What Now, Church? Implications of the Covid-19 Pandemic
by Edward Reifsnyder | 22 July 2020 |
The following is a quote from Wall Street Journal columnists on July 19, 2020.
“Business executives who were bracing for a monthslong disruption due to the coronavirus are now thinking in terms of years. Their job has changed from riding it out to reinventing roles and strategies.” (Chip Cutter and Doug Cameron)
I sense that for the most part, the entire Seventh-day Adventist Church is in the “riding it out” mode. We are not prone to “reinventing roles and strategies.”
The churches all around my location are chomping at the bit to reopen. They are positively antsy. They are feeling very done with “riding it out.” So they open, in some cases experiencing hostility about the wearing of masks, apparently an intrusion of political persuasions.
Further, other than some belt tightening at the General Conference (which I applaud, the first time I have felt that way about the GC in a very long time), I have heard no conversation regarding the NAD, the unions, or conferences about “reinventing roles and strategies.” Are they too “riding it out?” Hoping for the best?
Should we instead be “thinking in terms of years?” Should we be getting into “reinventing roles and strategies?”
I have two suggestions.
First, churches need to be in the business of reinventing. Numerous people have commented to me that they are being much more consumeristic about church. They are gravitating to specific programming on the Internet that speaks to them best. They are acting like consumers looking for the best product for their needs and preferences. And they are finding that Sabbath rest and going to church are not synonymous.
I admit. I’m one of them. I sometimes watch the live feed from my church, but often I don’t. I am finding blessings by consuming Saltworks by The One Project, and the AT (Adventist Today) Sabbath Seminar. I am always blessed by Randy Roberts’ or Kevin Wells’ sermons.
I find that I am no hurry to get back to church. Sabbath is actually a more restful day—if that is the object.
So how will churches respond to this growing phenomenon among us? Will the church “product” evolve? Will new strategies emerge? Will we innovate to find ways to consume religious programming in different ways while at the same time finding innovative ways of fulfilling the social interaction that is the big attraction for many? Or will we just ride it out and maybe some year in the future, return to “normal” in which people go back where they belong, you know, their local boxes?
Just remember this. Our last big pandemic was in 1918-1919. 100 years ago. Influenza. It killed 40-50 million people worldwide (estimated). Do we have a vaccine for influenza 100 years later? Sort of. The pharmaceutical companies throw darts to estimate which strain of the influenza virus is likely to arise next year and then develop a vaccine based on their guess. In bad years, the vaccine may be 20% effective and in good years 60% effective, according to the CDC. Is that how it will be with a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus? After another 100 years? Frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that the influenza of 1918 mutated (or “evolved,” just to throw in a hand grenade) in a favorable way, we might still be in that pandemic. Maybe we will get lucky and the coronavirus will mutate favorably. Maybe.
So, let’s be thinking about innovation.
Second, intuition whispers that money is going to be a problem for some time. This is the time for the Church to be actively focused on restructuring to take cost out of the bureaucracy.
I am fearful that the likely course of action is for local conferences to tighten their belts, including the termination of pastors. In other words, I’m fearful that the place where mission actually occurs is the place we will by default reduce overhead expenses. Very little real mission activity occurs beyond the local church. So everything else is overhead.
We need to drastically shrink overhead. It is past time. Way past time.
Do you know that the NAD five years ago estimated that restructuring could lead to cost savings of as much as $140,000,000 per year in the NAD? The amount of savings would depend on the nature of the restructuring.
Would you rather support the existing, redundant bureaucratic structure to the tune of $140 million? Or use the money to hire 1,400 more pastors in the NAD? Or use the money to innovate in other ways?
But nothing has happened. No one has taken any initiative. Perhaps the exigencies of the current situation will finally move us, but I’m not optimistic. We members in the pew will probably have to insist on it in some draconian way.
But then, we members in the pew are sometimes the problem. We get in these things called Constituency Meetings and don’t always do the prudent thing. Are you willing to vote your conference out of existence and participate in something called a “union of churches,” where all our churches are just part of a union conference? Are you willing to vote to merge your conference with the one next door? Are you willing to be part of the solution and not part of the problem?
Another source from the business world further informs us.
The consulting company McKinsey and Company is researching the market and reporting that companies and institutions are using the pandemic as a stimulus to innovate and go farther than they would in normal times. A sample:
“I keep pushing myself and our team to think about how we use this inflection point to reimagine our potential together, as opposed to allowing our organization to just go back to the comfort of ‘Let’s do what we’re doing,’” said Michael Fisher, CEO, Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center Hospital. It appears to be working.
“Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, for example, scheduled 2,000 telehealth visits in 2019. It is now handling 5,000 a week—a goal that, prior to the pandemic, it had estimated would be accomplished several years from now and only after a large-scale transformation.”
“During the pandemic, many organizations have accomplished what had previously been thought impossible.” (McKinsey Quarterly, July 21, 2020)
I am pondering the statement quoted above: “I keep pushing myself and our team to think about how we use this inflection point to reimagine our potential together…”
Is this approach impossible within our ranks? Do we have the vision? Do we have the skills? Do we have the will? Do we have the courage? Or will we just ride it out? What’s your guess?
Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant. He and his wife, Janelle, live in Fort Collins, Colorado.