What Church Leaders Are (Really) Thinking in 2020

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

A Simpler Way to Navigate a Complex Future


Yes, there’s a ton of change happening right now. And it’s exhausting.

As complex as things are, having a simple framework to navigate the change will make the task ahead much easier.

If you want to position yourself for the future, my brand new online training, the 30-Day Pivot, will show you how to develop your agility as a leader and as an organization to position yourself for growth.

The 30-Day Pivot is a simple 3-step process you and your team can utilize every as often as every 30 days to respond to the change around you and capitalize on it.

In the 30-Day Pivot, you’ll learn:
  • A simple 3-step process your team can use to arrive at your next pivot in 90 minutes or less.
  • An approach that fosters team-generated innovation.
  • An implementation and evaluation framework that will help your team move quickly and accurately.
I’ve led teams through multiple pivots, and in the 30 Day Pivot, I show you the strategy and framework you need to make quick, accurate and responsive moves that can position your organization for growth, even in the midst of deep uncertainty and change.

Some organizations and churches will thrive in the new normal.

Others won’t.

While the future is uncertain, yours doesn’t have to be.

You can learn more and gain instant access to the 30 Day Pivot here.

What Are You Feeling?

I’m so glad we’re in this season together. Sometimes, just naming what you’re feeling or thinking can be the first step to addressing it.

What are you feeling?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

As much as you wish things were getting easier in church leadership, they're not. Here are 10 things church leaders are really thinking in 2020.


  1. Casey Caver on June 28, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    This is a great article and much of what I am feeling now. Please pray for this going pastor and his church as I know that I refuse to give up because I know that God has so much more for me to do!!!

  2. Barrett Duke on June 25, 2020 at 5:44 pm

    Carey, Spot on analysis and advice. I especially appreciate the fact that you offer advice on what to do in response to the feelings leaders are having. Do you mind if I run this in my newsletter article next week? Of course, I’ll credit you as the source.
    Barrett Duke
    Executive Director-Treasurer
    Montana Southern Baptist Convention

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 25, 2020 at 6:43 pm

      Absolutely! Go for it!

  3. Kyron Green on June 24, 2020 at 4:25 pm


    Thanks for this post. I am an occasional listener to your podcast and appreciate the information you share. However, this post saddens me. In reading it, I feel like it was a reflection of many White Christian leaders’ sentiments. Please note that I say “feel.” I don’t have stats or direct evidence to refer to substantiate this gut feeling.

    Maybe, I’m jaded. Hearing that leaders are too tired to address the things they know they need to fix is genuinely soul-crushing. It seems that before this season, back when leaders’ energy has high, they had little enthusiasm for social issues outside of abortion, especially in comparison to racial reconciliation. It seems as if the bulk of energies were used to maintain normality. Honestly, how racial divides within the church isn’t it’s own separate thought on the list is telling. Though the article doesn’t clearly state it, I assume that maybe it is meant to fall under items that leaders are too tired to fix. As a young Black leader who has tried to consult, minister, and build with White churches for years to hear that this is “too hard” is insulting. The trade-offs that so many people of color have made to attend PWC’s not to mention the challenges they confront to live, and now a few months of pandemic and racial tensions are straining for leaders? Seriously? The bulk of the article seems to communicate that leader’s primary concern is getting back to normal. If that is true, it so very scary to me. If leaders are not finding the will to step up now, how will they find it when the new normalcy takes over?

    I don’t mean to minimize any leader here. I don’t know them or their ministry. You have a tough job, and finding places to be vulnerable is difficult. Please don’t lose that. I pray you will reflect on some of these thoughts and be blessed for it. I want to provide feedback on how some people may receive this article.

    May God bless us all to grow and complete the work given unto us with grace, love, and joy.

