One hour a week?

Since churches aren’t meeting on Sunday, pastors shouldn’t draw a salary.”

I’ve actually heard that (more than once) from people during this COVID19 pandemic. Do pastors really have less to do now? You tell me.  

Pastoral care needs have increased. People are in crises. Not just some people, but everyone. Health. Employment. Isolation. Fear. Grief. Loss. Uncertainty.

Before the pandemic people had various challenges at various times. Rarely did EVERYONE in a faith community face the same significant challenge at the same time. Now they do. That means pastors have exponentially more pastoral care needs in their community.

Strategic planning and decision making are more difficult. Why? Because the future is uncertain. Many churches are unable to do things the way they did. They are unsure when they will be able to “get back to normal.” If you have ears to hear, you are also questioning the inequalities present in “normal” and wonder if “normal” is compatible with God’s shalom – signaling a need for deeper discernment on the mission of the local church.

Anxiety puts stress on leaders. When anxiety goes up (in any system) people turn to those in authority to resolve their anxiety. Even in my low-church, priesthood of all believers, Mennonite Church, we have pastors set apart for particular roles and responsibilities. When anxiety goes up, people turn to the pastor – and sometimes they seek to shift their anxiety onto the pastor.

Some decisions have huge consequences. As a pastor in the mid-west, I spent many Sunday winter mornings discerning if we should cancel church because of snow. That pales in comparison to the decision of when and how to start in-person worship during a pandemic. Get that decision wrong, and it can literally cost people their lives. In the polarized and politicized American culture this isn’t as simple as listen to the public health officials. Which health officials?

In a world of “alternative facts” pastors face pressure to reopen that is rooted in something other than good, public health information.

It is one thing to have an opinion about this. It is another thing to be a key leader making the decision in a responsible and accountable way.

New skills are required. With congregational life moving online, pastors are expected to lead using a whole new skill set and a completely novel – for some – set of tools. Zoom. Livestreaming. Video editing and production. Uploading YouTube videos. Presenting on camera (televangelists make it look easy. It’s not). Some pastors already use these tools. Many do not. All are expected to now. AND people expect pastors to do this like they’ve done it their whole life.

People like going to church in their PJs. There are some early indicators that people will not give up their online experience lightly. While some people are ready to get back to in-person worship, others are enjoying online forms of ministry. If you have been around churches very long, you know it is easier to start something than to stop it. The pandemic may lead to more expectations on pastors, not less. (Leaving an online church is just a few clicks away if churches don’t continue online services.)

It’s clear to me that pastors have more to do now than ever before. They are also vulnerable to fuzzy expectations and more challenging leadership environments. Much of this outside of a pastor or church’s control. But there is one thing that every congregation can do:

  • Pause
    • Pastors and congregations moved swiftly in response to shelter-in-place orders. They rushed online. Created new communication channels. Adopted new ways of connecting.
    • Now is a good time to pause and reflect.
      • How is everyone doing?
      • What has been helpful? Unhelpful?
      • What has extended our mission? What has hindered our mission?
      • What should we continue? Discontinue? Change?
      • What new gifts have you discovered? How are limits become more clear?
  • Have a conversation about pastoral expectations
    • This conversation should occur between the pastor and the board/council/leadership team that has oversight of the pastors’ ministry
      • How is the pastor doing?
      • What does ministry look like now? How has it changed? What has been added? What has dropped off? How many hours is ministry taking?
      • What in the pastor’s current job description is still relevant? What has been added? Do you expect these changes to be permanent?
  • Agree on expectations
    • The pastor and oversight team should come to some agreements on pastoral expectations.
    • Based on our previous conversation, what are reasonable expectations for this time?
  • Write them down
    • This is KEY! If you don’t write them down, you have had interesting conversations, but not much else.
    • Be specific about what you expect all paid staff to do, what they can pause doing, what they can do differently, etc.  
    • Label this your “Pandemic Job Description(s)”, review it every three months during the pandemic.
  • Be responsible and accountable
    • Use these job descriptions to manage unrealistic expectations and help pastors engage a healthy balance between self-care and ministry.

With those foundations in place, you can move on to deeper questions about what it means to be a faith community, rooted in a place with a people, in the midst of a pandemic that is revealing deep inequities in our communities. This is the important work.

The purpose of clear expectations is to create space for important work to get done by managing the nonsense that can happen when expectations are unclear.

By what measure?

“Would we be here, having this discussion, if someone hadn’t told you that healthy churches must be large and/or growing?”

I was the new conference minister of Illinois Mennonite Conference (MC USA). I was sitting with a small church’s leadership team who asked me to help them discern if they should close.

