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Four Lessons From the Pandemic-Era Church

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By Rev. Blair Boyd Zant, Director of the North Georgia Conference Center for Congregational Excellence

“The building may be closed, but Church hasn’t stopped for a second.”

Since March 2020, United Methodist pastors, leaders, staff, and members have pioneered the pandemic-era church. What was predominantly a building-based, in-person-worship-on-Sundays-centric model for community and faith formation, our United Methodist churches had to pivot hard when our country went into lock-down.

Pastors learned to preach to a camera while standing in empty sanctuaries or sitting in carefully staged corners of their living rooms. We worshipped and praised God through video content edited together by musicians and liturgists living in different neighborhoods, states, and even across the globe.

This year forced us to wrestle with our theological understandings of worship without communal singing, sacrament without communal gathering, and pastoral visitation without being able to visit. Admittedly, wrestling theologically was the easy part. Church pastors and leaders spent far more time carrying the exhaustive weight of decision-making: How to be the church and keep people safe amid trauma and crisis? We learned a lot about ourselves this year: our capacity for innovation and adaptability and our capacity for compassion and empathy in the face of anger and mistrust. Closed buildings forced us to ask ourselves: Is Church more than the building in which it met?

As the director of the North Georgia Conference’s Center for Congregational Excellence, our team and I spend a lot of time with Church. CCE exists to support, resource, and equip congregations and leaders for making disciples and witnessing to transformation in Christ. Our work with congregations in this season has only deepened my appreciation for our connectional identity: that at our best, United Methodists are one Church in limitless missional expressions. Now that vaccination rates are going up, positive cases are going down, and life is moving forward towards a next new normal, most church leaders I talk to–lay and clergy–are asking the same questions:

  1. What lessons did the pandemic teach the church?
  2. What will the post-pandemic church look like?


In short, what did we learn, and how do we make sure we do not forget? Again.

Lesson 1: Your Church is Not the Building ...

When we refer to “Church,” we have three possible meanings: 1. The building, as in “I’m going to the church for such and such meeting.” 2. The worship service, as in “I’m going to church. I would love for you to come with me sometime!” and finally, 3. People, as in “I was really struggling after my loss. But my church showed up for me. I’m covered in prayer. My mailbox is full. And so is my freezer.” In truth, Church is people. Specifically, Church is followers of Christ on a mission. Church is a community striving to become one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, as we recite in our communion liturgy.

This year made it clear: Isolation is the root cause of much of our sin-sickness. Authentic, Christ-centered relationships are hard to have, but they are also the essential virtue we need to cure the heretical notion that we can be the source of our salvation. Our physical separation this year was largely due to safety protocols. It was a sacrificial act of love for neighbor. But our spiritual, relational separation–indeed, our “warring madness”[1]–is rooted in our intolerance for ideological diversity and our willful ignorance in listening when we assume we disagree. Secular politics, racism and justice, the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the size of our Table, ecclesial accountability, and even mask-wearing or not have all resulted in divided congregations, communities, and families. The “want” is to get back into the building. The “need” is to agree as a church to address repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing so that we can become the Body of Christ on a mission.

Church people, be brave. Be more than your building.

Lesson 2: ... But Your Building Should Be an Essential Asset to Your Mission.

Every church should be asking the same question: How are we using our building and land to serve our mission? This implies, of course, that your church is clear on your mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world[2]. But it also forces some churches to face an important fact. Sometimes, the church’s reason for existence has shifted from making disciples to preserving a building. Deferred maintenance and insufficient financial planning have proven fatal for congregations. The pandemic only exacerbated this reality. Further, churches that focus only on how the building can be used for Sunday-centric programming miss the creative opportunities for weekday ministry, mission, and community partnership for both using and investing in the building and property.

The pandemic forced creative engagement with church property. Empty parking lots and underutilized green spaces were repurposed as open-air worship venues, drive-in movie lots, makeshift meeting spaces for Recovery Groups, Scouts, digital learning cohorts, mobile food pantries, community gardens, COVID testing, and then vaccine distribution sites. As buildings reopen, with COVID and Safe Sanctuary protocols in place, seize the opportunity to ask: How can our building better serve our mission?

