Podcast Episode 008, 28 min
Recovering & Thriving In the Post-Pandemic Church: Pt. 2, EP 008
The second of a two-part series in which Karl Vaters shares lessons from hundreds of small church pastors about responding, recovering and thriving through a challenging season.

Karl Vaters: We are united on a common biblical theology, a common biblical morality, and a common dedication and passion for the mission of Jesus Christ to make disciples who become disciple makers to reach the world for Jesus.

Hi, I'm Karl Vaters and I'm a small church pastor. And welcome to this episode of Can This Work in a Small Church? Today, we're going to be talking about part two of a two-part series: Recovering and Thriving in the Post Pandemic Church.

If you listened to the first episode, you know what this is all about. IIf you didn't let me give you a quick summary, or of course you can go back and listen to it yourself. But here's what we've already covered on these ideas of recovering and thriving in a post pandemic church.

First of all, during the last decade or more people have really been spending an awful lot more time in two extreme places: isolated in their homes and engaged in massive social media. And those are two extremes. Those extremes were accelerated and amplified during the pandemic. And that has created a great deal of ill health emotionally, spiritually, and even physically in a lot of us. You cannot be in constant isolation and have constant engagement in mess and social media and do well.

So, this is part of the challenge that people are feeling right now and are looking for answers to. And the best answer to that, as we talked about last time, is, I believe, in a healthy, small congregation where not only can we connect people with each other, but we can connect them with the Lord himself who has ways to answer those things that none of us have on our own.

Then we took a look at two keys to recovery after the pandemic and they were this: first of all, don't try to go back to what was. We can't build a healthy church on nostalgia. And secondly, build on what you're learning. If you made mistakes, if you've gone through difficulties, if you have experienced loss, don't just let it be lost. Take a look back at it. Take notes on it. Spend time thinking about what you learned there and what you can build on from it.

And then we talked about how small churches need to respond in three different ways. First of all, we need to respond contextually. What is the context of ministry that God has placed us in both in our church and in our community? And are we responding well within that context? Or are we simply doing business as usual? Business as usual will not work anymore. We need to understand our context and respond to it.

Secondly, we need to minister personally. Yes, high-tech matters. We need to be able to get online. We need good websites, but right now, especially coming out of a traumatic season, people need the soft shoulder to land on. They need people who are there to minister to them personally.

And then thirdly, and this is the point that we will be launching off into our sub points for the, for the podcast today is this: we need to prepare continually. Why? Because here's the bad news. This will happen again. We live in a broken world where bad things happen.

So we've been through a season of pandemic. We are coming out of it in most places of the world. Where I live in California, it feels like we're just about out. I know friends and family members who are still much deeper into it than we are and have a little longer season to come out of it. But whenever that happens, when we are finally completely okay, all the restrictions are lifted in the travel is okay again, and we can do whatever we need to do, and we can say it’s truly in the rear-view mirror—that still will not mean that we're going to walk through a field of daisies for the rest of our lives, right?

As I said, we live in a broken world where bad things happen. And even if another pandemic, God forbid, doesn't ever come again, something's going to happen because, well, take a look around at history. There's going to be an earthquake or a flood or a fire. The biggest business in town is going to close their doors. There's going to be a drought. Something is going to happen. A hurricane is going to hit you or a tornado is going to come your way. Bad things are going to come your way.

And so we, as good stewards of the assets that God has given us—by assets, I mean the physical church building and the finances and the skills and talents of the people around us—those assets need to be invested properly in a way that helps us to prepare for the thing that might be coming next. We don't know what's going to come next, but we can be ready for it.

And so, what we’re going to walk through today is this: during this year and a half or so at the point that I'm recording this since the pandemic began—I spent this past year and a half talking to into the hundreds of small church pastors. Sometimes through email, sometimes on the phone, in chat rooms, on Zoom teaching in webinars with Q and A’s afterward.

And we're talking about pastors from over half of the states in the United States, and from every continent other than Antarctica. Small towns, big cities, multiple denominations, you name it. And so, in having all of these conversations and spending all of this time listening to small church leaders, I discovered a handful of principles that everybody I talked to agreed were accurate for their situation.

