Decision making when restrictions ease

As the Great Pandemic’s flood waters are slowly receding, a new kind of decision making crisis is emerging for ministries everywhere. The underlying question: how do we deal with freedom?

In March 2020, we faced a different question. As governments put into place restrictions intended to curb the spread of covid-19, the question was how to deal with limitations. Rarely in our nation’s history had the church had to face limitations on its gatherings. Our churches – and we as church leaders – made decisions about our approach to these restrictions.

Today, as we are coming out of the crisis (God willing), a new challenge faces us. What will we do with our freedom?

“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up,” Paul cautions us in 1 Corinthians 10:23. So, how do we use our freedom to build up? How do we know what is helpful?

Let me offer 2 guiding principles that have been the guardrails for my decisions throughout the pandemic and continue to help me moving forward.

  1. Obey the rules. Not a popular position, I know. But here is my case for obeying the rules: it protects our integrity, it protects our witness, and it protects our ministry. It protects our integrity by holding us to a standard. If we decide that we are above the authority of the law or the authority of the governing officials, it is a slippery slope to deciding that we are above the authority of the commands of Scripture. If the law requires you to disobey the direct command of Scripture, then disobedience is necessary. The authority of God is above the authority of man. But if the rules are consistently applied and do not require disobedience to God, then we must follow them to maintain our integrity. Our integrity in turn protects our witness with outsiders and our legal compliance protects our ministry from the consequences of disobedience. Obey the rules.
  2. Use all your freedom within the rules. The mission God has set us on has not changed because of any pandemic. We are to go into all the world making disciples, being representatives of God in every part of society. This mission has not changed, and so we must use all our freedom to move the mission forward without destroying our opportunity to do so by sacrificing our integrity, our witness, or our ministry. Holding back when the opportunity is open will reduce your opportunities in the future.

As you look forward to the day that the pandemic flood waters are fully receded, where do you hope your church will be positioned going forward? Will you be left without a footing because you chose not to follow the rules or because you chose not to exercise your freedom within the rules? May you as a leader be both “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16.)

Biblical references from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016).

Why am I so exhausted?

Last week I asked my staff team how they were doing. The prevailing feeling was, “Tired.” How about you? How are you doing? How’s your team doing? I’m guessing, “Tired.”

Why is it that everyone is so exhausted right now?

Think back to 2019 with me – not 2020. Remember back to 2019, before anyone thought about a pandemic, all the things that you used to do in a month, in a week, in a day. If you are like me, your schedule was packed. A big event every quarter, if not every month. A big meeting every month, if not every week. A daily shuffle of who is taking which kid where after school on an ongoing basis.

But you know what? I wasn’t this tired. This exhaustion is different. This exhaustion isn’t from the hustle and bustle of regular life.

This exhaustion comes from three sources:

  1. Making decisions.

Consider how many more decisions you must make in this quasi-post-pandemic world. Daily choices like whether or not the people you are around would feel more comfortable with or without masks for this meeting. Bigger choices like whether or not to host a large (and what counts as large now?) gathering. So many more factors must be considered right now, we are faced with a growing number of daily decisions.

When everything requires decisions and nothing is into a normal rhythm, we become exhausted.

2. Starting new rhythms

Once the decisions about what we are going to do are made, there begins another process that is equally exhausting – getting the new rhythm started.

Maybe you are restarting a program that once ran easily in its own rhythm but had to stop for a time during the pandemic. Maybe you are starting a new rhythm that wasn’t even a though before last year. In either case, it takes a lot of energy to start that ball rolling.

In physics terms, it takes more energy to overcome static friction than dynamic friction. That means it will take more energy to begin than to maintain pretty much any system. It’s easier to leave it just sitting there than to get it going. But it has to move, and you have to be the one to move it. As you put in the energy to move your team or your event forward, you might feel exhausted.

3. Grieving

Finally, you may be exhausted because you are grieving. Grief is certainly expected if you have lost a loved one. We expect that people who are grieving the death of a close friend or family member will need some time, space, and healing before they can resume their normal activity and pace. We understand that people grieve in different ways and on different timelines. Some people take longer to grieve than others.

We can also grieve the loss of normalcy, something that most of us have lost in the last year. Yet we haven’t all given ourselves space to grieve its loss. This grief takes the shape of a exhaustion deep in our souls.

The exhaustion of decision-making and of rhythm-starting will fade as new patterns emerge. As you press through the exhaustion, giving your energy to the task, it will get less. The exhaustion of grief make take longer, and you will have to allow yourself the time to grieve so that you can move forward.

Seeing Opportunity

When you can’t see what comes next, as I wrote about last time, everything begins to look like a problem. One of the big problems that we see as a church right now is that some people aren’t coming back to church.

It’s now been a year since our doors first shut on a Sunday morning, and now that they are open, we are finding that people found others places to be on Sunday. Some of them are at home, some are at the golf course, and some are simply not interested anymore. When we see this as a problem, it’s hard to know what to do.

But what if we saw this as an opportunity? That sounds like crazy talk, I know. Bear with me.

Remember how, when everyone was in the seats on Sunday, you wanted them to have relationships with their neighbors and co-workers in which they could – and would! – influence them for the gospel? Remember how, we used to plead with our people to serve in the community? Remember how we wanted them to join a small group so they could grow as disciples of Jesus in community, putting the things they learned into practice in their lives?

Don’t we still want that for them?

