This past week we hosted our Amplify Conference and my notepad is filled with ideas not only for evangelism but also how to think through conferences and gatherings during this unique season.
One thing that particularly emerged across multiple breakouts and plenary sessions was a thankfulness among those who joined at the opportunity to be refreshed. This refreshment came in many forms: for some it was the space to be vulnerable in their questions, while for others it was the recognition that they were not alone in feelings of exhaustion or loneliness.
We knew going into Amplify that this season had been particularly difficult for pastors and ministry leaders. In a study we conducted with Exponential on the impact of COVID-19 on the church, we found 3 out of 5 have reported a significant increase in workload with over a third adding that the pace has either remained or continues to grow.
Moreover, only 22 percent reported no increase at all. This is not surprising when we consider the many hats pastors wear not only in their organization but in their community. Consider the organizational, ministry, financial, and pastoral dimensions of leading a church in this season.
Like many other organizational leaders, pastors have had to move their staff online. Many leaders have found that the challenge of learning how to hold remote meetings, manage projects while disconnected, and install operating and communication policies that are healthy and productive is far more difficult than they believed.
Just as challenging has been the transition of church ministries and the Sunday services to online. More than just creating engaging services, this transition for churches comes with many complications in learning how to reinvent small groups, the sacraments, and evangelism on the fly.
Regarding finances, pastors not only have to walk the tightrope of encouraging their people to continue to tithe in the midst of uncertainty but deal with the reality that many either won’t or simply can’t. That over 60 percent of pastors record a substantive decrease in giving signals many tough decisions in staffing, initiatives, social programs, and community outreach.
All of these responsibilities are before getting to their core responsibility: to pastor. During this time, pastors are charged with caring for their people who have lost loved ones or their jobs or live in fear of either in the near future.
In talking with pastors, some have noted the intensity of having to field calls from their members dealing with significant loss during this season. While such calls might have come in every few weeks or months before, they are now a daily occurrence.
For some, there is little time to breathe before diving into the next one.
All of this is not to valorize the pastorate. Rather, pastors and their people need to grasp the breadth of the change this crisis has provoked. When we talk about “significant workload increases,” the challenge is not simply in hours logged but in jumping between many different spheres. For pastors of small churches where there is no executive pastor or biblical counseling pastor, the entire burden often falls to a small team.
Recognizing the weight of this increased workload, it would have been understandable to see this reflected in how pastors described their mental state.
Instead, pastors were overwhelmingly positive. When asked to describe their mental state, the top answers were hopeful (46 percent), encouraged (38 percent), and resilient (33 percent). These far outweighed negative attributes such as lonely (4 percent) or struggling (7 percent) that could have been expected given the severity and complexity of our current crisis.
These top answers speak to the nature of the pastorate in times of crisis. In times of transition or crisis, pastors recognize the opportunity to not only reach the lost but to shake up a congregation that might have become complacent in their mission and/or discipleship.
Pastors struggle against the tides of nominal faith in their congregation on a weekly basis, praying that some initiative or sermon will wake a revival in their hearts. That we are in the midst of a monumental shift in culture opens this door and pastors want to be ready to meet the challenge.
What Amplify revealed was that this optimism is beginning to fade. In a season that started with an infusion of adrenaline to serve their people and reach their communities, the days have turned to weeks, weeks now to months, and the discussion is now starting around 2021.
The adrenaline has run out and pastors and ministry leaders are tiring. This was typified in one of the Amplify sessions where Laurel Bunker told the story of one pastor who confessed that he reached the point where he didn’t want to pick up the phone because he was not up to bearing the burdens of yet another suffering member.
Going back to the study, this coming storm was foreshadowed in the qualitative answers in describing their mental states. For those who preferred to choose their own descriptor, a common theme emerged of initially citing a negative descriptor but then qualifying it with a positive.
Thus, many said things like “tired but hanging in there” or “tired but determined.” These responses stick out within a survey that included exhausted and struggling as choices. Pastors were unwilling to let the negative attribute stand alone or to select the other similar responses.
In many ways, this response encapsulates the dilemma for many pastors in the midst of this crisis. They recognize the singular nature of this moment to not only lead their people through intense trauma but to reach a population often inoculated against their gospel appeals.
Crisis has a way of softening hearts.
Pastors want to be seen as up for the challenge, invigorated by the opportunity, and ready to courageously live out their faith. To admit weakness or struggle would be, in the minds of many, to invalidate their claims of faith. So when pastors are asked how they are doing, most often are ready with the next verse of everything is awesome!
Yet at Amplify we witnessed the power that comes from facing our weakness, turning to one another and the gospel for refreshment, and striving to develop healthy rhythms for work and faith in this unfamiliar territory. Looking through my notes, here were four steps I took away about how we can respond to this next stage in our crisis.
