Social Connecting in a Time of Social Distancing

Sign

A lot sure has changed since last week.

This time last week our staff was meeting in my office, talking about things like our upcoming Easter service and our next round of small groups, breathing near each other all willy-nilly with not a care in the world…

One week later we are all working from home, no one is meeting in any size group, and our big Easter service has been put on a pretty distant back burner.

Our online staff meeting this week was different. We were asking different questions:

What is our call as pastors right now?

What does it look like to lead in this season?

And the real biggie:

How will we help our community stay connected?

We all know we are supposed to be socially distancing. Physically, we have got to take that not-breathing-near-each-other thing REALLY seriously, and we are loving our community as a church by honouring this directive.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to stop connecting, and it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a place to help people do that. In fact, in this season, I believe our call to help people support one another is even more important.

If you are a pastor or leader asking the same questions, let me share with you some of the ways our church is encouraging social connecting in a time of social distancing.

Online Worship Time

Like lots of other churches, we are live streaming our Sunday service. What may be a little different about us is that we have been doing this for the last year. We already had a live streamed service using Facebook called Sunday at Home. For those of you new to online worship services, here are some things we have learned and found helpful if you are about to start live streaming:

  • It can (and, I believe, should) look different than your normal service

We decided early on we didn’t want to just record our regular service. We wanted it to be GEARED to the reality of people watching from a couch in their living room. We wanted people to be able to engage in a more intentional way and not just be spectators.

Don’t feel like you need to get your whole worship team together and set up a service that looks just like your normal Sunday. I actually think people watching a service posted to an empty church can be more disconcerting than comforting for many.

Sit on a couch. Talk to people like they are in front of you. If you don’t have music, use other spiritual practices like prayer, lectio divina, guided readings. Keep your sermon a little shorter as watching on a screen is different than being present in person. Imagine you are sitting next to someone having a coffee and talk like they are there next to you. Be a bit more relaxed.

Give pause for people to participate. Pause for people to pray on their own. Ask people questions they can answer in the comments section so they connect to others. (Having a moderator keeping this conversation going is helpful – and can be done from anywhere. They don’t have to be in the room with you).

sundayathomepreaching
A screenshot of a regular morning at Sunday at Home.

 

  • It doesn’t have to be swanky

I assure you we don’t do swanky at MHBC. There were many weeks early on we used a phone. And that phone was my Samsung 6. That’s it. It didn’t look as polished as lots of places but that’s okay. We aren’t polished. Set your phone up against a book, sit back, talk to your people. It’s enough.

  • Pick the right platform and help people use it

For us, the right platform is Facebook Live. It’s easy and a lot of our people use facebook and engage with it. For you, it might be youtube. Youtube doesn’t feel like as right a fit for us (though we will post the video there afterwards). Of course that means lots of people say “But I’m not on Facebook!” This is true – no source will be used by EVERYONE. But explain why you are using what you are using and then invite people to join you. The reality is, people CAN use Facebook if they want. That’s their choice.

But we may need to help people a bit. For those that struggle, we have put some people “on call” to help those that need it. This week I have already helped someone on the phone figure out how to watch our videos. That’s okay. Sometimes pastoring is helping one of your senior members figure out technology so they can be part of what you’re doing. This, too, is ministry.

Covid Care Team

This week we asked the question: What do people in our church need right now? We realized the answer wasn’t yet food delivery or meals or help when sick. That may come. Right now, the biggest priority is making sure people are CONNECTED.

If we’re doing church online, do people know how to use it?

Is everyone on our email list?

Do people know who to call in our church if they need help?

Over the next week, we are doing a round of church calls to ask these questions. We are making a list of everyone who calls our church home – especially new people – and making sure they know how to stay part of things in the weeks to come. The great news is that getting people to help with this is also a good way to help people engage.

Online Ministries

You can use resources online for more than just your worship service.

For the last year we have had a regular weekly prayer time we call “Intermission.” Every Thursday at 12:30 we go live on our (private) Facebook page (we have a private and public Facebook page) and people join in prayer together. The pastors lead people through guided prayers as we pray for prayer requests, church needs, and our world. It has been easy to do and effective to gather people to pray from anywhere.

intermission
Here is a screenshot of Intermission. It ain’t fancy – it is meaningful.

In the next few weeks, we are going to do this every weekday instead of just once a week. We will do 15 minutes of guided prayer together each day at 12:30 and already many have joined us.

We also are planning special “online” small groups. We are asking anyone who would like to be in a group of 5 or 6 to sign up and we will provide a study to use online for these groups. We will lump people into groups based on preferred medium, such as Zoom, Skype, or Messenger. (Isn’t it amazing how many choices we have??). And again, we will have people available to help people learn how to use these mediums if they need support.

Side Note: This is a season where people may actually have TIME to do things that normally they are too busy to do! Why not use this time for good?

Resource Sharing/Stealing

Maybe these things still overwhelm you. Maybe you’re a small church and even these things are a bit much. The great news is LOTS OF OTHER CHURCHES will have these things available. Share and “steal” the things that help you! Pass on videos and resources and readings and blogs and reflections to your people that have been meaningful to you. Connect them to another’s church’s livestream if you still feel that’s too much for you to do. Do what YOUR church can do and let others help you do what you can’t.

What’s most important is that we remember that social distancing doesn’t have to mean social separating. Isolation doesn’t have to mean loneliness. As pastors, leaders and churches, we can help prevent those things from happening.

This, in this time, is the Lord’s work.

“Should I Buy More Toilet Paper? Living Like Jesus in the Time of Covid-19

I am going to be completely honest: Covid-19 scares me. 

