As much as you might hate to think about this, the world is on the eve of a global recession. There’s just been too much cheap money out there for too long. Now, I am a pastor and not an economist, but I play one on Facebook. (Just kidding). Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capital firms that backed companies like Apple, Google, and AirBnb, just released a presentation calling for founders to preserve cash for survival. “We do not believe that this is going to be another swift V-shaped recovery like we saw at the outset of the pandemic,” Sequoia’s partners said. What does this have to do with your church? A lot. Churches have already seen giving decline due to inflation. With the oncoming recession, things are about to take a downward turn. Here are five ways you can recession-proof your church:
1. Manage What You Can Control
What full-time roles could become part-time? What part-time roles could become volunteer? What ministries are more of a luxury than a necessity? Or asked a nicer way, where are the bright spots in your church right now? Invest heavily in what is bearing fruit. For everything else, unfortunately, it’s time to prune.
This is the time to look at all of the staff who spend their days doom scrolling on their iPhones. Their time is up. While you may have had compassion on them during the pandemic, there are plenty of jobs out there these days. They will find something. It’s time to become a lean mean ministry machine. Now if you feel at all threatened by what I’m saying, then it is time to pour your energy and efforts into becoming an essential member of your church’s team. The more value that you can add, the less likely that you will get cut. And, the more satisfaction you will get from your work.
What things in your church’s budget can you control? Periodically, it’s a good idea to look at all of the services your church subscribes to. What is still necessary? While RightNow Media and smallgroups.org can be useful, are they necessary? What if you created your own curriculum? Your studies would more closely reflect your church’s values. If you offer a digital download, you reduce the cost of printing books. Invest in some great tools for producing curriculum like How to Ask Great Questions by Karen Lee-Thorpe or join the Effective Curriculum Writing Workshop. You might even have some talented volunteers in your church who can help you write a sermon discussion guide or study guide.
2. Sell Surplus Assets
You don’t need a garage sale (but you could have one). What property does your church own but will probably never develop? Real estate is still pretty hot right now. Before things slow way down, it might be time to liquidate excess property and build your church’s cash reserves. Pay off debt. I understand that your role may not involve decisions of this kind, but these would be helpful things to suggest to your leadership.
How well do you utilize your church building? (You don’t need to sell your church building.) But, could you rent space to a non-profit with similar values? Could you rent space for events in your community? Think of family reunions, bridal showers, baby showers, and other community events. Maybe there’s a new church plant looking for a place to meet. Of course, you would need to have stated policies so the events reflect the your church’s standards. Granted, this will require some janitorial expense, but it could be a source of revenue. Stick with me here. The discipleship part is coming soon.
Look in your church’s closets. What about that stack of curriculum you have left from your last alignment series? Could you start new groups with it? Could you sell it to another church? (Maybe you’re headed back to a garage sale idea here). You may not have the authority to make these kinds of decisions, but you could make some suggestions and possibly become the employee of the month!
3. Stir Up Your Members’ Gifts
When money gets tight, more than ever you need to get your church members’ gifts in the game. Now that the pandemic has clearly defined the committed core of your church, give them meaningful ways to serve. You have church members with gifts and talents that need to be used. This never should have been an option. The church never should have been divided by clergy and laity or staff and “volunteers” (Oh, how I hate that word! We are all members of the Body of Christ!) Your consumers changed the church channel during COVID. Don’t be afraid to ask the people who stuck with you to serve.
Once people know what they’re good at and gifted for, they need a placement process for ministry. I would recommend offering a trial run to see if they are a good fit for the role. Once they’ve fulfilled the trial period (don’t tell them this), you can decide whether to offer them more or thank them for fulfilling their short-term commitment. (It’s sure better than firing someone who volunteers their time).
If you have meaningful work that’s a right fit, people will offer you their time. In a recent assessment for a church with 1,000 in weekly attendance, their members Indicated that they could serve 449 total hours per week in addition to when they were currently serving. (These responses were from only 400 of their members!)
Your people will help if they are given meaningful ways to serve. From the first item on this list: what part-time roles could become volunteer roles? You have people with the time and ability to take on “official” roles in your church. What does your church need to prepare for in helping your community in the coming recession? Think about parents needing low cost childcare or after school programs. You can reach the next generation and get their parents to try church. How can your members serve? Ask them.
