Use of the word “unprecedented” seems to be the only normal part of our daily lives during the past few months. Pastors and church leaders have had to shift everything about church ministry in a lightning flash, processing unending streams of information and shifting regulations in order to make rapid decisions. No one has gone untouched through this crisis.
Looking ahead, uncertainty clouds any possible clarity for a church ministry vision in 2020 and beyond. And yet it is good and wise to make plans and to look ahead, even if those plans are written in pencil. Maybe we will better learn the wisdom from James 4, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (Jas 4:15).
As a fellow pastor and church leader, here are some thoughts and reflections about how to lead through the crisis and into the future.
1. Lead your church well.
In recent months, we’ve seen larger churches with specialized staff crank out incredible resources at a moment’s notice. On the other hand, pastors of smaller churches have been able to personally connect with each one of their members. Because none of us have faced anything like this before, it’s natural and good to observe what others are doing. But it can also become paralyzing as you realize all of the things you aren’t and can’t pull off. That’s ok.
Yes, observe others and learn what you can, but interpret that knowledge and observation for the setting in which God has placed you and for the people entrusted to your care. It is not an accident that you are where you are in this moment (Acts 17:26-27).
2. Don’t neglect the basics.
The church has not been shut down. Our gatherings and ministry just look a little different for the time being. The church is still called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, administer the sacraments and exercise discipline, calling its members together and to the pursuit of holiness.
How will the gospel be preached to lift the hearts of church members? Will your church celebrate communion through this stretch, and if so, how will that work? What does it mean and look like to care for church members from a distance? What stages will the church pursue with new measures when there is opportunity to reopen facilities?
Pastors, elders and church leaders need to do the hard work of determining what these pursuits will look like for the church God has entrusted to them. All of these questions must have theological foundations that drive practical innovation for the moment.
3. Look outward.
In times of suffering and uncertainty, it is all too natural to shift into self-preservation and protection. That’s why we see people hoarding toilet paper and bottled water. In this area, the early Church can teach us a beautiful lesson about generosity and care for others. During crises in the first few centuries, while others abandoned cities and the suffering within them, Christians were known to be people who stayed to care for the sick.
The Church has a great opportunity to step in and show gracious generosity to our communities. We can find out what inroads our members have and then work to equip and empower them to represent the church by providing meals for medical workers and first responders, rallying around local businesses and restaurants, supporting families in financial need and serving in countless other ways. Even in the uncertainty of stay-at-home orders, we can work to contribute to the welfare of our cities.
4. Be patient.
Francis Grimke, a pastor in Washington D.C. during the 1918 Spanish Flu, preached a brilliant sermon in the aftermath of the pandemic that reflected on a season of churches being closed to contain the fallout of the virus:
“There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches. It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being. If, as a matter of fact, it was dangerous to meet in the theaters and in the schools, it certainly was no less dangerous to meet in churches. The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us. And so, anxious as I have been to resume work, I have waited patiently until the order was lifted. I started to worry at first, as it seemed to upset all of our plans for the fall work; but I soon recovered my composure. I said to myself, Why worry? God knows what He is doing. His work is not going to suffer. It will rather be a help to it in the end. Out of it, I believe, great good is coming. All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be the stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing.”
It's time to stop thinking that things will “get back to normal.” We cannot expect to come out on the other side of this unchanged. We can’t know yet what we will have to mourn on the other side, and yet there are some aspects of life and church ministry that we will be able to happily alter for the better along the way.
Let’s work to cultivate a longer view of God’s work in our own hearts, and then make decisions and lead from a settled confidence that Jesus is building His Church. If the gates of hell cannot prevail against it, no virus or plague will either. None of us knows why God allowed this to happen, but we can look for clear evidence of God’s presence, grace and help through it. We have today’s mercies for today’s troubles. Tomorrow’s troubles will have new mercies as we face them.
5. Point people to Jesus.
None of us have the capacity on our own to process the unending streams of information, make the rapid decisions that are required, keep a positive long-view outlook, serve people both in and outside of the church, think up new innovative ministry strategies that might need to change tomorrow, and lift people’s hearts via video meetings.
It’s ok. Breathe. Take time to pray. Do something fun with your family to make memories out of this. Maintaining healthy boundaries is an unending challenge in church leadership and one that has been exacerbated by the move to online contact.
I need the reminder today that I’m not Jesus. Deep down, I don’t want the people in our church to rely on me as if I can be Him. I am a member of the church who will need to receive care as well. I need to depend on Christ and not on my own capacities and capability.
It’s impossible to have perfect vision for the rest of 2020. We can’t know what tomorrow will bring. But we can rest in the reality that hope in Christ will outlast any suffering we face. As we experience our own limitations, it only makes God’s sovereignty and goodness all the sweeter.
And so, look ahead—keep pressing on, running the race and fighting the good fight in faith, believing that this promise in Scripture is true:
“After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet 5:10-11).
For the first part in this series, read “In Good Company” by EFCA West District Superintendent Tim Jacobs.
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