Monday, June 21, 2021

Leave the Church and Keep my Small Group?

You are a small group leader at your local church, and everyone in your group gets along great! As friends, your group talks together, laughs together, builds memories together, prays together, learns together, and spurs one another on together. The group is solid.

Then, someone in the group announces he or she is leaving the church but really wants to stay in the small group. After all, the group has been together for quite some time now and means so much to everyone.

As the leader of the group, what should you do? Should attending separate churches ruin the friendships? Is there really any harm in allowing that person to continue in your group while joining with a new local church? Is there any harm in letting them stay in your small group, while attending a different church?

This decision can be difficult, often wrought with differing opinions, raw emotions, and even healthy and necessary grief. While the decision can be difficult, often the best decision requires a healthy and clean parting of ways freeing each party to move forward and thrive. In contrast, choosing to keep the small group intact despite a member leaving the church often proves unhealthy for everyone involved.

Here’s my advice: It’s not healthy for anyone long term.

Unhealthy for your small group.

This just gets really awkward. The group knows that he or she left the church, likely for philosophical reasons. The group as a whole still supports the church; all except one! Pursuing the vision of the church together, discussing teaching that happens during services, or adding more members to the group has become awkward.

Unhealthy for your church

Think about this in familial terms: I have a family. And I love my family. But if I decided to leave my family and join a new family, that decision comes with repercussions. When I got married, my wife and I started a new family. I’m still connected with my family of origin, but it would just be weird if I showed up every night for dinner at Momma’s house. And my wife wouldn’t appreciate that either!

I also have kids now. And it would be really weird if they ate and played at our house, but decided to sleep at a neighbor’s house every night. I’m all for them being friends with the neighbors - but their family is here, not across the street!

Truth is, a church is the people. To say you are “Leaving the church but keeping your small group” is an oxymoron. What you are actually saying is “I don’t like my big church, but I like my small church.” And what you are avoiding to say is “I don’t like the pastors or leadership of my old church, but I really like the environments for discipleship and community they have fostered. So I will benefit from the effort they have put into this community, but I won’t partner with them in any other way.”

Unhealthy for their new church

The person who is leaving your church is now (hopefully) joining with a new church. Well, that new church likely wants them to get involved in ministry and community with their new congregation. But they have old ties that they will not let go of.

I realize church engagement isn’t a competition. But a local church is a family of faith, and the whole church needs the whole church to be fully engaged with this family.

Unhealthy for the one leaving

If this person is allowed to stay in your group long term, they will not be able to fully move on. Unable to fully engage their new church community. Unable to fully invest in new relationships. Unable to move past their reasons for leaving your local church. I’m not trying to be mean when I say this, I’m just talking straight - leaving a church comes with relational repercussions. Churches are communities of people who follow Jesus together; if you decide to leave a community of faith you are also choosing to change relational dynamics with those people.

Please understand what I am not saying. I am not saying that all ties should be cut with the person leaving. It is critical for the universal church (all Christians worldwide) that we maintain Christian friendships with people outside our local church. But a church’s small group ministry is an extension of commitment to the church at large.

What should you do when someone in your small group is leaving your church?

I think it’s wise to have a transition time. The purpose of a transitional season is to leave well. Here are some ways you can help your friend transition out of the group in a healthy, mature way:

  • This person should talk through their reasons for leaving with the group. No need to be secretive; just let them be real. They should also talk things over with the pastor of the church.
  • The group should send them intentionally. Perhaps a cookout or a social, followed by praying and blessing them as they transition.
  • It might be needful to allow them to be part of your group while they make their transition. You as the group leader to can help them make that decision. But there should be a date on the calendar for their final time with your group so they will feel the freedom to move on and embrace their new church family.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

An Open Letter to Elders

 If you are in church leadership, you've been through a year. Everyone has been through a year. You are likely concerned about finances, having a hard time getting the church community reconnected, and fighting daily to maintain unity.

Let's face it: this is not an enticing season to be in church leadership. In the years to come, none of you will be able to boast about how you lead the church through a big building project. Or a massive mission’s endeavor. Or an exciting church-planting season. Or a Spirit-led attendance boom. Your tenure as an elder will not be something to write home about. Nobody will walk up to you in the lobby ten years from now and ask "What was it like leading this church back in the early 2020s?!"

The twelve months will not be ‘building-back’ months. Instead, you are entering a period of stabilizing. Your role during this next year, and possibly the next two or three years, will be to keep the ship afloat. You will deal with crisis; you will deal with heartache and instability; you will deal with disunity and fragmentation. You will be the overlooked men and women who lead the church through a once-in-century global catastrophe. Few will notice. Fewer will thank you.

But here's the encouraging part: Our Heavenly Father knew exactly who He needed to bring stability during this insane season. YOU. You are the person for the job.