No, I am not especially scared for myself, though I am not naive enough to think that I will remain unscathed. But I am worried about lots of things…

I am worried about caring for my family if we have to go in isolation for extended periods. 

I am worried about how to make good decisions for the church I lead. 

I am worried about the most vulnerable among us. I am worried about our sick, our seniors, our medically compromised.  

I am worried about the increasing isolation and panic that may shape our city in the days to come. 

I am worried about what we’ll do if we stop having church services. 

I am worried about running out of toilet paper. 

As a pastor, this week we have been talking about how we will respond to the covid-19 outbreak. We have the hand sanitizer ready. We have shifted how we take communion. We’ve asked people to stop shaking hands. We are preparing an emergency plan. These are all good things to do. 

Of course, we are all thinking of how to respond to covid-19 in real and practical ways. But I have found myself adding an addendum to the question of the hour : What does it look like to respond to covid-19 as a follower of Jesus? Does it change things? 

I hope that it does. 

I am not going to oversimplify here and say: “Because we follow Jesus it means that we don’t need to be afraid.” I think that being afraid in times like this is very normal. 

What I do think is that following Jesus reminds us that we do not let our fear be our guide for making decisions. We have a different guide. A simple one: the way of love. 

What does the way of love look like in the time of co-vid? 

It looks like consideration. 

Of COURSE we should take all the precautions we can to prevent the spread of co-vid 19. But not just because we are afraid we will get it ourselves – because we LOVE other people. I LOVE the people in my church, my community, my city. I will love them by washing my hands so that I can help prevent the spread of this illness. I will love them by being considerate to their fears. I will love them by listening to the recommendation made by public health. If I have to, I will love them by staying away from them if I get sick.

I don’t think love looks like declaring: “Jesus will protect me so health recommendations to the wind!” That may show a certain kind of faith, but it’s not love. And we need both.

It looks like putting others before ourselves. 

In the Bible it reads “Love is not self seeking.” 

In a time of fear, putting others before ourselves grows more difficult. But Jesus followers are still called to do it. This means, for example, that we don’t empty the shelves of a necessary item to protect ourselves. Sure, you can buy some extra toilet paper or canned beans. But our default is not “every man for himself.” Our default is LOVE. 

This may mean that in the days to come you will be called to share the things that you want to keep to yourself. It will be challenging, but we walk the way of Jesus, the one who gave up EVERYTHING for those who did not earn it. 

Just this morning a sister church asked if we had any extra small individual communion cups. They usually use one common cup, but obviously they want to be cautious. We bought little cups a few weeks ago and I did have a thought that we don’t want to run out. But then I stopped to remember: “We walk the way of Jesus.” And I shared the cups. I confess my default was fear (“But we might run out!”) and I had to remind myself: “Choose love.”

This season is an opportunity to practice showing love by putting others before ourselves, whether it be by letting someone use the hand sanitizer before us or offering a neighbour a pack of Mr. Noodles when we desperately want to hoard it for ourselves.

It is not human nature, I know. But it is the way of Jesus. 

It looks like caring. 

I recently heard of a pastor who shared a message with his church saying: “We don’t need to panic. Most of the people dying from this are old. You probably won’t get it.” 

I shuddered. 

That is not the way of love. 

It’s true that covid does impact the vulnerable more than others. And that should NOT comfort any of us who don’t fall in that category.

The vulnerable are people too. If “only” the old people die in our church, that would mean losing people that I love a lot, and it is no comfort to me. They matter. People with lung conditions matter. People whose health is compromised matter. To take comfort that it “probably won’t hurt us” is not the way of Jesus. Let’s remember that. 

And then let’s care. 

We have an opportunity in this season to put our faith into real action. 

The days to come may be a time when people pull back and grow more isolated and alone. Let’s ask ourselves how to reach out to them. We live in an incredible time with the gift of phones and internet. Call people. Message them. Don’t leave people alone. 

We will have health workers in our congregation that are exhausted and overwhelmed and weary. Look for ways to care for them and support them. 

People who struggle with anxiety will find these times challenging. Even people not prone to anxiety may find themselves panicking. Be gentle with them. 

We may be tempted to lash out, respond in anger, rage online, attack those who seem to be doing harm. Be a peacemaker. 

I know that the Bible says to “not be anxious about anything.” I have to ask Jesus to help me with this every day. This week, I have had to ask a lot more. And each time I have asked again: “What does it look like to put my anxiety aside, Jesus?” the response I hear deep in my heart is simple: 

Love. 

Love well every day. 

Love well during co-vid. 

Love like I taught you to love. 

Love, even though you’re worried. 

Love, even though it’s scary. 

Love, even when it’s hard. 

Love with all your heart – 

And, yes – even with your toilet paper.

 

When the People Die

heartbreak

There is a little saying that pastors use when we find ourselves facing a situation that is unexpected or requires a skill we don’t have. It is:

“They never taught me THAT in seminary!”

Seminary is the school a lot of us attend to train for vocational ministry. We learn a lot of important things about how to study the Bible, how to prepare sermons, and how to lead. I loved my time in Seminary, and I learned things that have been invaluable for me. But, of course, like any training, we always find ourselves facing things we couldn’t anticipate, which is when this handy saying comes in…

Example:

Pastor One: Today, I had to fill out a grant application and I had no idea how to do it.

Pastor Two: Well, they didn’t teach us that in seminary!

(Laughter, knowing nods, etc.)

Another example (ones like this are more common):

Pastor One: This week I was trying to help a family through a crisis when it came out the husband was having an affair with his wife’s best friend and now she is pregnant and they battled infertility so it is extra painful and it turns out the wife was also cheating but they want to work on it and also their oldest child just got admitted to hospital after a suicide attempt.

