What do we make of the challenges in pastoral care and discipleship exposed by the pandemic? Ottawa pastor Doug Ward reflects.
The following thoughts are humbly presented with the assistance of many pastors and leaders I have spoken with and significant webinars I have attended in an attempt to listen to what God might be calling us to during these challenging times.
We are all sailing in the same waters but in different boats.
As we look over the harbour and are ready to head out, we look down and see the tide has receded, and drastically, exposing the ocean floor. It is not pretty. The bottom, laid bare, is populated with weeds, garbage, detritus and other unsightly flotsam and jetsam. It is what has always been there under the surface – things we would rather not look at.
The outgoing tide influenced by Covid has exposed a plethora of preexisting conditions – a lack of soul care among Christians, the shallowness of our discipleship, our disconnectedness from one another and a dislocation of our mission from our contextual neighborhoods.
Many pastors and other Christians have regrets about what these problems imply about the quality and effectiveness of our ministry and our secret inner desires to see authentic growth and depth of faith in the communities we serve.
Let’s look at four areas of challenge exposed by Covid.
Sunday-centric vs. Christo-centric thinking.
There is enormous pressure placed upon church leaders, and coming from within, to resurrect some sort of credible Sunday worship experience. We have all become televangelists – a role we never dreamed of when we began ministry. The tug to return to something resembling normal is a huge temptation and pulls at our natural bent toward whatever is comfortable and perhaps even traditional.
Have we relied on that enticement to be our central marker for success and effectiveness in the past? Yes. Will we learn that this is a dangerous supposition? In all likelihood, a third of our people are never coming back, and it has exposed the paucity of our slant toward the performance values and sometimes entertainment culture that has been copied from the world and subtlety embedded in the church.
Could it be that the only way to truly deal with the shallowness we have had exposed, is to draw closer to Jesus with a robust, intentional, direct, definable and effective posture toward the self-feeding of believers to grow in their faith?
The call is toward a more Christocentric focus about what Jesus is doing among us – and joining Him there. A stunning realization is that so many pastors have to admit we do not have a purposeful and deliberate discipleship model functioning in our communities. We have not done this well and it is showing in glaring ways.
Is this the time for a bona fide, thoughtful “rule of life” or its equivalent that would be operable and thriving in a more localized community of accountability to help our people grow?
Many of us in pastoral leadership have not seen most of our people in seven months. After a flurry of phone trees and contacts with people in the early months, it has tapering down to a trickle as we entered summer and now a cold hard season ahead. Fall has exposed again that we have lost touch, and people have found other pursuits and ways of filling their lives.
The breakdown of relationships, built previously on regular patterns of meeting together, cups of coffee and incremental contact, has reached crisis proportions as we grow more and more distant. Some of us can even be accused of having offered “helicopter pastoring” – floating sometimes over the people we serve, only touching a few of the more gregarious folks but now realizing the nature of our fellowship and people caring for one another has been quite superficial.
Can we recover the body of Christ ministering to itself and teaching our folk to shepherd?
Reconnection with our neighborhood
As the Covid experience has acted to literally atomize us into smaller and smaller units of contact with people, it has drawn us unwittingly back to our local neighbourhoods and places of residence. Has this moved us to rethink our missional calling and reinvent a more parish model of localized contact with those we bump up with in our own geographical context? Has it challenged the attraction model that sometimes rules our gatherings and dispersed us to rethink backyard BBQ’s and contacts with our own neighbors?
These ministries of proximity are surfacing all around us. Who is in our orbit? Have we existed with a contractual model of what we can offer in return for attendance in our place of worship to a more covenantal sharing of our lives through mutual edification and expressions of love?
Crisis gives way to renewal. That is the pattern of church history from the earliest days of the church. The great leadership challenge is guiding our people through this period and not letting the moment be lost in attempting a return to standard practice.
Can we begin by listening to people’s stories about how they are navigating these times? Are we able to enter in and listen to what people are saying about what Jesus is speaking into their lives?
Can we turn the dialogue into a genuine call to hear God’s voice speaking – not through our pontification and analysis alone but through what God is revealing to his people? Remember what Peter Drucker has prophetically said – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
The stunning reality of John 21 was the fact of the disciples, no doubt disoriented and experiencing massive change, going back to doing what they did best – fishing. Returning back to what they knew. Unfortunately, there was not much going on, and no fish being caught that day.
Things changed dramatically as Jesus (who they did not recognize at first) gave them new instructions on where to cast their nets. His presence filled their nets, and they rushed ashore to be served a hot meal that Jesus has preparing for them. Renewal, revived passion, Peter running from the boat to the shore.
What followed was a recommissioning, a renewed “sent-out-ness” into an unknown future but in the presence of the living Christ.
Our people have already crossed over. Covid has seen to that.
Doug Ward is pastor of Kanata Baptist Church, Ottawa. Photo of beach garbage by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash.