Pre-Covid, it was realistic as a pastor that you could expect regular, committed churchgoers to give you three chunks or buckets of time from their typical week. You could expect to see them for Sunday service, be involved in a small group of some sort, and to serve in a ministry. I’m not sure you will get three buckets of time in the Post-Covid world. Let me explain why and perhaps why that could be a good thing for the sake of the advance of the Kingdom.
People are generally speaking ready to be back together again. I’m writing this quite early in my morning on the West Coast. I woke up with the sun which rises rather early in our summer. While writing early in the morning is most productive for me, I also wanted to get some writing time in before taking an urban hike with a long-term unbelieving friend. He’s healthy, I’m healthy, walking outdoors is safe even without face masks. I haven’t seen this 12 year friend since early March. That sucks. I’m ready to spend time with people again. It is likely the folks in your church are also. But they are likely going to be rather careful about it.
Pre-Covid, your folks may have been happy to sing on a worship team or set up chairs working in close proximity to other congregants or lay on hands and pray for folks after the service. I’m in good health and I’m cautious about those things. And that is the way we are about EVERYTHING in life right now. It’s exhausting to think about everything you’ve touched wondering who else coughed on their hand and touched it last. And I’m not even germaphobic!
For a time, people’s lives are going to be more exhausting. While they won’t necessarily go back to the typical craziness our lives were before (going hither and yon driving Susie and Jimmy to music practice, soccer practice, and tutoring for math), that does not mean people will choose to re-engage with church activities with the same vigor they had before. This is simply unrealistic in light of the situation.
And this is sad. It’s sad because pastors were having a hard time getting enough volunteers Pre-Covid. This whole thing is sad. It’s been depressing for me frankly. I thrive on in-person interaction with clients. There ain’t been any of that thriving for almost 4 months! This is why you and I both need to learn to learn how to grieve our losses without shame.
Besides grieving, we will also likely need to pivot. In my mind, that will mean at least four things.
First, we will need to reset our expectations of people. As pastors we tend to have high expectations of ourselves and others. And then we can tend to get frustrated or even cynical when those expectations are not met. This is a recipe for emotional burnout. What is realistic for people given the exhaustion of Post-Covid life? Perhaps most pointedly, how can we align our expectations of people with Jesus’ which are not those of a harsh taskmaster? That, BTW, is the least we can learn from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. Jesus’ expectations may not align with yours and He doesn’t plan on changing His.
Second, pick carefully what you choose to pick back up Post-Covid. One church planter I am coaching is making a strategic choice to spend more money on a rental space his people won’t have to set up and take down each week. Knowing that his people have limited physical and — in his case — social energy, he is purposefully reserving their energy for a few carefully chosen, Kingdom-oriented volunteer opportunities. It would surprise me if churches go back to trying to do everything they were doing before. What should you selectively omit in your re-opening plan? What must stay? From Jesus’ perspective, what must stay is an emphasis on the growth of His Kingdom.
This priority comes from Matthew 24:14 and helps us see the third implication of the fact that you may not get three buckets of time from people any longer. If you are only going to get say 2 ½ buckets of time (Sunday Service, a small group likely awkwardly socially distant for a time, and a smaller amount of serving since our selfishness will drive most people towards an inward focus), what will you keep? How will you motivate people to participate?
For some months Flourish has been emphasizing that Covid, while certainly grief evoking, is also a tremendous opportunity. Tens of millions of people just in America are realizing their mortality in a way that was hidden to them before. What is the unique Kingdom opportunity God is putting before us? That same church planter has a counselor in his congregation that has begun Bible-based group counseling via Zoom for depression and anxiety. It is an opportunity, an easy invitation, for his congregants to link friends and neighbors who don’t know Christ to a body of believers who care and are seeking help via Christ and His gospel.
If you are going to get less time from people, then make that time worthwhile. This will especially appeal to younger people who are seeking an impact with their lives. Speak vividly about the difference people’s service will make in the lives of flesh and blood humans they know. Talk about how Christ came as one acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3) but also came to put all grief to bed forever in the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev 21:4). We speak the Good News of our compassionate Creator coming as our Savior and Redeemer.
Last, don’t neglect to do less yourself. Most pastors I work with are exhausted. They were exhausted Pre-Covid. But that exhaustion is at a whole new level now. It’s just true. It might be best to own that and live in light of it. Can I tell you one of my favorite stories?
Some years ago I was involved in intervening in a thorny problem in my family of churches. After a maybe 2 hour phone call at 10am on workday, I was exhausted by noon. But I tried to keep working until 5. That didn’t work so well. I went home frustrated and grumpy which was not a blessing to my family which hurt us both.
Soon after that incident I was recounting it to a dear pastor friend. After listening to me he said words which would have never occurred to me to speak to myself. Here’s what he said, “Matt, I think Jesus would have been fine if you had gone on a walk and prayed for the situation and then gone home for the day.” My friend could “own” that Jesus’ expectation for me on that day and mine didn’t align. I was expecting from myself that which was impossible given the situation.
What are you expecting that is impossible in the Post-Covid church world? How do you need to perhaps take extra time off and encourage your people to do the same? How could that “resting” from our churchy freneticism actually serve to bring the gospel to people? How could our learning to be content and laying down our anxiety, provide an opportunity to speak of Christ to our neighbors who are also anxious?
What I’m commending is that you probably ought not expect three buckets from yourself either. It may simply be unrealistic. It’s been unrealistic for me.
I have been meditating a fair bit lately on what Jesus says in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” This one of the earliest verses I memorized as a young Christian 30 years ago. Old me seems to delight in this teaching more than young, idealistic me.
I say to ministry leaders that Jesus is more interested in giving them rest than they are in receiving it. Do you feel weary in your labor, heavy laden with cares? Jesus simply asks you to come to Him for rest He’s willing to give you. Will you receive rest? Will you choose less expectations so your people can rest? Will you pick carefully in the Post-Covid ministry world so we focus on giving the rest only Jesus can give to weary, heavy laden people who don’t yet know Jesus’ rest?