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The Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t the first instance of collective grief that congregations around the world have experienced together.
There are congregations in the U.S. that have mourned alongside each other when a domestic terrorist attack happened in their community.
And congregations in China that have grieved the constant persecution their underground church has faced.
Although most pastors have probably helped many individuals walk through grief, the pandemic may be one of the first times they’ve been called on to shepherd an entire congregation through a tough time.
For every congregation walking through grief together—from deaths in their church to challenges in their city—there’s a pastor doing their best to lead them through it.
Along with processing their own grief, pastors wrestle with several questions about how to lead with compassion and discretion.
How can I tactfully recognize a sad season in the life of our church?
What’s the best way to support people without overwhelming them or making things worse?
Should I put on a strong front or be honest about my own distress? How honest?
We have a few best practices and suggestions for how to lead a congregation in a time of grief.
When people are grieving, it’s natural to want to gloss over the pain. Acknowledging pain can be uncomfortable and awkward.
But it’s essential for every church and its leaders.
Take the time to establish your theology of pain and suffering before a time of hardship happens. When you’re solid in what you believe about grief, you’re prepared to comfort a mourning congregation in a way that aligns with it. You’ll be able to lead from a place of wisdom and you won’t have to come up with a different, rushed response each time (which can be harmful).
The Covid-19 pandemic reminded us that death isn’t the only type of grief that a congregation might have to go through together.
We saw upticks in job loss, separation from their church community, depression, and more. There were protests, scandals, and political scenarios that also caused grief for many.
Churches can acknowledge the many different types of grief and help people walk through them with hope, encouragement, and support.
As a leadership team, work through ways to acknowledge grief. How will you recognize losses in the life of your congregation? How will you handle times of grief that affect one part of your congregation but not others? What type of action will you take if tragedy strikes? What type of statement are you willing to make?
With so many different kinds of grief, you’ll need to offer various types of support.
People have different needs when they’re grieving. While some may need spiritual encouragement or someone to talk with, others may also need tangible support.
Churches also have more knowledge than the average person about who in their congregation has gone through certain circumstances. Leaders can ask people who have experienced a similar kind of grief to reach out to someone who is currently experiencing it.
As a pastor, you may want to look put together and strong at all times. You may want to grieve every sad season of your life in private because you’re afraid that the congregation will view you as weak or unstable.
But you should also want the congregation to see that you’re human. In times of collective grief, it matters that the people in the audience on a Sunday morning know that the pastor leading them has grieved and will grieve with them.
That’s not to say that you have to make your entire personal life public and grieve everything in front of your congregation. But as the Holy Spirit leads, be open to sharing your own pain with your people. Let them comfort you. Let them see that you’ve been through hard times, too.
Being a leader who is honest about their personal grief will make all the difference when the congregation has to grieve together.
Surveying your congregation may seem like a brash way to handle grief, but it’s one of the most caring things you can do.
Don’t wait until a tragedy strikes to find out what your congregation would need in the time of one. When it comes to supporting a grieving congregation, it’s best not to assume what people need.
What do grieving people want you to know? What do people actually need in times of suffering? What was helpful for them in past times of grief and what wasn’t? How did they feel about your church’s response to a previous tough season for the congregation?
When you ask, you’ll find better ways to support your congregation when they’re grieving and your church will be better prepared to step in to help.
Churches have various follow-up processes to make sure first-time guests and givers don't fall through the cracks. We want to make sure that people know they’re welcomed and we’re punctual about thanking people for supporting the church financially (or at least we should be).
But what about following up with people who are grieving? Do we circle back around to make sure that those who are grieving have the support they need? Do we take care to make sure that they don’t fall through the cracks?
It’s vital for churches to plan follow-up communication for people who are grieving. Following up ensures that the grieving people in your congregation don’t feel forgotten or alone.
When an individual or family is grieving, make sure that they don’t just get one phone call expressing sympathy. Be ready to offer resources for dealing with the death of a loved one, support for job loss and job searching, etc.
