What Pastors Need to Navigate COVID-19 at Church
As a design/build/furnish firm for churches, Aspen Group has been helping pastors and their ministry teams navigate the change that comes with church facility projects. Now, in this era of COVID-19, church leaders are experiencing unprecedented change. Every pastor and church leader will need support navigating the difficult leadership issues during this season, particularly as you think about reentering or reopening your building, and especially as you relaunch your church into a new future.
In Aspen Group’s webinar, “Key Leadership Questions for a New Season of Ministry,” we interviewed Brian Dodd for his insights on leading in the midst of a pandemic. Brian is the author and content coordinator for Brian Dodd on Leadership, as well as the author of the critically acclaimed book, The 10 Indispensable Practices Of The 2-Minute Leader. He also serves as Director of New Ministry Partnerships for INJOY Stewardship Solutions, where he helps churches develop cultures of generosity. With more than 30 years of experience in the church, Brian brings clarity of thinking and a heart for pastors and the church. The following Q&A is based on our conversation with him:
Aspen: Brian, we are three months into the COVID-19 crisis, and we’ve seen how it’s impacting local churches. Now, as churches are reopening, it puts new demands on leaders to step into a higher level of leadership. What do you think are the most important aspects of having a healthy culture for churches?
Brian Dodd: “Culture” is one of the buzzwords in the world today. If you had to say what's the number one thing to having a healthy, successful, vibrant culture at your church or in your organization, in my opinion, it’s the authenticity and clarity of values of the leader. If you go to a Chick-fil-A, it’s going to be a reflection of Dan Cathy [the Founder]. The New England Patriots are a reflection of Bill Belichick. Alabama football is a reflection of Nick Saban. GE was a reflection of Jack Welch.
Now, I don't mean authentic, as in “what you see is what you get,” and “I'll tell you what's on my mind,” and that kind of thing. I mean authentic in that I know who I am as a leader, and my values, my principles, my approach to life, and my approach to business permeates everything I do. So, if I could only pick one thing on culture, it's that the leader has great self-awareness and then has the communication ability, the hiring ability, and all of that so the organization reflects that individual and they're all moving in the same direction. Ultimately the leader is a picture of the desired destination of which their organization is going to arrive.
Aspen: In the midst of everything going on in this season, there are many urgent, short-term questions and challenges to overcome. Why is it also important to be focusing on a long-term strategy right now?
Brian Dodd: The number one leadership challenge of churches right now is this: what is your post-COVID vision? When you talk to pastors, they're just trying to reopen and focus on what's it going to look like and how many people are going to come back?
I talk to pastors and they can't see farther than 30 to 60 days down the road. I'm trying to say, okay, you've got those day-to-day issues. Depending on the size of your church, identify somebody who can run point on the reopening strategy and all the details around reopening, and they can lead a team that's focused on reopening. And then have a team that is looking longer term, because it’s overwhelming to try to hold both at the same time. I want to help leaders get to that 30,000-foot level again and begin to reimagine discipleship and evangelism and outreach and missions.
Aspen: How have you personally been challenged as a leader in the season?
Brian Dodd: For me personally, God was telling me three things. Number one was to return to God. It’s not that I ever left God, but God has been causing our whole planet to rely on him at a level we never have before. There’s a brokenness to that. In addition to COVID, there's war, worldwide famines, locusts in East Africa, and on and on. So, return to God out of dependence.
Number two was to return to my family. Families have been sheltering in place in the same spaces for a long time. There has been loss for some people, and for many, it's been unbelievable and unbearable, but we were all, in a sense, being led to return to our families.
And the third thing is don't return to life as it was before. Those were the three things God was saying to me. That was the personal growth I’ve had to go through.
Aspen: Our hope for churches and leaders is that they can hear those lessons as well. Based on the needs of your staff and team, how are you leading them differently?
Brian Dodd: Very relational. It's not that I wasn’t relational before, but being relational almost felt like a means to an end for me. I cared about my people, but the meeting had an agenda, and the goal was to get to the topic at hand.
I've totally flipped my meetings since COVID. I have a great team. They've all been trained. They're experienced, they're talented. Now, I am highly focused on mental health. I start every meeting with, “Tell me how you're doing.” If the meeting runs long, it runs long, but I want to know how you're doing. How are you feeling? How are your emotions? Are you staying motivated? Are you excited about the future? I don't want to get overly personal and cross any HR boundaries, but how is your family?
Aspen: As you have made this shift to relational leadership with your team, have you seen them become more relational with one another? In other words, is this type of leadership contagious?
Brian Dodd: My team was always very relational. I've had to catch up with them in this area. The shift is that the one who's been changed the most is me.
Aspen: Brian, what other challenges do you see churches facing in the next several months?
Brian Dodd: I think from a ministry standpoint, the world is more broken and hurting than it was in February, for myriad reasons. I think the ability to deliver compassion, not just in terms of feeding the hungry and the physical things—those are still needed in terms of engaging your community—but ministry needs are completely different now. People are concerned about the future, concerned about their health. That's going to be a challenge.
I see a lot of churches that have a shepherding type of person on staff and the “sons of thunder” just run over them in meetings. The shepherd is going to come full force and to the forefront of ministry over the next several months because the needs of the community have changed. The needs of the people within your church have changed.
Unemployment is going to be an issue. Housing and evictions, and things of that nature, are going to be an issue. The compassion level of individual staff and the ability to be shepherds rather than administrators will be key things. If I'm a staff person at a church, my heart needs to get bigger over these next several months because the ministry demand is going to require it.
