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.
Let’s face it: it’s been hard to predict anything in the last two years. I certainly don’t claim to be a prophet, but I am seeing and learning some emerging trends when it comes to ministry during Coronavirus Year Three. You might be noticing some of these things too.
Digital Ministry is the Church’s New Front Door
You’ve known for a while that people were checking out your church website before they were entering the physical front door. Now, digital ministry has become the church’s new front door. When people show up in-person for the first time, they are no longer “first time guests.” They’ve been watching online for a while. When they show up, they are ready in engage in small groups and serving.
Many pastors are frustrated that people aren’t “back” and are worshipping at home. I believe there are three reasons why people are still worshipping online. First, some are COVID Cautious. They’re just not sure if they’re ready to worship in-person, so they stay away. Second, some are COVID Convenient. (I used to call this “COVID Lazy,” but someone accused me of being judgmental.) They enjoy the convenience of worshipping at home and not having to pile everyone in the car to go to church. The third group is new attenders. They discovered your church during the pandemic. They are watching as regularly or more regularly than your in-person attenders are showing up. A church in Texas recently baptized an online attender who flew in from England. My friends at Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, baptized a police officer from New York City who came to Christ while watching online. This is more than a novelty. Digitial Ministry is a mission field.
Insight: Make your online worship service equivalent to your in-person worship service. It’s not the same (not even close). But, expect just as much from your online attenders as you do your in-person attenders when it comes to your growth track, small groups, giving, and serving. Specifically invite them to follow next steps. Give them a digital way to respond. For more on digital ministry, go here.
The Church You Have is the Church You’ve Got
Waiting for your pre-COVID worship attenders to return is like waiting for your old Blockbuster to reopen. It’s not going to happen. The church you have is your church, so lead it. As I wrote a few months ago, “Everyone gathered is united in mission with you. It’s too easy to go someplace else right now. If they are gathering with you, they are with you! They are just as shell shocked as you are, but they are there. Embrace Gideon’s army. Cast vision. Empower your people to serve. Repurpose serving in your church. “Right size” your serving teams and encourage more people to serve their neighbors, lead small groups, and make disciples. Lead the people you have.
“The regular, consistent givers are there. This is a tangible expression of the last point. Rather than lamenting all of the non-givers who have left, embrace the people you have. Call them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage them to serve and take next steps. Lead the people you have.” To read the entire post, go here.
People are Choosier in Committing Their Time
During the pandemic your people divested themselves of every type of involvement. They wiped the slate complete clean. And, as you’ve seen, they haven’t immediately brought back everything they were doing before. They will form groups. They will serve. But, the motivation is more aligned with their personal mission than with being told they “ought” to.
When it comes to serving, help people discover their spiritual gifts and see how they align with their personal passions. Use a course like Network by Bruce Bugbee, SHAPE from Saddleback or Find Your Place by Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps. Start new ministries from your people’s passions rather than from the top down.
Give your people permission and opportunity to start small groups on their terms. Let them invite their friends. Let them meet in-person or online with any format that suits them. Small groups can grow if you let people meet anywhere at any time with anyone.
Insight: If your church parking lot is half empty, then encourage your parking team to start small groups. Everybody can find a parking place on their own.
Processes and Programs Should Give Way to Personalization
There has been a growing shift in discipleship for quite some time. Every person is different. They are at different places in their spiritual growth. They came to you from very different circumstances. A process is not the answer. After all, you’re not making widgits! (Read more here).
While there is a part of discipleship that involves content, the vast majority of disciple-making is personal. Churches in general have produced an inordinate amount of content because that’s the easy way to go in indoctrinating people. But, the reality is that just because people “know right” doesn’t mean they “do right.” You know that’s true.
Community is equally as important as content. One definition of “disciple” is the idea of “rubbing off on.” People need to be together in smaller groups to rub off on each other and practice the one anothers of Scripture. While many pastor struggle with getting online attenders to attend in-person, some will join an in-person small group even if they are worshipping online. And, some in-person attenders have discovered that online groups are more convenient for them. Regardless of how they choose to meet, encourage community.
