The Fishhook team has been planning and working with churches all across the country helping them communicate clearly and effectively with their congregations and communities in light of COVID-19. We hope you can find the following information helpful. If you're looking for answers or suggestions for something you don't see, feel free to reach out and ask.

Where to start? 

The news, social media and watercooler conversations are buzzing about the coronavirus (COVID-19) right now. It’s at the forefront of public attention and the spread of this contagion is beginning to impact more U.S. cities, which means it’s impacting churches and ministries around the country, too. 

We always encourage churches to proactively plan for situations that require strategic communication, whether it’s an overnight crisis situation or something developing over the course of weeks and months, like we are seeing play out nationally right now. 

As you consider how your church will respond to local developments and public health recommendations surrounding coronavirus, here are a few things to keep in mind. 

How to Communicate
  • Communicate calmly and with clarity. The people in your community likely already view you as a trusted, safe voice. You can do a lot to help calm fears and ease anxiety by communicating, through words and actions, a steady, reassuring presence. Be sure to keep things simple and clear, too. Sharing too many details or scenarios can amplify feelings of uncertainty. 
  • Practice empathy. Some people will have stronger responses to this situation. Don’t dismiss their experience or fears. Whether they are in the high-risk population or they know someone directly impacted, it’s important to help them feel heard and comforted. 
What to Communicate
  • Your pastor and staff do not need to be health experts.
    The main thing you will be communicating is how the public health circumstances are impacting how you do the work you do as a church. Most people will generally be informed about the health risks, so focus on acknowledging how this is or isn’t directly impacting your congregation and your local community.
  • Rely on trustworthy, official sources.
    When providing context, resources or additional information about public health recommendations, rely on trustworthy, official sources. To instill the most confidence and trust, rely on governmental organizations like the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, or trusted medical experts, such as Johns Hopkins University. Avoid sharing sources, through social media or through organization email, that are opinion-based, political or controversial. 

    If it would be helpful for your community to hear some of the standard public health recommendations and guidance, keep it simple: 
    • Stay home if you are feeling sick.
    • Wash your hands often, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. Do so after using the restroom, before and after eating and after touching your face, especially when coughing or sneezing. 
    • Even if you are not in a high-risk group for coronavirus, remember that everyone can transmit the germs that could affect those who are at higher risk due to age, a compromised immune system or other contributing factors. 
  • Let people know what is changing and what is not changing.
    There may come a time when your congregation, based on an abundance of caution or at the direction of official recommendations from your local or state health officials, will not be able to physically meet for a period of time. As colleges and universities begin to make changes to their class schedules and as large public events are being canceled, this may be a reality for many churches as well.

    Even if you are not canceling weekend services and there are no confirmed cases in your immediate area, people have questions and concerns. Be proactive and communicate with the full congregation. Build their confidence by telling them how and why the church is anticipating this situation. Offer them a way to get more information and let them know if and when there will be additional updates going forward. 

    If you are canceling weekend (or mid-week) services, communicate with clarity which specific dates and times are affected. If possible, communicate a date for when services will resume–or at least a date when you will reassess resuming services. 

    These larger gatherings are the experiences most likely to be disrupted. Provide guidance on other gatherings as well–small groups, classes, service projects, etc. Be proactive and over communicate when cancelations are put in place. 

    If you do need to cancel services, also communicate the programs, scheduled events, and ministry that will not be affected, or at least not canceled. Because Sunday gatherings are so central, it will cause some to think the church as a whole is shutting down for the same amount of time. Reiterate and over communicate what ministry and organizational functions will continue as expected. 
  • Communicate what steps you are taking to keep your facilities clean and safe.
    Consider updating your procedures for cleaning and sterilizing your facilities, then communicate what you are doing to the congregation. 

    If you’re adding hand-washing or hand sanitizer stations, share that information. Consider elements of your service (handshaking, passing offering plates, communion) that can contribute to the spreading of germs and adapt or eliminate them. Get creative if you can, and, more than anything, communicate clearly what will be changed and make the necessary adjustments. 
What’s your plan for going online? 

While having online services has become more common in recent years, not every church is set up with the technology or ministry support to make the switch if you need to cancel in-person services. Even those churches who live stream their services already may need to make changes if the weekly gatherings are put on hold for an extended period of time. 

The most important question to ask is, “What do people usually expect and need to be able to do when they are at church each week?”

