Ministry Journey Blog

Thoughts on Ministry

20 May

Reflections on Leading Worship Post Covid-19

Posted in Uncategorized on 20.05.20 by Merlyn

While I am not serving full time in a church setting, I have been filling in from time to time in various churches. On Sunday May 10, I led worship and preached at a church for the first time since the Covid-19 restrictions went into place. It was the first time this church of under 25 was meeting in 8 weeks.

During the pandemic, I have been diligently working to think through the implications of Covid-19 on the church, much like I would when I was serving full time in a church. I did this in order to help churches in the midst of the pandemic as a part of my work for Preparing for Amazement Ministries. 

I have had a distinct advantage during this time not serving in a church, as it gave me the time and ability to see from the outside without being in the middle of the crisis. I had the disadvantage of not having to make the decisions pastors were making, so I have and will remain cautious about offering unsolicited advice.

As I walked in to the church building I knew it would be one of the more unique and unfamiliar experiences in my life in spite of stepping into church buildings to lead most Sundays for about two decades.

I had taken plenty of time to think through the big picture, the meta issues if you will. The big implications, challenges and opportunities.

I spent more than adequate time thinking through the little stuff: communion, greeting, offering plates, masks and more.

What I had not thought about was the spiritual tone of this time and the need to create a spiritual transition as a part of the service. I should have thought about this, but even if I had, I also know my ability to do so would be limited. The truth is I needed to be in the worship space and in the moment, listening to the whisper of the Holy Spirit to know I needed to say and do something. I needed to listen carefully in order to offer my best, meager offering of words of transition.

After doing so, I found myself exhausted, yet certain it was needed, critical in fact.

While we were back in worship, we were not back to normal and never will be.

It took me a couple days to process it all. I feel called to share the experience, for what it’s worth, not as advice, but in hope it may be helpful to some.

In any crisis it is critical to name and frame the challenges, yet also point to hope. This reality was the framework for my brief, pre-sermon (or bonus sermon) comments.

I shared honestly with this congregation that this crisis has caused people all around the world, perhaps for the first time, to simultaneously experience a shared, corporate grief. We are grieving all kinds of losses: temporary, perceived loss of freedom, loss of routine, loss of certainty, economic loss and more. I shared with the congregation that Covid-19 presents many challenges for the church, and we need to name those and rather than fight them, work with them. I mentioned that the old normal is gone and will not return. I pointed to the reality that God is speaking to us in this, slowing us down, showing us what have become idols in our lives. I concluded by noting that the greatest cost of this pandemic will be the toll it takes on mental health.

I then made a transition to pointing to hope. I put most of my time, effort and energy into this portion of my remarks. I shared that Covid-19 has presented many opportunities for the church and for followers of Jesus. I reminded these faithful Christians that God redeems all things. While God did not cause Covid-19, God can use it for good as he does all things: good, bad and ugly. I reminded the people of the power of slowing down and hearing the whisper of the Holy Spirit and that this crisis can be seen as a gift now and going forward. I reminded them that a new normal will emerge and that this new normal could be a more beautiful normal for them, for the church and for the world. I encouraged them to ask themselves what the Holy Spirit might be saying to them. I encouraged us all to ask ourselves what has Covid-19 made possible.

It was not my best, most polished oration, yet I know the Spirit was speaking because while I have thought about these things, I do not think I could have the wisdom, courage and clarity I did in that moment if it were not being directed by the Holy Spirit.

Many faithful, church-going Christians are desperate to get back to normal. It would seem natural to just walk back into church as if nothing happened, perhaps with different ways of doing greeting, communion, offering and with some masks and hand sanitizer. To do so would be understandable, but spiritually speaking might be a mistake. Scott Cormode of Fuller Seminary notes that as pastors and ministry leaders, we are to be ‘spiritual interpreters,’ pointing our people to the bigger spiritual narrative at play in the midst of the events of this world. For any pastor or ministry leader, there has not been a more important and critical time to take the time to point to the spiritual story at play than in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For all the time I have spent reflecting on Covid-19 and the implications for the church, I almost missed the most important thing. The need to create an honest, healthy, spiritual transition for the people we lead.

Rev. Dr. Marcus J. Carlson

Executive Director, Preparing for Amazement Ministries

www.amazed15.org

www.revdrorange.com

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21 Apr

3 Big Things Ministry Leaders Need to Consider in the Midst of Covid-19

Posted in Uncategorized on 21.04.20 by Merlyn

Covid-19 has quickly changed the world in unprecedented ways, especially the church. While parts of the pandemic and its implications are not unprecedented, many are, especially in the past 100 years.