As we talked, it seemed to me like this group of leaders, and the church as a whole, enjoyed being together. They had healthy relationships rooted in mutual love and expressed in mutual aid. They had a common mission, providing gently used clothing to people in their small city.

They were small, that is true. They had not welcomed a new member in quite some time. Their kids had grown up and, mostly, moved away. They wondered about their future. But that wasn’t what was causing them to consider closing.

They didn’t know if what they were doing was valuable if it was primarily “just for them.”

They had internalized a particular metric that told them the most important measure of a church’s health was their size and their trajectory – are they big and/or getting bigger. This metric was so powerful that they didn’t stop to take notice of all the great stuff that was happening in their midst.

Bigger is better and “biggering” is better still is a terrible measure of a church’s health and value. I prefer shared lives, shared resources, radical hospitality, open invitation, loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself – all the stuff Jesus’ taught and modeled.

As I write this, the world is in the middle of the COVID19 pandemic. All the measures of “health” rooted in large gatherings within big buildings have given way to simpler measures rooted in human connection. I submit that what is important now is what has been important all along.

As a pastor and leader, how do you measure your congregations health and value? Do you really believe that?

Theology and culture

Theology has everything to do with culture. To understand a Generation X theology, we must understand Generation X culture, and vice versa.

When I first studied theology, I thought I was going to be living with my head in the clouds, floating in an airy, spiritual nothingness. I imagined myself returning to earth at the end of each day to find myself back in my own culture. I was completely wrong.

Theology has to do with culture because theology has to do with living religiously, which always takes place within culture. Theology, by its very name, makes the great assertion that we can express a logos (word or reason) about a theos (God). Theology means “talk about” God, because it is possible to “talk with” God, or to encounter revelation about God. Despite the airy claims of some theologians, then, there is no theology apart from life in the world, from life in culture. (emphasis added)

Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, p 29

The what and why don’t change, just the how

The current pandemic is disrupting familiar patterns of work like, including pastoral ministry.

Congregations don’t meet in person on Sunday morning. In person team/committee meetings must follow social distancing guidelines (my mom, who is an elder at her church, insists on a solid 6 feet between her and others). Checking in on people is now over the phone or zoom. You can’t go to the hospital to visit sick persons. And so on.

Familiar rhythms disrupted can be disorienting.

If you are a pastor, remember that

  • why you do what you do hasn’t changed.
  • what you do hasn’t changed, either.
  • What has changed is how you do those things.

Learning how to do familiar things in new ways can be exciting. It’s also exhausting. Especially if those new ways of doing pastoral ministry are ill-fitting (even if necessary) When you are exhausted from learning new ways of doing things – not if you become, but when you are – be gracious to yourself.

The why and the what haven’t changed, just the how. You are called to love God and love your neighbor as yourself through the vocational calling of pastor. That doesn’t change.

You just have to figure out how to do that in a TikTok video (just kidding… I hope).

What’s the miracle?

There’s a story in the Bible where Jesus and his disciples go into the wilderness. A large crowd followed them – like 5,000 men, not counting women and children. Diner hour was approaching and the disciples were concerned that the crowd needed to eat. Jesus told them to feed the crowd.

The disciples panicked. How could they feed such a large crowd? They didn’t have money, time, or access to that much food. What would they do?

Then a small boy came and shared his lunch. A few loaves and fish. All we’re told is that Jesus blessed the food, everyone was fed, and there was so much left over it filled 12 baskets. (Matthew 14:13 – 21)

There are two explanations (maybe more) for what happened. The most popular explanation is that Jesus performed a miracle by multiplying that kid’s lunch into a meal of abundance by causing more fish and bread to appear until everyone was fed.

The other explanation is that Jesus amplified the kid’s offer to share. When Jesus called attention – indeed, blessed – the kid’s sharing, the crowds did likewise. Within the crowd itself, there was a capacity that the disciples didn’t see and a solution to the problem.

What’s harder to believe, that Jesus could turn one lunch into food for 5,000 + people, or that people out in the wilderness would share a scarce resource with others?

Some things to consider

The hope in both explanations is that in God’s economy resources are abundant. There is enough. What is different is the source of the resources. Do the resources come from a supernatural act of God or do they come from a community of people, looking out for each other?

I like the second explanation because it empowers people to live as followers of Jesus. If you do what Jesus says the world gets better – in this case, if you are generous, hospitable, love your neighbor and share your resources, there is more than enough.

In over 25 years of ministry, I’ve witnessed countless people who were waiting for Jesus to miraculously resolve their problem/challenge/obstacle while they wait. There is an African proverb “When you pray, move your feet!”

