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Small Church Adaptations to the New Reality

Today's post is by Flourish Coach Tom Cox. He ministers at Grace PCA in Fuquay, NC.


A scant six weeks ago we’d barely heard of social distancing, stay home orders (much less protests), and flattening the curve. Welcome to the New Reality in which you preach to a largely empty sanctuary or from the privacy of your own home, you hope that your congregation is able to keep healthy and working and giving, and you have to remind yourself to put on real pants to go check the mailbox.


To help stimulate your already screen-numbed mind, we’re going to address three areas for pastors to attend to: Personal Life, Personal Ministry, and the Corporate Ministry of the church.

Let’s give ‘er a whirl:


PERSONAL LIFE

For many pastors adapting to the “new reality” means that the lines between work and family, perhaps already smudgy, are blurring all the more. If you have young children still in the home, you may find it difficult to have an appropriate work space and environment (try hollering, “inside voice!” at the top of your lungs—maybe that will help…). You may need to do some work before the little ones are up or after they go to bed. For me personally, that is not a consideration but the temptation to work at all hours most certainly is. I know plenty to do, there don’t seem to be enough hours in the proverbial day, and technology makes it possible for us to work more, not less. Early on in the pandemic, I started my day with a group text flurry with church leaders at 6 AM that lasted about an hour. At night, if I’m on my phone and an email pops up at 10 PM, there’s a good chance that whatever it contains is not going to lead me toward rest. My father was, in his own words, “a workaholic.” I don’t want to follow in his footsteps in that way.


One Corona quip that tickles me is the meme that reads, “Found a young lady sitting on my couch yesterday. Apparently she’s my wife. She seems nice.” Brothers, let’s not let that happen to us! In our haste to scramble up the Covid-19 learning curve, we may unintentionally neglect the wife of our youth. A maxim I believe in is instead: “God gave you a wife—listen to her!” (source: me).


Remember, however, that your spouse cannot meet all of your needs. It’s not fair to ask that of her. In fact, it’s idolatry. She is your helpmate, not your Savior. Enjoy time with the Lord (apart from message prep) and make sure that you don’t become isolated because, quite simply, isolation kills. I’m not just talking about joining a Zoom call (more on that in a bit); I’m talking about connecting with other brothers who both encourage and challenge you. I recommend connecting with three sorts of friends: Lifelong, Local, and Long-Distance.


  1. Lifelong: Make sure you are talking with someone with whom you have shared history and who knows you well. There’s no substitute for that.

  2. Local: Also keep in touch with someone nearby. Maybe you can still grab a hike or have a safe (i.e. six foot) lunch together. We all need that sort of human proximity (masks optional). Check in with fellow ministers in your area or presbytery.

  3. Long-Distance: It’s also great to give someone a platform in your life who is not involved in your social setting (meaning your church or even your presbytery). That helps them to speak more objectively into your life and to be a safe person for you. I have benefited greatly from a coaching relationship with a mentor on the west coast even though I’m in the southeastern US. His sanctified common sense and perspective has proven invaluable. Gratuitous advertisement here: We’ve got a team of seasoned leaders at www.flourishcoaching.org who will gladly join you in navigating your New Reality.

Bobby Clinton’s helpful book, Connecting, delineates the different durations, intensities, and purposes of mentoring relationships.


You know the other things you need to be doing for self-care: get some exercise, wear something other than a hoodie and board shorts at least twice a week, and don’t eat (or drink) your feelings. In addition, a wise man was once heard to say, “Never, never underestimate the redeeming value of a shower."


PERSONAL MINISTRY

Many of us, myself included, are scrambling with technologies and approaches to ministry that are relatively new to us. There are plenty of resources out there to help us along the way. Let me mention a few and warn you of a pitfall as well.


If you are the pastor of a smaller church (and 90% of pastors are), you will benefit greatly from a couple of the leading voices who advocate for us: First Karl Vaters, whose book The Grasshopper Myth is nigh revolutionary (he’s got two others out as well). Here’s the link to his blog. Slightly lesser known but no less valuable is Dave Jacobs, who has also authored three short, accessible, and highly practical books on small church ministry. He also does a superb job at moderating a private Facebook group for small church pastors that is the most snark-free forum for pastors anywhere.


While in our haste to continue the journey as lifelong learners, we likely find ourselves on more videoconference calls than ever. This can be ever so helpful and ever so wearisome—sometimes at the same time! Beware of Zoom-sickness. Like Barney the purple dinosaur used to say, “Too much of even a good thing can be bad for you.” Be selective. Yes, you can jump on two webinars every day but will that really help you with that new sermon series you need to plan? We all know that Sunday’s always coming. Last week I found an article in Psychology Today that is most excellent on this phenomenon.


The author points out that “we are finding (video calls) emotionally and energetically costly. We can’t quite name why, but they seem to take more energy than the face-to-face encounters we are used to. Oddly, in many cases, they actually leave us feeling lonely.” She provides a few practical tips for handling all the screen time in your life as well.


My last tip on personal ministry is about re-purposing. No, I’m not speaking of building a DJ booth out of milk crates and the old nightstands in your attic (although my son and I did recently make this nifty church platform background out of pallets we scavenged: see picture). What I mean is to feel free to draw on your years of ministry. Need some Bible Study curriculum? It’s okay to dig an old sermon series out of your files and freshen it up a bit for your small group or midweek meeting. Another example of working smarter-not-harder is this: I do a bit of writing for a prison ministry and have often penned pieces with the dual purpose of sharing them with my congregation as well. In addition, I started writing a daily devotional on my personal Facebook page and now I scoop five of them up at a time to send to my people. As you are creating content, think about how it can be used in multiple forums.


CORPORATE MINISTRY

We all know that Ephesians 4:11-12 is foundational for the proper functioning of the church: “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.” Be sure to ask your people what they think their spiritual gifts are. Many won’t have a clue (and that presents its own ministry opportunity) but a few might surprise you.


One of our recent new members told me his gift mix is a rather unique blend of hospitality and administration. Before the pandemic he hosted a fellowship meal for us and recently we had him spearhead the upgrade of our website to make it both more welcoming for guests and better functioning. Let your people innovate. Yes, delegation takes more work up front but it gets people invested in the work of the church. Keep some checks and balances but don’t be too controlling. And remember to say Thank you to them. Nobody suffers from too much encouragement. Please see Hebrews 3:13 on this point.


And yes, take advantage of the work of others. Thom Rainer’s ministry is presently offering some of their tools on a “name your price” basis. This can save you hundreds of dollars. I’m going to opt in to the “Pray and Go” strategy for the church I serve. Check them out here.


Right now I’m partnering with another ministry that offered to lead me and other pastors through a virtual strategy lab that is helping me to work through some strategic plans and challenge mapping for the church. It’s work that I know I need to do and this group is lending me their leadership, tools, and the accountability to do it. That’s really beneficial.


So pastor, let me close by saying this. You are not alone. Nor are you crazy (But hey, what’s with the wild hair and gaudy outfits? At least that’s what my wife asked me…). Hang in there! Keep persevering by His grace. I’ve mentioned a number of valuable resources above. If you want to chat further you can email me at tomcox84@gmail.com. If you’re nice, I might even schedule a Zoom call with you.

Flourish Coaching  |  PO Box 532  |  Ligonier, PA 15658