3 Steps for Adapting—and Thriving—as COVID Continues
Guest post by Karl Vaters
Everyone’s adapting now. But not all churches are adapting well. Based on everything I’m seeing, including hundreds of conversations with pastors and church leaders over the last few months, here are my three biggest pieces of advice for congregations attempting to survive and thrive in the midst of a global crisis:
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1. Respond contextually
Over the last few months you may have had to scramble to figure out how to do church online. That’s good. But that’s not the best way to meet your congregation’s or your neighbors’ greatest needs.
So what are their greatest needs? And how can your church meet them? I don’t know. Because I don’t live and minister where you live and minister. But you do.
Your church, your neighborhood, and your town are not the same as someone else’s church, neighborhood, or town. But most pastors—starting with me—don’t know the world outside of our church walls as well as we should. We need to get offline and out of churches (or homes) for a while and take a look outside. What do your church members and your neighbors need? And how can you meet that need in a way that’s specific to your context?
People can find generic help and advice anywhere. They need you to think and act contextually. Be present in your neighborhood.
2. Respond Personally
The best ministry you will do if you’re still in full or partial quarantine will be with the low-tech part of your high-tech phone. As in, making a lot of person-to-person phone calls. Let them hear your voice. Pray with them, cry with them, and laugh with them. Ask what they need, then have someone drop those groceries or that medicine off at their door.
The virtual church service that’s working for the congregation down the street may or may not work for your church, so don’t follow the lead of other churches. Follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and the needs of your congregation.
Then meet that need in the most personal way you can.
3. Prepare continually
This. Will. Happen. Again.
Maybe not a pandemic. But we live in a fallen world where bad things happen. Your church and community will be threatened with disaster again. The next time it may be a hurricane, and earthquake, a flood, or a fire. It’s not a matter of if an emergency will arise, but when.
In this current crisis, the difference between churches that are struggling or closing and those that are alive and blessing others isn’t their size, their budget, or even their faith. It’s about their preparedness.
So what have they been doing that has set them apart from churches that aren’t prepared? Based on my experience and conversations, three items keep coming up. The churches that are struggling or closing instead of stepping up and blessing their members and neighborhoods have:
1. No cash reserves
2. No team-based leadership
3. No adaptability
And that goes for some very big churches and ministries, not just small ones. Let’s look at why each of those matters so much.
1. Cash Reserves. The first churches to fall were those who were already on the edge financially. Often carrying massive mortgages they should never have committed to in the first place.
Debt is the biggest church-killer in our lifetime. There are some very cutting-edge churches with big debt that won’t make it through this crisis. Meanwhile, other churches that haven’t seemed relevant for years are weathering it just fine because they have no debt. In fact, many of them are not just weathering it, they’re able to step up and be a huge blessing to others because of their prior fiscal responsibility.
It’s not a lack of faith that puts a plan in place and cash reserves in the bank. It’s good stewardship. No, it’s not easy. Especially in smaller churches that aren’t even paying their pastor. But we’re not called to do what’s easy, we’re called to do what’s right.
After this storm has passed, prepare for the next one. Start putting small amounts of money away month by month. Create and train an emergency-preparedness team. In fact, your church can be a gathering place where readiness classes can be taught and your neighbors will attend. Preparedness is not building bigger barns (Luke 12:13-21), it’s counting the cost before you start (Luke 14:28).
2. Team-Based Leadership. Churches that rely on the pastor for everything are not adapting well. And many pastors who were already over-worked are being pushed past their breaking points.
But churches with team-based leadership that uses everyone’s gifts and talents, discipling new believers, and training new leaders—well, they’re not just surviving, they’re thriving in ways they never dreamed possible. I’ve heard from several pastors that some of their former pew-sitters are stepping up and helping out now that they’re no longer able to sit in their pew.
Right now, more than ever before in my lifetime, church members are asking, “How can we help?” In churches with team-based leadership, there’s something for these new volunteers to do. In churches that rely on the pastor for everything, the response is often a shrug of the shoulders. The pastors literally don’t know how to use the help that’s being offered because there’s no system in place for volunteers to step into.
3. Adaptability. Adaptable churches have pivoted in some big ways recently without losing much, or anything, in the process. But churches that are locked in on certain methods have not only suffered, many of them have closed their doors forever—and many more of them will close in the coming months and years.
Adaptability is not about abandoning biblical principles. Adaptability is what Jesus, the apostle Paul, and the early church did with such breathless ease it amazed everyone. Can’t meet in the synagogue? Use a house. Can’t meet in a house? Meet down by the river. Chased from Jerusalem because of persecution? Tell everyone about Jesus as you’re running down the highway.
Excerpted from The Church Recovery Guide: How Your Congregation Can Adapt and Thrive After a Crisis by Karl Vaters ( 2020). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.
About Karl Vaters
Karl Vaters has been a small church pastor for 30 years and is currently the teaching pastor at Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California. He is author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Small Thinking that Divides Us and Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250. You can learn more about Karl at www.KarlVaters.com. Karl and his wife, Shelley, have three kids (Veronica, Matt, and Phil) and one son-in-law (Sam).