How are your people motivated to change? How are they motivated to grow in the New Year? I’m not going to give you the answer. Ask them. How do you ask dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people? Enlist some help from your small group leaders and other mature church members. Conduct brief interviews, then make an action plan for each person.
When Spring Hits, People Will be Gone
In their fourth quarter forecast for 2021, Gauge Research, a secular research firm in Washington DC, predicts that people are planning now for Spring 2022. They are booking vacation homes and cruises. What this says is that once the weather warms up, people will be gone. With Easter on April 17, 2022, your greatest ministry impact will come before Easter rather than after. Invest in a New Years’ small group launch or a Lenten series like The Crucified Life or All In (scripted to make your own videos), and then take your foot off the gas and plan for a strong fall 2022.
Think About It
Now that you’ve put your Blockbuster card away, what’s next for your church in 2022? As you look out over your congregation (in-person and online), do you see committed, motivated people who are with you? Do you see your faithful givers and servants? What future do you imagine could be achieved with these dedicated souls?
After working with P&G and PNC Financial Corp., Dr. Bill Donahue pastored in churches in Pennsylvania and Texas. He then joined the Willow Creek Community Church & Association (aka Global Leadership Network) for 18 years as Director of Group Life and Leadership, training leaders in the US and globally.
Covid forced every church online. This was both a great inconvenience and a great opportunity. To be honest, some churches have done better than others with their online services. Much of the result depends on the effort the church makes with their online services. For those who merely stream their in-person service, quality is spotty at best. (Take a few minutes to watch your church’s recent online service. You’ll see what I mean.)
Others put in the effort to pre-record their online service, like Pinnacle Church in Canton, NC. They provide a higher quality, direct-to-camera approach for their growing online congregation. Even this smaller congregation with limited equipment is doing a lot of the right things. Regardless of the quality of your online worship service, how are you discipling your online congregation?
Some churches are satisfied with using a multiplier to calculate their online audience based on the number of views. Certainly you want to know that your online service is effectively reaching others. But, your effectiveness online is far more than the number of eyeballs. Jay Kranda, the online campus pastor at Saddleback Church, had much to say about this in our interview earlier this year. Listen here.
Here’s what you know – people are watching online. Some are staying home out of an abundance of caution. Some are watching online because it’s just more convenient for them. Others are participating with your church online for the first time. This is the group I mentioned in last week’s post, Start Leading the Church You Have. Where are you leading them?
The Same Expectations
Prior to 2020, online ministry was a novelty. Then around March 2020, online ministry became a necessity. Today, online ministry is an opportunity.
While almost every church saw online ministry as a necessity during the pandemic, some still treat it like a novelty. They see the real congregation as the in-person audience and view the online congregation as a bit of a play thing. That may seem harsh, but let me ask you this: what do you expect from your online congregation? What are you leading them to do?
Typically, churches will ask their in-person congregation for contact information on their first visit in exchange for a welcome gift. They offer next steps, small groups, and serving opportunities. They expect participation, giving, community, and serving. Your online congregation is not any less than your in-person congregation. They are with you. And, they will take next steps when you offer them.
Engage Your Online Congregation
Online worship services can become passive unless you intentionally engage your online congregation. Some of this is accomplished by speaking direct-to-camera, which usually involves recording a separate online experience. Mere streaming video is not church online. Whether you stream live or pre-record, how you communicate with the online congregation is important.
If you direct your announcements and opportunities only to your in-person attendance, then your online folks won’t pay attention. You’re not talking to them. Make simple adjustments like referring to both your in-person and online congregations when you invite them to take next steps. Or during the announcements for your in-person service, have someone speak direct-to-camera to your online congregation. People will take a next step if you invite them.
Instead of asking them to respond with a card in the pew, ask them to text a word to your dedicated text line (check out Zipwhip) or send them to a dedicated landing page on your website for first time guests, giving, small groups, serving, etc. And, when they reach out, be prepared with a response. This could be a signed letter in the mail or an email sequence. When people contact you, reach out to them ASAP. In fact, you should have your response in place before you make the invitation.