4. Strategically Outsource Staff Roles
One way to reduce your church’s overall expenses and retain good ministry leadership is to outsource certain roles to other organizations. Often by outsourcing, you can retain a more talented player on your team for a lot less money. For instance, you don’t have to pay benefits, because the outsource employees’ organization covers that.
The Provisum Group offers accounting and communications services. Their founder, Don Corder, told me about one church who paid someone in their office $65,000 per year to create the weekly church bulletin. The church contracted with The Provisum Group and did the same work for far less. Belay Solutions offers outsourced personal assistants, bookkeepers, social media managers, and website specialists. These are just a couple of possibilities.
You can even outsource your small group pastor or director position. Over the last decade, I’ve served several churches as their outsourced small group pastor. I discovered while serving on staff at a church of 6,500 that most of my communication with my small group team, coaches, and group leaders was by email, phone call, and Zoom. You can do those things from anywhere. I started helping churches hundreds of miles away from me. With occasional onsite visits, in the last year, I led the small group ministry at Mount Hope Church, Lansing, Michigan just like this. We tripled their groups in 2021, which was not a great year for groups overall. Every leader had a coach. Every member who wanted one had a group. If you need help with your groups, then let’s talk. Click here to schedule an appointment.
5. Invest in Small Groups
Your investment in small groups bears a great return. You are probably aware of all of the great benefits to small groups. People in groups serve more, give more, grow more, attend more, and reach more than people who are not in groups. Don’t you want more of all of those things? (Don’t believe me. Download the research here in The Senior Pastors Guide to Groups).
You can build your small group ministry on a 100% volunteer leadership and coaching structure. This worked well in both churches I served (a church of 800 in California and a church of 6,500 in South Carolina). As you empower people to take on the tasks and authority of discipling others, you will find willing people who will gather their friends and start a group. You will find experienced leaders willing to coach other leaders. And, you will identify leaders of leaders of leaders who will help you run the whole thing. This is the system presented in the Exponential Groups book and workbook.
When giving goes down, care needs to go up. When care goes up, then giving goes up. In the most recent megachurch survey, Dr. Warren Bird shared how people in groups gave 11% more than people who are not in groups. On top of that, churches with 60% or more in groups grew by 79% between 2015 and 2020. Now, those are pre-COVID numbers, so it will be interesting to see the results of the next survey in 2025. But, did your church grow by 79% between 2015 and 2020? And remember that the fall small group boom is on its way.
Think About This
God is sending His Church a message. It’s time to change. What worked in 2019 won’t work now. The first message was through COVID. You began to see digital missionaries. You saw people getting pickier about who they spent their time with. You saw the culture as a whole get a little more comfortable out of sheer exhaustion. Now, the second message is this coming recession. Scarcity brings clarity. During COVID, people were scarce. In the recession, finances will become scarce. It is time to rethink ministry. What does your community need? How can you reach them? How can you show them the love of Jesus in practical ways? How can you and your members engage in meaningful conversations about tough issues?
People are very overwhelmed and confused right now. The speed of cultural change has been intimidating to say the least. But, the church has something solid. The church has something eternal. The church has the Gospel, which does not change. But, it’s time to rethink the methods.
If you are honest with yourself, the good old days were really not that good. Sure you would love to see your church’s worship center filled again. Of course you would love to see all of the people come back that you used to see for 20 seconds every Sunday morning. But in romanticizing the past, you’re forgetting about all the things that were broken and all of the things that you didn’t like. Now is the opportunity to fix them.
Maybe this is not the season to rebuild your church. Maybe this is the season to start over. You’ve had daydreams about that. You thought about if I could start this church from scratch this is what I would do. Right now your church as it is as close to scratch as it’s ever been. Take this opportunity to start over.
If You Could Start from Scratch…
If you could start from scratch, what would you do? If you had a blank slate, how would you make disciples? How would you conduct worship services? How would you serve your community?
If you put all of your energy into regaining what you had in 2019 or 1995 or 1955, you are expending a lot of energy on something that just doesn’t work anymore. Don’t get me wrong. What worked in 2019, 1995, and 1955 worked back then. But, it won’t work now. The world has changed. The culture has changed. The church should change. The Word of God, however, never changes.
Now, moving forward instead of moving backward, how are you going to make disciples? How are you going to reach your community?
