by Rob McRay and Mark Frost
We often think of shepherding as “pastoral care” (“pastor” means “shepherd”). However, shepherds not only cared for the flock, they led and fed the sheep. Shepherd leaders must provide spiritual leadership, and that is especially true in times like these. Churches not only need leaders who can lead the flock through the crisis, they need leaders who are prepared to lead them out of the crisis into a new future.
The Opportunity Before Us
We have been given an unprecedented opportunity (at least in our lifetimes) during this pandemic. So much of what we were doing in our churches and in our lives has been put on pause. Life for most churches (including time, relationships, budget, energy, and passion) revolved around gathering for a couple of hours a week. Those gatherings have stopped. And as helpful as virtual worship services and Zoom® Bible studies are, we all know they are not the same. Similarly, much of what occupied our time and energy in our personal lives (commuting, restaurants, entertainment, shopping, sports, after-school activities, travel, etc., etc.) has been put on hold. Sometimes the silence seems deafening.
We have an opportunity—and as leaders a responsibility—to carefully consider what we will do during this pause; and perhaps more importantly, to choose how we will fill our time when this crisis ends. Will we rush back into the busyness? Will we spend our time and money on all the same things? Will we be focused on the same priorities, the same activities, the same ministries, the same preoccupations that have occupied us in the past? Will we lead our people back where we were, or will we seize this opportunity to reset our vision for a new future? Here are some suggestions for what shepherds can do in this season.
Prayerful Conversations About the Future
- Spend time as leaders in prayer and conversation about where you’ve been and where you’re going as a church.
- Read a book together that will provoke critical self-evaluation. Possibilities include Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer; The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church by Reggie McNeal; Letters to the Church by Francis Chan.
- Encourage your members to have similar conversations in their own lives and families.
Refocus the Church on Jesus
- Spend time in the gospels. Compare the focus of your church’s life and ministry to the life and ministry of Jesus.
- Where did Jesus spend his time? Who did he spend time with? What were his priorities? How do these compare with where your congregation has spent time and energy?
- Encourage your members to turn off the TV and devices long enough to spend some time each week reading and thinking about Jesus. How do their lives compare to his life and teaching?
Make This a Season of Spiritual Growth
- Lead your congregation into a season of prayer, reflection, and spiritual development. Invite your flock to follow Jesus into a season like his 40 days in the wilderness, away from the noise and crowds and busyness.
- While we can’t gather for our usual feasting (church potlucks and Sunday lunch at restaurants), consider time alone in fasting. In place of the indulgence of eating, try the self-denial of time focused on God.
- Set the foundation and habits for continued spiritual growth beyond this season.
Redefine Church Membership
- How have you defined what it means to be a member of your church (e.g., attending worship services, attending a Sunday School class, giving regularly)? Will these continue to be the primary metrics to measure commitment as disciples?
- What will you expect of each other going forward—during and after the crisis? Serving neighbors and/or in the community? Connecting to each other in personal and regular ways? Belonging to a small group? Spending time with God in meditation and prayer?
- How will you communicate these new (or revised) expectations to the membership? How will you coordinate your efforts so that the members have a sense that we are all moving forward as a body?
Lead Toward Love
- Many churches have been too focused on attracting, retaining, and satisfying church-shopping consumers, which encourages self-centeredness and selfishness. Has this been true of your church?
- In this season begin to focus your flock on loving others. Encourage them to ask, how can I reach out to isolated and lonely church members? How can I help a neighbor? If I still have my regular income, how can share with someone who has lost theirs?
- As we come out of the crisis, put more emphasis on loving each other and loving our neighbors. Consider how you can encourage members to be more focused on outreach than getting what we want out of a Sunday assembly.
- If we truly miss being with our family, when we are together again how can we be more devoted to love and unity? How can we guard against attitudes and behaviors that would separate us?
Plan the Path Back Together
- It is unlikely we will suddenly all be able to return to large Sunday gatherings. We may be asked to limit the size of our gatherings for a time. Members will have different comfort levels with assemblies and close proximity. How will germophobes and reckless huggers go to church together?
- Develop a plan to carefully return in phases. Look at the IMP resources on First Sundays Back. Set up hand sanitizers. If you have movable seats, consider spacing them. Decide how you will serve communion. Consider several smaller assemblies rather than one crowded service.
- Prepare your members. Explain the plan and the reasons. Encourage them to follow recommended guidelines (social distancing, no physical contact, etc.) Acknowledge that some things will be different, and we may not like some of it.
- Lead your flock to look forward to gathering, but even more to be excited about new opportunities to join in the mission of Jesus.