September 11: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Every year on September 11, my mind returns to where I was when the tragic news broke on this date in 2001.

On September 11, 2001 I was sitting in the home of one of our members meeting with a widow to plan a memorial service for her husband who had passed away the previous evening. As we were finalizing the date and time for the service, a family member interrupted us and asked me to step into the kitchen. There she pointed to the television and began to cry as she said, “I thought you needed to know what is happening in New York.”

My heart sank as I watched the replay of the first plane crashing into the tower one. I returned to the living room, led the family in prayer, and prayed for our nation, not knowing that more attacks were looming.

I quickly made my way back to our church campus, which was only a couple of blocks away. I found our entire staff gathered around the tv in my study, and the second tower was hit just as I entered. After a few moments of shock and tears, our team kicked into ministry mode, shared an emotional time of prayer, and began strategizing about ways we could minister to our church and community in light of these events.

Like every community around the country, members of our congregation had family members and friends who lived in New York or Washington, or who were traveling in that area, or who were serving in the armed forces who would eventually be responding to these horrid acts of terror. Eventually, it seemed that everyone was connected by friendship or kinship to someone directly affected by the attacks of that fateful day.

Although those events occurred nineteen years ago today, our individual and collective memories are still vivid and painful. We remember where we were when we heard the news. We remember bystanders fleeing from the scene and first responders rushing toward the scene. We remember gathering in churches, chapels, temples, and synagogues to pray. We remember the anger, the grief, the anger, and the uncertainty.

What have we learned about ourselves and our world since 9/11? In particular, as followers of Jesus, what are the proactive steps we can take to be “salt” and “light” in a post 9/11 world?

Our greatest security is grounded in our faith in God. Psalm 46:1 teaches us that, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in our time of trouble.” Our faith doesn’t exempt us from tragedy, disaster, or even acts of terrorism. But our faith does serve as a compass to help us navigate the most difficult and challenging circumstances of life.

Refuse to live in fear. We cannot allow fear to dissuade us from fulfilling our mission. One of the goals of terrorism is to invoke a life-disrupting fear. II Timothy 1:7 reminds us that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Obviously we need to be wise, savvy, and circumspect at home and abroad. However, we cannot let the fear of the unknown keep us from going where we are called to go and doing what we are called to do.

Avoid responding to terrorism with terrorism. We cannot allow terrorists to provoke us into behaving like terrorists. In other words, you cannot defeat terrorism by conducting acts of terrorism. Followers of Jesus are called to respond to adversaries with the spirit of Jesus.

Express gratitude to first responders. The events of 9-11 gave to many of us a deeper appreciation for the valiant service of firemen, police officers, paramedics, and other first responders. As a pastor and community leader, I want to affirm those who serve as first responders and to encourage others to consider these vocational tracks as honorable career opportunities.

Learn the basic tenets of other faiths like Islam. A huge challenge for those unfamiliar with the religions of the world is learning to distinguish between radical Islamic groups, Jihadists for example, and mainstream Muslims who not only reject methods of terrorism, but who also must contend with it. Just like radical “Christian” groups such as the Branch Davidians and the Peoples Temple do not represent the majority of Christians, members of Al Queda, ISIS, and Boka Haram do not represent the vast majority of the Islamic world.

Be careful not to become xenophobic. Xenophobia is the fear of people from different countries, cultures, or ethnicities. Just because most of the terrorists of 9/11 were from the Middle East does not mean that everyone who wears the traditional wardrobe of a Middle Easterner, such as a burka or a turban, is to be suspected of terrorism.

Pray for our president and national leaders. The task of making decisions during turbulent times is stressful and tedious. No military or political leader in history has faced the type or magnitude of threat posed by terrorist groups. No matter your preferred political party, it is imperative that people of faith pray for those who lead our nation to exercise wisdom and discernment in navigating international relations.

One year following the 9/11 attacks, I was asked by a local newspaper reporter, “How has the world changed since September 11, 2001?” The response I gave in 2002 is still relevant in 2020:

I believe the world has changed in so many ways that the majority of those changes are still being realized and processed.   From my perspective, it seems that our nation is going through the various stages of grief (shock, denial, depression, panic, guilt, resentment, and hope), and like any normal family system, not everyone is in the same stage.   Because the assault on 9/11 was a multi-dimensional attack on the spiritual, social, psychological, and economic fabric of our country, our sense of loss is more complex. Not only were thousands of lives lost, but so were many of our presuppositions, especially those regarding personal safety, economic security, and religious superiority. I hope and pray that we will emerge as individuals who are more circumspect, more patient, less acquisitive, and more spiritually grounded than we have previously demonstrated.

