by Jeff Matas
Here are some practical insights on leading a church as we move (hopefully) past the pandemic. What follows are some of my takeaways from the latest Indiana Ministries workshop led by Karl Vaters.
Don’t try to go back to what was
Many pastors would confess, “I just want to get back to church the way it was pre-pandemic.” Those days are gone. The pandemic has changed every institution it has touched, including the local church. Our average attendance has been impacted. Our programming has been reduced; our church calendars are a bit lighter than they were pre-pandemic. In some ways, God used the pandemic as a sifting time. Those that had one foot in the world and one foot in the church are gone. Online worship was a Godsend to the local church during lockdown and even after as we faced each wave of Covid-19. It allowed the church to still meet but to do so with safety. It also allowed people that were on the fence in their faith to drop out of the church. They didn’t have to face the challenge of their friends asking, “Where have you been? We’ve missed you.” They could simply say, “I’m attending online” and no one would really know. They could watch the service live, on demand, or not at all. No one knew. That is why the finances of so many churches stayed steady through Covid, but their in-person attendance hasn’t recovered. People that were lukewarm in their faith dropped out.
We need to minister personally
Currently, people are spending most of their time in two extreme places: isolated and alone or on mass/social media. They are starving for real community and real relationships. We don’t need anymore “cool” churches. People aren’t looking for the cool church, they are looking to connect with God and connect with others (including their pastor and that’s good news for small churches). We need to minister more in a personal context than a supersized big box church context. Even larger churches (post-Covid) must learn or relearn what pastoral care and connecting look like. Small church pastors are at an advantage because they are already good at those things.
Build strategic reserves
The churches that weathered the pandemic with lower levels of anxiety were the ones with strategic financial reserves. Make a plan with your board to have two to three months of operating expenses in reserve. It might take you three to five years to get there but get there. The pandemic reminded us that it’s not a matter of “if” another disruption will occur, it’s “when” it will occur. When your church has adequate financial reserves, it doesn’t have to make decisions in a panic, fretting about whether you can make that next mortgage payment or payroll. Reserves give you the time to assess, to think, to plan, and to lead.
Speaking of reserves, it is also important to have built in margin in your life as a pastor. I always thought that I needed to give 110% as a pastor every week. Karl Vaters really pushed back on that and suggested a goal of running at 60% to 70% of maximum during normal times. This doesn’t mean that you should only be working 60-70% of a 40-hour workweek. It means that you should build in margin so that you are pouring back into yourself (physically, spiritually, and relationally). Here’s the reason. When a crisis hits locally, regionally, or nationally, you will have to ramp it up to 100%. During a crisis—at the end of each day and each week—you will have nothing left in the tank. If your normal, as a pastor, is to be running on fumes every Monday morning, you will have nothing to bring to the table when the next crisis hits.
Some churches have a very restricted or limited view of what church is. For some, church means meeting in this building, at this time, wearing certain clothes, and singing certain songs. Covid completely disrupted that rigid idea of church. Can your church function outside of your building? Can it be the church if it can’t meet at a certain time or place? The more “got to’s” your church has, the more vulnerable it is to the next crisis or even the changing world around it.
Here’s something that is baked into our DNA in the Church of God (at least in theory). History tells us that the Church typically unites and rallies during a crisis. Not during Covid. Churches didn’t come together. They didn’t unite. They fought over lockdowns, masks, social distancing (to name a few). Instead of coming together stronger, we fought, we split, we argued, we stopped attending. We broke God’s heart. In a crucial period in our nation’s history, we blew it. We had an opportunity to shine bright and instead we fought each other within the church.
We learned an important lesson – we need to be united around mission. Churches that were united by anything else didn’t fare well. Churches that were built on hearing a celebrity pastor struggled. Why make the effort to physically show up on a Sunday to hear a great message when I can stream it online whenever I want? Churches that had a clear, compelling mission that united people came through the pandemic far better than churches without it.
Different seasons require a shift in how we lead
When times are normal, leaders inspire change. They lead their church into new lifecycles and help the church get unstuck. They motivate people to embrace change and move the church forward.
When times are disruptive, a leader’s number one job is to provide stability. During Covid (and the many disruptions we faced during that time), people were looking for a calm, reasoned, biblically grounded shepherd. They needed a non-anxious presence. They needed a pastor that not only trusts in God, but her/his trust permeates everything she/he touches.
There is a lot that Covid taught the church. The local church is more resilient than we thought. Small churches that wisely position themselves and unite in mission are well positioned for effectiveness post-pandemic as people are looking for life-giving relationships with God and a church that knows them personally and loves them. In spite of our flaws, God still believes in the local church. It is His plan A, plan B, and plan C for the world. He has no backup plan because the church is His only plan.