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Karl Vaters

Karl Vaters

Pivot is a Christianity Today blog by pastor and author Karl Vaters. He writes about church health and innovative leadership from the perspective of small church.
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Motivation is hard. And comfort food feels so good. But it's more important now than ever to stay healthy.Lately, it’s hard to remember what day it is.Without the usual markers, one blends into the other in a confusing emotional haze.My sleep is off, too. And with my sleep goes my ability to think and lead clearly.You too? Yes, me too.So how can we stay stable and sane in the middle of such uncertainty? Here are a few ideas that are especially helpful for pastors and other leaders:(This is a companion piece to an earlier article, When You’re Trying To Lead Others, But You’re Barely Holding On.)1. Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to othersIf a friend or church member told you they were mad at themselves for not being able to function at peak performance during this crisis, what would you tell them?To get over it? To work harder? To stop whining because people are depending on them?I sure hope not.I expect you’d go easy on them and help relieve their feelings of guilt. You’d sympathize. You’d emphasize their need to rest, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.That’s good advice. We need to talk to ourselves the same way.2. Be vulnerableThere’s nothing wrong with letting the people you lead know what you’re feeling. You’ll notice I started this article that way.“But won’t they have less respect for me if they see my weakness?” Not unless you’re in a completely toxic environment.Chances are, your cracks are already being seen by the people who know you best – even over a video chat. Being honest about your challenges instead of working so hard to hide them might provide a great deal of relief for them, too.It’s hard to believe we’re in this together when the leader seems invincible – or, even worse, when ...Continue reading...
We haven't ceased to be the church. We'll never cease to be that. But I miss the gathering.It’s been a month.Four full Sundays of worship at home.And with every week that goes by, I realize more than ever how much I miss it.No, not the building. You can have the building.Not even the event. You can have that, too.I miss the people.I miss gathering as the church.Active, But SeparatedSure, the church is still alive and well. More than ever.We’re checking up on each other. Making grocery runs for our seniors. This evening, some friends dropped by with donuts, then stood at the end of the driveway as we chatted from the door for a few moments. We’ve never done that before.So the church is engaged, active, worshiping and caring for each other.But I miss the gathering.Deeply.The Emptiness Of AbsenceI miss being in the same room, worshiping, singing, serving, laughing, praying, and receiving communion together.That’s the part that hurts.The part where I feel an emptiness.It’s not about the building or the event. It never has been.It’s about the people.God’s people.Gathered.Going To Church MattersYes, it’s true that we are the church. That’s what matters most.But it’s becoming ever more clear that the going part is a very close second. And an essential element of being the church.Going to church matters. A lot.Gathering as the church is as fundamental to my faith as it can possibly be.No, we haven’t ceased to be the church. We’ll never cease to be that.But I miss the gathering.What a celebration it will be when we’re gathered again.Continue reading...
A lot of people in positions of leadership are working hard to fight off feelings of helplessness right now.This is harder than I expected.No, I’m not sick. And none of my loved ones are. So, for those of you who are sick or who are dealing with the illness or (God forbid) the death of a loved one, I cannot imagine your burden.But even for those of us who are simply being asked to stay home, this is proving hard in some unexpected ways.If you’re in a position of leadership, your feelings may be very confusing right now. Even erratic.Not What We ExpectedI’m used to knowing what to do. And helping others know what to do.If you had told me a month ago that I’d be sitting at home for weeks without feeling sick or having anywhere to be, I’d have thought “Wow! I’m going to get so much done! I’ll have a rough draft of that new book knocked down! I’ll start a new podcast, and who knows what else!”But I’m not. Not to the degree I expected, that’s for sure.Barely Hanging OnSome days it feels like I’m barely hanging on, myself.But I feel a responsibility to lead. To help. To bless others.In fact, I don’t just feel that responsibility, I have that responsibility.And yet, how do I do that when each day feels like it runs past me in bits and pieces? Barely able to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time?Give Yourself A BreakI know I’m not alone in feeling this.Right now there are a lot of people in positions of leadership with similar feelings of helplessness.So, in the few minutes I can concentrate long enough to write this, let me offer a short word of hope.Give yourself a break. I plan to.Slow down.Don’t push.Relax.Stay healthy first.It’s okay if you don’t have the answers right now. None of us have clear answers ...Continue reading...