The goal is to try and maintain the core elements you offer in person. Teaching and worship are key elements, but don’t forget offering, prayer requests, announcements, signing up for new classes or groups and even communion are elements of service you will want to plan to lead the congregation through if you aren’t going to be able to meet in person for a number of weeks. 

If you already have live stream services…
  • Identify what it is you want to continue providing on a weekly basis.You already have a weekly rhythm for live stream, but are there other elements you will want to provide now? A self-guided devotional experience? Kids curriculum parents can use? Determine what is both important and sustainable for you to maintain over the course of time you aren’t meeting in person. Don’t overcomplicate things, but consider what will be encouraging and helpful in the absence of a weekly physical gathering. 
  • Build around what you already have in place. Not everyone in your church has used your live stream before, so don’t expect a seamless transition. Increase messages about when and how to access the live stream. Add bandwidth if needed and anticipate additional costs if you see a significant uptick in traffic. Provide additional technical support so that people who aren’t comfortable with technology can learn how to get help if the stream isn’t working or they are having issues getting connected. 
  • Enlist the help of those who are good with technology. Use your imagination to rally people in your church who can help others learn where and how to use technology to stay connected. Offer up tutorials on using social media, the church website or even video conferencing tools like Zoom or Skype (especially if you want to do pastoral care or counseling sessions without being in person). Find others who have influence through social media to help share messages, updates and resources from the church. And of course, you may end up needing a group of volunteers to help answer email, Facebook or other incoming messages about schedules, changes and needing support. Ask for people to help out and help them make the connection that this is ministry work and it requires a variety of skills and availability. 
  • Encourage your pastor and/or leadership to be visible and engaged. Not only will this instill a sense of confidence and comfort amidst change, it’s a way for the church to actually draw closer. People may already be used to seeing your pastor on screen or through social media video, so use this to your advantage. Make video updates a regular part of the week, including teachings as well as more conversational or informal opportunities part of the plan. 
If you don’t have live stream services yet…
  • Take a deep breath. You don’t have to reproduce service exactly as it is in person. This is a chance to get a little creative and even pull in some individuals who can help you bring fresh ideas to the table. You don’t have to overcome these challenges on your own. 
  • Identify what it is you want to continue providing on a weekly basis. A sermon/teaching? Probably. Worship through music? Possibly. A self-guided devotional experience? Kids curriculum parents can use? Determine what is both important and sustainable for you to maintain over the course of time you aren’t meeting in person. 
  • Once you determine what you’re trying to create, consider what tools you can use to make it happen. If you have the technical support to make it happen, you could set up the Church Online Platform pretty quickly to offer a live stream and live chat. But that may feel like too much. Consider doing a Facebook Live video if you are doing a sermon/message. Pre-record a sermon or devotional and upload it to YouTube or Vimeo, then distribute it through social media, your website and your email lists. Leverage your ministry-specific email lists to send out kids resources, written devotional content and anything else that can help individuals, families and small groups continue to be encouraged and supported. 
  • Enlist the help of those who are good with technology. Use your imagination to rally people in your church who can help others learn where and how to use technology to stay connected. Offer up tutorials on using social media, the church website or even video conferencing tools like Zoom or Skype (especially if you want to do pastoral care or counseling sessions without being in person). Find others who have influence through social media to help share messages, updates and resources from the church. And of course, you may end up needing a group of volunteers to help answer email, Facebook or other incoming messages about schedules, changes and needing support. Ask for people to help out and help them make the connection that this is ministry work and it requires a variety of skills and availability. 
  • Encourage your pastor and/or leadership to be visible and engaged. Not only will this instill a sense of confidence and comfort amidst change, it’s a way for the church to actually draw closer. Start a new rhythm of having your pastor do a Facebook Live video once or twice a week, to either offer encouragement through a devotional or to simply say hello, pray for others and to give a show of life continuing on even if it is in a different rhythm. 

No matter how the coronavirus or any other major event is impacting your church, it is an opportunity to remind people of God’s faithfulness and His care for us all.

Invite everyone to join you in prayer for those who have been directly impacted with the illness, for those whose schedules or routines have been disrupted and for the quick end to something that is impacting millions of people around the world. Be a source of calm, helpful information and encouragement and trust that God is at work in the people of your church and those impacted around the world.


Go Beyond the LiveStream

We need to accept that this is going to be a significant disruption to life for at least the next few weeks and possibly months.

This moment calls for an entirely new way of thinking about ministry. Not panicking but demonstrating the utmost prudence, wisdom and creativity.

