Future Thoughts Pre-Covid-19

A few weeks back I started to form up the shape of a book I would like to write around the place of the ‘bi-vocational’ pastor in the future of the church, as I sense it will become increasingly the norm for our communities. It will share some of my own learning – most of it accidental and only gleaned in hindsight.

I started by using Covid as an analogy for being forced into change – 3 weeks ago – before any serious changes – let alone church shut downs and pastors cutting their working hours. My question was ‘if we had known Covid-19 was coming would we have changed how we operate as a society?’

My hunch is probably not – because we usually wait for the effects of change to impact us before choosing to act. We are notoriously capable of looking away until we feel pain.

This is certainly true of us as the church. I was asked recently what shape I imagined the local church in Australia would take over the next 20-30 years – hardly a long time, but given our current rates of change still a significant enough period. I gave the same answer I gave when asked that question 20 years ago: 

‘The big will get bigger, the small will get smaller and those in the messy middle will find it harder and harder to survive.’

I gave the same answer as 20 years previous because I have observed it happening in the time since I was first asked. Bigger churches are merging with (or taking over) smaller ones, smaller churches are sometimes calling it quits or joining with larger churches, while those who are neither big nor small are running harder and harder just to keep pace with what is required of them. Its exhausting just watching it all unfold.

Recent years have seen church life become more complex and difficult by the day no matter what size you are. Government compliance regulations for Not For Profit organisations have created a whole raft of administrative challenges for the church to engage with. It all takes time – and money – and lots of it. The Royal Commission into institutional abuse has exposed our failings and forced us to review our practices and develop new ways of operating that are safe, albeit onerous. 

And while pastors are currently able to earn a fairly decent income thanks to the non reportable fringe benefits tax, it seems only a matter of time  before this ‘benefit’ is removed (or surrendered?) and the ground shifts yet again, as churches are faced with significant pay increases as they are unable to provide the equivalent pre-tax wage – or pastors choose to live at a much more moderate level.

Add to this an aging boomer generation who faithfully bankrolled much of the previous era of church life and we find ourselves with an emerging generation who (we have conditioned to) think in terms of ‘user pays’ rather than regular, cheerful, sacrifical giving. It’s not that this new crew aren’t capable of generosity, but simply that they often prefer to target their giving to specific causes rather than contributing to the ‘family budget’ in the form of staff salaries and operational costs. Perhaps the church needs a ‘gofundme’ page?… Although I doubt these will exist in 30 years time either.

We are already facing an adminstrative squeeze and it is inevitable that this will flow over into a financial squeeze, requiring us to think more creatively about how we sustain ministry as churches.

The struggles we face are those that come from the ‘professionalisation’ of the pastoral vocation – struggles that wouldn’t have existed 50 years ago. In the 60’s and 70’s Pastors earned a very moderate stipend from a supportive and stable congregation who gave regularly, if not always joyfully, to the work of the church, but the pastoral role in that time was primarily a vocational one rather than the ‘career path’ it has now become for some. While the ‘calling’ may still be there, there is a much greater expectation that the role will be a full time, professional one and paid appropriately so that the pastor will be able to live at approximately the same standard of living as the congregation. 

My strong hunch is that in this rapidly changing world the majority of what I will refer to as  ‘neighbourhood churches’ – those of 60-150 people – will sooner or later go the way of the local hardware store when confronted with a monolith like Bunnings entering their territory. A small minority of these churches will find a way to survive and thrive against the odds, but most will be unable to compete with these franchised behemoths who enter cities and suburbs with seemingly limitless resources and launch an instant church complete with, full band and stunning social media library all within a few months. 

Our culture, and to some extent the church itself, has raised a generation of consumers so we shouldn’t be surprised when our congregations behave in consumeristic ways. When faced with the choice of the small church with the struggling kids and youth groups and the barely passable music or the glitz, bright lights and amazing programs of the super-churches your average consumer already knows instinctively which way to jump.

That said, unless healthy  ‘neighbourhood churches’ continue to exist as prophetic alternatives to a ‘bigger is better’ mindset, then I suggest that in the next 20-30 years we will see Western Christianity become so conflated with consumerism that we will lose any right to speak of the ‘good news of the Kingdom of God’ when the good news we are drowning in has more to do with our own affluence and aspirational lives that any priorities Jesus spoke of.

In coming years it is my prediction that countless smaller churches  will ‘merge’ with larger churches as they drown in administrative overload and as they struggle to pay the wages of their staff and keep their buildings maintained. It will just be easier to shut up shop and collectively move to join with another larger group who have already got admin, legalities and finances under control.