As I continue to reflect on Covid-19, the church and ministry, there are three big things that all ministry leaders need to consider in the midst of Covid-19.

Corporate Grief is a Different Beast

Grief is always difficult and is most often a rather strange beast. While we are accustomed in ministry to dealing with individual grief and even moments of community grief, we have little to no real experience with corporate grief. Perhaps our only experience is from September 11. The primary emotion that we are experiencing with Covid-19 is in fact grief. Grief is not limited to loss of life, it is the real or perceived loss of anything. Covid-19 has brought a lot of loss: security, certainty, economic loss, relational loss, loss of routine, loss of freedom. For the first time in or memory, the entire country, the entire world is experiencing simultaneous, daily, corporate grief. This requires a different approach and is an issue that all ministry leaders will have to deal with. How will you address corporate grief?

Crisis Always Presents Challenges AND Opportunities

“Don’t waste a good crisis.” Donald Miller. In any crisis there are both challenges and opportunities. Its critical to name the challenges, but to focus on the opportunities. As followers of Jesus, we believe in redemption, the idea that God is making all things new. In any crisis, God makes good of it. As leaders, it is our job to make sure that we see the challenges for what they are, yet recognize there is no challenge that we can ever face that cannot be conquered by God, that there is no challenge that will be the end of us. Culturally, we tend to focus on the bad, the shortcomings and not consider the blessings, the gifts, the opportunities. Great leaders name the challenges, but they point to hope. Great leaders look for the opportunities and partner with God to leverage them for good. What are the challenges for you and those you lead in the midst of Covid-19? What are the opportunities presented to you and those you lead in the midst of this crisis?

The Old Normal is Gone – A New Normal Will Emerge

A lot of leaders, especially those in the church will be tempted to claw their way back to normal as the restrictions and crisis subside. This is naive at best, delusional and selfish at worse. The old normal is going and it is not coming back. This season of crisis is a season of transition. Just for the record, transition sucks. While a new normal will emerge, it doesn’t mean everything changes. At the same time, we will not have as much control over the new normal as we would like to think. We also cannot stick our heads in the sand and hope that it will go away. “Crisis is the cradle of innovation. Crisis challenges your methods, but it can give new life to your mission.” Carey Nieuwhof. Much of what will change is our methods. We tend to worship our methods, often at the cost of our mission, especially in crisis. As leaders, we need to be looking to and for the new normal and reflect on how we can achieve our mission in the new normal. We need to be willing to change our method for the sake of our mission. Now, more than in our lifetime, we have less certainty and clarity about what the new normal might look like, but that does not mean we cannot begin to think, examine and reflect. Are you thinking about, reflecting on and preparing for the new normal?


The ministry I lead, Preparing for Amazement Ministries is leading some free open forums on these topics. You can learn more here.

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20 Feb

Generosity

Posted in Uncategorized on 20.02.20 by Merlyn

Having served in ministry in some capacity for over 20 years now, I have learned so much and have been blessed by the growth that comes from working in ministry settings. It has not always been easy, pleasant or joyful, but it has always brought me closer to Jesus. 

A particular area of growth has been growth in generosity. This generosity has not just been financial (though that is where the greatest growth has happened), but in many other areas as well. I have learned to be more generous with my time. I have learned to be more generous in assuming the good in people, taking a posture of optimism and hope. I have grown in generosity in forgiveness, seeking forgiveness and apologizing. While I can, need to and will continue to grow in each of these areas, I am thankful for the grace of God, the good and tough lessons of ministry and the many people the Holy Spirit has used in my life to help me grow in the generosity Christ calls me to.

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18 Jan

The Other Side of the Curtain

Posted in Uncategorized on 18.01.20 by Merlyn

One of the strangest things to experience as a pastor is looking for a new church. Like most pastors, I have primarily attended the chruches I have served other than weekends off or a couple Sundays here and there. For the first time in a long time, my family and I are searching for a church to attend. Other than a couple months between jobs, we have not done this at all before. 

Visiting chruches as a pastor is interesting. I am not a consumer, nor am I finding myself making comparisons or critiques. That said, I know a lot about various chruches and churches in general and so that makes things tricky. What is nice is going to a church and not worrying about any of the details, sleeping in, showing up 10-15 minutes before it starts and simply sitting and worshipping.

