Influence

 the shape of leadership

Pastoring After COVID

A small church perspective on what comes next

Karl Vaters on January 13, 2021

As a third-generation Assemblies of God pastor, I’ve had a lifetime of wonderful experiences in church services. This past year, I had another big one. It happened during our first Sunday service back in our church building after the pandemic had caused us to go online-only for six Sundays. It’s a moment I remember for the rest of my life.

Where I live, in California, the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic happened quickly. One Sunday we were having in-person church as usual. We’d heard just enough about this strange new virus that we made a lighthearted reference to greeting one another with fist bumps and air hugs instead of handshakes and real hugs.

Then everything changed. Within a couple of days, church buildings, restaurants, sports stadiums, theaters, concert halls, and more closed. Most office buildings went silent as everyone but emergency personnel were required to work from home.

Like thousands of other churches, we had just a couple of days to figure out how to put our Sunday service online. For churches that already had a livestream option, this was challenging but doable. For smaller churches like ours that didn’t previously offer online services, the task felt insurmountable.

Thankfully, we have a few amazing volunteers who figured it out quickly. They designed a high-quality and wonderfully intimate online worship service by recording everything in advance. Then we watched it from our homes on Sunday morning via YouTube premieres, along with the rest of the congregation.

The churches that have survived, thrived and been a blessing to others during this crisis all have one thing in common more than any other: unity around Christ and His mission.

Finally, California opened up enough that we could gather again inside our church building, following standards of distancing, masking and cleaning.

That first morning back at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship (AG), the sense of joy and fellowship was overwhelming. As the band started to lead us in worship, I nearly broke down in tears. My reaction shocked me. At first, I tried to stop it. Then I gave in to the moment.

Here we were, for the first time in almost two months, sitting in our church building with people we know and love, singing songs of worship to Jesus. I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I had to go without it.

The in-person meetings lasted just two Sundays before everything shut down again. Coronavirus cases in California had spiked, and no one was allowed to gather indoors in groups of more than 10 people.

Technically, we knew what to do this time. But emotionally, the second time we had to close the building was harder than the first. It was obvious now these changes would not be for just a few weeks. They would last months, maybe even years.

At our video-conference staff meeting that week, we acknowledged our way forward had changed. What hadn’t changed, however, was our determination to move forward. Whatever the future held, we were together, we were relying on Jesus, and the mission would not be hindered.

The Small Church In A Pandemic

During this season, our church has been led with grace, wisdom and inspiration by our lead pastors, Gary and Ami Garcia. I’m now the teaching pastor at Cornerstone, but for 25 years, I served as the lead pastor, and Gary was my youth pastor.

If this pandemic had hit us three years ago, it would have been me leading the church through this once-in-a- lifetime series of crises. Instead, my wife, Shelley, and I have been honored to participate with our church leadership team as they have led us through some of the hardest pastoral decisions we’ve ever faced.

In addition to my pastoral position at Cornerstone, I have spent the past eight years writing and speaking about the value of small church ministry. In that time, I’ve connected with thousands of my fellow small church pastors and lay leaders. They are some of the most dedicated, godly, passionate and wise people I’ve ever met.

With so much of our church leadership advice coming from the perspective of larger ministries, we need to acknowledge that there are some major differences in the way small churches function. That is true in almost every aspect of church leadership, and those differences have been heightened by the pandemic.

Small churches have faced different challenges with regard to technology, finances, facilities ... you name it. And most have responded well to the necessary changes.

Now that the initial changes are behind us, it’s time to look at the next phase. How do we prepare our churches to come out of pandemic mode?

The Post-Pandemic Church

The past few months have been a constant reminder of two simultaneous truths: We don’t know what’s coming next. God does.

Going into the pandemic was like flipping off a light switch. One Sunday, we were having church services as usual, and the next Sunday, we weren’t.

But coming out of the pandemic isn’t like flipping the switch back on. It’s more like going through physical therapy — a long, slow process of retraining ourselves to use muscles that may have atrophied and are being called upon to do activities they’ve never done before.

This will be hard. And it will take time. But we will stay on mission.

Under the leading of the Holy Spirit, the possibilities ahead are greater than the challenges. In my conversations with more than 100 pastors over the past few months, I’ve discovered trends that are both challenging and hopeful.

Through this process, I’ve identified four principles we need to keep in mind as we anticipate a recovery and a new season of dynamic ministry. In short, our churches need to adapt, rest, acknowledge, and connect. These principles can help the entire congregation — pastors, team leaders and church members — get ready for whatever comes next.

Pastors

Adapt. When the pandemic began, every pastor I know had to adapt to a new reality very quickly. Most of us did so by kicking up our pace a notch. We had to find creative, new ways to do church services — and quickly!

But that time is behind us now. It’s been obvious for months this is no longer a sprint but a marathon. No one runs a marathon at a sprinting speed. The pace of a marathon is slower. The strategy includes taking on water and nutrition, and sometimes stopping to rest. So, my first piece of advice for pastors right now is very simple: Slow down.

