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Pastoral Leadership, Covid-19, and the Stages of Grief

Change is Hard!

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.

Anger

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.

Bargaining

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).

Depression

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.

Acceptance

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. 

Lean into grief but don’t get stuck in it!

Four Leadership Postures for 2021

As we leave 2020 behind and press into 2021, I want to consider four leadership postures for the year ahead…

Self-Care (Healthy Rhythms and Intentional Rest)

The temptation of entering into 2021 is to turn the page on 2020 and enter the coming year ignorant of the long-term effects of leading through a pandemic.  Turning a calendar page might feel good but it doesn’t erase the impact of a difficult situation, season or year.  We know this to be true in other people’s lives, but we are often blind to it in our own.  I want to emphasize this.  In every major catastrophe or event, people often weather the storm, only to experience long term impacts.  In extreme situations, this is known as PSTD, but the principle of delayed and long-term impact shouldn’t be ignored.  As we enter 2021, it is vital for any leader to focus on self-care.  To take adequate time off.  To pursue healthy rhythms.  To get help even if you don’t think you need it.  If you are experiencing any symptoms from what I posted here (You are Not Okay), get some help and see a counsellor or a psychologist.  Don’t delay and care for yourself as we enter this new year.  Again, turning the page will not erase the hard words and difficult storyline of the previous chapter.

Preparing for the Long Haul

With the talk of a vaccine, there is a sense that things will go back to “normal” and, therefore, there isn’t a need to make the changes required for the long road ahead.  This is short-sighted and dangerous.  The road ahead will be longer than we hope, and we need to be prepared.  Even if I am wrong, and I hope I am, be prepared mentally and practically for the road ahead.  Good leaders don’t lead with blinders, they lead with clarity and the bravery to look ahead with courage and truth (for more on this, see my previous post).

Normalize Change

As you lead into 2021, it is vital that you normalize change.  After a season that jarred you out of the rut of the past, you will be tempted, even long, to go back.  Ignore the urge to go back to old systems that didn’t work (even if our rose-coloured memories tell us they did) and old structures that were outdated.  The innovation of the last year is the innovation posture needed for the future ahead.  Don’t let your foot off the pedal of change but rather get used to driving at the speed of invention.  This is the posture needed for any effective organization or ministry in the future.  Develop a posture of innovation and embrace the normalcy of change in 2021.

Empowering Young Leaders

In the last year, you may have reduced your reliance on younger leaders and stopped listening to emerging voices.  The desire for a steady and seasoned voice was understandable but the future will demand that we attune our ears to the young voices in our organizations and teams.  Promote young people, give responsibility to younger leaders and take some leadership risks with them in the coming year.  If you are a seasoned and older leader and you (re)build your organization, ministry and team around your desires and your preferences, you have missed the mark and have sacrificed your organization’s future for your present comfort.  The best leaders will empower young leaders in the coming season and give them room to experiment, develop and grow.

The Promise Ahead

2021 holds so much promise but that promise can be easily buried by our short memories and desire for comfort.  If we accept the temptation of comfort, we reject the vital opportunities before it.  Look ahead with realism and walk forward in hope.  God is doing a new thing and asking us to join.

Preaching in the Blind

Preaching in the Blind

“…in the blind…” is a radio communication phrase made popular by the movie Gravity. 

Although made popular by actors George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, it is a bonified aviation and NASA radio communication practice.  Often used during emergency situations, it is a way for the transmitter to communicate while acknowledging that, although someone may hear the transmission, the transmitter is not expecting a response.

In many ways, this is what preaching has become in our coronavirus-initiated virtual church experience.  Preaching is now exclusively delivered via video to small screens everywhere and recorded or live streamed with few, if any, people in the physical room.  This shift has proven to be a very different preaching experience (for both the speaker and the hearer). 

I have chatted with several of my colleagues about this and wanted to share what I have learned from those conversations, my experience, and ask for any additional advice (please share these in the comments section).

Five Main Things I’ve Learned So Far About “Preaching in the Blind”

Make it Intimate

As I have scanned different churches and preacher’s approaches to an exclusively online ministry preaching model, I’ve discerned two main approaches.  