Pastor Two: They didn’t teach us THAT in seminary.

(Knowing nods, no laughter).

There have been lots of things that I didn’t learn in Seminary that I have faced over the last fifteen years, and I don’t hold it against my school. Ministry is unpredictable, and we could never learn how to do everything, whether that be learning how to balance a church budget or how to deal with a confrontational church member. But of all the things for which I wasn’t prepared, there is one that I truly didn’t expect.

What happens when people from your church die.

I don’t mean how to navigate the journey of dying and death. I learned how to provide pastoral care at the bedside of the dying. I learned how to lead a funeral. I learned basic grief counselling.

But what I didn’t learn was how it would feel when people died that I loved.

I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like to bury someone that had mattered to me.

I wasn’t prepared for the way I would have to learn to fight my own tears as I comforted a grieving family.

I wasn’t prepared for how my heart would ache as I buried someone who had attended my baby showers, who had sent me meals when I was sick, who had shared with me in ministry. That I would be burying people with whom I had inside jokes. That had encouraged me. That felt like family.

I didn’t realize I would have my own grief.

This summer we said good bye to a woman from our church that had been a support to me ever since I started at our church. She gave our kids gifts for Christmas and their birthdays. She took us out for pastoral appreciation month. She prayed for me EVERY DAY. She made me laugh.

A lot of people felt this way about her and so the week after her death was surrounded by grief for our whole church. And I knew my job – to lead people through it, to support them, to create a space to mourn and to celebrate her life. This, I could do. This, I have learned.

But the day before her funeral, I suddenly found myself flooded in tears. I sat down and cried and cried. I was getting ready to help others grieve, but I realized – I was grieving too. I had lost someone I loved. I was helping a community grieve even as I grieved myself, and that was complicated and beautiful and very real.

And, I admit, I thought to myself: “Nobody prepared for this!”

THEY DIDN’T TEACH ME THIS IN SEMINARY!

Nobody warned me what it would be like to love for years and years and then have to say good bye again and again.

Nobody gave me a heads up that some funerals it would take all my emotional energy to get myself through it.

Nobody told me that the longer I was in ministry, that the longer I served in a church, that each funeral would hurt more. That each time I would feel it more deeply. That I would feel the loss more acutely because I had had so much longer to love them.

Nobody told me that I would need to allow some TIME after funerals. That when I got home, and when I had taken off my funeral blazer and put the tray with the leftover triangle sandwiches in the fridge, that I would find that all I could do was collapse into my own loss, and ask God to heal my heart alongside all the others for which I was praying.

And, also, nobody told me – this would be good.

It hurts to lose people over and over. In a church, which is a family, there are all ages and all kinds of health situations. People will die. And it will hurt. It will hurt to have loved them.

But with that hurt comes one of the greatest honours of my ministry, the thing that is hard but somehow a great gift.

I get to bury people that I love.

I get to tell their stories.

I get to encourage the people they loved and that loved them.

I get to celebrate their goodness.

I get to share how God used them.

I get to honour people that I loved, in their death, with hope for their new life.

In Seminary, nobody told me how great that would be. That even though I would need to be sure my funeral blazer had a pocket for tissues, that I would never regret needing it. That loving would make the grief harder, but that I wouldn’t want to change it.

If you are new to ministry, I kind of want to warn you – with more time to love, comes more loss to grieve. It won’t be easy. And…

You won’t want it any other way.

 

The Year I Decided To Do Things I Was Bad At

I have always hated doing things in front of others that I’m not good at.

I don’t like looking stupid.

I don’t like seeming inadequate.

I don’t like failing at things.

To avoid any of these possibilities, my strategy for most of my life has been to simply NOT do things where I wouldn’t excel. If this meant missing out, so be it.

Best example for me: sports. Growing up, I soon realized that I was not a natural athlete. This didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy certain types of sports. In Elementary School I happily joined a gymnastics club and skipping club, even though I wasn’t great at either. But by Junior High, I was done. My system was to simply not try at all, embrace the humor of how awful I was, and fully lean into being the worst athlete in my gym class.

When we played basketball, I didn’t try to catch the ball. When we played volleyball, I served as half heartedly as possible. “Pick me last!” was a favourite line of mine when leaders had to choose teams. I “forgot” my gym clothes as often as I could manage.

This meant that the gap between my athletic skills and my peers only grew, but hey – at least I didn’t look like a fool, trying to do something I couldn’t do very well. At least it seemed funny. People could think I just didn’t care!

This continued for years. There were years of going to camp and sitting and watching games of soccer or baseball because I refused to play. Years of watching others throw a frisbee or a ball at the beach while I said “I don’t do that.” Years of saying “go ahead without me,” or “I’ll watch the bags while you play.” Years of avoiding embarrassment – and years of missing out on good things.

This summer, however, something changed. It started when I was visiting with my family in Newfoundland and we went to one of those tree top trekking sites, where there are a series of climbing and high ropes apparatuses. This would normally be something I would avoid like the plague for the following reasons:

  • I am slightly scared of heights
  • I am not good at things like this, so therefore…
  • I would look stupid

But I looked at this thing with all it’s swinging bridges and climbing walls and I thought “I want to try that.” And so I said: “I”m going to do it.”

My husband looked stunned. “You are?” he said.

“Yes,” said I, shocking even myself.

I was not good at it.

The kids kept passing me, because I was so slow. I was the only person who fell and had to be rescued when I was hanging mid-air from one of the bridges. I screamed, several times, when I lost my balance, and I heard other people doing the course laugh at me.

