As congregations plan for a future with fewer pandemic-related restrictions, Lovett H. Weems Jr. says they need a standard for assessing various options. Without a clear connection to your primary mission your transition plan could easily be hijacked by those pushing hardest for their point of view or what neighboring churches are doing.
Churches have spent the entire last year, in one sense, in pandemic transition planning. Up until now, their efforts were to keep ministry going in the face of a once-in-a-century health tragedy. This challenge is compounded by critical economic adversity and racial justice crises. Nearly everything the church did before the pandemic had to be reimagined in light of radically new circumstances. Most churches believe they have done relatively well under extremely difficult circumstances. We are, however, at a significantly different transition time now.
With many members receiving their vaccines, it’s realistic to begin to plan for church life with fewer restrictions and even a time when church activities may resume with some semblance of what we knew before the pandemic. There are many decisions to be made as church leaders hear voices wanting a faster or slower transition. Pastors speak of feeling “pressure” from one group or another.
The new normal
While many members are awaiting a “return to normal,” most church leaders understand that whatever the future holds, it will not be the “normal” of before the pandemic. So much has changed. We have learned a great deal. Some persons are comfortable using technology who were not previously. Some have come to enjoy worshiping at home and at their convenience. Others have discovered how much they need the relationships they took for granted at church before these isolating times. Some have had the vaccine but still fear going out. Therefore, a transition plan of “returning to normal” will not meet the needs of all those our churches serve.
One way to think about your transition plan is not so much what to do over the next month but what happens over the next whole year. Things will not be the same no matter how you replicate the forms you have known before. There is too much that is not yet known. Leaders will need to stay flexible and keep options open. Things that will not help are acting out frustrations about things not returning as fast as some think they should and having a judgmental attitude toward those who do not “get with the program” on someone else’s schedule.
The need for clarity of purpose
One option for leading in such a time is to help the congregation’s leadership develop a mission or purpose statement specifically for the pandemic transition. Without such a guide, you will be at the mercy of those pushing hardest for their point of view or for doing what neighboring churches are doing. You need a standard by which to assess various options from conducting in-person programs to continuing virtual opportunities. You need this kind of guide made to fit your particular situation.
Developing a mission statement
Here is one example from a group of church leaders discussing what their statement might be. This uses the “so that” methodology that Tom Berlin and I developed in our book Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results. This approach helps a congregation not look simply at the “what” of the work they are doing but to consider the results they are seeking: the “so that” of their work.
Our church will transition from the pandemic months in such a way that the health of everyone is safeguarded, all may experience the presence of God, our church will continue as a vital faith community, and we will bear fruit outside the walls of the church.
This statement of church leaders will help them with those who see no place for masks and social distancing, those who think the time and cost of continuing virtual worship are too much, those who do not recognize that the church needs to reset its financial baseline due to deaths or other losses of members, and those who think that the new ministries that were started to feed people during the pandemic can now end.
Your statement will be different. It will take into account your distinctive setting and the challenges you have faced and are now facing. With careful effort and involvement of the needed constituencies, it can serve the purpose of being your “invisible leader,” faithfully guiding you and your congregation in the pivotal days ahead.
Because your mission or purpose statement will be unique to your church, it will provide the power of giving the criteria for making the multiple decisions that lie ahead.