At the same time, the popular explanation reinforces Jesus’ divinity – he can rearrange the atoms of the universe to make food for people. There is a place for that. The place is largely theological in the sphere of belief. But there are some unintended consequences. One unintended consequence is huge questions it raises around theodicy (i.e. if Jesus can do that why to people still starve to death). Another is that it reinforces belief over action. The trust is, we can believe all the right things and do all the wrong things. What we do matters.

Finally, compare the leadership of the disciples and that of Jesus. The disciples have a scarcity mentality – they focused on not having enough food, access to food, and money to buy food. As leaders, they were paralyzed.

How many times have you seen this in your church? Great ideas get killed because there isn’t enough _______, we don’t have access to _____________, and we don’t have money to get ____________.

It is important to act on faith. Yet,I have big reservations about messages like “If God doesn’t show up, we can’t accomplish our vision,” or, conversely, “If it is a vision you can accomplish without God, it’s your vision, not God’s.” The first explanation reinforces that view. The second explanation deconstructs it.

In the second explanation Jesus amplifies the model of the kid who shared. A kingdom value that leads to life. The resources are located in the community. Jesus calls people to do something that changed things for everyone. That is an important message that is central to the ethical framework that Jesus gives throughout the gospels.

In God’s economy there is an abundance of resources. When we follow Jesus, the resources we steward as individuals can serve the needs of the whole. Supernatural miracles are great, but they are not required for us to create the kind of world God wants. WE can do that

PREACHING TIP FOR PASTORS: If you are going to preach this text today (Spring, 2020), I recommend leaning on this second explanation to pull out some points that are relevant in this time. When I preach the second explanation in a theologically conservative church, I acknowledge the first, most popular explanation as such. I then name the second explanation as a minority reading – which is true. This allows me to explore various readings while sidestepping the objection that, somehow, by not emphasizing the supernatural miracle, you are saying that didn’t happen. Truth is we don’t know what happened beyond what the text say. Both explanations are consistent with what we know about Jesus’ life and teaching.

A question good leaders ask!

Is there anything I said that is wrong or misstated?

Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York

The above quote came during a daily press conference on New York’s response to the COVID19 pandemic. It is a question that good leaders ask.

As leaders, we know what we are trying to say. How we say it makes sense to us. What we don’t know is how others hear what we say.

I’m reminded of the basic communication model I learned in undergrad. There is a sender, a receiver and interference. The sender communicates a message to a receiver. As that message floats through the air between sender and receiver, it encounters interference (the sum of a person’s experience, education, beliefs, etc., etc.). This means that what the sender says and what the receiver hears and understands can be two different things.

That’s a long way of saying that misunderstandings happen.

How do leaders respond to this reality? By checking with those we are communicating with, to make sure that what they hear is what we intend.

Is there anything I said that is wrong or misstated?

Experiment with adding that question – or one like it – to your communication! You might be surprised what you learn!

Want to grow your church?

I’ve spent over two decades as a local church pastor in congregations concerned about growth. In my experience, folks look for every tool or technique for growth except the ones Jesus gave us.

Invitation and inclusion.

Jesus invited people to life in the Kingdom as co-heirs of God’s good gifts and co-laborers in God’s shalom (re)building mission. He established a community where all people who responded to that invitation were welcome as members of God’s family!

Then he handed off the mission to others. He called his followers to invite people to life in the Kingdom and to welcome them into the community of God’s beloved!

You want to grow the church? Stop trying to grow the church. Instead, invite people to follow Jesus into life in the Kingdom and welcome them into the community of faith – making space for them to experience belonging.

You can do all kinds of other things, but if you don’t do that…

…when an organization is doing badly…

Fear is such a powerful motivator that it can force us to act in ways that are completely counter to our own or our organization’s best interests. Fear can push us to choose the best finite option at the risk of doing infinite damage. And when we face fear, we hide the truth. Which is pretty bad in any circumstance, but when an organization is doing badly, it’s even worse. [emphasis added]

Simon Sinek, The Infinite Game, pg 119

When you use a word…

Missional…I can hear the groans. In church circles (does anyone else use that word?) the word missional is overused and ill-defined. That makes it practically useless. Yet, it seems church folks insist on using it.

It goes a step further. Often people use the word missional to communicate something important/distinct/etc. while actually complaining that the word they are using doesn’t mean anything – they do this without providing any clear definition of the word.

Missional is a good word. Please keep using it! At the same time, when you use the word missional, please define it so we know what you are talking about. That will help this poor, poor word gain some clarity – and traction – in the church.