communications

5 Fears About Reopening that Church Staff Aren’t Telling Their Leaders

This has been a strange season to be working in the local church. 

Just a few months ago, we all made the pivot to entirely digital and that felt like the biggest change in our history of leading in the local church. At that point, we thought it would only be a few weeks that we would need to be in lockdown. Now we find ourselves facing what seems to be an even more complex season of ministry. 

This transition to whatever the next normal looks like is going to be incredibly difficult to navigate. This will likely include some mixed variety of digital services, small group meetings, and some version of large group meetings in our auditoriums. 

I love church leaders. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can be more effective and what we can do to reach more people around us. 

Over the last few months, I’ve spent quite a bit of time listening to and chatting with church leaders from across the country. While none of the fears that I write about here have been explicitly expressed by the individual leaders that I spoke with, they do resonate with the conversations that I’ve been having. My challenge to senior leaders today is to find time in the coming weeks to listen carefully to what your leaders are saying and even more carefully to what they’re not saying.

These fears represent some real pain points that our staff are going through in this season as we face what comes next in our churches. So, here are five fears about reopening that your staff may be feeling but aren’t talking to you about. 

I don’t like crowds anymore. 

This past weekend I was at an Ikea. It was kind of a fun experience lining up outside in a winding queue like I was waiting for my favorite Walt Disney World ride. It was interesting looking at the different types of masks people were wearing. But something hit me when I actually stepped foot inside the Ikea.

This wave of unexpected fear came over me as I stood in the silverware section with maybe 35 to 40 other people milling around me. I didn’t realize that months of being socially isolated had actually made me fearful in crowds. There is no doubt that some staff on your team are worried about coming back, and while we’re cheering that our churches are reopening and are looking forward to 30%, 40%, or maybe even 50% of our community returning to our buildings, there are some staff that will find this to be a fearful or overwhelming experience.

Giving our staff an opportunity to distance themselves from our community as they arrive will be an important part of our reopening plan. Even those affectionate folks among us who used to high five and hug everybody who came through the front door may find themselves with increasing amounts of stress when it comes to growing audience sizes in the coming weeks. 

I’m done with church online. 

A few weeks ago, I was enjoying a peaceful Sunday morning engaging with our church online while making some pancakes with fresh blueberries. When I came back to the screen to watch what was going on, a deep heaviness suddenly fell over me.

We’ve been celebrating this amazing season of digital ministry, but that’s mostly because we haven’t had any alternative. As senior leaders, we’ve been telling our people that this represents the future. We’ve been communicating how important it is for us to shift all of our ministries to digital and online in order to continue to connect with our people. However, I suspect that many of our staff are just done with church online. 

We’re starting to see that this is the case in the broader church, as attendance is dropping and engagement is decreasing. Many of our staff are probably fearful of actually telling us that they are also tired of it, despite the fact that their perspective might actually help us fix the issue.

Let’s create space to address the ways that church online isn’t meeting our needs and what we need to do to change that. If we could talk honestly about what is inadequate about the church online experience now that we’ve all been in it for weeks, we might actually be able push to a deeper level of innovation. 

What is it about church online that is so dissatisfactory? How do we change those things for the future waves of this pandemic and also for people who may never enter the doors of our church but are connecting online?

I work in kids’ ministry. We’re opening without my area. What does that mean?

One of the saddest things I’ve seen in this reopening process is that some churches across the country are planning to open without any form of kids’ ministry. 

The not so subtle message you’re sending to your kids’ ministry team is what they have suspected all along: kids’ ministry is nothing more than babysitting so that adults can sit freely in the main room. 

Over the years, we’ve used language that has caused our kids’ ministry people to be suspicious of whether we might think that kids’ ministry is second best to what’s happening in the adult world. If your church is looking at opening without kids’ ministry, you are making a grievous strategic error. 

Kids’ ministry has always cultivated some of the most innovative leaders in the church. Kids’ ministry is a growth engine and is one of the major reasons why growing churches are growing. To reopen a church without kids’ ministry, I would contest, is not actually reopening the church. If you cannot open kids’ ministry, do not reopen your adult ministry. There are many strategic reasons to consider here but think about the damage you’ll be doing to your staff and leaders, not to mention your wider church, if you don’t include kids’ ministry as an important part of your whole. 

I’m tired. (Like, really tired.)

I’ll say it again, this has been a very strange season for people who work in the local church. There’s a meme that’s been floating around that says, “How is it that we’re not doing any public meetings or anything at the church building, but our staff are busier than ever before?” That’s very true. I would suspect that in your church, many people haven’t taken any vacation time during these last three months because there hasn’t been anywhere to go or anything to do. On top of that, people have been wondering about the future of their jobs. So the thought of taking time off right now has not made sense.

The problem is we’re heading into a reopening phase that will be more demanding than the phase we just went through. The complexity of ministry is only going to increase in the coming weeks and months, let alone if we find ourselves with a substantial second wave of coronavirus that forces us back into a lockdown scenario.

Your team is tired.

