Last week we took a look at ten things that many church leaders have learned over the past two months of ministering through a pandemic.
Today we'll look at ten questions that we STILL don't know the answers to during this time. Time will, most definitely, bring clarity to some of these things. For now, our job as leaders is to try to learn as much as we can, change and innovate where possible, and ultimately lead our churches well through this time.
But first, let's review what HAVE learned so far. (You can also read these more in detail here).
- LEARNING #1 - We're not as building-centric as we thought we were.
- LEARNING #2 - The platform is gone, and that's OK.
- LEARNING #3 - Virtual works. It's not the same as in-person. But it works.
- LEARNING #4 - Some staff members are indispensable. Others are struggling to find their place.
- LEARNING #5 - People are generous beyond measure.
- LEARNING #6 - We were mostly unprepared for a major national crisis.
- LEARNING #7 - Producing a great online experience isn't the same as producing a great in-person experience.
- LEARNING #8 - Church Shopping just got a whole lot easier
- LEARNING #9 - This crisis will most likely change our church in many ways forever.
- LEARNING #10 - We have to look at the future differently
So, we've learned quite a lot already during this season. But what should we still be asking? Here's what I'm hearing from pastors:
"How long will this last?"
I remember when this thing all started a couple of months ago. Everyone thought it would be a couple of weeks, and then things would be back to normal. No one anticipated that it might be months, not weeks.
Today, we still don't know the answer to how long this will last.
Social distancing, it seems, is not going away any time soon (at least until a treatment drug is invented or a vaccine is introduced).
That means that we will be dealing with the effects of the virus for literally months to come.
I think we're maybe in the bottom of the second inning of the game here. But anyone that says they how long we'll be in the middle of this crisis is lying.
"When should we begin meeting in-person again?"
This has been the biggest question everyone is asking the last two weeks.
SHOULD we begin meeting in person again?
I think that answer may be different for each church.
Early on, I heard from many that when the church re-opened, we needed to prepare for record crowds. Unfortunately, that's not the reality.
From what I've heard over the last two weeks from churches that have already re-started in-person services, attendance is lower than expected. (In some cases, MUCH lower).
My guess is that attendance at in-person services will grow over time, but it will be much slower than any of us initially thought.
And there are many things to consider when you decide to start in-person services back up. I've heard someone say that it was much easier to close down than to open up. That may be an understatement.
"When we start in-person services again, what will our main service look like?"
I've seen a lot of plans from churches that have been published in the last week. Most are primarily the same and include both social distancing AND massive efforts at keeping buildings disinfected.
Some states are putting out recommendations as well. A couple that I've seen have recommended that there not be singing (because singing evidently vaporizes more than talking).
It will be some time before our services are full again, and everyone feels safe to gather in large rooms with lots of people. In-person services will resume over time, but they will have a much different look and feel than we're used to.
Our ability to create an environment that is both safe AND welcoming should help define when we should start back up. For some areas of the country, that could be this Sunday. For other regions, we could be weeks away from that being able to be the reality.
"When we start in-person services again, what will our children's ministry and youth ministry look like?"
Children will not social distance. That's a given.
So what will your church do with children's and youth ministries?
Most of the churches I see that are starting to go back to in-person services are NOT providing nursery or kids ministries for the time being.
Many churches are waiting to see what nursery schools and elementary and high schools do this fall. If they return, what safety protocols will they put in place? This is probably the starting point for what will become an acceptable practice for the next season for churches as well.
We'll know more soon, but we're probably a few weeks away from having any consistent plans or recommendations.
"How many people will return initially?"
I've heard anecdotal numbers of about 15-20% in the first two weeks that some churches have started back up in-person services.
Churches that start earlier will be on the front-end of the learning curve here.
How many will return, and WHO will return? Those are the big questions that we'll eventually know the answer to. For now, the conventional wisdom seems to favor a slow return, gradually growing over time.
This means that churches, at least for this next season, will need to shift to both in-person AND online services.
"How many people will stay engaged but attend online (and for how long?)"
For those in our churches that are elderly or those with health concerns, attending in-online is the wise option, at least for now.
Some parents with children will want to stay home to protect their families from exposure.
Still, others have found that they like curling up on their sofa with their dog and a cup of coffee to watch online.
Regardless, the number of people that will rely on ONLY your online service offerings will be significant for some time.
The real question will be how we will keep all these online viewers engaged in the life and health of our church.
"How many people will go away forever?"
I'm reading lots of reports that online viewership is going down weekly at this point. The shininess has worn off.
People that only watch but are not somehow engaged in personal connection and relationship may very well go away. In many cases, for good.
Be prepared to lose a good chunk of people over the time if you are not actively interacting and engaging with them.
Waiting for the old normal when we can all gather together is not a strategy to retain these people. They will be gone.
Many people haven't been to church in 8 weeks, and quite frankly, don't miss it all that much. That's hard truth. When the routine is gone, and the new habit of NOT going is the new habit, it will be hard to woo people back.
This is all the more reason to connect with people now via social media, phone, texting... whatever means you can.
"How and what will we measure?"
We've always measured butts in seats. But now our seats are six feet apart, and many people aren't going to be physically present.
So what WILL we measure?
Online attendance? (everyone is measuring this differently right now).
In-person attendance? (no one will want to use this metric because it will show a sharp arrow down, at least for now).
Now is the time to revisit your mission and determine how you will know when you're winning.
What's most important right now?
That's what you should measure.
It might take some work to figure out exactly HOW to measure, but it will be an essential part of your journey moving forward.
"What will this do to our budget?"
I've heard all kinds of numbers from churches. A few churches have told me that their giving is up during this season. Other churches have experienced declines of up to 50%.
But regardless of where you are today, none of us know what will happen in the coming months.
My best guess (and this is only my opinion) is that over the summer, your church's financial picture will become more and more evident. With high unemployment and an uncertain future, it is hard to imagine that most churches will not be affected by some measure of diminished giving. While this may not be true for every church, many churches, by Fall, may be seeing the need to adjust their budgets in some way.
Of course, we hope this is not the case, but now is the time to start planning for that possibility.
"What changes will we need to make to our staff as a result of this experience?"
We are already starting to see churches re-think their staffing during and post COVID-19.
In some cases, decreasing budgets are causing churches to start to think about the need to layoff some of their well-loved staff.
In other instances, staff are being moved to different seats on the bus. Sometimes temporarily. Other times permanently.
And the reality that you will have to have both a great online experience and your in-person gatherings is causing many churches to think about how to put more personnel budget toward that new reality.
These are just a few of the questions that most of us are still asking.
While we've learned a lot, we still have a lot to learn.
Smart leaders are digging in.
Effective leaders are planning ahead. Even when they don't know exactly what the future looks like.
I'd love to hear how your church is processing the last two months (and the next two months). Let's learn from each other. You can grab some time on my calendar. We can have a great one-on-one discussion on what we're experiencing and learning at this time.