In unpredictable times, we need to find stability. No one knows what the future is going to hold for the church exactly, all we have are somewhat educated guesses. This hasn’t always been the case. For most of my ministry career, the ministry has been fairly predictable. Churches that were faithful to the Bible, communicated well, had good enough music and were organized nearly always thrived.
Will the future be like that? It’s hard to know for sure. My guess is that the future for individual churches will be similar to the marketplace. The churches that provide the best product and services will thrive, while others dwindle. The main difference will be that the market has shrunk and will continue to do so, which just makes things more competitive. The best will thrive, and the worst will die.
I know how this sounds, so let me translate a little bit. When I say “the best churches” what I mean to describe are churches that are faithful to the scriptures, care genuinely for people, have been gifted by God to preach, lead and sing, and have organized themselves in a way that is user-friendly. As I said above, you will not be able to get by with mediocre or poorly planned services and systems. The “best product” is simply a church that does these things well. The “best service” is those who have systems and structures that actually work.
We don’t know what is going to happen in the future with regard to the culture or the laws our country might pass. We don't know what's going to happen to the economy or job market. We also don’t know what God is going to do. We can’t plan for revivals and we can’t plan for desert wanderings. But we can pray for revivals and be prepared for the desert.
Again, in times of instability and unpredictability, we need to make things as predictable and stable as possible. We should do this with every aspect of your ministry. The areas that tend to be the most vulnerable to unpredictability are rental facilities, people, and, as a result, giving.
If you are in a rented facility - especially a public one like a school or community center - check your lease language to make sure that you can't be evicted because of your beliefs. Get a lawyer to look at the lease now and help you identify any areas of potential vulnerability. If possible, lock down your facility as long term as possible (or reasonable, depending on your situation) to create at least one constant. Try to get at least five years locked in. It is far better to have to do multiple services in a space you outgrow or add sites than to risk being homeless on short notice.
Some of you have great relationships with your landlord and are convinced they’d never evict you. Don’t rely on that relationship. Relationships change quickly when someone is under financial duress or public pressure. Often in school situations, a Principal may actually support the church’s presence but be trumped by a School Board and be forced to revoke your lease. I would recommend getting out of any public spaces if you can. Those are the most vulnerable situations and they can change quickly, as we saw just a few years ago in New York City.
This might be obvious, but if you can own your space, that is ideal. Part of the value of an 80/10/10 budget philosophy is that as churches fail in the coming years, their buildings will come available. I obviously don’t wish this upon any churches, but it's a likely outcome. You should begin a relationship with a lender now and start saving money so you can be in a position to purchase properties when they come available.
The second area in which we need to cultivate stability is our people. Specifically, we need to stabilize our leaders, influencers, and biggest givers. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I know how this sounds. But the reality is that if those people leave, your church will be at great risk. Many churches folded during the pandemic because key givers and leaders didn’t like the way their pastors handled masks or the hot racial dynamics. This left a lot of churches in a bad spot because they weren’t prepared for it.
So how do you stabilize these people? First, spend lots of time with them. You should be doing this in normal times but it is even more important to do so now. You need to build relationships that are based on trust and collaboration. They need to know how much you care about them and value their contribution to your church. Ask them questions, and get to know what they care about. When hot button topics come up, don’t avoid them, press in. Find out what they think.
Ask them what they are reading and where they get their news. Ask them what they are thinking about the church, politics, sports, social issues, all of it. You need to understand what motivates them and what they care about. You need to know how they will respond to a leadership decision before you even make the decision.
To be clear, the point of this isn’t to suck up to them and give them what they want so they don’t leave. That is terrible leadership and will kill your church faster than another pandemic. I write all of this believing that you have convictions, both theological and leadership, that will shape your decisions. You should take input from these people and collaborate with them, but they should not dictate your policy.
So if the point of this isn’t to give them what they want so they won’t leave, what is the point? Just like a good lawyer never asks a question of a witness without first knowing the answer, you should never make a leadership decision without knowing the consequences. If you decide to buy a building, who is going to give to it, and who is going to be turned off by it? If you are going to do a sermon series about race or sexuality, how will those people respond? If you feel like God is asking you to talk about gender, do it, no matter the consequences. But don’t do it and then be surprised that your biggest givers leave. Know that ahead of time.
Lastly, stabilize your ministry by freezing your budget projections year over year. I’d recommend projecting a zero growth budget for the next 3 years and banking any overages. This is admittedly conservative but it’s a way to mitigate risk. Obviously, there will be exceptions. If your church is really growing quickly and it's clear that it isn’t a fluke or the result of some cultural issue that you took the right side of, but is a genuinely solid work of God, great! Spend the right amount of money to take advantage of what God is doing. Otherwise, lean conservative.