I would strongly recommend that you think through what you’re going to do with vacation time in the coming weeks and months. People need to push back, unplug, and not worry about the live feed or what’s happening in the chat room. One more week to rest, to sleep in, to find some sense of new normal. I understand that this can be difficult in this season, but if we don’t give our people an opportunity to take time off, it will only impact our ministries and our team’s ability to stay healthy in the long run.

I feel a little lost. 

This has been a destabilizing season; there’s no doubt about that. There are people on your team today who are not really sure what’s next. The path is unclear. Ministry during normal seasons is already a bit destabilizing and uncomfortable because we’re constantly dealing with people who have real issues and our job is to help them take steps closer to Jesus. The wins are sometimes not entirely evident and the rewards can feel few on a week in week out basis. Our job in this season is to clarify the roles that people need to be filling and the work that we’re asking them to do.

In this season, it’s up to you and me as leaders to give clear direction, even if that means brand new job descriptions and weekly, monthly, and/or quarterly key performance indicators that our teams can push towards. Team members may feel strange raising their hand to say that they feel lost because they might fear that will reflect poorly on their ability to cope in this season. Take time now to get back to the basics around defining the win and clarifying the next steps for your team.

In times of great adversity, the church shines. 

There’s no doubt that these weeks and months have been filled with all kinds of adversity. We need to work carefully and closely with our teams to help them weather this season and to pivot well into what’s coming next. There are some resources below to help you with the conversations that you’re going to have in the coming weeks as you flesh out where your people are at and work through your reopening plan:

11 Comments

  1. Well there are different regulations for different localities, so it is not because children’s ministry is not valued that we are not having that this Father’s day. Due to provincial health stipulations there is no children’s ministry being allowed, and this is so that children if they are present remain under the watchful care of their parent or guardian. I think it is reasonable to assume that in most cases children to child worker ratio in children’s ministry will not be sufficient to keep children social distancing from one another. Until restrictions ease more that is just a reality of the risk trying to be mitigated by precautions.

      1. “Not sure it’s church if there aren’t kids there.”
        This statement seems out of place to me in the context of the comment. I’ve not heard or read anyone advocating that children be kept from church, only that age-specific classes not yet restart.
        Perhaps I am misunderstanding what you meant here, but it sounded like a side-eyed “Congregations that don’t provide kid-specific ministry aren’t really churches.” I did look back at your original post, but didn’t find anything to refute that interpretation. If I’m missing something, I would welcome help seeing it. I wish I could hear your voice, as it might convey thoughtfulness and respect that are harder to communicate in text form.

        Years ago, I took on the role of leading children’s ministries in a congregation that had developed a “strong” children’s ministry — lots of good teaching and significant relationships happening for kids, but unfortunately also separated kids from teens and adults for the whole of Sunday morning. In the process, kids were often out of sight, out of mind. As a leader of children, and as one leading children’s leaders, I found that beginning to incorporate children into the rest of the congregation did far more to convey the value of children and their place in the body of Christ than we had communicated by removing them all the time. We also found that the kids more easily integrated into the youth group as they aged in, and into church with other adults as they aged into that. There is value in ministry especially designed for children, and there is value in having the whole body together.

        Rather than “reopening without kids’ ministry isn’t actually reopening church,” perhaps a reasonable place to start would be at what seems to be a place of agreement — kids are important in the kingdom of God! That point of agreement doesn’t make everything else align, but it helps us plant our feet in respect and unity before launching quickly into disagreement.

        One of the most helpful perspectives I’ve heard recently —
        Whatever the mix of reasons for not ministering in all the usual ways these days, we have a choice in how we look at it, how we talk about it, and how we think about it. We can focus on the limitations (sanctuary capacity is effectively reduced, we don’t have age-specific ministries for kids, it’s a lot of work to set up for worship outside, our people are nervous about singing as infection vector, we have disagreements about best way forward) or we can focus on the opportunities (opportunity to launch another service, opportunity to disciple families together and help parents shape their kids in faith, opportunity to invite people who are more comfortable outside, opportunity to explore and incorporate more visual arts and other new means of worship, opportunity to develop unity in the midst of diversity, opportunity to disciple both individuals and the community together, opportunity to practice discernment). Whichever perspective I choose to take, the challenges will still be there. The difference is that, when I focus on limitations, my tendency is to fight against the limits and against those setting them (government, pastor, governing board, etc.), while when I focus on opportunities, I am more likely to take a creative approach with a positive attitude — that is, actually improving the situation and doing so in partnership with others.

  2. Can’t there be church without having a children’s ministry? Was there a children’s ministry in the churches of Galatia or the church in Thessalonica?

    It seems to me that if children are present at church with their parents or guardian, that’s church, even if they aren’t in an official class for Sunday School.

    1. Mark!

      Glad to see that you’re thinking through how to serve kids.

      Yes, families in the first century travelled together more. So indeed, there would have been kids in those house churches. 😉

      – Rich

  3. We didn’t have separate kids’ ministry before COVID. We worship as an intergenerational church–everyone together in one room. So, whenever we do reopen–much won’t change for our parents–they will continue to bring their kids with them to worship, as before. It works for us and I guess puts us ahead of the curve when we gather again!

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.