Tips for Small Church Pastors During the Pandemic (Based on EFC Research)

27 March 2020
My family is still figuring out the challenges of self-isolation. I live in Ottawa where I am sharing a makeshift workspace with my husband, trying to schedule meetings during naptime and contribute to an EFC study on small churches. My husband is learning what it means to be a faithful pastor as he preaches to an empty room via livestream while I try to keep the kids quiet upstairs. And somehow, during all the chaos, my one-year-old started to walk.
The joy could not be contained to our household and called for sending videos and pictures to family and friends to celebrate the milestone. The long-distance grandparents received a video through Facebook Messenger because my toddler’s unpredictable walking patterns make it hard to catch on a weekly live chat. Great grandma got pictures in an email because she’s not on social media. And my younger brother and sister still living at home caught it live over FaceTime after homeschooling.
Our message was the same to everyone, but our method of sharing depended on how certain family members would best receive it.
I am convinced that in the same way, the dispersed family of God can continue to effectively do ministry as the family gathered, but the method of doing so will depend on the family’s needs.
It starts with understanding the strengths of each congregation and having an intimate knowledge of the people within it. This is especially important in smaller churches. We were deep into an EFC research project on small churches in Canada when, like many of you, the pandemic stalled our progress. However, some of our preliminary findings are relevant to small churches as they figure out their paths forward in the current situation.
Resources on small church ministry emphasize that pastoring a small church is an entirely different experience than a large church, and pastors can’t expect the same strategies to translate. Congregations in small churches are more involved in implementing ministry initiatives, laypeople occupy leadership positions, decision-making is consensus-based, and ministry is organic and relational.
Small church pastors are navigating delicate territory in a COVID-19 world. Decentralized gatherings, like online worship services, mean losing the relational lifeblood of small church ministry. Moreover, small churches sometimes don’t have the technological resources to set up a quality livestream. Now that communication has become largely electronic, and small church pastors are increasingly needed to make executive decisions on behalf of their congregations, the potential for frustration and misunderstanding are real.
How can pastors find new ways to nurture the relational nature of their ministry, but also lead their congregations through these swift, chaotic changes? Here are three suggestions for pastors that come from our research on the small church:

Play to your strengths

The Gallup leadership analytics firm StrengthsFinder holds to the following leadership motto: Improvement isn’t where you’re weakest, but rather where you’re strongest. Your church’s strengths probably have something to do with close, family-like relationships.
One of the privileges and opportunities of being a small church pastor is knowing the people in the pews by name. You likely know what their living situation is, what their needs are, and who is there, if anyone, to support them.
Don’t be intimidated by the barrage of livestream links other churches are posting. They have production-level capabilities built into the structure of their church. Small church experts agree that relationships are built into the structure of yours. Access to other churches has always been available to your congregants, but those pastors don’t know your people.
Your knowledge of your congregation is crucial to ensuring appropriate care for those congregants, especially older members, who may not have the interest or capability to go digital. Church-related events would have been the highlight of their week, perhaps their only semblance of a social life. Lovingly caring for these members will take creativity and close pastoral attention to address the dual anxieties that come with forced isolation and a virus that puts them at increased health risk.
You have something to offer your people: a gospel reminder, a pharmacy pick-up, a phone-call prayer, maybe even arranging a WiFi-hotspot from the front yard or a book-exchange. But don’t underestimate what your congregation can offer to you and to one another. You don’t have to bear this burden alone.

Mobilize your people

Small churches have resilient and enthusiastic congregations. A study on urban churches revealed that most of the active volunteers grew up in small rural churches where participation was a built-in assumption to the survival of the church. So, help the people in your pews to do the work of ministry.
Remember those influential members that you need on your side to get anything done? Mobilize their influence to check-in on a portion of your congregants for prayer or practical help. An old-fashioned phone tree can mean a lot more than a mass email. It’s not practical for a large church, but it’s feasible and effective for small churches where relationships are essential to effective ministry.
Those teenagers you don’t always know what to do with? Ask them to help set up a private social media page open only to church members. Or, have them film a tutorial for older congregants to navigate new technology. My mom can send emails and watch videos of her grandkids, but I still have to walk her through some more complex technological tasks, like taking a screenshot. Not everyone finds it intuitive to join a Zoom call or set up WhatsApp for the first time.
The stay at home mom? She knows how to productively fill a day in the home. That homeschooling family probably has some tips for structuring school time. The young couple who always seems to have the latest gadgets might have some old phones, tablets or laptops for those households that are only equipped with a shared computer or those who relied on the library to check their email.
The opportunities are endless. And these suggestions aren’t limited to your congregation but can be missional opportunities for gospel witness to the community.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Our research suggests that most pastors in small churches function as generalists, which means they do a lot more than pastoral care. They are janitors, groundskeepers, receptionists, accountants and on-call chaplains. Don’t overextend yourself by adding sound engineer and video producer to the list. Your personal wellbeing is as important to the flourishing of the church as the congregation’s.
Rather than worrying about conducting the entire service on your own, consider what parts are absolutely essential, and consider ways you can include members to contribute to the service. Most people’s phones and computers are perfectly capable of producing decent sound and visual quality. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be personal.
Doug Estes, who wrote SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World advises, “Don’t worry about the technology right now … focus on building connections between people. Focus on making sure people can respond to worship and respond to each other.”
Everyone is scrambling to figure out what is best for their church, and there is no one way to do it – it might even mean not going virtual. What you choose is probably most relevant and appropriate for your church family. What you choose might also be most relevant and appropriate for you, too. The bare minimum of your calling as a pastor is to preach the gospel in season and out of season. You are particularly equipped and entrusted to care for your congregation in this season. Rest in knowing that is enough.

Author: Lindsay Callaway

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