To All My Pastor Friends . . .

So, here we go again. We Nova Scotian pastors are facing two weeks of lockdown, unable to gather in our church buildings.

And, of course, we hope and pray it is only two weeks.

Some of us will go online again to provide worship either with recorded messages or livestreamed services. My family and I might try and live stream on YouTube like we did on Facebook live last year with “Homemade Worship.” Especially if this lockdown extends beyond two weeks.

Some of us will easily roll with these changes. Others of us might be frustrated. Some might simply disagree that it’s even warranted. Those in our congregations will be of varying opinions.

And maybe after a year of various COVID restrictions, news coverage, media saturation, and debates with family, friends, and neighbours in person and on Facebook about masks and vaccines you’re feeling a little weary. Maybe exhausted.

Just a few thoughts, especially if this extends beyond two weeks:

One, know your limits. You can’t do everything. You can’t be all things to all people. Pastors are not super-heroes who are supposed to bear the entire weight of the church and its ministry on their shoulders as if they were the Hulk or Super-Man. That attitude and approach will kill you. Ask others in your church to help keep connected with those in your congregation who might be most vulnerable or fearful or lonely. This is even more true the larger your church. Pastors are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not to do all the ministry on their own (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Two, you need rest too. Give yourself permission to take a Sabbath from all online activity. Turn off your phone, even for a few hours. Take steps to give yourself a break from being constantly available. That we find this to be such a challenge is a symptom of how poorly we have managed our smartphones and other devices. Have a nap. Go for a walk in the woods or on a local trail. Read the novel you haven’t had time to pick up. Jesus invites us to rest (Matthew 11:28). Maybe listen to him?

Three, learn from last time. We’ve been through this before. What worked and what didn’t last time? What might we do differently?

Blessedly, God remains on his throne. He’s not only got the whole world in his hands, he’s got you. And he has your congregation in his hands also. So, count on that, put your trust in him, and move ahead as best you can. Whatever else happens, Jesus is still our risen Savior. Because of that we’re going to be fine.

The ABCs of Church

There are a lot of churches in our world struggling to survive. Not only have many of us have heard the stats about the decline of attendance in churches, we’ve experienced it. We’re going through it. For a lot of churches and church members the situation is discouraging.

But what if it doesn’t have to be?

I heard someone say once that too many congregations focus on the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. And when a congregation is finding it especially difficult to envision a future for the church, it’s natural to put our attention on these ABCs. They’re what we see. We can measure them. We can wrap our minds around them. We can–ahem–complain about them. We can blame someone else for them. Maybe we can even control them to some degree.

Except let’s think about it for a minute. And maybe in this way. Here’s the process: Getting more people in the church will hopefully lead to more money in the offering, thereby enabling us to manage the upkeep for our building.

What’s wrong with this picture? Here are a few things.

  1. The focus on ABCs can often be a focus on institutional survival. We want to continue to have what we’ve had. In many ways, this perspective focuses on the past. How things have been done. How things have always been. The value of being able to appreciate a long history of ministry gets reduced to a refusal to move a pew or redo a room because of a bronze plaque with someone’s name. It can also be a posture of fear. Fear of losing what we’ve had and a fear of change and what we really need to do in order to move into the future.
  2. Having the wrong focus leads to the wrong solutions. If attendance in our church is down, we strategize ways to increase it. We hold special events, services, dinners, fundraisers, etc. We boil it down to getting more people in the building when we’re doing stuff. And maybe if we invite people to do stuff they like doing anyway, like eating and listening to music, maybe they’ll think about coming on Sunday mornings too. My first church, for example, put on a great breakfast one Saturday a month for years. It was always very well attended. Our church attendance, however, never, ever went up because someone liked their bacon and eggs.
  3. The focus on ABCs and the solutions we come up with to deal with them can too easily leave God out. This is really the most significant point. Because a focus on the ABCs is often anxiety and/or control driven, prayer is not a big part of the process. We effectively de-spiritualize church life. We compartmentalize what happens in congregational life as much as we compartmentalize our own lives. Attendance, buildings, and cash are not seen as spiritual matters and so we think human solutions will do. Or, worse, we know they are spiritual matters, but dealing with them at a deeper, spiritual level is too uncomfortable and difficult. We’re afraid of what is in that particular box, so we insist on keeping it closed.

So what do we do? Well, I’d be lying if I claimed to have perfect answers. But I do have some thoughts.

