Shortly after the onset of the Covid-19 Pandemic, a friend who has spent years working in Disaster Relief in Recovery remarked to me that they expected a major vocational transition among ministry leaders in the years following.
The basis for the prediction was their experience that 50% of pastors in an area hit by a major disaster often moved to a new location in the ensuing years. The theory was that at least one out of every two ministry leaders simply could not absorb the impact of ministering through such a period of intensity.
Of course, the circumstances of the last few years are enhanced by the fact that the “disaster” has been prolonged, and the implications have been much more extensive and all-encompassing. Each and every day the cultural shifts that were initiated in the last few years have become more apparent and they present significant challenges to the church.
Leading during such periods requires certain characteristics that are not necessarily essential in other seasons. As I have both observed the last few years and considered the ones ahead, there are three characteristics of church leaders that will likely rise in importance in the days to come.
I cut my teeth in ministry in the area of church planting. If there is a handful of defining characteristics that make a fruitful church planter, tenacity is certainly among them. Simply put, you must have a willingness not to give up, to keep going, to keep fighting, to stay afloat, and to stay faith-filled. Now, tenacity is not the same as resilience. Resilience has been a much-discussed aspect of leadership over the last few years, but it has a major distinction in dimension. Resilience implies a capacity to hold your ground and not give up. In juxtaposition, tenacity is the will to keep moving forward in the midst of our resilience.
Having planted multiple churches myself, and having coached and catalyzed dozens of others, it has been my overwhelming experience that a tenacious love for the gospel and the power it can have in people’s lives is a requirement for not only surviving but thriving through the difficult and challenging obstacles of starting something from nothing. That same tenacity can also flow over into our will to keep taking new ground (or not conceding ground) in our efforts to bring to life a new community of faith.
For most of my career in ministry, I have cast a skeptical glance toward those that would make comments like “One day we might have to choose between going to jail and following Jesus.” I can remember when Andrew Jones first made that comment in the early 2000s; such a thing seemed implausible to me. However, in the year 2023, such comments, while still seeming a stretch, no longer feel like the leap they would have even been in 2019. Perhaps because of the political polarization in our nation, the co-opting of the church by ultra-right ideologies, or the unilateral activism based on secular progressive thinking, now even basic Orthodox beliefs and practices held by generous centrist-type evangelicals seem to be at odds with the social power structures of the day. Some church leaders have tended toward a posture of “relaxing” their previously held convictions in response. I see this particularly in areas related to human sexuality, but also related to core Christological beliefs. Just before Easter, I read a post by an Asbury Seminary graduate who was musing on the prospect of hope for those who did not enter the kingdom of God during their human living experience. Such views of course are not new as they are not far off from the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. However, what is striking is the lifting up of such beliefs as an apologetic to the wider world as a “backdoor” for historic Christian views on salvation. While there may indeed be a “backdoor” into the kingdom based on what we know about the abundant and confounding grace of God revealed in Jesus, as Dallas Willard would say, “it is surely not the gospel.” We should hold forth the gospel because the gospel is what we can have confidence in, the “backdoor” is merely a hopeful conjecture even if it is based on a heart of love. The church of the future that will be in existence will be in existence because of the gospel and nothing else and it is our responsibility to hold to Orthodoxy with conviction. After all, if church history teaches us anything, it is that Orthodoxy prevails.
The church leader of the future will quite simply need faith. This is not a day of ministry for the faint of heart. Even if we can’t recall it ourselves, we’ve heard plenty of stories about pastors who served on hospital boards, as the trustees of colleges, as advisors to mayors, and in other positions of influence and prestige in communities. When I first moved to Richmond, Virginia in the mid-2000s, the major local paper still gave out an award for “pastor of the year.” The role of the pastor in any community has always taken a certain level of faith, but for the most part, pastoral ministry over the last several decades has not required the “God providing, unless God acts” kind of faith we’ve been told stories about. For sure, every Christian leader has likely had some experience in their calling and career where God simply had to come through and they had to step out in faith, trusting that God would act on their behalf. But in the days to come I expect that kind of faith will be an ongoing, at least annual reality in some form or fashion. It is likely that we will experience more stories of pastoral ministry similar to the era of the frontier period in North America than the Post World War II period that has shaped so much of our ministry context and imagination. In truth, we will grow in our faith because we will need to see God act in power and provision more than we are currently accustomed to.
This is a short list and so much more will be required. Yet without these, whatever practical ministry skills we need or other elements of character and Christian formation that is required will be lost without these essential foundations.