“Positioning Your Church for Growth in a New Season of Ministry” featuring Tony Morgan

Leading Ideas Talks
“Positioning Your Church for Growth in a New Season of Ministry” featuring Tony Morgan

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Podcast Episode 99

How can your church reach new people in today’s evolving ministry context? Tony Morgan shares trends, perspectives, and strategies drawn from his work with scores of congregations across the country and abroad.

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How can your church reach new people in today’s evolving ministry context? In this episode Tony Morgan shares trends, perspectives, and strategies drawn from his work with scores of congregations across the country and abroad.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel. I’m one of the editors of Leading Ideas E-newsletter and I’m the host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m delighted to be talking today with Tony Morgan, the founder and chief strategist of The Unstuck Group. He’s a consultant, a coach, a blogger, a writer, and a thought leader who has his finger on key trends related to church health and church growth. I’m so happy to be talking to you today, Tony, about challenges and opportunities for ministry at this very unique juncture in the life of most churches. So, welcome to you.

Tony Morgan: It’s very good to be with you and that’s a very kind introduction, as well. I will just let everybody know up front I’m not very good at predicting the future. I’m pretty decent at looking at what’s happened at the past and current trends, and I guess that’s what we’re going to be talking about today.

Ann Michel: Yes. I think that’s the only way we have to predict the future — to understand what’s happening in the here and now and make our best guesses. In that vein, I wanted to begin by asking you a really broad-brush question. We all know that different churches have weathered the challenges of the pandemic crisis in different ways. But speaking very generally, what do you think is most different in the overall context of ministry right now as a consequence of two years of coping with the pandemic?

Tony Morgan: Well, it’s interesting because I would go back even before the pandemic. It was very obvious, even a few years ago, that there were some churches that were actually seeing a lot of growth. They were thriving. There was a lot of momentum around their ministry. As a result of that, I think they were seeing a lot of life transformation happening as people were taking steps, not only towards the church, but towards a relationship with Jesus. And at the same time, there were a number of churches that were in decline. They were plateaued. They were in decline. They weren’t just seeing declining attendance; they weren’t seeing a lot of life change happening either. And maybe over the last few years what we’ve noticed as a result of the pandemic is that I think all of that distinction between healthy churches and declining churches just has been accelerated based on what we’ve experienced in the pandemic. I think that might be to a large extent because a lot of times what we found, even before the pandemic, is that the churches that were able to look at their context, their current context, and then recommit to things that were working as part of the mission but be willing to change them as a result of the circumstances around them, those tended to be the healthiest churches. And now, because we’ve experienced so much disruption through the last few years, I think the churches that are able to identify, “This is what’s working. This is what allows us to accomplish what God’s called us to do in our mission as a church,” they’ve doubled down on those things. But at the same time they have continued to remain openhanded with areas that need to shift because of what we’ve experienced. And those churches seem to be thriving on this side of the pandemic, as well.

Ann Michel: So, what you’re saying is that the churches that were the most adaptable, that were the healthiest before the pandemic, are also the healthiest coming out of the pandemic, which makes total sense. I think that in so many areas of life, in general but also in the church, what we’ve seen is that the pandemic really just revealed and accelerated trends that were already underway. Probably the most prominent of those is the issue of attendance, so I wanted to focus for a minute on the question of attendance. From what I’ve seen and read and experienced, there are very few churches where in-person attendance has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. And I think that’s true for a whole variety of reasons. But I wanted to ask you what you’re seeing with regard to attendance and what you’re recommending to your clients.

Tony Morgan: Yeah. The biggest thing is that we’re trying to encourage pastors and church leaders to stop comparing attendance to where we were two or three years ago. Instead, what we were actually encouraging church leaders to consider, even before the pandemic, is just look at where they are compared to a year ago. Because that gives us a picture of the trends that are happening currently. If we were to take attendance today and go back 12 months, there are some churches, not a lot of churches, but there are some churches now that are seeing year-over-year growth again. And to me that’s encouraging and that we’re celebrating.

