(That We Didn't Know Then)
We've all learned a lot as church leaders that past couple of months, haven't we? In my 35 years of ministry, I've never seen a time like this where the church has had to adapt, pivot, and change so quickly.
With all that change and pivoting, most leaders are learning a lot. Here are some of the significant learnings that I'm hearing as I talk with many leaders:
LEARNING #1 - We're not as building-centric as we thought we were.
Before COVID-19, most churches, whether they would admit it or not, were very building-centric. Most of our American churches, for better or worse, were centered around a 'come and gather' framework. This pandemic changed all of that in under a week (literally).
People could no longer come and gather. Our auditoriums (and offices) were suddenly empty. Just for a week or two, we thought.
Now, nearly two months into this pandemic, many of our buildings are still dormant. And yet, the work of the ministry continues. It seems that we are not as heavily reliant on the existence of our buildings as we thought we were.
LEARNING #2 - The platform is gone, and that's OK.
Since we have no longer been gathering in our buildings, our platform disappeared overnight.
(By platform, I mean our 'big room' experience, live worship, small group gatherings, coffee bars, children's and youth gatherings... anything that people would come to our building to see and participate in.)
All of it, as we knew it. Gone. Overnight.
But what most of us have learned is: that's OK. In fact, in some ways, it's better.
The lack of a 'platform' has caused us all, every one of us, to become less platform-driven, and more pastoral-driven. It has caused us all to connect in smaller groups (many of which are online) or to use technology to connect individually with people. This has actually increased the level of spiritual care in many of our churches. People are uniting together, even though they are physically separated.
Many of our churches had lost the ability to pastor individuals well.
It turns out the platform going away wasn't an entirely horrible thing, after all.
LEARNING #3 - Virtual works. It's not the same as in-person. But it works.
Few churches were doing any kind of online discipleship groups online in early March. Still, fewer were offering any type of student or children's ministry resources or programming.
But all that changed quickly.
And we discovered something huge.
Small groups DO work online. So do children's and youth ministry.
Maybe not as well as in-person, but ministry and connection CAN happen online.
And spiritual care CAN be done on Facebook and YouTube and Instagram. And technologies like the telephone are quite useful to check-in, care, and pray with people.
In some cases, they are more personal than the platform communication methods that we used before.
Many of us are learning the value of virtual ministry. And many will be keeping layers of virtual connection well after in-person gatherings are once again the norm.
LEARNING #4 - Some staff members are indispensable. Others are struggling to find their place.
One pastor told me that his job description changed overnight. Chances are, yours did too. And so did the job duties of your staff.
The changing of 'platform' to 'pastoral' changed a lot of things.
All of a sudden, it was more important to have a livestream that worked than to have all of the children's classrooms stocked with curriculum and supplies.
Anyone on your staff that knew anything about technology, social media, or knew what Zoom was, immediately became worth their weight in gold.
And some of your staff that were used to programming and preparing for the weekend crowds found themselves in a new world they weren't sure how to navigate.
COVID-19 has taught us that, moving forward, the landscape will most likely never return to normal. The future will require more people with new skillsets. Some people will need to do different things. And some of our long-term, well-loved staff will probably need to transition to another area of ministry or roll off our staff entirely.
No one said this would be easy.
We're learning that people matter and effectiveness matters. But we'll still figuring out how what we're learning will affect us when it comes to our staff and programming in the future. But no doubt, it will.
LEARNING #5 - People are generous beyond measure.
Nearly every pastor I've connected with in the past sixty days speaks highly of how their congregation has stepped up financially during this season. Some church's giving has been over budget for March and April. Others are in a much better financial position than they ever could have imagined if you would have told them they would not be meeting for eight weeks straight.
We knew this before, but now it's real. People are generous. And people step up in a time of need.
But we're still learning during this pandemic. Unemployment and the financial futures of those that attend our churches will, sooner or later, most definitely start to hit the giving level in many churches. But God's people will continue to be generous during this time as they are able. We just have to be wise stewards of that generosity.
LEARNING #6 - We were largely unprepared for a major national crisis.
Honestly, some churches were better prepared for such a time as this than others. Some churches had sufficient financial reserves that were/are available. Other churches were running on very thin margins financially. Regardless, no one planned for closing down their buildings for at least a quarter of 2020.
For most churches, there were no contingency plans for an event of this type or magnitude.
But hopefully we're in the process of learning our lesson in this area.
We need to plan.
I suggest planning for at least three different scenarios: the best case, our best 'present-day' guess as to what we think might happen, and the very worst case.
Best case: What if we meet on THIS Sunday with double the attendance?
Worst case: What if we can't meet on the weekend until June. Of 2021?
If we plan for the worst, we'll almost always be in a good spot no matter what happens.
But our most significant learning here is that we don't want to get caught unprepared again. We need to think and plan through what might happen in the future.
(Here's an exercise for you: What if we're able to meet again, but the next crisis includes losing all internet and online communication for two months? Now what?)
LEARNING #7 - Producing a great online experience isn't the same as producing a great in-person experience.
We quickly learned that what we do in a room of a few hundred (or a few thousand) on a Sunday morning doesn't necessarily translate well when there are four people watching in their living room.
Some of us figured that out really early, and changed our online stream to a more produced, more personal gathering that makes better connection online possible.
And everything was great.
Until we realized that we would again be opening the big room at some point for live services. Now we have to figure out what to do once again with our online offering.
We're learning that many people REALLY like what we're doing online. In fact, some people actually will prefer attending online in the PJs with their dog on their lap and a cup of coffee.
For the next season, churches will need to be both in-person AND online.
This will take additional time, effort, and staff in most cases.
But it will be the new ministry model.
A few churches I've talked with think that online will actually be as large as their in-person campus for a good season moving forward. If so, this means that our learning in this area is just beginning.
LEARNING #8 - Church Shopping just got a whole lot easier
Suddenly, EVERY church is online.
EVERY church is local.
Saddleback and Life.Church are just as accessible as your online stream.
And if it's one thing we as Americans like to do, it's shop.
During this time, some people have become 'church connoisseurs'. I've seen posts on Facebook of regular church goers that are watching 3 or 4 church services online.
Knowing that every church in America is now local makes the personal touch and one-on-one connections all that more important. We're learning that this it the time that we as a local church need to do what ONLY the LOCAL church can do.
LEARNING #9 - This crisis will most likely change our church in many ways FOREVER.
OK... we don't know exactly what COVID-19 will change about our church in the long run. But everyone I've talked to knows that this will change a little bit of everything, forever.
From the way you clean your building, to the number and type of person you have on your staff. This will change the way you conduct your ministry for some time to come.
The key right now is to sort the wheat from the chaff. What are we doing that's new that needs to stick around? And what has this crisis uncovered from the past that just needs to go away? Smart leaders are asking these questions now.
LEARNING #10 - We have to look at the future differently.
I think it's fair to say that many of us in ministry were in a bit of a rut.
We just didn't know it.
There's nothing like a crisis to perk us up and get us motivated.
As we move forward, the next weeks, months, and years will be much different than we anticipated.
The 2020's will, in my opinion, be some of the most exciting years to be working in ministry.
But we have to look at things much differently. Those of us that can adapt and pivot will find ourselves in a very exciting time.
The harvest is still ripe, and what we're learning now will serve our people, our churches, and our communities well into the future.
What are YOU learning? I'd love to hear! Drop me an email.
And if you're already to the point of thinking through what this might mean for the way you staff your church in the near future (my area of specialty), let's compare notes. I'd love to share with you what we're seeing and how we're planning for the future. We think many exciting things are on the way. Let's talk!