Look at What You Have
Your church has a facility. Your church has funds. Your church has committed people who’ve survived the last two years with you. Imagine if you were planting this church right now for the very first time. You’re in great shape! Most church plants start with no facility, a small core group of people, and little funds. You’ve got a huge advantage.
Let’s take a minute to look at your people. For the most part, your people aren’t newbies. They aren’t consumer Christians. All of the consumers “changed the channel” during Covid. This is not the group you need to entertain to keep them coming back. This is the group that fought the war with you. They are ready to serve. They are ready to engage. They are ready to do something significant in your community. Give them their marching orders!
Where Is Your Church’s Ministry Bloated?
It’s easy to add things to a church’s ministry. It’s very difficult to end things. Ministry creep is a real thing. But what makes a church’s ministry effective is often not adding more, but removing some things. When was the last time you and your leadership questioned why you did something? This is not to stir up trouble, but to make sure your church is getting the most out of your church’s investment in time, talent, and treasure. Sometimes you just need to ask why?
For instance, my family has had a connection to the church we attend dating back to 1969. Back then, the morning worship service started at 11 am and ended promptly at Noon. We sang three hymns and listened to a sermon. One hour and done! Then, the worship movement hit our church in the 1980’s. I supposed since you have to repeat the choruses of modern worship songs five times, the pastor needed more time on Sunday morning, so the service was extended by 15 minutes to start at 10:45 on Sunday morning.
Somewhere along the way during the 38 years I was away from my hometown, the church added another 15 minutes to the worship service. What was previously accomplished in one hour now takes 90 minutes. At this stage of my life, I think the whole thing could be tightened up. Half of the congregation can’t stand through the entire singing part anyway. I’m trying to figure out a polite way to ask why the 90 minute worship service persists. So far, I’ve only come up with impolite ways, so I’ll wait.
The length of the worship service may not be a big deal in your church. Maybe it’s shorter. Maybe it’s longer. But, why is it? If I were starting a church right now, everyone would meet at round tables, and we’d enjoy brunch with a little music, spiritual content, and lively discussion. Maybe you think I’m apostate for suggesting this. Do what’s right for your church, but ask why once in a while.
Think About This
Covid ended a lot of things. If a ministry activity didn’t survive Covid, don’t bring it back. How has God used Covid to prepare your church for what’s next? How has the pandemic you helped to clarify what’s truly important in your church? What old things need to go away? What new thing needs to start? What sacred cow needs to be barbecued?
What have you already rethought or re-engineered in your church? Let me know in the comments below.
Before I go, I want to tell you about something I am planning for this summer. I want to give you the tools you will need for what I believe is the biggest fall small group launch we’ve ever seen. Right now as school is ending and the weather is warming up, people are headed out. They are going on vacation. They are making day trips. They are enjoying their backyards and sunshine. They are traveling on planes in unmasked freedom. But, once summer is over, they will be ready to connect in community in unprecedented ways.
To help you prepare for this fall small group boom, I am offering the Exponential Groups Intensive starting on June 1. This six week Live group coaching cohort includes a copy of both the Exponential Groups book and workbook as well as a one-on-one private coaching session with me. The price is $397. We start on June 1st. Don’t miss out. Register at allenwhite.org/intensive.
In the last two years, you’ve experienced about a decade’s worth of cultural change. Organizations that were breaking quickly broke. Some startups and skunk works quickly accelerated. Just to give you an example. You probably thought the legalization of gay marriage in 2015 appeared rather quickly. Now with the promotion of non-binary designations and transgenderism, gay marriage seemed simple. Western culture has become very complicated to say the least.
You might have jumped onto the darlings of the pandemic like Peloton, Netflix, and Zoom. But, now that much of Coronavirus has subsided, these online platforms are losing value. Has everyone forsaken digital? Considering that the average adult touches their smartphone 2,600 times per day, I don’t think so.
This is the tip of the iceburg of complex cultural change. Add in inflation, a pending recession, war, and a heavy dose of politics and you have a recipe for much stress and apprehension. Easter wasn’t what you expected. That’s okay. You are not your numbers. Church ministry isn’t working the way that it used to work. But, some things are working. How do you discern what to invest your life and ministry in at this point? Here are some things to consider in navigating cultural changes in ministry.
First, Look at God‘s Word
The Bible has stood the test of time and has been applied in every culture for the last 2000 years. Whether the church was under Roman oppression, living in the Dark Ages, or embracing the Enlightenment, the Bible clearly explains the church’s mission.