At the same time, there’s no doubt about it, churches are not seeing the attendance patterns that they saw before COVID, and there are still churches that are declining even at this point in the pandemic. In other words, if we were to look at their attendance today, even going back to 12 months ago when we were still in the middle of COVID and facing a lot of the challenges — in fact, I would argue a lot more restrictions a year ago than we’re facing today — there were still churches that were seeing decline. And that’s where I think we need to be paying attention. If more than two years into COVID our attendance patterns are still declining at this point, that suggests that hopefully those are the red lights that are going off on the dashboard that indicate, “Hey, wait a second. We may need to look at things a little bit differently than we did last year or even a few years ago. It might be time for us to pay attention to how we’re engaging our mission and specifically around how we’re intentionally trying to reach new people, people that are outside the church and outside the faith.”

And this is what we’re hearing from churches that are winning in this season. They’re actually seeing a lot of new people coming to churches right now. For the churches that are intentional around that, they’re thinking about not only their Sunday worship experiences and how those have to be designed with new people in mind. They’re looking at other aspects of their ministry strategy, as well. And they’re actually seeing a lot of new people coming into church in this season. It’s those stories, I think, that we really need to pay attention to right now.

Ann Michel: I wonder if there’s a little bit of a pent-up demand. Some new people may have been holding off on coming into a new church until it felt safe to do so.

Tony Morgan: I couldn’t agree more. We studied the data from all the churches that we’re working with and many more churches around the country and really around the world. But as an example, my volunteer job, if you will, at my church is that I serve in what we call “The Connection Space.” And it’s the place where oftentimes people that are brand new to the church come either before or after the services. And just this past Sunday, I met with some people, a variety of folk. Some were new to the area and trying to find a new church. And there’s a lot of movement happening around our country right now, so that shouldn’t be surprising. There were people that have been watching services online for years and, for whatever reason, this past Sunday they just decided “We’re actually going to go to church for the service.” But the more common theme I’m hearing in these anecdotal conversations is that people are dealing with the challenges of life that, to some extent, all of us have experienced.

It’s not just churches that have been disrupted. People’s lives have been disrupted over these last couple years. There are issues of isolation and loneliness and stress and anxiety and job loss. And people are trying to figure out what they’re going to do next in life. There have been relational breakdowns because of what we’ve gone through in the last couple years. As a result, people are searching, I think, for answers. I think they’re searching for relationships with other people to walk them through these situations. And I just love the fact that they’re showing up to church on Sunday morning to try to pursue whatever they’re sensing is out there for them. I think they sense there may be a spiritual answer to this, and they’re actually showing up to church on Sunday morning, which we should expect. I don’t know why we’re surprised by that, especially given what we’ve experienced the last couple years.

You know, I’m not naturally an optimistic person. At the very beginning of the pandemic, I was concerned for churches and what this would do not only for people connecting with churches but the financial ramifications and things like that. But what I kept sensing is this could be one of the biggest opportunities the church has experienced in a long, long time. As I’m having these conversations with people on Sunday morning, I think this may be an answer to that prayer that I started to pray a few years ago, a couple years ago at the beginning of COVID, that we might see revival in the church as a result of what we’ve gone through as a society over the last couple years. So that’s pretty encouraging for me.

Ann Michel: Yeah. It’s certainly been a jump start or a wakeup call for a lot of congregations that had been dragging their feet on digital ministry for a very, very long time. They’ve had to really rethink how they’re engaging people as we move more into the digital realm. That’s actually the next thing I wanted to ask you about. Everybody’s talking about hybrid ministry. It’s almost a buzzword, and I think that really means different things to different people in different contexts. So, I wondered what are some of the more successful patterns of hybrid ministry that you’re seeing emerging?

Tony Morgan: Yeah. At the same time that everybody’s talking about it, this can be very overwhelming for pastors and church leaders. I mean none of us were trained to be online churches, right? So, let me share some of the basics that I’m seeing in the churches that seem to be getting some traction around online ministry. First, they’re not trying to replace everything that they do as a church online — I think this is important for us to recognize, especially all those next steps we encourage people to take after they find faith, after they begin their relationship with Jesus, where they really need to experience spiritual formation through our discipleship strategies. That is a highly relational ministry. In other words, it’s very difficult for us to become more like Jesus and to take our next steps towards Christ if we’re not in relationship with other people. And, honestly, it’s very hard to replicate that online.

On the other hand, what we’re seeing in churches that are winning as far as their online ministry is concerned, they’ve recognized there’s a lot of opportunity to connect with brand new people using online platforms. And so, for people that are not in church currently and may not be a part of the faith community currently, the churches that we’re working with that are finding some momentum around their digital strategies are recognizing this. This really is the new front door for churches, so the first principle is, rather than trying to replace everything that we do as a church in our buildings and put everything online, I would just encourage pastors and church leaders to just focus on the front door aspects of what we do.

