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The Fog of Fall

The church has historically used a boat metaphor to help understand itself and its purpose (I use this image extensively in my book, Expedition: Following Jesus on a Mast-Raising, Sail-Setting, and Treasure-Seeking Journey to the Ends of the Earth).  As the church charts its way into the fall, it is heading into a fog.  There are so many unknowns and all the landmarks that we trusted to navigate have been obscured by the fog of the unknown.  This is disorientating but it can also be frightening.

Navigating a naval vessel in the fog is not for the faint of heart.  It demands unique skills and nautical practices.  One must use foghorns to announce one’s presence to other vessels and, conversely, carefully listen for others to sound off on their location.  One would also dispatch lookouts with sharp wits, focused eyes, and keen ears. 

This is what the fall will feel like for ministry leaders.  The fourth wave of Covid has created a fog and blinded us to many of the things we have relied on to navigate safely in ministry’s waters.  We once relied on casual foyer conversation to help us gauge how people were doing.  We once relied on in-person attendance to measure how the church was doing corporately and how people were doing individually.  These trusted symbols of success (as problematic as they were) have been overshadowed and made obsolete by the settling of Covid’s fog, obscuring our finely tuned leadership senses and making us feel vulnerable and confused.

As you lead into the fog, I want to encourage you to not lose heart.  Because you can’t see people, it doesn’t mean they are not tracking with you.  Because the church can’t gather in person, it doesn’t mean people aren’t gathering with you online in some way.  Because you don’t hear constant feedback or engage in casual in-person conversations, doesn’t mean you are not being effective.  Because you don’t feel like you are being effective, it doesn’t mean you are failing and, more importantly, faithfulness always trumps effectiveness anyway!

As you lead into the fog, I also want to encourage you to deploy the crew and loudly blow the foghorn for your congregation.  This is a season to be calling and connecting with your people by checking in.  People are afraid, frustrated, and feeling disconnected.  Blow the foghorn frequently and often.  Also, blow your foghorn in your community.  Embrace this season as an opportunity to serve and care for the community/neighbourhood/region God has placed your church in.  If you struggled with ways of letting your community know you are there for them, this is the time to find new and creative ways of caring (care for long term care home residents, health care workers, teachers, single mothers trying to navigate a global pandemic alone, etc.) and serving your community.

As you lead into the fog, rely on your maps and instruments.  Get back to the basics in ministry.  If there was ever an opportunity to reset our churches on the fundamentals of what we are called to do, now is the time.  Whatever the method, the mission and ministry of the church have always included the markers of sacraments, proclamation, service, worship, and community.  Whether in-person or online, and however one approaches their programs and church structure, these are the historic markers of the church.  Get back to the basics and rest in God’s boundless goodness and exuberant grace.

When the fog sets in, so does fear.  We fear the unknown.  We fear not being able to see.  We fear vulnerability.  However, in the obscurity of the fog, we also begin to rely on our other senses; our other senses heighten in the shadow of the fog.  Thus, when you can’t see, listen.  When we can’t see the future with predictability, listen for Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who is leading us (John 10:27).  Maybe one of the unforeseen gifts of this season is the tuning of our lives to the melodious voice of Jesus who, like all shepherds, leads with His voice.  Maybe we have become so accustomed to relying on our eyes in ministry that we have forgotten the call to listen and know the Shepherd’s voice and follow Him.

Although the fog has set in, it won’t last forever.  Press in, press on, and have hope.  Although the future may be obscured by the fog, our captain (King Jesus) knows the way and He will lead us through it. 

Keep going, keep leading, and, above all, be faithful.

As 1 Thessalonians 5:24 says, “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.”

Keep Calm and Lead On

Dear Church Leader,

As we enter the final weeks of summer and prepare for the unknown of fall, there is an often-ignored leadership competency that is vital in this season.  It is the unappreciated ability to keep calm and lead on.”

We are about to approach the most volatile of ministry seasons.  Last year was difficult with lockdowns and restrictions but this year will be uniquely challenging with variants, increased restrictions, amplified polarization, unknown post-pandemic engagement/attendance patterns, and an overall fatigue in everyone, everywhere.

This bitter cocktail of uncertainly and weariness has created a reflux of anxiety and a tendency towards either willful ignorance or fear-filled reaction.  In seasons like this, a crucial leadership competency is the ability to lead humbly, calmly, and steadily with thoughtful deliberate action.

In every nautical adventure movie, there is a climactic scene where the ship is on a catastrophic trajectory (causing great anxiety and fear in the crew) and an abrupt maneuver is needed to avoid calamity (a torpedo is inbound, or a collision is imminent).  In these scenes, the crew is frantic and wanting to impulsively act but the captain knows it is not the right time.  Decisive action is needed but if the action happens too early or if the wrong action is taken, the ship will be in great peril. 

Calm, steady, and humble leadership is needed in times like this.  If you lead with anxiety and fear, you will react rather than respond.  If you lead with prideful arrogance, you will miss important information and make poor impulsive decisions.  Instead, keep calm and lead on.

As you desire to calmly lead in this season, here are three ways to do so from 1 Peter 5:1-11.

First, be humble and honest.  It is healthy to be appropriately transparent with your team about the uncertainty ahead.  Lead your team not from your uncertainty but from your humility, casting ALL your cares on God.  Lead with faith over fear.  Faith doesn’t blind us to the obstacles or challenges; rather, it changes the focal point.  Faith acknowledges the uncertainty while simultaneously focusing our attention on Jesus and His sovereignty.

