gain awareness empathy for what you, your church, and your team are experiencing.
As a leader, you are journeying these stages personally. You are grieving a way of doing things that you were very competent at and stepping into a new methodology and a different culture (digital is different) where you aren’t as comfortable or fluent. It is a loss and one that can be disorientating and discouraging.
Second, consider the stages as a team leader. Journeying the stages together doesn’t always mean you will journey it faster or healthier. Sometimes people can experience an arrested development in the grief journey. Therefore, be cautious that your team isn’t getting stuck together in one of the stages. Also, stay on the lookout for misunderstandings with each other as everyone processes grief at different speeds and in different orders.
The Five Stages of Grief
The following are the stages of grief that I think pastors and church leaders are currently processing and journeying. As you read through them, consider where are you and your team are in that process.
Shock and Denial
Overnight, the comfortable way of doing things changed. We went into crisis-mode. We moved online with pragmatic naivety, believing that we could just do everything digitally in the same way we did it in-person. We were mistaken. We were in denial.
I think some are stuck here, hoping things will get better or get back to “normal,” unaware or unwilling to admit that 2019’s version of normal is not coming back. The way we did ministry pre-Covid-19 is not returning just like the way people shopped, exercised, watched movies, and learned will not. This is not a bad thing! In fact, it holds many opportunities for those willing to embrace them. If nothing else, it has pulled us out of our complacent slumber of apathetic ineffectiveness.
After the initial shock and denial comes anger. This emotion and feeling can be quite substantial. Your family and staff have probably felt this from you. You have probably sensed this in your team. We get frustrated, feel out of control, feel overwhelmed, and start blaming when we grieve the loss of what/who we love. Don’t underestimate this and the impact of this stage on your life and ministry.
The next stage is bargaining. This is the stage where we try to bargain our way out of our loss. Instead of moving to acceptance, we try and find another means to bring back what we love. This may manifest as a false hope that everything will be over soon, that things will just go back to “normal,” or when we try and justify that things are working when all indicators tell us they are not (for instance counting 3-sec views as equivalent to a person in physical attendance).
After bargaining comes depression. Once we realize we can’t bargain what we lost back into existence, we begin to accept the reality of the loss and the change at hand. As a result, there is often a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. The future is unknown. You are unsure of what to do. You question your competency and can feel overwhelmed by the situation. This stage can grab people and hold them tightly. Be aware of this in your life and in your team. Although hope exists (on a spiritual level (Jesus will lead us) and practical level (there are methodologies and new approaches that are and will be effective)) it can be hard to see them at first.
The final stage is acceptance. This is where we begin to accept the loss of what was and start to see the hope of what could be. In terms of the church, this where we begin to acknowledge that our old methodologies of preaching, community-building, evangelism, disciple-making, leading, and interacting won’t work anymore but something new can. Acceptance begins to dream, have hope, and move forward with faith and innovation.
Where Are You?
Where are you in these stages? Where are your teammates? Where is your team as a whole? Maybe this framework helps you understand how you are feeling and what you are experiencing. Perhaps it gives you something to discuss as a ministry/staff team as you work through the stages together.
Don’t rush through the grieving process! People journey grief at different speeds and the stages aren’t always linear.
Remember: You need to grieve! Grief is healthy! You need to grieve the loss of what was so you can embrace what can and will be.
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!