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THE EFFECT OF RE-ENTRY BURN ON LEADERS . . . WHAT EVERY CHURCHGOER SHOULD KNOW

Today, a powerful, transparent post from our teammate Jaime Hlavin about the rigor and stress of reentry into the public gatherings of our churches. Enjoy ~ John

Back at the end of May, the country watched NASA launch the SpaceX Crew Dragon toward the International Space Station. Our family sat glued to the coverage as we learned about various aspects and dangers of launching spacecraft from Earth and reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA defines atmospheric reentry as the “movement of an object from outer space into and through the gases of an atmosphere of a planet.”  When an object (or spacecraft) enters the atmosphere, it experiences what’s known as atmospheric drag. This drag, as well as aerodynamic heating from air compression in front of the object, puts enormous amounts of stress on the object. This level of stress can cause the object to lose mass, disintegrate, or explode. This is known as “reentry burn.”

Measures must be put in place to reduce this.

This picture of atmospheric reentry illustrates what pastors and leaders are experiencing right now as churches are opening up and things are getting back to “normal.” The words used above in describing reentry are poignant: stress, compression, heat, disintegration, and explosion. Many pastors and leaders can relate to that deeply right now.

As your church opens back up, please keep in mind that your pastors and leaders are probably already very tired. “But why?” you may ask. “They’ve had a three-month sabbatical to refuel, rejuvenate, and dream, right?”

Oh my.

As you read this, please hear our hearts. This isn’t meant to be a pity part post, but rather it is twofold in purpose. First, I am writing this on behalf of my friends in ministry who have confided in one another regarding the difficulty of this season because they love you deeply. Therefore, they feel like their mental health needs do not need to be projected onto their congregations—so they won’t tell you about it. Second, I want you, the Church, to have the best reentry experience to church as possible! You can help with that. Therefore, I feel it necessary to explain a little bit of what your pastors and leaders have been through.

First and foremost, everything that has happened in our cultural climate these past months affected them on a deeply personal level—aside from being the pastor. He or she most likely has strong emotions attached to everything that’s transpired regardless if they’ve made that information public or not. He or she has been grieved, outraged, and has desired solutions just like you did—and still do. So, there’s the personal pressure as just a normal human being. Your pastor is not a robot devoid of emotions.

But as a pastor or leader, I can assure you this time has not been a “break” in terms of the “job.” Dreaming has been put on hold as most leaders went into survival mode trying to figure out ways to be the Church in the midst of turmoil. Information came flying from all directions, rapid and ever-changing, requiring quick pivots of actions plans and public statements. All while trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy and ministry to the Body. And nearly nothing pastors and leaders said or did was completely correct. Someone was always upset, offended, confused, or had better ideas.

Many needed to quickly learn to navigate the frustration of relying solely on technology and screens to convey their hearts and messages—most of which are often best conveyed in person. Because of that, information was more likely to go viral. Therefore, complete strangers with bones to pick and axes to grind began reaching out to question, challenge, and discuss the words on a screen rather than the content of the heart.

This “break” was spent fielding deeply theological conversations from hurting and confused parishioners at a level like never before. And then as tensions continued to mount, pastors and leaders have mediated deeply divided relationships between parishioners—between friends. Relationships have suffered—and that devastates your pastor.

They also had to come up with ways, in addition to online church services and worship, to keep everyone connected and maintain that family feel we all love so much about church—whether it was live video, Zoom meetings and classes, virtual prayer meetings, phone calls, texts, social media encouragement, etc. All of this has been done in conjunction with navigating their own physical limitations, their own grief and sadness, their own political ideologies and their own suddenly-transformed family life (i.e. spouses working from home, online education for children, etc.).

Up to this point, most seminaries and Bible colleges that I know of haven’t offered classes on “How to Lead Through Unprecedented Times.” We’ve heard that word a lot . . . unprecedented. It means this stuff has never happened before so there are no best practices put in place to navigate it. I can assure you, your pastor and leaders have leaned more heavily than ever before on the Holy Spirit, wise counsel, and expert advice in order to tend to the needs the people he or she loves so much . . . namely, you.

So, your church is ready to reopen. You are excited. But to say your pastor is already emotionally, mentally, and spiritually exhausted would be an understatement. My fear is my friends and colleagues are not prepared for the “reentry burn” of coming back to church.  Our congregations may be ready to bust down the doors of the church and be part of ushering in Holy Spirit revival with lots of ideas and expectations of the way things are going to be. At this point, that kind of pressure may be enough to cause some pastors and leaders to disintegrate—much like the spacecraft that is not properly equipped to reenter the atmosphere.

I know you love your pastors and leaders. You want the best for them and for your churches. So, you’re probably wondering how you can help with reentry into the atmosphere of your churches. I have a few thoughts:

1. Extend a lot of grace

Chances are you’ve been attending your church for some time and you know your leaders. You know their track records. You know their hearts are for you. That hasn’t changed. There will be bumps in the road as they navigate this. There will be trial and error. Please extend the same level of grace you would want extended to you.

2. Adjust expectations

Your church may not look the way it used to for a while. A lot of people may not feel comfortable coming back because they are physically vulnerable. Some may not be coming back because their hearts were broken by others during this time. So, attendance may be low. People may not want to hug you right away and they may wear a face mask in your presence. And some of the guidelines put in place may not be your preference. This isn’t forever. We all want normal—very badly. And we will get there eventually. Please be patient and kind in the meantime. Your pastor and leaders aren’t particularly thrilled about having to do all the “extra” either. Please know these guidelines, for the most part, have been researched and run through church insurance companies and other legal entities to make sure you and your church are safe. The “extra” isn’t arbitrary.

3. Be encouraging and helpful

A kind word. A card. A cheerful text. Those things go a long way. Offer to help, if you feel comfortable. Is your church shorthanded on hosts to seat people at the beginning of services? Offer to do that. Is your church low on hand sanitizer and you have a stash you’re not using? Donate it. But hold off on offering your thoughts and ideas for new ministry and dreams for a bit. Under normal circumstances, leadership appreciates your ideas and suggestions, but right now it just feels like additional pressure.

4. Pray

Pray for strength and health. Pray for emotional and mental revitalization. Pray for creativity and dreaming to return. Pray for them as they grieve—they may have lost friends during this time (whether to COVID-19 or relationships that ended due to strife). Pray for their families who had a front row seat to some stuff that I’m sure they aren’t accustomed to.

5. Pray

Yep. It’s on here twice. Because it’s that important. Pray for the members of your church the same way you prayed for your leaders. These have been trying times as well and everyone is traumatized at some level. We could all use some heavy prayer.

I can guarantee your pastor and leaders will deeply appreciate the ways you prepare for reentry! Let’s make sure we’re like the spacecraft with heat shields, air brakes, and parachutes in place so that atmospheric reentry is smooth and successful. And thank you for bearing with my nerdy analogy throughout.

We’re rooting and praying for you!

Jaime

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Laura says:

    Jaime, this is so helpful and practical! Thanks for your insight and willingness to share. I didn’t find it ‘nerdy’ at all!

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