A Chemistry Conversation with Karl Vaters
First, the pandemic hits us out of the blue, and then racial tension sweeps our nation adding to the heightened state. How do small churches survive when multiple crises hit? Matt Steen, co-founder of Chemistry Staffing, talks with Karl Vaters about pastoring congregations through this unique season.
Karl Vaters is the Teaching Pastor at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California. He has written three books on innovative leadership from a small-church perspective. More information can be found at KarlVaters.com.
We'd love to hear your strategies for addressing this with your congregation (just email us at email@example.com). As always, we are here for you, and we're praying for churches and teams all over the United States!
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Karl Vaters: Hey, good to be with you Matt.
Matt Steen: So hey, here's what these conversations have been. It's been, we want to talk about what it's like to pastor today and some of the things that churches are struggling with. And so, we are coming out of a season where it just feels like, you know, 2020 we're only six months in or so, but it feels like we're seven years into it. We've had crisis after crisis after crisis, so I'm just going to ask you this. You're pastoring in a smaller church. You are walking with people through this season. How are you pastoring and shepherding people? How are you helping them process what's going on? And what are you learning, what would you like to share with us?
Karl Vaters: Oh my, there is so much in that. Like you said, six months feels like seven years. Obviously none of us have ever experienced anything like this. So everybody's figuring it out as you go. And the main lesson that we've been leaning on and learning through this is that when everything goes sideways and you don't know what to do next, you have to lean more on relationships than on process because we don't know what processes to use. But relationships will always win the day. So the first thing we did when we began going through this was, we sat around with our staff and volunteers and decided the biggest horror show we could imagine for our individual congregation, the thing that kept us up at night was that we get back in our building after a few months of being away from each other and that there was any regular in our church that would say, "Nobody reached out to me." We determined that was simply an unacceptable result that we were going to do everything we could not to let that happen. So the first thing that we did when we knew that we would not physically be able to gather together on Sundays was to start assigning the entire membership of the church to some of our key leaders and our more relationship strong people, our extroverts and so on. And we just assigned them to different people every week so that every single week we tried to make sure that everybody in the congregation got at least one call. And we just began that. We did it every week. What's been really wonderful and fascinating about it is, as the oldest member of our staff, most of my calls have been to our senior members, and almost every time I call them, they at some point or another are so delighted about how many people are reaching out to them and particularly how the young people have reached out to them. I've had a couple of them tell me, "I feel closer to the young people in our church in the last ten weeks without seeing them face-to-face than I ever did before." Because when we saw them face-to-face, it might just be a nod across the sanctuary or across the patio, but when you actually physically pick up a phone to call them and say, "How are you doing?" "Can I pick up something at the store for you?" "Do you need me to get your medicine for you?" There's a connection and a closeness that happens there that we simply - it's not that it didn't happen before. It's not that it wasn't there before. But the need wasn't as obvious, and so it wasn't nearly as intentional as it is now. So that's been our biggest takeaway. And the way that our church has grown the most, even while we haven't physically been together, we've actually grown our relationships stronger because we said we don't know how to do anything else for sure, but we know how to do that so let's lean in on that.
Matt Steen: That's really cool. That's really cool that people feel incredibly appreciated through that process. I love just hearing how the older crowd is feeling so well cared for by the younger crowd. So that's the survival during the initial phase of this, but now we're in this 90-days however long it is, we're starting to process and people I guess are mourning lost graduations, they're potentially mourning lost friends, they're mourning the racial tensions and the divisions in this country and years and years of injustice. How are you helping people process that? How are you walking through that season with people in your congregation? What would you share with pastors that are trying to negotiate this season well?
