Perspective hacks for the post-pandemic church leader
For years, pastors and church leaders have asked me about Life.Church’s missional use of technology to spread the gospel. However, as the ramifications of the pandemic continue, we’re hearing very different questions. Instead of asking how to launch an online service or the best way to grow a multisite church, many are wondering, What is the future of the church? Will we ever go back to normal? Can we create a new and better normal?
If your church is like most churches around the world, your weekend attendance isn’t what it used to be, and you’re wondering if people are ever coming back to church. Believe me, I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve asked this question more times than I care to admit over the last couple of years.
While I love to be optimistic and full of faith in my leadership, my humble opinion is that many are not likely to come back. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but I’m not sure people will break the habits they’ve formed to return to in-person worship. That may not be what you want to hear but stick with me.
“Don’t underestimate the power of achieving small goals together as a team.”
On top of this significant challenge, I’m guessing many of you are surrounded by staff and volunteers who are weary and discouraged. These last two years have felt long, and it’s taking a toll on pastors and church leaders around the world.
So, what do you do when the outlook isn’t positive? How do you lead when your team is struggling? The answer is: You lead like it matters. OK, so that’s a not-so-subtle nod to my latest book. But that’s exactly what you do. You lead.
* You lead like eternity is real.
* You lead like people need the gospel.
* You lead with faith.
* You lead with passion.
* You lead with integrity.
* You lead with vision.
* You lead with a strategy.
* You lead like it matters.
In order to lead well in this environment, you’ll likely need to lead with a different mindset. I don’t have a silver-bullet solution that will instantly turn things around, but I have picked up a few things over the years that have made a difference for my team. My hope is that as we dig into these different viewpoints, one or more of them will make a difference for you and your team.
Fix Your Alignment.
Have you ever driven a car with the wheels out of alignment? If so, you know what happens. Even though you try to keep the car in the middle of the road, it pulls to one side. It’s a constant struggle to keep traveling in the intended direction. Over time, misalignment causes major problems. The tires wear out. And much worse, the poorly aimed wheels could pull you off the road into a crash.
People in a visionless church are like that. Without a compelling vision, the people are busy doing something. They’re doing church, but they’re easily pulled off-center. They’re moving with no common destination. Without an alignment of vision, people—just like tires—quickly wear themselves out. Those who serve often burn out. Staff members grow frustrated. Boards, elders, deacons and leaders disagree. The ministry may have tons of activity, but there’s little spiritual movement. And just like cars, when misaligned, ministries can crash.
“To help your team win, you may need to redefine success.”
I’ve found that even though people may drift toward comfort and complacency, they don’t really like it. Deep down, they desire more. Way more. Everyone craves a cause worth fighting for. We want to feel like our lives are significant and have purpose. We love to be part of something bigger than ourselves, something making a real, even an eternal, difference. As leaders, it’s our role to seek God, see the vision, communicate it in a compelling way and invite people to give their lives to the greatest cause on earth—the cause of Christ.
Clearly Define Your Wins.
If your team members are struggling, your role is to help them win. For some leaders, helping their team win simply means supporting or cheering them on. While it’s important to encourage your team, I think it’s even more helpful to clearly define what success looks like. When everyone knows what’s expected, they can push toward the goal together. We can cheer for our team until we’re blue in the face, but if they don’t know which direction to run, they can’t win. Even if they achieve their goals, winning at the wrong game isn’t really winning.
Before you settle on team goals, consider how the pandemic has changed things in our culture and in your church. What previously made sense as a metric for success may not make sense anymore. To help your team win, you may need to redefine success. For me, it means focusing less on physical church attendance. While we still plan to impact lives at physical gatherings, our goals are now centered on engaging people in other spiritual activities where they connect with the Word of God and other people.
I’d also encourage you to set goals that will help your team feel like they’re winning now. You have likely heard of BHAGs, or “Big Hairy Audacious Goals,” from Jim Collins’ 1994 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. During this season, I suggest you create what I call SBAGs, or “Stretching But Achievable Goals.” In other words, we aren’t just planning to do something big in the distant future. We are planning for something we can accomplish in the near future. When we do this, we’re creating an environment where momentum can build. Don’t underestimate the power of achieving small goals together as a team. It will infuse your team with much-needed energy and confidence.
It’s also important that you don’t overlook the “S” in “SBAGs.” Even though you want your team to be able to achieve these goals quickly, the goals should still be big enough to stretch your team. Your team wants to be challenged. No one likes a win handed to them. The truth is that goals reached too easily won’t boost team morale. Your team members will gain more confidence in their abilities if they have to put forth effort to achieve their wins, and getting some wins under their belts will increase their desire to work toward long-term goals.
Stop Placing Blame.
Chances are good that some things aren’t working well in your ministry. At times I know this because there’s no church in the world that gets everything right 100% of the time. When things haven’t gone the way that I envisioned them going, I’ve blamed it on someone or something else. Maybe you’ve done the same thing. We need to change our mindset. Instead of assigning blame, we must accept responsibility. Blame focuses on the painful past or unfortunate present instead of focusing on a hopeful future. Blame is all about judging. Responsibility is all about changing.
As leaders, we cannot blame or judge our circumstances. We must have the courage to tell the truth about our current situation and take responsibility to make necessary changes. For example, we can’t throw up our hands and say our ministry isn’t growing because people today just aren’t interested in attending church. Instead, we have to accept the responsibility that maybe we aren’t doing the right things to connect with people and draw them to our church.
“Blame is all about judging. Responsibility is all about changing.”
