5 Ways the Pandemic Has Accelerated Innovation in Communities of Faith

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The commentator, Andy Crouch, asked a vital question at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in a piece written primarily for the nation's religious and nonprofit leaders.

In "Leading Beyond the Blizzard" he asked whether the pandemic and its effects would prove to be an interruption that's "like a bad blizzard" or "a long winter" or a "miniature ice age?"

He, with his co-authors, concluded it would be a mini ice age.

From my vantage point leading the nation's leading search firm staffing churches and many nonprofit organizations, I think Crouch was right in his reflection on the depth and duration of the crisis. Yet, I also—already—see reasons for optimism.

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What I'm seeing is COVID-19 has created a mass disruption, accelerating positive and innovative change in communities of faith in every part of the United States. This is despite the reputation churches and other religious institutions have for being slow to change.

I've also noticed the following COVID-19 principles are equally applicable to the small businesses we interact with and serve.

1. Serving traditional consumers online is here to stay. Living life online isn't new, but virtually all those who've resisted a greater integration of their lives with online tools have now been forced to give it a try. Virtually all of them have found something worth continuing with past the pandemic.

Churches are, in fact, an excellent example of this. While large churches have long offered online experiences, small churches have been more resistant. What's utterly amazing is that small churches haven't only migrated to the internet during the pandemic, but it looks like they're there to stay.

Many of them reaching fewer than 200 people a week have reached many more as the pandemic has taken churches into living rooms filled with family members who sometimes didn't attend church in the first place. Many innovative small businesses will keep their increased new customers even as they are able to serve their old ones again.

The internet has become an additional "front door" for their services.

2. Aim for many small, but targeted, wins. Churches, schools and nonprofit organizations have opted for smaller gatherings over larger ones because of social distancing guidelines. Online services and classes are being held in home watch parties, Communion has been distributed in parking lots, and everyone seems to be on Zoom every other day.

This phenomenon isn't going away. It's not that large gatherings are dead; it's just that smaller gatherings are here to stay. I've seen businesses pivot to smaller sales, smaller customer targets and smaller than normal goals. I see it in churches too. The compounded impact of all these smaller gatherings might be more than people expect. It could be a "long tail."

3. Stop selling and start serving. Resisting a temptation to downsize immediately, many churches and companies like my own, decided to lean into serving those in need.

Many of our church clients stopped what they were doing and served their cities and the hurting. Our friends at Central Christian in Las Vegas fed armies of people. Our friends at Church of the Highlands became a certified COVID-19 testing center long before they were prevalent. Over and over, I saw churches not focus on their survival, but on helping others.

We chose to focus all of our efforts on serving ministries in need by being a resource. I told our team, "Serve, don't sell," and we launched a number of free resources for navigating COVID-19.

Then Congress decided to include churches and faith-based organizations in the CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). We became the hub for much of the thought leadership related PPP. By our count, we interacted with about 20% of all faith-based organizations that applied for government aid nationwide. While we aren't a legal or financial service company, we saw a need and chose to serve our community by helping them navigate a confusing process that could help the long-term health of their organization. We were able to serve many organizations free of charge that had never heard of us or our executive search services, and it was a rewarding experience to serve, not sell.

4. Look for help in unconventional places. In what should be a huge economic downturn for charitable contributions, most of our clients have been reporting steady (or steadier than expected) giving. Much of this is because they acted quickly.

While digital giving has been common, the pandemic resulted in near-total market penetration. One of our clients, PushPay, is arguably the leader in providing digital giving options to churches. They reported to me that of their top 25 churches alone, on average, they have experienced a 15% increase in giving this June versus June of last year.

They also reported that many of the churches they partner with are reporting that cash and check giving—which in some cases could make up 50% of all contributions—has dropped to less than 10% with the adoption of digital giving.

In our executive search work, we've seen churches trying new solutions for finding a pastor. In a time when you would think it would be impossible to hire a new pastor, churches are calling us and insisting on having us help them do a search now, even if it's all virtual.

The Moody Church, the oldest megachurch in the country, recently elected its new senior pastor via Zoom. Willow Creek, one of the largest churches in the U.S., hired their new pastor during the pandemic and introduced him to the congregation via Zoom.

Churches have realized that their business is essential. And they are realizing now more than ever that the most expensive hire they can make is hiring the wrong leader. They've been willing to try new things, and we were prepared to serve them.

5. Everything is local. Finally, churches that have focused on their local communities have thrived and will continue to thrive. Now that every pastor can be found on YouTube, smart pastors are realizing that the only unique offering they have to give is how they are focused on actually serving their local community.

They are hyper-local. This localization is akin to the trend we have seen in shopping as well. From a focus on malls to strip malls with small stores, to now locally sourced stores, people want something local. Consumers want businesses that serve them in their communities. And that local focus will help businesses become essential to their communities.

COVID-19 is a disruptor, not just an interruption. However, I'd suggest another word for COVID-19: accelerator. The virus has caused much pain, but it has also expedited positive change.

William Vanderbloemen is the CEO and founder of Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally. Follow him on Twitter @wvanderbloemen.

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