  1. Not focusing on the ABCs doesn’t mean ignoring them. I need to make sure that’s clear. If a church roof caves in or the toilet is overflowing, we need to deal with it. Obviously. If attendance is consistently going down, it is wise to ask why. Because there are underlying issues that likely need addressing. So on and so forth. But paying attention to them means doing so within the larger framework of the identity and mission of your church. You call someone who hasn’t come for a couple of weeks not because of the empty seat in your sanctuary but out of concern for the person who has been absent. The state of our ABCs can tell us something about the spiritual condition of our church, the quality of the relationships among the members, and therefore point us to larger, more significant issues in need of attention.
  2. Real solutions are usually personal and relational. If your church has a monthly breakfast for your community, like my first church did, make sure there are people from your church whose job it is to connect with those who come. Say hello. Smile. Work the room. Also, don’t make everything about how to get people in your church. Instead, think of ways to get church people out into the community. What are the needs in your community? How can your church bless your neighbours? On the other hand, how close are the people in your church? Maybe it’s time to give some thoughtful attention to building those relationships. Have someone out for coffee or over for dinner or dessert. Whose story in your church are you unfamiliar with? Change that. Don’t underestimate how such personal attention will bless your church over time.
  3. Remember that it’s all about Jesus and the good news. If our desire for larger attendance numbers stems from a desire to keep what we’ve always had (institutional survival), then the odds are good we will miss Jesus. We will miss out on participating in his kingdom work. We will inoculate ourselves to the good news. The good news is the reason we are here. It’s the reason your church exists. How do you need to refocus so that Jesus is at the centre of your church once again?

I readily acknowledge that there are plenty of factors in church decline that are out of our control. But that’s kind of the point! We can’t control Sunday morning attendance or who gives how much or magically solve all of our facility issues. So the attention we give to the ABCs should have a Christ-centred, kingdom-driven, Spirit-led focus. All big words, I know. But I think it’s really about a shift in perspective more than anything else. When we say the church needs to change, such change begins with us, with our hearts and attitudes.

This is particularly true if underlying the issues with the ABCs is stuff that is personal and relational. Churches sometimes (often?) have a history of unresolved conflict. Church decline might in part be due to unhealthy relational patterns. People get hurt and leave, and the church tries to move on without actually addressing the problem. It’s hard to live out the good news of Jesus together when people in the church have a history of not loving one another well.

As a pastor, I want the people in my congregation (including myself!) to grow closer to God, to become more Christlike, to be more consistently led by the Spirit, and more driven by God’s desire and will for us. Focusing on the ABCs will not get us there. So let’s instead focus on what will. Maybe then the ABCs will take care of themselves. Or if not, perhaps we will be less discouraged and anxious about them.

Pastors

There are a lot of other pastors in the area where I live. I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of them. Some of them have become good friends. And let me say this: they are all wonderful, gifted, and passionate about their calling. Though all are pastors of local churches, they are also very different from one another. Sure, there’s always overlap among pastors with respect to gifts and skills; but there’s also a distinct variety of gifts and passions. I had coffee with a pastor yesterday whose gift, I think, is in the area of encouragement and personal evangelism. I know another pastor who’s been serving in our area for more than two decades and is incredibly musical. So while pastors often get painted with a broad brush, they are as different from one another as any of us are from those around us.

So I think this is all wonderful. But it’s also a challenge. Because every individual pastor is serving an individual congregation. We have to be careful not to expect each pastor to have all the skills of the other pastors we know. If you admire another pastor’s evangelistic gifts, you can’t automatically assume your pastor is similarly gifted. Of course, we’re all called–pastors and church members–to do the work of evangelism (2 Timothy 4:5). Yet we all know pastors and other believers who most definitely have the gift to share their faith and compel others to follow Jesus.

But even though not every pastor has the gifts or skills of every other pastor, that’s where the rest of the church comes in. Consider these words:

And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.

Ephesians 4:11-13

Hear that? God gave the church pastors and other leaders to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This is important. Even if your pastor can (somehow!) do everything well, they shouldn’t be responsible for doing everything (much less everything well). That prevents other believers from exercising their God-given calling. It keeps the church from being the church. Most importantly, it actually prevents individual Christians from growing into maturity.

Our Lord never intended any one pastor to be a “jack of all trades,” so to speak. Unfortunately, some pastors are control freaks. The addage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” is their calling card. If they can do it, they think they should. However, pastors ought to be in the business of helping other believers discover and use their God-given talents. What any one pastor can’t do themselves, they look for in other people in their church.

Your pastor can’t do everything. He or she can probably do some things especially well. Other stuff they can learn or figure out how to do. The rest is up to the other members of the Body of Christ. So if you’re ever discouraged that your pastor isn’t very good at administration or seems musically tone deaf or maybe isn’t the best preacher you’ve ever heard, focus on their strengths. Maybe his or her gift is pastoral care or discipleship or counselling. Then consider how others in your church can be equipped, invited, and encouraged to bring their gifts forward to complement those of your pastor. Your pastor will be glad you did.

Random Thoughts on Church in a Time of COVID Weariness

In the part of the world where I live we haven’t had an outbreak of COVID. To that extent, in the most serious sense we’ve been unaffected by the pandemic that has brought hardship and sorrow to so many around the globe. And of course this is a reason for thanksgiving. Though it ought to be a humble gratitude. It’s not as though the place where I live is more deserving than any other.

Yet, even though my region has managed to remain COVID free to this point, we haven’t been entirely unaffected. Like most people everywhere else, I think we are suffering from a collective feeling of weariness. The last (nearly) year of lockdowns, restrictions, and a news cycle that continually reminds us of the brokenness of our world has taken a toll on us. If not physically, then mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

You feel it, don’t you? Every time you slap on a mask to go for groceries. Each time you go into a government building. Whenever you turn on CBC, CTV, CNN, or Fox. And in those moments around friends, family members, or neighbours who have very different views and are enthusiastic about sharing them.