We also cannot blame our team or single people out when things don’t work. At Life.Church, whenever we feel like something isn’t going well, we teach our leaders to take responsibility for mistakes and approach every situation with grace. We never say, “Our volunteers won’t _____.” Instead, we say, “We haven’t led our volunteers to _____.” This mindset is critical to how we do ministry as it forces us to focus on finding solutions as a team.
Identify Your Root Issue.
As your team works through various challenges, you will want to be careful to diagnose the root of each problem you face. It’s important to clearly define why whatever isn’t working isn’t working. This can be difficult for many leaders because it’s tempting to focus on the symptoms. As we work to lead like it matters, we won’t just look at the symptoms, but work to identify the root issue. We know that we cannot change what we don’t define.
For example, you might say, “Our church isn’t growing.” This isn’t the problem; this is a symptom. Or maybe, “Our church is aging.” An aging church is not the problem; it’s a symptom. As leaders, we must identify the root issue. Once we do that, we must have the courage to confront it. You cannot correct what you will not confront.
Sometimes we have to address dysfunction on our team. When we deal with the dysfunction, we must remind our team members that we aren’t attacking people but behaviors. If our team isn’t doing what’s necessary, or they’re operating outside the ministry’s vision and scope, we want to point out the dysfunction and offer a clear path to improvement. We should be very specific about the behavior we desire and give our team the coaching and development necessary to improve. When they do improve, celebrate their success.
Have Courage to Look Inward.
It can be difficult to acknowledge that sometimes the problem is not something else or someone else. Sometimes we are the problem. I know there have been many times in my leadership when I’ve had to have the courage to admit that I was a significant part of the problem.
What do you do when you realize that you aren’t leading well? Whatever it takes to get back to the point of spiritual confidence. That may sound like an overly simplistic answer, but honestly, it’s not. You must do whatever it takes.
* That might mean counseling.
* That might mean a sabbatical.
* That might mean extra training.
* That might mean repenting of sin.
The reality is that you need to do whatever it takes to be close to Jesus and full of confidence that you were called to do what God has empowered you to do. Your leadership matters more than you can imagine.
“You cannot correct what you will not confront.”
Recently, I had to force myself to do something I considered pretty radical. I had pushed myself to the point of burnout. I had said yes to too many things, all of which were good and important. I was preaching most weekends, leading our staff, developing podcast episodes, guest speaking at conferences and other churches, and keeping up with friendships and family. My different commitments resulted in me feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and anxious. For some people, anxiety is something they’ve dealt with for years. Not me. I’d never experienced it before. So, when I started regularly experiencing anxiety, I decided it was time to see a counselor.
My counselor has helped me tremendously. He helped me see that I needed to slow down and rest—two things I absolutely hate to do. Thankfully, he recognized that the kind of rest I needed was mental, not necessarily physical. Some might find rest by going on a relaxing beach vacation. That would drive me crazy after a few days. My therapist prescribed any thrill-seeking activity that would switch my brain into survival mode. In the last couple of years, I started training in jiu jitsu and learned how to pilot a plane. The idea is that if I’m busy trying to survive, my brain can’t focus on anything else. It sounds extreme, but it’s helped pull me from an unhealthy place. I’m also learning to focus on what’s most important, which means I’ve had to say no more often.
If you’ve gotten off track, whatever the situation is, admit it. Second, decide to get back on track. The good news is God is full of mercy and grace. You can get back to where you once were and go even further. But you have to want it and believe it’s possible.
Seize Opportunities to Innovate.
Though it may seem trite, try to think of your ministry issues as opportunities. I’m not trying to downplay the challenges you’re facing. Many churches are facing significant hardships since the pandemic began. I understand that, and I sincerely sympathize with you. However, I’m asking you to look at your problems from a new perspective. If you’ve lost a key staff member, can’t find land or struggle to stream online, tell yourself this is not just a problem to solve, but an opportunity to seize. Problems equal potential because every innovation is a solution to a problem.
“Problems equal potential because every innovation is a solution to a problem.”
A few years back, our leaders stumbled upon something that has changed the way we do ministry. Maybe you’ve heard the old adage “Where God guides, he always provides.” We developed a new saying: “God often guides by what he doesn’t provide.” Read that again slowly and think about it in relation to your ministry. God often guides by what he doesn’t provide.
Are you up against a wall with no good plan to get past it? Have you hit an obstacle that appears insurmountable? Maybe God will guide you to see something you wouldn’t have seen if he had removed the wall. For instance, have you ever bought a car and then suddenly noticed dozens of other people driving the same car? They were all around you last week; you just didn’t have the mindset to see them. The same is true for your ministry. You already have what you need—you just need eyes to see it. If you change your perspective, your greatest ministry innovation could come from your greatest limitation.
Many ministries have victories, but few celebrate them. It happens all the time. We pray. We plan. We perform. And God blesses. It’s a success. But then we miss it because we skip a critical step: We don’t acknowledge it. Too many wins go by without celebrations.
“God often guides by what he doesn’t provide.”
I love what Andy Stanley does with his team at every staff meeting. They open their meetings with stories of how lives have been changed. They celebrate the victories, large and small. Everyone gets to enjoy what God has done in an attitude of gratitude.
I’d even go as far as to encourage you to find reasons to celebrate. If you just look for them, you can find plenty of celebration-worthy events, like anniversaries, completion of significant projects, ministry launches and personal victories. Don’t underestimate the value of helping your entire church enjoy your wins.
Your Ministry Matters.
My sincere desire is that one of these perspective hacks helps you in your next phase of ministry. I truly believe that the local church is the hope of the world, and this world needs hope right now. What you’re doing in ministry matters. This world needs a church like yours, one that is passionate about spreading the hope and love of Jesus. And your team needs you: a passionate leader who is committed to leading better. One who leads like it matters.