Following the pandemic and painful discord in the American Church in its wake, I had been thinking—and telling friends privately—“I hope the whole thing burns to the ground.” YEESH. Sounds terrible, I know. But that was the energy I felt, confident that whatever amidst us is real and enduring would absolutely persist and could emerge even stronger. But I really did want to see everything else—anything not real, anything not aligned to the Lordship and way of Jesus—Burn. To. The. Ground. That was the phrase I used.
I’m not saying this was a holy desire, or a good desire, There may have been nothing noble in it whatsoever… But after my article below was published in Outreach magazine, a close friend connected my rather dystopian desire to my opening illustration about the future of the church: Chernobyl.
Somehow, I hadn’t made the connection! I had been focused on the beauty of what the story of Chernobyl’s recovery tells… that beauty absolutely can come from ashes. That new, vibrant life can emerge from places seeming dead. That there’s something very unique about the nature of plant life (think vines and branches and mustard seeds and fig trees) that allows regeneration to sidestep even the destruction of nuclear disaster.
Even when something has burned to the ground.
Beauty absolutely can come from ashes.
Perhaps… Just perhaps… the unique nature of the body of Christ, alive and well amidst even the current economic and emotional and spiritual rubble, is what we get to think about together this year.
Please join me on this journey! Wherever you are, right now, please pause and pray. Ask that God might breathe new life into leaders everywhere through this work. May we rise again,
We have a lot to think about in the now, the next, and then never again.
Let’s discover together what God is doing for Healthy Leaders NEXT.
On Saturday, April 26, 1986, a nuclear catastrophe at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused upwards of 350,000 people to be evacuated from Pripyat, Ukraine, and surrounding areas. The disaster in reactor No. 4 was so devastating that a 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone eventually had to be created around the area.
But then a curious thing happened. Within three years, the remains of Pripyat began to show signs of life. Nature was coming into its own. Now, 35 years later, the once-bustling city is an overgrown, thriving forest of plant and animal life.
As a natural resources graduate, this topic interests me greatly. An article posted on BBC.com titled “How Plants Reclaimed Chernobyl’s Poisoned Land” reports that the unique genetic traits of the local plants have enabled the resilient and now-teeming life to take hold. Anyone who is a gardener knows how plants want to grow, expand, and flourish. Have you ever tried to get rid of mint? Or a tree? Have you seen the results of a brutal pruning?
The metaphors of the vine, the mustard seed, and the fields ripe for harvest all remind us that, no matter what appearances might be, the kingdom of God is very much alive.
As a participant, volunteer leader, and guide to other leaders in the church in the wake of the onset and enduring implications of COVID-19, the story of the new Pripyat encourages me even more. The metaphors of the vine, the mustard seed, and the fields ripe for harvest all remind us that, no matter what appearances might be, the kingdom of God is very much alive. Always.
When Hope Is Thin
While this recent season has certainly been challenging, the greatest blow to my sense of hope came in the early 1990s when my husband Jeff and I threw ourselves fully into planting a new church in Boston.
We formed our own 501(c)3, raised the funds, began casting vision, aligned with others who shared this desire—and proceeded to fall headlong into a series of failures and disappointments. Many great things happened through that effort, to be sure. But the difficulties I encountered exposed my self-reliance, my mixed motives, my unhealthy relationship patterns, and much more.
At that time, hope was thin. One help for me came from an unlikely source: The Secret Garden, the Broadway musical based on the children’s classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. When the characters uncover the abandoned garden, the gardener Dickon Sowerby sings about the quality of living things. This song, “Wick,” regularly opened up my tear ducts because it reminded me of hope for life in the unseen realm, the invisible place where life could go on, even when surrounded by seeming death.
I think back on that time as a severe mercy because everything I have cared about, learned, or become after emerging from that experience shaped my resolve and my point of view, giving me great hope for living and leading from a healthy soul. This has become more important as we are now seeing the aftereffects of a crisis when hope is very thin.
We don’t know who our church members actually are right now. We don’t know how many people have left, and we don’t know whether they’ve left the faith or just left our church for another that better aligns with their political views. We don’t know whether the economics will work out or if our organizations are financially viable. Many leaders I talk to are beyond weary, beyond another pivot, beyond another family leaving, beyond another young leader leaving the faith. We ourselves could well be described as being harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
We wonder, Where is that Good Shepherd who is supposed to lead us and protect us?
I have absolute optimism for the body of Christ and for every leader serving in this moment. To get there, though, we need to wade through the Now, the Next and the Never Again.
The Now is about asking, “What’s the church’s reality today?” It’s no secret; the statistics are all around us.
- Barna reports that most Christians in the US do not know what the Great Commission is.
- Also from Barna, 50% of churchgoers do not look to their churches for insight on vocation.
- Deconstruction of faith among the sub-30 age segment seems rampant.
- Several heroes of our faith journey have been exposed for severe abuses of power.
- Many pastors and staff are unsure whether they want to continue in vocational ministry.
- Numerous protestant churches have experienced severe financial shortfalls in the wake of the pandemic, and many are facing closure.
In addition, podcasts, emails, blog posts, books, conferences, webinars, social media, and even political text messages are constantly vying for our attention. They broadcast tips and tricks, changes and pivots, and failure- and shame-filled messages. The net effect on pastors of this barrage is raising our collective cortisol levels, inviting doomscrolling—scrolling through negative news and depressing stories late into the night—leaving us feeling like failures, exhausted and hopeless.
Most leaders I’ve worked with over the last few months identify with a general lack of emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual margin.
