Our Not-So-Vacant Vacant Churches
Vacant churches within the CRC may be without a permanent pastor, but they are not without leadership, even in the midst of a pandemic. During the first two weeks of April, Pastor Church Resources reached out to so-called “vacant” churches in British Columbia, Ontario, Iowa, Michigan, and Illinois to see how some of our churches are faring without pastors during their state or provincial lock-downs.
Pastoral transitions can be an anxious time for churches in the best of circumstances. So we wondered: how will these churches cope without a pastor when something as dramatic as a pandemic strikes?
It turns out, many of these churches are coping quite well.
The churches which are coping best leaned into 4 priorities and exhibited an abundance of one particular virtue.
Priority One: Call on the Lord (Prayer) Constantly
Some congregations realized pretty quickly that they didn’t have the resources, personnel, or know-how to attempt an internet-streaming worship service. But they all realized that praying together doesn’t have to be complicated. Previously-neglected phone-based prayer lines have been revived and used more than ever to include members without access to the internet. One church sends out a weekly prayer list and asks every member to call one other person to pray through it together. Churches have been experimenting with prayer over zoom and conference calls. Prayer requests have been gathered into Facebook pages or Google docs and published in weekly Prayers of the People mailings. A couple of churches remarked that they can’t recall a time the church was so consistently praying together.
Priority Two: Communicate Incessessantly
Almost every church promptly assessed how best to communicate with their congregation. Weekly email (and often snail-mail) updates provided congregation members regular prayer reports, resources for home worship, and simple devotions as well as council and search committee updates. In many churches, the elders, deacons and others began calling through their care districts every week or two to check in with and pray for people in their communities. One of the best ways to reduce anxiety in a church is to make sure people know what is happening and know that you care.
Priority Three: Collaborate Generously
One of the most encouraging outcomes of this pandemic has been the increased collaboration among churches. Hours after British Columbia's provincial government suspended large gatherings, a CRC with a pastor reached out to another CRC in the same town without a pastor. They asked, “Would you like to collaborate on virtual worship services?” Rather than just offer the link to their church’s livestream, the CRC with a pastor invited their sister church to contribute meaningfully to planning and leading these services. Each week, leaders from both churches meet virtually to plan a worship service, and the parts of the service are split between the churches before being digitally stitched together into one combined service.
Similarly, in a town in Ontario with several CRCs, the church without a pastor happened to have the best resources to stream a worship service online. As in British Columbia, the churches now collaborate each week on one combined service, led by different members of each congregation, all using the equipment of the vacant church.
Priority Four: Care for Yourself Intentionally
While pastors are often encouraged to care for themselves by participating in peer groups, going away for retreat or taking a day of sabbath rest each week, lay leaders are not always given the same encouragement. The lay-leaders who exhibited the most creativity and engagement with the challenges coming their way also seemed to have the clearest plans for how to care for themselves and sustain their connection with God.
And over all these...put on love
The churches that seem to be coping best in this time, whether they have a pastor or not, are extending a great deal of grace to one another and to their leaders. When a crisis hits, churches often respond by rising to the challenge. But sometimes a prolonged crisis can expose old wounds and frustrations. An initial period of grace is followed by increasingly urgent questions, “Why haven’t we done this yet?” “Why aren’t we doing what that church over there is doing?” Lay leaders who receive routine encouragement and prayer support, like those leaders taking care of themselves (priority four) seem to be more creative and engaged than those who feel like they’re just responding to complaints and comparisons. When encouraged, they have been able to modify and adapt plans to fit the longer-term nature of this disruption. One of the best ways to love your lay leaders right now (and encourage their creativity) is to ask them how they are taking care of themselves and by letting them know that their spiritual and emotional health is a priority to you.
What about search committees?
It seems that search committees that are early or late in their process are proceeding as planned. Some churches already had a candidate visit in person, and have only to convene a council and congregational meeting to formalize a call. They’ve begun scheming ways to conduct these meetings and votes online. One is even preparing to host a finalist candidate for a virtual worship service! Other churches, very early in the process, realize they can still do much of their work (preparing a church profile, making contacts to potential candidates) even if they can’t meet in person yet.
However, churches who were preparing to bring a candidate in for a weekend are feeling more stuck, and have largely suspended their searches for the time being. And even those churches who have called or are about to call a pastor have informed the candidates that, given these exceptional circumstances, the candidate can have a little more time than usual to make or announce a decision to accept the call.
During this extraordinary, disruptive month, God continues working powerfully through his people. Congregations do not need a permanent pastor to make them into Christ’s body. A permanent pastor surely can help, but God has provided his Spirit to raise up all types of godly leaders for his church to serve, pray, encourage and make disciples.
As our churches now transition into the longer-term realities of this pandemic, continue to encourage and pray for your lay leaders. They will need just as much faith, creativity and wisdom in the coming months as they have required in the past few weeks.
For more resources on how your church can address the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID 19, check out crcna.org/covid19