Just like we figured out how to pick up our pace when all this started, we need to adapt again — this time to a slower pace so we can recover emotionally, spiritually and physically.

If you haven’t adapted from sprint pace to marathon pace, do it now. It’s the only way to finish well.

Rest. Most pastors aren’t good at resting. And it’s killing us. Sometimes literally.

Rest does not distract from effectiveness in ministry. It’s an essential element of ministry, especially over the long haul.

Pastor, take a nap. If you don’t choose to take a break with an occasional nap and a regular day off, your body will force you to take a break through illness or burnout. We’re all dealing with the effects of a pandemic, lockdowns, politics, social upheaval, and more. This creates trauma, and no one is immune to it. Trauma demands rest.

This is one of the many reasons the Lord gave us the Sabbath — not as a suggestion, but as a commandment. It’s a day for both worship and rest. Pastors tend to worship well, but many of us don’t rest well. As such, our Sabbaths are incomplete.

Sabbath is about worship and rest. Those who worship but don’t rest are dishonoring the Sabbath as much as those who rest but don’t worship.

Acknowledge. Pastors must also acknowledge our own areas of weakness if we have any hope of helping others deal with theirs. It is not a failure or a lack of faith to acknowledge we are hurting.

Being a pastor does not mean we don’t have mental and emotional baggage. Based on my decades of pastoral ministry experience, including the past decade of working with other pastors, I believe nothing causes more problems for pastors than refusing to acknowledge the trauma we experience.

Neglecting emotional health can lead to chronic stress and anxiety, physical or mental illness, and moral failure.

Faith doesn’t deny difficulty. Faith overcomes difficulty. But we can’t defeat what we don’t first acknowledge.

Connect. There are too many pastors trying to grind through the trials of ministry alone. We tell our congregations they need healthy relationships with other believers to maintain a strong Christian walk and witness. Then we go home and isolate ourselves from having those relationships in our own lives.

Pastor, find some friends, and ask them for help.

Now, more than ever, we need one another. Find another pastor you can trust. Call your presbyter or district office.

If you need someone more anonymous, do what I did years ago when facing burnout and on the verge of succumbing to temptation: I called 800-867-4011, the AG HelpLine number from the back of my minister’s Fellowship card, and talked with a counselor at Emerge Counseling Ministries. The call was free, the conversation was helpful, and the prayer and advice I received set me on a path toward emotional and spiritual healing.

We need our fellow members in the body of Christ. You won’t make it through the next few years of challenging pastoral ministry if you don’t get help for the journey.

Leadership Teams

Adapt. One of the most frustrating trends I’ve seen over the past few months is the failure of some pastors and churches — especially small churches — to bring in new volunteers.

When the crisis hit, we went into emergency mode to adapt to the new reality. Because the needs were more obvious than usual, many pastors got calls from normally passive church members asking how they could help.

Yet a number of pastors told me they had no idea what to do with these new volunteers because they didn’t have a team to put them on. So the offers of help died down and the pastors stayed in burnout mode, trying to do everything.

Too many churches are operating under an unbiblical model of leadership in which the pastoral staff does virtually all the ministry in the church instead of building a team of leaders through biblical discipleship. Then we complain we’re overworked.

We need to adapt to a more biblical team-based leadership style.

As we move into the post-pandemic recovery phase and beyond, it’s important to follow the model Jesus used with His disciples. It’s also what the apostle Paul and his ministry partners did, and what the entire New Testament instructs us to do as leaders. We see it most notably in what I’ve come to call the Pastoral Prime Mandate in Ephesians 4:11–12.

In that passage, Paul says Christ gave the Church a ministry team of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, not primarily to do the ministry for the Church, but “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (NRSV, emphasis added).

Our calling is to promote and participate in a team-based leadership model under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. God calls us to be a team of ministers training the next team of ministers.

Rest. Your church’s best workers may be burning themselves out. Helpers and workers often have a harder time slowing down than keeping busy. They may even be pushing themselves to exhaustion because they see their pastor modeling such busyness.

This is another reason why it’s essential for pastors to rest — and to let our church leaders know we’re resting.

Don’t burn out your best people. Check up on your workers. Thank them regularly. Create purposeful breaks so they can step aside and receive ministry, not just give it.

This can be especially difficult in smaller churches, since finding a willing person can be hard enough to begin with. But that’s all the more reason to protect the few workers you have. You can’t afford to lose any of them.

At times, this may mean shutting down an entire ministry for a week or more if you can’t find someone else to step in. Better to lose the ministry for a period of time than to lose it permanently, along with the valuable person who is overseeing it.

Acknowledge. This pandemic presents unprecedented challenges for everyone on your church leadership team — including you. The constant need to learn, adapt and respond to crises can be overwhelming to even the most competent leader and strongest Christian. Sometimes the team members who seem the least affected may be hiding their true emotions because they’re not used to feeling so helpless.

In my years of working with ministers, I’ve noticed a tendency among many lead pastors to be kind, loving shepherds with most members of the congregation, but turn into crack-the-whip CEOs with staff and volunteer leaders. This tendency is likely to increase as we face the months, and even years, of recovery ahead.

