The Catalyst That Saved the Small Church During COVID-19

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COVID-19 changed the ways we were able to engage as pastors with our congregations and communities. Many of us experienced the sudden shift from conducting church in-person with little to no online component to operating fully online when COVID-19 hit.

Whether your church is completely online or social distancing during in-person gatherings, no church is operating how they were eight months ago.

While we can't know what to expect for the future, we can learn from what has happened and use that insight to produce a better church experience and meaningful connections online and offline. To discuss the valuable lessons learned from managing the switch to virtual services, I recently sat down with a panel of pastors, including:

—Lillian Daniel, senior pastor at First Congregational Church, Dubuque, Iowa.

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—Jim Gribnitz, lead pastor at Rockland Community Church, Golden, Colorado.

—John Hagmann, pastor and head of staff at First Presbyterian Church Morganton, North Carolina.

5 Keys to Making an Even Stronger Impact From What You've Learned During This Season

1. Invest in your online experience. We do not know how long this pandemic will last, but we do know that when all this is over, churches will still be streaming their services. While many churches had to quickly adapt and find a way to stream services at the beginning of the pandemic, now is the time to fine-tune your online services and make them the best they can be. As you plan for the future of your online church experience, ask yourself these three questions:

—When we meet in-person again, will we stream services live or prerecorded?

—How can we get those streaming online involved in our live service?

—How can we make prerecorded services feel more personal?

Rather than simply streaming your in-person service or posting it on YouTube, try to create customized messages for your online audience. Church leaders are in agreement that online church will not go away, so think about how you can nurture this community with messages and experiences that resonate with your online audience. For most churches, this will mean hiring an online pastor.

2. Find key players and get them involved. Right now, church staff are tired and can use all the help they can get as they continue to navigate new ways to reach their congregation. For many church staff members, their job description has drastically changed and created additional stress. If your church leadership is feeling like they are out of ideas and unqualified to deal with the current situation, there are people in your congregation who can help fill the gaps. People are hungry to make a difference right now and connect with a purpose and community.

Now is the time to identify key staff, volunteers and even family members who can help your church in the areas where you feel you're lacking. You may not be a social media expert, so find someone who is. Your online services may not have the highest quality video production; ask your congregation to share their ideas to make it better. No matter what your church is struggling with right now, there are people in your congregation who are called and willing to help.

3. Communication is key. A common theme among churches learning in this season is the realization that clear and open communication between church leaders is vital to your success. While this has always been true, the move to online enhances the need for everyone involved in ministry to be on the same page.

The senior pastor and information technology director need to agree on when slides should appear, worship teams need to know their setlist and the times they'll play ahead of time. Even small groups need a deeper level of structure to keep members engaged and included in conversations.

You also have to be much more vocal with your congregation with plans and systems changing continuously. It's important that your members feel informed of your plans to reopen or continue online, know where to find updates and still have information on any events you may be having in-person or online outside of services. Keeping your congregation informed helps maintain trust and connection.

4. Hyper-localize your ministry. With every church in the world streaming services, what is going to keep people coming to yours? The answer is simple: hyperlocalize your ministry. People do not just want to hear a great sermon; they want to hear a message that speaks to their specific context. As you prepare your message, ask yourself, "What has happened in our zip code this week that God can use to speak to this congregation?" Whether you talk about local sports, the weather or some other event that has happened in your area, design your message to fit your church members.

As pastors, we're called to shepherd our flock. Sometimes this is as simple as being available for connection and conversation. No task done in love is too small to make a difference in the Kingdom.

5. Take time to recharge. What churches are going through at this time is not normal. There is no guide for having the best and most effective online services during a global pandemic. It's okay to feel discouraged, burnt-out and tired. If you are feeling like you are in desperate need of a break, take one. The best way to serve your church right now is to take care of yourself. It is OK to have a guest speaker preach or to step away from your phone for a little while. Do what you need to do to ensure that you can be your best for your congregation.

This conversation is part one in a five-part podcast series we released called The State of the Church, where I spoke with pastors and ministry leaders from around the country about how COVID-19 has impacted their kingdom efforts and what they project the lasting impacts will be. Check out the other encouraging conversations in this series here.

William Vanderbloemen is the CEO and Founder ofVanderbloemen, 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. Follow him on Twitter@wvanderbloemen.

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