Pastors and ministry leaders, I want to start by sharing something painful with you. Words you don’t want to hear, but you need to hear if you’re going to have a better 2022:
THEY’RE NOT COMING BACK.
During the pandemic, nearly every church I’ve spoken to has experienced declines in their quantifiable metrics. But the most painful of those often significant declines is in attendance. Less people are going to church in-person. Period. There certainly are anomalies, but those churches are the exceptions that prove the rule. The people you’re waiting on to come back so you can “get back to normal” aren’t coming.
Now that I’ve ruined your day, let me share the good part: the sooner you embrace this reality, the better your life will be. Expecting things to be the way they were at your church, particularly butts in seats, is an unhealthy expectation because it is at odds with reality. These unhealthy expectations will kill your motivation, wound your emotional health and drive you into the deep, dark waters of burnout, depression and anxiety.
I know, because I’ve spent the better part of 2 years wrestling with my own unhealthy expectations and toxic positivity.
And it has been dark.
In my journey, I’ve seen the road to this new reality littered with the bodies of pastors and ministry leaders who have collapsed under the weight of the false hope attached to their own expectations. It’s so hard to let go of what we thought life would be, but absolutely necessary to move forward.
The advice that has been the best reminder for me in my struggle comes from Brene Brown. In her podcast and other interviews, Brown’s advice for navigating our pandemic reality has been to "reality-check our expectations: We're not going to do this well, we don't know what we're doing."
Ouch! At first, that hurt. Mostly my pride, because I thought, “of course, I know what I’m doing… I’m a pastor! I’m going to help lead people out of this pandemic and thrive in this unprecedented time.” That pride has made me weary and more disillusioned, while Brown’s words have become wiser and encouraging. We have to reality-check (read: LOWER) our expectations because we’ve never done this before. This is NEW.
Realistic expectations are an act of self-care, particularly in this chaotic COVID world. In ministry, the burdens we place on ourselves can be an almost insurmountable barrier to the joy and contentment we seek. Never more so than now. This is what NEW looks like. This is the way to what God promises to do in us and through us. In Isaiah 43:18-19, the prophet writes:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
For God to do a new thing, the old thing must be left behind.
For new dreams to flourish, the old dreams have to die.
This is painful because loss hurts. Particularly in this COVID season of such overwhelming loss and grief. But when we let go of these unhealthy expectations, we can embrace the new reality that God is creating right now. One that will feel like an illuminated path to the lost and a refreshing stream in the desert to those that thirst. Our responsibility as pastors and ministry leaders is to go there first and guide the way for our people. Not because we’re superior Christians or spiritual, though. We need God’s New Thing just as much as our people.
I’m still in the midst of my COVID reality-check. I haven’t come through the other side of the journey yet… but I do feel better. I have to let go of the past and those unhealthy expectations if I want to embrace God’s New Thing. There’s not room for both in our lives.
Perhaps you can’t see God’s New Thing, but I assure it’s there. When we allow ourselves to lay down our expectations, we’ll find direction and quench the thirst of spiritual drought within us and in our communities. So, let go with me.