  4. Mark on June 23, 2020 at 7:52 pm

    “Besides, you’re a relational person. You love ministering to people you can see, touch and engage with personally.” This might have been the case until this year in traditional settings. In the modern world, ministry to people far removed has to become reality. Some may not even use their real name. I have been saying for years that and been thankful for internet ministry via blogs and open comment boxes. It was something done out of generosity while typically kept separate from the rest of a church’s ministries. For starters, what was discussed on those blogs might have caused heart attacks if revealed from the pulpit. Yet, those topics were the ones with which people were struggling. Sometimes a paragraph in response to a question is more than has ever been cumulatively provided for an answer. Other times, a simple “I’m always available” means a whole lot. I don’t know if seminaries have ever considered a class on ministry to people whose names you may never know and whose face you will never see. I think it is necessary.

  5. Joe Jansen on June 23, 2020 at 11:12 am

    Great thought provoking post! The challenge for me is stopping to get rest. The machine of ministry and work keeps chugging along and it’s difficult to get off. Thanks for the great observations and advice!

  6. Sue on June 23, 2020 at 9:11 am

    It’s so hard right now when the only way to engage with our people is online and it’s the thing we want to do least at the moment!

  7. Aubrey Brown (Pastor) on June 23, 2020 at 7:50 am

    very timely for me as a pastor, thank you so much

  8. Aubrey Brown (Pastor) on June 23, 2020 at 7:48 am

    Very timely, I have need this. Been concerned for many days.

  9. Richard Dawson on June 22, 2020 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks Carey. Another important reflection for leaders to hear. Here in New Zealand we’re a little ahead of the pack because of the way the government handled the pandemic and most churches are back and have been back for some weeks now. We have a mid sized congregation with around 180-200 attending on Sundays. This swelled to near 300 when we went on line for the first few weeks and then settled back to around the 200 mark by the end of lockdown.
    I loved the convenience of church on line and we developed a great production team during that 12 week period which we’ve now transitioned to take the meetings on line every Sunday. This is has been a lot of work but on Sunday we had about 20 people using our on line facility which we think will grow.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 22, 2020 at 7:30 pm

      That’s great to hear!

  10. Tim on June 22, 2020 at 1:05 pm

    How do you navigate all of this as a bi-vocational pastor who is already worn out before the virus even hit?

  11. Christie on June 22, 2020 at 11:24 am

    Dear Carey, thank you for this post. So much resonates with me as well. Not only have the things the entire world are grappling with, real life personal stuff hasn’t slowed down to make room for it either. I was worried about my marriage, a dear friend, family member, and mentor died unexpectedly this past week and due to COVID there was no service. To top it all off, I made the mistake of letting my emotions out on a dear friend and colleague. I had felt he had abandoned me during this hard season and I asked him why. He asked me to never text, e-mail, or call him again. In light of all of this, church is still going very well. So I cling to that…maybe I’m not messing everything up…a lot of things…but maybe not everything. Thank you for listening. Thank you for sharing our wisdom and experiences. Thank you for being vulnerable with your followers. I look forward to opening your e-mails every morning.

    • Tom Lathen on June 22, 2020 at 11:28 am

      Gosh I hear you. I had what I thought was a friendship sort of disappear. I am not completely sure why. I apologized, and haven’t heard a word since. I actually forwarded this blog post to my friend today. Yes, another pastor.
      God bless you, hang in there.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 22, 2020 at 7:42 pm

      Hey Christie,

      I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Under your circumstances, it would be really easy to let out some emotions unintentionally. Hopefully, your colleague will come around.

      I’ll keep trying to help how I can.

  12. Rebecca Smith on June 22, 2020 at 10:19 am

    This is all too true for me! I have been in ministry for several decades and I appreciate your naming the losses, that “ministry is a series of ungrieved losses.” I think that is especially true for clergy leaders who have been serving for a long time. Thank you for putting into words so much of what I’m experiencing… and am hoping this will help my church leaders understand better the dynamics of our current landscape as well as the challenges God is giving us for healthy missional efforts.

  13. Cameron on June 22, 2020 at 9:55 am

    We’ve felt all these too. Something else we hate to admit is we’re so busy speaking vision for new and importance of connection, which takes longer without Sunday meeting in person, that we’re not having time to really seek Gods direction for His new. We feel pressure that if we don’t start strategically bringing in new soon that by waiting too long people will be forced into old yet we know this is such an opportune time to let God move radically yet were struggling to just clear our mind and seek Gods counsel and strategy. Sometimes jealous of others who have so much time and comment how much getting done and quality time when were busier now than pre-covid. The sad nice aspect is Sundays are now our day of rest when previously our busiest days.

