Most of us who do church work are familiar with the notion of the congregational lifecycle. It’s a bell-shaped curve: starting at the left with birth, congregations move through formation to reach peak stability. Then they start to move back down toward decline and ultimately death—unless we do something to change the curve.
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.
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.
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” This military paradox, memorably stated by President Dwight Eisenhower, is particularly salient for congregations in this moment. So much has changed, so much is changing. Planning can seem useless when we are so likely to be forced to lay our plans aside and improvise. Some say the world is changing so fast that “planning” is outmoded altogether.
Buildings are reopening and in-person engagement is slowly coming back. As leaders look to the future, many wonder how to build consensus about the next chapter. Over the past several weeks, my phone has been ringing off the hook with clients looking for help with planning. It’s not surprising. Planning has traditionally been our go to approach for getting people motivated to move together from point A to point B.
But getting everyone to agree on a direction should not be your objective now.
I used to run laps—now I am more apt to walk. Either way, I find that if I can muster the will power to begin, I can almost always finish the first lap. But if the loop is too short for a full run, I’m faced with a decision: should I quit or start my second lap? Lap number two is where adrenaline leaves off and perseverance gets its test. As we move out of 2020 into 2021, clergy and lay leaders face the challenge of rekindling energy for a year of new and different challenges.
A new calendar year invites planning. We need to finalize a budget and many are eager to imagine life beyond COVID. Unfortunately, we are still in a season of not knowing. Will the vaccine be effective and allow a safe return to in person engagement? Which of our constituents will be back and will new online followers stay connected? Anxiety builds as we plan for a year that involves so many unknowns. How can we plan when we don’t know what is to come?