How can we leverage online to connect with people that aren’t currently a part of our church? Honestly, that’s probably not just putting our services online. In fact, there may be some other things that we could be doing around leveraging YouTube and podcasting and just providing practical articles and things like that, putting that type of content online so that people in our congregation will want to share that with their network of friends. Those are going to be the things that may help us get a little bit more traction around our digital ministry strategies.

The second key principle is — and I get kind of passionate about this topic — I just think sometimes we forget that even online ministry is all about people and it’s all about ministry. I think we let the online part get in the way sometimes. As pastors and church leaders, we know how to do ministry, we know the mission that God’s called us to, and we know how to help people. I think sometimes we get caught up in all of the razzle dazzle of social media and websites and podcasting and all the technology, and what we need to do is just kind of go back to what we do well, which is helping people take their next steps towards Jesus. Then, if we have questions about the technology itself, there are all kinds of organizations and people out there that can help leverage the right technologies to make ministry happen. I think sometimes we think we have to be the experts on the technology, and we’ve not been trained to do that. What we’ve been trained to do is to help people take their next steps toward Christ. So, let’s find the experts that can help us with the technology, and let’s stick to what God’s called us to do, which is to help people find Jesus and take their next steps of faith.

Ann Michel: Yeah, those are both really, really, helpful points because I think there are so many churches right now that are imagining that they have to replicate every single thing that their church does to make it available both in-person and online. And there are very few churches that have the bandwidth to do that, so I‘m relieved to hear you say that. I took a look at The Unstuck Group’s most recent quarterly report, and I was really intrigued by what it had to say about staffing levels. I want to share with our listeners one of the findings of that report, that declining churches employ 56% more full-time equivalent employees than growing churches, which could suggest that church staffing levels and configurations might be a drag on growth. I wanted to give you a chance to speak to that and maybe share some thoughts about what it means to be staffed for growth.

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Tony Morgan: Let me just first say the solution to becoming a healthy, thriving, growing church isn’t just to go into your office and fire a bunch of staff, right? But this finding does probably speak to some underlying challenges or issues, and a few come quickly to mind. The most obvious may be that, when churches are overstaffed, they’re not leaning on people in their church, volunteers and lay people, to engage in ministry themselves. It’s interesting. As we’ve looked at some complimentary data around volunteer engagement, what we find is that those who volunteer are more likely to show up to church on a more consistent basis. They’re more likely to invite friends, neighbors, family to join them at church. I think part of that is just because they feel like they’re more invested in the mission of the church. And there is a dollars-and-cents aspect to it, as well. When we’ve looked at financial giving records, it’s people that are serving in ministry in some capacity that give at the highest levels of anybody in the church.

Ann Michel: Oh, yeah. I work in stewardship ministry. And it’s well proven that the people who are more active give more.

Tony Morgan: All that is to say that, when you start to look at some of the data and some of these factors, it doesn’t surprise me that churches that are overstaffed tend to struggle more than the churches that are lean in their staffing, and I think, when churches are lean in their staffing, they recognize we can’t just hire a lot of people to do ministry. We need to hire people that are going to lead other volunteer leaders and help build volunteer teams to get ministry accomplished through other people. As a result of that, not only are they hiring higher capacity people, but they also then have more financial resources to compensate fewer people better. I think that also helps with retaining high-capacity leaders. And my suspicion is, if we retain great leaders on our staff team, if you have that continuity of staff leadership over time, that also produces health and momentum in our ministry.

There are probably a lot of compounding factors here. But if we don’t really process and think about this, we might assume one of the reasons some churches are growing is because they can afford to hire more staff. The reality is, it’s just the opposite. It’s just fascinating when you start to dive into these details.

Ann Michel: I think that often one of the consequences of a church being overstaffed is the staff has to spend so much time more time coordinating with one another, and the senior leader has to spend so much more time managing their staff that it leads to an inward focus. Since you mentioned the subject of staff retention, I’m sure you’ve seen some of the stories in the popular press about how so many pastors are quitting ministry in droves. Yet there’s been other research suggesting that this trend isn’t quite as dire as some are saying. So, I wondered what you’re seeing in your work. To what extent is the Great Resignation impacting pastors and the church workplace?