    • Brenda on June 22, 2020 at 2:20 pm

      So much this!!!!!! Nailed it on the head with this comment.

  14. Josh on June 22, 2020 at 9:49 am

    Thank you for putting into words how I have been feeling for weeks now.

  15. John Adams on June 22, 2020 at 9:20 am

    Perfect. Thanks, Carey. 🙂

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 23, 2020 at 6:43 am

      Thanks John and Josh for the encouragement!

  16. Tom Lathen on June 22, 2020 at 9:16 am

    It’s like you are reading my mind. I have been a Licensed Local Pastor in the United Methodist Church about a year. Talk about a learning curve. I have thought about quitting, but I know that is not the right decision. I also have a Monday-Friday job, and the stress of the two positions is sometimes pretty tough.
    Without faith, without my living wife, I would have busted by now.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 22, 2020 at 7:43 pm


      Please be sure to take care of yourself Tom. Burnout is absolutely something to be avoided if you can.

      Cheering you on,


  17. Brian on June 22, 2020 at 9:14 am

    Great stuff as always, but to point 1 – what of the times when you think (with a semi-clear head) “my time with my church was coming to its natural end, even before Corona hit?” How does one separate what could have been (or could still be) a chance to leave well, with the sensation that walking away now is tied to Corona?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 23, 2020 at 6:44 am

      Brian that’s a BIG question. I would process that personally with the wisest, most godly people you know. That’s a big question. And obviously, with your own prayers. 🙂

  18. Scott Brooks on June 22, 2020 at 9:12 am

    Thanks for writing this. I pegged out on most of them. Keep leading Carey. I know so many pastors who are reading you and it’s helping us keep our head above water.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 22, 2020 at 7:44 pm

      Glad to help!

  19. Walter Swaim on June 22, 2020 at 9:02 am

    Once again, you nailed it Carey. In late April when our governor lifted restrictions and church could reopen with guidelines I had a meeting with my core team of leaders (small church, I’m only paid staff, all volunteers ranging from their 30’s to 60’s), laid out a plan with those guidelines to open for services, wanted their input and I was so encouraged by the end of it and excited. They all agreed to moving ahead and opening with our guidelines. The reality hit after when on the first Sunday after that, and since, over half of them still stayed home (most live blocks away and are normally active throughout the week indoors and outdoors). My point though is this…when you start leading your people only to look back and find few to none are following, you’re probably at the end of your effectiveness as a leader there (even after 15 years of proven service). That is the worse thing to experience right now for me…might need to add that as number 11.

  20. Richard H on June 22, 2020 at 8:59 am


    It’d take part of the stress off me if the pandemic response wasn’t built so much around partisan politics. If we could identify the way forward ONLY paying attention to the basics of the Gospel, theology, vision for ministry, and health advice, and ramping up tech use, that’d be hard enough. But when health advice (especially) is now politicized it’s really tiring.

    • Walter Swaim on June 22, 2020 at 9:03 am

      Infinite amens to that brother.

    • Josh on June 22, 2020 at 9:52 am

      100%. Politics have taken an extremely complex moment and made it feel almost impossible at times. Very insightful comment Richard. Thanks for sharing!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 23, 2020 at 6:44 am

      Very very true. The politics involved in the church right now is deeply disheartening and often crosses the line into idolatry.

  21. Dave Hess on June 22, 2020 at 8:40 am

    Insightful post. Thank you, Carey!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on June 23, 2020 at 6:44 am

      Thanks Dave!

      • Matt on June 23, 2020 at 8:06 am

        What a fantastic post, Carey. I pegged out on most of these. Yesterday my wife and I headed to the mountains for some time away and to celebrate our 40th. I have been tired mentally and emotionally for several weeks and you verbalized what I have been feeling. You are right about the need for rest to fuel leadership. Thanks for your blog and podcasts. They have been so helpful for me during this season of ministry and chaos.

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