When the congregation is grieving together, one email acknowledging the situation isn’t the most helpful. Follow up with ways the church is offering practical support. For example, if a mass shooting occurs in your community, acknowledge it with prayer and lament and follow up with trauma service recommendations and a list of what people can do to serve the families affected by the tragedy.
Flourish might be an unfamiliar word.
But when it comes to psychology, it’s a common term to bring definition to the well-being of a person.
In 2017, Harvard published a perspective piece on what is referred to in social psychology as “human flourishing.”
Flourishing moves beyond a state of happiness and your feelings about your life, and looks deeper into the roots of a healthy and fruitful life.
A: to achieve success: prosper
b: to be in a state of activity or production
c: to reach a height of development or influence
How do you know a person is flourishing? What factors play into it?
The perspective piece found that there were 5 Prominent Pathways of Human Flourishing:
Likely, your team is flourishing in their faith. Our faith is a firm foundation in difficult times, and no one can argue that the past couple of years have had their fair share of difficulty.
If your team is struggling with Faith, they are likely working through deep theological questions and considering their belief system. We are well into a post-Christian culture, and opposing views and deconstruction are rapidly gaining popularity.
Ask your team:
If your team is struggling with relationships, they may feel lonely, discontent with the connections they have or frustrated with a change of activities available to them.
There are many aspects to a struggle with relationships. It could be wrestling with their marriage, singleness, people may have lost friends/family members to political divides, or general family issues have grown or showed themselves were previously hidden.
“From April to September 2020, among people who screened with moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety or depression, 70 percent reported that one of the top three things contributing to their mental health concerns was loneliness or isolation.”
While connections at work are helpful, it’s often the connections outside of work that are the most impactful. Consider creating some space for your team to connect with their family and friends. If you have married staff members, you could hold or send them to marriage “retreats”. Consider how you are supporting your staff members who are single.
Ask your team:
The average tenure for a pastor is on average, 3.6 to 6 years. And that was in 2018. Recent years have certainly created a strain on pastors and church staff in particular. It’s no wonder that your staff may be feeling the weight, more than ever, of their role and question its sustainability.
If your team is struggling with their vocation, perhaps it isn’t “what they thought it would be” or it’s taken an unhealthy toll on their lives and their families.
If this is an area that your staff is struggling with, likely they are:
Ask your team:
When we’re stressed and stuck with our finances, it affects every area of our lives. While it would be nice to just throw a pile of money at someone who is wrestling with finances, that’s usually not an option (nor is it what will truly help them in most scenarios).
As finances are intensely personal, it can be a sensitive conversation. Consider offering a financial planner as an employee benefit (you may find someone willing to volunteer certain services). You can also point them to free resources like a podcast or a website to help them manage their money and plan for their future.
Ask your team:
If your team is struggling with health, it could be physical or mental. While physical health can often be easier to spot, mental health is more easily concealed. The year 2020 saw a 93% increase in anxiety screenings and a 60% increase in depression screenings.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. It’s vital that our team is flourishing both physically and mentally.
When talking to your team about health, aim for non-judgemental questions and more than anything, listen.
Ask your team:
Leading people is one of the most difficult tasks of pastoral leadership.
In our free guide, The Senior Pastor’s Guide to Leading Staff, you'll learn how to clarify the roles and goals of those that you lead, get tips for leading more effective, productive meetings, and work on becoming a better leader yourself so you can lead others at a higher level.
A lack of feedback can make even the most motivated staff member start to feel discouraged or disgruntled.
That’s just one reason why effective staff evaluations are crucial for church teams. You can work toward the most important mission in the world—as churches do—and still feel disconnected when you receive little to no feedback, encouragement, clarity, or direction.
One main aspect of your role as a leader is to help your team flourish. One way to do that is to develop your team through training. Completing staff evaluations for each team member helps you know where to focus your efforts and how to set everyone up for success based on their ministry goals and individual strengths.