Connecting into Community
Your online congregation might be around the corner, across the country, or on the other side of the world. Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, recently baptized a member of their online congregation who flew to Atlanta from her home in New York City. She now has friends in NYC watching Community Bible Church online each week. Whether your church is large or small, by putting your worship service online, you can potentially see a global impact. But, don’t stop there.
While online worship services are a starting point for your online congregation, they are only part of the experience of making disciples. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Worship services can catalyze a commitment to aspire to godly character, grow in faith, or improve their marriage or parenting skills, but the working out comes in biblical community or hesed. Without other believers encouraging, supporting, and holding each other accountable, lasting growth doesn’t happen. God designed us for community.
With an online congregation, community happens in various forms. Some people will join you in online small groups. These groups can meet by video, audio only, or asynchronously. Use the platforms that are the most familiar to your people. Different platforms will work equally as well for different people. But, don’t stop there.
Give your online congregation permission and opportunity to start their own groups – in-person or online. If people don’t live near the church, they can gather a group of friend just like Community Bible Church’s online member in New York. Whether the group meets in-person or online depends on the comfort level of the person starting the group. The church can support these group leaders by providing easy-to-use curriculum, offering a new leader briefing, and giving the support of a coach. Imagine if every member of your online congregation started his or her own group. Think of the impact.
Thoughts to Ponder
As I mentioned in last week’s post (Stop Leading the Church You Lost), the church you have today is your church. Too much has transpired since March 2020 for your church to just snap back to pre-Covid numbers. And, that’s okay.
For many church as many as 30 percent to 50 percent or more of their regular congregation worship online. You wouldn’t ignore a third of your congregation if they were in your church’s sanctuary, would you? Imagine turning toward the right side of your congregation, but ignoring those seated on the left side. That’s ridiculous. Don’t let this happen with the 30-50 percent who are gathering for worship online.
How will you engage your online congregation? How will you help your online congregation leverage their relationships to form groups either locally or online? Who needs a message of hope? Who needs encouragement? Think about it – the possibilities are endless.
Admittedly, I am not very handy. Some people can very intuitively tackle home projects and do a brilliant job. I fall more into the category of the guy who takes a partially disassembled object to a professional only to hear, “You tried to fix this yourself.” I just hang my head in shame. But, Youtube has changed all of that for me.
A few years ago my dad gave me a car. It was a Cadillac. It was fast. Shortly after my father gifted this car to me, the windshield wipers began to turn on involuntarily. Rain or shine, they would just start going. Screech, screech, screech, screech! I had to run the washer just to give them something to do. So, I searched Youtube.
The problem was that the windshield wiper motor cap had corroded. This was a common problem for older Caddies. I ordered the part. When the part arrived, I followed the step-by-step instructions created by a gentleman in Alabama. It was a little work, but I fixed it myself and saved some significant money. But, I couldn’t fix all of that car’s problems.
One day the engine started making a noise…a very loud noise. I took it into the shop. The recommended fix was a new engine at the low, low price of $10,000, which would have doubled the value of the car. Youtube was not the solution to this problem. Carmax was the solution to this problem. The Cadillac went to the junk yard. I bought a new-to-me car. My DIY efforts even with the best Youtube videos could only go so far.
If you are building your small group ministry by yourself, there are a lot of great resources available that will help you achieve a significant level of success. If you work hard with the right ideas, models, and tools, you can reach 30% in groups pretty easily. That’s not a bad spot, except it’s a common place to get stuck. DIY small group ministry will only get you so far. Here is the downside of the DIY model:
You don’t have time.
You probably wear multiple hats in your church. If your sole role is small groups and discipleship, you are blessed. I never had that singular focus in either of the churches I served on staff. Growing churches have growing needs, so you’ve got to do a lot of things. The problem is you can’t give enough of your attention to any one area for very long. It leaves you feeling that you’re not good at anything. I’ve lived that.