A small number will will move into homes and find their community in that way, but most will choose the ‘services’ offered by a larger organisation. 

If the neighbourhood churches are to have any kind of future then one of the re-thinks we need to begin doing is around the place of the ‘pastor’, or whoever the primary leader of the church turns out to be. Of students in theological seminaries in preparation for pastoral ministry, my hunch is that very few are considering that they will work in anything less than a ‘full time’ ministry situation. However full time paid roles are going to be much harder to come by in the years ahead and I would suggest now is the time to be considering how we can help our pastors be genuinely and effectively bi-vocational.

If we start to shift the thinking now then we will be ready for what lies ahead. That is a purely pragmatic and to some degree economic reason to pursue bi-vocational ministry but after 12 years of running a business and leading a church I would suggest there are multiple benefits that come from this approach to pastoring (none of which were apparent to me until I found myself actually in the space and experiencing it.)

The time to adjust the rudder is now – to begin pointing the ship in a different direction. It’s less a nuance and more a brutal paradigm shift for pastors. We have seen full time ministry as the goal for so long that it will challenge us to both release ourselves from that identity and release the leadership of the church from such a tight grip.


I wrote that 3 weeks ago and now we are scrambling and wondering about the shape that the future will take. I believe we ought to think seriously about how we create a number of models of bi-vocational ministry that allow pastors to bring the benefits of the marketplace into the church while also creating an income stream that sees them not dependent on the financial capacity of the church.

Surviving & Thriving in a Covid-19 World

How have you found yourself responding to the events of the last month?

I’d suggest our response is shaped by at least 4 factors

  • Our individual ‘psych makeup’
  • The information we are taking in and the sources we draw from
  • Our own life circumstances at this time
  • Our perception of God and how he operates.

If you are naturally anxious, have been listening indiscriminately to every scrap of news available, have just lost your job and your notion of God is shaped by ideas of vengeance and the like then chances are you are living in terror.

Only last night a friend shared a post from ‘breaking news’ apparently reporting that Putin had set 500 lions loose on the streets of Moscow. In crazy times crazy news becomes almost believable. Thankfully today we have Snopes to shout down the urban myths that previously would have started to sprout. Apparently Mark McGowan is secretly signing a deal with the bikie gangs to patrol the streets and round up anyone out and about without cause… I just made that up – so you won’t find it on Snopes…

So part of coping with this time is knowing who you are. Personally, I am guilty of ‘underplaying’ these types of crises and I am having to lift my own game to take it seriously. I tend not to get scared, but curious, maybe even a little bit excited at what may develop – and I don’t mean that in terms of how people suffer – but more in regards to how our world may change and what new challenges and opportunities we may have in front of us. That’s me. I’m also a little too much ‘she’ll be right’ for the current scenario so I am having to adjust appropriately.

So pay attention to your own psychological makeup. If (like me) you find it easy to be relaxed and a bit blase then you probably need to listen to good information and behave differently. If you’re a panicker then you probably need to sit with someone who can calm you down and assure you – the world will go on.

Then there’s our information sources. I have the benefit of an education that has taught me to listen, read and think critically. I’m a strong believer that newspapers are businesses that need to earn money and scary news sells better than calming news. Stats, horror stories and apocalyptic type news will always make more money than someone telling us that actually it will all be ok if we stay calm and follow the instructions.

I source information from lots of different places and try to filter it thru a ‘what have they got to gain from saying this?’ type of lens. If you’re a panicky person then you need to slow your news-watching and especially your facebook scrolling as that will only add to unnecessary fear. If you’re a little cynical then its time to let that go too. You don’t have to trust the newspapers, but at least source some consistently accurate information to help you understand the real situation.

Our life situation greatly impacts on how we deal with this crisis. If your job is shaky and your mortgage is large then you are probably worried – so you struggle to look away from the news as it impacts you significantly. Your challenge here is to not panic – do not press the panic button. You will be ok. Seriously – people have got thru way harder stuff.

We happen to be in a pretty good space in that our ‘earning season’ is almost over. We had a good year and we are headed into an expected (and longed for) slow down. We have had to cancel our trip to South Oz which is a bummer and I’m not looking forwards to a lockdown when it comes, but there are many in far worse situations

As for our perception of God… this is really important if we are people of faith. Some may well proclaim this an act of God. (I doubt it is.) Others will be confused by why God even would allow this to take place and then others know God – really know him and know that this is not his doing, but by staying close to him we find inner strength to keep going. My own perception of God begins with the conviction that God is good. If this isn’t true then I figure we are all screwed, but if God is good then I can trust him to help me in this time.