Listening to a good sermon is a great gift and a meaningful experience. Simply put, it is wonderful to worship with my family.

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21 Dec

Leaving

Posted in Uncategorized on 21.12.19 by Merlyn

No matter the reason, leaving a ministry position is hard. For most pastors and ministry leaders, at least those who are professionals who care, a lot has been invested. Leaving comes with grief. Grief comes with a lot of feelings. Sadness, hope, excitement, loss, anger, shame, denial, guilt, frustration and blame just to name a few. I have yet to perfectly handle leaving, but even though I left due to some concerns, I am working hard to make this my best departure yet. I love the church and its people and want nothing but the best for it. I have invested nearly everything that I have and am into this church for the last 6.5 years and want to do all I can in the final month to leave well and to leave it well. A key part of leaving well is recognizing that everyone, even those who are happy about a departure struggle with fear and grief. Fear and grief make us do, believe and say the strangest things. I am reminded of the words of Jesus, ‘love covers a multitude of sins.’

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19 Nov

Next Season

Posted in Uncategorized on 19.11.19 by Merlyn

It is a season of change and transition for me, one that is clearly from God. 

On October 10, I submitted my resignation as Senior Pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Auburn, IN. It was a painful decision, but the right one.

Ultimately this decision was the decision that was best for my health and the health and well being of my family. God speaks to us in a variety of ways; through the scriptures, through others, through suffering, through circumstances and more. In all my life, never have I heard God speak more clearly before, during and in hindsight than I have on this decision. It’s been laughable in many ways. I have also had a ton of support from family and friends. Jessica and I have seen a dramatic drop in blood pressure, positive change in the disposition of our kids and more interest in faith from both kids than we have seen in at least two years. I leave with no regrets at all and for that I am thankful.

Certainly there is some sadness and grief and a little bit of fear as well. That said, we also have some excitement and most importantly a great sense of peace. We remain thankful and ask for your prayers for our family as we trust God and seek clarity out what is next.

As to whats next, stay tuned for more about that soon. Exciting things ahead!

Much Love,

Marcus

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19 Oct

Support Matters

Posted in Uncategorized on 19.10.19 by Merlyn

One of the major issues for pastors, especially in terms of longevity is receiving support. Support is important to all leaders. It needs to be seen, heard and experienced. Support has to be tangible especially in seasons of discouragement, high stress and high expectation. October is pastor appreciation month in an attempt to help with support. I think fewer than 5% of people in a church recognize this at all. This year, I have decided to post a word of support for a different pastor or ministry leader I know each day in October. Support and encouragement matter. We all need it. This is especially true in ministry where expectations and demands are high, encouragement and positive feedback are minimal and stress and trauma are a part of the job. Be sure to show the pastors and staff in your church tangible support in any way that you can!

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20 Sep

Revitalization

Posted in Uncategorized on 20.09.19 by Merlyn

One of my deep passions is the revitalization of existing churches. Revitalization is not easy, but it is important and is of great value. It is not as attractive or fun as planting churches, but throughout the United States we have many wonderful churches of varying sizes and traditions filled with people who love Jesus and the church, but have no idea how to proceed in reaching people and being the church today. We have found that most of our requests for consulting services and seminars have been coming from churches desiring revitalization and as always we design our service to any church around what they need, not based on a particular formula, package, program or approach. Every church is different and at the heart of our mission is to see churches amazed by what God can do in and through them as the Holy Spirit brings life to the church they love. As always, feel free to contact us with questions.

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16 Sep

Kids are off Limits

Posted in Uncategorized on 16.09.19 by Merlyn

When you are a leader, you are always under a microscope. While aspects of this are unfair and wrong, most of it is legitimate, necessary and important. When you are a leader, people are looking to you for….leadership.

Whether you are a leader in government, church, military, education, the non-profit or corporate world, people will always be looking to you for leadership. Whether you are a person of faith or not, as a leader you need to be a person of character. Character matters deeply. Character is what you say and do, most significantly when no one is looking or listening. If you are a person of faith, character is even more important and the Bible makes it crystal clear that the standard and expectations are higher for leaders. This is the reality of leadership, people rightly expect more of you. If you cannot handle this or do not like it, do not lead. 

As a leader, the microscope can be hard, intimidating, hurtful and frustrating. It can also make you a better person and a better leader. While as a leader, every area of your life is under a microscope and that is right, it is not always reasonable. 