So I'm leaving out the things that don't apply in just one situation or just a handful of situations. And I'm going to walk through four principles that I have seen in the past year and a half that are absolutely universal in every time and in every situation, whenever a crisis comes up, and these are ways that you and your church—that I believe every leader and every church—needs to get ready for so that you will be prepared for the next time some difficulty comes up because a difficult season is on its way. We don't know what it'll be, but we can prepare for it, whatever it is.

So here are the four of them. Let's start with number one.

First of all, churches that have responded and thrived during the pandemic, and that will recover and thrive well after the pandemic, and that will be ready for whatever the next difficult situation is—that's what we're looking at here. First of all, they had resources in reserve. They had resources in reserve. I noticed this immediately when the pandemic struck for our congregation here in California. On one Sunday, we had heard about this pandemic coming through. I even did a little kind of jokey thing on stage, with one of our associate pastors where I demonstrated we probably ought to do an air hug and an air high five, and we actually demonstrated to little bit of a laugh on stage and nobody took it really all that seriously. By Wednesday, we were taking it seriously. I believe it was on Wednesday. When the pronouncement came down from the governor, everything's closed for the next, I think they said, three or four weeks. And we thought, that's all.

How naive we were. But for the next Sunday, we were not going to be able to meet in church. Again, theaters were closed. Bars were closed. Restaurants were closed. Gyms are closed. Beauty salons were closed, right? Everything got closed. And so we knew we're going to have a few weeks of not being able to meet inside our building.

And as a small congregation, we had not been live streaming. So we had four days to figure out how to livestream our service, what to put in a live stream service, where to put it on the internet, and how to let our people know where to find it so they could watch us on Sunday morning.

We had to figure out all of that and do it well within four days so in order to do that, we had to buy some stuff. We didn't have all the camera, equipment ready, and the tripods. We didn't have a subscription to a live streaming service. There was money we had to spend immediately and we're a small congregation. So how were we able to do that when we couldn't even get everybody together for an offering and we had four days to get it done?

Well, here's how we were able to pull it off. I have now been at my congregation for 28 years. I came as the senior pastor 28 years ago. And for the first 15 years or so, it was a building process. We were trying to take an unhealthy church and make it healthy again. And at seven or eight years, we were fairly healthy. And by 15 years we were pretty healthy and doing strong, but financially, we were still going at best month to month and quite often week to week, like how much our money needs to come in the offering this Sunday to make sure we hit payroll?

And I got to the point where it was just exhausting. And I thought, you know what? We can't live this way anymore. This is not good stewardship. This is not living by faith. This is unhealthy for us.

So I went to our leadership, into our congregation and I said, “I want to put 10% of our general fund money away (that is non-designated giving) into a particular item on our budget that is going to be a reserve account. We're going to keep putting into it until we have three months’ worth of our budget sitting in the bank account in cash that we can draw on when we need to.

I calculated out that I think that should have taken like three, three and a half years to do it. It took us 10 years. Why? Because you put a little bit in and you had to take it out again, or for a certain season, we're tight to the vest, it's a small church, and we couldn't put anything in. But we never gave up and added about 10 years.

We finally had about three months of money in our bank account. That was about five years ago. So when the pandemic hit, we had three months’ worth of budget sitting in the bank, ready to draw on. We could just pull from it, buy the equipment we needed and be able to do the things we needed. Later on during the summer, when we still couldn't meet in the building but we could meet outside, we're in California and we had to cover people up from the sun.

We went out and bought a whole bunch of shade coverings, and we bought a second platform outside and new equipment, because now we were doing outside service instead of inside. There were about six months where we spent way more money than usual, and we're taking in less money than usual because we weren't gathering in the church service and people weren't used to giving electronically yet.

Thankfully we have a very generous church and they eventually put all that money back but having the money available when we needed it immediately was really helpful. We had resources in reserve.

In the meantime, I was talking to a lot of congregations and a lot of pastors who were in real crisis because they didn't have resources in reserve. They needed every single Sunday in order to keep the lights on. And some of them didn't survive more than a month or two into this because they had second and third mortgages and, immediately, they couldn't pay them right away. They couldn't pay salaries, they couldn't keep the lights on.

And so the churches that had resources were able to step up and make the adaptations they needed to make. And those that not only didn't have resources in reserve, but in fact were operating at a deficit, they really struggled. Some of them didn't make it at all.