But goals, objectives, and strengths aren’t the only areas that staff evaluations need to cover.
When most people think of doing evaluations for their church staff, we think of setting goals and reviewing accomplishments. The Quarterly Staff Review Form in our Resource Library covers these areas and more, so we understand the importance of reviewing past and future goals in staff evaluations.
The most effective staff evaluations go below the surface. They include discussions about alignment and uncover deeper insights that help your church’s leadership understand who your team members are and where they fit in. They help you pastor your team and monitor their progress in a customized way that makes the most sense for their role.
So, for your next round of church staff evaluations, consider covering these four key areas with your team.
When you’re not the ones preaching on Sundays or leading connection groups, it can be challenging for many church staff members to see how their role pushes the church’s mission forward.
In staff evaluations, take the time to break down how each person’s role on the team helps the church with the greater purpose and mission. Discuss both their role and their personal alignment with the mission.
Sometimes church leaders don’t find out that staff members are in the wrong role or aren’t working to their strengths until it’s too late. They find out when a significant ball is dropped on a project or they resign from their position.
If a staff member doesn’t identify with their role, they can start to feel jaded and you’ll notice morale getting lower. It might be time for them to transition off of the church staff or, if possible, into a role on staff that better suits their gifts and skillset.
It’s much easier to catch dissatisfaction before anything catastrophic happens if a discussion about alignment with their role is included in their evaluation. Even if they’re doing an “okay” job, they might dread coming to work every day because they’re in a role that doesn’t fit them. You may never know (or find out too late) if you don’t ask.
Imagine this scenario. You may have even seen it before.
A church staff member experiences a mental breakdown, intense spiritual struggles, or moral failings. At that point, leaders ask, “How could we have not seen this coming? What signs did we miss?” or they say, “But he or she was excelling at their job!”
When we only evaluate a staff member’s work performance and not their personal and spiritual health—especially in a church environment—we’ll miss signs of burnout, spiritual weakness, and health concerns.
Some of your team’s star employees will accidentally work themselves to the bone and end up in the hospital or neglect their families in the name of serving the church. Some will sacrifice their personal health and spiritual health, going through the motions of Christianity and only plugging into the church to do their job.
When you do staff evaluations, cover personal and spiritual health too. Make sure that your team knows that their relationship with God comes first and that they’re only expected to serve out of genuine love for and connection with the Church.
We often ask every staff member the same questions to evaluate how they’re doing in their role. Or even worse, we don’t ask any questions and just hope everyone is doing alright in Jesus’ name.
Not only should work performance matter in church settings, but our evaluation of performance should include key performance indicators that are specific to each ministry area.
These performance indicators hold team members accountable and help them reach their goals. If goals and objectives are unique to each ministry in the church, performance metrics should be too.
Leading people is one of the most difficult tasks of pastoral leadership. The Senior Pastor’s Guide to Leading Staff will help you lead yourself so that you can better lead the people on your team.
Occasionally, we find time to dive into the “why” questions that help us re-focus on our purpose and mission.
But some of the most important questions we can answer are “who” questions.
This advice is primarily written to business leaders looking to take a company from good to great, but listen to how Jim Collins frames the challenge:
“The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, “Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.
The good-to-great leaders understood three simple truths. First, if you begin with “who,” rather than “what,” you can more easily adapt to a changing world. If people join the bus primarily because of where it is going, what happens if you get ten miles down the road and you need to change direction? You’ve got a problem. But if people are on the bus because of who else is on the bus, then it’s much easier to change direction: “Hey, I got on this bus because of who else is on it; if we need to change direction to be more successful, fine with me.” Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. The right people don’t need to be tightly managed or fired up; they will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and to be part of creating something great. Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company.”
As a pastor or church leader, this should resonate with you and challenge you. Instead of coming down from the mountain like Moses and attempting to vision-cast your way toward momentum, focus on building a team (even a small team will do) of leaders who are committed to figuring out the answers to important questions.