Not only that, but you don’t have to watch the news too closely to be aware that churches, especially in North America, have had very different responses to COVID and ways of dealing with the government restrictions put in place to stave off its spread.

As a pastor, it’s been frustrating to see other church leaders make following or ignoring restrictions on gathering a matter of religious freedom, instead of seeing it as a way of loving our neighbors.

Don’t get me started on people who trot out Hebrews 10:24–25 as justification for shoving hundreds or even thousands of people in a church building without social distancing. Here’s the passage in question:

And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

Nothing here indicates that we are commanded by God to meet by the dozens, hundreds, much less thousands in buildings of our design in order to obey Scripture. Indeed, most NT churches met in homes in something very much like contemporary small groups. There are ways to be faithful to Scripture, to encourage one another as believers, that also allow us to live as good citizens. So when pastors and their churches violate government restrictions, I tend to think they are often on thin biblical ground.

But I digress. All I want to say is that this mixed witness of the church and the way COVID has affected ministry and congregational life has led to a weariness among followers of Jesus too.

And of course church people come to socially distanced worship services with masks on already feeling the larger societal weight of all that’s going on.

It makes me wonder. Should churches really be that anxious to get back to normal, to ramp up activities and programs?

Because if our communities are suffering from a weariness and loneliness and brokenness because of COVID, is the best way of being the church to offer events and programs, more things to add to people’s already crammed schedules? Let’s face it, we need less not more in our lives.

So might we as churches instead offer a place of rest, the space to grieve our losses, a refuge from the busyness of spirit that plagues us? Maybe even to provide a break from our screens and devices rather than another reason to have them with us?

Our lives are already full of distractions, digital and otherwise. Do we need church to be busy too? Is the kingdom an alternative to our culture’s way of life or do we mimic it for the sake of appearing relevant?

I really wonder how much we’ve learned about being churches during this time of COVID. Do we see it as simply an unwelcome interruption to our plans or what we think of as God’s plans?

Or could it be that God has wanted us to learn some stuff from these specific circumstances? That maybe church isn’t about our ideas of success? That numbers are not the best measure of faithfulness in ministry? That perhaps having more time for quiet, prayer, and contemplation might just remind us what it means to live in God’s presence as his people?

Maybe there are moments when God removes things from our lives and our churches to get us to reflect and think critically about how we’ve done things and how we ought to do things. What might we gain because of what we’ve lost?

Do I sound a little frustrated? Well, consider that we haven’t been able to have church potlucks in nearly a year! Ours is a Baptist church after all!

Seriously, though, it continues to mean putting some of our ideas on hold until restrictions are lifted. It means limited fellowship opportunities. It means living with an uncertainty about the simplest of things, like whether our church can have Vacation Bible School this summer.

The truth is, we don’t know for sure how long these restrictions will be in place. Even with the vaccines on their way, we could be looking at having to follow current guidelines until the fall of this year.

If that turns out to be the case, how will we handle it?

What we can say is that, thankfully, the ultimate wellbeing of the church doesn’t depend on us. Whatever happens (or doesn’t), God can and will uphold his people.

In any case, I’m not writing as someone who has answers, but someone who has a lot of questions. So forgive the rant. These things make me weary too.

The Blasphemy of Busyness

Busyness is the enemy of spirituality. It is essentially laziness. It is doing the easy thing instead of the hard thing. It’s filling our time with our own actions instead of paying attention to God’s action. It’s taking charge . . . The word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront. Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as ‘irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo,’ – ‘a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.’”

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

“How’s life?” someone asks you. “Busy,” you reply. Why is this so often our answer? Is that our answer because it’s true or is it our answer because we think we should be busy?

Recently I heard someone say that a Christian ought to be busy. Now, I know what they meant or intended to say. The word “busy” is very nearly synonymous with faithful in much of evangelical culture. Redeem the time. Don’t bury your talents. Etc., etc. etc.

But I still hate the word busy. To my ears, it sounds like an excuse word or a word we use to justify ourselves, to make ourselves feel better. Worse, it’s like at some level we can’t really accept or believe, much less live out of, the reality of grace, and so we have to make up for the gift we’ve been given through Christ by our effort and activity.

Years ago a mentor and friend of mine said, “Busyness is the evangelical badge of courage.” A busy Christian is a truly committed, obedient Christian. Our degree of busyness shows how much we’re willing to sacrifice for our Lord who sacrificed himself for us.

And to be honest, I don’t even know what the word busy means when people use it. Is someone busy when they’re setting aside time for prayer, reading, and reflection? Is someone only busy if they fill their schedule with endless family and church activities?

What if a congregation, in order to more clearly discern God’s leading, chose to pause a number of their programs and activities for a season in order to spend more time pouring over God’s word together and praying with one another? Are they not still busy doing the Lord’s work?

Indeed, perhaps the last year or so of COVID lockdowns and restrictions could or should have been an opportunity for churches to do exactly that instead of seeing the situation as an interruption to what they perceive God to be doing in their ministries.

Maybe what we all need–individually and as churches–is to get a little more unbusy.