I know that you know and understand God’s Word. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in ministry, right? But, stick with me. This next part is a little more like Vince Lombardi saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Consider the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:20). The Great Commission is the same: Go and make disciples…baptizing them…teaching them to obey…” (Matthew 28:19-20). You only have one job: Go and make disciples. Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself hold true just as Jesus gave in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). That’s the summary of the commands we are called to obey. And what about the Great Compassion (Matthew 25:45)? How are you serving the “least of these?” You may think of some other things as part of your mission, but these are the big ones.
If you created three buckets labeled: Great Commission, Great Commandment, and Great Compassion and assigned the various activities of your church to a bucket, where would those activities fit? What wouldn’t fit? What would you need to add?
In planning ministry for a changing culture, start with the church’s mission as articulated by Jesus Himself. The methods have changed, but the message is consistent.
Next, Look at Best Practices
Over the last 18 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with over 1,500 churches across North America in the areas of small groups and disciple-making. While the last two years were vastly different than the previous 16 years, practices in small groups and disciple-making are working very well. What is struggling right now are worship attendance and other centralized events, voluntary serving especially in children’s ministry, and bringing new people through the traditional front door of the church.
Digital ministry is a new frontier, but it’s not the answer for everybody. Don’t write it off. There is much to be explored. The church needs to enlist digital missionaries to this growing culture. Online small groups are the pits compared to in-person small groups, but if your only option is online, then it’s a great option.
Which ministries and methods are still relevant post-pandemic? Which worked better in a pre-Covid, attractional context? Which worked better in a locked down pandemic context? Which will survive going forward? Pay attention to what is bearing fruit in your church and ministry and make the most of that.
Third, Talk to Your Current Regular Attenders
What are they open to? What have they left behind? What are their needs? After all, at this point, you must lead the church you have rather than leading the church you lost. Don’t assume that everyone who has stuck around is still waiting for things to go back to 2019 ministry as usual. Their lives have radically changed as well.
Talk to them about what they are open to. Don’t assume that this group is unwilling to change. They have stuck with you through a very difficult period. They are committed to the church. They want to see the church succeed. Some pastors are wringing their hands afraid to change anything out of fear over losing more people. If you’re people have stuck with you in the last two years, they are with you. Move forward!
What are the Needs of Those who You Want to Reach?
What’s going on in their lives? What are their greatest concerns or fears? What can you offer them that is relevant to them? How can you connect with them? Where are they finding community?
It’s not a new principle, but find a need and fill it. How is your church uniquely equipped to meet the needs of your community? What are you willing to try?How can you reshape your current ministry based on what you’ve discovered?
What methods continue to be valid? What methods are you partial to? You must admit your own bias here. The thing that you love to do may not be the thing that’s the most needed. Or the thing that you love to do may be relevant in new ways.
Think about this
While there is a certain amount of evangelism that happened over the last 30 years, a good part of church growth was merely transfer growth from other churches. Your church might’ve been good at attracting consumers, but was not great at making disciples. Now that ministry has decentralized in a lot of ways, what is your best tact?
The impact of the attractional model was waning prior to COVID. I know that’s tough for some to hear, since so much of their churches were built on the attractional model. But, the acceleration of the attractional model’s decline happened during COVID. Why would people rather stay at home? What’s the benefit of in-person attendance other than making the preacher feel good? I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to meeting in-person, but can you name them for your church? Community comes to mind. So does incarnation.
If you are unwilling to adjust your methods to fulfill your mission in a very different culture, then you owe an apology to the pastors of traditional churches who resisted the methods you adopted in the 1980’s and 1990’s. You are the traditional pastor now.
Change is intimidating. When you change, you experience loss. Reaching new people and meeting needs going forward is very exciting, but leaving behind the familiar is hard. Giving up what you’ve perfected or at least what you’ve worked hard at is difficult. Familiar routines are comfortable. Right now, you either have to learn something new, watch your church decline, get a new job, or retire. But, your calling hasn’t changed. What will that look like in the years ahead? Stay tuned. The best is yet to come!
What new thing (or old thing) is working well in your church right now? Answer in the comments below.
Pastor, you are not your numbers. Your worth and your value come from who you are in Christ. You are called. You are chosen. You are valued and loved. Your numbers are your numbers. Sometimes they will be up. Sometimes they will be down. Your worth isn’t based on the appearance of success. Easter is coming, but is everybody coming back? Probably not. And, that’s okay, because you are not your numbers.
