What Leaders Have Learned After Reopening Churches

No one has all of the right answers in this season of uncertainty. (Unsplash)

Church operation strategies look different for everyone right now as some churches continue to meet only online, some are fully back in person and many are taking a hybrid approach. I interviewed a panel of church leaders on ways we can successfully manage church operations in the midst of uncertainty and continuous change.

From managing the array of opinions on reopening to the best practices on staying safe when you do open your doors, the advice from this discussion will help you navigate tough decisions that all church leaders are facing during this time. The panel included:

— Hayes Howell, executive pastor, Lynwood Baptist Church, Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

— Brian Hummel, campus pastor, The Fellowship, Katy, Texas.

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— Paul Willis, executive pastor of operations, WoodsEdge Community Church, Spring, Texas.

— Rick Garrett, executive pastor, Grace Church—Orlando, Florida.

Church Service Trends After Reopening

A decrease in attendance. As Florida saw spikes in COVID-19 cases, several churches communicated to their church community that masks were required when attending services. After this, they began to notice a decrease in attendance from roughly 60% to 30%.

—The requirement of masks may or may not have been the cause of this; however, the timeline would suggest a direct correlation between the two. The mask mandate may have also alerted people to the seriousness of the virus, impacting their decision to stay home.

Closing after reopening. Although a few panelists mentioned not having any staff members who tested positive with COVID-19, there were a few staff members who had family members who did. Therefore, many leaders are approaching situations similar with wisdom and the ability to be proactive rather than reactive by moving all worship services online again.

Communicating expectations to gather again. In the midst of uncertainty and the desire to gather in person again but being unable to, it's important for leaders to manage communication with their church community. Here are strategies our panelists shared:

— Encourage members to meet in small groups to have watch parties. This promotes a sense of safety and fellowship among members.

— Provide curriculum such as learning guides and other content along with weekly teaching so people can follow along. This is a great way to invite members to make a connection between what is being taught and making it applicable and relevant for them.

Plan on staying online forever. Although leaders know we will gather again consistently in the future, a panelist offered a new perspective of online services. He invited us to consider the approach of staying online forever and using this to inspire creativity and innovation for online worship service. He encouraged us to ask questions such as, "How do we structure online worship services online to sustain them long term?" and "How do we promote and maintain community and fellowship through online worship services?"

Opening offices for staff to return. At this time, some church staff are returning to their offices but still using Zoom for all staff meetings. This helps staff maintain a safe level of social distancing while still being able to work in the office.

—For staff members who are considered to be at-risk, leaders are using a phased approach. This allows the staff members to come into the office but work from a further distance than the others in the office or in shifts when there aren't as many people working.

Managing Finances During COVID-19

It's inevitable for each church to experience different realities in the area of finances. From standard giving practices to giving opportunities during services, here are a few strategies and tips our panelists shared:

Solidify a specific and intentional giving moment.

—Use a pre-show message to explain the opportunities that are available for people to give.

—Have a popup link on the screen readily available before, during and after worship services.

Ensure everyone knows where and how to give.

—Assign a staff member who is readily available to take prayer requests and send links for offering to those in the comment sections. Taking this approach will help make certain that if anyone is confused about giving, they can quickly receive an answer.

Communicate ways their giving is advancing the kingdom of Christ.

—It's common for people to know their contribution is helping somehow, but by being honest and communicating the divine things your church is able to do because of their giving is important. Taking the time to share this about their investment can also help your members understand that they are needed in the participation of moving the kingdom forward.

Plan the budget for the next fiscal year.

—Although the future is uncertain, it's good to look forward and prepare as much as possible based on current projections.

—A panelist shared the way he began to budget for the next fiscal year by having the leaders of each ministry create three spending bracket options adjusted to 0%, 5% and 10%.

—Churches are also communicating to their ministry leaders that they should be aware that if the church moves into a critical phase financially, ministry spending would be paused in order to help the church.

Managing Operations After Reopening

Many churches have reopened and have implemented different safety precautions for returning back to in-person worship services. However, even with overplanning, precautions and preparations, there are still a few things leaders are learning to manage and navigate. Here are a few ways leaders are managing operations moving forward:

—Many churches are facing the reality that members of their congregation are getting diagnosed with COVID-19, leading them to shut down again. Although the cases haven't been directly from attending church services, leaders are taking precautions and being proactive to protect their church from becoming a place where people feel unsafe.