But, you know what? I liked it!

tree trek

The next day our family did a hike.

I should say here that while the athletic genes missed me, they did not miss my siblings. My older brother and sister are very athletic and also very active, as are their spouses and kids. My brother picked a hike rated as “extreme.” He felt that was exaggerating. He had done it before and didn’t remember it as extreme. (I should have remembered this is the guy that calls a day when he goes downhill skiing, cross country skiing and skating a “trifecta…”).

Awash with the success of the previous day, I went, even though I knew I would be slower and sweatier and more winded than anyone on the hike.

I did NOT know, however, that I would end up frozen in terror, sobbing my eyes out on the edge of a mountain and that my brother would have to literally pull me up the mountain to reach the top. (Please note, if you ever do the Little Port Head Lighthouse Trial in Lark Harbour, Newfoundland, the “extreme” rating is VERY ACCURATE AND VALID AND SHOULD BE TRUSTED. Also it turns out it I may be more than “slightly” scared of heights…).

But… I did it! I was proud of me! The pictures and the memories were awesome, and our kids still talk about it. They say: “You were so scared, Mom, but you did it!”

The next day, they all planned to hike again. This one was 10 km return, and it would be steep (not scary, but 5 km uphill). By now, I was sore from the tree trekking AND the hike of terror the day before. I knew I would be so slow. It felt too overwhelming to be the dead weight on the hike a second day in a row.

So I said I wouldn’t go. I would stay home and make dinner. I would read my book.

But the more I thought about it, the more I knew I didn’t want to stay home alone. I wanted to be with everyone. I wanted to climb the mountain. I wanted to be part of it.

So again I declared: “I’m going to go. I will be slow. I will be way behind you all.”

And I was. I was WAY behind most of the time. People took turns keeping me company. I had to take more breaks than others. I was embarrassed sometimes. I apologized a lot.

But I did it.

And I loved it!

(And the memories of that time together as a family were so much better than a forgettable day at home making supper).

mountain

mountain2

At the end of those three days, something had shifted in me. I learned something I had taken way too long to learn:

Doing stuff, even if you are not great it, is better than not doing stuff!

It had taken me FORTY ONE years to realize that it was okay to do things even if I wasn’t good at them. Even if I was last. Even if I looked pathetic compared to everyone else. Even if it bruised my ego a little bit.

I wish I had realized it sooner. I wish I had climbed more mountains and tried to catch more basketballs.

But now it’s a new year, and even if I’m a bit behind on getting this lesson, I don’t have to let my fear of sucking hold me back anymore. I can be bad at things and do them anyway.

So this year if you see me trailing behind a crowd on a hard hike or at the bottom of a wall climbing wall, don’t worry about me. I’m doing just fine.

 

“That’s Not My Vomit!” (And Other Things I Want to Say When I Feel Embarrassed to Be a Christian)

One summer when I worked at camp, there was something that happened that became one of our favourite laugh-out-loud stories. It involved a sweet little boy whose name was Kenneth. One particular night, his leader noticed that he had gotten sick during his sleep. His sleeping bag, his pillow, and even his face was covered in puke, even though he was sound asleep. 

The counsellor woke him up. “Kenneth, sweetie, you have to wake up. You’ve been sick. Let’s get you cleaned up…” 

Kenneth was confused, and then aghast. “I didn’t do that!” he declared.

No amount of convincing could persuade him. “Somebody PUT that there!,” he continued, as the leader helped him change his pajamas, cleaned him up, found him some clean blankets. “I didn’t do that!” 

(Us camp staff quoted those lines for years to come: “I didn’t do that!  Somebody put that there!”)  

It’s funny, of course, to think of being covered in vomit and insisting that the vomit could belong to someone else. Who would sneak puke onto someone’s body in the middle of the night? It had obviously come from his own body. 

But I get where Kenneth was coming from, I really do. I get it more and more every day. Because, these days, I feel like I want to say: “That’s not my vomit!” ALL. THE. TIME. 

I’m a Christian. 

I’m an evangelical Christian. 

I’m a BAPTIST, for goodness sake!

And, my oh my, sometimes I think I should make a t-shirt that reads: “That’s not my vomit!” And I could wear it and re-wear it and maybe have a little arrow to point it at someone all those times my brother and sister Christians make me feel almost ashamed to say that we are in the same family. 

vomit shirt

Hateful political policies?

“That’s not my vomit!” 

Protests at Pride parades? 

“That’s not my vomit!” 

Embarrassing posts by Christians on the internet?

“That’s NOT my vomit!” 

I feel it close to home,too. Sometimes even in my own little corner of faith there are people with which I would rather not be associated. Even in a church, there are times when people we love are going to act in ways that are gross to us. And we will probably want to say: “Those people? What they did? Yeah –  that’s not my vomit.” 

But, the more time I spend wanting to declare that the vomit of other Jesus followers has nothing to do with me, the more I know I also need to find a way to respond more like that counsellor did to Kenneth that night: 

“Wake up, sweetie, you’ve been sick…we need to get cleaned up.”  

When the vomit gets to be a bit overwhelming, I don’t think the solution is to simply disassociate. It would be easier, of course, to just walk away. But I think God has something better for us.

I think we are called as the family of God to come alongside someone  when we see they have vomited all over themselves, to shake a shoulder, gently. To say: “Did you know that you’ve been sick? And then to say: “Let me help you clean it up.”

I’m not saying it’s easy. I can’t pretend that I don’t despair. I can’t pretend that there aren’t times that I would rather just say “That’s got nothing to do with me!” and just throw some of my brothers and sisters under the proverbial bus.

