This post was written by Altar Live friend and advisor Dale Sellers. Dale is the Executive Director of 95Network and the author of Stalled: Hope and Help for Pastors Who Thought They'd Be There By Now. He has been in ministry for 40 years and is dedicated to helping small and mid-size churches get healthy.
What a month, huh?
This is such an unprecedented time in the history of our great nation. The unseen enemy of COVID-19 has caused our country to pull together in a unified effort to win this war. Simultaneously, an incredible opportunity for the Church has developed to have a lasting impact, both immediately and in the coming months and years. If you have been around 95Network for long, then you know how much we have been communicating the need for our churches to update and change how they go about reaching their respective communities.
We have been quite aware that quite a few churches connected to our ministry have not followed-through on our pleas to do a thorough review of the structure, mission, and vision of their churches. However, the present day crisis of COVID-19 has removed the ability to ignore the need for change any longer. Literally thousands upon thousands of churches are now in “scramble mode” as they try to figure out things like online giving, a strategic online presence, and updated ways to communicate with their congregations.
Yet, once again, if we’re not careful, we will still miss the big picture.
The big picture, you might ask? Yes, the big picture is simple: It’s not about us! Our ministry should have never been just focusing 100% on our individual church and the people who are already part of it. There are millions of people all around us who don’t know Jesus. And I truly believe that Jesus is going to use this situation to help us raise our heads and look beyond the four walls of our existing ministries.
Remember the story of the woman at the well in John 4 where Jesus is talking with someone who doesn’t “fit the mold” of who His disciples would normally reach? In fact, they are astonished as they return from shopping in the city to find him not only talking to a Samaritan, but also a woman. At the end of their conversation, Jesus says, “As you look around right now, wouldn't you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I'm telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what's right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It's harvest time!” (MSG)
This is an awesome time in the history of the Church to open our eyes and take a look at what’s right in front of us. I am in no way diminishing the severity of the situation that many of our churches are in. However, you have an unseen power available to combat these difficult times named the Holy Spirit. You also have a manual in God’s Holy Word to guide you every step of the way. There has never been a more important time for you and I to press in to the Holy Spirit’s presence, power and peace.
With this is mind, let me offer you 10 ways to effectively lead through this current situation. Who knows, you may find that these ideas are good practices during any season:
1) You can no longer allow your leadership to be reactive instead of proactive.
Even in the midst of this situation, don’t allow yourself to make decisions in a panic. Decisions made in haste usually don’t accomplish long-term stability. Proverbs 19:2 says, “It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.” (NIV)
This is why it is so important to spend time developing a clear mission and vision for your organization. I realize that some things need immediate answers. I get that. However, you can also use this time of social distancing and self-isolation to think through a plan to do more effective ministry next week, next month, and next year.
2) Give yourself some grace if this has caught you off guard.
This is not the time to be playing the blame game, either with yourself or your staff and volunteers. It’s simply a waste of time to focus on the rearview mirror in the midst of a crisis. I’ve learned from experience that trying to go forward while looking back always leads me to end up in the ditch. It can even sometimes lead to a fatal crash. To quote Clemson Football coach Dabo Swinney, “God put your eyes in the front of your head for a reason!”
3) As a leader, you must confront the spirit of fear and not back down.
2 Timothy 1:7 has been quoted so much over the past few weeks: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” I have a dear friend named Mark Pritchard who pastors Church at the Gates in Missoula, MT. Last week, Mark reminded us that fear is a natural emotion. Recognizing that I’m feeling fear is not a sin. In some ways, fear can cause us to stop in our tracks and actually help us to analyze the situation. Oftentimes, running full-steam ahead into our fears results in failure.
However, I do think it’s very helpful to understand that fear is also a spirit that comes to oppose us. Therefore, as a believer in Jesus, you have been saved through His blood and also have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. As a leader, it is so important not to let fear intimidate you or distract you from leading effectively. Remember 1 John 1:9, which says, “My dear children, you come from God and belong to God. You have already won a big victory over those false teachers, for the Spirit in you is far stronger than anything in the world.” (MSG)
4 - Please, please, please stop trying to do your normal Sunday routine online.
I’ve been amazed at the amount of energy and effort so many of our churches have expended in an effort to “reproduce” their normal Sunday service. I think this probably comes from our natural default as pastors and leaders. We have been so accustomed to doing things the way that we’ve always done them that the pressure to continue doing so has robbed us of the ability to stop and think.
Do you really need the entire worship team to spend countless hours trying to reproduce your “normal” Sunday worship experience? Do you really need to stand behind pulpit and “preach” like normal when most of the people watching your streaming service online are sitting on their couch or at the kitchen table?
The honest answer is no. They need you to be real! Your people will draw more strength from your ability to relate to what they are going through than from your effort to make things seem as normal as possible. Things aren’t normal as usual! I believe it’s much more helpful for you to present your message, sermon, or video sitting at home on your back porch or in your den than for you to seem “out of touch” with what your people are dealing with continuously.