So if you want to survive and thrive during a pandemic, coming out of a pandemic, and getting ready for the next crisis, whatever that might be, or just simply business as usual: have resources in reserve. Putting resources in reserve is not a lack of faith. It's good stewardship.

So that's the first one. Have resources in reserve.

Secondly, churches that responded and thrived during, coming out of, and going into whatever comes next, had team-based leadership. Team-based leadership. This is another phenomenon that happened fairly early into the pandemic.

And this one really kind of shocked me. The first one about a lot of churches not having resources in reserve, I knew that because our church had been that way. But the lack of team-based leadership, some of it surprised me because I'd lived for years where I had to do everything because we hadn't put teams together. But there was a portion of this that really kind of shocked me.

So let me walk you through it. I had small church pastors who called me—some of them, not a lot, but a few who said like two, three months into the pandemic, they came and they said, “I've got a weird problem that I don't know how to solve.”

I said, “what is it?”

And they said, “I've got people volunteering in my church now who have never volunteered before.”

I thought, well, that's not exactly a problem.

“Well, here's why it's a problem. It's a problem because I do everything in the church,” the pastor says. “I don't know where to put these people who are volunteering because nobody's ever volunteered before. We just have a system in our church where I, my spouse, my kids, maybe one other person, we do everything in the church.”

And so now they've got people stepping up and volunteering who've never volunteered before because now the need is so obvious. They're standing up and saying, “can we help?” And the pastor’s saying “no, you can't help, because I do everything and I don't have time to teach you now.”

Now we can look back at it and go, they should have volunteered before. Yeah. They should have volunteered before. But in a lot of situations, a lot of pastors, we just simply got used to the idea of doing everything and we didn't make the push for team-based leadership. I know what it's like to be in a church where nobody wants to do anything. I've come to three different churches filled with seniors who weren't unwilling, but they were older and they were tired and they'd served their time and they deserved to rest.

And it took a long time to build up teams of people who had the energy, the passion, and the opportunity to actually serve on teams. But just like with the budget, I never gave up on putting teams together. So by the time this pandemic hit, we had a great team in place. And so when people called in and said, “I want to volunteer and help out,” who had never volunteered before, we had a place to put them. We had a team for them.

But if you are pastoring a church right now and you are doing everything, first of all, let me say, I get it. I have been there for many, many years. But you need to, right now, make it a priority to begin to develop teams. Let me tell you, it will not be easy. You're going to have to start one person at a time and you are going to have several failures.

People who you think are going to step up aren't going to step up and you're going to have to move on to somebody else. But don't give up. And don't look for people who have a lot of experience and a title. Look for people who have passion. Look for people who have willingness. Look for the raw recruit who doesn't know any better than to just simply give their all to the process.

And then you've got to train them. You've got to mentor them. You can't just delegate to them because they don't know how to do it yet. But we've got to begin to develop our teams that way. The next time somebody does volunteer, you've got a team to put them on. You've got a system to put them into. If you're doing everything and then an emergency hits, that’s the worst time to train people to do something new—when you're facing an emergency yourself. You can't do it then.

So once things do begin to ease, and things begin to look a little better again, and the pace maybe slows down a little—and if it doesn't slow down, you need to slow down your pace—once the pace slows down, you need to prioritize building a team, making disciples who make disciples.

This is not some new business idea. This is the first century church. This is making disciples.

So, so far, two things, right? Resources in reserve. We need to start working on that. Secondly, work on getting more team-based leadership so that when people do step up, they have a place to serve. And so that we're building a healthy congregation. It is not a healthy congregation. When the pastor does everything, whether it's an emergency season or not, we need team-based leadership.

The third aspect that I noticed in churches that did well, as opposed to those who didn't do well, is this: adaptability. Churches that were adaptable did well. Churches that had previously not been adaptable, really, really struggled during pandemic and are struggling even more, if they're still alive, they're struggling coming out of pandemic and will continue to struggle.

So let me put it this way about adaptability. There are some people out there, some churches out there, some pastors out there who have this idea in their head: that in order for church to be called church, we have to meet at this time in this place, singing these songs, wearing these clothes and dismissing at this time.

