Fishing Differently After the Pandemic
By Sidney Williams
This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 22, No. 3 in 2020. You can access the full issue here.
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered so many aspects of our normal lives. Terms like “social distancing” and “stay home, stay safe” have become normalized even within the body of Christ. We’ve had to let go of our once familiar gathering in order to survive and many congregants have opted to delay returning as the virus continues to spread. Nevertheless, some congregations have begun to return for corporate worship in the sanctuary space even though it remains unclear as to how church will be experienced in the future. Further, it has already become painfully obvious to some congregational leaders that new ways to fund ministry need to be explored.
Prior to the pandemic, many congregations were already grappling with declining attendance, lower overall giving and rapidly deteriorating facilities. In some instances, more than a third of the operating budget was devoted to building maintenance and overhead costs. This painful reality is further exacerbated in congregations without endowments. Consequently, as congregations contemplate how and when they will reopen their churches, they will also need to factor in the protracted socioeconomic effects of the pandemic on their congregants. In lower wealth communities, inadequate health coverage and employment opportunities that pay less than a living wage may cause the cost of attending church to become greater than congregants can afford. And for African American congregations, the financial impact will be felt even greater as a result of being the most vulnerable and disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The next faithful step as we emerge from this pandemic cannot be pastor-led. Instead, pastors must help to facilitate the connection between the cultural values and the immediate concerns of their members so that they can take the next step. It is essential that pastors purposefully schedule time to listen to their members as well as non-members. In his book African American Pastoral Care, Ed Wimberly argues that storytelling is one of the strongest approaches to restoring relational practices within the congregation. Only through such relational practices can pastors effectively elicit the sort of information that is crucial in harnessing the same power and fervor that accelerated the process of Christianization within the American popular culture during the 18th century. In The Democratization of American Christianity, author Nathan Hatch argues that it was the values and priorities of ordinary people, not clergy, that fueled the renewed confidence in religious assemblies during that time period. Likewise, religious assemblies in the post COVID-19 era will only experience renewed confidence if the values and priorities or ordinary people are reflected in the work of the church.
During this pandemic, people of faith have experienced new ways of being the church and consequently will be less inclined to fund buildings and more inclined to fund mission- oriented efforts that address the immediate concerns of ordinary people who are most affected by the pandemic. Congregations must become less ecclesiocentric (church- centered) and more theocentric (God- centered). Expecting increased attendance and higher giving with traditional liturgical expression may be the very definition of insanity—repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting different results. Congregations that emerge with a reimagined focus on social impact that is God-centered (Mt 25:40) will attract donations from non-members as well as increased giving from members. The key distinction will be the measurable difference in how congregations are able to improve the lives of ordinary people. This is the first step in Fishing Differently!
In Fishing Differently: Ministry Formation in the Marketplace, congregational leaders are challenged to wrestle with the immediate needs of the ordinary people in their congregation and community, while striving to preserve and communicate the liturgical traditions of the past: i.e. the paradox of restoration. If this paradox is not resolved, then these congregations are likely to experience an accelerated decline in attendance and giving. Instead of vibrant communities of faith, these churches will become empty tombs. Fishing differently requires a collaborative investment of faith and intellectual, social, and human capital—not just finding different ways to ask the same people for more money. Training and mobilizing business leaders and social entrepreneurs in the congregation or community to form a marketplace ministry is the second step in achieving a measurable social impact.
The third and most critical step is building a network of relationships among institutions and people who live and work in a particular community or marketplace, enabling the community or marketplace to function effectively. This is social capital. Unfortunately, most congregations tend to only interact within their own neighborhood, social/political group, race, and denomination, which ignores others who might share their passion for helping those most in need. Building social capital is an invitation to pause and ask, “Who should we do ministry with?” As congregations create plans and strategies to reopen, they will also need the partnership of the community —residents, government, businesses, non- profit organizations and community leaders. According to Henri Nouwen, building social capital is always grounded in prayer and undertaken in gratitude. It is a “call conversation” for both those who seek funding and those who have funds. Whether we are asking for money or giving money, we are drawn together by God who is about to do a new thing through our collaboration. And it proclaims what we believe in such a way that we offer other people an opportunity to participate with us in our vision and mission.
The fourth step in the reopening process requires the implementation of projects and programs that have relevant and demonstrable impact on the lives of ordinary people. This is human capital. Although many pastors prefer to focus primarily on the spiritual aspects of human life, there are always opportunities to develop ministries that will assist people in achieving their full potential in practical ways. It is important to understand that the marketplace is patiently waiting to fund these relevant and impactful ministries that are bold enough to attempt to solve some of the most difficult problems in the community.
Rev. Dr. Sidney Williams is Senior Pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Morristown, New Jersey and the author of Fishing Differently: Ministry Formation in the Marketplace. He is CEO of Crossing Capital Group and formerly worked on Wall Street. He also is an adjunct professor at Drew Theological Seminary and a Senior Lecturer at Payne Theological Seminary.
Giving Magazine was a premier stewardship resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) from 1999 until 2020. The magazine served Christian faith communities throughout North America, providing thoughtful, practical, and inspirational content on faith and giving from thought leaders and practitioners alike. Giving was published annually from 1999 until 2018 (volumes 1-20), and then quarterly in 2019 and 2020 (volumes 21-28) in digital form only. In 2021 ESC closed its doors and committed its archives to the care of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. For further information on ESC or its archives, please contact us at email@example.com.
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