Staying the Course

difficult seasons of ministry
FALL 2021; Wooden blocks with "FALL 2021" text of concept and autumn leaves.

Encouragements in the Midst of This Difficult Season of Ministry

2020 will forever be remembered as one of the hardest years the church has faced in a long time. Pastors from churches of all denominations faced a deadly viral enemy, and congregants were divided (and vocal) over wearing masks, social distancing, and other issues. Churches moved their worship and Bible study groups to online venues which most had never done before. For some churches, financial giving became a challenge as members lost jobs. Student and children’s ministries closed for an extended season and missed normal summer activities such as VBS and student camp.

People’s stress levels were elevated, and fear and uncertainty about the future caused some to turn to unhealthy ways to deal with their anxieties. Moreover, the election year frustrated attempts to rebuild unity in churches. Racial unrest was heightened, and some of our cities became flash points for protests and violence.

PASTORS ARE DISCOURAGED.

Predictions of a mass exodus of pastors from ministry became more prevalent in 2020, and we have yet to know if those forecasts will become true in the second half of 2021 and beyond. To get a sense of how pastors have been affected by the pandemic, here are two comments made by pastors on a social media site designed to give them a safe place to connect as they seek help from fellow pastors:

“Anyone else feeling the burden of ministry and leading during a pandemic this morning? As things heat up some are leaving because not enough are wearing masks. Others leave because they are asked to wear a mask … my heart is heavy. The struggle is real.”

“Hello brothers. I know some of you guys (and a lot of others) are serving in places where people are not very gracious during these days. I know these are hard times and I’m sure some of you guys are really going through it … Think about all we’ve been dealing with … sexism, racism, a global pandemic, economic challenges and making hard decisions that not everybody understands. I know you’re tired … me, too … hang in there! Jesus has sustained us through all this and he’s still sustaining us. He’s there for us; let’s be there for each other.”

Even though some church leaders are on the verge of quitting, exhausted and discouraged because of the events of the past year, let’s not forget that our Lord has done good things to prepare his church for the post-pandemic future. To those of you leading local congregations, we at Lifeway say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” Here are a few things you may find encouraging during this season of ministry.

Remain Faithful.

First, faithfulness to God and to the calling He gave each of you is your ultimate measurement of success. Your effectiveness isn’t going to be found in numbers—it never has; you may grieve the loss of some of your people, and rightly so, but don’t let that define your effectiveness. During the remainder of the COVID pandemic, continue to pray, hear from God, and deliver His message to your members weekly.

There are tens of thousands of pastors whose congregations are normative-sized (under 100 people) who are among the most faithful and dedicated pastors in the SBC. My brother-in-law is one of them in Burleson, Texas. Stay the course, serve your people, and remain faithful to your calling along with tens of thousands of your fellow pastor-shepherds. You are not alone.

Don’t Despair.

Second, be encouraged that a high percentage of your members will return. There were early predictions that up to 30 percent or more of churchgoers would not return after the pandemic, but in a recent survey by Lifeway Research, 91% of churchgoers reported they will be back. The online article reported:

Two-thirds of pastors whose churches were open for in-person worship in January saw attendance of less than 70% of their January 2020 attendance. … Many of these pastors are wondering if those who haven’t returned ever will. Nine in 10 churchgoers plan to when it is safe to do so.”

Pastor, if your people haven’t returned like you’d hoped they would, don’t despair. Keep preaching, teaching, reaching, and shepherding your flock. Be strong and steadfast, knowing that your sheep are on the verge of coming home. As Paul told Timothy, “But as for you … endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).

The Church Innovated.

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Third, the church innovated more during the pandemic than at any time in recent history. Yours was probably one of them. You moved faster than ever and made week-by-week adjustments in response to the guidelines being given to us. Your people were more open to trying new things because of the pandemic. You discovered that your members could embrace change more quickly than ever. According to Lifeway Research, the church did some innovative things this past year:

85% of churchgoers say their church livestreamed worship services

76% of churches posted worship service videos people could watch late

52% offered online Bible studies for adults

39% offered outdoor worship services

30% offered drive-in worship services[i]

Your new nimbleness will serve you well into the future as the pandemic ends. Your congregation has learned to pivot quickly and embrace change. What other positive, kingdom-advancing things might you lead them to try?

Refocus.

Finally, continue using this time to refocus your church on reaching and discipling people. The church is commissioned by Jesus to “go and make disciples.” Today is the perfect time to strengthen your Bible teaching ministry by starting new groups, training group leaders, and evaluating your entire strategy for reaching and teaching people (and perhaps thinning out your church calendar so you can focus on the Great Commission).

The pandemic has given all churches the opportunity to hit a “reset” button and emerge from the pandemic stronger, leaner, nimbler, and more energized to reach people who don’t know the Lord.

Second Chronicles 16:9 is a favorite verse for many of us. “The eyes of the Lord roam throughout the earth to show himself strong for those who are whole-heartedly devoted to him.” As you continue to preach, lead, serve, and shepherd, the Lord sees your work and rewards you with His continued presence and strength, even during tough seasons of ministry like a global pandemic. We’re praying for you, pastor, knowing that the Lord is already there supporting and sustaining you. Well done, good and faithful servant.