Pandemic Pivoting

Windsock
Photo: Pixabay

By Jonathan French

In March 2020, the world changed. With the pandemic shutdown, what used to be everyday activities (grocery store shopping, dinner out, visiting friends, church) stopped. Life, as we had all known it, wasn’t.

As a priest, I was confused about what was and wasn’t allowed. I was concerned for the vulnerable and fragile. And, perhaps most of all, I was unclear about what to do. The church has always been a place of incarnational connection that naturally included sharing the same space. When that ceased to be possible, what was the Church when it shouldn’t and couldn’t gather as we knew it as the body of Christ?

I threw myself at solutions for the lockdown. I saw it as a time for more engagement, not less. Lacking the ability to do in-person pastoral care, leadership meetings, Bible studies or teachings, and the giving and receiving of Communion, I resolved to find all avenues to continue in our life in Christ.

We pivoted into every idea we could conceivably achieve. For a season, the budget didn’t matter. Time didn’t matter. Distance didn’t matter. People mattered, so we started with what we knew: We were still a church. We were still the family of God — the body of Christ with all its parts and bits. We still needed to experience the Lord’s salvation, sanctification, and sacraments. So, we talked, prayed, and strategized about who we were in a pandemic and how to pivot into that new reality. The virus changed many things, but not our need. Just the opposite, it emphasized our need of him that much more.

Along the way, we learned from the pivots. Here are the key takeaways.

Pivoting Starts with Questions

Working for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords means believing anything is possible. However, because our leadership is finite, sinful, and broken, leading into God’s possibilities quickly becomes complicated. Therefore, questioning is critical for healthy pivots.

We asked questions like these:

  • What are our assets — staff, campus, print, online? What are our liabilities — budget, communication limitations, lockdown requirements? Another way of thinking about this: At what are we good? At what are we not good? What is the gap between those two?
  • What is the landscape of our situation? What are the current facts of our context that are constant?
  • What parts of our church need immediate attention? What parts can wait?
  • How many people can we reach with this pivot? How will know if the pivot worked? How will we know if it failed?

Several of these questions were not new to our team, but with the pandemic we had to ask and answer them urgently. Of course, we wanted honest and clear assessments. The truth is, not everyone is prepared to make or give those assessments. Some saw what they wanted to be true, rather than what was actually happening. In those cases, we found it helpful to circle back to the questions and reconsider. I found bouncing pivot ideas off peers, colleagues, lay leaders, and even total strangers to be helpful. The operating truths of 1 Corinthians 12 continue to this day: the church is one body with different parts and gifts.

Pivoting Means Embracing

Like many churches, one of our biggest pivots was moving to an online worship format. Before the pandemic, I had rigorously opposed online worship services. If a leader or peer brought the idea up, I might (internally) roll my eyes because I did not believe online worship fit our style. I believed it was counter to the New Testament’s idea of koinonia.

However, my opinion felt insignificant when measured against an empty church. So, rather than go kicking into the online format, we embraced it. Once a pivot has been determined, embrace it. Make it your new way. For us, it was difficult at first and for a while I thought online worship would only be a function of the pandemic world and would again change once normalcy returned. But hedging your bets on a pivot won’t work. It only undermines the team and the efforts.

After just a few weeks, we had embraced Grace Church’s online worship. We wanted it to be the best it could be. As the pandemic continued month after month, the pivot was integral to our community’s worship life. We embraced it and began to challenge one another to think how we could make it as intimate, genuine, and faithful as possible. If we couldn’t be together, we wanted it to feel as “together” as possible. This remains a key goal today that began when we embraced the pivot.

Though our new online presence was the most obvious pivot, there were several others that also blessed and helped the congregation. For example, church members began a calling ministry with weekly check-ins so that no one was pastorally missed. We started a weekly email newsletter with both practical and spiritual guides. We moved all of our Bible studies to Zoom. We wrote encouraging notes, sent texts, and connected in ways that previously seemed unnecessary or too laborious. We moved quickly in these areas and haven’t stopped the pivots because each has led to a more connected and engaged church family.

Surprisingly, these pivots have led to a 27 percent overall growth in our average Sunday attendance.  It’s taken me over a year to believe this growth.  For several months I was dismissive, thinking that once things opened back up or other options were available, people would fall away.  However, that’s not what has happened.  Not only have these new attenders stayed, they’ve started giving with our pledges for 2022 being up about 15 percent.

How do I explain this newfound health?  In short, I can’t.  I’ve had numerous conversations with staff, lay leaders, and even the new 27 percenters.  Each has a different story or reason or understanding for what is happening at Grace.  And, perhaps there is the answer.  When the pivot worked, we kept at it and tried to build on it.  When it didn’t, we dropped it or tried a modification.  But the overall cumulative effect of all the pivots seems to have created a healthier and more vibrant church.

The secret to church growth isn’t really a secret.  God blesses that which blesses God.  It’s not a great sermon or wonderful children’s ministry or a multitude of small group Bible studies or online worship.  It’s all of those and so much more.  And as we continue to build layer on layer of healthy Spirit-filled ministry, God will grow something beautiful out of it.

The Future of Pivots

The pandemic has yet to become an endemic. Variants surge, one overtaking another. Media outlets ring with warnings, caution, and fear. But in all of this is the voice of the Good Shepherd, discernible and clear to those willing to listen. His message has not changed. He is still inviting us into new challenges and risks. He has not forgotten or forsaken his people. Instead, he is calling us to continual pivots — all for his glory and his honor. This is the way of love, the way of blessing, the way of obedience.

Pragmatically, it’s better to pivot early in a situation rather than later. Once you have made a pivot, the most significant thing you can do is evaluate. Ministry is rarely clear-cut and sometimes we miss the moment. That’s okay. Keep risking. If you see someone else in ministry doing something you should have done a while back, pivot into that now. The good news is that you can call them and learn all the things that did not work and what is now working. And don’t forget to be gracious to yourself and your team. Give the pivot time to work into a new reality. Pray fervently, asking questions like:

  • Are we hitting at where we are aiming? How would we know if we achieved what the Lord is asking of us?
  • Is this healthy? God grows his kingdom, and the natural order he’s set up is that all healthy things grow. What is healthy and growing because of this pivot?
  • How does this bless the community? Christ’s community was made to bless those it knows and those it doesn’t. Do members of your community know you’re trying to bless and serve, or do they think you’re primarily about your church and its operation? Who could you ask these questions and, once you have the answers, what would it take to orient the church to them?

Leaders in church don’t know it all, nor do we have to. But we are required to assess and change as needed. The pandemic showed us again that risk-taking is liberating. It starts with questions and is healthiest when we and our teams embrace the pivots. Our Good Shepherd is there ahead of us. His voice leads us. Gratefully, we find comfort in the pivot places because it is his kingdom, not ours. This the ministry leader’s best place of peace and rest.

The Rev. Jonathan French is rector of Grace, Ocala, and coordinator of the Central Florida Residency Program. He publishes his work at jonathandfrench.com.

 

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