Good leaders in all sectors, including the religious sector, have felt overwhelmed by the tactical adjustments they have had to make to sustain their organizations and achieve their goals. Great leaders have been looking further into the future. There is a “new normal,” and nobody knows for sure what it will look like. Some challenges are becoming clear, however. So are the solutions.
Social distancing among people may fade, but social distancing from worship attendance will linger.
The next epidemic may or may not be worse, but it is just around the corner. This means people will be ever more selective about which face-to-face gatherings are essential or non-essential. Churches that have prided themselves on being agents for social assimilation (i.e., all those churches that count “friendliness” as their top core value) will be particularly hard hit. Even older late-adopters are discovering that social media and internet conversation can be as good as, or even better than, handshakes with the pastor, passing the peace in the pews, and post worship chatter over coffee.
Churches need to go to the next level of internet communication. I call it a “3-D” level. Many churches have learned to do two-dimensional worship services. In other words, they live stream or record/share worship services online. However, these remain presentational from speaker/performer to audience. Some email copies of the liturgy-linked households can verbally respond even if they cannot be heard. Three-dimensional worship generates dialogue and more personal interaction. For example:
- Sermons can be broken into smaller pieces, allowing time for online participants to text, email, or phone questions to the speaker for immediate response. (You will need a volunteer to monitor incoming questions, prioritize them, and set them before the speaker). These pauses might be filled with special music.
- Online Holy Communion may or may not be permitted in your tradition. However, you can still shape worship around an Agape Feast that brings households or small groups together for food, conversation, and inspiration around their table set with bread and wine. (See my e-resource Online Agape Feast available through the ACST website.)
- Intercessory prayer can be led by a team rather than an individual, with each team member able to receive real-time texts of prayer requests that can be shared online. Note that these teams will need to be trained to filter messages to protect confidentiality. The more diverse the team by age, gender, culture, and language, the more effective community prayers will be.
There are a host of social media platforms that can provide quick, easy, real-time involvement for long-distance participation.
MissionInsite resources will help you do this in three ways. MinistryInsite Reports will list the top 12 social media platforms in order of popularity for your neighborhood, small town, or community. ExecutiveInsite reports will list the top lifestyle segments represented in your mission field, and MissionImpact commentaries will reveal their communication preferences. These lifestyle portraits will also help you anticipate questions and prayer concerns so you can better train your team. ComparativeInsite reports will contrast the proportionate representation of lifestyle segments between church and mission field and help you explain the changes to reluctant church members in ways that make missional sense.
Clergy workloads will grow, but work goals will change.
The most time-consuming activities for clergy are meetings, pastoral care and counseling, and sermon preparation. Meetings will be fewer, briefer, smaller, and primarily online; health care institutions will limit visitation, and counseling will shift to confidential audio/video internet platforms, and presentational communication skills will depreciate in value. Traditionally trained clergy over 45 will be hardest hit because success will no longer be measured by universal harmony, balanced budgets, attendance statistics, but by rigorous accountability, mission-driven but manageable deficits, and volunteerism.
The most important strategy is to develop small, online mutual support groups for overwhelmed clergy, led by trained regional leaders or CEO clergy used to efficient meetings and multi-tasking. Furthermore, just as banks and major retailers are deferring payments, so also denominations need to set aside their demands for institutional growth and allow clergy to relax. Already there are online training classes for webinars. Clergy who are already experienced with online technology, dialogical preaching, and social media platforms can help their colleagues. Physicians and therapists are already shifting to specialized online platforms that protect confidentiality, which you can also use for counseling.
MissionInsite can help you create clergy support groups based on leadership style rather than church size. All 71 lifestyle segments in America are profiled by MissionImpact, including their preferences for eight different kinds of spiritual leaders today. You can help clergy identify their own style, coach them to adopt other styles, and help them connect more meaningfully with the lifestyle diversity of your congregation.
Economic recession will dramatically impact church budgets.
Bailouts and stimulus packages will only last so long, and households across America will be reprioritizing personal budgets. Charities most likely to receive money are those with the least overhead costs in property and personnel, the most visible impact on the local community, and the greatest opportunities for hands-on personal involvement. Churches will struggle to compete with efficient non-profits, health care institutions, and universities. Obviously, a recession will impact young single and family households. But it will also impact the older households who have been the biggest givers to church. This is because more and more households will become multi-generational as children are forced to return home and live with their parents.
Churches need to stop making tiny charitable donations to a wide range of denominational programs and personal pet projects and concentrate their financial resources to create a Signature Outreach Ministry. This is a high-impact outreach ministry that targets one specific need or group of people, establishes your reputation in the wider social service world, and involves a large number of enthusiastic, hands-on volunteers from within the worshipping congregation. These major outreach ministries sometimes become registered 501(c)3 non-profits. When you place fundraising for outreach above institutional operations, overall giving goes up.
