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I n March of 2020, almost every church leader was faced with a very difficult reality. Most of us in the U.S. were looking at a mandatory two-week lockdown. For many churches, this would be the first time in their history that they wouldn’t be holding in-person worship on multiple Sunday mornings. Many pastors asked themselves, “Can my church survive this financially?” Little did many of us know, this would be a lot longer than two weeks.

Technical challenges versus adaptive challenges

Two types of challenges emerged as leaders navigated the financial impact of the pandemic. Technical challenges emerged. A technical challenge is a problem that we know how to solve, or, at the very least, someone out there has a process to solve it. For many churches during the pandemic’s early days, it was figuring out how to create methods for electronic giving so that their members could support the ministry and mission of the church even as in-person gatherings were on hold. My denomination, the Reformed Church in America, quickly formed a partnership with Tithe.ly to provide resources for our local churches to get up and running with online giving if they didn’t already have that structure in place. A technical challenge is a problem that arises which has a known fix.  

It wasn’t only technical challenges that emerged though. Adaptive challenges arose during the pandemic as well. Perhaps that’s not totally accurate. Adaptive challenges that had been brewing for years were revealed by the changes brought on by the pandemic. The Lake Institute on Faith and Giving defines adaptive challenges this way: challenges for which there are no easy answers, requiring that people change their minds, hearts, and practices.

It made sense that people would support their churches for a few weeks. But as the pandemic became a marathon, a mindshift was necessary if members were to continue to support the church. Let me tell you about what is being exposed in this shift.

The emerging paradigm: answering what, how, and why?

There has been a subtle paradigm shift in the church when it comes to why people give. I could go into lots of detail about the different elements of the shift, but I’m going to focus on just one element. In the old paradigm, most people gave out of a sense of moral obligation. The typical church member gave because of a deeply held belief that “God says that I should give, so I will.” The emerging paradigm is that donors do not feel an obligation to give; instead, they require a compelling reason to give. I will add that we are not talking about “old people” versus “young people.” People who fall into either paradigm have an intergenerational makeup. But more donors are now falling into the emerging paradigm rather than the traditional paradigm. Here’s what has been exposed about this paradigm shift during the pandemic.

If a church hadn’t articulated what its mission, vision, and values were, it became harder to make a compelling case for people to give money to the institution. No longer could we assume that churches existed for Sunday mornings and that her faithful members would show up and give out of a sense of obligation. Most churches still have a significant number of their membership who have not returned to in-person gatherings. Churches who don’t have a clear sense of mission will have a hard time motivating donors to continue to give as the pandemic stretches on.

After we name our mission, vision, and values, the next important step is how we implement them. Are we completely reliant on an in-person Sunday morning experience, or is our ministry capable of living into our mission in other ways? Donors in the emerging paradigm will want to see how the church can fulfill its mission no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Finally, at the root of all of this is the question that wasn’t always asked under the traditional paradigm. Why? Why should I give? Why is this worthy of my gift? Is it making an impact? Does the work inspire me? Does the vision align with my hope, passion, and energy for the restoration of the world? More donors fit within the emerging paradigm, which means that they don’t feel an obligation to give to church, and they will need a compelling reason why they should give.

Crisis or opportunity

As you probably already know, the financial challenges for churches in the coming years won’t simply be shifting the way in which people give their gifts, but it will be the deep change in articulating why they should give. There are no easy solutions when it comes to adaptive change. This is new territory for all of us, and the old solutions often won’t work anymore. It can feel very defeating to add this to the list of acute problems that need to be addressed immediately. 

I say the following with hesitation and gentleness, knowing that I’m likely addressing a stressed and exhausted audience of clergy and church leaders. The adaptive challenges related to giving is an opportunity for churches to get crystal clear on why they exist. Nothing motivates us to move quite as quickly as financial need, and we’re learning that giving is intimately related to a clear and compelling sense of mission. If the leaders of the church are able to get clear about what they exist for, how they are living into that call, and why people should partner with them, then they just might have a shot at flourishing. It’s okay if you don’t have the answers to the what, how, and why questions yet. That’s why this is an adaptive challenge. 

This isn’t a manual on how to lead through adaptive change. I simply want to name that giving to the church is being influenced by adaptive challenges, and it will be even more so in the years to come. If you’re looking for resources about how to identify and navigate adaptive challenges, the Leader’s Journey resource page is a good place to start.

Billy Norden

Billy Norden serves as retirement and financial education coordinator for the Reformed Church in America’s Board of Benefits Services. He and his wife, Mara, are co-pastors of The Community, an RCA ministry in Ada, Michigan.