That’s when I need to remind myself that being in the body of Christ actually means a lot. It means we belong. It means we matter. It means that we each have roles to play and everyone counts -including all the people that embarrass, or annoy or even hurt us. 

And THAT means that, sometimes, we’ll have some barf to clean up. Because whether or not it’s our vomit – it is definitely our body.

This means that in our churches and communities, we don’t give up on people. We have real conversations when people hurt us. We get to know people and try to understand where they’re coming from. We seek healing when it seems easier to walk away. 

In the big picture, when we read those internet posts or we hear the stories that anger us, we can still name that things are exactly what they are – barf. Barf that has nothing to do with Jesus. 

And we still love. And we still acknowledge that we are part of the same body – vomit and all.

I know that I will still have lots of  “That’s not my vomit!” kind of days. My prayer is that on those hardest days, when everything in me wants to bolt, that God would help me to act like that camp counselor. I pray God will give me grace to deal with the vomit, even if it’s messy and gross, because I would remember all the times people had grace for ME – vomit and all. 

When It’s November and You’re Grieving

november

When someone is grieving, there are a lot of times that we anticipate being difficult: first birthdays, special occasions, anniversaries of the loss, and, of course, Christmas. 

Christmases after the loss of a loved one are forever different. It is hard not to dwell on the empty seat at the table and the gift NOT under the tree. With its emphasis on joy and family and memories this time of year, Christmas can feel like a minefield for someone going through loss. Every song, event, and tree ornament can trigger a memory that can cause grief to swell like a tidal wave. 

Almost everyone I have known dreads the first Christmas after their loved one has died. People will warn you about it, and pray for you through it, and hopefully remember to be extra gentle with you as you face the holidays as a grieving person. 

But what many may not realize is how hard NOVEMBER can be when someone is grieving. And I would like to say clearly: November can really really suck. 

Why? 

Because November sneaks up on you. You don’t gird yourself up for it. You don’t develop strategies for how you will face it. Your grief counsellor probably doesn’t bring it up to discuss what it will be like. People aren’t asking what November is like for you. But then – there it is. 

November is “Christmas is coming!”  November is trees going up all around you. Carols starting to be played on the radio. Friends saying “What are you doing for Christmas?” or “Looking forward to the holidays?” November is lights on houses and starting to Christmas shop and advent candle lighting at church and advertising all the “save the dates!” for Christmas events. 

November is when it hits you: “Christmas is coming –  and I’m going to have to do this without my loved one.” 

And I didn’t think I’d have to do this until December! 

But there it is – in November. The reality:  You will have to grieve your way through Christmas. 

It may not seem fair. “I can handle a couple of hard weeks around December 25,” you might think, “But in NOVEMBER?  Already? Come on people! I can’t do this for 8 weeks!

And then, to add insult to injury, the nights are getting longer and longer, so that each evening seems to give extended time to dwell on your sadness.

You are not alone. For many who are grieving, November is a month of fear, dread, and anxiety as we think:. “How am I going to get through Christmas?”  I will never forget what November was like for me after my sister died. I was putting off Christmas as long as I could. And then I heard a Christmas carol – Jingle Bells. I felt stabbed in the heart, and I started to sob. At Jingle Bells. All I remember thinking was “Oh no…”

If I could have skipped to January then and there, I would have. 

November brings home a harsh reality – you can’t skip Christmas. The world is going to keep going even though part of your world has stopped. And it will feel so unfair.

If you’re grieving this November, I don’t have any solutions for you. Today I wanted to write simply to say: You’re not going crazy. You’re not weird. You’re not alone. November grief is real. 

So, I hope you can be kind to yourself in November. Remember – you don’t have to turn the music on yet. You don’t have to go to the mall. You can wait to RSVP to the Christmas invitations. You can say “I’m not feeling up to it” when someone wants to eagerly chat about their Christmas excitement. You can be honest in your November grief.

And somehow, you’ll get through November. 

And then you’ll get through December. 

And the long, dark nights will start getting shorter again.

 

Thanks for reading!  If you’d like to get notifications of future posts, click “follow” on this site.

 

A Reminder for My Weary Sisters

It happens sometimes, as a woman pastor.  You get a little weary of it all. 

Weary of having to defend yourself. Weary of feeling you’re not taken quite as seriously. Weary of putting a positive spin on it. Weary of pretending it doesn’t bother you to be working with people who smile at you warmly at the pastors gathering, but who will preach against your call three days later. Weary of those who don’t smile at all. Weary of people assuming you just ignore certain passages of Scripture, that you don’t hold Scriptural convictions as deeply as they do about why you do what you do. Weary of those guys on the internet.  

A number of years ago I was weary. I was tired of all of it. I didn’t want to have to be tough anymore. I didn’t want to be “that woman pastor” anymore. I would have been just fine to be a little un-called. 

But in God’s perfect timing, right in the middle of that weary season, I went to a retreat for women clergy in my denomination. About a dozen of us gathered at a cozy chalet nestled in tall trees on a cold lake and got to know each other while we ate a lot and let ourselves take naps. 

There wasn’t a big agenda. Instead, each woman was given a one hour slot to share and receive prayer. It was simple enough – during our hour we would talk about what was going on in our lives or our ministry. Then the other women would pray for us. 

Of course if there was anywhere to talk about being weary of being a female pastor, this was the room. I was actually the youngest woman there. Most of the women present had decades of experience on me, and when I shared that I was in a weary season, they nodded, knowingly. And then they prayed. 

Hands laid on my shoulders, my back, my head, my feet, they knelt around me and lifted me up to God. It was intimate, awkward, vulnerable, powerful, and oh-so-necessary.