Going back to the home DIY analogy, an old joke goes that a husband says to his wife, “It’s on my list. You don’t have to remind me every six months!” You need more group leaders to have more groups. You need coaches to support your group leaders. You need training to equip your coaches and leaders. You need to create a self-produced church-wide campaign to recruit more leaders and get more people into groups. But, you also need to take the youth group to camp. You need to lead a mission trip. You need to meet with the copier salesman (real one for me). And, and, and… you don’t have time to focus on groups in the way you want. Frustrating.
You face too many choices.
The enemy of one good solution is two or more equally good solutions. Should I clean the oil stain on the driveway with baking soda or Dawn dishwashing detergent? (It works on those baby birds). Do I buy a product to clean it, and if so, which one? Youtube has too many solutions to my problem. I know, I should just try one. But, what if it doesn’t work? What if I make it worse? Can I just paint the driveway? Should I hire someone?
When it comes to DIY Small Group Ministry, you face a more substantial dilemma – there are so many good and effective models out there. Do you go with Free Market Groups like Church of the Highlands? Or should it be Sermon-based like Larry Osborne or Semester-based like Nelson Searcy? Should your church do a church-wide campaign like Saddleback? With so many people still worshipping at home, maybe a house church is more appropriate right now. Or, do we go deep into discipleship? But, which one – Dgroups with Robby Gallaty, Real Life Ministries, Rooted, 3DM, DisciplesMade? Where do you start? What do you do? And, when will you find time to research all of that?
Your church isn’t the expert’s church.
Of course, the problem with most models is that they work amazingly well at the author’s church, but you don’t work at that church. Every church is unique. Your church has a unique history, culture, geography, ethnicity, denomination, size, vision, etc. Churches in the same denomination are different. Churches in the same region are different. Imposing another church’s small group model on your church will give you a partial result, but it is not the custom solution that you need. There’s nothing wrong with the model per se. It’s what you do with the model.
What I’ve learned over the last 17 years in working with over 1,500 churches across North America is that no two churches are exactly alike. In fact, in each of the small group ministry coaching groups I lead, we end up with eight different versions of the best practices we explore together. And, that’s about right.
You don’t know what to do next.
There are more than a few tasks around my house that are undone (and on my list) simply because I don’t know how to start. I’ll be honest. I doubt my ability to pull it off. I haven’t found the right Youtube video to lead the way. I’m busy. When I get to the end of the day, I’m tired. It’s hard to think about it. And, a little more honesty, we’ve lived with the problem this way for a while, so we’re kind of used to it. The answer often is to avoid the issue.
You know that you need to do something different, yet if you’re like me, you’d also like to avoid making a mistake. Let me share something that helped me.
Sometimes you need a guide.
After working very hard at DIY Small Group Ministry for seven years, our church connected 30% of our adults into groups. Then, our groups got stuck. I had read all of the books that you’ve read. I attended as many conferences as I could. I interviewed other pastors to see what worked in their churches. But, our groups were stuck.
Then, I joined a coaching group. The coach gave me new ideas, but more than that it gave our church new focus. It was expensive — $5,000 for a year. My church didn’t spend $5,000 on anything. But, when my pastor gave the green light for me to join the group, not only did I know that I was going to get some much needed help, but I also knew that my pastor was serious about groups. What would it look like if your pastor was serious about groups?
After only three weeks in the coaching group, we doubled our groups. It had taken seven years to get 30% into groups, then in one day we had 60% in groups. And, six months later, we doubled our groups again and ended by with 125% in groups! With a seasoned guide to walk alongside us as we built groups, we achieved results unlike anything we ever dreamed.
Now you have a choice.
You can continue the DIY approach to small group ministry and dabble in different small group models until you find what works. It’s a lot of hard work, but you’ll make progress eventually. Or, you can engage an experienced guide to help you.
Now, you probably know that I coach churches on their small groups in both coaching groups and individual coaching. But, there are other coaches out there like my friends, Chris Surratt and Mark Howell. The Small Group Network offers different strategy sessions. Pick something that is right for you. Find the help you need. Invest in yourself and in the future of your small group ministry.