First is the approach that looks exactly like it did before COVID-19 and public gathering restrictions.  By watching the service and the preaching, you would assume that the room was full, and the preacher was communicating to a large gathering.  For the most part, those who employ this approach are being strategic in that they want the experience to be the same for their church when public gatherings are allowed again.  The risk is, it can come across as odd and, potentially, inauthentic as people know that the room is empty (especially as this social distance season extends).

The other approach is changing the frame, format and style of the preaching moment to fit an exclusively small venue (living room, etc.) video approach and embrace the personal/intimate feel of someone in a living room speaking to people in their living rooms.  This is the approach we have taken at Westlife Church.  I’m not saying it is the right way, the only way, or the best way.  But it has worked for us and we are learning as we go.  The risk is, when we eventually shift to a new post-coronavirus normal, we may also have to shift out of this model, and it will be another adjustment for our people who will have become accustomed to a different approach.

This more intimate approach is not new and is reminiscent of the approach taken by Sherri Chessen in the 1980’s with her classic Canadian Romper Room children’s television program.   During each show, she would look through her handheld magic mirror and mention all the kids by name that she “saw” through it.

Sherri understood the need to create an intimate feel with her audience who were watching from their living rooms.  Thus, as you preach, imagine you are speaking in a coffee shop or living room to someone one-on-one.  Be personal and conversational.  Be real and appropriately transparent.  Be gentle and kind.

Give Lots of Virtual Eye Contact

As you preach in an exclusively online format, preach to the camera(s) just like having coffee with a friend, look into their eyes when you are talking but don’t stare into their souls!  Preach to the camera and speak like it is a friend but be natural as you do.  If it is helpful, place a facial cue at camera height and imagine a conversation over coffee.  Additionally, as much possible, don’t look at your notes as you preach.  You would assume that video would give increased ability to use notes, but virtual eye contact is so important that looking down too often can come across as too scripted and impersonal.  If you need notes, try a teleprompter as some of my friends have done with great success (there are some great apps that allow for this now). 

Keep it Short

From my conversations with other preachers, we have all expressed the phenomena: we are preaching shorter.  There are lots of reasons for this, but I do think that a screen attention span is shorter – we are accustomed to a short screen attention span and so exclusive online preaching demands this adjustment accordingly. Some may say that all preaching should be shorter (perhaps they are correct) but exclusive video preaching is definitely different and adjusting our methodology is important.

Use Humour Differently

Instant feedback makes humour more effective and the act of communicating with humour more enjoyable (in my opinion).  Unless you use a laugh track (BTW: some of the more seasoned video preachers out there do that), your humour will change.  I know it has for me.  I probably use it less often and differently than I used to.  That doesn’t mean it is less effective, it is just different.  There is a reason why talk shows, stand-up comedians and late-night talk show hosts have live studio audiences and why preaching without an audience makes humour different and, frankly, more difficult.

Change Locations – Be Creative

One of the benefits of video (especially if you prerecord) is to alter your venue and make it specific or fitting to your message.  This week, we are planning to record outdoors by the Bow River as I preach on Psalm 1.  Not being bound to a specific physical space (stage), allows for some creativity in location and atmosphere, and now is the time to use it.

Additionally, be creative.  Our video producer on Easter Sunday effectively wove in some B-roll (in this case, stock video footage) and even a musical score during a story I was telling.  It was super effective, and, if it is done well, can add to the preaching.  There is obviously risk involved here and we need to be sure we don’t “jump the shark” in our creative endeavours.  However, may we also not miss an opportunity to try new things in a season that uniquely allows for it and offers inherent permission to try.

Preaching in the Blind

As we go through the prolonged season of preaching in the blind, may we adapt accordingly and learn from our adaption as we move back into whatever new normal will emerge in a post-coronavirus world.  Preaching in the blind is a different experience that demands a different approach and a different preaching methodology.  Embrace it, try new things, and let God be glorified as you do.

Shifting Gears: From Crisis Response to Strategic Planning

COVID 19 – Phase Two Continued

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. 