Aspen: There are churches that are still experiencing growth and momentum, even as their people are hurting, and individuals in their churches and other staff are working through difficult things. What advice do you have for those pastors who still see momentum in this season?
Brian Dodd: If a church is thriving, the first thing I want to do is encourage them and thank them for how they've been leading up to this moment. They've discipled their people in terms of getting them into small groups, building community, and giving. They've done well on systems. They've driven people to digital giving and may have been doing online worship services prior to COVID-19, so it may have been an easier transition to move their people toward digital church.
At the same time, I would give them a gentle warning: Just because giving has been great through April and May, the crisis that people are feeling in terms of pay cuts, unemployment housing, and all of that is going to hit in July and August. I would tell pastors, if it dips, don't take it personally. It's an invitation to ministry. It’s an invitation to develop a post-COVID vision.
Aspen: Another invitation in ministry is to look closer at the relationship the church has with its community. One question we’ve been thinking about is, “what have we learned about our community and its needs?” Why is this an important question to ask?
Brian Dodd: In the community where I live, domestic violence is up 40 percent. The quarantine has led to this, and it impacts families and it impacts children. For my church, we are less than two miles from an elementary school were 40 percent of the kids are on free or reduced lunch. When the school doesn’t meet, those are days that those kids cannot easily be fed, which creates a health crisis. Our church is already preparing for the housing crisis because once the protection from eviction runs out, there are going to be issues.
So, the needs of our community are changing. How do you know the needs? Ask people, ask your school, superintendents, ask your local principals. Hopefully, you're involved in some capacity with the local government, but ask your government officials, “what are the needs in our community?”
The beauty of local churches in the community is the ability to serve. Let's say you go to a church of 500 people. You have 500 volunteers to serve the community. You can go to a school, to a mayor, or to a community leader and offer to help.
One of the signs of a great leader is they represent solutions. When you engage your community, there's the assumption of solutions. So, the needs have changed. The needs are greater. The need for listening and engagement is greater.
Aspen: Let's shift gears to church staff. You recently posted an article about hiring during this season. Even though many churches may feel like they should be cautious about hiring right now, you suggest that this might be a good time for building your team. What's driving you to suggest that church leaders might want to be more aggressive in this area?
Brian Dodd: This is the perfect time to reimagine everything about your ministry. Some people say the church never closed. The church never stopped. We can wrestle with semantics, but whenever something stops, it's the perfect time for a relaunch.
I tell churches, now this is the time to hire your dream team. Do not assume people are unavailable. And if you say, “Hey, I always wish I had that person for a children's ministry,” now is the time to reach out, You don't understand what may be going on. You don't know how their career is doing.
This is a time for re-imagining the delivery of your mission and vision. You're re-imagining your teams and what that could look like. This is where COVID ten years from now, depending on how you leverage it and steward the crisis, could be one of the times of the greatest blessings. And this is where pastors and church leaders need to have a post-COVID vision for their future. And that includes leadership, stewardship, facilities, systems, all of those things.
The churches that are best equipped to do this are the churches that have taught sound, biblical principles on finances and possessions, and have financial margin. The reality is this is the perfect time to build the team you've always wanted. You need to think like a church plant right now, go get who you want, or at least attempt it. Don't assume anyone is unavailable and don't say no for someone else. Just cast a vision before them and see what the interest level is, let them know the type of team you're putting together and what type of ministry you're wanting to deliver, and just see what God does next.
Aspen: What type of leader is required to lead a church in the context of a post-COVID-19 world?
Brian Dodd: I don't think it has changed from pre-COVID to post-COVID. It's just that COVID has highlighted the need and urgency for great leadership.
In my opinion, the greatest leadership book ever written is the Bible. Number two is the book, Leadership as an Identity, by Dr. Crawford Loritts. It's my favorite leadership book. He has been my pastor for over a decade, and I served as one of his elders for five years. In this book, it breaks down the type of leader God uses, and there are four qualities:
Number one is brokenness. The broken, humble leader comes from Jacob and Esau and how his hip was broken. All great leaders walk with a limp. They do not strut. And so you can spot a great leader by their humility, by their brokenness.
Number two, uncommon communion with God. They literally want God. They hear from God. I can say that I may agree with my leader, and I may not. I may like this decision, or I may not. But they're hearing from God and they're doing the very best they can to please him and serve him and serve me through that process.
Number three, servanthood is identity. Mark 10:45 says, “The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” I love what Patrick Lencioni says: “I'm tired of talking about servant leadership because, is there any other kind?”
And then, number four, radical obedience. I think now more than ever, it's important that people fear God more than they fear man. Now, there could be times leaders fear God more than man and still get pushback from man. They're going to have to walk in the confidence that they’re serving God to the very best of their ability and are obedient to him above all else.
So those four things—brokenness, uncommon communion, servanthood is identity, and radical, immediate obedience to God—are the traits we need in leaders.
In my own book, Timeless: 10 Enduring Practices of Apex Leaders, for each of those practices I build a biblical foundation. The most interesting thing to me when I was doing the research was what was not in the top ten. I thought character would be in there, but it actually came in at number 14.
You don't need great character to get to the top. We've seen that in the entertainment industry, we've seen it in politics, in athletics, in churches, everywhere. You need character to stay at the top. Otherwise, what will happen is your skills, talents, abilities, and charisma will take you to a place your character cannot sustain you.
If you’d like to do a self-assessment of your own leadership and the health of your leader team at your church, check out our free downloadable resource, “Leadership Questions for a New Season of Ministry.”