5) Be innovative in your approach at connecting with those inside your church.
There is just not a “one size fits all” answer for how your church should reach out to your congregation. This is especially true if you pastor an older congregation or possibly a rural congregation. My dad is 82-years-old and has never once been online! He even still uses a flip phone. And most shockingly, he has never sent or received a text.
So expecting all of my dad’s generation to respond to anything online isn’t feasible. However, his generation also does something extremely rare for our modern culture: He actually answers the phone when you call him! (That is, if he can find it!)
The point here is to use whatever means necessary to connect with your people. I read an article yesterday about a neighbor who is going to visit shut-ins by standing on their front porch and talking to them through the storm door. He even holds his hands up to the glass door so they can put their hands up against his on the glass. Writing that made me tear up!
I have also seen teachers do miniature parades in subdivisions where their students live just to hold up a sign with encouraging remarks. That's so cool!
The important thing is that we are innovative in connecting with our congregation in a way that best encourages them.
6) Be innovative in your approach at connecting with those outside your church.
Our efforts can't stop at #5. Our purpose is just as much about the people outside of our church as it is about the people inside our church.
Again, there is no formula for connecting with those outside of our churches. In reality, I believe this is why we don’t do this in normal times. Our churches have been programmed to need a template or, in some cases, a gimmick or fad to motivate our congregation into reaching out to those who are not a part of our church.
In checking with my neighbors, most of whom do not attend church, I asked them if they had enough food. I happen to have a big freezer full of deer meat and fish that I offered to share with them if they need it. In every conversation, each neighbor was blown away by my offer. There are so many things we can do just to show we care, whether it’s running to the store for a shut-in or helping with yard work. Truthfully, the possibilities are endless for us to be the hands and feet of Jesus!
7) Ask “why?” about everything you do.
While serving as an Executive Pastor a few years ago, I ordered several 3’x3’ vinyl banners and placed them in strategic places within our office areas. Each banner only had one word on it: Why?
That’s all it said.
My reasoning for doing this was simple. I wanted to ask “why?” about everything we were doing. Doing this helped us as a staff to stay fresh and innovative in our approach to ministry. It helped us keep things from getting stale or put in church vernacular, and it kept us from saying, “but we’ve always done it this way!”
8) Make being a source of encouragement your top priority.
Leader, I have an important word for you: You don’t need to have all of the answers!
Whew! Hopefully this truth will be a source of relief for you. In times of crisis, loss and pain, the greatest thing we can often do is be a source of encouragement.
It always amazes me to see our leaders trying to give the biblical reason for why things happen while they are happening. I certainly believe the Bible speaks to every issue that we will ever face. But I also need to be reminded that sometimes in the midst of the storm, the greatest thing I can do is just be a source of encouragement. There will be plenty of time in the days ahead to discuss all of the theological ramifications of the current situation we are in. However, it is so important to remember that people are looking to us for hope and peace and stability.
9) Let go of your need to continue your current teaching series during the shut down.
In all honesty, this has been the most shocking thing that I’ve observed from some pastors. I can’t think of anything that says “I’m out of touch” or “I’m unaware” more than continuing to do what we’ve always done while everyone’s world around us is falling apart. Pastor, as your friend, please let me beg you to make sure that your communication is up-to-date, sensitive to what people are going through, and offers solutions from the Scriptures of how to come out victorious on the other side of the current situation.
Once again, continuing to do what you have already planned to do without recognizing the pain, suffering, and fear that people are dealing with will immediately label you as uncaring. While I know you do care, make sure those you are reaching out to know it as well.
10) Use this time to push the “reset” button on everything!
As I wrap up this article, I wanted to let you know that there is one thing that I see as a great opportunity for all of us. Very seldom in life do we get the opportunity to push the “reset” button. Here’s what I mean: I do not believe things will ever go back to being exactly as they were before COVID-19 disrupted our lives. The positive that can be taken from this is that we can use this “down time” to reevaluate our purpose, priorities, and passions as a ministry.
I want to strongly encourage you to take advantage of this time to revisit your mission and vision as it relates to effectively reaching your community. This is a great time to ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and your team into ways of being more effective as a ministry in the coming weeks.
It’s very possible that people are going to give church another chance in their lives on the backside of COVID-19 much like they did when 9/11 happened. My question for you today is this: Will you be ready for an influx of new people? As the Church, it will be crucial that we connect with these new people in ways that relate to what they just experienced and where they see life is going. I just want to remind you that God’s Word really does have all of the answers!
In some ways, this experience of dealing with the effects of COVID-19 can be a great catalyst for change if we will take advantage of it. But please let me also warn you that attempting to recreate the “way we’ve always done it in the past” will most likely be a sign to everyone around us that we have no intention of changing.
And finally, if your church was already on “life-support” before this happened, now is the time to pull the plug on “doing what we’ve always done” and relaunch with a newfound clarity in your structure, mission, and vision.