Shift gears and lead on!

COVID-19 Phase Two: Next Steps

Dear Fellow Pastor,

As you enter into another week of COVID-19, I thought I would write some needed words of encouragement and some important things to consider.

First, I want to recognize the compounding toll of this season on your life and ministry.  If you are like me, the initial rush of adrenaline common in crisis has worn off and the endless stream of challenges remains.  Consequently, you are probably feeling a bit worn out and stretched thin.  If so:  Stop.  Breathe.  Pray.  Care (for yourself, your family, as well as your spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being).  Lead. (in that order)

I’m not sure if this is universal, but I have worked harder in these last two weeks than ever before in my pastoral career.  I want to remind us that this is a marathon, not a sprint and we have yet to approach the first giant hill in the race (we will face the first of several waves in COVID-19 in the next couple of weeks).  Thus, it is vital to take a breath and prepare as we will be stretched beyond ourselves in the coming days.

As we approach the unknown future with huge leadership challenges and pastoral care needs, I want to humbly remind you of a truth you know and have preached about several times. 

Sometimes God allows us to experience more than we can handle in our lives, and when we do, we discover that at the end of ourselves, we meet the unfiltered and endless goodness and greatness of our God.  God is with you and He will not fail!  Therefore, be strong and courageous.  Take each day, each step in the marathon ahead, with trust in God’s goodness and grace as well as the promise that He cares for you, your family, and the church you lead infinitely more than you.

Second, I would humbly offer the following to consider in this season ahead as you lead your community of faith:

  • Don’t journey these uncharted waters alone!  Any expeditionary mission into uncharted territory knows the importance of travelling as a team.  Therefore, gather some other pastors/leaders around you for mutual encouragement.  This will most likely be the hardest season of your ministry career and you can’t do this alone.  If you don’t feel it yet, you will.  You need Jesus and you need others to cheer you on!  If you feel alone and you don’t know where to turn, I’d be more than honoured to hear your heart, encourage you, and pray for you in this season (just contact me anytime).  We are all trying to find our way and the worst thing we can do is push through the fog of this season alone.  Rather, let’s be fellow sailors on this expedition together, calling, helping and encouraging each other forward through the fog.
  • We will get through this, but it will be a long and difficult journey.  I think we all need to be reminded of this hope.  This season will not be weeks; it will be months (some predict a year).  However long this season will be, it will end at some point and ministry will readjust to a new normal (whatever that is!).  I think we need to honestly face the enormity of this challenge and its implications but also be reminded, with hope, that it will not prevail, and Jesus will prove to be faithful!
  • Don’t be lulled into complacency, flatten the curve and escalate care.  We may flatten the curve of COVID-19 in some way (I pray we are successful) but that will just slow down the impact of what will affect many of us (I also pray for an effective treatment with hope but plan with a sober assessment of the current facts).  Thus, this is the time to be prepared and plan!  Have a plan to care for the sick.  Have a plan to care for those in financial peril.  Have a plan for those in relational crisis (whatever cracks a marriage or family has will be burst wide open).  Have a financial plan for your church as economic realities hit.  Have a plan for congregational and community care for your church and make yourself redundant (in order words, not having all care dependant on you, as you may get sick at some point) as well as have a plan to reach your community in this season.  These are the moments leaders are made for and when great leaders are forged!   
  • Continue to grow your online presence and invest resources (however limited) here.  Be creative, be innovative, empower younger leaders, and be willing to fail.  Although you are managing limited resources, this is the time to invest where people are.  If you are in an older demographic as a leader, have younger leaders on your online ministry leadership team and use their assessment of what is working and not working.  Be honest about your prejudices here: your perspective of what is working online is probably blinded by your age and you need younger voices to help you see what you may be blind to.

In all of this, remember the promise of Jesus to His disciples who would face great hardship and challenges as they followed Him, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV)

Pastors: Take heart!  This pandemic will not win.  Jesus has overcome!  These are the moments the Church was made for.  Therefore, let us collectively shine our lights in the flog of fear and uncertainty with the eternal hope and love of Jesus!