Tony Morgan: In the last 12 months, we’ve worked with more than 100 churches on the ground, helping them look at ministry strategy and how they’re structuring for the future and so on. Anecdotally, I am hearing that there does seem to be a little bit more transition happening on staff teams in recent months. I think honestly a lot of that probably had to do with the fact that, back in the early days of COVID, I think most of us just had no idea what might happen. And as a result, we went about a year where nobody was really changing jobs because they were concerned, “If I quit my job, am I going to be able to find a job?” Again, that was early on in COVID, so we went about a year without a lot of transition happening on staff teams, even in the context of churches. Some of this transition that we’re experiencing in recent months is, I think, just because of that pent-up demand, if you will, of people just looking to change and take a next step in their ministry or in their career, if you will.

Ann Michel: Okay, so people were frozen in place for a while.

Tony Morgan: That’s right. Now the other compounding factor, though, even before COVID, is that there was an aging that was happening, especially in pastoral positions.

Ann Michel: Yes. Clergy age is a trend that we at the Lewis Center research and track pretty closely.

Tony Morgan: I am talking with a lot of pastors that are considering succession and transition, but, honestly, they should be talking about it because they’re in their early to mid-60s and it’s time to pass off ministry to the next generation. So, yeah, it’s hard to say how much of this is COVID-related and how much of this is just the fact that it’s time for us to be passing on leadership, passing on ministry to the next generation. But it is a topic that is coming up in my conversation with pastors and church leaders.

Ann Michel: Another thing that struck me in your quarterly report was that most of the financial indicators looked pretty good. I think the pool of churches you work with probably is not entirely representative of all churches, but I’m also aware of other research suggesting that a lot of churches probably weathered the pandemic financially a lot better than we might have imagined. So, I wanted to ask you why you think that is and what can congregations learn that might help them keep their financial houses in better order?

Tony Morgan: A few things. One, just practically speaking of course, recall that the government stepped in to help all kinds of organizations with the payroll protection program and that certainly was helpful to the churches that participated. Another factor is that for a number of months ministries weren’t meeting in physical spaces, and there were some costs that churches would normally experience that they didn’t incur for a time. So that could be an explanation. But I will say this. If we were just to look at the averages, it would suggest that giving patterns and so on are really on par with where they were pre-pandemic. But there are extremes to that data, too. There are some churches that are far better, as far as giving and finances, on this side of the pandemic, but on the other hand, if you were to look at all the data, there are churches that are really hurting financially. too.

I would say that the biggest factor we’re seeing is that the churches that kind of leaned into the crisis moment, not only for their communities but for people’s lives, and demonstrated early on “We’re not going to hunker down and just try to survive COVID. We are going to lean in and figure out how we can engage people and how we can help our community in this season,” the churches that had an intentional strategy to really invest in the community and to be on mission during the season of COVID, those are the churches that I’m hearing have come out financially in a better place. To me, that’s good news because it’s as if God’s honoring the churches that have been fully invested in handling resources well, that have been good stewards of resources during this season. It appears that those churches are coming out on the other side of COVID in a very healthy place financially. On the other hand, the churches that tended to hunker down the last couple years and were almost in survival mode just trying to figure out how are they were going to continue to do what they’d always done, what I’m hearing anecdotally, is that those churches are more oftentimes than not struggling financially in this season.

Ann Michel: Mission is always central to raising money. I want to thank you for sharing so many really helpful perspectives and ideas. I also have to comment that even though you said you’re not an optimistic person, as I read your report and as I talk to you today, there were a lot of optimistic notes in what you’re sharing. And I thank you for that word of hope, as well. So, thank you again.

Tony Morgan: Thank you. It’s been great to have the conversation with you. And, boy, if there’s any way that we can help any of the leaders that are connected to your podcast, we would like to come alongside them and help them consider in this unique season what are the next steps that God has for your ministry. We’d love to partner with them and help explore what God could be doing through their church or ministry in this coming season.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks. Don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, to be notified when new episodes are published. Visit churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

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About Author

Tony Morgan

Tony Morgan is founder and chief strategist for The Unstuck Group which provides consulting and leadership coaching services to over 100 congregations annually. Previously, he served on the leadership teams at several churches, including Granger Community Church in Indiana, NewSpring Church in South Carolina, and West Ridge Church in the Atlanta area.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.