Four Options to Consider:

  1. Contact the Georgia United Methodist Foundation here to discuss your church’s financial health goals and wellness strategies.
  2. Explore grant opportunities for funding new and revitalized ministry. The newly launched NGUMC Barnes Fund exists for just this purpose. Learn more about the Barnes Fund and how to apply for funding here.
  3. Invest time and leadership resources into developing a Vision, Values, and Strategic Plan for your church. Contact the Center for Congregational Excellence (blair.zant@ngumc.net) for ideas and support.
  4. Engage Mission Insite, a people-mapping and demographics database, to help you better understand the essential needs and realities in your neighborhood.


Lesson 3: We are all Planters and Pioneers Now. And the Mission Field is Both/And[3].

Launching a new church or Fresh Expression of ministry requires an entrepreneurial spirit. Compared to established church leaders, planters and pioneers adopt new ideas earlier and demonstrate a higher tolerance for risk. This leadership style informs the cultural DNA of a new faith community, at least for a little while. Over time, the new community develops identity, focus, values, and practices for faith formation. The trick, of course, is how to keep a faith community adaptable to new possibilities, even as it starts to develop its–dare I say it?–traditions for practicing faith.

Traditions have value. Traditions capture both the historical faith we inherit, as well as the rituals through which we practice it. So long as traditions enable both storytelling and practice, traditions add value to our faith formation. But when a tradition is no longer bringing about transformation, it takes courage to say, “We aren’t going to do that anymore.”

One gift this year gave us is the honest realization that we lost traditions that we do not want back. Practices were filling our lives, calendars, and closets that we realized we did not need. We just did not know how to get rid of them on our own. The same is true for our churches. Some traditions no longer held meaning. Some programs were running on obligatory fumes.

Remember: When required to adapt, you identified new needs that sparked creative solutions! You discovered new leaders with unique gifts to contribute! As you head back into your building and resume summer and fall programming, resist the urge to return to Your UMC circa March 2020. As my husband makes me promise, “Do not bring the yard sale items back into the house.” Traditions are important and adaptable. Enjoy the clean and focused ministry space you have created for yourselves. And begin again from here.

Traditioned innovation[4] also honors the people who connected with you during the pandemic and now see you as their faith community. They do not remember what it was like before. They connect with the way you practice your faith now.

Remember: With each new video you posted online, you got to meet and connect with visitors and neighbors, and collaborators who never would have just walked through your doors. You have discovered the online mission field. You now know that your digital doors are your front doors and that they swing both ways. Even as you resume in-person expressions of ministry, keep your digital doors open. Design for, resource, and staff digital expressions of ministry as intentionally as you do those things that happen face to face.

Lesson 4: Lead. Learn. Repeat.

In his aptly titled book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” author Marshall Goldsmith reminds readers that certain skills and knowledge got you where you are now. But to move forward, new skills and knowledge will be required. We know this to be true for any of us who tackled digital learning with school-aged children this year. This is the same concept Tod Bolsinger teases out his in 2015 book, “Canoeing the Mountains.” Using the example of the Louis and Clarke expedition of America, he helps church leaders understand the necessity of adaptive leadership in leading the church over new terrain. You can be an expert with a canoe. But when the mission now requires you to traverse the Rocky Mountains, you have to drop the paddles and learn how to hike.

Similarly, if we are to move forward in our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and witness to transformation in people’s lives and communities, we must learn new skills and lead in new ways. The pandemic forced us to adapt to nearly every facet of our lives. The learning curves were steep. Be proud of what new skills you mastered.

And keep going.

To that end, the North Georgia Conference’s Center for Congregational Excellence seeks to equip United Methodist pastors and laity with experiential learnings to further strengthen you as congregational leaders. Here are just some of the offerings coming up this summer and fall.

____________________

[1] “God of Grace and God of Glory,” Fosdick, H.E. (1930). UMH 557.

[2] Mission statement of the United Methodist Church.

[3] Check out Jason Moore’s webinar, “Both/And: Maximizing Hybrid Worship Experiences For Online and In-Person Audiences.” https://vimeo.com/521163304

[4] Jones, L. Gregory. “Traditioned Innovation”, Faith and Leadership. January 19, 2009. https://faithandleadership.com/content/traditioned-innovation

Posted: June 30th, 2021 | Permalink

Giving for the Right Reasons

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This article is reprinted by permission from Leading Ideas, a free e-newsletter from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and available at www.churchleadership.com.

The Christian faith invites us to think about giving in new and countercultural ways. Giving faithfully and for the right reasons puts us in alignment with God’s purposes and brings joy.