(Barry Howard serves at pastor of Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, and is a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches.)


Re-Aligning Staff for a Post-Pandemic Church

Long before we had ever heard of COVID-19, a paradigm shift was underway in the church. Although the pandemic did not trigger the paradigm shift, it certainly seems to be expediting the process.

This paradigm shift will impact almost every facet of ministry, including the way we communicate, the way we plan worship, the way we budget, the way utilize space, and the way we configure our staff teams. In this lingering pandemic, we do not yet know for sure all of the ways the church will be impacted.

Certainly, we should expect that some church staffs will undergo a process of downsizing due to a decrease in giving. In an ideal world, such downsizing could be accomplished through retirements and relocations. However, if downsizing leads to displacement of a staff minister, a church should offer as much financial and networking support as possible to the minister being involuntarily displaced due to economic factors.

The more important question for churches is not, “how many staff can we afford?”, although that is a vital question. The most crucial question is, “What kind of staff do we need to equip us to accomplish our mission?”

In recent years, some church staff members have become so specialized, they have tended to function in compartmentalized silos of isolation. In my experience, the healthiest church staffs I have been blessed to serve alongside have functioned as a team with each staff member fulfilling individual assignments and sharing team responsibilities. Perhaps staff organizational charts should look less like a pyramid and more like concentric circles, indicative of team-oriented relationships.

In a season of uncertainly, what are the primary factors a church should consider when preparing to upgrade their staffing model?  I suggest the following considerations for re-aligning and re-assigning staff for a post-pandemic church:

  • Staff assignments should be contextual to your specific congregation and strategically aligned to empower your mission and vision. Staff titles and job descriptions should correlate with your unique mission objectives and opportunities. This means that your staff model will likely look different than other churches.
  • Future staff ministers will be both generalists and specialists. It will be more important than ever that staff function as a team, with each team member having one or two specialized responsibilities and many general responsibilities. Just as a university student may have a major and a minor area of study, a staff minister may have a major area of specialization such as music, and a couple of minor or general areas such as technology and pastoral care.
  • Re-alignment is an ongoing process, not an event. Set re-alignment goals and implement them through re-assignment, staff transition, and attrition. Unless your staff culture is toxic and needs an extreme makeover, a gradual re-alignment process may provide more time for upgrading your staff culture and adequate time to acclimate your congregation to the new staff assignments.
  • Build your team with a strategic mix of full-time and part-time ministers. Churches that once had numerous full-time staff members will likely build a staff team composed of full-time ministers, bi-professional ministers, residents, interns, and volunteers. This shift will be partially driven by economic factors. But it is also propelled by the rich talent pool of ministry candidates who prefer to serve in ministry part-time while remaining engaged in a meaningful full-time career.
  • Re-orient your ministers to be coaches who encourage and equip the congregation for their ministry. This aligns the role of staff with the biblical commission found in Ephesians 4:11-12: So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.
  • Transition to a smaller pool of administrative assistants, and utilize interns or residents as ministry associates, following a model that resembles a medical residency. Many of our churches hired secretaries and administrative assistants at a time when ministers were highly dependent on the clerical skills of their assistant. This model has not been re-aligned since the dawning of the computer age. A resident or intern may assist with a few clerical tasks but will gain valuable experience as they are mentored for future leadership roles in ministry.
  • Create a healthy succession plan that provides continuity and prevents long-term interruption. We are beginning to realize that in most cases a 6-24 month interim period between every staff transition is not healthy. A strategic plan of succession enables the church to identify and call a new minister, and it enables the departing or retiring minister to “pass the torch” so that ministry continues without disruption.

Many respected leaders, including Carey Nieuwhof and Bill Wilson, have suggested that the current health pandemic will do more to change the way we do church than anything in our lifetime. A leader in our church asked me recently, “Will the pandemic change the church for the better or for the worse?” I responded, “That depends on how we navigate the changes.”

When it comes to church staff, we can emerge from the pandemic better prepared to engage our communities if we realign our staff model with our mission and vision.

(Barry Howard is the pastor of Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, and he serves as a coach and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches.)


Being Church in a Post-Pandemic World

post pandemic

In a post-pandemic world, the church, in words of Mark Twain, may need to declare, “The rumors of my death are grossly exaggerated.”

While it is true that many struggling churches may close, merge, or re-purpose in the near future, this process was already underway and will only be accelerated by factors related to COVID-19.

But make no mistake, to be effective in the next chapter of ministry, churches must navigate many cultural changes. A few weeks into the current health pandemic, I was jolted into reality when I heard Bill Wilson, executive director of the Center for Healthy Churches, suggest, “We should prepare for COVID-19 to change the way we do church more than anything in our lifetime.”

