by Meredith McNabb
It’s an unprecedented week, month, quarter—and congregational leaders, just like everyone else, are faced with unprecedented challenges. Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, has upended the lives of congregations’ members, overturned patterns of life and economic systems for entire communities, and brought individuals (and institutions, too) face to face with the sobering prospects of very real threats to their health and existence. At the congregational level, there’s personal, financial, safety, and spiritual crises converging all at once. These are days that give vivid color to a concept in economics called an “external shock”. An external shock in economics is an influential event or change that significantly affects the economy—but it isn’t part of the existing model; it’s outside the scope of what had been previously considered.
Using the concept in congregational life: this is surely an external shock. For many, it feels quite different than the kind of shocks that happen internal to congregational operations—things that were already “in the model” as leaders were looking ahead. A change in longtime clergy leadership is a relatively benign example, but it’s one that can have a huge effect on congregational participation and giving. Even more painfully, houses of worship burn down, scandals or deep disagreements divide the community—all these and so many other things are part of the model, though—they’re in the minds of prudent treasurers and finance committee members as they advocate for “rainy day fund” savings and top-notch policies to mitigate and prevent as much of the shocks as possible.
But external shocks roll in from outside with little way to anticipate their impact and with perplexing paths for responding to them. Beloved congregation members are losing their jobs, their health, and even their lives. Congregations can literally no longer congregate in person. Our present days were nowhere in nearly any congregations’ Passover or Easter or Ramadan planning even just six weeks ago.
As congregational leaders, how do you respond to an external shock, these powerful forces casting influence over your people and your finances and your reputation with seemingly little you can do to influence it yourself? How especially can you do that if your congregation is, as some leaders have described their present situation, “in financial free-fall”?
Here is where knowing who your congregation is and what it is for—its values, mission, and vision—is once again absolutely essential (along with a deep breath from the leaders themselves). Now is hardly the time for anyone to be convening a mission & vision task force, but as leaders—particularly clergy who have a spiritual as well as practical responsibility to lead—a firm commitment to focusing on what you know to be at the core of your congregation is foundational. The first response to seeing participation and/or giving numbers that have nose-dived cannot be simply to say “But the congregation has needs!” and to plead for members to show up (virtually for now, of course) and open their wallets and keep the enterprise afloat. The focus has to be on the core mission and values: why does the congregation exist? What is the spiritual, transformational, life-giving, and meaning-making work that caused the congregation to gather in the first place? That’s the place to go to in times of trouble, whether the crisis comes from inside or outside the congregation. The faith—the sacred storyline—running through a congregation is the first port-of-call for a solid response, right alongside authentic care for the community that calls the congregation ‘home’. Increased relational communication plus a clear focus on the core spiritual strengths and foundations lets congregations weather storms, and perhaps even grow stronger after the crisis has passed. Faith leaders have the responsibility to redirect their congregations toward what is most important, and to give the hope and encouragement that’s inherent in their congregational beliefs.
On the practical management side, in a time of external shocks, the leadership task might best be summed up as asset management: what resources do you have, and what do your core values say should be done with those resources? A creative mind will be beneficial in identifying those assets—a congregation’s giving households are certainly one key resource, but they’re not the only one that’s important to consider. A building, so often the next resource that a given congregation might identify, may or may not be an asset in a season like today, so what else? What kind of social media presence or tech savvy is in the congregation? What practices of care or prayer or connection already exist? What financial resources could be redirected? What faith resources does the congregation have—practices and beliefs that point to hope, that emphasize endurance, that care for the vulnerable and do justice for the poor? These are in fact true assets for the organization as much as bank accounts or committed givers might be.
With values and mission clarity, and with an asset-minded approach, leaders can approach the impacts of the external shock with integrity, confidence, and hope—and they can demonstrate the spiritual strengths that are at the center of their existence. The external shocks may define the circumstances in which a congregation finds itself—but they do not define the congregation, whose grounding and guidance, community and inspiration are needed more than ever in this shocking time.
Responding to External Shocks with Honesty, Vulnerability, and Resilience
By David P. King, Ph.D.
Many of the challenges religious communities face in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis are outside of our control, and for many of us as leaders, that may be the hardest part. Few would have imagined even six weeks ago that in-person worship gatherings would be canceled and Easter services or Passover seders moved online.
Clergy are considering how to care for the sick and dying when they cannot meet face to face as hospitals and funerals are restricted to a few family members. And they are searching for ways to provide for those in need in their community – with food, shelter, healthcare, social and spiritual connection during these times.
Leaders, it is ok to be honest and admit that we do not have any answers for this. It is also ok to admit the vulnerability we feel ourselves, for our communities, and for our organizations.
For many, it is finances that keep us up at night. Like so many nonprofits, many congregations will face significant financial struggles. Congregations rely heavily on in-person contributions from individuals attending services that have been canceled (or moved online) as their communities shelter in place, and while there are a variety of ways to give, online and otherwise, all congregations were not prepared for a complete shift overnight. Our NSCEP discovered only 46% of congregations had some type of online giving set up before the Covid-19 crisis. And there are clear digital divides with lower percentages among black churches (31%), rural congregations (36%), and congregations with less than 100 participants (31%).
Of course, it’s not only setting up alternative ways to receive financial gifts, but as Meredith notes, asking members to prioritize giving when so many are facing unemployment or financial uncertainty may not be the right decision. Many congregations will also have to turn to savings or reserves to weather the storm, and NSCEP notes that 61% of congregations have enough money in the bank to cover three months’ worth of expenses, but that leaves over a third who do not. Just like the disparities in public health and economic resources in many local communities, COVID-19’s impact on congregations is also not equally distributed. Some congregations are much more vulnerable than others.
Yet, if our honesty allows us to admit our vulnerability at this moment, it might equally serve to identify our hidden strengths. Perhaps it forces us with piercing clarity to recognize what we are called to, and we can be surprised by what we discover.
Congregations are vulnerable, yes, but they are also resilient. They can adapt, persevere, and come together with the grit that we all hope defines our kids and communities in these unforeseen times. This global pandemic may be a physical, spiritual, and financial crisis for many congregations, yet I believe religious communities and their leaders are creative and innovative. They are up to the task of leading their communities and congregations through uncharted waters in matters of both faith and finances as they lead with honesty, vulnerability, and resilience.
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