Ministry is hard without a pandemic. It’s even more complex in a pandemic. Sadly, there are no signs of ministry becoming less complicated anytime soon. As coronavirus cases are still on the rise, our initial hopes were that a vaccine would quickly end the pandemic. Amazingly, in the last 8 days, we’ve heard reports that two vaccines have now been approved! But, because of the lack of trust in the medical community, or the politics behind it, half of Americans aren’t even willing to take a vaccine. On top of that, it will take months, maybe a year or longer, to have enough vaccines available to widely distribute to the general population.
When will the pandemic end is no longer a helpful question.
The right question is how can I be a pastor, or church leader, in the midst of the pandemic.
The devil is the father of lies and he’s had a busy year. I believe much of the problems in this world is because people listen far more to the lies of the enemy than the truth of the Gospel. It’s easy to hear the lies because the enemy is shouting at us. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the truth because God whispers to us. The enemy shouts because he’s not interested in a relationship. He just wants to get you off course quickly, and move on to the next person. God whispers to remind us that He’s close.
There have been a lot of shouts, specifically at pastors and church leaders, from the enemy this year.
This is my attempt to combat five lies that I know I’ve experienced personally or that I’ve heard from other pastors.
Yes it is!
All throughout Scripture, those who follow after God are not invited into an easy, convenient, and comfortable life. They are invited into a life filled with burdens, hardship, and great cost. Don’t believe me? Read through Paul’s incredibly long, painful, brutal and impressive list of sufferings because He followed after Jesus well.
Why are we surprised that the disruption that has happened in this world has disrupted our church and our profession? Being a church leader, or pastor, requires sacrifice. You have been called into it by the grace of God. It’s not an easy calling, but it’s a fulfilling life. It’s difficult, but it matters.
And the church needs you pastor. Maybe you don’t believe you have what it takes to lead in a time like this. But you do. Just because the world has changed and methods may need adjustment, large or small, does not mean that you are not the person to do it. I get it. You may not be a movie star, and technology may not be your strong suit, but your people need you to be strong. They are sheep, and they need a shepherd.
And while the methods may have changed, or been disrupted, or, still being figured out, gifts that you have inside of you like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are needed now more than ever.
If you are concerned about your own gifts and how they can be utilized in a time such as this, do yourself a favor and double down on the gifts God has put inside of you.
No they won’t. And that’s okay.
Collectively, what the church in America had become was a broken-down, mediocre, shadow-at-best representation of Jesus. Statistically speaking, despite what you have heard, we are not a post-Christian nation. 65% of Americans self-identify as Christian. And yet, as high as that number is, our numbers and influence have been on decline for decades now.
To be fair, there have been some really great individual and collective witnesses of Jesus in the past. But our overall collective actions are driven by what we have decided. And what American Christians have decided in the past, no matter what pastoral leadership has taught, is they want to follow both Jesus and the American Dream. These two ideals lead to different places, and it has led to a very flawed and confusing representation of Jesus.
Since crisis is an accelerator, we are now seeing the results from resting on the status quo, or accepting a slow death for the church. All of a sudden, 30+% of “practicing Christians” are running away from any church experience.
Habit formation is a real thing, and for months now, tens of millions of “practicing Christians” have formed new Sunday habits. It doesn’t mean they can’t be retrained, and in fact, the opportunity the church has is to preach and teach on the importance of habits.
Thinking that everyone will just come back and church will return to what it was is not helpful or correct thinking.
And we should be grateful for that.
Through what many see as the great obstacle of 2020, I see one great opportunity: to reopen Christianity. We have an opportunity to come out a stronger and greater representation of Jesus.
Now, here’s the truth: that stronger, greater representation will absolutely be smaller in number than before. But the great news we see all throughout the Bible is that God does great work when the odds are stacked against Him:
Though we may be smaller, through the power of God, we can be mightier!
Life happens no matter what is going on in the world. While there is something psychological about a calendar flip into a new year, ministry must not delay any longer. I have continually thought, or heard, from pastors, “Well, I’m waiting to do x, y, and z until _____ date or until we have our people back.”
I said in the beginning of the global pandemic that it felt like the world hit a collective pause. Everyone was quarantined, schools were cancelled, and calendar items were wiped out. I’ve never seen anything like it before. And though it may have felt like the world hit a pause, the truth is the world never hits pause. If the world paused, then:
Like Red says in Shawshank Redemption, “You can either get busy living or get busy dying.”