We are now six months into dealing with coronavirus concerns, and we are still discerning the impact that the health pandemic will have on the church in the short-term and the long-term.

As we search for best practices that promote health and vibrancy in the next chapter of ministry, I want to highlight 12 trends that I see emerging for being church in a post-pandemic world:

  • Being the church will become more important than going to church. Gathering with those in your spiritual community will continue to be an important spiritual practice, but not necessarily perceived as the most important thing. The next chapter of church life will be much more incarnational and much less institutional.
  • New metrics of effectiveness will emerge. The old six-point envelope system from my childhood, which included being present, on time, studying your lesson, bringing your offering, staying for worship and reading your Bible daily will become completely obsolete as a way of measuring spiritual fidelity. Future metrics for effectiveness may focus on life transformation, community connections, ministry touch points, mentoring relationships and funds invested in missional causes.
  • Congregations will be better stewards of campus space. Church campuses will be smaller, more energy efficient and will maximize smart technology. Spaces will be multi-purpose and shared by multiple groups.
  • Churches will be more community oriented. Inward-focused churches that exist primarily for the benefit and use of their members will diminish. Outward-focused churches that embrace their communities will be more likely to flourish.
  • Ministry staffs will likely be composed of more generalists and less specialists. Staffs will be smaller, and ministers will work more as a team with each minister expressing leadership in multiple areas. Ministers will take on a more biblical model of a coaching/discipling role of being “encouragers and equippers” of the congregation for their work of ministry.
  • Healthy post-pandemic churches will welcome honest inquiry and dialogue. While it is important for churches to live out foundational convictions, most people are not looking for a litany of legalistic dogma. Effective churches will adopt a new apologetic, taking on more of a Mars Hill flavor, where seekers and believers meet near the altar of the “unknown god” to discuss the meaning of life.
  • A hybrid model of participation will continue to emerge. Both in-person and virtual gatherings are around to stay. Worship services, small groups gatherings and committee meetings will offer in-person and virtual options for participation. Many churches will have online members from different communities who connect with worship and mission virtually.
  • Church programming will be less Sunday-centric and will focus on opportunities throughout the week. The majority churches will continue to have a Sunday worship service, but effective churches will create multiple options to connect on days other than Sunday.
  • There will be more emphasis on small group gatherings and less emphasis on large group gatherings. The strength of a church will be manifest in small group connections, rather than crowd size. The post-COVID church will focus more on spiritual muscle than physical mass.
  • Surprising partnerships will be formed. As local churches will become more collaborative and less competitive, many churches will discover they do not need to “go at it alone.” Formal and informal partnerships between churches may evolve as networks between groups of churches who will share ideas, resources, assignments, and in some cases even staff members or campus space.
  • The gospel will be presented positively as good news. As we slowly emerge from coronavirus concerns, people will be even more hungry for good news. Guilt-ridden, judgment-infused, condescending approaches to evangelism will give way to Jesus-centered conversations about deliverance, healing, forgiveness and life transformation.
  • Effective evangelism will become more relational and less transactional. Rather than conversion being thought of merely as an introduction to Jesus, salvation language will employ multiple expressions that describe a re-orientation to following Jesus and holistically adopting the Jesus way of life.

These are only a few examples of the trends I see emerging for effective ministry in a post-pandemic world.

In any season, becoming a healthier and more effective church is an ongoing journey. In his book, Becoming a Contagious Church, Mark Middleburg writes the following:

One thing is for sure: without intentional planning, prioritization, decision making, and leadership, and a whole lot of course corrections along the way, a church will never experience sustained evangelistic fruitfulness. This is not something churches drift into naturally or on their own. No, becoming a contagious church only happens on purpose! 

These adaptations will not emerge quickly. This is a major sea change, an ecclesial paradigm shift, so let us be faithful and flexible as we navigate uncharted waters.

(Barry Howard is the pastor of the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, and he continues to serve as a columnist and leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches.)


Press On!


press-on1Remarkably, I have been sleeping pretty good during the pandemic. But most mornings when I wake up, I must clarify my focus, adjust my attitude, and dig deep to retrieve my motivation.

At 4:15 this past Monday morning, I awoke like an alarm clock had gone off in my head, and a song was playing involuntarily. The tune and the lyrics by Johnson Oatman, Jr. were both familiar and encouraging:

I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

I wish that all mornings began with such a sense of peace. On some mornings during these days I have awakened with a sense of dread and anxiety, not because my faith is weak, but because I am human. Because there is a cloud of uncertainty hovering over our lives due the current pandemic, our cognitive and emotive systems are on high alert. And when we remain on high alert for prolonged periods it tends to deplete our energy and to elevate our anxiety.

