What Church Leaders Are (Really) Thinking in 2020

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As much as you wish things were getting easier in church leadership, they don’t appear to be heading in that direction.

If anything, things are more complicated than they were a month ago. And infinitely more complicated than they were a year ago.

My guess is you’ve had a thousand different thoughts rush through your mind (and heart) in 2020, not all of them, well, great.

This post was inspired by a clever and accurate post my friend Rich Birch wrote on his blog recently outlining some thoughts church staff had but wouldn’t tell their senior leaders.

I thought I’d pop into the senior leader’s head and see if anything resonates.

Please hear the tone behind this post. I’m with you as a leader.

I’ve cried actual tears for church leaders in this season and I empathize deeply with how challenging this moment is.

Yes, this is a hard time. But you will make it through. The capital C church will make it through, and it will thrive.

Sometimes naming what you’re feeling brings things to the surface you didn’t even realize were there. And yes, I’ve personally struggled with most—if not all–of these.

So what are you really thinking as a church leader in 2020?

See if any of these ten things resonate.

1. I don’t know how much longer I can do this

Right now, most leaders are more tired than they’ve ever been.

I interviewed Levi and Jennie Lusko recently to talk about the coronavirus crisis, racial reconciliation and how they, their family and church were responding.

Levi gave me a great metaphor. He said we feel this exhaustion because we didn’t know we were running a triathlon. It’s like we got to the end of our run, we thought we were finished, and someone handed us a bicycle and then told us later we also had to swim.


If you’re thinking about alternative careers, other things you can do with your life, or just taking a long, extended sabbatical, hang in there.

Never quit on a bad day. If you’re going to quit, do it on a good day. Hint: there aren’t a lot of good days right now. So hang in there.

Never quit on a bad day. Click To Tweet

In the meantime, please get the rest you need this summer (here are some simple ideas for better rest).

Taking a restorative break this summer is a great idea. A rested you is a much better you.

Leaders who never take a break end up breaking.

Leaders who never take a break end up breaking. Click To Tweet

2. I’m too tired to address the things I know I’m supposed to fix

So much is changing right now.

Long term disruptive trends that are causing decline and stagnation in the church are accelerating rapidly, and if you look at the list of issues to address and things to do, it’s arguably never been longer.

The longing you feel for everything to go back to normal is in part a natural reaction against the massive task ahead.

Denial is not a great strategy. But irrelevance and ineffectiveness are arguably worse.

So what can you do?

Get the rest you need, and lean into God and the team to give you the strength ahead to do what you need to do.

Denial is not a great strategy. But irrelevance and ineffectiveness are arguably worse.  Click To Tweet

3. My thoughts and emotions are a total yoyo

Many leaders right now are feeling yoyo emotions: up one minute, down the next, and everything in between.

I get it.

One of the first casualties, when I’m stressed, are my emotions.

Sometimes they go numb, and I feel nothing. Other times, they end up being completely inappropriate or disproportionate.

Physical rest and spiritual health are key to me keeping my emotions healthy.

Your emotions impact you, your family and your team.

While this is a season, just remember that emotionally healthy leaders tend to lead emotionally healthy teams. The opposite is also true.

Emotionally healthy leaders tend to lead emotionally healthy teams. The opposite is also true.  Click To Tweet

4. I’m angry at people for not coming back

Not only has the crisis accelerated long term trends of declining attendance, the possibility that many people aren’t coming back to church regularly even after coronavirus has lifted is also real.

And you’re angry at people who aren’t coming back.

If you’ve opened, you’re angry with healthy people who haven’t returned.

And if you haven’t even reopened yet,  you’re probably already mad at the people you think won’t return.

So what do you do?

Feel that emotion.

Pray through it.

Vent to a friend.

And then move on.

As you know, anger is a pretty ineffective evangelism strategy.

Anger is a pretty ineffective evangelism strategy.  Click To Tweet

5. I feel best about myself when the room is full

Oh this one’s so ugly you can’t even say it out loud.

But the truth is you only really feel great about yourself when the room is full.

And as much as you said you’d never do it, you’ve tied your identity to your success.

