Since COVID-19 concerns shut down all church gatherings, leaders have had to make many decisions. Now with some knowledge of the long-term impact, its time to begin conversation about congregations’ future.
To frame the conversation for church councils, Dan Hotchkiss* of Congregational Consulting group presents four questions, drawing on his experience getting church leaders to plan ahead. Perhaps they will assist you and your leaders looking ahead during a time when this is difficult.
1. Ask: What are we learning during this pandemic time?
The last 2 months have forced churches to invent new ways to do the things they did before. We can worship virtually, conduct weddings, hold small-group ministries, and offer education classes online. Even memorial services can take place virtually. But it is not the same. No matter how we try to make online events just like in-person ones, they are different—touching people in new ways. When we can’t do what we are used to doing, we have a chance to learn. What are you learning? What are the people of your church learning? Make a list.
“Spend time with this information in council meetings and capture the result of your discussion. Think of qualitative and quantitative data you could gather that will help you learn, and then return to the same conversation when you meet again. Remember that a congregation’s “bottom line” is not found on the treasurer’s report—important as that is—but in the hearts you touch. Don’t let the press of urgent business crowd out the council’s primary concern.”
2. Ask: What has changed, and for how long?
Right now, no one knows how long the changes will last. Will social distancing become permanent? Will others continue to scoff at health measures now in place. A lot of people seem to think life will go back to normal at the expiration of the current shelter-in-place order. Its likely people in your church have opposing views.
“As a result, some council members may be nervous about venturing their thoughts about the future. I would raise this issue up front: ‘We know that right now, we can’t hold worship services or other gatherings in person. We don’t know for sure how long current restrictions will last, or whether they’ll be modified at some point. We hold a range of viewpoints on these questions. Let’s talk about the range of possibilities each of us expects, to get a sense of the uncertainty we’re living with.’”
Ask people to respond individually to several questions. You might ask, “How long before we can open up the church for public worship?” “How will people’s willingness to attend worship change even after the restrictions lift?” “How much will our congregation’s income be affected by this epidemic?”
Remember that the goal is not to resolve these questions, but to identify the range of answers that seem possible to each council member and the council as a whole. You may have one or more members who believe they know exactly how the COVID-19 crisis will play out. If so, the council will need to ask those members to accept that it will proceed based on the range of possibilities the whole group sees, not one member’s certainty.
Having sketched the range of possibilities the council finds credible, a next step is to construct scenarios to help with planning. This is a big step; not every council is ready yet. But by the end of the summer, your people will expect their leaders to have risen above day-to-day emergencies to work on finding a future for the congregation and its ministry.
3. Ask: What scenarios can we construct to guide our planning?
Each scenario should fall within the range of possibilities the council found credible in steps 1 and 2. None of your scenarios will happen exactly. Still, it is helpful to be fairly specific, because people respond more creatively to a scenario they can imagine vividly.
One scenario might be, “We open in September, but 40% of our congregation do not return, and giving from our current members will fall off by 25%.”
Another might say, “We will need to continue online worship for at least a year, but will be able to reintroduce small gatherings, with appropriate safeguards, in September. Giving from current members will decline by 30%.”
A third scenario might say, “We will become so proficient at virtual worship that attendance will increase by 20%. Any decline in current-member giving will be made up by newcomers who will give online.”
Your scenarios will be different from these, because they will fall within the range of possibilities your council finds reasonable. You choose how many scenarios to construct. Be open and let the congregation know about your scenarios once you have completed them. This takes a certain amount of courage and may challenge some council members who believe that leaders should be silent till they know all the answers, or who are afraid of the anxiety that hard questions can produce.
Decisions of this kind are not for councils to make in isolation. Councils should work closely with the congregation’s spiritual leaders and with members of the congregation, especially those on whose support success depends. The council’s role is to frame the questions in a form that allows others to participate, and to take responsibility for moving the discussion forward.
Transparency gives members notice that you may need to make significant adjustments and enlists their creativity in discerning how you will respond. And that’s the next step—to flesh out possible decisions that the council might make.
4. Ask: How will we fulfil our mission under each scenario?
When faced with a rapidly changing environment, the easy thing for any council to do is to stay the course, praising staff and volunteers who make the new situation feel as familiar as possible. This makes people happy in the short run, but risks squandering the resources that might make renewal possible by dragging out the status quo.
This is not work for the council to do in isolation, or just with the top clergy leader. It should enlist congregants and staff to gather data, flesh out options, evaluate and update the likelihood of each scenario, reflect, and pray about what God would want if God could vote at meetings. Choosing the most faithful way forward is uncomfortable work because it raises questions about cherished aspects of a congregation’s life.
For these reasons, it is helpful to set a timeline for this stage of the council’s work. Uncertainty won’t go away, but if the council commits to making some strategic choices by a certain date, that will go a long way toward reducing the anxiety this kind of planning raises.
A council that cares about its mission has the courage to let go of old ways in new circumstances. To do this faithfully, the council must step back and take a wider view of what the mission really is—distinct from the familiar ways of trying to accomplish it. This work is not easy, but in this second stage of our coronavirus crisis, it is what governing councils are called to do.
*Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission driven. He is the author of the best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Council Leadership.