So, most mornings, I must pray and sing and think my way into an attitude adjustment in order to counter these feelings of angst, or else my emotional rumblings turn into verbal grumblings. Like the song says, in all kinds of circumstances we must “press on” toward higher ground.

Life is often unfair, mostly unpredictable, and frequently uphill. The adventure requires courage, faith, and determination. During seasons of frustration, disappointment, and uncertainty, we must “press on” toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14):

  • When life throws you a curve ball and the unexpected happens, press on.
  • When cabin fever sets in and you long to return to the old normal, press on.
  • When you are tempted to give up or give in, press on.
  • When you have a bad case of the blues or you are suffering deep down depression, press on.
  • When you get angry at the incompetence of a colleague or supervisor who just doesn’t get it, press on.
  • When you are at the beginning of the treatment regimen, one that suppresses your appetite and oppresses your spirit, press on.
  • When you are at the foot of the mountain about to begin the uphill journey of recovery, press on.
  • When tension rises within your family because you are spending so much time together, press on.
  • When you are tempted to settle for mediocrity as you work from home, press on.
  • When death or disease takes away someone you love, in the power of the Spirit, press on.
  • When you are grateful for virtual church, but you can’t wait to get back to actual church, press on.

The old normal is gone. The current normal is temporary. A new normal is coming. Putting the past behind us and the future before us, let us press on!

In the wee hours Monday morning, the second verse of that great hymn became my prayer:

My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where those abound,
My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.

May the Lord plant our feet, our faith, our attitude, and our motivation on higher ground!

(Barry Howard serves as the pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches.)


These Are Puzzling Times

star wars puzzle 2

A lot of folks must be working on jigsaw puzzles during the pandemic because a few days ago, I bought the last puzzle on the shelf.

In addition to my pastoral work, during these days of being “safer at home,” Amanda and I have been spending a little more time reading, watching Andy Griffith reruns, and putting together jigsaw puzzles.

Last month we pieced together a 1000-piece puzzle of a Thomas Kinkade painting. A couple of days ago we passed the halfway mark toward completing our first 2000-piece puzzle which will eventually look like a collage of Star Wars characters.

I’m still not sure whether my affinity for puzzles parallels my work as a pastor, but I have discovered that bringing order to the chaos of this fragmentation is both relaxing and reflective.

Erno Rubik, who invented the Rubik’s Cube, suggests that, “The problems of puzzles are very near the problems of life.”

As we navigate the days ahead, including the emergence of a new normal, I have been thinking about the lessons we can learn from a jigsaw puzzle. Here are a few takeaways from my reflections:

  • Every little piece counts and contributes to the big picture.
  • Don’t expect to see the big picture with clarity right away. Watch for it to gradually emerge.
  • Attempting to force-fit pieces is futile. Some pieces that don’t look like they go together, do. Some pieces that look like they go together, don’t.
  • To maintain focus and avoid disillusionment, it helps to keep the picture on the box in front of you.
  • Start with the edges. It helps to know the boundaries, parameters, and perimeters.
  • Looking at the puzzle from different vantage points provides a clearer perspective on the big picture.
  • Working as a team is important. It helps to have one or more partners who can see things that you don’t readily see.
  • Take a break! Walk away! Give it a rest! And you will find more matching pieces with fresh eyes.
  • You will be tempted at some point to quit or give up. Don’t!
  • Putting together little puzzles within the big puzzle may help to complete the big picture more efficiently.

Life is a puzzle, and so is figuring out how life is going to change as we emerge from the pandemic. It is wise to navigate these days with prayer, patience, and perseverance.

In Isaiah 43:19 (ESV) the Lord declares, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

During these puzzling times, if we truly believe that God will “make a way in the wilderness” and that God is preparing to do “a new thing” in our life, in the church, and in our world, we will be inspired to work together in this emerging reality even though we cannot yet see how all the pieces will fit together.

(Barry Howard serves as the pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist with the Center for Healthy Churches.)


7 Things Churches Are Learning During the Pandemic

church interior 2Church looks and feels very different right now.

For the past six to seven weeks, as a proactive expression of love for our people and our communities, most of our churches have been gathering online for worship, Bible study, and committee meetings rather than assembling in person.

Pastors are learning to preach to cameras. Staff members and volunteers are learning new technology skills. Churches have been quickly setting up or upgrading their online giving platforms. Small groups and individuals have been responding to ministry needs with creative ministry actions.

