It was not a question I ever expected; it was not a question I ever thought I’d have to answer.
A half-week into the COVID-19 lockdown, I ended an email to a pastor with the phrase, “Let me know if I can do anything for you in this crazy season.” I didn’t expect a reply; if I’m fully honest, the phrase was simply a formality for me — something one is supposed to say. So imagine my shock when, not three minutes later, a one-line reply hit my inbox:
“How do I know I am leading well when there aren’t existing playbooks…or litmus tests for a time like this?” The question stopped me in my tracks.
Leading People When We Can’t Go Near People
The pastoral calling is so obviously people-focused! When we see a spiritual realization light up someone’s face, we feel we’re leading well. When a gathering has more people than the previous week, or a new small group is launched, or we get to carry out baptism or initiate communion, we feel we’re leading well. When team morale, building use, or financial giving is strong, we feel we’re leading well. Heck, we even feel we’re leading well when the elderly man whose slept through weekly sermons for the past five years shakes our hand on Sunday and says, “Good word, kid.” It feels good.
So what do we do when all those things vanish? How do we know we’re leading well when we don’t know what to prioritize, when we have little human interaction, when no one can see?
I don’t think this is a comprehensive list, but after some prayer and reflection, here are six questions to consider, as an “introspective checklist” to help know, even in isolation, we’re still leading well. A few are more about our roles; the others are more about our souls.
1. Are our people being connected, communicated with, and cared for?
There are lots of tasks, roles, and duties involved in church leadership — but the banner under which they all fall is Peter’s charge, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). I happen to have raised sheep as a kid, so I know that shepherding looks different moment by moment: we would exercise, feed, water, bathe, administer medicine, and more to our flock (and even help birth lambs).
Similarly, in some moments, shepherding God’s flock might involve making a counseling call, preparing or preaching a (recorded) sermon, meeting a need, sending out missionary support, or more. As long as we are spending our days consistently creating ways for our flocks to be well-shepherded — known and cared for, communicated with and connected — we can trust that we’re leading well.
2. Are our staff and leaders clear on their roles, and are they being equipped and deployed into a new version of front-line discipleship?
For some leaders, a tendency in crisis is to pull everything onto their plate, and try to do everything on their own. On one hand this could stem from simply wanting to have a big-picture view of everything going on; on the other it could remind us of tendencies toward pride and/or control. Every believer is gifted and called to steward their gifting well for God’s glory and purpose. In all seasons, part of leading is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). And in seasons that feel more urgent, people are generally more willing to lend their hand and serve well — it’s part of a wartime mentality.
Whether staff whose roles need clarity in a digital ministry strategy, or group leaders who need to be equipped with new strategies for online discipleship, our churches are armies ready to serve the vision, strategy, and implementation of ministry and mission. As we release control, equip and deploy people, and build up the body to make and mature disciples, we lead well.
3. Are we filling the extra time (from canceled meetings, no commutes, etc.) with busyness, or with prayerfulness?
One of the most common stereotypes of pastors is that we are “fix-it” people. In this season, we have moments in our day that otherwise would have been filled. The thing is, we will still fill each of them — but with what? My own tendencies are to open social media, check a news site, or squeeze in a quick call or email. I’m guessing yours are similar. I was challenged a few years ago by an age-old concept “liturgy of the hours.” Among others, Benedictine monks would pray every three hours during the day, plus at dawn, sundown, and 2am vigils. Varied versions of this exist today, sometimes on the hour, or in “transition moments” (e.g. start of workday, noon, end of workday, bedtime), etc.
Here’s the point: Jesus calls all Christians to “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4). Can church leaders become examples of abiding well and leading others in this, even if others never know our prayer? In the thirty minutes we would have been in a car, or in the hour when that meeting got canceled, what fills that time? To be clear, maybe these times need to go toward ministry activity — see #1 above — but for many of us (and not just while we’re in quarantine!), would we lead better if we spent more time with our God and Father, even on behalf of our people (1 Timothy 2:1)?
4. Are we being faithful to a new rhythm of work and rest?
This question is similar to #3, but if prayerfulness during moments is a specific practice, it’s worth considering a more general principle, of leading well by pursuing both work and rest. I’ve worked from home for many years, at least a few days of the week. Working from home only adds to the already-blurred lines of always-accessible emails, texts, and phone alerts. There is no longer a clear-cut moment of leaving an office, decompressing on a drive home, and turning up the “family knob” of our lives… But interestingly, working from home was more the reality than our modern work rhythm, when God initially instituted Sabbath among his people!
In ancient Israel and every agrarian society, work happened at home. Home was work. From dawn to dusk, the whole family would pitch in to sow, till, plant, harvest, pull weeds, care for animals, and so forth. They rarely left their homesteads. But for meals, holidays, and when sundown came, they stopped. And for God’s people, they ceased from that rhythm one out of every seven days. Christians today are not bound to a specific 24-hour period, but we — and maybe pastors above others — tend to use that fact to justify workaholism. If that’s true for you in general, it’s likely even greater in a time that feels uncertain and urgent. But “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Rest is a gift! God designed Sabbath specifically for His people, to steward not to squander!