This great question comes from Ashley Calabro, Small Group Director at 5 Points Church, Easley, South Carolina. And, this is THE question for small group point people, isn’t it? If you don’t have a leader, well, you don’t have a group. Here are some “creative” ways to recruit leaders:
Look at Your Current Group Members
Often your best new leaders are already in a group. Who is the group important to? Who’s always there? You could start by making these dedicated group members co-leaders. When the group grow to be over eight members, then the co-leader could lead a portion of the group when it sub-groups for the discussion. (If you didn’t catch it there, if your group is more than eight people, it is too large for everyone to get a word in. Sub-group and give everybody a chance to talk).
Now, a word of caution here: North American churches have a hard time to get groups to divide. I know that you’re supposed to say “multiply.” But, in this part of the world, “birthing” a new group might as well be called getting a “small group divorce.” You’re breaking up the family! Don’t lead with this thought. Develop co-leaders. Raise up apprentices. But, don’t go strong with the “birthing” thing. Now, there are a few other things to consider.
Train the Whole Group to Lead
Just like you would pass around a signup sheet to have different members bring refreshments, ask them to sign up to lead the discussion. Here’s how this DOESN’T work: “Would anyone like to?” After seeking the Lord, most of the group members will feel that God wants them to remain comfortable and not lead. (I’m only joking, but it’s basically that response.) What DOES work is: “Today is the first and only day that I’m going to lead the discussion. Everyone needs to take a turn. Please sign up.” They will! Once they’ve had the experience of leading, they will gain confidence and lead more. Maybe they’ll eventually lead your group or their own group.
Let the Group Get Themselves into Trouble
Since North American groups don’t like to divide, just let them become too big. You see if you are pressuring your groups to divide, then YOU are the only one feeling the pain. But, when the group gets too big, then they will start feeling the pain: first the leader, and then the members.
Great groups love to invite and include people. Let them keep inviting. Monitor the group as it grows. Ask their coach to check-in with them (Do you have coaches?). Ask them how they are managing the group growth. Are they sub-grouping? (This is the first step to starting another group). Let the group continue to grow until it’s unmanageable. When they come to you (notice the sequence), then ask them what they are going to do. Let them raise the issue to the group. Just don’t give them a bigger room at the church!
Look at Your Church Membership Role
What committed members of your church are not in a group or are not leading another ministry? Ask them to lead. Ask the ones you think would be great group leaders. “Have you ever thought about leading a small group? I think you would be great at that.” (But, only say this if you truly believe it.)
For the members who might seem out of your relational reach, enlist your senior pastor to invite them. If you don’t have credibility with some folks, then borrow from your pastor’s credibility! One way or another, invite them!
Offer a Trial Run to Avowed Non-Leaders
Some folks don’t believe they are any kind of leader and don’t have a desire to ever lead a group. You know that. You’ve asked them. But, many of them would make great leaders, if you could just get them to try leading a group. Offer them a short-term opportunity (about 6 weeks). Give them an easy-to-use resource. (Either purchase a relevant, felt-needs curriculum or create your own). Then, ask them to invite people they already know. These groups could be open to new members (if you know the leader well), or they could be what I call “invitation only.” Only the people they invite will attend. (This is great for introverts!) Midway through the six weeks, debrief with them and see if they’re open to doing another study.
Think About This
There are really only two parts of small group ministry: recruiting leaders and supporting leaders. If you’re heavily investing in much more than that, this is why your groups aren’t growing. (Read that sentence again). Link recruiting new leaders to where your senior pastor is headed. Ask your senior pastor to invite people to lead. (I have not personally recruited a new leader since 2004! And, I’ve served three churches since then!)
What other ways are working to recruit leaders in your church?
If you have a burning question about your small group ministry, just Ask Allen (click here)
Heather Zempel serves as the Discipleship Pastor and Ministries Director at National Community Church in Washington, DC. With a background in biological engineering and experience as a policy advisor in the United States Senate, she brings a unique perspective to ministry, leadership, and discipleship. Heather is the author of several books including the most recent, Amazed and Confused and Big Change, Small Groups. She loves football, BBQ, and having adventures with her husband Ryan and fun-loving daughter Sawyer Elizabeth.