Nine Lessons from a Church Planter Emerging from the Pandemic

by Rev. Michael Baughman

Rev. Michael Baughman

Construct a generative culture: I’m convinced that church plants, despite being poorly funded and generally unstable, were better positioned to thrive in the pandemic than most congregations. Adaptive change is baked into the early DNA of any successful entrepreneurial venture—church or otherwise. Healthy church plants adapt as they learn more about their community, their mission and their own strengths. They constantly start new things and aren’t afraid to stop doing things that aren’t bearing any fruit. If your church is not consistently launching new ministries—even if they are only designed for a season—you’ll likely struggle in future years like 2020.

I didn’t just see church plants thrive in the pandemic. I also saw explosive growth in congregations who had recently navigated change or were already in the midst of transformation. My wife is the pastor of a very traditionally structured church that dates back to 1874. In the two years preceding the pandemic, they went through a massive identity shift that developed skills for navigating change, launching new ministries and letting unproductive ministries lie fallow. In 2020-2021, they grew. When they opened their doors back up for worship this past summer, worship attendance was higher than it had been in at least a decade without showing signs of decline.  

You don’t have to be a new church start to build a generative culture. You can bake change and creation into the identity of your normal church life. Try ministries for “a season” without plans for permanence. Shift leadership on a regular basis. Design to be different and then actually execute on it. Don’t restart everything you did before the pandemic just because you used to do that. There will be future crises for the church. Design for flexibility now, and you’ll be well-suited to navigate future challenges. 

Remember—there is only so much you can change about the world: The church plant I led straddles the church, social enterprise and nonprofit sectors. The pandemic posed unique challenges for each sector. We worked hard—really, really hard—to claim back every inch of what was lost to pandemic realities. After four months of tireless work from our staff and key volunteers, we were getting far less progress out of increased efforts to climb back to sales and worship numbers we had before the pandemic. Eventually we had to stop exhausting ourselves by trying to make our corner of the world as lush as it had been before the pandemic. 

I gathered staff together, celebrated all we had done to innovate in the face of the coronavirus and then told them that we cannot solve our way out of a global pandemic. There are some painful realities beyond our control. Eventually we stopped working so hard and trusted other parts of the body of God’s people to do their work developing a vaccine, instituting public health measures and treating viruses. 

Coffee shop training didn’t teach me how to develop a vaccine, but it did teach me how to caffeinate the people developing it, and nonprofit work taught me how to line up donors to send tasty drinks their way.

Seminary didn’t teach me how to treat people with COVID-19, but it did teach me how to provide pastoral care to medical professionals in our community who were designing COVID-19 tactical units and who were working the floors of overflowing hospitals. 

It seems to me that this can apply beyond the pandemic as well. We need to develop virtues of trust that rely on others to do some things and for us to do that for which we are most equipped. 

Don’t restart everything you stopped just because it might be safe to meet together again: Most of your ministry programming stopped or scaled back during the pandemic. Chances are, some of that programming should have stopped years ago. For reasons that have everything to do with momentum and nothing to do with mission, you’ve kept unfruitful ministries. Stop it. Something does not have to be eternal in order to be good. Because people’s habits have been broken for more than a year, you have the unique opportunity to press a reset button! Evaluate all of your ministries before doing them again. New church starts have limited resources so most of them are really good at ending things that aren’t returning on the investment of staff and volunteer time. When people ask about the ministries that should be abandoned, you can just blame old Aunt Corona, shrug your shoulders and walk away. 

Start new things now: Remember all of the people whose routines have been broken for over a year? As they are emerging from their holes, they all have wide open space in their calendars and are looking to re-engage with the world. This summer, we saw a lot of new faces in our new church plant and at my wife’s church. Engage them right away. If you wait too long, their routines will get established with other organizations. Chances are that they aren’t going to hyper-commit the way they used to so it’s additionally important. 

Demonstrate that you actually work for racial equity (a special note to white church leaders): People—especially younger people in America—have their bullshit detectors turned up to 11. They know that everyone put out statements following George Floyd’s brutal murder, and they don’t care. Your year-old Facebook posts give you no credit especially if you stopped showing up at rallies after Fox news-watching members of your church scolded you.  

You’ve had a year to diversify your board, learn about racial equity, change your language and do the workof translating anti-racist sentiment into practice. If you haven’t taken advantage of that year, get in line because your well-intentioned white church is going to get called out fast in the post-virus era. Your members have likely received more anti-racist training than you and your staff have because they work for corporations who know they have to do at least a little bit better. The church is behind enough, and we will be left in society’s dust. By the way, if you are behind in this regard, don’t just ask the Black people in your life to tell you what to do. Google is out there. Use it. Amazing books have been written. Read them. White people made white supremacy. We have a responsibility to dismantle it. 

Share your pandemic snack ideas: Everyone found new snacks or meal recipes that they enjoyed in the pandemic and 87% of them are embarrassing. Get your people to share their guilty pandemic treats because, in this case, vulnerability leads to intimacy with a side of tasty treats!

Start planning all of the retreats: People are longing for deeper human contact and quality time with one another. Also, everyone is exhausted from <waves hands at the world> all of the things. The church is good at sabbath. The church is good at retreat. Flex those skills and provide opportunities for your people to get away and build community. Plan retreats for local business owners. Plan retreats for nonprofit leaders. It doesn’t just have to be people from your church who benefit from the church’s wisdom on how to sabbath. Give opportunities for collective sabbath, and I think people will clamber to sign up. 

Take a LONG vacation and leave the congregation in charge: You just spent more than a year doing a job for which you were never trained. I realized at the end of June that I had led worship every week for 76 weeks straight. Chances are you did likewise because you could stream from your vacation or record a sermon. Take a break. Your congregation should be eager to support you in that. If they aren’t, then they aren’t a good congregation. Tell Jesus to yell at them. I’m happy to yell at them too. 

Replace underperforming staff and lay leadership: We are so bad at this in the church. We will keep someone on staff forever and kill our churches trying to bend to the will of a passive-aggressive administrative assistant who is more comfortable making the bulletin on Windows 95 the same way they did in 2001 when they upgraded. Good employees are smart and adaptive. Spending money on underperforming employees is poor stewardship of the gifts of our congregants and the time that God has given us. Same goes for lay leadership. If you don’t have healthy ones to choose from, find some new ones. There are a lot of people emerging form the pandemic who are looking for a hobby other than bread-baking and crochet. Maybe they’d like to lead a church.

Rev. Mike Baughman was, until recently, the founding pastor and Community Curator for Union Coffee in Dallas, Texas. He now serves as a part of the Innovation Team for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. He’s a longtime fan of and contributor to a long list of Sparkhouse resources and authored “Flipping Church: how innovative new church starts are turning conventional wisdom upside down.” He’s a fourth-generation United Methodist pastor married to a sixth-generation United Methodist pastor, but none of their four children are named Wesley. 

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