Certainly, churches were not the only ones affected by the “shelter in place” orders. Restaurants scrambled to revise their delivery system to take out or curb side only. Banks limited access to their lobbies to “appointments only,” channeling most transactions to the drive thru window.

However, churches stereotypically are perceived as the most resistant to change.

As I have collaborated with other pastors and church leaders in recent weeks, it seems we are all learning a few things about ourselves that may be helpful in shaping the next chapter of ministry:

  • Online is the next best thing to being there. While online services are not likely to replace in-person gatherings, we are realizing that livestream worship is a good option for those who, for one reason or the other, cannot attend services on campus. We are also discovering that for some of our members, the increase in online options is a blessing. After the current health guidelines are lifted, online options should be perceived, not as a replacement, but as an enhancement to a church’s ministries.
  • Each of us has a priestly responsibility. The priesthood of the believer is multifaceted. Our priestly privilege includes having direct access to God, being accountable to God, and having an assignment from God. We have the privilege of “priesting” one another as we encourage each other, care for neighbors, build up the body of Christ, and share the teachings of Jesus through our words and our actions.
  • Every home is a satellite campus of the local church. Although we have known this for ages, we are becoming more adept at organizing our life at home as an outpost of faith formation, a house of worship, a chapel for prayer, and a launch point for ministry action.
  • A campus is a valuable resource of the church, but it’s not a church. A brick and mortar campus can be an important tool for a congregation, but it is just one of many tools in a congregation’s toolbox. A campus should always be perceived as a resource for the nurturing of our faith, not a source of our faith.
  • We need the human touch and social engagement of spiritual community. During these days of social and physical distancing, we have experienced withdrawal pangs from missing the handshake at the door, the passing of the peace, the hug from our favorite elder saint, and blending our voices in song while in the same room with others from our family of faith. While we are grateful for online connections, we will emerge from this crisis with a greater appreciation for the privilege of in-person meetings.
  • Our members are more resourceful and creative than we realized. Many members have jumped into action to sew masks for healthcare workers and first responders. Others have been proxy shoppers, delivering groceries and pharmaceuticals to those most at risk. A few members have written songs or poems to encourage or entertain others, and then posted, published, or performed their artistry on social media platforms.  In the future, we can enlist their skills to advance the ministry and the liturgy of the church.
  • We can function in a healthy way with fewer meetings. Some committees are continuing to meet by video or conference call. Some are sharing monthly or quarterly reports via email.  And others have postponed monthly meetings until after the “shelter in place” guidelines are lifted. All in all, committees are meeting as necessary, but less frequently than before the crisis. I expect that some monthly committee meetings may easily transition to quarterly meetings as we emerge from this pandemic.

Every major world event, including war, terrorist attack, health pandemic or ground-breaking discovery, has altered or revised the normative patterns and protocols of life on this planet. It is yet to be seen what the new norms will look like after COVID-19.

For many reasons, both spiritual and economic, it is doubtful that churches will have the option of returning to a pre-virus status quo. However, churches that build on the lessons learned during the pandemic, will be better prepared to serve their communities in the next chapter of ministry.

(Barry Howard serves as pastor of the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.)


Navigating Holy Week


This year the entirety of Holy Week will look and feel a little different as we gather online for our worship services. However, if we navigate our journey through Holy Week with a compass of honest inquiry and prayerful reflection, this year’s trek may strengthen and equip us to live with faith and hope in all seasons.

This Sunday is Palm Sunday which marks the beginning of Holy Week, a week that is to be different from a normal week.  For Christians, Holy Week is a season for soul-searching and contemplating the depth of God’s love.  During this week, Christians, all around the globe will be reflecting on the events that led to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

Let’s review the important mileposts of Holy Week:

The traditional observance of Holy Week seems to have originated in the Christian East, emerging out of the practice of pilgrimages to Jerusalem.  Each day of Holy Week is important but at least four days call for specific reflection.

Palm Sunday is a day to revisit the royal welcome extended to Jesus by the curious crowd as he entered Jerusalem.

On Maundy Thursday believers recall the occasion when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples as he gave them a new mandate to love and serve.  Then, many Christians receive communion in commemoration of the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples.

Good Friday is a day to deeply reflect on the suffering of Christ on the cross and to contemplate the final words from the cross.

Finally, Resurrection Sunday, or Easter, is a festive day to affirm the ultimate victory of life over death as we proclaim that “Christ is risen; He is risen indeed.”

As we navigate our way through each episode of Holy Week, John 12-20 may serve as a helpful travel guide.

Along the way, take time to listen to the voices of the crowd.  Hear again the teachings of Jesus and think about his days in Jerusalem.  Contemplate the cruel injustice of the cross. Experience the passion of Christ’s suffering. Then listen to the sounds of silence as we await Easter morning.