Right? We've got all of these requirements in our head and the moment that a governor or a mayor or somebody said, “Hey, you can't meet in your church building on Sunday.” These are the churches that screamed, “Oh, they're closing the church. They're closing the church!”

Nonsense. No governor has the power to close the church. No president has the power to close the church. They can tell us we can't meet in our buildings, but that doesn't close a church. Our theology tells us that the church isn't the building. So we need to act like our theology. We need to realize that whether we can be in the building or not the church isn't going to stop.

We stopped meeting inside our church building for about three months total. We couldn't meet in our building. I know churches in some places that during 2020, they only met for three months. And for nine months of the entire year, they couldn't be in the church building at all. But I'm going to tell you—those churches that I know of, and our church, we never stopped having church for one second.

It doesn't matter if the building was open. In fact, in some ways, we did church better when the building was closed because we stepped up. We had to. And the difference between churches that were able to do that and churches that struggled because they had to be in the building was adaptability.

The churches that, before the pandemic, had a culture of adaptability were able to pivot as quickly as they needed to when the pandemic hit and things came up that they were required to do. They were able to make the adaptation. The churches that had not been adaptable were not able to adapt.

And when I say adaptability—you should be able to understand this, and if you know anything about me, you'll realize this is the case—I'm not talking about compromise. I'm not talking about changing scriptural theology. I'm not talking about any of that. I'm talking about adapting our methods in our congregation.

We are constantly asking ourselves after every single event, literally after every single event we ask ourselves: what went well? What didn't go well How can we do it better next time?

That's adaptable. We are constantly adapting to do it better the next time. We're never just landing in a spot and saying, “this is how our service is going to be from now on.”

No, because things change. We have to be adaptable. So if you want to be ready for the next difficult season, and even before another “crisis” hits, we are going to have fallout from this past season that is going to be very difficult. It's going to hit us in ways we don't expect, from people coming back into work again or not having a job available for them. Or the job market has changed from what it was. Or people moving in or out of your town because of being able to work online and they don't have to be physically in the building.

There are a lot of changes coming over the next five to 10 years, I believe that are going to be monumental shifts in culture because of the pandemic experience. And we're going to have to adapt to that. So as congregations, we need to be ready to respond to these adaptations.

Stand firm on God's word. We don't adjust our theology. We make sure that we're giving people a foundation to stand on. But we have to do so by adapting to the changes around us and letting people know: it doesn't have to be in the building anymore. It doesn't have to be at this particular time anymore. No, we may not be doing a ministry we used to do because it doesn't meet a need anymore. And we're going to do a ministry we never used to do because now it meets a need that didn't exist before.

Adaptability. If we are not getting better at adaptability, our churches are going to suffer and the people we're trying to serve and lead to Jesus will suffer for it as well.

So let's walk through the three before we get to our fourth one. Churches that have responded well during the pandemic, churches that are responding well coming out of the pandemic and churches that will recover and thrive as we go into whatever our next season is, have one: resources in reserve, two: team-based leadership, three: adaptability.

Number four: unity. Of all the things that happened during the pandemic lockdowns that grieved me because I believe it grieved the heart of God the most. We will never undervalue the loss of life. I lost a good friend too, so I don't, I don't take that lightly.

And the fear in people's hearts about potentially losing a life that maybe they didn't lose or potentially losing a job, but they didn't lose. Or the people who actually did lose jobs. Of all of the sorrow, of all the sadness, of all of the difficulty, of all of the families and friendships that fell apart during all of this, of all of that, that last part is the worst. All the lack of unity. To watch friendships splinter, to watch families fall apart, to watch churches go at each other, was for me the most heartbreaking thing about this whole thing.

We've been through seasons of difficulty before. We'll be in seasons of difficulty again. And the church of Jesus Christ has always been at its best during the seasons of difficulty. Part of what God built us to do was to help each other through crisis.

And this is the first time that I've seen a major crisis hit our culture in my lifetime—and I'm in my sixties. This is the first time in my lifetime. And I spent my entire life in the church, third generation pastor—This is the first time that I have seen, during a season of crisis and difficulty, more division and anger and conflict among the body of Christ than coming together in unity.