This past Sunday I preached a sermon called “I’m Flipping Out.” The message was urging people to flip out of a “Because of Covid” mindset into a “Because of Christ” mindset by viewing God’s mercy. God’s mercies are new every day. This pandemic that we are in has caused many circumstantial changes, and maybe even some permanent changes in our lives. We are not immune from the changes that it has caused. We are not immune from the losses we have experienced because of Covid.
But, there is something else that happened in all of our lives that didn’t just change things circumstantially, but eternally. When Jesus Christ came into your life, He completely wiped out the old, and made you into a new creation.
Here’s the truth. When it looks like the story is over, this is when God does His best work and writes a new chapter. Remember, God is the Alpha and Omega, the author and the finisher. His story is not over. Don’t count Him out.
Because of Christ, do not let your life or your 2020 be defined any longer because of outside circumstances. Do not let your life and identity be hijacked by something that does not have the power to run your life and tell you who you are and how you are to live.
As of writing this, there are exactly 45 more days in 2020. That’s 45 new chances to view God’s mercy. As we move forward, I urge you to do your best ministry now and not delay any longer. The days of hoping to get to _____ date, or waiting for things to return to normalcy, are a lie from the enemy. The devil wants to keep you delayed, and down. Pray, strategize, and talk about how to bring Christ in the middle of crisis to a community, nation, and world that so desperately needs Jesus.
Statistically, 2020 won’t be our best collective year as a church, but what if we used the next 45 days to take 45 great steps to set up 2021 to be the godliest year in our personal life and in our church’s history?
To use the old preacher slogan: “What if 2020 was just the setback we needed to setup our comeback?”
I know you wouldn’t say this out loud, but many pastors think this, or we act this out in the way that we work. I know this, because I’ve thought it and I’ve believed it.
Sadly, pastors mental and emotional health has been decimated in 2020. According to Barna Research and Church Pulse Weekly Podcast, pastor’s emotional and mental health levels are 10x worse than ever before recorded. That’s not okay. Coronavirus doesn’t have to obliterate our overall emotional and mental health, because our mental and emotional health is driven by our spiritual health. And as much as the world and our churches have changed, God hasn’t.
Perhaps in the midst of this pandemic what you need more than anything else is to spend more time and energy building your relationship with God rather than building the church. After all, it’s out of the overflow of our hearts that ministry happens.
Why, then, if God hasn’t changed, are so many pastors struggling?
Sadly, I believe if we are not personally investing, developing, and growing in our relationship with God, it becomes easier to lose our identity. As much as pastors have preached to others about not finding their identity in their work and career, we need this message for ourselves. Many of us find our identity in our job. And when attendance is close to 30% across the nation of what it was, when finances are moving in the wrong direction in the majority of our churches, and when more and more of our “devoted” families are choosing Mickey Mouse, or football, over church, it makes us feel like we are not good pastors. And if your main identity is in being a pastor, this year would have crushed you.
But before you are a pastor, you are a child of God. Before you are a shepherd, you are a sheep. Your identity hasn’t changed.
Pastor, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to lead and run God’s church.
Remember the promise of Jesus: “I will build my church.”
You are so important to God and to His church, but remember, it is not your church. It is God’s church. He has a history of using broken, messy, unqualified people and turning it into something beautiful.
You are one of those broken, messy, unqualified people.
No matter what has gone down, and even if you feel like you’ve failed in 2020, know that God is calling you to move forward. In his amazing conversation with Peter in John 21 Jesus brings Peter back into a charcoal fire moment not to make Peter relive his worst moment, but to relieve Him of it. Not to bring shame into his life for failing Jesus, but to bring the shame out of him.
How do I know this? Because in the conversation that ensued, Jesus never looked backward, but always pointed forward for Peter. Three times He declared to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”
Even after we’ve failed and even after we’ve missed the mark, Jesus points forward for us: “There’s a job to do, and you are the person for it.”
God loves you so much. God is so proud of you. God still chooses you. God still calls you. God understands how hard this year has been for you and how complex ministry still is. He offers you the incredible opportunity through it all to be in relationship with Him.
The devil will attempt to isolate you and make it feel like you are alone in this fight. But you are not.
Not only can you talk to God about what you are experiencing, but there are pastors all over the world, and even in your community that understand what you are going through. Perhaps the best thing you could do would be to open up, to confess your heart, and to hear God’s words of absolution and restoration over your soul.
This isn’t the time to keep plowing forward on your own strength. This is the time to lean into Christ, and to lean into a brother or sister in Christ and talk about all that you are experiencing.
It is hard for pastors to admit weakness because we live in a world that expects perfection out of the pastoral office. But you are not perfect. And you need help. God has all that you need.
Talk to God. Talk to another pastor. Open up.
I’m cheering for you. You are so valuable and so loved.