I’m very curious about how we can still ‘be church’, but with a highly digital element. I’m curious to see how the world changes and how people’s worldview gets disrupted in this time. But I have absolute confidence that in this time God has not looked away – he hasn’t called it quits on creation. He is as devastated as any of us at the tragedies that are taking place in his world.

So there’s just 4 lens thru which to consider your own responses and practice in light of where we are at.

What can you do?

Pray for our leaders – its a crappy thing to have to lead a country thru. They need our prayers for clarity and good discernment. And cut them a break. This is their first time doing this so if they get some stuff wrong don’t tear them apart. I am not Scomo fanboy, but him and his crew are genuinely giving it their best shot so seriously – SHUT UP with the nagging. If its so simple then go and do it yourself.

Look out for those we know who are vulnerable – the lonely, elderly, the poor – the people Jesus would see if he were here. Call someone or text them to see how they are going. Not rocket surgery… But often we don’t because we get inward focused.

Do the right thing – Right now I’m envisaging a total lockdown in the next month – right around the time the autumn swells hit our coast. its my absolute fave time of year. But if we are in lockdown then we will have to chose to miss those days. I will have to do the right thing and stay home. Oooooh… that is sooooo hard!

Get on board – if you’re a churchie, god botherer type then us pastor types want to encourage you to come to the party as we try new stuff and new ways to be church. It probably won’t be for ever, but along the way I think we will discover some valuable stuff that will reframe how we operate when we come back together… Let’s face it – you can’t go anywhere and you’ll probably be stuck at home surfing FB anyway so tune into the Sunday gig!

Anyway some reflections for those who are looking around for the panic button but also for these who still think it’s all a bit over top. The Corona virus is here to stay now, so best we figure out how to ‘do business’ with it around.


So apparently it’s ‘un-Australian’ to hoard toilet paper and anything else you can get your hands on that may later be in demand.

It’s un-Australian to fight in super-markets and abuse people in your quest to get there first.

It’s un-Australian to behave badly… Except I’ve seen the carnage. I’ve been to the shops and seen the empty shelves.

What if we’re kidding ourselves? What if its actually more us than we would ever want to admit?

What if we suck?

I’m serious. Could it be that we hold ourselves in a little too high esteem sometimes? Of course there are people out there doing the right thing, but their nationality has nothing to do with it.

I heard the other day an English commentator saying that they ‘pull together in hard times’ because that’s what it means to be British. Couldn’t we simply substitute British with Australian?… Brazilian? Spanish?… Don’t we all like to think that we all work together when it really matters?

Perception and reality are two different things though. We can tell ourselves a story and not live up to it.

Or we can turn the ship around and be the story we tell ourselves. But I’m banking on that being tricky without a vision of a world where others matter more than ourselves. When Jesus prayed ‘your kingdom come on earth as in heaven’ this is what he had in mind – and it has nothing to do with nationality.

When The Music Stops…

When the music stops where will we all be? It’s an interesting question and I have to admit I’m curious to see how it all plays out for our churches when some level of normality is restored.

This week Corona concern levels have ramped right up to ‘crikey’ (or if you’re English ‘well I never…’) and we are all having to explore other ways of ‘doing church’. The last few days saw those of us in church leadership all scrambling to some degree, whether it was to create stay at home ‘livefeeds’, digital ‘zoom’ gatherings or simply devolving into smaller (and then even smaller still) communities.

We met as leaders on Thursday evening when gatherings of over 100 indoors were prohibited. There was no question that just because we were 80 or 90 we were ok to press on. We agreed to create house groups for people to meet in and to move ahead with our focus on the gospel of Mark led by our local people. Pretty easy really.

By Friday evening Scomo had declared a limit of 1 person per 4sqm making house groups trickier still. Men in the shed… women in the lounge-room, kids… umm.. on the verandah?… Or just go outside together and enjoy the autumn weather?…

It’s still doable.

But… being Corona compliant keeps getting trickier and with each new measure those prone to fear and anxiety felt their levels raise a notch. If we continue to follow suit then within a fortnight we will all be in lockdown and communicating online rather than in person. And I know there are some who advocating that we don’t leave home at all even now.

I’m not sure how long we will be in this new mode, but it seems we are being told to think of 6 months. That’s a long time for the world to be changed so radically. I realise those who die are the real victims of this virus, but I am really curious as to what impact it will have on the church landscape.

When the music stops will people want to come back to church? Is Naked Pastor’s cartoon too close to the bone?

Or maybe they will realise that they actually never left and their imagination of what church is will have been stretched and reshaped?

Will we pastors survive with our paid roles still intact. The Facebook video of Kevin Copeland crowing to his audience not to stop tithing feels obscene – as if this were the first thought on most people’s minds… I doubt anyone is thinking ‘I might lose my job – how are we going to tithe?’ (If you are then you’re in the wrong church.)