Consider where the congregation is now. Those who have returned to church services in person are those who have deep relationships with others who have also returned. They are coming for encouragement and personal connection. Those who are not at church are, for the most part, not on their own. They are deeply embedded in a tightknit community they might call their bubble.

The bubble is a small group of individuals and families that are doing life together in a mutually supportive way. A bubble might be formed around a group of co-workers and their families. A bubble might be an extended family with multiple households. A bubble might be centered around children who need supervision or around the medically fragile who need protection. The people in the bubble may not share the same backgrounds, the same beliefs, or the same politics, but they share the same concerns.

During the pandemic, the bubble emerged as a coping strategy for mental health and practical needs of those in the bubble. The people in the bubble eat meals together, they care for one another’s children, they run errands for those most vulnerable to illness. They care for one another purposefully. They are generous, hospitable, and selfless with one another. In short, they love one another.

The bubble is an expression of the church.

When we see our distributed church members as doing the work of the ministry in their bubbles, our perspective changes. Now we are stewarding an opportunity like we have never had before. The question becomes less of “How do we get them back in the building?” and more of “How do we equip them for the bubble?”

My complaining, my inviting, my grumbling, my marketing, my persuasion of all varieties to get people to return to a program and a place we called the church are not working. Maybe that’s because the Holy Spirit is doing something else. Or something also.

What if, instead of looking at the state of the church right now as a problem, we looked at it as an opportunity? An opportunity to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph 4:12).

When you can’t see what’s next

There are challenges besides a pandemic that can keep you from seeing what comes next. Maybe it’s a personal health challenge that keeps you from feeling able to plan ahead. Maybe it’s a struggling relationship that makes you wonder what “next” will look like. Maybe it’s an exhaustion from all these months of living in the unknown.

When you can’t see what’s next, it’s hard to go on.

When you can’t see what’s next, it’s easy to stop.

When you can’t see what’s next, it’s easy to quit.

So, what do you do when you can’t see what’s next?

  1. Keep doing the work you’ve been assigned. The task that you have in front of you – what you have already been doing – still needs doing. When you can’t see what comes next, sometimes that’s because it’s not time to move forward yet. What is it that you were doing before this challenge came along? Were you serving in a particular role or assigned a particular task? Keep doing it until you can see what comes next. Faithfulness in your current assignment will prepare you best for what comes next.
  2. Ask God to guide you to what’s next when it’s time. While being faithful in your current assignment will prepare you for what is next, being watchful will make you ready when it’s time. I’m not advocating looking for a sign or throwing out a fleece (see Judges chapter 6 for how Gideon used that method to show a lack of faith). I’m saying that you should simply ask God to guide you. According to Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s sight. If you can’t see what comes next, it’s time to exercise faith in the one who called you to follow him. He will lead you to the right place at the right time. Watch for his guidance with faith.
  3. When it’s time, go. God may be forming your vision for what comes next already, but it’s just not the right time yet. The hopes and dreams in your mind and heart are waiting for the right time. As Chrystal Evans Hurst recently said, “What if the goals in your heart are part of what God is doing?” When it is the right moment, God will let you know what comes next. Being faithful where you are, being watchful for his guidance, and being available when it’s time will make you ready for whatever comes next.

Be faithful.

Be watchful.

Be available.

3 rhythms for rest and relationship

Last week, I had the privilege of spending several days in rest and relationship with other ministry leaders. None of us had time for such a luxury, and yet at the same time, it was necessary.

No one else knows your situation in ministry. If you are the sole pastor of a small church in a small town, you know this isolation well. You can be surrounded with people and yet very alone. If you are a member of a large staff at a multi-campus church, you still know this isolation. You may be surrounded by those who might understand, but no one you can trust to speak with about your current reality.

We all need these 3 rhythms of rest and relationship in our busy ministry lives if we are going to survive:

  1. A weekly check in. What does a contestant on a game show do when they don’t know the answer? They phone a friend. You need a friend – preferably a friend in ministry who understands your context without knowing the exact people that you deal with on a daily basis. You need a friend that you can talk to without a filter. It’s a short call – voice or video – with a human who you can talk to and listen to. You need to know you aren’t alone, and that’s what a weekly check in provides.
  2. A monthly check up. Even Jesus needed a periodic check up with the Father. In Luke 6:12, we see him going away for a night of prayer. This wasn’t his normal, weekly Sabbath. This wasn’t his daily ongoing communion with the Father. This was a special time outside of the normal parameters of his work, but not uncommon. When he invites his friends to join him for prayer at night in Gethsemane, they don’t think it’s weird. A regular check up with the Father was part of Jesus semi-regular pattern. If it was true of him, we could certainly use a monthly check up with God as well.
  3. A yearly check out. Get out of town. Not for training, not for a ministry event, not for work, not for a medical procedure, not for any obligation. Check out. Leave town, turn off your phone, and relax. People will try to keep you from doing this – the church or your ministry needs you! But your ministry also needs you healthy. In Luke 4:42, we see Jesus leaving to be by himself and people trying to keep him there. If anyone loved people and was committed to his ministry, it was Jesus. But he still took time alone. Take time away from everything that demands your attention – turn off the notifications and turn off people’s demands – and rest. It will take a few days before you can unwind the tension that you’ve been carrying, so take a few days more to relax. Your church, your people, your spouse will all thank you for putting this into practice.

We need rest and we need relationships to thrive in the ministry God has called us to. If you don’t find a rhythm of rest and relationship, you will not be able to complete the task you have been called to. What rhythm will you put into practice this week, this month, or this year? I’d love to hear your rhythm in the comment.