In March of this year Gallup released survey results showing that fewer than half of Americans belong to a religious congregation—the lowest percentage ever recorded. Yet despite declining participation, congregations offer valuable gifts to their members and their surrounding communities.
Leaders of small congregations often say, “We can’t afford to hire as many people as we need.” Leaders of large congregations say the same thing! If your vision is ambitious, you will always need more staff than you can afford, no matter what resources you have at your disposal. Fortunately, there is another way.
The beginning of the pandemic was overwhelming, but our focus was clear—figure out how to worship, connect, and teach in an online environment. The boundaries marking what we could not do provided clarity. Now, in-person engagement is returning and we face another kind of overwhelm—too many options. How do we make choices when some boundaries have been removed, but not everything is possible? To meet the needs of this season, we must help our leaders shift out of decision-making mode and into a discerning mindset.
As more folks get vaccinated and COVID restrictions end, we all long for a return to normalcy. Still, leading congregations is hard work and may get harder as we pivot once again in response to changing circumstances. Some people and some congregations struggle even as good news comes. Part of our ministry will be to help each other move from languishing to flourishing.
A congregation I love is in the throes of recasting itself.
It has known who it is for decades—a healthy, largely well-to-do mix of young and old members who have learned from each other and loved each other while worshipping in a traditional form and leaning in a progressive direction. But now this solid, celebrated congregation is not working as well as it used to. Attendance was down even before the pandemic, the number of giving units is down, there are fewer young families, and of course no one knows whether people will return post-COVID. Members are beginning to sense that something must change.
Fifty-eight percent of professional workers say they are “more productive when working virtually, even if there are distractions such as a spouse and children at home.” This finding from a survey by the global consulting firm Korn Ferry is one of many indications that for some American workers, productivity has improved. How about your congregational staff? Has their productivity increased, decreased, or stayed the same since February 2020?
Every congregation is unique. It is located in a specific place, has a particular history, and evidences a unique culture. Yet dynamics and patterns of behavior recur across denominations, polities, and locations. Following are a set of congregational constants that I’ve observed across religious traditions. Each reader can decide whether they are true of your congregation, and if so, how they might help you to become a more effective leader.