Be wary of anyone who gives a confident prediction of what the future holds. We know the Church will prevail – our faith, our history, and our Lord remind us of that. I actually think the days on the “other side” of this current chapter will be exciting and bright.
But the cultural and economic fruit basket is upset, and likely our ministries will never be the same. Perhaps this worldwide experience will bring a recalibration for the Church that is long overdue.
If we knew what our churches would look like by 2021, we could start planning accordingly and pull out the timelines and action plans. The tricky part is that we cannot know the future – that’s God’s job.
However, responsible leaders cannot sit idly waiting for shoes to drop. We need to have some kind of proactive discussion. We need to at least have considered a handful of scenarios that may occur in order to be proactive. Whatever happens over the coming months, we will have done the best to lead our congregations with clarity and spiritual wisdom.
For the foreseeable future, we will not be assembling in groups of more than 10. There are a number of ways to strategize accordingly – the primary ones are to hold virtual gatherings or to break down congregations into platoons of less than 10 – or some combination of these two ideas. And, of course, there are practical and technological concerns that each church will need to figure out for their own context.
A helpful way to think through a few scenarios (and their implications on our congregation) is to think about three potential times we may shift from the “safe at home” posture to the “back to church” new normal:
- Option A - September
- Option B - Christmas Services
- Option C - January
QUESTIONS TO ASK:
- What are the implications if we don’t return to our new normal until September? Christmas? Or January?
- What will this mean for the regular ways we worship, connect, give pastoral care, address crisis, etc.?
- Can there be a virtual contingency plan for each of the physical meetings? If not, can we suspend this or rethink the way those will be executed?
There is no doubt that both the lack of gathering, as well as the economic tumult, will impact the giving patterns of our congregations.
Depending on the socioeconomic make-up of a congregation, this is a serious threat to stability, akin to the 2008-2010 recession. But every congregation, including big-budget ones and ones that receive a majority of giving via digital means, will need to recognize they will be receiving less income for the next 6-12 months.
A helpful way to have a proactive discussion about this is to create some scenarios that enable a more data-driven discussion. Leaders could consider the implications of at least three financial scenarios happening between now and September establishing a new “line” for financial support:
- Scenario 1 - 10% reduction in giving
- Scenario 2 - 20% reduction in giving
- Scenario 3 - 30% reduction in giving
QUESTIONS TO ASK:
- What if we are taking in 10% less this April compared to last April? Or 20% or 30%?
- And what if the new “line” is lower going forward?
- Is there a way to create multiple approaches and “triggers” for when we deploy which go-forward plan?
At times of instability or uncertainty, the task of communicating with clarity is of paramount importance. In congregations, we usually have the occasion of a weekly gathering. That is not available to us right now.
The tendency is to under-communicate because we have nothing accurate to say. It is true - everything is a guess right now, so there are no magic bullets and no perfect leadership choices.
But as we know, lack of communication allows people to create their own narrative about what is happening with their church. Often those narratives are incomplete at best, and demoralizing or toxic at worst.
Church leaders don’t need to be clairvoyant about the future, but clear about their concern for the congregation and the proactivity with which they are making decisions. This is best executed following the law of Concentric Circles of Communication where the Senior Pastor starts with communicating with Elders, Deacons, Senior Staff, or anyone who is at the middle of the organizational dynamic (or the top of the chart). Then in successive communications, the circles will widen to volunteer leadership, volunteers, and then the congregation. This builds ownership, understanding, and ambassadors along the way.
A helpful way to craft communication at this time is to think about drafting a one-page narrative about:
- What we know right now to be true (spiritually as well as in our current human reality)
- What we don’t know right now (about when we will meet together again, what this all means for our church and how we go forward in a new normal)
- Your contingency plans that have been developed by church leadership (we are trying to think ahead the best we can as we continue to pray that we will get nowhere near worst-case scenario)
- How you can contact someone in church leadership for concerns you may have or if you need spiritual guidance or care (because we are still ministering to individuals in creative ways at this time)
QUESTIONS TO ASK:
- Who should be in the conversation about contingency plans? Should this group meet virtually? If not, is this meeting following CDC and state guidelines about best practice?
- How can we show proactivity about possible scenarios without creating alarm?
- How can we operate in faith but with responsibility for our church and its future?
- Who needs to hear what part of our plans and when?
- Does anyone need to approve what we are proposing as go-forward options?
Financial Contingency Plans
No one really wants to talk about the more drastic scenarios that may befall our churches. But someone must. Again, the key to our discussions is proactivity, not doomsday negativism.
With that in mind, a helpful discussion may be around some more specific aspects of financial strategy that are not the macro-level question mentioned above (about losses of 10%, 20% or 30%).
Here are some recommendations for immediate action:
- Assess how much cash would usually come in as cash in the offering, versus other methods. Seriously consider reducing your income projections by that amount, since it will be difficult for that to stay in play.
- Diagnose the amount of recurring givers and consistent givers (there is software that can help medium to large churches do this) and base the near future projections on that.
- If the stay-at-home scenario happens into the summer, we are in an uncharted waters scenario again and need to reduce budget by 25-30% for the 12 months ahead.
- Look at essential and non-essential staff, programs and ministries – particularly for churches above 150 who have multiple full time and part time staff. Classify expenditures in three tiers and then create triggers for waves of reduction.
- Be in contact with lenders (if this applies to your church), to start the process of understanding the implications of multiple scenarios, as well as to find out how to take advantage of any relief that the federal government may give banks and mortgage holders when and if that happens.
- Look at savings in all of the above scenarios as well as liquidation of assets (if possible) to get a run-rate on cash decline and to set the “triggers” mentioned above.
- Have a worst-case scenario discussion with the top-level leaders of the church to not get caught in a reactive mode if things go worse than we hope and pray for.
- Send a caring communication to financial contributors that basically says something like this, “The last thing we want to do is put pressure on you, but this is a critical time for the long-term health of our church. If you are experiencing financial strain, please let us know so we can do our best to help. If you are blessed with consistent income, recognize your opportunity to help when others cannot.” Send a postage paid envelope in the mail to members of the congregation.
The above considerations are meant to be practical suggestions for church leaders. Please understand that our spiritual posture is the most important and primary suggestion – to pray for discernment and lead with faith. People in our world need to see humble confidence in the eyes of the leaders of the church.
And besides, we are utterly dependent on God, so organizational tidbits are nothing compared to the spiritual power from above. May we all listen to God and hear what we may need to know for the future of our churches.
Director of Resourcing, Senior Lead Navigator