Here's a simple way to help online churches reach even more people through YouTube.We’re all doing church online now.If your church is new to this, and you’re putting your church on YouTube, your YouTube URL looks something like this:https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3iMLx7Dyfi3T097D7VEnAWhat you want is something like this:https://www.youtube.com/GodsGraceChurchIt makes the church URL easier to remember and find, helping us reach more peopleSo how does a church get there?How To Qualify For A Custom YouTube URLAccording to YouTube, there are four steps to qualify: Be at least 30 days old Have an uploaded photo as a channel icon Have uploaded channel art Have 100 or more subscribersThe first three you can do on your own. The fourth one you need help with. And that’s why I subscribed to over 100 Church YouTube channels in the last few days.Over the weekend, I asked our church members to subscribe. Then, on several social media sites, pastors did a URL exchange. I subscribe to yours, you subscribe to mine.In less than 24 hours, our church’s YouTube site went from 52 subscribers to over 100!Then What?After you qualify, here’s how to change your church’s URL (copied from YouTube). Sign in to YouTube. Click your profile picture in the top right. On the left side, click Settings. Then, also on the left, click Advancedsettings. Under "Channel settings," select the link next to You're eligible for a custom URL. You'll only see this link if your channel is eligible. In the "Get a custom URL" box, you'll see the custom URL(s) you've been approved for. You can't change the part in the gray box, but you may need to add a few letters or numbers to make the URL unique to you. Carefully read and understand the "Custom URL Terms of Use" and select the box to agree to them, then click Change URL.Continue reading...
While necessary right now and important in the future, we can't close our eyes to the downsides of online church.It’s a whole new ballgame.In a matter of just a few weeks, churches all around the world have a new standard for measuring ministry success.And I’m trying not to be cynical about it.So here’s my best shot at a non-cynical (but certainly skeptical) take on this.What’s Good About Online ChurchI’m grateful every time I hear that a church now has as many or more people watching their online services than they had attending their in-person services.Better that than a drop-off of numbers, for sure.But let’s be honest about what’s happening here.Recently, there’s been a lot of helpful information about how engagement is a better metric than attendance. I fully agree with that assessment.But if engagement is a better metric than attendance, eyeballs on a screen is a worse one. At-home viewers are far less engaged than bodies in the room ever were.Online And DistractedWe all know how online viewing goes.We watch while we’re cooking, eating, chatting, Tweeting and working out.Even if we lay all of that aside, people who sit at home and watch a screen are far less engaged in the experience than when they were in the room together.An Incomplete MetricObviously, that’s all we have right now. And I’m truly grateful we have it.Even when we’re able to meet together again, keeping an online presence will be an important way to reach new people and keep connected with absent members.But.Let’s be careful not to replace one incomplete, even unreliable metric (attendance) with one that’s even less reliable (online viewership).Online church is here to stay. Our congregation does it, and we’ve learned how to do it even better because of the necessity of this ...Continue reading...
If you want to make a real difference, don't get bogged down in the details of video streaming.Just about every church is live-streaming their services now.Necessity being the mother of invention (and adaptation), we’re all doing what we have to do.Churches with pre-existing live-stream technology are learning how to conduct their service from an empty room, while those who haven’t live-streamed before are learning the basics – fast.But let’s face two facts about churches that are new to the live-stream world:1. Most first-time streamers are my friends in small churches.2. Most of us aren’t doing live-stream very well.But that’s okay.Here’s why.You Can’t Live-Stream Your Most-Needed MinistriesWhile it’s important to make a Sunday experience available to your church members, a high-quality live-stream Sunday service is not the most significant way you can serve your church or your community over the coming weeks.Top-notch video production is not what the typical small congregation expects or needs from their church leaders.Especially now.They just need to hear from their pastor, their Sunday School teacher and their friends.And not just on Sunday morning.Do What You Do BestIf your service is being live-streamed, keep it simple and do it as best you can, then move on to doing the kinds of ministry you do well.Go old-school.Regular text messages or phone calls to check in on people will mean more than seeing you on a computer screen once a week.Recruit some younger, healthier volunteers to find and bring needed supplies to those who can’t get out.Those kinds of small, simple, low-tech ministries will be of far greater value than how you frame a video shot.What We’ll RememberAt some time in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, we’ll be able to gather ...Continue reading...