It is by far the most divisive church season I've ever seen in my life. Particularly where I live in America, where we had in addition to that just the most toxic political season that I've ever seen in my lifetime as well, but not just in America. I've talked to people all over the world and they've seen the same thing.

And it's heartbreaking because during a season of difficulties is when the body of Christ should be coming together the most. So as I started looking at this and seeing it happen, as I'm talking with other congregation members, other pastors and other church leaders, here's what I noticed. There were a lot of churches that believed they were unified and it turned out they weren't unified. They were uniform.

So the churches that were uniform, but not unified, they struggled the most. They may have even grown numerically. They may have even gotten a bigger online audience online, but they're splintering. And the difference between unified and uniform is this: the church that’s uniform looks the same.

There are a lot of churches out there that thought they were unified, but they’re uniform. It turned out they were more united behind their political beliefs or their ethnicity or their church tradition than they actually were around the mission.

However churches that not look uniform, that are maybe of different ethnic backgrounds, different church tradition backgrounds, different political backgrounds, different opinions, but they're united on theology and they're united in Christ in his name—those churches that didn't look uniform, but were united on mission, they are the ones that adapted to this. They’re the ones that stepped up. That blessed their neighbors. That blessed each other. That while still disagreeing on these other issues, recognized them as side issues.

Our congregation is the best example I know of that because I'm in the middle of it. And I'm so blessed with how well our congregation did. In our congregation, we’ve got people on both sides of the political aisle, both sides of the vaccination aisle, both sides of the mask or no mask aisle. You name the issue, practically, we've got people on both sides of it.

But where are we united? We are united on a common biblical theology, a common biblical morality and a common dedication and passion for the mission of Jesus Christ to make disciples who become disciple makers to reach the world for Jesus.

And when you are united on that, then you can set aside the other differences. And when you can walk forward, holding hands either physically or metaphorically with people on mission, who you disagree with on these other issues, that's actually a more powerful statement of the uniting power of Christ than it is to also be united politically and in all these other areas.

So the churches that were united on mission, even though they had different backgrounds and different political stances and different opinions on the issues of the day, are actually the one ones that were stronger and that thrived the most and have survived and are now blessing their communities in some great ways.

It goes back to, “by this we'll all know that you are my disciples, that you have love one for another.”

So as we move forward: how do we thrive? Well, pastors, if you don't have resources in reserve, I know how hard it is to get it there. But if we don't begin a plan now to do so, we will not be ready the next time. Start putting resources in reserves.

Secondly, start building up your team. Start finding people who may not be the people that others would look at. Take a look at the 12 that Jesus picked. Nobody would have picked those 12. So look around at the unlikely people around you. Who you can begin to mentor and lead and disciple? They are going to be the ones who surprise you. Get a team-based leadership style going in your church.

Thirdly, adaptability. Be constantly changing your methods, looking around and asking, what did we do well? what did we do poorly? And how can we do it better next time? And have just a natural part of question asking in the culture of your church so that people know we're always trying to make something better.

And then fourth, take a look around and ask , what are you really united around?

If the things that you are really united around are a small list that is: Christ the authority of scripture, the existence of God, salvation through Jesus alone, the cross, the resurrection—if that's what you're united around, you can not just survive, but you can thrive despite the fact that you may not be united around the big issues of the day.

You may have healthy conversation and even arguments around those, but when it comes time to do the mission, you're there together on it. Those are the churches that survive. Those are the churches that thrive. And those are the churches that bless each other and the community around them.

So, can a small church stay united through seasons of difficulty, coming out of them, and moving into the future?

Yes, we absolutely can. We just need to be sure. ae we saw in the second part of the two, we have resources in reserve, team-based leadership, adaptability, and unity around the mission of Christ and his church.

If you'd like to become a Patreon and partner for as little as $3 a month and help to put these resources into the hands of the ministries that needed the most.

Check out our Patreon link in the show notes. If you want a transcript of this episode, it will be available within a few days of the podcast air date at Christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters. You can find the link in our show notes. This episode was produced by Veronica Beaver. Edited by Jack Wilkins.

Our original theme music written and performed by Jack Wilkins of JackWilkinsMusic.com. Podcast logo by Solomon Joy at joyetic.com. Me? I'm Karl Vaters, and I'm a small church pastor.

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August 5, 2021

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