By: Rev. Lee Roorda Schott
I heard a hopeful word recently. It was in a podcast about church leadership, where these two guys told me, “Welcome to your first day on the job!”
They were talking to me, because I’m among the many of us who began ministry at our current churches in 2020. You might have arrived in your place earlier or later, but you, too, can get in on this hopefulness.
The message I found hopeful went like this: When we look at what we’ve accomplished over the last couple of years or—as some of us feel—how little we’ve managed to accomplish (!), we ought to treat 2020 and 2021 as having been “ripped out of the timeline.”
So says author and church leader Thom Rainer, whose work I first met more than a decade ago through his book Simple Church. He is a prolific author—including a book he wrote in eighteen days (!) at the start of the pandemic—and he wants to help churches and leaders make sense of the leadership and ministry in the post-quarantine world.
He describes looking at a timeline, “and 2019 is here” (and we have to imagine him holding a hand up there) “and then I’m putting up my other hand [at 2022]. What happened was, we took out that piece of the timeline…, and [by] the time we looked at it, everything accelerated by two years or more.”
Rainer doesn’t mean that nothing we did in 2020 or 2021 mattered. We aren’t asked to pretend those years didn’t happen. (As if we could.) The tears, the laughter, the accomplishments, the disappointments: All of those still matter, for better and for worse. Those memories belong.
Still, there is a freedom in acknowledging that when we count time, when we hold one another accountable for time, we ought to imagine that those two years were, literally, pulled out of the sequence. Whatever you’d expect to do, to accomplish, to achieve, to move forward over a multi-year period in the life of the church? Take those two years out. “Rip them out of the timeline,” as Thom Rainer says.
I find this idea surprisingly freeing. It takes a weight off of my shoulders.
Now, of course I haven’t just sat around for two years after arriving at my current church (Valley UMC in West Des Moines). We worked on a lot of things during that time. We upgraded our livestream and sound system. We overhauled our website, and we celebrated the church’s 50th anniversary with great joy. We also spent a lot of time managing week-to-week changes in COVID threats and protocols, and sitting with questions about the future, and scheduling volunteers, and creating at-home kits for Lent and Advent, and addressing many losses and hurts along the way. I feel pretty good about getting through all this in one piece.
But on the big-picture work that I was asked to tackle upon my arrival—questions of mission and vision, growth in discipleship, outreach to our community—I truly cannot claim anything close to the progress I’d like to have seen after two years here. We’ve made some small gains. I’m glad for those. But on the whole it’s been like leading through quicksand. Each step unsteady and only partial, as we’ve longed for something firm on which to stand.
So this podcast exchange between Thom Rainer and Carey Nieuwhof felt freeing to me:
Thom: [H]ere's the other thing about it, Carey. You have to write off two years now. Basically you have to write off '20 and '21.
Carey: Yeah, reset. So if you started in 2020, welcome to your first day on the job, right?
Thom: This is your first day on the job, and you have to treat it as that way.
That same adjustment is true whether it’s year 10 or month 10. We’ve all been through something, as has every one of the people in our churches and communities. We find ourselves, as Thom and Carey went on to discuss, in a different world than the one in which we learned to “do church.”
Acknowledging this “ripped timeline” doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. We have work to do, in order to move forward. Thom Rainer names two tools that are going to be critical for us: First, “find a way to be that continuous learner, because you have to learn the culture that you're in, right now, in order to move forward.” And second? Tenacity. Here’s how he summarizes all this:
“Have that grit and just hang in there, but be a learner, because if you want to do church the way that you've always done it, you will not be the pastor that you want to be.”
You could say this all sounds like a lot of work, and you’re right. The demands of ministry are not letting up! But I do find it’s a lot easier to tackle them if I’ve set aside my anxiety over what I haven’t gotten done, in these pandemic-riddled years. Just hearing that put into words has helped me lay that burden down. If you’re a pastor, I hope you find the same is true. If you have a pastor, I hope you’ll help them hear these words.
And so we step on into Day 2, and Day 3—already knowing the code to the copier and where the spare keys are kept. And having come to love (already!) these people God has asked us to pastor. And on we go, in the strength of the Spirit. A little lighter.