Here’s the thing when you receive prayer: sometimes it doesn’t feel like a whole lot. Sometimes it’s awkward. Sometimes it feels just kind of nice. But sometimes – the really amazing times – you are absolutely certain that the Spirit of God has broken in from Heaven to earth and spoken right to your heart. This was one of those times. And this was the prayer, from a sister pastor who had heard my words and seen me weary and brought me again to the Lord who called me. 

One hand on my shoulder, one high in the air, this dear sister prayed: “God, sometimes we hear voices from others about our call and we need to hear them. But sometimes those voices we hear are from (and her voice went deep and low here) the very pit of hell. And I pray you would send those voices that are making Leanne feel overwhelmed as a woman you have called back to the pit of hell.” 

Well. 

I want to tell you that I felt the truth of every word of that prayer from my soul to my toes. I knew that I had started listening to a narrative in my head that was not God’s truth for me. In fact, it was a lie from an enemy that would like nothing more than to see every woman called to preach the love of God stay silent.

I haven’t really felt that depth of weariness since that time, but when I feel it sneaking in, I remember that prayer and I say to that lying voice in my head: “Stay in the pit of hell, where you belong.” 

My sister pastors, I know that it can get weary. People can tell us not to read the tweets, ignore the comments, keep pushing through. I’ve said it myself. And I know that sometimes it is hard to do that. Sometimes we are still going to get weary, because we are just tired of being told to stop, to go learn the Bible, or to go home. 

But here is my prayer for you today: That when you feel yourself thinking those voices rumbling around in your head – those ones telling you that you can’t do it, that you shouldn’t do it, that’s it’s too much – that you would yell back at them, and you would tell them to go back to where they belong: to the very pit of hell.

I pray that instead you would hear the voice of the God who called you, who still calls you, from your soul to your toes, saying: “Keep going.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’ve got work to do. My sisters, do not stop.

 

Beyond the Pulpit: Thoughts on the Gift of Teaching

This is part two of my blog series about spiritual gifts, and today we are talking about the gift of teaching. 

I’ve always been surrounded by teachers. All my family are school teachers – both parents, all three of my siblings, and all of their spouses. My own father taught me seventh and eighth grade, and when he was sick, my mom was usually the substitute. I always thought teaching was important.  I often thought I would be a teacher, but much to my surprise I didn’t –  I became a pastor, making me the family vocational black sheep. 

This is where most people typically jump in and say: “But you ARE a teacher!  You teach us every Sunday morning when you preach!” And they are right. I didn’t understand it for a long time, but I see now that being a preacher and a teacher often go hand and hand. I did not stray so far from my family tree because teaching is not limited to a traditional classroom.

And in the same way that teaching in the world happens in more places than a school, teaching in a church happens in more places than a pulpit. This is easily forgotten. Often, if I suggest someone may have a gift of teaching, they dismiss it. 

“I can’t be a teacher!” they say, “I don’t want to preach sermons!”

We don’t always realize that teaching looks like a lot of things that aren’t just sermons, and this gift has more ways it can be used than we sometimes think.  Let me give you an example. 

Last winter I enjoyed getting to preach at a large and well known church in Southern Ontario.  The preacher at this church is truly exceptional. People flock to his teaching, and whenever I hear him teach, I admit I sometimes find myself slightly tempted to throw in the towel as his sermons are usually “wow-I-could-never-be-that-good” quality. Truly, he is a gifted teacher. 

But here is a little fun fact that I discovered when I was part of preaching at that church.  There are a lot of other people also using gifts of teaching there that help his gift be used well.  For example, one of the people on his staff has the role of research pastor. This pastor is a brilliant young woman who, along with other roles, also helps get the best information for each sermon. She explained to me, for example, that when a series is coming up, she reads a number of books on the topic, and selects the best, with highlighted sections, to pass on to her pastor.  He is then able to focus on that information and put that towards his sermon. 

The preacher at this church is definitely a gifted teacher…but so is his research pastor!  She has been gifted by God to be able to find and use good information. She uses this gift in the church in such a way that others are able to understand their faith better because of her gift of teaching. 

(Aside: This is also a great reminder for any of us preaching in a typical small church Sunday to Sunday to not compare ourselves to some of the big name preachers who may have resources we do not – such as research pastors!).

The gift of teaching doesn’t only mean you need to preach a sermon, or teach Sunday School, or run a small group. Gifted teachers can make amazing one-on-one mentors.They might be great researchers. They may be good writers. They can be good at gathering and sifting through information and sharing it as needed.They may be good at discerning what is true and what is misleading. They can train people in all kinds of things the church needs – from missionaries to sound techs. There are so many ways we teach.   

As you discern the ways God has made you, don’t be too quick to give up on the idea that God has made you a teacher because you may not be so fussed on stepping into a pulpit.  Maybe, like me, you are more of a teacher than you think.

Next week will be part three of this series on spiritual gifts, and will talk about the role of the apostle.  Click “follow” to get updates on new posts. 

The Gift of Shepherding (Maybe You Have It – And Maybe It’s Hard Sometimes….)

This fall, our church is learning together about the different ways that God has made all us and the important role each of us play in the world. We are using teaching from a part of the Bible called the book of Ephesians as we talk about this.  It reads: “It was (Jesus) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers…”  

Image result for apest

People are different. They are wired differently. They think differently. They see the world differently. I love that this is exactly how God designed things – God made each of us in different ways, and created a world that works best when we all use our diverse gifts.  

Each week at our church for the next few weeks I am preaching on each of these five unique ways that God has made us, and I will blog about each one. This week, we are talking about pastors. 