Second, be alert and of sober mind.  As a church leader, you will be tempted to act based on how you feel and sense things to be.  Beware the danger of uncalibrated perceptions. In this season, all the feedback signals and effectiveness gauges that we grew accustomed to using and trusting have been disrupted.  As a result, you can’t fully trust your gauges.  How you sense things are may not be an accurate representation of reality.

Finally, be reminded that Jesus is on His eternal glorious throne.  Jesus is building His Church (even if we can’t see it, feel it, or quantify it), and He (the Chief Shepherd) will lead us through. The fall season ahead will be uniquely difficult, but we can have hope because Jesus is with us and leading us forward!

Keep calm and lead on.

FIVE THINGS TO TAKE INTO YOUR SUMMER

Dear Church Leader,

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!

Six Things to Change in Your Church Re-Entry Mindset

Dear Church Leader,

As your church prepares to exit lockdown and re-engage with in-person gatherings, it is vital to prepare for the coming months with the right mindset.  As you do, consider these six things:

The Slow Re-Entry

Be prepared for a trickle, not a downpour, of in-person attendance.  As restrictions lift, everyone will not come back at the same time or with the same expectations.  Some will come with enthusiasm, some with caution, and some with apprehension.  Understanding this reality is vital in protecting your heart from potential discouragement and disappointment.  Additionally, if we expect people to all come back right away, we will not be prepared to help those who will take time to feel comfortable and reengage with in-person gatherings or to minister to those who choose to engage exclusively online.

Therefore, adjust expectations and allow for people to engage at their own pace.  To aid in this, it might be helpful to heighten regular hygiene practices, remove any stigma for those who prefer to continue wearing a mask, and be sensitive to people’s personal space by keeping designated extra social-distance seating for those who would prefer it.

The Great Migration

One of the practical dynamics of a pandemic is that although people moved geographically, we didn’t see this manifest in the local church as most kept engaging digitally after they moved. Although a small percentage may decide to stay digitally connected with their previous church after they have moved away, most will begin looking for a new church home as restrictions ease.  This will have two effects. First, it can be discouraging for pastors who will be faced with what would have, typically, been a series of losses over eighteen months, condensed into a short few. Second, it calls on the church to prepare for an unusual influx of people in the coming weeks/months as those who have moved geographically to your area are looking for a new church home.

Thus, as you prepare to welcome your congregation back, put extra energy into your newcomer strategies and hospitality ministry.  Consider ways to let new people in your community know of your church as they begin to look for a new church home.  Be sure to do this physically (signs, postcards, etc.) as well as digitally (Google and Facebook Ads).  Above all, remember that digital is the new front door.  If you haven’t done so already, be sure your newcomer engagement strategy includes, and even focuses on, your digital platforms.  Keep your website, social media, and live streams up to date with excellence and authenticity as people will attend digitally before they attend physically. 

The New Hybrid Normal

It is also important to recognize that, like most things in society (movies, education, work, etc.), people will desire a hybrid (physical and digital) approach, embracing the benefits of both.  As a result, people will engage with church physically less often and when they do, they will be looking for personal relationships and physical community.  The shift away from large performance-centric gatherings will continue and the growth of artisanal community expressions (both digitally and in-person) will continue to emerge and grow in dominance.

Thus, as you regather physically, pour increasing energy into community and relationships.  Additionally, don’t ignore digital and the unique gifts it offers your people to stay connected, foster community, and minister to people untethered by geographic restraints.

The Rebuild

As you look into the coming year, it is imperative that you begin to adopt a rebuilding mentality.  If you entered Covid with a mature church with great structure and momentum, it would be foolhardy to assume that mentality will work coming out of Covid.  As we exit Covid, your church will need to act more like a church plant than an established church.

Just as when a sports team enters a rebuilding year, you will need to adjust your mentality accordingly (change how you allocate resources, get back to the basics, simplify, adjust your expectations, focus on different priorities, etc.). Take time over the summer to review your ministry strategy and re-emerge focusing on the fundamentals that make your church unique.  If you don’t know what that is, this is a great time to discern it with your leadership team and relaunch into the Fall.  Don’t fall for the temptation to go back to what was.  Move forward engaging with a world that will look very different than it did a year, two, or five years ago.

The Great Divide

One of my brilliant colleagues made the apt observation that we will need to press into reconciliation in the coming year.  The world is increasingly divided, and the church is no expectation.  Your church cannot achieve its mission if it is divided, and Jesus wants us to show the world that we are His disciples by our love.  As a result, I believe this is our moment to be a shining city on a hill, glowing with the light of Jesus’ redemption and reconciliation.  God’s mission depends on it!

The Fall Out

As you enter this next year, I want to warn you.  It will be hard!  Not only will it be filled with rebuilding, but it will also be filled with broken and hurting people.  When disaster strikes it is not until after the devastation that people begin to deal with the internal pain and brokenness it created.  We would be naïve to assume that things will just spring back to life in people’s lives after the immediate effects of Covid are over.  People will be hurting emotionally, spiritually, and physically as we re-emerge from Covid.  Let us be prepared for the difficult times ahead by doing what we do best: pastoring, loving, and caring for people with the grace, hope, and love of Jesus.  Let us also be prepared that some of those hurting will be us.  Do not ignore your own brokenness as you care for others.

The Hope

Although our mindset needs to change as we engage in the coming months, the main things do not.  Jesus is still on His throne, and He is leading His Church.  Although the coming year will be filled with challenges, take heart.  Jesus is good, He has overcome, and He will lead us! 

As Jesus said, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b, NIV) 

Eight Things to Consider as You Prepare for Easter

Easter is coming (April 4th)!

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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).

Be gentle with yourself!