It’s hard to post that shot to Instagram when the room is empty or 25% full because of social distancing, or half as full as it used to be pre-virus.  And screenshotting your online numbers doesn’t quite give you the rush a full room used to.

You wish you didn’t feel best about yourself when the room is full. But you do.

I’m not saying this is good. I’m just saying for many of us, it’s just a little too true.

And if you really want to drill down, the people who benefitted most from the old ways are the most motivated to try to bring them back.

So you’ll either spend a lot of energy trying to make things the way they were before, or you’ll spend more time on your knees and with a therapist trying to break the idolatry of a full room.

As much as I hate that option, it’s probably the best one.

Most pastors feel best about themselves when the room is full. Click To Tweet

6. I like the convenience of church online more than I want to admit

I needed to buy some shorts and sandals for our summer vacation. I could have gone to the mall, but that’s minimum 2 hours with the drive.

So before writing this post, I spend 15 minutes online and picked up the shorts and sandals I needed. They’ll be here this week.

That’s convenient, and it’s been life (retail-wise) for years.

All my life, church has been an almost full Sunday morning commitment…sometimes longer. It has been for most of you reading this too.

What’s shocked me most in 2020 is how what was a full morning or almost full morning (I’m Founding Pastor now and not as involved in the day to day as I was when I was a Lead Pastor), when I’m not teaching it’s now down to about an hour on a Sunday.

That’s a big change.

If you pre-record your messages, maybe Sunday feels different than it used to.

Even when I teach live now on a Sunday in an empty room, if we get a good take of the message during the first service, I can finish up. After all, there’s no one in the room to talk to anyway besides a minimal crew.

As much as most church leaders have railed against the challenges of online church, you probably enjoy the convenience more than you want to admit.

As much as most church leaders have railed against the challenges of online church, you probably enjoy the convenience more than you want to admit. Click To Tweet

7. I hate the prospect of church online for the future

And that said—and as much as you like online shopping personally— you hate the prospect of church online for the future.

No one has done this before, and you were good at church in the old model.

Besides, you’re a relational person. You love ministering to people you can see, touch and engage with personally.

When it comes to ministry, the internet feels like a vapor.

And you’re not sure you’re up to it.

8. I’m not sure I or my team have the skillset for the next chapter

If you drill down further, you’re a little frightened.

No one trained you for this. There wasn’t a single class in seminary in online ministry.

Other people are better at the camera than you are. Your church isn’t really staffed for this.

Maybe you just don’t have the skillset for the next era of ministry.

And perhaps your staff doesn’t either. You didn’t hire your team for this moment.

And now you’re into something you didn’t sign up for.

The truth is you can probably learn the skill set and so can your team. It just takes time and energy.  Which takes up straight back to points 1-3 of this post.

Most church leaders' silent fear: I'm not sure me or my team has the skill set for the next chapter of ministry. Click To Tweet

9. I can’t handle any more change

2020 has been one thing stacked up on the other. You feel like everything is breaking – your routine, your systems, the economy, the culture…and you don’t know how to put it back together.

And as important as some of these things are, you just can’t take any more.

So please stop. Just stop.

Can we go back to normal? I know normal is dead. But I’d really like to go back.

Of course—and you know this too–change is unkind to the unprepared. But still…

Change is unkind to the unprepared. Click To Tweet

10. I haven’t taken any time to grieve

Everybody around you is grieving and craving a return to normal, and secretly so are you, but you know in your head you haven’t really processed much. You’ve been too busy.

And as a leader, what you do is cast vision and bury your grief because you’re afraid that if you stop, you’ll break.

And as a leader, what you do is cast vision and bury your grief because you're afraid that if you stop, you'll break. Click To Tweet

I can personally assure you that this is a little too true.

I spent a decade not grieving the losses that piled up, and it was a major factor in my burnout.

A mentor once told me that ministry is a series of ungrieved losses. He’s right. And now more than ever.

When you grieve your losses, you’re able to move through them to a new tomorrow.

So this summer, take time to rest…and grieve. You’ll come back with fresh energy.

The situation may not be any better, but you will be. And that’s what makes the difference.

This summer, take time to rest...and grieve. You'll come back with fresh energy. The situation may not be any better, but you will be. And that's what makes the difference.  Click To Tweet

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.