I recently tweeted:
“If you open your church, you don’t love your neighbor.
If you don’t open your church, you’re a compromised coward.
False dichotomies dividing the body of Christ.
Local situations are different and responsible pastors will follow appropriate guidelines. Have some grace, folks.”
For a lot of pastors, this is what they are hearing from their congregations. Not simply a wide range of opinions on when and how to begin gathering again, but an intensity that often spills over into accusations of sin.
A graphic is going around in pastor text chats—several have sent it to me, but there was no source. It gets at the challenge.
Now, I do not know of one pastor who signed up for a life in ministry thinking everyone would like every decision. But the uncertainty of this crisis combined with our polarized culture has led us to this moment when pastors face one of the most contested decisions in the life of their church. One that will be weighed and measured for years to come regardless of how the pandemic plays out.
In the next few months, pastors will face the task of leading divided congregations to make unified decisions. I don’t know when, and that’s a local decision, but what I do know is this: as of now, it seems we are running headlong into a very divisive time.
And that’s why we need good leaders.
This is the reality for many:
Leadership is defining reality. At no time is this more important than in a time of crisis or confusion. As churches edge toward more in-person gatherings in various states, how do we best decide and then communicate important decisions impacting our people while we seek to lead well in a fluid and divided time?
I want to encourage pastors and church leaders to communicate clearly with their congregations by saying something like the following:
“In consultation with our county and state, as well as meeting with our leadership (elders, board, etc.) after having sought and discerned the Lord's will in a time of prayer as to what the Lord would have us to do, we have the opportunity moving forward to _____.”
In the blank you state your decision, which could be to meet at 25 percent, at 50 percent, to follow certain protocols, and so on.
Some believe we should just open the church doors and gather everyone, all at once. This, I would strongly argue, is not demonstrating bold leadership and caring for the flock.
Some people are ready to meet. Some have conditions that would keep them from meeting. And, others are wondering if you care about your neighbors if you meet.
It’s complicated. That’s why leadership matters.
Instead, I suggest you consult with local health and regional authorities, and then you decide as a church leadership team on how to proceed. (In some cases, that will involve a congregational discussion and vote, but in all cases it would involvve someone leading that—and this is going to be a challenging moment to lead.)
Then, communication is key.
After the decision, we have to communicate well.
Perhaps that would be something like, "We therefore have decided under the Lord's leadership, for our church, that we are going to follow these protocols." These might be to open the doors with stipulations that people wear masks, or enter certain doors while exiting others, and no one sitting within six feet of others outside immediate family units.
To those who think that wearing a mask is a sign of compromise and cowardice, we can say, "We recognize that people have different views on this, but this is the time God has called us as elders/board/staff to walk this together and here's what we have decided."
Whatever the leadership were to decide will be the protocols, we need to say unambiguously that this is the best (and official) decision we've made for our church. The response looks something like this: "We think this honors the older congregation and people with asthma, those on chemo, and others. We realize this is a decision some of you have not made in other events, but this is what we're going to do."
If we have only 25 or 50 percent of capacity in a given service, we will need to utilize some form of seat reservations ahead of time to be able to plan. Some churches are doing this with email, others through social media or group texts, and some with a combination of these.
As leaders, we are going to have to speak both clearly and compassionately to our congregations in this divided society when emotions are running high. We can say,
“This is what the elders of your church who you have placed in this role have decided for these moments and we ask if you feel unsafe or if you are older or have certain preexisting conditions, you might not want to come. If you have signs of illness, please stay home. And, if you are in the place where you can't follow what we believe the Lord has led us as elders to do, we ask that you continue to worship with us online.”
Yes, that’s going to make some people upset. That’s part of leadership.
I should add that I am not encouraging you to rush to public gathering. We are not at the two churches where I serve, Moody Church and Highpoint Church. However, different communities are in different situations, and all of us will face this decision eventually.
And, it was a lot easier to close than it will be to reopen.
Get Used to Unhappy People
No one ever said leadership was going to be easy.
If you became a pastor because you thought everyone would like you, you have chosen poorly. I have learned that if you don't have 5-10 percent of the church mad at you at any given time, you're probably not doing significant things.
If you have 70 percent of the church mad at you, you probably need to slow down a little bit! You will have some people unhappy, but you will need to lead through this, and communicate with people who are restless on either side.
While pastors need to resist the urge to try to please everyone, two critical steps can be taken in the midst of this uncertainty to help make this road easier.
First, pastors should meet with all the leaders in our church regularly, involving them in the process of making decisions and equipping them to clearly and effectively communicate these decisions to the congregation. This is the time to err in the direction of over-communication, ensuring that our people remain connected and informed.
Second, pastors need to continue to reinforce the reality that so much in our world is still week by week for now. As James Clear has observed, "Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity." Giving clear leadership is both encouraging and motivating in a time of crisis. In response, churches should plan in one month increments or perhaps two or three weeks at a time.
Given the complexity of the decisions ahead, pastors need to think this through— with other leaders— and in conversations with the appropriate heath department. Then, whatever you decided, you will to get used to unhappy people. However, the way you lead in laying the groundwork now will pay significant dividends down the road.
Lead Through a Crisis
This is the opportunity for us to lead our people through this crisis in such a way that our people will say, "We saw our leaders and our elders, and they led well through this. Even when we disagreed, they honored us, and they laid out where we were going as a church."
The end result is that your leadership will be strengthened, and moving forward you will be able to be used of the Lord in new ways.
Note: If you are interested in growing as a leader, I’d encourage you to see our leadership coaching group which currently includes access to our strategic leadership course. This article started as a video I shared with this group for use in their church board discussions.