Church boards have returned from a summer hiatus only to find that the more things change, the more things are the same. Plans are uncertain. Stewardship committees are uncertain. Pastors’ energy and resilience is uncertain. Everyone’s ability to navigate the divisions of our polarized society is … uncertain. Paraphrasing the iconic line of Michael Corleone in Godfather III, “Every time we think we’re out, we get pulled back in.”
In response, uncertain boards and committees are talking about the “need to get the word out.” The well-intentioned thought here is that, if people only knew more about the church, they would do/attend/give more. Correspondingly, church e-newsletters, bulletin inserts, on-screen announcements, and web site home pages are growing in magnitude. And yet this outflow of information is not yielding commensurate results in many faith communities.
Instead of getting information out, church boards may well want to focus on taking information in. Things are changing at an astonishing pace in most areas of culture, as well as in the church. Leading a congregation right now could be likened to driving at night on a road that is developing black ice. The traction a car has in that situation is much like the traction (or lack thereof) that church boards are experiencing. Drivers cannot see black ice. As long as speed and direction remain constant, it may be possible not to know the car is driving on ice. But if the need arises for sudden acceleration or deceleration, or even more, a sharp turn, the car can quickly spin out of control. And turns, acceleration, and sudden braking are constants in church life right now.
“Getting the word out” assumes we know what is happening for those that receive that information. It assumes that how congregational participants will engage today is the same as how they engaged three years ago. On your church board, what do you know about who is active in your congregation right now? Who is new? Who has “gone to the sidelines?” What are their needs? How have those changed? What new perspectives on church are people carrying into church after all we have lived through? Lots of questions. Lots of black ice. And many turns in our present and future!
Publicity is fine, but moving a congregation forward will rarely depend on better (and more) communication, especially if that information is not tied to what people are experiencing – and say that they need – today.
This is a time when churches traditionally gear back up with activities and schedules. This is also an important season for church boards to focus on “taking information in.”
Taking information in…
… as in listening for emerging new challenges in your community and neighborhood, and trying to understand what needs have gotten more acute through the pandemic and how things have changed;
… as in assessing who is actually part of your congregation now – who is online, who is in person, who has faded from view, and what people are lingering on the fringes watching to see if the congregation can address their needs;
… as in trying to understand and measure the changing needs and interests of your “committed core,” since the last three years have probably rearranged their lives, let alone their priorities.
Soon after Jesus calls the disciples in the Gospel of Luke, he sends them out:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way; I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…. (Luke 10:1-4)
Jesus doesn’t get the word out – he sends his disciples out. And they carry nothing with them. They don’t have the adult education outline for the fall, they don’t carry the youth ministry calendar or the schedules of choirs, and they don’t have a stewardship pledge card at the ready. Presumably, they go out with nothing so that they have to be focused on everything – and everyone – they encounter.
This is an important task for your church board in the next several weeks. Assumptions are never good in ministry, but today – after all we have experienced – assumptions can drive us into a ditch. As Mark Twain memorably said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
How might your board measure community shifts and congregational shifts?
When have you had an intuition that your congregation might be driving on black ice?
What do you know for sure that just ain’t so? (How can you find out?)