Karl Vaters: Yeah. We pastors tend to be really good explainers. And this is not the time for explanation. People in trauma don't need things explained to them. People in trauma need a shoulder to cry on, and they need time to be able to reflect. And quite frankly, they need a nap occasionally. Trauma demands rest. So we've been trained, I've been trained and I've worked very hard, as a pastor we're constantly talking about bringing innovation and bringing disruption to a place. And here's the thing, wise leaders bring disruption when things are comfortable. But wise leaders bring stability when things are disrupted. And so right now we don't need leaders bringing further disruption and making further demands and offering explanations. Wise leaders are going to be a calming presence to allow people to have a place where they can cry, where they can be angry, where they can say things that quite frankly might make us mad because what you're saying right now is hurtful. But guess what? When people are in trauma they say hurtful things. They have to get it out. And if they can't say it to their pastor and in their church and among fellow believers, where else are they going to be able to say it? It's not enough for them to scream into their own pillow. They have to have another person to say those things to. And we need to be a place that absorbs some of that. And then because of that, because we're receiving that trauma, we need a place that we can go to when we can let our trauma out as well. So it's not about explaining things as much as it is providing space. It's what the psalms do. The psalms don't explain who God is. The psalms are not about theology. The psalms are about joy and rage. And God says it's okay to express both of those. In the psalms, there are psalms where the psalmist gets angry and mad at God, and God says I'm okay with that. in fact, I'll put it in the Bible. Relax about people's anger and frustration and hurt and pain. That's what happens when they're in trauma. We need to be a safe place where they're allowed to express that and come out the other side feeling a little healthier, a little more whole.
Matt Steen: Wow. That's strong. So as you see people processing this, we all know the different models of grief and all that kind of thing. It's really easy for us to go back and go through that checklist of oh, now you're here, now you're there. I mean, how do we not do that? How do we get beyond this desire that we have to fix it? I'm still trying to figure that out with my wife when she's processing a hard day at work. What have you learned in your years of pastoring to help us kind of set that aside?
Karl Vaters: Wow. These are hard questions because nobody was taught how to do this because nobody's ever been through this before. But the biggest thing that just kind of jumped out as me as you asked that question was, I was taught how to talk, I wasn't taught how to listen. I'm from California, so when I say "provide people a soft place to listen," it sounds like nutty California speak. I get it. But it's not California, it's Bible. It's being a comfort to the hurting. It's a big part of what pastoral ministry should be about. But it's the part of my training that is the biggest gap. I learned a lot about studying. I learned a lot about listening and caring and providing a place of comfort and hope and peace in the middle of trauma is not something I was taught well and most of us were not taught that well. And that is the place that we have to learn to do. It feels passive, and it feels like we're not doing what we should do when we're not keeping busy, but there are times when stillness is better than busyness. And providing a place where people can find a place of stillness and just simply to relax and be in the presence of the Lord. As we start gathering in our churches again, and our church has not yet done that. We're in California, and we're on a different timeline than a lot of places are. We've been out longer than others, and it'll take us longer to come back in. It's simply the nature of where we are in a very populated area. But as we do start coming back in again, we're going to have to realize that people are coming in again at very, very different places with very, very different levels of expectation and ability to accept different things. A wise leader will allow people to feel what they feel. And as we come back we are going to get more out of physically being together than we are going to get out of the explanation that is going to come out of my words from the pulpit. And so the things that we do, whatever, you know talking with a lot of pastors from a lot of different theological and liturgical backgrounds. So if you are from a liturgical background that kneels a lot or if you're from a liturgical background that lights candles or you raise your hands or you sit in silence, spend more time allowing people to do those physical aspects of worship than you worry about saying exactly the right words in your sermon. Because I think our bodies need to be able to react and respond in familiar ways in worship more than we need our heads filled with explanation.
Matt Steen: Yeah. Get people back into that regular rhythm, that regular pattern, that - I'm tired of hearing the word "normal," but get back into that normalcy. That's great, that's great. So listen more than we're talking. Be graceful with people even when they're struggling, and help people get back into that rhythm. That's really helpful Karl. Thank you so much for having a conversation with us about this. Thanks for your wisdom on this. Any last word of wisdom that you'd like to pass onto people before we wrap this up?
Karl Vaters: Yeah, specifically to pastors, get off your own backs. You're going to make mistakes and you're going to want to beat yourself up for it. But there'll be plenty of other people to do that, don't do it to yourself. Give yourself grace. If somebody came to you in the middle of this and said, "Oh I blew it with my boss at work," "Oh I made the wrong decision over here," you would not jump on their case so don't jump on your own. If you make a mistake, as best you can, you've got to say, "Yeah, but I've never done this before" and move on and try to do it better next time and realize you'll make a different mistake next time. Get off your own back and give yourself some grace, just like you would give to others.
Matt Steen: That's great. That's great. Karl, thank you.
Karl Vaters: You got it.