This is where things can get a little confusing….when we think of the word pastor, most of us think of people who work as ministers in a church. That is one way we use the word. But the way the word is used here in Ephesians is broader than that.  It can also be translated shepherds, and it refers to anyone who has been equipped in a God-given way to care for the souls, bodies, and hearts of others.  

A lot of you reading this are shepherds. You are people who feel a definite tug to care for the needs of others. You may have found that this special way you’ve been designed by God has led you to work as a nurse, or a social worker, or a counsellor. In a church, you may be the person who organizes a meal train when someone has a surgery. You may be the one that people always seem to want to talk to you when they are going through a hard time – and you like it when they do. You notice when people are sad and you reach out to them. You care – deeply.  

Your gift and calling is so important. You, my shepherds, are the hearts of our body who love us well. You are the shoulders we cry on when we are hurting. You are the hands that feed us and care for us. You matter so much.      

But being a shepherd can also be hard. If you have the gift of shepherding, there are challenges and frustrations that you may have. Today, I Invite you to consider those frustrations and how you can care for yourself as you care for others. 

Being Taken Advantage Of

Our shepherds sometimes get taken for granted.  Your kind heart means you will care for people again and again, sometimes to the point of being manipulated. When you feel burned, your soft heart can start to grow hard.  

What can you do when this happens?

One important reminder for our shepherds is that you are allowed to set limits. You carry a special burden to care for others, but God has not asked you to call for all the people, all the time, in all the ways. You can ask someone to call you back later when you need a break. You can say “no” when someone is asking too much.You can admit when you are exhausted. 

Feeling Guilty

In my experience, our shepherds can feel a lot of guilt, a lot of the time. Instead of seeing all the things they ARE doing, they can see only the things they are not. They feel bad for not visiting every person, not making more meals, not sending more cards or messages. I get it. This is where I remind our shepherds to remember: Guilt is NOT from God. God may lay people on your heart, but feeling shame or failure for not doing enough is not God’s voice. When the guilt comes, pause and talk to Jesus. Let God remind you that you are loved, simply because you are you.

Burn Out

Shepherds can often experience burn out.  Many shepherds serve in emotionally exhausting fields. Some of them spend all day doing child protection for our most vulnerable. Some of them spend their days counselling people and absorbing THEIR needs.  Beyond their work, shepherds then often have friends and family who need them too.

If you are a burnt out shepherd, one invitation is to observe rhythms of life. Take a day off a week, and let it be a true day off. Intentionally set time aside that you do not answer a phone or care for others. Take your vacations.  

Frustration with Bureaucracy

Shepherds can find systems, procedures and policies really frustrating. “Why can’t we just give extra food to that family at the food bank? So what if they’ve already been this month!” “Why do we have to make things so complicated – let’s just HELP people!” “Why do we have to follow Plan to Protect – I just want to help children!”  

These are valid frustrations. For a shepherd, the person comes first. This sometimes means that rules and systems feel like they are in the way.  But as shepherds, we must remember this is not always the case. Sometimes our desire to thwart the system for one ends up causing bigger harm to others.  

Let’s use the food bank example. Let’s say the loving shepherd gives in and gives that one family an extra box of food, even though they were only supposed to get one a month.The next day, 30 families show up asking for their box of food, having heard from others that exceptions can be made. We can go down a ton of rabbit trails of where this can lead, but sometimes as shepherds we need to make peace with the structures put in place. What can help is to stop and consider how the big picture HELPS people instead of focusing on how it doesn’t.  

How Can we Love Our Shepherds? 

Perhaps you are realizing that you are not a shepherd, but you can quickly see people in your life who are. You have a role here as well, to consider how you can support and value the shepherds around you.  

Thank Them

Let those who care for you know you are grateful for them. Say “thank you.” 

Let Them Off the Hook

It’s easy to keep going back to our shepherds again and again when we need them. Sometimes they need us to let them off the hook, and say “You don’t have to help me right now.” 

Learn From Them

We need the voice of shepherds. We need shepherds helping us remember people and their needs. It can be easy for some of us to simply say “This is how it has to be!”  Shepherds will remind us – people need to be loved. We need them to remind us of the one child who is hurting, the person who may be impacted by a new system, the ways that people can get overlooked. 

Let me end by saying to our shepherds:  Thank you!  You are important to us, and we love you. Thank you for looking after us, looking out for us, and loving us. We hope you will also look after you! 

Next week we will talk about those who are equipped to be TEACHERS.  You can get updates on new posts by clicking “follow” here. 

“Nobody Cares About Me” (And Other Reasons People Don’t Call You When You’ve Missed Church)

“Why didn’t anyone call me?”

I have heard this question more times than I can count in my 14 years as a pastor. I’ve heard this question from people who were part of our church anywhere from 3 weeks to 30 years.  I have heard this question from people who show up at our church, as an explanation for why they are looking for a new church home. I have heard this question coming out of my own mouth. 

It is a question that often carries a lot of hurt behind it, and the conclusions we come to about the answer can have big consequences. Sometimes our conclusions will lead to us carrying hurt for many years.  Sometimes they will lead to us leaving a church community for good.

There may be a number of reasons that nobody called (or texted, or messaged, or sent you a carrier pigeon) when you missed church, some of which might surprise you.  Let’s talk about them.

Option One: Nobody Cares About You

This is, of course, a viable possibility. It is possible that the reason no one has contacted you is because nobody actually cares about you.  It is possible that you don’t matter much to your church and you aren’t missed at all. It is possible that people DID notice you were gone and didn’t care one twit about it. 

