The coronavirus has forced most of our churches to significantly redesign how they do ministry in most, if not all, of its facets – worship, discipleship, pastoral care, stewardship, and even evangelism. We are hoping this is going to be a short-term diversion from our normal ministry practice. However, I believe that it is essential that we anticipate that this disruption could last much longer than to the end of April. In fact, I believe we can say that even if there are some lifting of restrictions, that things will not “return to normal” for some time – or until a vaccine is discovered. I’m not a prophet, so I’m not making specific predictions. However, listening to the experts, I’m becoming more convinced that we will be leading our churches through this crisis longer than I initially thought.
One way this crisis has been described is making a comparison between a blizzard, winter, and a little ice age. To compare COVID-19 to a blizzard would mean that it would be over soon and that we will emerge from our “shelter-in-place” bunkers and life will return to normal. But in listening to public health officials, the vast majority do not believe this will be a blizzard storm – a quick in and quick out crisis. But beyond a blizzard storm, there is the winter. Unlike a blizzard that comes with immediate disruptive effects, but from which recovery comes quickly – winter is a season lasting months which may have several blizzards and colder weather that disrupts normal living. Many analysts are saying COVID-19 is not a single event blizzard, but more like a long season in which we should continue to expect significant measures of disruption. In other words, if COVID-19 is winter, and not just a blizzard, we’re talking about months of disruption, not just a few weeks. We know that in living in Northwest Indiana that winter can be unpredictable – a few mild days interrupted by a snowstorm that disturbs our routines. Maybe this is the way to look at COVID-19. It will not be a blizzard that goes away at the end of April, but it will be a winter season that has its storms and lulls, but prevents a return to normalcy. The last stage that this article hypothesized is what they termed a little ice age. With an ice age, winter is long-lasting and envelops all other seasons. The thought here is that COVID-19 is going to last longer than just a season and that it could reshape things in a way that will permanently change certain aspects of the social order, e.g., the economy, social interaction, education etc.
Speculating about the long-term ramifications of COVID-19 is in many ways a fool’s errand. COVID-19 may result in a little ice age of longer disruption and forever reshape our world, or it may last a season and life will return to normal. But obviously we are currently in a blizzard and I believe we’re entering a winter season of months of disruption and volatility. Therefore, as pastors and church leaders, we can’t just plan for the immediate crisis, but we need to think long-term – we need to plan for scenarios that assumes this crisis will be a seasonal disrupter.
How will COVID-19 affect our ministries beyond the immediate response? What are some intermediate issues and problems that we need to plan for?
First, plan for an altered return to the worship gathering – It is reasonable to think that people will have different positions on social interactions and behavior then they had before the virus outbreak. If the virus is still alive when we are allowed to return to our worship gatherings, then expect that your membership will be cautious in their interactions in groups. What this means is that you may want to think social distancing by having more than one service. You will want to continue live streaming (or begin) for the elderly, the immunocompromised, and others with health conditions who feel they’re not safe returning to crowds. You may want to think about coming back gradually with a social distanced worship service and delaying the return of your small groups (or dividing them into smaller units or letting them continue to meet virtually for a while). You have to do what is best for your context considering your age demographics and your awareness of your congregation’s sensitivity to the virus. However, the point is, it is unlikely your worship gatherings are going to return immediately to normal.
Second, plan to ensure that your church attendance does not suffer permanently – More than likely the faithful members of our churches will be there when our gatherings commence again. However, the most likely place where there will be drop off is with the infrequent attenders. Those who show up once every four to six weeks will likely fall out unless there is an intentional effort to connect with them. Understandably, you want to minister and connect with your faithful members during this crisis. However, it is those infrequent visitors or members who may have greater spiritual need, fears, and questions and also, are more vulnerable to drift way. An email, text, phone call etc. will help them feel connected to the church during this interim and may retain them once services commence.
Third, plan to make adjustments to your finances – Your church should plan for a cash flow decline. No church is going to be immune and the further we go into “the season” the more acute this problem will become. Your membership will be affected by an historic downturn in the economy and although we hope it will be a quick rebound, we should plan that the recovery will look more like a U instead of a V. Therefore, keep a close eye on your receipts. Have indicators that trigger certain actions already developed that will cut expenditures. For example, an indicator may be if giving is down 20% over a month, then that will trigger an across the board reduction in payroll. That’s is just an idea, but the point is, we can’t be naively hopeful that everything is going to be okay – we need to take steps to reduce costs and manage cash flow, so that our churches can survive and carry out their mission.
Fourth, begin to look at longer- term plans on the calendar – Most churches have already canceled all spring events. But imagine a scenario where your church was not able to have a public gathering until June 1st (not out of the question). What does that do for you summer and even fall calendar of events? Your church needs to begin to think through those scenarios now and again have certain indicators that will trigger actions. For example, if the Center for Disease Control (CDC) group restriction for groups no larger than 50 to meet is still in place by May 15th, then we will cancel summer VBS. Realize you are in “a season” and it will cause disruption to your calendar plans.