Step 1: Rethink your metrics
This is one of the toughest battles we face in a world where number of clicks and subscriptions can define success vs. failure. Yet one thing we’ve seen is that the number of views does not determine the healthiness of the church or its leaders.
As such, churches need to stop pointing to their livestream numbers as evidence of health and mission.
In the initial weeks of this crisis, churches regularly pointed to an “explosion” in their online numbers as evidence that they were not only connected with their people but reaching the community.
Pastors cannot wait to point out how their views and shares are up from their average attendance before the crisis with some reporting views that were more than double.
It was and still is important to be encouraged by these numbers as they signify a strong turnout. Pastors and their teams should be excited about being able inspire people to tune in each week. However, it is critical to not read too much into views.
Yet the truth is that the large majority of churches are ill-equipped to know if they’re healthy. Attendance for livestreams are poor indications that give false impressions of fruitfulness that can prevent churches from looking deeper. They tell us what people are consuming but not what they are internalizing nor how they are living it out.
We don’t know how well families are dealing with the strain of social isolation, economic uncertainty, and homeschooling. In the coming weeks, pastors need to rethink what they mean but health that gets past this initial layer of superficiality and into the homes and hearts of their people.
Step 2: Be vulnerable about the challenge
There is no escaping that this is a hard and unpredictable season. Pastors that try to inspire without acknowledging this reality can unintentionally exacerbate the situation. When Paul says that we do not grieve like the rest of the world who have no hope, he is not saying that we don’t grieve. But rather our grief and lament is shaped by the assurance of God’s promise.
We grieve as those who know that in the midst of our grief God is still on the throne. Jesus gives us the perfect tension here in John 11 where he both weeps with Mary and Martha at the death of Lazarus and proclaims that this was allowed for his glory. He is simultaneously empathetic and prophetic. Pastors are called to model this tension rather than only project victory.
This vulnerability should come at various levels. At its broadest level, pastors need to be open with the congregation about the realities of life and their experience without oversharing. This needs to scale to a group of peers and fellow church leaders where pastors can be intimate in disclosing their challenges and fears. At each level, good leaders recognize that opening about what God is teaching is a critical step in making space for others to bring forward their own struggles.
Pastor, you’re not doing well as you want to be… and that’s ok. Over the course of Amplify we saw that the initial courage to open up about our needs and to ask for help often provoked waves of both similar admissions and voices of encouragement from those who had experienced similar seasons. The lesson that God is faithful even when we falter is a powerful one. And one your people need to hear and see modeled.
Step 3: Find community
Through our study, it became clear that pastors are leaning into community and relationship during this crisis. When we asked pastors what kinds of resources have been the most effective in helping lead, while the top answer was online articles, the following three answers were all collaborative: pastor cohorts – 58 percent; webinars – 48 percent; roundtable calls – 39 percent.
Pastors needed resources where they were not strictly consuming content but were able to engage, ask questions, and voice their opinions.
More revealing was the response to the question about what support has been the most critical for leaders during this crisis. The overwhelming answer were established relationships, often local, where the pastor developed trust: church staff and leaders (68 percent), church members (41 percent), and their denominational/church network (41 percent).
We strove to exemplify this in Amplify, with time for question and answer and purposefully keeping breakouts small enough to foster exchange. Pastors who are going to endure this season are going to be those that have fostered a community (both locally and online) where they can engage and find support. Although articles and other content platforms are important for finding information, pastors need to find regular spaces outside of leading for dialogue with peers and mentors.
If you don’t have this community, you can join in a cohort through the Send Institute and Catapult where pastors engage over pressing issues facing their churches but through processing their own response to the challenge.
Step 4: Reaffirm Sabbath
One thing is for sure in this season: we have reached a new level of collective empathy for Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. While the idea of reliving the same day over and over again didn’t seem so bad at first, the reality is far more draining than we could have imagined. The inescapable nature of this crisis combined with the uncertainty of the future has placed a significant strain not only on organizations and churches but on families. Pastors are not exempt from this pressure.
This is what makes the Sabbath so critical yet complex. For many our homes are retreat centers, the places we go to when were need rest. Yet now they are our schools, workplaces, and, for pastors, our churches. The blurring of the lines between work and rest has predictably made finding true rest more difficult.
The reality of always being connected combined with increased workloads and confined spaces can produce diminishing periods of rest. In her breakout at Amplify, Mindy Caliguire echoed this critical importance for not only pastors but for all Christians. Committing to a weekly period where we break from the drive for productivity and truly rest from the demands and distractions is central to our faith in times of ease let alone when in seasons trial.
In this environment, pastors need to be more intentional and innovative about the Sabbath than ever.
What does it mean to find rest? What activities that are normally life giving are actually draining us? What disciplines, relationships, and activities are we ignoring that are restorative?
While the Sabbath in this time might look different, pastors need to pursue and model this new reality rather than uncritically maintaining older models.
Andrew MacDonald is the Associate Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Institute.