Pastor, your church leaders may need your pastoral presence more than your leadership skills right now.

If church staff members and volunteers feel like they need to hide their vulnerability from the lead pastor, your leadership team is broken. If they feel free to acknowledge their weaknesses and ask for help, the team will become stronger — and the congregation will be healthier.

Connect. If your congregation is anything like the one I serve, your staff members and key leaders have been working extra hard over the past several months. If you’ve had to isolate physically, you may have been conducting your leadership meetings online. I’m grateful for the technology that allows us to do that.

However, we must also recognize that while the computer screen feels like a window, it also creates a wall between us.

One of the primary tasks of the lead pastor is to facilitate healthy relationships. We need to pastor our leaders kindly and graciously, helping them stay connected in their spiritual, family and social lives.

Make it a regular habit to ask your leaders, “How is your walk with the Lord lately? How are your relationships? Is there anything I can do to help you reconnect, heal any divisions, or restore anything that might be broken?”

Church Members

Adapt. Churches across the country have had to trim down ministries to the bare essentials over the past several months. In the process, many have discovered their members were more adaptable than they realized.

Some programs went dormant because the facilities were closed, or because the usual participants were in high-risk groups. Now that we’re starting to return to something closer to normal, it may be tempting to rush back into all those programs. But that might mean missing an opportunity that may never happen again.

One of the hardest and most-needed changes for many churches is the simplification of ministry schedules. Small churches in particular have a tendency to take on too much. If you’re pastoring a church that’s had an overly busy schedule, take stock of what’s most important.

Look at all the ministries and programs you’ve had to stop doing or had to trim back over the past few months, and ask this simple but vital question: If we hadn’t been doing this program or ministry before the pandemic hit, would we start doing it now? If the answer is “no,” don’t restart it.

When coming out of this challenging season, don’t aim to come back to the normal busyness of a full church schedule. Stay simple for as long as possible. Better to pour more of your time, energy and gifts into doing one or two essential ministries well than to reinstate a full slate of programs and do them with mediocrity.

Determine to glean valuable lessons from this hard season. There will never be a better time to help your congregants adapt to a simpler but more effective church schedule.

Rest. For a few decades now, most of our church leadership teaching has been about how to bring change to a passive church — how to motivate a congregation that’s stuck. It’s become our default ministry mode to create an environment where innovation, creativity and change happen on a regular basis.

But now, change isn’t something we have to create. It’s happening all around us at a record pace. As people start returning to the church building, they won’t be looking for change as much as they’ll need stability. It’s important to give them opportunities to reestablish relationships and renew familiar forms of worship.

Now isn’t a time to bring change as much as it’s a time to navigate change wisely.

This is one of the lessons that hit me hard in my return to in-person worship. It’s another reason not to rush back into our overly programmed ministry lives. We need to allow more time than usual for people to slow down, worship, give, fellowship and rest in the presence of God, among His people.

Acknowledge. Have you noticed how quickly people can get angry lately? Or collapse into tears? Or get that frightened, deer-in-the-headlights look? In many cases, the trigger for these emotional responses is as surprising and mysterious to them as it is to the people around them.

We can help people deal with the root causes of these reactions, and then guide them toward hope, health and healing through Christ and His Church.

We need to acknowledge what causes great distress in one person may not bother the person next to them at all — even when the issue is truly disturbing and important. This is because they’re not in the same place emotionally, and people deal with grief and stress differently.

Don’t confuse emotional passion with eternal truth. Just because someone feels something strongly doesn’t mean they value it deeply. On the other hand, a lack of reaction doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting someone.

Often, an emotional outburst is the result of that tiny, proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back. As we work through the effects of a traumatic time, don’t expect people’s reactions to be reasonable, balanced, or even equivalent to the problem that sparked it. Our emotional triggers don’t necessarily match our value system.

Connect. We are hopefully coming to a season of recovery from one of the most tumultuous eras of life and ministry most of us have ever experienced. For a while, it seemed like major news events were happening in our communities every week, if not every day — and all of them were bad.

But, of all the horrible things we’ve witnessed, none has broken my heart more than watching Christians become more divided instead of more united. And there’s no question it breaks God’s heart, too.

On the other hand, the churches that have survived, thrived and been a blessing to others during this crisis all have one thing in common more than any other: unity around Christ and His mission.

There may be people in your church who disagree on politics, mask wearing and more. They may be from different generations, ethnic groups, races and backgrounds. But when people see us coming together, loving one another, and serving our neighbors despite our differences, they will want to know why.

The answer is Jesus. When we disagree on everything else, we should be able to stay united as followers of Christ. That is where the Church should always shine the brightest.

Now more than ever, we who are in church leadership positions must help our congregations emphasize the mission above all else.

As God’s people gather again, whether in-person, online, or in a hybrid arrangement, the answers to our current problems are no different than the answers to every other problem we’ve ever faced: Worship Jesus. Love people. Disciple believers. Reach lost and hurting people with the good news of Christ and Him crucified. And invite the Holy Spirit to move among us and bring the healing only He can provide.

This article appears in the January–March 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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