At the end of this slow and deliberate journey through Holy Week, we will be better prepared to celebrate the resurrection and to renew our commitment to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as we navigate life.

Considering the challenges of our current state of emergency, I am praying that the message of Easter will infuse us with faith, hope, and courage.  N.T. Wright offers us a timely reminder that, “The resurrection gives you a sense of what God wants to do for the whole world.”

Let’s rise above the obstacles and inconveniences posed by the current health pandemic, and let’s navigate a meaningful and memorable journey through Holy Week.

(Barry Howard currently serves as pastor of the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta and as a leadership coach with the Center for Healthy Churches.)


Update from a Friend in China


One of our friends is currently serving in China near Wuhan. Long before COVID-19 became a concern we have been praying for her just because she is on the other side of globe. Little did we know that the eyes of the world would be on the area where she is serving because that area reported the first outbreak of coronavirus.

For the past few weeks, we have been messaging our friend to affirm our prayers and to check on her status. I am grateful for the way she has been letting her light shine during a dark season.  She certainly embodies the Good News!

A couple of days ago I asked her if she would share an update on the current situation in China. Here are her observations:

Before travelling to China, some friends casually mentioned to me to be careful because they had seen news of a new type of virus that had emerged in China, but it wasn’t too concerning at that point. I arrived in China on January 19 and about three or four days later the severity of the virus became public (at least on Chinese news outlets). After another 2-3 days the village I reside in announced it would be going on lockdown (strictly monitoring all movement in and out of the village).

Currently, the situation has stabilized in China. Over the past few days there have been almost no new cases. All the new cases are “imported” cases of Chinese citizens returning from overseas where they contracted the virus. While it is much safer now, China in general is still taking very stringent precautions. I am in a province near Beijing. Even now I have not returned to the city center. If I returned to the city center, I would still need to be quarantined for 14 days (likely in a hotel), so my movement within China is still very limited even two months after the initial nation-wide lockdowns were put in place. 

In the area where I am staying, I estimate that the quarantine restrictions (basically a 14-day period for anyone coming from other cities/areas of China) will persist at least until the end of April. Many universities in China have tentatively set the end of April as their date to re-open. Considering that the start of the semester would entail a mass wave of domestic travel, and congregations of students from all parts of China, then this decision was likely made with the presumption that it should be safe to move about freely within China by the end of April. (However, this is only the tentative date for universities in some areas of China, and is likely subject to be pushed back even further if necessary).

I am optimistic about the situation in the U.S. and pray for my country every day; however, I think it is wise for those in the U.S. use the experiences of China to prepare themselves. Even under a strict nation-wide lockdown (measures which far surpass those which have currently been taken in the US) it will have taken about 4-5 months for the country to return to “normal” (considering the first reported cases in December and the re-opening of universities in April). I hope the situation in America will pass by quickly; however, I think it is wise for Americans to make appropriate preparations.

Be mentally, emotionally and most importantly spiritually prepared for the situation to last several months. Use this time to share the hope of Christ in word and deed with those who may be struggling during this period. Don’t become too inward-looking in your faith just because of “social distancing” and the desire to protect yourself and your family. Don’t hoard stuff like masks, toilet paper and other important supplies. I would say the best prevention method is to stay home. If you are more experienced at living on this earth (60 and over) I would suggest asking a family member, friend, or younger church member to help with shopping. If there have been reported cases in your area, and your job requires contact with many people,  I would suggest changing clothes and  wiping down your body before entering your house. For those with long hair, try to keep your hair up when outside. Other than that, just stay in good health and good spirits! There’s no need for anxiety (in Christ we have peace), but it’s better to be a little-overly cautious during this time period. I think this is simply being wise.

I pray that the Church in America would use this unique period of time as an opportunity to share Christ’s love to the most vulnerable. I also pray that this outbreak would awaken many Americans who don’t yet know God, pointing them to Christ. I pray that the Church’s faith would grow stronger through this period of time.

(Thank you to our friend, whose name needs to remain unpublished, for sharing her observations from her first few months in China.)


Update from a Friend in Southern Italy

kasia and amanda

Amanda and I are blessed with friends around the world, many of whom are like family to us.  During the last few weeks as we have observed the global spread of COVID-19, we have been contacting friends around the globe to check on their well-being and to offer a word of encouragement.

Katarzyna Sadowska, who has served in the medical industry in the past, has been a friend for several years.  She and her husband currently live in Campania in southern Italy, an area that Amanda and I visited just this past summer. I contacted Katarzyna and asked her if she might be available to respond to a few questions that might help us be better informed about the current situation in Italy. Here are the questions and her responses:

When did you first become concerned about the threat posed by COVID-19?