Our consumer culture sends us many messages about what it means to give and give well. Believing these messages draws us away from the faithful way, and in doing so, it keeps us from experiencing the joy of generosity that God has in mind for us.

When we give, we become more of who God designed us to be. Simply put, giving changes the lives of not only those who receive, but also those who give.

What our consumer culture says about giving

1. Give if it benefits you.

One of these messages is, “Give if it benefits you.” We are responding to this message when the primary motivation for our giving is being recognized for our generosity or when we give as a tax benefit, or if our giving is to gain influence or notoriety.

2. Give to get.

At its worst, the message becomes, “Give to get.” This attitude can even infect our spiritual life when we believe that our giving is a kind of inducement for God to give us back more. This “prosperity gospel” message has even worked its way into some churches.

3. Give if there is anything left over.

Another message we hear is, “Give if there is anything left over.” For the vast majority of people, giving comes last in our financial habits. It has been documented that during the most prosperous periods in our recent history, a strange counterintuitive thing happened — giving actually decreased as a percentage of income, income increased but spending consumed the additional income. For many, giving is an afterthought rather than a priority.

4. Give out of a sense of duty.

Yet another message we take in is, “Give out of a sense of duty.” Our consumer culture, and sometimes even our churches will guilt us into feeling that we have a duty to give something. The Lord does ask us to give to those who need it, but God is also concerned about why we give. Giving out of duty or guilt is an empty gesture and different from generous giving which comes from the heart.

What faith says about giving

The Bible characterizes those who give out of a desire to grow in their discipleship as “generous.” A generous giver is one who gives with a joyful attitude and a compassionate heart. Just as a body of water without an outlet becomes stagnant, a life without an outlet for giving becomes a stagnant life. Giving is the channel through which God’s love, compassion, and generosity can flow through us.

When we give, we become more of who God designed us to be. Created in God’s image, we are made to live in connection and community with others and to share a portion of what we have with others. Simply put, giving changes the lives of not only those who receive, but also those who give.

1. Faithful giving is a response to God’s goodness.

God calls us to give in response to God’s goodness. James 1:17 says, “Every good gift, every perfect gift comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.” Our Creator gives us good things, and so our giving is simply a way to say, “Thank you. I’m so grateful.” An important way we show our gratefulness is by making our giving the first obligation of our income. The Old Testament refers to that as “first fruits” giving (Leviticus 23:10 and others).

2. Faithful giving acknowledges God as our source of security.

Second, God is our source of security. In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus warned his followers not to store up treasures here on earth, where they can be eaten by moths, get rusty, and where thieves break in and steal (or where one economic downturn can wipe them out). Instead, they should store up treasures in heaven. Another way to think of it is not to put your security in wealth, but in the Provider of wealth — not in the gift, but in the Giver.

3. Faithful giving furthers God’s justice.

A third reason God calls us to give is because God cares about economic justice. The growing inequality of resource distribution is one of the great issues facing our world today, and it is creating much conflict in the world. Throughout the Scriptures, material blessing has been linked to obedience, particularly in reference to justice and compassion for the poor. If God has blessed us beyond what we need, it’s so we can help those less fortunate, not just to increase our standard of living. We are called to love. We can give without loving, but we cannot love without giving.

4. Faithful giving blesses us and others.

Another reason God wants us to give is to bless others and to be blessed. The relationship between giving and blessing goes all the way back to God’s original covenant with Abraham. In Genesis 12:2-3, God tells Abraham that he and his spouse are being blessed in part so that they can be a blessing to others. We miss that joy and blessing in our own lives when we hold on to what we have rather than sharing freely with others.

5. Faithful giving breaks the hold money can have over us.

A final and very important reason for giving is that it breaks the hold money can so easily have on us. Money often equals power, and money can demand our allegiance. When I release money by giving it away, it breaks the hold money can have over me.

This material is excerpted from Saving Grace: A Guide to Financial Well-being Abingdon Press, 2020. Used by permission. Saving Grace videos, workbooks, and devotional materials explore money management from a Wesleyan perspective to help clery and laity reach personal financial goals and address life concerns. Resources are available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

Posted: March 26th, 2021 | Permalink

6 Reasons Your Church Needs a Planned Giving Program

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This article is reprinted by permission from Leading Ideas, a free e-newsletter from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and available at www.churchleadership.com.