MissionInsite will help you focus on a Signature Outreach Ministry. The MissionImpact resource identifies the outreach priorities of every lifestyle segment in seven categories: survival, quality of life, health, addiction, human potential, interpersonal relationships, and human destiny. It also identifies the outreach ministries most likely to be enthusiastically embraced by volunteers in your church. Moreover, ComparativeInsite Reports will give you a realistic assessment of the financial potential of your current membership so that you can establish a reliable benchmark for giving.
Widespread unemployment (or under-employment) will last a long time, with increasing social tensions between “haves” and “have-nots” in both church and community.
The lack of full-time and/or meaningful work has already become a major source of tension between Gen X and Y (least represented in the church) and baby-boomers (most represented in the church). That means people under 45 will become even angrier with people over 45 and more alienated from the church. But the tensions will not be just generational. The hardest-hit occupations will be in construction, farming, food service, healthcare support, transportation, maintenance, and security. Established churches tend to be top-heavy with occupations in management, administration, education, professional specialties, and pensioners.
Church leaders (especially staff, boards, and personnel committees) need to become very familiar with the lifestyle segments within and beyond the church. Whatever the vocalized anger aimed at your church, you can understand and interpret the underlying circumstances behind it. Most churches have limited financial resources to give to households in need, but the deeper need is for unemployed people is to have something meaningful to do in order to sustain hope and self-worth. Volunteer empowerment will become even more important. Organize volunteers into true teams that do more than tasks – praying for and supporting each other. Constantly celebrate and honor volunteers and stop taking them for granted.
Churches can also refocus or retool small group ministries to become mutual support groups for un- or under-employed people. Organize these groups using affinities of occupation, and not by geographical proximity to each other. Motivated people will travel some distance to be with the group that understands them best. Many of these groups will need trained leaders, but even if leadership is rotated the small groups will need constant coaching from the pastor or staff.
MissionInsite can help you. First, ExecutiveInsite reports will reveal the proportionate representation of occupations in your mission field. The “Opportunity Scan” tool helps you define the precise neighborhoods where population density is greatest and help conveniently locate groups outside the church building. The “People Plot” tool will help you find the specific member households where you might seek group leaders empathic to the lifestyle concerns of each group.
“Personal Religion” will soar as frustration with dogmatic and ideological polarization grows.
Resentment with churches that refuse to follow social-distancing guidelines during the pandemic, endangering the health of entire communities, is just the tip of the iceberg. People are personalizing religion; adapting rituals, blending beliefs, and revising personal values in countless ways. Church outsiders increasingly resent external authorities telling them what to think and how to behave. Church insiders increasingly resent religious organizations wasting resources on pointless conventions, political lobbying, and membership privileges, and sacred cows. Ten years ago the seekers were visitors to the church; today the seekers are members leaving the church. Thirst for God will grow. Church closures will accelerate, not due to lack of financial resources, but due to lack of public respect.
Church leaders should rethink their assumptions and habits in leadership development program planning.
- Preservation of “friendliness” will be replaced by intentional “accountability” for both staff and members. Every church should have a grievance policy similar to that of hospitals and non-profits; and consistent, universal processes for hiring/acquiring leaders, training and coaching, performance evaluation. Pastors and personnel committees should maintain confidential logs dating problems, continuing education, and changes so that staff can be fired and volunteers can be dismissed without fears of lawsuits or fistfights.
- Expectations for dogmatic agreement, ideological assent, and unquestioning obedience will be replaced by openness to different perspectives, flexibility in diverse circumstances, and gestures of reconciliation and acceptance. The science of empathy and the art of listening will be required as a condition for both paid and unpaid leadership.
MissionInsite will help you. The MinistryInsite Priorities Report lists the top ten reasons for non-participation in the church by people in the community and the top ten reasons why church members are considering non-participation and dropping out of the church. Note that across the country, the most consistent top four reasons in both categories are: churches are too judgmental and obsess over money, and that they don’t trust religious leaders or religious institutions. Also, MissionInsite gives you access to the Experian E-Handbook that summarizes lifestyle preferences for all 71 segments and 19 groups in America (based on extensive and regularly updated research). Combined with the MissionImpact Guide, these resources will help you, train leaders, for empathy and listening.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Bandy is an internationally recognized author, consultant, and leadership coach for Christian organizations and faith-based non-profits. He is the director of Thriving Church Consulting and has authored many planning tools that interface with the demographic research engine of www.MissionInsite.com. You can reach Tom through his website www.ThrivingChurch.com and his blog www.SpiritualLeadershipWaystation.com.