What Role Do Church Capital Campaigns Play in Post-COVID-19 America?

One of the most exciting parts of the topsy-turvy year we have had so far in 2020 is that churches have had an opportunity to step back and evaluate. Not unlike our personal lives when an unexpected challenge hits, we have had a “time-out” forced upon us. Usually those breaks are the times of the […]

One of the most exciting parts of the topsy-turvy year we have had so far in 2020 is that churches have had an opportunity to step back and evaluate.

Not unlike our personal lives when an unexpected challenge hits, we have had a “time-out” forced upon us. Usually those breaks are the times of the most growth and insight.

We have a unique opportunity to ask some very important questions about our future as the church—both corporately as the body of Christ in America, as well as individual congregations:

• How are we poised to reach people in a post-pandemic America?
• How effective were our mobilization efforts when more opportunities were outside the building than inside?
• What did the shutdown teach us about what is truly important when it comes to the way we do ministry?
• What do we need to start, stop and continue into 2021 and beyond?

I have been thrilled to hear about the agility of many churches in pivoting to serve their communities in new ways. And, though we are not out of the woods, it’s encouraging to note that many churches report having experienced only moderate financial strain.

The question I get regularly is, “Should we still be going ahead with our capital campaign?” Or more specifically, “When is the right time to conduct a campaign?”

There are no easy answers for this question. Considering the many challenges facing churches right now, I advise you not overreact or underreact.

Overreactions to our quarantine days have included everything from “no one will ever come back to the building again so I guess we will be a digital church from now on” to suspicions that churches will close due to lack of interest by congregations in returning.

At the heart of these questions is a good motivation: to listen for adjustments that may be needed for such a time as this. Most find it hard to believe, however, that churches will simply abandon in-person meetings and substitute streaming or video conferencing as the alternative. Another overreaction is to take all of the due diligence that has been done on major projects and scrap it because nothing will be the same ever again.

An underreaction to our current situation would be to simply say, “When this is all over we can get back to things as usual.” Humans tend to have an instinct for getting back what we miss or feel that we have lost. And I cannot blame them. I have been longing for my “normal” life: my coffee shop, my friends at church and my work routine that does not include me sitting in my pajamas in front of a laptop. But, as Auxano founder Will Mancini asserts, “Every church in America just became a start-up church overnight.”

Will may be exaggerating—but not by much. It does not seem to be wise to prioritize “getting back to what used to be.” This is simultaneously the most daunting and most exciting perspective on the church in the coming years. Again, the time-out is allowing for some diagnosis about our future that will likely lead to changes.

So where is the sweet spot between overreacting and underreacting? Here are a few ideas for church leaders to consider:

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1. Do the Diagnosis That This Time Has Allowed.

Again, this is the encouragement to see this time as an opportunity and not just a huge inconvenience. Take the time to ask the questions of clarity that every congregation should be able to answer. At Auxano, we ask:

What is God calling us to?
Why do we feel so strongly about that?
How should we accomplish this?
When do we know it is working?
And in light of all of this, where is God taking us in the future?

2. Ask the Congregation What God Has Been Revealing to Them About What Is Truly Important.

One of my favorite consulting experiences over the last decade has been to say to church leaders, “Ask people what they have been learning from God and ask them how they see the future of the church.” In helping church leaders with surveys and interviews of the congregation we have found gold. There are women and men in the marketplace, science, medicine, education and many other fields who have a valuable perspective on how they see the church ministering to a hurting world in the future.

3. Be in a Posture of Prayer and Seeking Wisdom From God.

Sure, this goes without saying—or does it need to be said? I have a tendency to want to keep pressing, not keep praying. Perhaps this time of destabilization will increase our dependence on our heavenly Father for wisdom from above. Imagine if the leadership and congregation committed to a time of fervent prayer or fasting in seeking God’s wisdom for the future.

4. Consider the Possibility That the Church Will Need to Be Stronger Than Ever.

A senior pastor friend of mine in Southern California has a deep conviction that the enemy has been at work to steal, kill and destroy and has put us into confusion as a country. He believes that a resurgence of interest in spirituality and relational wholeness will likely happen on the heels of this current crisis. Since science has become controversial, politics are disruptive and hateful and we have proven that we still cannot treat fellow humans with dignity, where does that put the church? We are in the best position possible to answer life’s most significant questions. So, are we ready? Do we have what we need in terms of ministries, facilities, personnel, strategy and more?

Here are some reasons to go forward as soon as possible with capital-infused dreams for the future:

You were virtually ready to start right before COVID-19 hit.

Many churches had already done the due diligence of financial feasibility, planning with builders, initial designs (or more) with architects and analysis with lenders. These four Pillars of Readiness (Fundraising Professionals, Builders, Architects and Lenders) are the essential conversations.

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Some churches may need to adjust scope, timing or financial target, but the fact remains that not much has changed in the need for a campaign. The urgency is still felt by both leadership and the congregation. Some churches can go forward because their local economic situation is not as compromised as in other regions of the country.

Your vision for the future is compelling regardless of the post-COVID-19 realities.

An exciting possibility is that many churches will have a new perspective on what their congregation or community needs. They will be diagnosing the culture around them and strategizing with new reconnaissance about the best approach to ministry in their context. What if our fresh approach is so compelling it will be like a church plant—with all of the nervous and excited energy of the early days of the church.

Church leadership can make this tangible by pointing out how different investments will produce new fruit. Some churches will need more than a splash of capital to fund new ideas and new wineskins.

You have capital needs that cannot be ignored any longer.

At a very basic level, some churches have deferred maintenance or debt entanglements that are threatening the church’s ability to thrive. Though these campaigns have a more difficult time in garnering support, they are needed, nonetheless.

These campaigns can be very successful when leaders can cast a vision about how ministry investment will look “when we don’t have to worry about the roof leaking into the sanctuary” or “when we no longer have that debt service payment every month.”

For example, churches that currently meet in schools may have a harder time doing this going forward; this is an example of a need that cannot be ignored.

Your future plans are a response to what the church will need going forward in terms of investing in infrastructure.

I have been excited to see churches adjust virtually “on the fly” to meet the challenges with investment. They have asked questions about technology, buildings and more. I like to use two kinds of brainstorming that I call the “magic wand” and the “missionary”:

• If I had a magic wand and could do anything to help my church be more effective in my community, what would I change or add?
• If I moved to my community as a missionary from another country and took the time to learn the people and the culture, what would I conclude was the best approach to sharing the news of Jesus?

As we continue to try to understand Christian giving in all its forms, it may not be a coincidence that when we ask God for wisdom on these and other matters, the Scripture indicates that he gives it out generously.

May God bless us all with the wisdom we need to lead in whatever situation the future holds for each of our churches.

Download a free copy of Greg Gibbs’ Time to Build? Church Capital Campaigns in Post-Pandemic America.