April 3, 2020 • De Pree Journal
*This post is part of De Pree Center’s Finding Our Bearings in a Crashing Economy series.
Michaela: Mark, I’ve talked with a lot of people in the last few weeks who are scared. I’ve tried to capture all that I’ve heard into some different scenarios. Though you have wisdom for many scenarios, I’m hoping you’ll speak directly to this one:
I’m a pastor. If people aren’t coming to church, they probably aren’t giving. I’m worried about my own job security and my team’s. Plus, I’ve got all these people who are dealing with layoffs and having to close their businesses. How does our faith inform this moment and my decisions?
Mark: Happy to. As one who was a parish pastor for over twenty years, I can so relate to these concerns and questions. They might well be mine if I were still pastoring a church. I remain an ordained pastor, though working now in Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership.
I remember all too well many sleepless nights worrying about the financial health of my church and trying hard to trust God with it. It was especially tough during financial downswings. No doubt we’re about to enter another major one now because of COVID-19. And this one might last for quite a while.
There are a couple of key issues being raised by this “pastor” sharing these concerns and questions. I’d like to address them individually and then add some closing comments.
Church Financial Health
First, today and in the months ahead, pastors will be understandably concerned about the financial health of their churches. Churches will be facing a “perfect storm” of threats: decreased participation (even considering virtual worship), congregants dealing with loss of income, a diseased overall economy, and lots of basic disruption in life.
It’s possible that these factors will hurt churches financially. I say “possible” because I expect some congregations will actually grow in their financial commitment to their church because of the crisis in which we find ourselves. They will realize in a new way how much their church really matters. Speaking personally as one who is not the pastor of my home church these days, last Sunday I felt deep, deep gratitude for my church as we worshiped online. I felt so grateful for the hard, faithful work of the staff and for my sisters and brothers whose images appeared on our Zoom worship experience. Though I did not attend worship in a physical way way, my love for my church grew last Sunday. This kind of love might easily translate into financial support.
However, I don’t mean to be naively optimistic about the challenges churches will be facing. Many will face financial hardships, I’m sure. So what might pastors do in preparation for this difficult season ahead?
The best advice I could possibly give isn’t particular surprising, but it’s worth giving nonetheless. Don’t go it alone! As you lead your church through uncharted territory, you need more than ever the fellowship we have through Christ. I mean fellowship with the Triune God and fellowship with the people of God. God will give you comfort, guidance, and wisdom for your leadership in these trying times. These gifts will come through your personal spiritual disciplines and through your communion (mainly virtual, these days) with your sisters and brothers in Christ. (You may want to check out parts 4 and 5 of my recent devotional series, “Leading in a Time of Crisis: The Difference God Makes.”)
In particular, as you lead in these peculiar times, do so with those who share responsibility in your church: elders, deacons, staff members, etc. Work with your fellow leaders on what your church needs in this day and in the days ahead. This might include new forms of communication, new stewardship education, new financial transparency, new technologies, new ways of praying together, new staff arrangements, and so on.
As you worry about job security for yourself and your team, a most understandable concern, I might add, be sure to take this to the Lord as often as you need to. And let others know of your concern and bring it to God on your behalf. Get lots of prayer support in this time.
Ironically, worrying about the financial health of your church might actually enable you to be a more caring and relevant pastor in today’s crazy world. This provides a good segue into the next concern of the pastor’s statement above.
Michaela: That’s helpful, Mark. I really appreciate your advice for us to not go it alone. Which is so complex and hard when we’re literally not allowed to be physically around each other. How might church leaders extend care to people in this time? What should they prioritize?
Empathic Care for Your People
The “pastor” who got this conversation rolling said, “I’ve got all these people who are dealing with layoffs and having to close their businesses.” That comment came in the context of reasonable worry about the financial health of the church. But I want to reflect a bit further on additional implications of this comment.
In this moment, as the novel coronavirus epidemic is worsening, people are mainly concerned about their own health and that of those they love. But, in the days ahead, and especially if, Lord willing, the pandemic begins to wane, our worry will turn to the global, local, and personal economy. Workers will worry about losing their jobs, if they still have them. Business owners will worry about having to lay people off. Entrepreneurs will worry about a lack of opportunities. And so on and so on.
Because of your care for your church, your staff, not to mention your own wellbeing (and that of your family), you will easily empathize with your people. You won’t even have to work at it. You will share their concerns as a leader who has “people entrusted to your care,” to quote my colleague Scott Cormode. This will make a difference in your preaching and praying, in your conversations and electronic communications. Your people will sense that you are understanding them and their reality. This will build trust and impact.
Now, as one who empathizes with your people, you will be able to help them discover the difference God makes at this time. Because you are wrestling with the same things they are, you’ll have an unusual opportunity to lead folks into the truth and love of God, the God who is present with us in this moment. I have more to say about this opportunity in the Life for Leaders devotional series, “Leading in a Time of Crisis: The Difference God Makes.”).
Michaela: Thanks, Mark. That’s helpful, grounding advice. Think about the church health but prioritize people. Empathize with their lives and concerns. It’s such a great reminder that we can take the things that worry us to the Lord as often as we need to. Even if we repeat the same thing ten times or a hundred times, God can handle our worry.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the executive director of Fuller’s De Pree Center and the primary writer of the Life for Leaders daily devotions. His most recent book is a commentary on the New Testament letter to the Ephesians (Zondervan, 2016). Mark and his wife Linda, an executive coach and spiritual director, have two adult children and one lively Golden Retriever.
You can read his bio HERE.