Quick shifts and unexpected gifts from COVID-19

April 15th, 2020
This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

COVID-19 has brought with it a flurry of unexpected changes. One month ago, I never would have expected to wear a mask to the grocery store, practice social distancing or wash my hands incessantly. Life has changed dramatically.

There is an upside, though. Even as people have rapidly incorporated unwelcome habits into their lives, the church has been unexpectedly gifted by the pandemic.

It’s true. The pandemic has managed to kill off some mindsets that no longer served the church. Many of these shifts, decades in the making, happened seemingly overnight.

Over the next several weeks, I will highlight three of these quick shifts and how to turn them into sustainable culture shifts, by anchoring them in your congregation’s DNA.

Pre-pandemic mindset: We’ve never done it that way before

Do you know the seven last words of the church? “We’ve never done it that way before.” These words of resistance have slowed or stopped many needed changes in congregational life. Those seven words were a sign that tradition had once again triumphed over risk.

With the rapid onset of the coronavirus, however, and the changes it necessitated congregations quickly became aware that the pre-pandemic mindset simply wouldn’t do. To continue resisting change would mean nothing less than abandoning the church.

Mid-pandemic mindset: Whatever it takes to stay together

As church doors shut to slow contagion, congregations took on practices they had resisted for years. Most congregations never dreamed they would launch online worship services, Facebook Live or Zoom Bible studies in a matter of hours or days. Yet, fueled by a deep desire to maintain the church body, congregations adopted a new mindset, “We’ll do whatever it takes to stay together.”

As congregations quickly moved online, they found something rather surprising. Worship attendance has grown, not shrunk. The frail and infirm can now worship without having to brave weather, roads or inaccessible sanctuaries. Visitors can pop in and out at will, fairly anonymously. The curious can try new forms and styles of services with little risk.

Turn this quick shift into a culture shift

Quick shifts don’t always persist. When face-to-face gatherings prevail once again, will your people still see the need to keep an online presence alive? Will they invest in the tech to upgrade their online presence?

You can’t know for sure now. So, here are three ways to anchor this quick shift in the life of the congregation, so that it becomes a sustainable shift in culture.

First, name and acknowledge the quick mindset shift that has taken place. Ground this shift in biblical stories such as Abram and Sarai following the call of God into an unknown future. Recall how along the way God made a covenant with this couple and changed their names, signifying an important shift in their connection.

Second, sacralize the quick shift. You’ve already begun by leading Easter services online. Now think ahead to Mother’s Day, graduations and Pentecost. Plan now for the sacred to come alive in “the diaspora.”

Last week, I led an online Passover Seder for my parents, siblings, partners and kids. Together we were spread out over seven households in four states. We wouldn’t have gathered together on our own for this holiday. But the pandemic brought out both a creative urge to stay connected, and a fun way to accomplish it, while commemorating a sacred occasion.

Third, and most importantly, boost your own immunity to burnout, fatigue and isolation. You are on the forefront of leading rapid, unexpected change. While change can be exhilarating, it can also be exhausting. Quick shifts can’t become culture shifts without sustainable leadership at the front.

To support you in the midst of these rapidly changing times, I have created a new online workshop called Leadership Resilience. These three one-hour sessions will enhance your spiritual, emotional, and financial resilience, empowering you to pivot with grace and energy.

You are in the midst of amazing societal change. Now is the time to lean in with creativity and courage.

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