Maybe you can relate. Most leaders I’ve worked with over the last few months identify with a general lack of emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual margin. One leader from Florida observed, “In the past, pastors have been purveyors of certainty. Right now, that is impossible. Maybe it never should have been that way.”
Personally, this past year caused me to face patterns of self-sabotage that had crept like a vile weed into my daily habits. I had to face unhelpful ways of relating to others. I’ve enlisted the help of more than a few experts to restore health and life to my Now. By God’s grace, I’m making progress. My Now is leaner, stronger, more relationally vulnerable, and more engaged.
At church, we share much of the uncertainty that exists everywhere, but we have also witnessed a refreshed commitment to prayer. We have seen young, diverse leaders recognized and elevated.
On many levels, in many ways, I believe facing the reality of The Now offers a clue to The Next.
We all seek answers to the big questions: What’s coming? How can we prepare? What will be our challenges in the future? What are the opportunities in the future? What should be our strategies? What resources should we secure now for later?
And the deeper questions: Will I be OK? Will I ever feel energy again? Will I ever love ministry again? Will my church make it? Will my family survive the conflict we’ve endured? Will I have to find another job?
I want to suggest that everything related to The Next hinges on one central point: the well-being of your soul. Does that sound too simplistic? Do you roll your eyes and wish for something more practical? Or could this be exactly the invitation God has been whispering to you for weeks, months, maybe even years?
I believe God’s persistent invitation hovers over each of us. It’s as near as your breath. As strong as steel. It doesn’t require an advanced degree in spiritual formation. It won’t take you five years or five months or five hours of solitude to find. Access to soul health is immediate.
God’s persistent invitation hovers over each of us; access to soul health is immediate.
The defining feature of faith-filled and fruitful communities in the future will not be the size of the church, the role of the building, the level of digital sophistication, the mode of governance, or the affiliation with networks or denominations. The defining feature will be life; the quality of life available in the kingdom of God.
We can participate in that life right here and right now. And that will primarily, more than anything else, determine The Next.
Consider this list of characteristics of people who lead from a healthy soul:
- They are peace-filled in crises and in calm times. And during crises, they do not revert to authoritarian or avoidance behaviors.
- They know intimately what it means to be part of or to create community.
- They do not depend on themselves for the vision of the organization.
- They can give power away without feeling a loss of self.
- They are connected intimately to God.
- They do not project their pain or addiction onto others.
- They do not burn out or succumb to stress.
- They practice integrity, reflection, and collaboration.
- They have a strong sense of humor and creativity.
- They are courageous.
- Above all, they are life-giving.
(List borrowed from Janet Hagberg in Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations.)
A healthy soul makes these scenarios possible, even inevitable. The nature of this style of healthy leadership requires that a healthy soul must come first. It must be the priority.
The Never Again
COVID-19 exposed many things. It exposed that “church” had become largely connected to the event where we gather. That the call to being a pastor had primarily become a call to one-way communication. That we struggle to imagine a way of being and serving into the shared life of the people of God in a place other than the one-to-many large-group gatherings. That for long-term, faithful, devoted attendees of church, the experience of coming into church on a Sunday morning, grabbing a coffee, sitting down for an hour or so and then leaving wasn’t all that different than going into their kitchen, grabbing a coffee, sitting down for an hour or so and then walking away. The ones who most felt the difference were those standing up front, not those in the pews.
Many churchgoers reported that their spiritual life was not significantly different as a result of the church not being able to gather. In fact, some said it had improved as they learned afresh to rest. Ouch.
What do we do with this? How might this shape our shared future?
I do not offer a particular mode. Rather, I invite you to a fresh posture and position. Take the position of a deeply loved child. The position of one held, as it were, in the mighty hand of God. The position of one whose ultimate well-being is firmly anchored in God. When human imaginations tend to run toward securing our well-being, God’s invitation whispers over our frantic efforts, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness [lacking anxiety] and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it” (Isaiah 30:15).
The leaders in Isaiah’s day sought their national and spiritual security through all the conventional means of securing power to self-protect and determine outcomes: powerful alliances, well-equipped armies, strategies for protection and escape. If we’re honest, many of us have done the same. But God’s invitation rings down through the centuries: Come to me. Remain in me. Learn from me. Rest in me. Let your work come from overflow.
There is no gimmick. No killer strategy. Just the timely and timeless invitation to pray, to partner with God (on God’s terms, not ours), to take obedient risks with energy and intensity while letting go of outcomes.
The church of the future will be led by those who are marked by kingdom life. By the Fruit of the Spirit. By a lightness of being. By joy. By hope. By a posture toward relationship. By a servant spirit. By an unhurried, unanxious confidence and peace. By creativity. By openness. By humility.
There is no gimmick. No killer strategy. Just the timely and timeless invitation to pray, to partner with God (on God’s terms, not ours), to take obedient risks with energy and intensity while letting go of outcomes. May it be true that, 20 years from now, we see there was a distinct shift in what is expected and experienced in the life of those who are called by God to lead, that they flourish in all dimensions, public and private.
As we look to the future, I believe just as life returned to Pripyat so it will return to the church. The life-sustaining resources available to us in the kingdom of God are certainly abundant enough in supply. Though we have lost many lives through COVID-19, we remain. We wake another day; we engage in the world around us; our burdens have not been fatal. It follows then that life will flourish.
Adapted from “The Now, The Next, and The Never Again” by Mindy Caliguire, Outreach Magazine, November 5, 2021.