by Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson
Prior to the pandemic that left most of us sheltered in place, the retail industry was facing challenges. Traditional “brick and mortar” retailers were already struggling as they competed against virtual, online retailers such as Amazon. But COVID-19 served to expose more deeply rooted fissures in the industry, and the casualties are mounting. Prominent, high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus, John Varvatos, and J. Crew filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. After a long fight to remain solvent, the family owned sporting goods company, Modell’s, filed for protection. And that retail mainstay founded in 1902, J.C. Penney, announced imminent plans to file for bankruptcy. These are some of the first casualties amid the economic fallout of the COVID-19 imposed shutdown. More are expected as stores remain closed.
But filing for Chapter 11 protection does not necessarily mean permanent closure. Chapter 11, the reorganization chapter of the United States Bankruptcy Code, is a court-approved protected status for businesses that are unable to pay their creditors. This designation provides businesses with the opportunity to reorganize so they might emerge from protection with greater health and sustainability. While I am not suggesting bankruptcy protection for churches, it does stand to reason that many may need to consider reorganization during COVID-19 enforced closures. Like traditional retailers whose weaknesses were exploited by the pandemic, churches suffering from the impacts of decline have similarly been placed in precarious positions. So, if we might consider this time as an opportunity for reorganization, what would such changes look like? Here are a few thoughts.
First, churches must more readily embrace technology. Churches are often late adopters where technology is concerned, which explained why so many were left scrambling to offer virtual worshipping opportunities when the pandemic hit. But as churches have offered streaming services, many have noted that attendance in terms of viewership has increased. In response, many churches report that they will continue live streaming after social distancing has ended. Therefore, given this increased potential for outreach, churches must become technologically savvy. Consider new investments in high-speed internet, subscription video platforms, and audiovisual broadcast systems. These advancements can make the difference between a quality production versus an amateur one.
Churches also need to consider strategies that engage an online audience. Does your church connect and interact with viewers using technology? In the best virtual experiences, worship leaders make eye contact with the camera and address worshippers directly. Social media ministers are online to welcome worshippers, respond to their comments, and encourage greater engagement. And after the online services are complete, savvy users analyze the analytics. Pay attention to the number of people connecting. Are they actively engaged as evidenced by their chatting? Are they inviting others to watch? Are people clicking links to give to or contact the church? If not, find out why.
And speaking of giving, our churches need to help our congregations get comfortable with online giving. The cyclic nature of tithes and offerings has been a weakness in churches for years. Church leaders know that summer hiatuses, poor weather, or school vacations can wreak havoc on giving. While seasonal and periodic dips may not have moved churches to consider more automated means of giving, COVID-19 forced the issue as giving came to a halt. In response, we have had to help our members learn and become comfortable with automated money transfers and the use of cash apps. But consider the upside. As we become adept with these technologies, giving can continue seamlessly and steadily whether the congregant is in church or away.
A second reorganization strategy must consider how we will gather as a worshipping community. Small group ministry and virtual worship may continue to be the norm. As churches consider re-opening, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that gatherings be limited so that social distancing can be maintained. The CDC additionally recommends offering video streaming or drive-in options for vulnerable populations. Can you imagine hosting an outdoor worship service from your parking lot while congregants remain in their cars or offering drive-through communion? This may sound nonsensical, but given the prevalence of older congregations dominated by members who are in that over-60 vulnerable population, we need to get creative. Virtual worshipping opportunities and in-person gatherings with limited numbers of participants may be the way we must operate.
However, this need for creativity opens us to a third reorganization consideration. This is the perfect opportunity to expand ministry leadership to include new voices, especially those who are knowledgeable in technology and small group ministry. COVID closures pushed churches to engage teams in response to the need for virtual worship. Many pastors who were accustomed to independently designing the traditional worship experiences found themselves ill-equipped in this new virtual reality. Thus, the embrace of a team has been a good thing. Pastors, worship leaders, music directors, videographers, and technologists have all been needed to collaborate for this new Sunday experience. Bible study teachers leading video chats have provided a needed social outlet. Members who were otherwise faithful pew parishioners have become “Facebook Super Fans,” hosting watch parties and inspiring live chat conversations that help people create community. Given these new opportunities for engagement, why would we ever want to go back to passive participation in worship? Here is our chance to lengthen the tent cords and draw more people in.
In 1996, the Marvel Entertainment Group filed for bankruptcy as their stock plunged more than 80 percent. At the time of their filing, the company’s primary market was comic book sales: an industry that was collapsing. But taking advantage of bankruptcy protection to reorganize, Marvel banked on a strategy of making movies featuring comic book characters of whom few had heard. Their first entrant: Iron Man. Obviously, the strategy paid off. In 2019, the Marvel Cinematic Universe surpassed $5 billion dollars in worldwide earnings. Marvel used reorganization to re-envision and re-invent themselves with astonishing success. Imagine the church using this opportunity to discern and re-envision how we might live into this new time. I believe that God is doing a new thing in our midst. We need only perceive it. If we would, the church could expand beyond our current imagination to touch even more souls for the cause of Christ. And that would be a marvel, indeed.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is the Director of Operations for All Girls Allowed, a faith-based, non-profit that restores life, value, and dignity by empowering and educating women and girls and engaging outreach partners for global impact. She was previously the Director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her newly released book “Meant for Good: Fundamentals in Womanist Leadership,” is available through Judson Press.