I first become aware of the spread of the novel coronavirus at the beginning of February, when the media started sharing more and more information about a serious outbreak in China. I don’t remember exactly when Italy announced their first infected cases (which was in Lombardia in the north region, one of the most affluent areas), but it must have been around early Feb as well. 

Initially people were only advised to minimize their social contacts and larger gatherings. However, from what was easily noticeable, not many took the advice seriously. 

The numbers of confirmed and suspected cases were growing rapidly, and the authorities had to introduce broader restrictions. After ‘gentle’ suggestions and reminders in form of hand-cleaning ads on tv, they had to implement more rigorous measures. It was only then, it seems to me, when people came to understand the gravity of the situation. 

What are the current conditions and restrictions where you live?

I live in Napoli (Campania) which is one of the southwest regions. Current restrictions here are the same as in the rest of the country. The whole of Italy is currently in lockdown:

  • People are generally advised to stay home. There are only few valid reasons that can justify you leaving the house:
    – work (if working from home is not possible)
    – food shopping
    – urgent medical appointments
    – physical exercise i.e. jogging (not allowed in groups)
  • Schools, universities, pubs, restaurants, local businesses, shops are closed. Some offices, if operating, are only dealing with urgent matters. 
  • Hospitals, pharmacies and food stores remain open, however access to the latter two is restricted: only one person from a household is allowed to go in, people have to obtain a numbered ticket first, queue outside to only be let in when their turn comes. This way the grocery shops are trying to limit the numbers of shoppers and minimize the risk of transmitting the virus.  
  • Border closures and travel restrictions have been imposed. Travelers coming from abroad have to undergo a strict quarantine process. 
  • Police and supporting forces are patrolling roads and can issue fines for travelers who do not have a justifiable reason to travel
  • Public transport restricted their schedules
  • Tests, as far as I know, are only done on people who present with symptoms or may have been in contact with an infected patient.  

Napoli has just under 1 million habitants. Latest national statistic update (as of 3.18/20) shows that in Campania there are 460 cases confirmed, of which 127 are hospitalized with 24 in intensive care, 272 are isolating themselves at home. There were 9 deaths and 28 recoveries recorded. 

As the official sources suggest it is the older population who are more susceptible to contract the virus. Sadly, some reports suggest that elderly people die in their homes, following the isolation directive. 

The national shortage of PPE is also concerning. It’s impossible now to find masks and the prices for disinfecting products are skyrocketing. We should understand that those who work directly with infected/suspected cases and risk their lives to tackle this pandemic, need them more than those who can safely isolate themselves at home.

Has your area begun to see any improvements in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 or reducing the number of persons infected?

The south of Italy has not been as severely affected as some of the northern regions, partially thanks to the travel restrictions. It’s still very early days to say but the numbers are relatively low, considering the total national case count. 

As I mentioned before, the statistics say that 28 Campania’s patients have already recovered. 

I do not personally know anyone who have tested positive so I’m unable to give any information regarding their treatment. However, it was reported in the media a few days ago that doctors from one of Napoli’s hospitals administered drugs normally used for treating cancer side effects to successfully help patients infected with COVID-19 to recover. Obviously, there’s still a very little research behind this practice. 

What advice would you give to your friends in the United State regarding precaution, protection, and prevention?

Be wise. Be aware. Don’t panic.  Follow the national guidelines in prevention of cross-infection and hand hygiene:

  • Use protective gloves when going shopping. Sneeze like Batman (in your elbow).
  • Wash your hands more often.
  • Use disinfecting gel/wipes/spray to disinfect your phone and commonly used surfaces at home/office (including handles).
  • Avoid big gatherings, events, crowded places.
  • Reschedule non-urgent meeting, trips.  
  • Shop only for necessities and make sure the elderly can find something on the shop shelves too.
  • Call/send messages to your elderly neighbors to check if they need any help.
  • Avoid social visits – symptomless cases of infected patients have been recorded, do not put anyone at risk (including yourself). 
  • Stay home if you can. 
  • If you develop symptoms, contact an appropriate medical body for advice, as per your national guidelines. 
  • Watch the news regularly. 
  • Read only from trustful sources such as WHO and your local Health Department. 

The situation may seem under control and still not look too serious, but it can escalate very quickly if we don’t make a common effort to stop it.

As the problem is undeniably global, I believe all nations should work together to not only carry out research on developing vaccination but also exchange all valid information and their observation on the virus tendencies, successful treatment etc. 

(Thanks to Katarzyna Sadowska for sharing this update from Naples, Italy.)