If you have the right people around you, you can lead your church to change, start the right programs and ministries, and adapt when culture changes. If you have the right people on the bus, they will help you steer it in the right direction toward accomplishing your mission.
Collins goes on to say that one of the most important questions the leader of an organization can ask and answer is this: What percentage of the right seats are filled with the right people?
Let’s talk more about why developing people is worth your time.
It’s easy to allow the stuff of ministry, things like planning services and running programs, to keep you from relationships with the very people you’re designing those services and programs for.
But just like people development is one of your biggest barriers to growth, developing people provides one of your biggest opportunities.
After all, it’s people who will run those programs.
It’s people who will lead those projects.
It’s people who will plan every service.
You might even argue that people, not programs, buildings, or services, are at the heart of ministry. Dave Rhodes asks a poignant question:
“If 80% of your church's time, energy, and effort goes into making Sunday morning happen, is it a church or a production company?”
Every service is an opportunity to lift up the name of Jesus. Every small group is a chance to help someone take the next step. Every event affords us the opportunity to minister to people.
But let’s not forget that people run programs designed to reach people.
When you have people to lead programs, you can have better programs. When you have the right people leading ministries, your ministries will be more effective.
Ephesians 4:11-12 is a familiar verse for pastors and church leaders, describing how Christ gave the church leaders in order “to equip his people for works of service.”
Pastors and church leaders are not supposed to do all of the work of the ministry; they are supposed to develop, disciple, and equip others to do so.
These words from Paul were actually modeled by Jesus, who invested the best years of his ministry into developing a small group of disciples who would ultimately spread the gospel beyond the region.
This seems counter-cultural today, where the fastest-growing churches are recognized by the size of the crowds.
It was counter-cultural in Jesus’ time as well.
“When other rabbis then and teachers now build a platform, Jesus built a pipeline, and his impact was inconceivably greater,” writes Will Mancini in Future Church.
In a world of social media followings and YouTube sermons, there’s something refreshing about pastors and church leaders who invest in people. It’s almost as if that is the preferred strategy.
Most pastors agree that developing leaders is a big opportunity and that a lack of leaders is hindering the ministry. Whenever we ask pastors to list their top challenges, this is always in the top three. Usually, it’s right at the top of the list. It really is a constant struggle to find, train, and empower leaders.
One of the reasons this remains a challenge is because while we want to see more leaders get involved, we don’t have a system for leadership development, and these tasks never appear on our calendar.
Your calendar is full of planning meetings, counseling sessions, and study time. But the leadership development kind of tasks are hard to quantify and difficult to plan. We hope it happens organically, but it never does.
It’s time to move leadership development from something we desire to something we do.
We have to put it on the calendar. And we have to specifically define what “it” is.
Leader Pulse combines ready-to-use leadership development content in a calendar-based approach. It will give you the structure and the content you need to actually develop your staff and key leaders.
Not only is people-first ministry a Biblical approach, but it will also actually help your church grow at a sustainable pace.
And this sustainable pace is something church leaders aren’t talking about enough.
The impact you want to make on your community isn’t dependent on a single service, a special event, or a specific ministry. You’re looking for compound interest, serving consistently over time.
The flip side is starting ministries only to see them slowly fade away into irrelevance because there are no leaders to sustain them. You’ll start, stop, start, stop until everyone is simply worn out.
If you don’t develop leaders, your church will struggle to make a long-term impact in your community.
That’s why we advise pastors to never start a new ministry in their church until it has a committed and trained leader and is aligned with the overall church strategy.
You’d be better off waiting. Or going without.
But when you have committed and aligned leaders, your church will be set up well to grow healthy.
That’s why it’s always wise to start with people, not programs.
Leading people is one of the most difficult tasks of pastoral leadership. The Senior Pastor’s Guide to Leading Staff will help you lead yourself so that you can better lead the people on your team.
Your team is tired.
Staff, leaders, and volunteers have lived with Covid complexity for a while with effects that will linger for years to come. Much of how they have done ministry has changed dramatically.