—Churches that were open but are now deciding to shut down again are looking into following the timeline that schools are using to reopen.

—Leaders are finding it helpful and necessary to stay focused on their church mission as they are reopening. Using this as a foundation while making decisions helps church leaders to make decisions that are in alignment with what their church values, rather than being swayed by the continuous change in government decisions and opinions.

—That being said, it's critical to maintain awareness and remain responsive to the COVID-19 data, so you can make informed decisions and be a thoughtful leader in your community as situations change.

—Filter all decisions through the lenses of representing Christ well in your community and city.

—As a leader, you'll hear the extreme opinions of people ready to go back to church at any cost and those who are already not planning to come back for quite some time. It's important to cater to those in the middle of the spectrum who want to come back but have varying degrees of concern about their safety and health. Consider these individuals when communicating with your congregation.

Navigating and Enforcing Guidelines

Each panelist agreed upon the importance of providing guidelines for members to follow but not policing them such as wearing masks, utilizing sanitizing stations and social distanced seating/interactions (with the exception of government-mandated guidelines).

—Guidelines were set as requirements for staff and volunteers rather than church members.

—Setting these requirements helps remind staff and volunteers that they set the example for the remainder of the church community.

—A panelist shared the way he specifically assigned a male and female volunteer to handle any and every difficult situation or conversation on Sunday morning. This was a key component of communication.

Volunteer Management After Reopening

—A few churches saw a reduction in the number of available volunteers. Although this can initially raise concerns, if churches are seeing lower numbers in church attendance, then this directly influences the number of volunteers needed.

—Form a strategy to sustain volunteers. Finding ways to cultivate a space for them to remain connected and utilized throughout the online worship services can possibly help their transition from online to in-person.

—Continue recruiting volunteers through designing online training for them. Using this time to train virtually is helpful so it's already done when you need them during relaunching.

7 Lessons Learned After Reopening Church

In this unprecedented time, it's expected that we will all be facing a learning curve for some time. For churches who have not reopened yet, here's what you should know when you decide to take that step.

1. Take time to effectively care for your staff members and hear their fears, concerns and pray with them. Measure what they are saying and assess the temperature of your staff. If your staff isn't ready, that's a sure indicator of how your congregation may feel. Be careful about your assumptions about your church community. Ask rather than assume to gain the clearest understanding.

2. You can use a survey or town hall style meeting that can be very helpful in this process. Then, use this data and the wisdom of God to act on what He is calling you to do.

3. Navigate the pressure to reopen wisely. Some leaders shared the importance of going slow when reopening rather than having a hasty reaction because an official said we can open. Take your time and pray before making decisions.

4. Manage the message. Be reminded that what we communicate represents Jesus and the gospel. It's common as humans to get caught up in personal feelings, opinions and politics. However, as Christian leaders, it's vital to think about reopening from each layer by considering every ministry and how they'll be affected. Considering this will also help manage the message that's being communicated to ensure it's from a place of care, wisdom and thoughtfulness.

5. Set the parameters from the beginning so your members know if you'll be following the government-mandated guidelines and requirements.

6. Overcommunicate, especially in the face of uncertainty. If you don't know exactly when you'll reopen, communicate that to your members while letting them know you're still in the process of praying and evaluating the circumstances. Again, use surveys to understand how your congregation is feeling. This may help you make the best decision for your church.

7. For churches who have reopened but are now closing, some leaders are feeling like they're starting over again. However, they're not living in fear, they're focused on learning and improving.

As we continue to adjust to the constant changes we're experiencing, the common theme for church leaders is the decision on whether to reopen or to close again. In making these decisions, it's important to be in constant prayer and lean into the wisdom of Jesus Christ. No one has all the right answers in this season of uncertainty, but the constant reminder that leaders can rest in is knowing we are all in this together as Christ is leading us.

Sutton Turner is the chief operating officer at Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally.

To view this interview, visit vanderbloemen.com.

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