The Leaving-Lockdown Church Utility Kit
Equip your congregation for their new worlds How did you feel when you first started planning a return to the church building? Relieved? Excited? Nervous? Chanc...
The last year and a bit has been rough, and for churches, the challenges have been huge. But there have been great opportunities too. We’ve reached so many more people as we’ve adapted and developed our digital offerings, and many churches have reported a deepened sense of commitment to whole-life mission. It’s been life-changing – in more ways than one.
Now, as we emerge from lockdown, whether you’re feeling excited or exhausted, the big question is – what next? How do we help people transition out of lockdown ready to join God’s work where they are? How do we help them heal – and inspire them afresh for good work in the world?
Remember back to 23 March 2020 – the flurry of activity (or panic!) and the flood of emotions as we reacted to an unknown, frightening pandemic. It was a time for everyone, in every sector, to respond with urgency. We all had to take immediate action to keep people safe and essential functions operating.
Now at last it feels like we’re in the early throes of the recovery phase, restarting activities and making plans to restore our lives and churches. We’ve heard the ‘new normal’ phrase a lot in the last year – and now that newness is upon us. But many prefer to use the phrase ‘our new different’, and to me that better represents the reality we face: a very different way of living that’s been suddenly thrust upon us all.
As leaders, navigating this recovery phase well is critical as we prepare the way for the renewal phase, when we’ll begin to develop and carry out new strategies, drawing on what we’ve learnt as we responded to and recovered from the pandemic.
Leading our churches into the ‘new different’ will require boldness and courage – but we can have faith in the God who guides our steps as we go. We’ll experience a myriad of emotions, from fear to excitement. Change is unknown and unfamiliar, intense and constant. It always has been – and leading people through recovery from such a massive shock makes it feel so much more intense.
However, as Hebrews 12:1-3 reminds us: ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’
As I’ve been virtually working across the country and talking to Christian leaders from a whole variety of sectors, one thing has stuck out: we’re still very much in the tough zone at the moment, and resilience is key. How do we keep going when many of us already feel at our wits’ end?
A good analogy might be how I feel between miles 17 and 19 of the London marathon – often referred to by runners as ‘hitting the wall’. I love endurance running, but at this point I’m a bit battle-worn and the intensity and energy needed to keep pace is incredibly tough. I’m carrying aches from the race so far and there are runners around me who want to stop as it’s just too much.
Yet at this point, despite the pain I’m experiencing, I also feel an enormous desire to get to that finish line and celebrate on the other side of it with all those who’ve been running with me. And because I have that wonderfully clear picture in my head of where I’m heading, I find the strength and energy to keep on going. In what can look like a solo sport, there’s a real culture of helping each other along.
That’s the model we need to emulate as we lead our churches out of lockdown. The people we lead, and we ourselves, are feeling a whole range of emotions in our current climate. Some are bored, others are tackling burnout, and some are facing more serious breakdown. Some people talk about lockdown as a period of real blessing, whilst others are desperate for something better. Some are preoccupied with the fear that the financial impact on the country will be overwhelming. And some are reeling from a deep sense that they have lost belonging in their communities.
It’s a certain type of resilient leader who can allow themselves to feel the reality of their true emotions, yet at the same time walk alongside others, leading them forward with strength and wisdom as they process their own feelings.
If that sounds like an impossible standard, don’t worry! We’re not called to be perfect or impervious to stress – but simply to lead as authentic disciples of Christ.
Another analogy: I remember clearly leading my first big change programme in a blue-chip organisation about 28 years ago. I was one of a team leading thousands of people through a mass redundancy exercise that would close a whole division. It certainly wasn’t a crisis on the scale of a global pandemic, but it was a crisis nonetheless. My wise leader at that time gave me some words of wisdom: ‘don’t feel you have to wear your pants on the outside – you’re not superwoman!’
As leaders, we need to allow ourselves to experience real emotions – we can’t just put them on pause until everyone else is taken care of. That colleague taught me the importance of allowing myself to come to terms with the crisis around me – but at the same time, to step forward as a leader and help others navigate the way, with a deep sense of authenticity.
In the same spirit, good leaders don’t impose who they are and how they’re handling stress onto others. They create a culture where every individual can be authentically themselves, within the framework of our purpose and identity in Christ. They lead each person as an individual.
So with all that in mind – what does it look like practically to lead our communities through this change, inspiring them afresh to live as disciples of Christ in every part of life?
‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. You must welcome change as a rule but not as your ruler.’
– John Quincy Adams
Everyone experiences change at a different pace and intensity – moving from uncertainty to scepticism, before exploring new ways of being. The journey from the end of what was to the beginning of what’s new is different for each person.
To help people go through that process in this recovery phase, it’s important to be clear with those we lead what the hard (tangible) changes are compared to the soft (cultural) changes. It can be really helpful with your team to consider the following:
Once you’ve identified the things that need to change, the challenge is to actually make it happen. Dr John Kotter, regarded by many as the authority on leadership and change, outlines an effective process for guiding people through change (I’ve used it over three decades and it’s never let me down!). He encourages us to:
Kotter says ‘leadership is all about the softer stuff. Vision, communication, passion, empowerment: these are the things that win the hearts first, then the minds of people. The best way to do that is to create as many miniature wins as possible. Demonstrate to people that there’s momentum and a reason to get excited about change as a positive, not a negative force.’
Finally, whatever the particular details that need to change in your church – from livestreaming services to redesigning the refreshments area – it’s essential to reaffirm the vision at the heart of your community.
As we regather, how might you give people fresh inspiration for their daily lives, particularly as we all try to work out what those lives will look like post-covid? Now, more than any other time, we have a chance to reimagine the vision for our churches – prioritising and developing a whole-life disciplemaking culture.
As part of this you may want to rededicate people for their frontlines – the places where they spend most of their lives, among people who don’t know Christ. One great way to do that is with our Frontline Sundays resource – ideas for five services that will inspire people to see how they can make a difference for Christ out in his world. It’s got everything you need, from scatter packs and service plans to insightful articles and videos to shape your thinking. You can use it to explore what frontline mission means in our post-pandemic reality – because no matter how changed our lives may be, God can still work through us where we are.
As we give ourselves fully to Christ in all our lives, may we will be filled with passionate hearts that not only re-shape the direction of our own lives, but also those whose lives we touch. God opens the doors for us to make a difference in our everyday lives, showing us how to live fruitfully and play our part in changing the world. As we are sent out, may we continually be reminded that we need to be the change we want to see.
Director of Church of England Relations