This is not a call to trust our leaders. It's a call for leaders to be more trustworthy.The most important aspect of leadership is not competence, communication or innovation.It’s integrity.When we can’t trust our leaders, life can turn really bad, really fast. Even deadly.We’re seeing it in real time right now. The current COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis will be made better by our ability to trust those in leadership or made worse by our lack of ability to trust them.Let’s pray that the weight of it will lean heavily toward trust and trustworthiness.A Call To TrustworthinessThis is not about any specific political or church leader. Right now, there’s plenty of distrust – and good reasons for it – on all sides.This is also not a call to trust our leaders. It’s a call for leaders to be more trustworthy.When they’re not (when we’re not) people die.In other times, when life is moving along relatively normally, untrustworthy leadership is a cause for debate, ridicule, even mockery. But when things go bad, lack of trust in leadership gets people killed.Earned DistrustIn the current crisis, for instance, there were many people, early on, who doubted the necessity of self-quarantine – and some who still do. Why? Often because they doubted the truthfulness of the people giving them this information.From politicians, to medical, religious and educational leaders, everyone has earned some degree of distrust from us.And I do mean earned. Distrust is not primarily the fault of the followers, but of the leaders who have given us plenty of reasons not to trust them.How To Regain TrustIf you are in a position of leadership, now more than ever we need to be able to trust you. And there’s only one way to do that.Be trustworthy.Do the right thing.Every time.Continue reading...
If you're not sure, don't post it. You'll never regret the joke you don't tell.(Photo: Justin humorously explains social distancing, but laughs so hard that he and Manuel forget not to touch their faces.)Humor is gift from God.Truly.The ability to laugh, even (especially?) during a crisis is an important way to find relief and share community.But knowing the line between what’s funny and what’s distasteful can be hard.So, are there any guidelines we can follow to help us share humor in a responsible way during the current season of difficulty?Here are a few pointers:1. Run it by someone else, firstBefore posting or re-posting something on social media, ask a trusted friend if you should.If they cringe, quarantine the joke between the two of you.2. Laugh with, not atThere’s enough dividing us. Use laughter to unite.Social distancing is for geography, not humor.3. Keep it light-hearted, not edgyWhile insult comedy is a valid form of communication, it’s hard to do well. It should be left to the professionals. Especially when people are ill or at risk.Default to the light-hearted, not the edgy.4. Use it to instructHumor has a way of cutting through people’s defenses so they can hear something they might otherwise be closed off to.For a great example of using humor to instruct during this crisis, check out the Don’t Be A Spreader video from Max and Mel Brooks.5. If you're not sure, don't post itYou’ll never regret the joke you don’t tell.Continue reading...
This is a serious and difficult time. Quarantines are hard. But we can do more than endure, we can step up and be strong.Over the next few weeks there will be a lot of people quarantined in their homes in an all-out attempt to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 (Coronavirus).This is cause for concern, but it need not be a cause for fear. Especially if we prepare well for it.But what exactly can we do while isolated – either alone or with family – for days or weeks at a time?A lot of people are already adding to their TV-watching queues. That’s not wrong – I plan to watch some TV and movies myself. But if that’s all we do, we will have added to the problem by squandering our time.Fighting Fear By Fighting BoredomStaving off boredom may seem like a trivial issue. And it is certainly not as severe as the medical and financial challenges many are facing. But it is not trivial.Fear is a very real issue right now. And fears tend to grow when we’re passive, but diminish when we’re active.So let’s keep busy. But not just for the sake of busyness. Let’s use this as an opportunity to do activities that add value to our lives and the lives of others.Here are a few ideas:1. ReadStart with the Bible. Depending how long this goes, you might cover a lot of territory, or go really deep into a book that touches your heart.Also, you can catch up on books that can teach you something new.Enjoy a novel or biography.Join an online book club with friends, or join an existing site like Goodreads.2. WriteProcess your thoughts, feelings and ideas in a journal or diary.Blog.Write a book that someone else might want to read. I can tell you from personal experience, there are more people who want to read what you have to say than you might think.Send cards or letters to friends.3. CreateThis would be a great time to ...Continue reading...
