In our current blog series, Laura and I are taking time to suggest a series of practices that will move us from a posture of lament towards innovation. We began by encouraging one another to take time to lament; to acknowledge the reality of this moment and remember God’s history of faithfulness. These times are hard, and they are upending our long-established practices of ministry. However, God has not abandoned us, and he will see us through. Last week, we talked about holding the tension of reality with hope. We need to remind ourselves and our people that Jesus has shown up and will continue to show up in this COVID-season. He in inviting us to find more of Him!
Today, I want to point us towards the practice of “Leaning In.” As we continue to pastor and lead through the pandemic, we must remember that we cannot do this on our own. We need communities that we can lean into to find strength, solace, and support. We need communities with whom we can share stories of the nearness and activity of Jesus. We need communities that will ask us tough questions, so that we can grow in Christ-likeness.
An Epidemic of Loneliness
I love looking at data reports that relate to my areas of ministry, as they help me understand what’s happening in my students, and also give insight into how I can respond. Recent data indicates that our youngest generations are experiencing loneliness at higher levels than any previous generation. Springtide’s report “The State of Religion & Young People 2020: Relational Authority” finds that high percentages of young adults and youth resonate with the statement “I feel completely alone.” They found that 24% of 13-17-year-olds agreed “always” or “sometimes” with that statement. Despite having virtual access to people around the globe, our students have never felt lonelier.
I think there is incredible opportunity for our churches to respond to this, as we aim to develop authentic and engaging communities. We need to respond to these findings, not only by creating new programs, but out of a motivation of coming alongside students who are lonely.
An important consideration for us out of these findings, however, comes in their implication on us as leaders. To really respond to loneliness, we need to model what authentic community looks like. Too many of us as leaders and pastors focus on the programs we can or cannot offer, and fail to ask about our own loneliness.
Ministry can be isolating. Who’s there to walk alongside you?
Throughout Scripture, God is often reminding leaders to have companions with them. In Exodus 17, the Israelites and the Amalekites were in conflict, and victory for the Israelites could only be guaranteed if Moses held up his arms. Whenever he lowered his arms, the enemy army began to win the conflict. As Moses’ arms grew tired, he needed companions to come alongside him. Throughout the conflict, Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms.
Although we’re not in combat as Moses was, the question remains: “Who’s there to hold up your arms?”
We’re living in an incredibly hard time. Most of us are drained. COVID-fatigue is genuine, and many of us agree that mundane tasks are more challenging than they used to be. Whether we’re tired by vaccination or masking requirements, or the juggling of schedules required when a family member has to isolate, or any other among the myriad of complications brought on by the pandemic, collectively we are tired.
And as a result, many of us have tried to do it all by ourselves. We tell ourselves that our friends are also tired, and they wouldn’t want to be bothered. We believe the lies that tell us that we should be able to carry it all on our own. The reality is, however, that we cannot do ministry effectively on our own. We cannot grow and flourish in isolation; we cannot learn who we are as Christ-followers and pastors without others speaking into us.
In Becoming a Resolute Leader, Jacqueline Bland writes: “Leaders will not experience growth and development by functioning in isolation from others. Spiritual growth is best nurtured in a relational community of faith whereby individuals are known, deeply loved, and held accountable to applying Jesus’ teachings in their beliefs and actions.” (Bland, 67). To be a Christian is to be in community with others who come alongside us as we follow Jesus.
As leaders, as Christ-followers, we need to pay attention to the question “Who’s with me?” We need a relational community around us, that affirms who we are in Christ; a community that both encourages us and keeps us accountable.
If we genuinely want to show our students a way out of their loneliness, we need to model it for them. We need to be able to talk about our own communities, reminding our students that we, ourselves, are not isolated.
What can this look like?
This may be a small group in your church; a close group of friends with whom we can share our joys and our struggles. This is a group of people with whom we can be genuine. We don’t need to wear our “ministry masks” and pretend that we have everything together.
This could also be a close group with whom you choose to be accountable. At different points in my ministry, I’ve connected with a small group of other pastors. Although we’re separated by geography, we’re held together by shared experiences. Although video calls will never replace the face-to-face experience, it does provide us with opportunity to connect.
If you’re not sure how to start a group like this, make a list of two or three friends that you could pull into a group. Begin by asking one another these questions (borrowed from James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful Community):
How is your soul?
In what ways do you need to be encouraged right now?
What, if anything, is holding you back from living more fully for God?
Take time to listen to one another’s answers, and spend time praying for one another.
This could be a group of ministry peers and friends. There could be opportunity for you to gather with other colleagues in your city or area and have a meal together. When I served in Fredericton, one of my monthly highlights was a breakfast with other youth pastors in the city. For the most part, this was a group with whom we could be genuine. We didn’t need to compete, and we could encourage one another. If you’re not sure how to start one, reach out to our YF team. We’d love to help you succeed in this!
Intentional Community through Programs
There are also other programs and opportunities for you to engage in safe-but-not-soft community. CBAC’s Fresh Start community may be a place for you to connect in a spiritual community with other pastors. Next Generation pastors have a special rate, and we’d love to see our pastors taking part in this community. This community provides support for pastors to be proactive about their own soul care, and will address the realities of COVID fatigue and provide tools to cope with this drain.
Another opportunity to consider may be the Arrow Leadership program. Through experiences of deep community, the Emerging Leaders stream shapes us to be led more by Jesus, lead more like Jesus, and lead more to Jesus. Again, CBAC Next Generation pastors can access a special rate for this program. Arrow significantly impacted my ministry, and I’d love to chat with you about Arrow and help you discern if this could be a good next step for you at this time.
Our students are experiencing high rates of loneliness, and they need pastors, leaders, and directors who can not only come alongside them, but who can also model for them a pathway rooted in community. We need to demonstrate to them what it means to “lean into” a community. We cannot expect our students to go where we have not been ourselves.
It can be tempting to say, “I don’t have time for this.” Our to-do list never ends, and there is always one more ministry or other commitment to follow up on. However, you need to care for yourself. If all our pastors burn out because they didn’t take time to care for their soul and build community, how will this help our students discover Jesus?
We need to be able to talk to our students about the communities of which we are a part, and show them the value of finding good companions for the journey of following Jesus. Safe community is not easy to discover, but it is so enriching. As we continue to navigate the realities of ministry in the midst of COVID, may we each take the time to discover and create authentic community.
We encourage you to reach out to someone and share the joys and lows of your current ministry. Take some time to call someone and check-in. Use the questions posted above.
Take some time with Jesus to pray about who you could invite into a trusted community. Are there people in your church or ministry colleagues?