Bring stability. Create unity. Model patience.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Hidden Opportunities for the Post-COVID Church

COVID has proved to be super disruptive for churches. But most pastors I’ve spoken with have found it less disruptive than anticipated. Groups continue to meet. Funds are still coming in. People are still engaged. The mission is moving forward.

The last year has resulted in lots of heartache and controversy for church leaders. But it has also resulted in opportunity. I see five hidden opportunities the most of our churches can benefit from if they seize the moment:

#1: Remote engagement has been normalized. 

Before COVID, if a family was sick or went on vacation, they went a week disengaged from their church. Not anymore. Every week since COVID hit, we see families engage remotely when they aren’t able to be in-person. Their kids are video-chatting with our KidStep director, teens are zooming with their small group, Mom and Dad are connecting with their church on social media, and the whole family is watching the online service. And all this feels totally normal. We have to hold on to remote engagement in the new normal!

#2: Offering plates are taboo. 

A year ago I was in panic mode. I assumed that asking every donor to immediately pivot to online giving would crash our budget. Boy was I wrong. Twelve months later, offering plates are taboo; nobody wants to touch those things! Plus, online giving is guest-friendly, allows us to better track funds, and makes giving far more consistent. I hope we never bring the plates back.

#3: Building-centric thinking doesn’t work anymore. 

We’ve all said it a million times: “The church is a people, not a building.” But then our environments and initiatives said the opposite. I'm not suggesting that using a church facility for ministry is a bad thing. Buildings are an incredible resource! But the church must go beyond the walls of their building to fulfill the mission. That’s become easier than ever now.

#4: Missional thinking trumps “invite people to church” thinking. 

In 2019, it was easy to equate evangelism with inviting people to church. The major hurdle, though, is that unchurched people can feel pretty uncomfortable in a worship service. But a positive shift happened in 2020. When we couldn’t invite people to the building, we started inviting people into our backyards! And Christians everywhere flocked to the community, served in food banks, sewed masks for neighbors, chalked Bible verses on their driveway, and so forth. This is a trend that we need to encourage.

#5: Outdated practices will die easy. 

Every church leader knows that it’s way easier to start a new program or practice than it is to kill an outdated one. But COVID forced us to cancel stuff, change stuff, and try new stuff. I predict that irrelevant programs will have a hard time getting back off the ground. I predict that traditional relics, like printed bulletins, have seen their end. If you’ve ever thought “I wish we could just stop offering that” or “I’ve always wanted to try this,” now is your chance.

I’m not trying to make light of the hardship our world has faced in this pandemic; the cons have outweighed the pros. But our churches will be stronger if we adapt and innovate coming out of this season. Let's embrace the hidden opportunities in front of us!

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Biggest Lesson I've Learned about Leading a Church during COVID

As we surpass one year of COVID mitigation in the United States, there are many lessons I’ve learned about leadership. But this is the biggest one by far:
Communication is key.

Early on, my team and I were decision-making machines. The smallest things had to be planned and nuanced. Everything had to be done differently. We had to learn new ways of doing every basic little thing. I’m so grateful for my coworkers and our Communication Team.

Looking back, I don’t regret any of the decisions we made. But I do wish I had communicated better. I defaulted to only communicating what we were doing instead of what we were thinking. I've learned at this point that people want to know your process, the options that are being debated, and their questions answered; in other words, they want to know what their leaders are thinking. Publicly sharing what you’re thinking about is risky - you could end up eating your words. But not sharing what you’re thinking is more risky.

When you only share what you're doing, and not what you’re thinking, people assume. They assume you are doing nothing. They assume you are making changes they won’t like. They assume you are living in fear. They assume you are caving to left-wing agendas. They assume all kinds of things!

But when you share what you are thinking about - those brainstorming and problem-solving sessions that happen behind closed doors - it establishes trust. When you explain your process for making decisions, listeners become less defensive. When you explain the reasons for not doing it one way, and the reasons you are doing it another way, listeners are more understanding. When you invite people into your space, that space that exists between a rock and a hard place, listeners empathize with you. Most importantly, you create buy-in. Listeners begin to think “I don’t know where that guy’s going, but he sounds like the kind of guy I want to go with. I think I can trust him.”

Here’s what our team has started doing. First, we created a regular rhythm of communication. Every week on social media or other platforms we share updates. Second, we answer the questions that we know or anticipate people are asking. Third, we cast vision for new things we want to try and why we want to try them.

Don’t make the mistake of silence. Before you know what’s next, communicate where your team is leaning. Err on the side of over-communicating. You may feel like you are repeating yourself, but your congregation will need to be briefed more than once. And don’t merely communicate the plan; communicate how you are planning the plan.