Yesterday, I taught my first webinar on Asset Tracking (aka Asset Mapping) for churches. When talking about church fundraising, starting with what you already have is what my book From Scarcity to Strength is all about.
Here’s what I think about webinars – if you do them well, with small group time and some interaction, you can learn as much as you teach. And this webinar was no different – I learned from this diverse group of clergy and laity from the rural Catskill-Hudson District of the New York Annual Conference about the barriers they’re facing, and how we can possibly reframe those barriers in terms of strengths.
After reading over each church’s story, I boiled down their roadblocks into these five categories:
- Steady Decline
- Over-Extended Leaders
- “Post” Pandemic Turnaround (or Lack Thereof)
Then, I asked participants to self-identify which group they fell into and strategize ways to reframe their roadblocks in terms of strengths. I also asked them to do something that I talk about frequently: avoid fear-based fundraising. Don’t frame your ask in terms of “give or we close.”
If your goal is long-term sustainability, try to think of your Heart Reason in positive terms even when it seems like you’re fundraising just to keep the doors open. Don’t look at your situation any differently than groups who are looking to start new programs. Don’t consider yourselves in danger of closing; instead, consider yourselves at the edge of a major transition.
From Scarcity to Strength, p. 14
The results from this conversation were enlightening, and I wanted to share them with you:
Several of the churches in the group were in decline long before the pandemic hit. And once the pandemic hit, attendance (and giving) dropped to almost nothing. The steady decline, coupled with the pandemic, really crippled the ministry that the church is able to do. Several of the groups had new pastors who were walking into churches that have been in decline, unsure of what to do to turn the tide.
Reframe: Allen Stanton talks about rural churches (and many churches, in my opinion) falling prey to a false narrative of rural decline, ignorance and poverty. In his article, Building Thriving Rural Congregations, he points to the narrative of the Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance as one of the false narratives. The thesis of that book is that there’s something about the culture of rural communities that are driving it’s decline.
But that’s simply not true. It’s time to reclaim the narrative of community churches. Each church has gifts that can address unique challenges of rural communities. Even if the church is in steady decline, that doesn’t mean it can’t reclaim pride for the community – the fact that they have survived this long is a triumph! The permanency of churches is one of its major strengths in a community.
Even before COVID, many churches struggle with the same small group of leaders doing everything at the church. These leaders might have been doing the work for decades, even, and are exhausted. Yet for some reason there are no new leaders coming forward and they feel like they must keep pushing.
For clergy, many feel like they’re “doing everything” at the church, from fixing the copier to doing pastoral care and worship planning. And if they aren’t present, things could fall apart, leaving little time for rest and rejuvenation of their spirits.
Reframe: If leaders are exhausted, perhaps it’s time to spend time focusing on a season of Jubilee. Biblically speaking, every seven years, fields are supposed to lie fallow to gather more nutrients for future plantings. Why can’t your team take some time to rest? Are you afraid of things falling apart?
Maybe that’s exactly what the Spirit is waiting for, to bring new faces forward. For things to “fall apart.” Intentional rest is important to rejuvenate leaders who can then lead by example to others.
And if you intentionally plan some retreat time, you might find new things that your leaders are passionate about, helping pivot away from initiatives that don’t give life to your team and turning towards something new and exciting.
Some of the over-extended leaders I mentioned before can also be defined as “gatekeepers.” These are the people in ministry who are very clear about what can and cannot be done in a ministry setting. They are often matriarchs or patriarchs (but not always) and have often been long-term members of the church. Sometimes, they even threaten to leave the church if things don’t go their way, and this can leave leadership (especially the pastor) struggling if they are larger givers, which is one of the sources of their perceived power.
One approach that can be taken is to let the gatekeepers leave. In some cases, that’s really the only approach to help alleviate some of the strain. But one of the participants gave a different, striking reframe of the gatekeeper roadblock that I wanted to share.
Reframe: The gatekeepers have worked for a long time to keep the church open and are very proud of their work. They should be celebrated for their steadfast faith and service to the church! Additionally, gatekeepers are often afraid of being “obsolete” or “forgotten,” so spending intentional time with them can gain you an ally for future projects that will prove invaluable. Make sure that you are not negating all the work that was done by gatekeepers when starting new projects – acknowledge all the work that has been done to get the church to this point and celebrate new possibility!
An object at rest tends to stay at rest. An object in motion tends to stay in motion.
When a church has been dormant for a while, either due to leadership transitions or other reasons, it can be hard to “wake up” and get back into motion. These churches are content with Sunday morning worship, and maybe doing the traditional administrative meetings to keep the church alive. They haven’t given much thought to anything but church survival and existence.
This is a tricky problem, especially as a new and energetic pastor comes in with ideas to shake things up. Because then you can run into any of the other roadblocks I’ve mentioned as well.
Reframe: A sleeping dragon is still a dragon – full of fire and just waiting to wake up. It might take some digging and some asset mapping to discern the church’s passions and the needs of the community, but if you can find those connections, I think you can wake the sleeping dragon.
Celebrate small victories – someone mentioned doing a trunk or treat and having a few people hand out candy. That was a big deal! They loved working with the kids and got a hint of what community-based ministry can look like.
An inert church is just a church waiting to find its passion – it’s Heart Reason.
“Post” Pandemic Turnaround (or Lack Thereof)
The last worry that I’ve heard, and not just from the webinar group, is that people “just aren’t coming back to church” and pews are empty. There are two deep fears:
- People are getting too comfortable worshipping from their living rooms, and
- They’re not coming back.
That very well might be true, I’m not sure. My home church talked about a COVID Comeback to try and get people to come back to the pews and connect with one another, with precautions in place. Worship still isn’t back up to pre-COVID numbers, and we’re not sure if it will ever be.
This is a legitimate fear, but one that can be reframed with some intentionality.
Reframe: First, we’re not “Post Pandemic.” Not yet. Things are still too up in the air to discern what “normal” will look like. It could be a while before people start to come back.
The important question is how your congregation continues to bridge the gap. How are you finding new ways to connect with people safely? One of the churches noted that they pivoted from a sit-down pork meal to a drive-through chicken barbeque as one of their events. People still came to the church, but were distanced and didn’t come inside. My home church did drive-thru palm pickup last year, and the pastor used gloves to hand out palms to people so they still had that face-to-face (masked) interaction.
Church might not ever look the same. But instead of focusing on the fact that no one is coming back, try to consider how you might continue to connect during a complicated time. The group I’m working with is reading Being the Church in a Post-Pandemic World, which talks about the crisis as an accelerator for churches, sending them into the digital future. I highly recommend you take a look at that book as inspiration for reframing this common fear.
There’s also a second blog post I wrote that can help you continue this reframing process: take a look for five tangible steps you can follow to reframe these roadblocks.
Mindset and messaging are super important when it comes to building momentum for change within a congregational context. How you think about your roadblocks can help clear some of the static and point your team in a positive direction. That doesn’t mean that mindset will magically fix everything, but hopefully it will help get you moving.
Are there any roadblocks you’re facing that you need help reframing? Don’t hesitate to reach out to me for a free 1-on-1 consultation. I’m happy to help however I can.