Many of us as pastors will be less visible than we normally are and those who see church as ‘fee for service’ will drop their ‘fee’ to accomodate the drop in service. I doubt we will all come thru this with our jobs intact.

What then?

Do we simply gather up those who have returned and soldier on? If we have 4 full time staff do we sack 2 or do we all drop to half time? Who can afford to do that?

We all know that once a habit gets broken its harder to re-start it. We have just planted a church in Yanchep – when I say ‘just’ its over 18 months old – but the bonds formed there aren’t as tough and fibrous as those we have after 10 years at Quinns. What will 6 months of disconnectedness mean for our people here?

Then there’s the question of what we pastors do with our time during this period. Do we keep crafting sermons to deliver online, do we call each person to see how they are going? Do we somehow ‘look busy’ because we can’t afford to be seen to be on a Netflix binge?

How do we as churches not become consumed with meetings and gatherings but instead ask how do we love, bless and serve the world we are a part of? Surely that has to form the centrepiece of whatever we do during this time?

I don’t have many answers to these questions, but I’m actually (apart from the death bit) a little excited to see how it all unfolds.

My only sense of what to do is that it starts with stillness and a quiet confidence that the church has been doing this stuff a long time. We don’t need to panic – not even a little. If lockdown hits us then perhaps we thank God for it and we use the experience to learn stillness and contemplation and perhaps in those moments, that evolve into hours we may encounter God in ways we never have before.

Old Man Strength

Yesterday my 17 year old son Sam challenged me to an arm wrestle. The last time he tried this he was 11 and it didn’t end well for him – no surprises there. This time he’s 17 and in pretty good shape so this one was going to be just a little harder. I won’t tell you who won, but I do want to think about this thing we call ‘old man strength’ because it’s a real thing.

Lately I’ve been doing some reflection on what the future holds, as we are currently in a role shift at church where our two younger guys will be leading QBC and Yanchep Church and Danelle and I will move back into support roles. I have been trying to imagine what I/we could do of real value over the next 20 years – which would take us through to 75. I kinda thought 75 might be a good age at which to begin to slow down and lower my expectations of myself – to cruise into port with the engines off.

Then I read Joshua ch 14 this morning and had that idea utterly trashed. I’ve been struggling with reading this book each morning – partly its contentious content (genocide) and partly that it’s plain boring. Reading about the division of land among tribes is right up there with studying the phone book.

But I stumbled on ch 14 early this morning, where Caleb comes to Joshua and says ‘Ok mate – so here we are a whole 45 years on from the promise Moses made to us about entering the land and settling there.


How could Joshua forget a moment like that?

‘We went and checked out Canaan and came back convinced we could take it. Remember?…’

So this 85 year old is standing before his mate Joshua asking for what is due to him in that promise. And as I read that I had a mental image of him quietly moving into a beautiful, lush land and settling there with his clan and spending his final days in ease and comfort.

Hmmm… Not so.

Read on to hear how Caleb sees the world. Old man strength is about to reveal itself.

“So here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.””

(Joshua 14:10-12 NIV)

The dude is 85…

85 years old and he’s ready to fight anyone who stands in his path.

In his view he is just as strong now as he was at 40 years old, and honestly there is no way he has the physical capacity he once had, but mentally and in terms of faith he’s a beast.

He’s not going to quietly plonk down in a little patch of paradise and sip lattes. He is going to drive out the Anakites – the giant like, warmongering tribe who engendered terror in the rest of Israel.

He has seen God at work before – many times. He has lived a life of faithfulness so at 85 he’s not scared – because he knows his God and he knows just what is possible when he is leading the way and when he follows him wholeheartedly.

So I feel like I’ve set the bar a bit low.

Quite seriously – this morning was one of those occasional personal revelations you get from God where he says ‘Listen up… Come on… Really? You think slowing down at 75 is gonna be it? You need to dream and plan for getting to 85 with energy to burn!’

We have been in vocational ministry now for 30 years and I am 55 years old. If this happens – that we get to live thru to 85 – then we are at the halfway point and maybe our best is yet to come.

Actually I have no doubt that is true, so as from now the bar has been re-set from ‘slowing down at 75’ to reaching 85 with courage, faith and passion to burn.

I was planning to surf thru to 70 and take a day at a time after that, but perhaps this needs adjusting too 🙂 I’ve never seen an 85 year old in the line up – not yet anyway…

Oh and who won that arm wrestle?.. if you’ve read this far you deserve to know… Let’s just say ‘old man strength is a real thing’…