We should all look forward to the day when churches of all sizes are able to gather again.As of today, the CDC has recommended that all gatherings of 50 or more people should be canceled for the next 8 weeks.Small church win, right?Wrong.No one wins in this.No “I told you so’s”As a long-time proponent of the value of small churches, you might think I’m tempted to issue an “I told you so” about small churches being better than big churches.I’m not going to do that.Because it’s not true.We Need Churches Of Every SizeI’ve never told anyone that small churches are better than big churches. I’ve never even hinted at it.In fact I’ve repeatedly stated that small churches are not better than big churches, and big churches are not better than small churches.As I’ve always said, the body of Christ needs churches of every size. That is especially true now. We need the resources of big churches and the relational pastoral voice of small churches.One ChurchIt’s a difficult time for everyone.That is why, now more than ever, we must show the world a united front.Even while we can’t gather together for church, we must band together as the church. Big churches, small churches and the people we all serve.Loving Our NeighborsThe CDC is giving us wise counsel in these recommendations about group size.Even if you’re able-bodied and unlikely to be in danger, following these rules is the best way to minimize the likelihood of passing this illness to those who are more vulnerable than you.It’s simply “love your neighbor” in a different form than we’re used to seeing it.Be The ChurchI look forward to the day when large churches are able to gather again.I will celebrate that with them.Until then, I will pray that my fellow ...Continue reading...
The church is always at our best, not when things are going well, but when we respond in a Christ-like manner to a difficult circumstance.Did you just find out that your home church won’t be holding public services this weekend?If so, you’re not alone.Your church leaders aren’t panicking. At this point, especially if your church is large, this is a responsible decision.The current global health crisis is causing congregations all around the world to make the difficult decision to close their buildings this weekend – including the church I serve. And they may be closed for several weekends to come. (If your church is meeting, that does not make them irresponsible – especially if it’s a smaller congregation. That’s a choice each location needs to make for themselves.)But if we don’t have a church to go to this weekend, what should we do?Whether you’re on your own, or with your family, here are several ways you can participate in a faith-building worship experience this Sunday from the comfort of your own home.1. Watch An Online ServiceIf your church offers this alternative, take advantage of it. In fact, there are a lot of churches that don’t normally offer an online experience who are doing it now.If your church doesn’t have an online alternative, that’s okay. Find an online church experience that you can be blessed by until your church opens its doors again.2. Listen To Worship MusicWhatever your preferred music style is, there’s an app for that.From YouTube, to Spotify, to Pandora, to your phone playlist or even hauling out the old CDs, it’s great to spend time listening and singing along to your favorite worship music.3. PrayerAs the church, we should always be praying for each other and for the world around us. Especially now.Pray especially for the following: The elderly and illContinue reading...
Here's an excerpt from my latest book, a practical, principled plan for your church to get one step healthier.Today is the day! You can now buy a copy of my newest book, 100 Days To A Healthier Church!Here’s an excerpt.Chapter 2: What Can Be Done in 100 Days?Turning a church from unhealthy to healthy is a daunting task.It starts by working smarter, not harder.Here’s an example.The Paint Can: A ParableIn the 1990s, I led a small group of church members on a missions trip to Bucharest, Romania. The country was just a few years removed from one of the most oppressive, violent and evil regimes in modern history.One afternoon we were taking a short break in our hotel. While we were talking, a hotel employee was painting a wardrobe in the hallway—one of those portable closets they use in Europe, like the one in C.S. Lewis’s classic book. But there was something about the way he was doing it that was strange.The employee would brush on a few strokes of paint, disappear into the hotel room for thirty seconds or so, reappear to brush on a few more strokes, then disappear again. This kept repeating. Why?Then it hit me.Although the wardrobe was in the hallway, the can of paint was in the middle of the hotel room, so the painter was walking into and across the room for every single dip of paint! But why would he do that? Probably because that’s where everything was placed when he arrived. This painter was nearing retirement age, and he had been raised under an extraordinarily repressive regime in which you kept your head down and did the job you were given, no questions asked. Conformity was rewarded, and innovation was frowned upon.This painter was taking three or four times longer to paint the wardrobe because he had been socially, mentally, and emotionally programmed by a corrupt system not to think for himself. ...Continue reading...