Proactive Self-Care Is Essential for Ministers, Especially in Times Like These

pastor self care

Long before we knew that concerns related to the COVID-19 virus would shift churches from in-person gatherings to online communities, those serving in the clergy and other caring vocations were considered to be more at risk for burnout and depression than other professions.

Recent studies indicate that stress, burnout and mental fatigue have been becoming more intense among clergy for years, leading even some of the most devout ministers to leave ministry.

While no one knows the exact percentage of ministers who experience depression, long before COVID-19 concerns were on the radar, Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University suggested, “The likelihood is that one out of every four ministers is depressed.”

Like many other care-giving vocations, ministry is tough on the mind, body, and emotions. Simply put, those who care for the souls of others often find it difficult to work in time to take care of themselves. But proactive self-care is essential for ministers, especially during times like these.

Self-care includes developing and maintaining healthy practices that promote and preserve good physical, spiritual and mental well-being.

While these three areas of wellness are intertwined and inseparable, in my own life and the experience of many of my colleagues, I recognize that prioritizing physical and spiritual health to the exclusion of mental health, usually results in the diminishment of all three.

In his book, “Surviving the Stained-Glass Jungle,” respected pastor (now deceased) Bill Self contended that, “Self-care is not destructive self-indulgence, but rather it is being a steward of some rather special gifts – the human body and soul, along with the capacity to bring joy to others as well as to experience it.”

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been checking in with dozens of other pastors. When I asked, “How are you doing?” their responses have mostly fallen into three categories:

  • “I’m doing okay most of the time, but I have my moments.”
  • “Some days my anxiety gets the best of me.”
  • “Pray for me. I’m not sure how I am going to get through this.”

If you are a minister and you are feeling a little frazzled, you are not alone. It’s no wonder the anxiety of ministers is elevated. Think about it. When the crisis hit, we jumped into ministry overdrive:

  • We are ministering to a highly anxious group of people in our congregations and surrounding communities.
  • We have been called on to make a large number of pivotal decisions about online worship schedules, campus closures, pastoral visitation, virtual committee meetings, electronic giving initiatives, expense reduction strategies, and staff schedules, all in an extremely short period of time.
  • Almost everything in our course of work is transitioning, including the way we connect for worship, the way we communicate with our congregation, the way we do pastoral care, the way we perform weddings, the way we officiate funerals, and the way we relate to our colleagues.
  • Many of us thrive on personal contact with our parishioners, but now we are temporarily limited to impersonal contact with them.

We don’t know how long this season of elevated concern will last. Although we can hope for a return to smaller in-person gatherings in the near future, it is likely that some of the precautionary guidelines such as limited physical contact and reduced group sizes will continue for months, not weeks.

As we navigate these uncharted waters, it is imperative that we practice healthy self-care, or our energy and creativity will fizzle when our people need us most.

As we upgrade our commitment to caring for ourselves so we can better care for others, I offer the following suggestions:

  • Deepen your devotional life. The further we progress in ministry, the easier it becomes to neglect personal growth.
  • If you are married, make your marriage a priority. We can’t put our marriage on cruise control, or we will likely lose our marriage and our ministry.
  • Strengthen connections with your colleagues. The adventure ahead requires that we become even more collegial. Though this requires doing so from a distance for the time being, we can use technology to maintain and strengthen relationships.
  • Practice sabbath consistently. Though our “ox” might be in the proverbial ditch for a week or two, it is urgent that we return to the practice of sabbath, taking an off day, and temporarily disconnecting from media as soon as possible. Carey Nieuwhof reminds us that, “Leaders who never take a break, end up breaking.”
  • Become even more flexible. Ministry has always required a certain amount of elasticity, but this chapter will require outside-the-box thinking and extraordinarily adaptive leadership.
  • Upgrade your “EQ.” I don’t think it is realistic for anyone to be a completely non-anxious presence, but healthy emotional intelligence (also referred to as emotional quotient) enables us to be less-anxious presence in highly anxious times.
  • Be transparent with your congregation. Let them know that you love them and that you are honored to lead them. But also let them know that we are now pioneers on a new adventure going “where no congregation has gone before.”

Life in the stained-glass jungle has unique rewards and challenges. Self-care is absolutely essential.

Bill Self reminded us that, “It takes courage to take care of yourself. One of the hallmarks of a professional is the ability to keep healthy – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. You must take responsibility for yourself and not expect others to take the initiative to care for you.”

Practicing good self-care can empower a pastor to be mentally sharp, emotionally balanced, and spiritually perceptive in all seasons, even times like these.

(Barry Howard is a pastoral counselor and leadership coach who currently serves as pastor of the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta.)