The pandemic shuttered commerce, eliminated jobs, ended travel, closed schools, and turned most households inward. Churches and ministries are all over the spectrum when it comes to how they fared over the past year; some found ways to do hybrid worship, some are still remote entirely, and some never went remote at all. Giving is all over the place: in some churches, I have seen an increase in giving due to the adoption of online giving early on, and in some churches, I have seen increases in revenue due to the Paycheck Protection Plan but then decreases in giving as people drift away.
At least for my church, I feel like the children and youth aged a year overnight (and grew 5 inches). I’m surprised by graduating high school seniors who I thought were sophomores and feel like time is in this strange vacuum that we’re emerging from.
What does this “waking up” look like? How does this transition feel to your leadership, and how are you working through its implications? In my context, we’re talking about how to keep hybrid worship going as people begin to return, and what communion might look like. We’re just starting to look at mask guidelines and figure out how to keep the most immunocompromised safe without having “vaccinated and unvaccinated” sections (that remind me of the old “smoking” and “non-smoking” areas in restaurants, to be honest!).
As a rule, we humans don’t deal well with transition. When you put a bunch of us on a leadership team, the “dealing with transition” is even worse. I just read an article about it by Jan Edmiston in A Church for Starving Artists that says it well: “Moving God’s People Can be Excruciating.” We’ve all been through so much over the past year it’s hard to see past our survival mode that has kept us above water for a year, look towards healing and then look forward into what’s coming next.
Because what’s coming next is not what came before. The Holy Spirit is stirring us through this transition, and we can weather these changing times and emerge stronger by taking these five ideas into our minds and hearts.
Shift Your Mindset
Let’s start by separating this section into two groups of churches: churches in danger of closing, and churches that think they are in danger of closing.
- Churches in danger of closing
Let’s face it, some churches’ giving plummeted during the pandemic. Maybe there’s an aging congregation that couldn’t wrap their minds around online giving. Maybe there’s an aversion to change or lack of resources that kept worship or outreach from evolving. Maybe it’s none of those things and giving went down because the pandemic has been awful: people lost their jobs, family life got harder, and everything was virtual so people didn’t respond to all the Zoom meetings and online worship.
Here’s the mindset shift I want to encourage your leadership team to embrace:
You have no idea what God has in store for your congregation when you start to act as if this time is merely the beginning of a new transition. It could be a transition to closing, but it could be something else.
The unique opportunity comes in a sense of newfound bravery in the face of transition: if you’re going to close, why not do some new things and try things you had always wanted to?
Don’t go out with a whisper, go out with a bang – and who knows, things might turn around. You might remember your vision and reason and feel a renewed sense of purpose (that is often accompanied by increased giving).
Be fearless in the face of closing, if you can. Because it truly might not be closing – it might be a transition into something you never saw coming, if you’re open to it. Whether that means possibilities like selling a building, worshipping outdoors, moving into a new space that’s less expensive…
Shift your mindset from “closing” to “transition” doesn’t mean you’re lying to yourself. It means you’re leaving open room for God, whose Spirit transcends all possibility.
2. Churches who think they’re in danger of closing:
This is a wide swath of churches – the majority of churches fall into this category. Very rarely do I work with a church that doesn’t say “we don’t have enough money” or “if giving doesn’t increase we won’t survive.” You might not be worried about closing, but if your church is hyper-worried about giving decreases, even minor ones, you might fit into this category.
There’s a difference between churches that are in danger of closing, and churches who cling to a scarcity mindset and immediately sound the alarm when giving goes down.
The dangerous mindset in this category is often one of “we just need to make enough to keep the doors open, and everything will be fine.” Here’s the secret, though: that kind of thinking means your ministry won’t be fine. You’ll keep scraping and get more and more exhausted. Your givers will also get exhausted, feeling like they must keep increasing their giving, that the entire ministry rests on their shoulders.
I spend a lot of time in my book From Scarcity to Strength talking about the pitfalls of fundraising or giving just to keep the doors open. The alarmist mentality of “give or we close” might reap short-term results, but it won’t sustain itself and will eventually implode.
So how about this as a mindset shift – from “give or we close” to “our church wants to raise enough funds not just to survive, but to thrive in ministry in the community and the world.”
Then you can start painting word pictures about the vision for the future of the church that pushes beyond the status quo. You can start getting people excited about what it would look like for the church to not just survive, but to thrive. People might even start to dream… and the scarcity mindset will lead to more strengths-based work that can increase giving in both the short- and long-term.
Lean Into What’s Working
Was your church bold enough to try new things in your setting? For my church, we started doing weekly emails with Mailerlite because news was changing too quickly to rely on paper newsletters. We already had a livestream for worship (thank God) but we shifted to a more informal format that spoke better to remote viewing. Our meal program shifted to to-go options because we couldn’t open our dining room, and we started using appointment-based systems for events to space people out.