Can you take this short survey to help us understand more about small churches and their leaders?Most churches in the world are small. As many as 90 percent are under 200, 80 percent under 100.Is this because the pastors of those churches haven’t mastered church growth? Or could there be other factors at play here?These are valid questions, but they have surprisingly few solid answers because very little research has been done about them.Sure, you can find a lot of good material about how to break through numerical barriers, but what about the vast majority of churches that not only stay small, but it seems like that’s how they and their leaders serve at their best?(If you want to jump right to the survey, click this link.)More Small Church Metrics Are NeededSeveral times over the last few years I’ve written about the limits of using metrics to understand the health and strength of small churches and the people who lead them. Here are links to a couple of those articles: Measuring What Matters: The Challenge of Church Metrics Effective Small Church Metrics: Why Average Results Aren’t Typical ResultsIn addition to those I also sent up a flag asking for help, with Wanted: An Effective System for Small Church Metrics.Now someone is stepping up to answer that call.Are There Small Church Pastor Personality Traits?A small church pastor named Jean Morgan is writing a Master’s thesis based on researching this idea: Are there certain personality types that are more effective for pastors in a small church environment than in a big church setting? And, if so, what are they and how can we understand them better so we can serve the church in the best possible way?In other words, is it possible that church size has less to do with the pastors’ skill set than it has to do with how God built us? And ...Continue reading...
Whenever you're attempting a big change, it is essential to build intentional time and space for rest.Doing new things is scary. For some.Doing new things is exciting. For others.But even if you fall more into the second category than the first (as I do) doing something new is always exhausting.And it’s more exhausting when you’re attempting to change something you’ve been doing for a long time. Which is why change gets harder as you get older.Changing your clothing style from last year’s trends to this year’s trends? Easy (I assume).But changing your church’s worship style, facility or organizational structure after it’s been in place for decades, possibly generations? Not so easy.Even if you know change needs to happen and everyone is on board with it, never underestimate how exhausting change is going to be – and how much that exhaustion will slow people down, make them second-guess themselves, or even want to abandon the entire process mid-stream. Including you.This is why, whenever you’re attempting a big change, it is essential to build intentional time and space for rest.The best way I know to do that is to decide in advance what long-term aspects you will never change, then utilize those permanent markers as your support system to help you tackle what needs to be changed.Find places you can rest, like relationships, core theology, foundational traditions and so on.Even Desired Change Is ExhaustingI’ve discovered this recently in my own life and ministry.I just turned 60. My decades happen to match the calendar decades with only a six-week difference. In the 2010s (my 50s) I experienced a complete upheaval in the way I worship, minister and work. More than in any previous decade – including the decade I started in ministry, got married and had our kids. ...Continue reading...
I don't know what's coming, but I know who does. And his vision is always 20/20.How many of my fellow pastors are prepping their 20/20 vision statements right now, I wonder?It reminds me of what happened in 2010. Back then, there were a whole lot of churches, ministries and individuals promoting their 10-year plans for their 2020 vision.The idea of having a ten-year plan is nothing new. But doing so at the start of a new decade has extra appeal. And this year it feels almost poetic to have a 20/20 Vision, just like it did in 2010 looking a decade ahead.Well, 2020 is upon us.If you had a decade-long 2020 vision statement, how did it turn out for you? I’m guessing that if you can even remember it, your life, ministry and church look nothing like you expected.I’ll get to “why” soon, but first let me tell you a bit about my decade.Why I Didn’t Create A 2020 Vision StatementI didn’t write up a decade-long 2020 Vision Plan in 2010.Not because I‘m better, worse, or even different from anyone who did, but because, as 2010 was approaching, I was barely starting to come out of a long, deep tunnel of ministry failure and despair.I had spent much of the previous decade striving for goals I had set for myself and the church I pastor, only to see them crash and burn with no hope of being reached by 2010. And I had no desire to write out a new set of goals for 2020, only to set myself up for failure again. At least, that was my emotional and mental state at the time.If I hadn’t been in such a funk and I had decided to write a 2020 Vision statement, I have a pretty good idea where I’d be right now. In the same place I was in 2010. Wondering what had gone wrong with all my well-laid plans.How do I know that? Am I the world’s biggest pessimist? No.Continue reading...

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