Here’s an even harder reality. This principle is as true daily as it is weekly: God made our bodies (and our souls) to need sleep, meals, holidays, disconnection, and daily rhythms of work and rest. When we lock our phones away, we model self-control. When we are not accessible 24/7, we teach people to turn to God rather than even the false savior of their pastor. When we keep to a daily schedule, which includes diligently filling the work hours expected by our elders as well as ceasing from that work (which should also be expected by our elders), we lead well.
5. Are we caring for our souls and families well so that we can care for others and theirs?
Every flight you’ve ever been on has included the same announcement: “In case of an emergency, place your own oxygen mask on first, then you may turn and help others.” Sadly, many pastors ignore this advice on a spiritual level. If we believe Peter’s words that we serve “among the flock” (1 Peter 5:2), then friends, we are sheep before we are shepherds; we’re humans before we are pastors. We are called to be “examples to the flock” (5:3), and one of the qualifications to lead the household of God is wise leadership of our literal households (1 Timothy 3:4-5). What if God would have us give greater time in this unique season to our own personal spiritual lives and to the discipleship of our families?
Every year I get a few days by a lake with a group of pastors who I know and trust deeply. Over many years, they have cried with me, rebuked me, encouraged me, and I with them. We have a lot of fun, and we point each other to God. One thing we have done in those annual gatherings is read through Paul’s pastoral epistles, as a check of our own souls and spiritual lives. Are we, “O [men] of God,… pursu[ing] righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” in our own lives, or just calling our people to these things? Are we “fight[ing] the good fight of the faith, or are there places we’re putting on a facade? Do we “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses,” or is our own hope withering? (The quotes are from 1 Timothy 6:11-12.) Are we loving our families, seeing our wives, discipling our children, and creating space for spirituality, ministry, and mission to thrive in our own homes, or do we just preach these things from our pulpits?
Fellow leaders, this is a season we can ask those questions, and focus on our own souls and families. When we “hunger and thirst for righteousness, [we] will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Only when God fills us, can we rightly be “poured out,” like Paul, for the benefit of others (Philippians 2:17). We can lead well as examples to the flock in these areas, even when we’re sequestered from that flock. We lead well as we care for our own souls and families.
6. Are we working as unto the Lord in a season where human affirmation is virtually impossible?
A theme throughout the Scriptures is that any work we do, we do for God. God designed work before the Fall in Eden (Genesis 1:28ff): “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Our deepest hope at the end of each day and at the end of that lifelong race is to hear Jesus commend us, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful… Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21). This may be the hardest box to check as we wonder if we’re leading well when no one sees: are we working for the approval of man, or the glory of God?
After all, as we “work heartily…for the Lord,” we objectively “know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward” and that “you are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24). As we “run [our races] with endurance,” we do so “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) — at lest we know that’s what we’re supposed to do. But for some of us, has even our pastoral ministry become “people-pleas[ing]” rather than “rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Ephesians 6:6-7)? Do we preach, equip, pray, plan so that our platforms and churches can grow? Is it possible that we have unintentionally slipped into “worship[ping] and serv[ing] the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25)? We lead well when we remember that — to quote a cheesy phrase I heard in the late 1990’s — we have an audience of One.
I wrote above that the pastoral calling is obviously people-focused. This is true, but sisters and brothers, our caring is not people-defined. We lead well when we remember that even our ministry is “from him and through him and to him… To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
My Own Gut-Punch
I wrote this as much for myself as for anyone else. I needed this introspection this week. I find myself among the many leaders who have asked similar questions in this season: “How do I know I’m leading well when I don’t know what to prioritize?” “How do I know I’m leading well when there’s no weekly gathering, staff meetings, or in-person contact at all?” Or most poignantly, “How do I know I’m leading well when no one can see?”
In the first week of quarantine, I discovered that my definition of “peace” and “rest” was found in my ability to control, produce, manage outcomes, and order my life. None of that feels possible in this season! In this season, I’m finally forced to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10)! As I strive even more in my own strength, I definitely do not lead well.
But God tells us that “peace” and “rest” — thus, good leadership — is actually found in relying on Him: letting go (because He is in control and He builds His Church), receiving (because He loves His children and gives good gifts), trusting God (who is always good and true), and seeking His will for each hour and day (because ours is to seek first His kingdom, while His is to meet us and provide daily bread for each day’s cares). Fellow leaders, rest (of action and mind) is a declaration of dependence.
One definition of integrity is doing the same thing when people cannot see us, and when they can. Many of the questions above deal with things that no one will ever see. So leading well in this season (and in every season) has a lot to do with integrity. For our roles, it’s when we seek God and steward all our daily hours and God’s people, that we lead well. For our souls, it’s when we look to Christ and apply His gospel and rest in His promises in all circumstances that we lead well. I’m sure this little checklist is incomplete. But I pray it helps us all breathe a little and find some freedom in the lies we might be believing. And I hope it gives us space to pause, to think, and even to reset if needed, as we consider how to lead well when no one can see us.
You aren’t alone as you navigate this unique season of life and ministry. We are in this together.
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