Not everyone was comfortable with the shifts at first, and some aren’t even now. Hybrid worship can feel strange, and in a time when people are craving comfort and the familiar, it can be even harder to adjust. There are always arguments to keep things the same, but no movement means no momentum.
Which is why I think that our boldness early on to try some new things, even given a little friction, have been part of the reason why giving has actually increased at my church in the past few months. INCREASED! How exciting is that! I think people are excited about the new things we’re using to connect, and how the innovations make it easier to connect with people around the country.
As people start to come back to worship, lean into some of the things that have been working, and help them grow. We’re not going to throw out hybrid worship because social distancing is gone. Why would we? Giving is up, people are responding to the hybrid format because it reaches nursing homes, homebound, friends and family around the country who have moved away, and so many more.
Lean into what people are excited about. Don’t discard it after the transition is over and things go back to “normal.” There is no normal, there’s only what works and what people respond to, and that might be different than before. Heck, HOPEFULLY it will be different than before.
Walk Away from What’s Not Working
Status quo and survival aren’t going to move your project or ministry forward during times of transition. Once you’ve got your mindset work done with the leadership team, and are thinking about not just surviving but thriving – what hasn’t been serving you? What has been lost due to the pandemic that shouldn’t come back, or what did you try during the pandemic that could use some tweaking as you move forward in transition?
Maybe there’s something you found yourself not missing when the pandemic hit and it had to end. Was it some open sanctuary time that no one really used but wanted to have available? Maybe that time can be better spent out in the community and networking. Was it a bazaar that you found saved your tired volunteers so much time and energy as it transformed into a takeout meal instead – but raised the same amount of funds? Was it an extra worship service that was dwindling, or a youth group that was limping along and needed to be re-envisioned but no one was brave enough to admit it?
These are the kinds of things that we walked away from during the pandemic, and we shouldn’t turn back and walk towards them in the transition of what comes next. We learned so much from how much time we spent doing things that didn’t embody our goals – when those things stopped, we had so much more time to do what matters. Remember that feeling, and don’t let those things creep back in.
Acknowledge the Trauma
I would be incredibly remiss in my mental health training if I didn’t take a moment to talk about mental health and trauma. Your church will not be able to weather this storm and the transition if you don’t talk about the mental, physical, spiritual and emotional toll it has taken across the board. If you come out of the gates by trumpeting all the great things we’ll do once everyone is back in church without acknowledging that a) not everyone will be back in church… so many people have died during the pandemic and some are going to stay home and b) this time has taken a toll and we need each other to heal long into the future.
For more information about collective trauma and the pandemic, I recommend this article by BBC:
After the COVID-19 Pandemic, How Will We Heal, BBC
Spend some time in worship and at team meetings talking about the trauma of the past year. Acknowledge that one of the best ways to heal from collective trauma is to spend time together and work through grief together. Consider bringing in experts to share recommendations and resources with people. There are going to continue to be spikes in mental health issues across your teams and congregation, and the more you talk about it, the less stigma is attached to it. The more you talk about mental health and collective trauma, the more people will open up to each other and create healing environments.
Surround your church family with mental health resources through this transition and beyond. Most importantly, don’t sweep this trauma under the rug and rush into “what we will do next,” or you will lose people who feel left behind in their feelings of loss and grief.
Invest in Hope
We are a people of hope, even in the bleakest moments. Even as the pandemic came down hard, we were hopeful that the world would open back up again, like a tulip bud waiting in Spring for the warmth of the sun. And we’re getting there, I can see things coming back to life everyday.
So as you shift your mindset towards strengths versus scarcity, I urge you to consider spending your funds as an investment in hope. Whether you’re adding more tables to children’s spaces to socially distance them, or renovating an entryway to make it more inviting for visitors, or even changing things in the kitchen to allow for different kinds of meal distribution…
Avoid the temptation to shrink inward during times of perceived scarcity. Avoid the temptation to stop spending money on everything and cutting everything down to bear bones – because you miss out on some big opportunities to invest in hope. Invest in the church’s future. Now is the time, transition gives us the ultimate opportunity to change who we are and get excited once again for ministry and work in the community.
Invest in hope. Spend your money where it counts and see the blessings multiply. Spend your money where it counts and see new ministries grow, that bring in new people.
Act like the thriving church you want to be, and God will move through that vision.
Keep your mindset strong, don’t be afraid to embrace what works and walk away from what doesn’t, and be kind to yourself. This isn’t an easy time to be part of any ministry or church – but you’re doing it. You’re a beacon of hope. And if you need help in this process, consider scheduling a consultation call with me – I’m happy to help.
I’ll leave you with Jeremiah 29:11-12 (NIV) as a reminder of God’s promise that will hopefully keep you out of the scarcity mindset trap, and help you hope for a healthy transition. This is a Scripture that I look to as a source of hope, and I hope it inspires you:
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.Jeremiah 29:11-12, NIV