Animals and humans when facing critical danger must decide whether flight or fight would be the best response. However, sometimes they get paralyzed in the moments of decision and they lose the opportunity to make a choice. Like the proverbial “deer in the headlights,” they freeze.
Church board leaders can react similarly in the midst of crisis. They get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges and experience a kind of “brain and heart freeze.” As a result, they do not know how to guide their boards and instead do nothing, hoping that the crisis will pass and things will return to normal. As the pandemic generated by COVID-19 persists and in some cases worsens, church leaders have some tough decisions to make. A few months ago the consensus seemed to be that in two or three months congregational life could begin to return to normal. Almost six months have passed and there is no sign that the old ‘normal’ is returning any time soon.
So what is a church board chair to do when the current crisis shows no signs of abating and the initial band-aid responses to maintain some sense of congregational life are wearing thin? It is now July and in North America and Europe September normally marks the launch of a new, annual cycle of ministry marked by a few new features being initiated with fresh enthusiasm. However, such will not be the case in Fall 2020 it seems. So does a church board continue with the strategy of limping along until we get a vaccine and we can snap back to doing things as before? OR is it time to act more strategically? Finances probably are below budget needs, the church facilities stand essentially idle, staff wonder what their futures will be, and the glue that traditionally holds a congregation together is evaporating. Doing nothing is not an option it appears.
There is no single response to addressing these issues. I will offer several process ideas that might be useful to help a church board chair help a board discern a way forward.
- If you have not already done so, book an hour of your lead pastor’s time and have a frank conversation about this question: If the current situation lasts for another twelve months, what changes to our current vision and strategy have to occur in order to advance our mission? In order to have a serious discussion there should be agreement that in this discussion everything is on the table — programs, facilities, staff positions, finances, etc. Further, it should be the mission and the values of the congregation that form the essential framework within which to develop some ideas. Finally, what information and data must the board have in order to make informed decisions? A basic assumption would be that the church will act legally in all matters.
- You should have a conversation with the church treasurer and chair of the board finance committee to discern how much ‘runway’ is left before a financial crisis is added to the COVID-19 crisis? You are trying to determine how much time the board has in which to decide a path forward before financial realities force the board’s hand. Is it a few weeks, a month or two, or perhaps several months? How much longer can the church support the current employee structure? When the next series of changes have to occur, what will the church leadership look like and how will this affect the congregation?
- In the classic Carver model of Governance, the executive leadership would bring plans for change to the board for their review and approval. And this might be the best process for your board to follow, i.e., task the executive leadership to bring forward their best ideas regarding a re-vised vision for the next twelve months, assuming the COVID-19 crisis continues for that period. Since time is of the essence, require a response within four weeks. If your church board governance model is different, then probably the board will have to engage this task directly.
- Plan for a joint meeting of the board and key staff members in four weeks to review the report and decide on next steps. You might find it helpful to invite a denominational leader to sit with this group and provide external input and perspective. You may discover that your key goals for the year can remain as they are, but how the leadership achieves them has to change drastically. Or perhaps some key goals have to be dropped and others adopted. If congregational approval is needed for changes, make sure you have the ability to hold a virtual congregational meeting in order to receive speedy and necessary authorization for such changes.
You might find that the stress of the current situation is affecting the ability of your lead pastor to cope with responsibilities. Resignation may even be in the air. I would suggest that the board needs to do all that it can to support the current leadership because it will be very difficult to function in this crisis without an experienced lead pastor. The longer the pandemic crisis lasts, the greater the risk becomes to the congregation’s ability to continue.
Christ’s church has endured many crises over the century and the Spirit has tutored the leaders so that they discern new ways of being the people of God. I am confident the Spirit is active in providing such wisdom and church boards need to be discerning the Spirit’s direction actively and prayerfully.