Four Lessons From the Pandemic-Era Church
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:
- What lessons did the pandemic teach the church?
- 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”–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. 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:
- Contact the Georgia United Methodist Foundation here to discuss your church’s financial health goals and wellness strategies.
- 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.
- Invest time and leadership resources into developing a Vision, Values, and Strategic Plan for your church. Contact the Center for Congregational Excellence (firstname.lastname@example.org) for ideas and support.
- 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.
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 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.
 “God of Grace and God of Glory,” Fosdick, H.E. (1930). UMH 557.
 Mission statement of the United Methodist Church.
 Check out Jason Moore’s webinar, “Both/And: Maximizing Hybrid Worship Experiences For Online and In-Person Audiences.” https://vimeo.com/521163304
 Jones, L. Gregory. “Traditioned Innovation”, Faith and Leadership. January 19, 2009. https://faithandleadership.com/content/traditioned-innovation