Where were you when you realized the world was changing in front of your eyes?
Strangely enough, for me and my family, it was Disneyland. Just two days before they closed the gates, we were walking around the Magic Kingdom. It feels so long ago now, but at the time, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to avoid the notoriously long lines, considering the growing fear of this “coronavirus” thing and the predicted rain in the forecast. Anything to keep the crowds away, right?
The fact is, you’re on a journey over which you have zero control, and all you can really do is hang on and brace for what’s next.
I must confess, though, it was a weird day. The irony of being at the “Happiest Place on Earth” while, with each passing hour, the “real world” just outside grew darker and darker was not lost on us, and the rain only added to the foreboding. Not even Indiana Jones, a churro and the cheery music looping through the speakers could keep me from looking at my phone every 90 seconds to learn of another piece of everyday American life grinding to a screeching halt: the NBA, spring training and then… churches?
As the district superintendent of EFCA West with barely three months of experience under my belt, I was at a bit of a loss. So, while we waited in line for Smugglers Run (the new ride where you get to fly the Millennium Falcon!), I pulled out my phone and texted every pastor in our district that I could: Hey, praying for you as you lead through this. I didn’t really know what else to say, but I knew that “Mickey says hi!’” felt a little tone-deaf at the time.
Of course, when we finally got on Smugglers Run, it turned out to be a fitting foreshadow of the days and weeks to come. As opposed to the “old-school” roller coaster, Smugglers Run is a video-based experience. Everyone gets a little joystick to move around that is designed to give you the illusion of control. The fact is, though, you’re on a journey over which you have zero control, and all you can really do is hang on and brace for what’s next.
Thus, the past six weeks. From my perspective in my new role with EFCA West, the response of our pastors and leaders has been nothing short of remarkable. While it is impossible to know where we are headed, here are four areas we must pay attention to if we are to successfully navigate this journey:
The mission continues regardless of the method. In the midst of this unique time, let’s not forget who we are and the family of which we’re all a part: the Evangelical Free Church of America. That name is packed with meaning.
As evangelicals we are, by definition, messengers of good news. It’s a beautiful thing to get up on a Sunday morning and tune into dozens of EFCA pastors speaking truth into the camera and lifting the souls of anxious, weary people with the boundless message of God’s redeeming grace through Jesus. In this time of uncertainty, a tapestry of voices rings far beyond the brick and mortar walls of our churches, finding their way into the living rooms of men and women across America and around the world!
On top of evangelicalism, we are also free. In our heritage, we have an entrepreneurial impulse to be creative about how we do ministry. Within our own context and community, the Spirit leads us to determine the best ways to accomplish the mission of God. The fact is, every church is in uncharted territory amid COVID-19. In light of that, every church, regardless of its age, needs to think like a church plant. Every EFCA leader must ask: What systems/structures have we relied on in the past that might be getting in the way of us doing effective ministry now? That is part of what it means to be free!
The coals stay warm when they are close together. On several occasions, EFCA President Kevin Kompelein has said one of our greatest strengths as a movement is our ability to convene. That is now more important than ever. And while online exhaustion is real—it’s very easy to get “Zoomed-out”—not all Zoom calls and webinars are alike. Content does not necessarily equal connection. So, for the past four weeks, our district (and others as well) has been bringing together district pastors and church leaders in what we’ve called, Wednesday Webinars, to connect around content that is relevant to all of us.
As a leader, I need to find ways to create and sustain spiritual, physical and emotional energy so that I can be the best for those around me.
Through those weekly connections, we’re starting to see a core of leaders learning together through this crisis—and it’s exciting. Through conversations with Mark Lewis of EFCA Crisis Response and Chris Brown from North Coast Church, thematic elements of leadership are emerging and tying us together despite our geographic and cultural distance. The strength of our movement—which may not seem as “necessary” when you’ve got it all figured out on your own—has emerged with a fresh vitality that we now experience on a weekly basis. Whatever you do, don’t isolate.
You can’t give what you don’t have. In one of our Wednesday Webinars, Chris Brown challenged us not to burn out in an attempt to “reinvent ourselves” during a crisis. Many of us were impacted by this message. We’re all experiencing the fatigue of this “new normal”—with kids home from school, long lines and shortages at the grocery store, and the underlying fear of the impact of this terrible disease. While we need to lead well, this doesn’t mean we do so at the expense of our own personal health or the well-being of our families.
We’re on the ride of our lives and all we can really do is hang on. But that’s okay, because God’s got us.
For me, one of the first priorities I wrote down on the giant Post-It note stuck to the wall of the dining room I commandeered for my office was this: Cultivate Energy. As a leader, I need to find ways to create and sustain spiritual, physical and emotional energy so that I can be the best for those around me. As President Kompelien said in his “Partners with the President” e-newsletter from this month:
“What we do comes out of who we are. If we want to invest in the lives of others, we must first invest in our own lives.”
No matter what tomorrow brings, we serve a God who is able to strengthen us for the journey. At the entrance to Disneyland, there is a plaque that reads:
“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.”
In that sense, Walt Disney was right—we left “today” and we never got it back. And we’re not even sure where we are going. But we’re in good company.
Paul, who faced his share of uncertainty, confidently writes:
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Phil. 4:12–13)
Like Paul, we’re on the ride of our lives and all we can really do is hang on. But that’s okay, because God’s got us. He’s given us a mission, and He’s given us each other. So here we go!
In the next article in this series, Bill Riedel, EFCA Board of Directors and lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church (EFCA) in Washington D.C., provides a pastor's perspective on leading through and beyond COVID-19.