My experience is that this is usually the default conclusion people make when they step back from their church and don’t hear from anybody.  I can totally see the logic in leaving a church for good if you felt this was the case, and indeed sometimes it is.

But what if that is not actually the reason?  What if there are other options, such as…

Option Two: No One REALIZED You Had Been “Away”

Did you know that today “regular” church attendance is considered attending three services out of every eight?  This means that even if you break this mode, and attend every single Sunday, most people around you are not. This means that it has become really hard to notice when people are “gone” and not just “not there.” 

Let me show you what I mean. 

Let’s say there are two people – Nancy and Jared.  They both attend somewhat regularly – let’s even say FIVE out of eight weeks – and they usually chat and sit together.  Now let’s say that Jared is going through a really hard time and doesn’t go to church for all five of those weeks. And Nancy doesn’t contact him!!  Why? Is it because she doesn’t care???

Well, the first two weeks he wasn’t there Nancy was away herself.  She was visiting some family. The next two weeks she came and Jared wasn’t there, but she didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t strange at all for Jared to miss a week or two, and, besides, she figures that he was there the weeks that she wasn’t. Then Nancy is away another week – she is sick.  She comes back, but again, she assumes Jared was probably there the week she missed. Then two more weeks pass and still no Jared. It is likely only then that she starts to think to herself: “I wonder if everything is okay with Jared.” At this point she pops him a message on Instagram, to which he replies: “I can’t believe you didn’t contact me!!  I haven’t been at church for SEVEN weeks, and you JUST noticed? I guess you don’t care.” 

See how it happens?

It may not be that people don’t care – it may be that people simply haven’t put the pieces together that you are GONE and not just “away.”  

Option Three: The Church has Gotten Bigger

The above story might logically lead you to then say:  “Well, at least the pastor should notice. The pastor is there every week.”  Fair enough. However, I can speak from experience, that if your church is getting bigger, it gets harder and harder for pastors to keep track of EVERYONE in the church.  Our church, for example, has about 350 people that call us home. That is a lot of people to remember and notice when they have been gone (while noticing if it’s just been more than the usual number of weeks that they are away…). I would LOVE to be able to notice everyone who steps back and reach out, but sometimes I simply can’t keep track. Which brings me to my next point…

Option Four: You are Not Connected or Involved

You may be hurt that no one noticed that you are gone, but it may be that you were, honestly, never very connected.  If you have not joined a small group, been part of ministry, or served in any way then it IS harder to build relationships with people that would have a chance to notice you are gone besides the pastor.  To be noticed, you need relationships with people who would notice you.

Option Five: People Feel Awkward

A few years ago our church tried to address this issue by putting everyone in a group of three – the idea was that if you noticed someone in your group of three was away that you would reach out to them, or at least let a pastor know that they had been away or needed support. 

I am sorry to say that this was a TOTAL BUST. 

I was stunned when I would hear people say: “My person hasn’t been there for a long time.” “Did you contact them?” I would ask.  “Oh no,” many would answer, “I didn’t want it to be awkward.” 

I discovered that some people really find this a difficult thing to do.  They feel like it will look like they are “checking up” on people. They are shy. They don’t want to make people feel bad.  I have been stunned by how many people DO notice people are away and just don’t act on it. 

It may be that you are noticed and missed, but people you know simply aren’t the type to call you up about it. 

(Also, there are some generational differences here.  I have been told by many of our younger church members that being called when they are away makes them feel guilty. They don’t feel loved – they feel like they have let people down.  For them, the idea of calling people to see why they haven’t been at church is 100% rude and weird. If you’re away, they may be trying to RESPECT you by not tracking you down).

Option Six: Different Expectations

A number of years ago a woman came to our church who had moved to the area and left a church she had been in for many years.  She went through a difficult time, and I heard from her that she was “very hurt” that more people from church hadn’t visited her.  At the time, we had a team that did a lot of visiting for elderly people in our church. When our team met, I learned that someone had visited her EVERY week that month!   What did she mean that “nobody” visited her? 

Later I talked to someone from her old church. That church was very small and deeply connected. When someone was sick, you know how many times someone visited? EVERY DAY. 

No wonder she felt let down!  We had totally different expectations of what being “connected” meant! 

If you are joining a church, it may be wise to discover how they address people being away, pastoral needs, etc.  It could be good to know if you can expect a visit from the pastor if you’ve been sick, or how much people who’ve been way have follow up.   

You may also want to consider if you have realistic expectations of your church.  Are you expecting someone to visit every day? That is very rare.  Are you expecting to hear from everyone at your church? That is also unlikely.   Maybe your church has felt they cared for you better than it felt to you…

 

These are just a few options as to why you might not hear from people when you’ve been away from your church. I haven’t even mentioned that people might not know how to contact you (does your church have your contact info?), that they may be trying to give you space, or that they don’t get your status updates in their Facebook feed when you passively aggressively share that you miss your church. 

Why did I write this post? Because I grieve the hurt that people feel when they assume their church doesn’t care about them.  It is even more sad when that assumption is not true. That’s why today, if you have felt unloved or forgotten by your church, I invite you to consider what you could do to address options 2-6. 

Reach out to a friend or a pastor and TELL them you’ve been away and ask to talk.  Get more involved so that you form deeper connections. Show up more than 3 out of 8 worship services a month.  Let people know how you would like to receive care, and then talk about if it’s reasonable together. Make sure the church has your contact info!  

Most of all, don’t give up too quickly. The hurt of feeling forgotten is real, but it may be a hurt based on things that aren’t true.  Before you despair, check out all the options. You may be loved more than you realized.