In 1918 when the last major pandemic hit this country, a news item ran in the Fellowship’s publication, The Christian Evangel, as to how churches were managing. One pastor, Oscar Jones reported this from Wichita Falls, Texas:
We are very glad to report victory for this place. We had begun a revival here, had run five nights, nine had been saved and two baptized in the Holy Ghost when the plague of influenza began to sweep the town and we had to close down. We had blessed unity. The saints all seemed to have a burden for the lost. Many souls were getting interested,
but we are looking for a blessed time when we begin again…
Whatever happened in Wichita Falls, Texas, one thing we can safely assume: Pastor Jones DID begin again and today, seven AG churches serve the Wichita Falls, Texas area.
Now, 103 years later, almost all AG pastors and churches walk in the footsteps of Pastor Jones…
…looking for a blessed time when we begin again.
Beginning again isn’t about winding up the old-fashioned revival model, that you know for sure. If only it were that simple. Covid-19 is not beaten back. The CDC says the Delta variant has begun to slow but will continue to cause havoc and concern as it moves into northern states. Lord willing it will be declining as we approach the fall.
Whatever Covid’s trajectory, the focus across much of the country looks similar for many AG churches:
- Prayers that the Delta variant will be a non-issue by Labor Day
- Normalize the weekend services as soon and as fast as possible for the fall
- Get the band back together
- Keep the offerings going, using what you learned during Covid to get and keep people giving online
- Identify a catchy message/service theme to kick off the fall season
- Find ways to get your people back in the game of showing up in the church building or church services
All of these seem to be focused on “getting the church machinery running again–amping up the RPMs to what they were in December of 2019.
Keeping one eye on the Delta variant while working to bring the church engine up to speed is no small task and will test the best of us. And this juggling act is showing up in real terms:
- Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The Hartford Institute’s research found optimistic pastors in their recent survey and many were encouraged by the church’s “quick pivot into online and other innovative ministries.” But Thumma also said he is hearing from pastors who were feeling burned out from making and sustaining the changes they made in the past year. Said Thumma, “Congregational leadership and lay leadership are never stress-free, but this has become simultaneously a moment of compulsory innovation and a moment of great fatigue from all the change.”
- American Bible Society and Barna found in their recent survey that 73% of Protestant pastors said they were “somewhat” equipped in helping others deal with significant crises. Only 15% described themselves as “very” well-equipped, and 12% said they felt completely unprepared.
Making sense of all that is going on, isn’t easy for any church leader. And to do it when you are navigating challenges in your own home and life, increases the load factor in a way few in your church understand. You aren’t alone in this. CEP’s survey of church leaders last summer told us that fatigue was THE factor for most church leaders as they juggled the demands on them.
Find Guidance in the Most Unlikely Place
We typically wouldn’t look to nature for guidance in how to run our churches after a pandemic but there might be some wisdom in it. C. S. Lewis explained this way:
“The only imperative that nature utters is look, listen, attend.”
Behind those Sunday smiles and fist bumps about being “back together as a church” is a different congregation than you were serving in December 2019. Some have never read their Bibles more in the past year. Others read theirs even less. Some are wondering if this should still be their home church, while others couldn’t be happier to be back. Some have developed dependencies and habits they want to break but can’t. Some have lost loved ones to Covid-19. Others will get it in the next week. Some are for the vaccine, others not. Some feel like God was never closer, others haven’t sensed God’s Spirit in months.
Now is NOT the time to look out on your congregation and think they are largely the same people. Believe it or not, guessing makes your job harder. Instead, receive the counsel of Jeremiah: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”
The challenge you face as a leader is to look at your people with new eyes, a new heart, and most importantly to look at them with new curiosity. Looking is opening yourself up to what is—not what you think reality is. Simply put, it begins with prayer. It’s asking God to open your thinking to new ways of ministry to where people are on their spiritual journey. George Washington Carver is remembered for saying, we often look but we do not see. Converting your looking into seeing is a solid leadership move to discover where God is working in the individuals and families in your church.
Proverbs 27:23 encourages leaders with these words:
“Know well the condition of your flock.”
Translation: Don’t guess. Don’t depend on hearsay or your gut feelings.
Have you done any intentional listening to your congregation in the past 90 days besides talking with your worship team, staff, or elders? If not, you don’t have the full picture of what God has been up to in the lives of your people. But you can get it.
Your listening can be a one-page survey completed at the end of a service, or it could be an online survey that goes deeper.
The benefit to you will be that you gain a better understanding of the real and true impact of this past year and a half on the lives your church serves. Ask them:
What are their hearts longing for? Who is Jesus to them now? Where do they hurt? What has God done in and through them that you and your staff know nothing about? What coping habits do they need help to shed? What are their struggles now? Their gratitudes? What do they need from this church now? Listening for the answers to these questions can go a long way in helping you do the next step—attend.
What a beautiful word: attend.
It speaks of binding up the wounds, listening and responding, strategizing with heart. Taking what you saw when you LOOKED in prayer, intentionally LISTENED with some type of survey, and then acted on it.
Attending is taking action. It is courageously reflecting on what your looking and listening showed you, and then acting on it. It is thoughtfully making wise changes that better align your church’s ministry with where your people are as a result of Covid. Such changes are attending to the soul of your church. In their new book, Improv Leadership, Stan Endicott and David Miller speak to what pastors can do with their staff and key lay leaders in this process of attending:
“Going North is a game of slowing down speedy people and maneuvering around the barriers they erect to get to their hearts. To go north with your team, you have to be willing to slow down… you have to be willing to set up situations and conversations that many leaders don’t have the patience to get into.”
Attending is taking time for you as well. It is attending to your own soul care and your family’s too-and to do it without guilt. A tired, burned-out pastor isn’t much good to God or those you love and serve. Attending to you can bring you back to a place of fresh perspective, renewed energy, and vision.
In a recent article in Christianity Today, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group put out a warning to church leaders like yourself, “Church leaders are going to revert to doing things the ways they’ve always known them, whereas the population in general and millennials are going to find that this disruption (the pandemic) altered their habits and perspectives on the role and relevance of the church,” he said. “The gap between the church and society is only going to be larger as we rebuild the church in a post-pandemic world.”
That last sentence is sobering. The gap between your church and those it serves doesn’t have to grow larger as you work to recover from the pandemic—to begin again. Look. Listen. Attend. These are the stepping stones to making your way out of the pandemic and into a bright future God has for your church.
CEP stands with you in your efforts to begin again. If you would like a free “Look. Listen. Attend.” worksheet to use with your church leadership to do some strategic brainstorming or are interested in a reproducible congregational survey, get in touch with us by emailing CEP at email@example.com