Giving through one’s will is the most common type of deferred gift. Yet, more than half of American adults don’t have a will. Of those who do have wills, around 95 percent are not including charitable bequests. Why is this such a neglected area in church giving programs?

Many churches find they have to focus so much time and attention on meeting the annual budget and conducting occasional capital campaigns that little enthusiasm is shown for considering a planned giving program. Also, many churches do not engage in long-range planning but focus instead on the immediate future. Planned giving is not seen as a viable solution to short-term needs. Because planned gift income seems like such a distant possibility, it rarely receives priority attention.

Some church leaders regard planned giving as an option only for the wealthy. These leaders think that a planned giving program would have little appeal in their congregation; therefore, they see no need to promote it. Some church leaders simply feel embarrassed or uncomfortable in suggesting that the church should encourage planned gifts. “We are always asking for money from people when they are alive; must we also ask for a gift when they die?” is a question that has been raised more than once.

The fact of the matter, however, is that none of these are legitimate reasons for neglecting a planned giving program. Church leaders are terribly shortsighted not to have a planned giving program in place and to promote it regularly. The benefits of such a program are many.

1. Planned giving provides a tremendous opportunity for Christians to make a powerful witness to their faith and their values.

Those who have been faithful in their giving throughout their lifetime can continue to make a witness at the time of death. Yet the contributions of most Christians stop at death simply because they have not been encouraged to regard planned giving as another opportunity to make a witness. I once asked an elderly woman who had been a tither all her life if she had ever considered tithing her estate. “No,” she responded. Then, with a look of disappointment, she asked, “How come no pastor ever suggested that to me?” One wonders how many other Christians may feel similarly cheated.

2. Planned giving also helps maintain the work of the church and its related institutions.

A gift from an individual’s estate to a church’s endowment is a gift that will keep on giving in perpetuity, helping to assure the continued strength and vitality of its ministries. What could bring greater satisfaction than knowing our resources are continuing to positively influence and benefit others even when we are no longer here?

3. Planned giving enables persons to make larger charitable gifts than otherwise possible.

Most annual gifts come from current income. Planned gifts, however, can come from one’s accumulated assets when they are no longer needed. Through planned giving, persons often can make larger gifts than they ever dreamed possible to those institutions that are important to them.

4. Planned giving allows persons to establish permanent living memorials for themselves or others.

Few remembrances are as lasting or meaningful as a living memorial that continues to minister to others in Christ’s name for generations to come. Scholarship funds, lecture funds, and funds for missionary support are just a few types of living memorials that have been created through planned gifts.

5. Planned giving also provides tax advantages for the donor.

In addition to charitable deductions, many planned-gift arrangements provide the opportunity to reduce estate taxes and receive lifetime income. Some arrangements enable persons to increase their own spendable income at the same time that they make a planned gift.

6. Planned giving enhances both annual and capital giving programs.

When persons make planned gift commitments to an institution, their interest and involvement in that institution often increase, as does their annual support. Likewise, capital giving programs are often significantly enhanced through planned gift arrangements. Individuals wishing to make a major commitment to a capital giving program frequently discover they can best do so through a combination of outright gifts and planned gifts.

The fact is that planned gifts are a very important source of revenue for charitable institutions. Nonprofit organizations receive billions of dollars each year in charitable bequests. A substantial portion of total individual giving to educational institutions consistently comes from planned gifts. Religious organizations, however, are not receiving a large percentage of planned gifts. Whereas outright gifts to religious organizations far outweigh donations to any other type of charity, only 10 percent of planned gifts go to religion.

Why don’t churches receive a larger percentage? It’s because most have not learned what educational institutions have known for a long time: a consistent planned giving program can produce significant dollars over time. Most institutions of higher education have planned giving programs of some kind. Thus, it should not be surprising that a majority of bequest dollars go to education. Most churches, on the other hand, have neither programs nor policies in place for planned giving and often don’t consider either necessary until they find themselves the unexpected recipients of a planned gift. Receiving sizable bequests would be more common, however, if churches had a well-defined planned giving program.

The Georgia United Methodist Foundation can help your church set up a planned giving program. To learn more, please contact Mathew A. Pinson, GUMF President and CEO, at 770-449-6726, 877-220-5664 or mpinson@gumf.org or Dr. Rick Lanford, GUMF Regional Vice President (South Georgia), at 478-256-7130 or rlanford@gumf.org.  

Posted: February 28th, 2021 | Permalink
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