People have new roles and responsibilities. Leaders have navigated choppy waters. Your team has balanced ridiculous expectations.
It’s no wonder they are tired.
And if you’re not careful, feeling tired takes the next step to exhaustion. That’s a step beyond “a busy season” like Easter, Christmas, or a big event.
Feelings of exhaustion can lead to burnout which can have rippling detrimental effects personally and organizationally.
Here are some things pastors can do right now to breathe fresh life into your team.
One of the biggest signs of job satisfaction in any career is having a friend at work. This is true for church staff, too. Invite people to your home for a cookout. Borrow or rent a lake house for a family day. Go to Top Golf. Find an environment where your team can connect outside of work and have fun.
In church, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that we need to pastor our team, not just lead them. Your team needs a pastor right now. Are you shepherding their soul and pastoring them like a church member? Don’t let it always be about work and goals.
Serving in a church takes a lot out of a person. Repurpose some of your meetings and regular rhythms to add back into their life and faith. When people get better, there’s a collective benefit. When you invest in people, they feel valued.
If you’re the leader of a staff or ministry team, you’re the Chief Clarify Officer. In this season, casting clarity is every bit as important as casting vision. It’s okay to scale back if needed. If you’re clear, meeting a lesser goal is still a win. Does your team know what’s expected of them? Are those expectations written down and agreed upon?
In times of stress, average communication feels like bad communication. If successes aren’t shared, challenges aren’t discussed, and ideas aren’t heard, people will feel like they are working alone. No matter what system or tools you use, perfect them. Learn how to use them properly. Commit to communication, knowing it’s nearly impossible to overdo.
If you really want to dive into this topic, we have a resource called The Tired Team: A Toolkit to Improve Staff Morale.
It comes with a video for leaders, a video for team members, and six practical exercises to help you re-energize your team. Learn more here.
As a staff member of a church, you’re in a unique position.
You may not get to decide the mission, but your job is to make it happen.
You have a lot of responsibility and a lot of influence, even if you’re leading from the second chair.
And while Senior Pastors will find a lot of value in the courses, resources, and community, other leaders on staff might even find more help.
That’s because the practical nature of what we discuss applies to everything that happens in the church. We don’t live in the land of vision; we dive into the operations and strategies of real-world ministries.
It’s also why every Church Fuel membership comes with unlimited logins for team members. We WANT church staff to have access to everything in the program.
Here are three ways you can use Church Fuel as a staff member.
As a leader on staff, you take direction from your leader. But a lot of people look to you for guidance and support. A lot of responsibility rests on your shoulders.
Leadership is hard.
But the hardest person you lead is yourself.
Church Fuel will help you invest in your own growth. Think of it like professional development, a resource to help YOU get better. As you’re out there investing in so many others, Church Fuel gives you a way to invest in yourself.
Church Fuel is a great tool for your own personal and professional development.
As a church staff member, you wear two hats. On one hand, you care deeply about the overall mission of the church. You know every ministry and program is important.
But you also provide leadership to a specific ministry.
When you tap into Church Fuel resources, you can go through them with both angles in mind. Sure, you’ll hear about things that could help the church.
But you’ll learn practical ideas and strategies to help you right where you are. Apply the lessons from The Follow Up course to your ministry.
Use the Ministry Action Plan from the Resource Library to help you clarify your ministry plans and goals.
Take a live class on a relevant topic, even inviting a few volunteers to join you.
You will find plenty to help you lead in your specific ministry area.
One of the toughest things to do in leadership is leading up – influencing those who technically are in charge.
Church Fuel will expose you to ideas and strategies that you can share with other leaders in your church.
By learning and growing, you’ll get ideas that will help others.
Remember, one membership covers everyone in your church who wants access. If you’re paying for Church Fuel from your ministry budget, you can add others across other teams or departments.
As you can see, there are a lot of practical ways you can actually USE Church Fuel.
Like most things in life, the power doesn’t come from signing up. The power comes when you sign up, show up, and actually use the tool.