For the leadership microscope to examine your behavior, your character, your words, your morality and your leadership is entirely reasonable and fair. For the leadership microscope to examine your hair, clothing, your weight, your wealth, race or gender is unreasonable, unfair and is not right. 

Leaders certainly need to have thick skin and have to accept the reality of the leadership microscope, but they also are called to speak out against the places where the microscope does not belong. As for the fair and reasonable parts of the leadership microscope, embrace them. Allow the examination of your life to build your character and humility. Examine the comments you receive for they all have at least a kernel of truth, even the most ridiculous, uninformed and unfair comments. 

While there is much debate about the nature and the place of the leadership microscope, there is one area where we can all agree it does not belong, is on the children of leaders. Kids are off limits. They are children and need to be protected from the leadership microscope. It is not the job of the the people and organization you lead to judge your kids or your parenting. While it takes a village to raise a child, your children are off limits to the leadership microscope. The village should only help where invited or where a deeper relationship exists.

The children of leaders are not leaders, they are children. When I say kids, I do not mean those 18 and under. When I say kids, I speak developmentally, those who are 25 and under because its not until that age at the earliest that the brain is fully developed. Children are off limits. Its not right or fair to criticize or attack the children of leaders for their behavior. Children tend to act like, well, children. Adolescents tend to act like—adolescents. They are just children. They did not choose to be children of leaders. They do not belong under the leadership microscope. They are to be left alone. They are off limits whether they are children of leaders in government, church, education, military, non-profit and the corporate world. Children are off limits. They already are forced to live in the limelight of leadership, being known by far more people than they could ever know, constantly being watched, constantly being evaluated. It is incredibly destructive. They are just children, leave them alone. They are off limits. 

Recently, I intentionally dyed parts of my hair bright orange. Orange, because it is my favorite color. I used a color that is not a natural and normal hair color to make a point. The point was simple: as a pastor and a leader, I am not community property. Its not anyones business what my hair style looks like. My children are not community property either. The second reason I did this to my hair was to protect my children. They were getting too much of the leadership microscope. They were experiencing a lot of judgment about things that do not matter. My 11 year old, sensitive, adolescent daughter received some snarky and hurtful comments about her hair from some that I lead. It happened in a place that is supposed to be a safe place. After too much of the leadership microscope, both my children don’t want much to do with that organization I lead and that is a tragedy. So I am using this opportunity to make a point, to stick up for my kids, to distract from them, to remind them that I love them more than my leadership, my work or those I lead. I am also doing it to make a point about where the leadership microscope does and does not belong with me and with the rest of my family. 

Children, children are off limits.

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16 Aug

Sabbatical Reflections Part 1

Posted in Uncategorized on 16.08.19 by Merlyn

This summer, I had a 9 week sabbatical. Actually, it was technically 6 weeks with 2 weeks continuing ed and 1 week vacation. Nonetheless, I thought it helpful, if only for myself, to take some time to reflect on both my sabbatical and return on this blog.

What I Realized on Sabbatical Part 1

One of my first and most significant realizations was that I need to be less emotionally invested in my ministry, in my full time work. That doesn’t mean I should not care or be emotionally invested at all. It does mean, that while my identity is not rooted in ministry, I am too emotionally invested in the challenges, outcomes and drama in my full time ministry call. While I can separate on vacation and sabbatical, I recognized a need to separate some each evening in order to recharge and give my full self at home. While I have worked hard to have good boundaries with my family and spend meaningful time with my kids, I recognized I needed to think less about work at home to give more emotionally to my family.

What I Realized returning from Sabbatical Part 1

Returning was not easy and I knew that would be the case. I also knew that if I came back to negativity instead of positivity, it would be especially difficult. Good leaders work themselves out of a job. Good leaders lead in a way that if they get hit by a bus, there is sadness, but life goes on. Good leaders lead in a way where when they are gone, things can function but they are missed enough to know they are needed.

The most important lesson that I learned in my return is the leadership matters. We underestimate the value of leadership not just in terms of the daily function, but also in terms of vision and managing conflict. While others are capable of leading we lead best when we lead together. Leadership matters. Its easy in the church to get caught up in the joys or challenges of the moment and not gain a perspective on the bigger picture. One of the first things I needed to do upon my return was paint a picture of the bigger picture, especially in this season of staff transition in the church I serve.

That may seem like a lot, but it also feels like the tip of the iceberg as I continue to reflect on sabbatical and adjust to my return. More next month!

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