Fifth, plan to be a strong leader for the duration of the crisis – Obviously, you want to always be a strong leader, but it is imperative that you lead with confidence and calmness through this crisis. Strong and composed leadership in the midst of crisis shows your people that God is in control. The longer this crisis continues the greater temptation it will be for some of your people to panic and lose hope. Good leadership points people to hope and trust in a sovereign God. In addition, strong leadership will lead God’s people above partisan politics, which this crisis unfortunately is already suffering. Calm leadership doesn’t get dragged down into the partisan wars, but rises above politics and focuses God’s people on the Kingdom and love of neighbor.
Sixth, determine your negotiable and non-negotiable views – In this interim time, many pastors’ views on ecclesiology will especially be challenged. If this crisis endures, leaders will have to determine what is negotiable/non-negotiable in areas as it relates to the ordinances (especially Lord’s Supper), membership, polity, virtual voting and decision making etc. Pastors and church leaders will need to act in a way that does not violate Scripture nor conscience, but also be flexible in being the church in a crisis situation that is part of God’s providential plan.
Seventh, have a vision for your people for this crisis – Your church may already have an overriding long-term vision. However, I believe it’s important that you give them an “interim vision” for this crisis. In other words, cast a vision for your people to be the people of God through this pandemic. I’m not talking about a “Pollyannaish rah-rah everything is going to be okay” vision! No, there is a certain seriousness and solemnness that needs to accompany this season. People are dying - families are hurting. But there ought to be a vision projected for your people to be the church for this occasion…not just to endure it, but to embrace it as part of God’s plan and by His grace to flourish in its midst.
Eighth, make plans for evolving ministry needs – If this pandemic has a long “winter” season, or God forbid, turns into a “little ice age”, what will be the needs of our community? Almost 10 million unemployment claims have been filed in the last two weeks. Businesses are closed and many industries are basically shut down. Multitudes of small businesses are closed, and some will not reopen. You need not be a prophet to understand that there will be severe economic hardship as a result of COVID-19. How will our churches, who themselves will take a financial hit, minister to the human needs of the community? How will they minister to those who because of isolation and fear have descended into depression and despair? The point is, imagine the ministry needs that are going to be a byproduct of this crisis, and begin to make plans to meet those needs.
Ninth, be realistic and creative with your metrics – The moment we’re in is not suitable for the three B’s of Baptist metrics – baptisms, budgets, and buildings! We could also throw in worship and Sunday School attendance. Under our current conditions these metrics are going to take a hit and need to be measured differently. Coronavirus does not change the mission of the church. Worship, evangelism, and discipleship must be what we’re about no matter the environment. However, Christianity is an embodied faith with Jesus coming in human flesh and relating to others personally face-to-face and dying bodily on the Cross, so that we could have a relationship with the Father and communal relationships with other people. Therefore, our current, and maybe longer-term condition of social distancing, does not lend itself to effective ministry. As wonderful and helpful as our technology is - virtual worship, discipleship, and evangelism cannot approach the effectiveness of embodied ministry - face-to-face, person-to-person, social proximity ministry. Therefore, we must be realistic in how we measure ministry effectiveness during this time.
Tenth, plan to adjust your ministry priorities – This crisis has already caused leaders to modify their ministry activity. Social distancing has brought a halt to many pastoral care activities like hospital visitation, counseling, etc. And while pastoral care will need to continue to be carried out from a distance, the fact is, most pastors will have more available time. Therefore, it’s an opportune time to readjust your ministry priorities to areas where social isolation can be an advantage. For example, areas like planning, vision and strategy development, developing leaders, rethinking your existing ministries, etc. Providence has placed us in this time where our lives and ministries have been significantly rearranged – make the best use of that time to advance His church!
Lastly, plan to leverage this crisis for lasting change – Crisis, and especially an extended crisis, bring about lasting change to societies. Some of those changes can be undesirable, but some can be valuable. There are some changes that are being made during this season that are necessary short-term but would be destructive if they became even a semblance of the norm for the long- term. Virtual gatherings, as needed as they are presently, are not what the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he said, “Let us not neglect our meeting together…”. However, that doesn’t mean that the adjustments our churches have been forced to make cannot be leveraged to make some lasting change. The tired cliché, “We’ve never done it that way before” has been thrown out the window with this crisis! Your people are doing church like they never dreamed. That gives leaders an open door to consider some changes to ministry that before may have had significant resistance. For example, if your vision was to ever move to home small groups, this may be a time for an opening since your people will have been experiencing a taste of that reality. If you wanted to reconfigure your weekly schedule, this may be the time since the rhythms of church life have been disrupted. Some things will need to return to normal, but this crisis can be leveraged to change those things that may not need to return to the status quo.
None of us know how this COVID-19 crisis will end. My hope and prayer are that it will not have the dire consequences that so many are forecasting. There’s always the twin dangers of over sensationalizing and underplaying. But churches that don’t plan for likely scenarios can often be overtaken by them if they materialize. If the “winter season” is shorter and less severe than imagined and the “little ice age” never comes, we will rejoice that God in His grace spared us from the worst! However, if the winter is long and we have prepared our churches well, then we will endure and flourish! Afterall the church has survived persecutions, famines, plagues, wars, and depressions. She survived because she clung close to Jesus and adapted to her changing realities without compromising her message or her mission. By His grace we will do the same!
In His Service,
Dr. Wes Rankin
Association Mission Strategist
Northwest Indiana Baptist Association