Your church does more than give a lecture and entertain with music. The Body of Christ and the local church is an embodiment of God’s presence in the world. We gather to encourage and pray for one another. We meet to study scripture and serve one another. We approach the altar to serve and be served communion.

In order to keep being and doing all that Jesus has called the Church to be, we will need more than a live stream and a weekly email update. 

My own church meets on the campus of a state university. That school has announced the end of all in-person classes and is limiting group gatherings of more than 100 people at a time, in an effort to limit the exposure and possibly transmission of a pandemic disease. We’re still figuring out what that means for our church of 400 people. So I completely understand what pastors and churches are having to think through right now. 

Our encouragement is that you can rise to this challenge.

A disruption like this is an opportunity to see your community, your church and your own ability to contribute to the building of God’s Kingdom with fresh eyes.

We need to elevate our thinking beyond patchwork solutions that get us through a few weeks where we can’t meet in our building.

We need fresh inspiration from God’s Spirit to creatively, uniquely and with hopeful resolve reach out and meet people in real, tangible ways. God has given us everything we need to move into unknown circumstances. 

Here are a few ideas that you might start with as you continue planning for a fresh and inspired way of being the church if you aren’t able to gather on Sunday mornings for some time: 

  • Going online for a service is a great starting point. Don’t limit your thinking and planning to just Sunday services.
  • Rally your church to think about those who are at the highest risk if they were to be exposed to the virus. Make telephone calls, set up grocery delivery and write them notes. Social isolation in these circumstances can lead to loneliness, anxiety and depression. 
  • In addition to an online service, set up a network of “house churches,” places were groups of 10-15 people can gather to watch the service together, pray and even take communion. Encourage existing small group leaders to organize these gatherings while still keeping them small and practicing good hygiene based on recommendations. 
  • If schools or daycares are closing in your area, start organizing ways for parents to find alternate childcare options. Safety is critically important, so don’t skip any steps when it comes to screening and accountability. The most concrete way to love families may be by relieving the burden of totally disrupted schedules and being stuck between earning a paycheck and staying home with kids who can’t go to school. 
  • Food insecurity is a real issue for many kids and families. If schools are closing, connect with local organizations that are already working in that space. Make donations of food and finances to help relieve the burden or even think about how you can contribute to distribution and awareness. 
  • Give updates regularly. The Church has a real and genuine source of confidence, hope and joy. These are the precise moments where the goodness and faithfulness of God can shine brightest through His people. By calmly and confidently communicating updates, praying, offering encouragement and rallying the church to do good and be hopeful, we can bring light into circumstances and moments that feel dark to the world around us. 
  • Start an online community for your congregation. You want people to be able to stay connected with each other and you as leaders. Start a Facebook group as a centralized place to keep relationships going, communicate updates and resource your people to share the love and hope of Jesus. 
  • Decide what your digital ministry strategy will be. More than ever, people need hope. And thanks to technology, each church has the opportunity to share hope on a daily basis. This is your new ministry strategy. This is your new ministry goal. Will you write a daily blog post and share it on social media? Start going live consistently with a message of encouragement and perspective? Resource your congregation with messages of hope to share? Give people a place where they can go to find peace online. 

Online Easter Planning 

Today the White House announced the Annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn is being canceled “out of abundance of caution.” This celebration dates back to 1878, when Rutherford B. Hayes was president and has only been canceled a handful of times during World War I and II and in the late 40s-early 50s because of food conservation and construction at the White House. My family had the honor of attending this tradition on the White House lawn last year. We met a family that prioritizes this event every year because they enjoy it so much. 

I’m guessing this cancellation came after much discussion and ultimately there will be a lot of people who were looking forward to attending that will be disappointed. Let alone all the work that has gone into making this event happen even weeks before the actual event. But White House officials had to make this hard call to protect our public from the spread of the coronavirus.

Churches need to start making decisions about how to communicate and encourage people to take part in your church’s Easter services this year. And we probably need to assume that they won’t be held onsite and in-person this year. So instead of hoping for the best with onsite guests, we need to start planning on other ways to connect with people to share the hope of Christ during this season. 

This is the beauty of Christ’s church. We can still be the Church. Unlike a canceled Easter Egg Roll, we can still host our guests in other ways online. We can still use technology as a ministry tool. We don’t have to cancel the whole thing, we just have to think about it with fresh eyes. 

So what’s Plan A for Easter this year? Let’s strategically think through “off-site Easter” so we can invite and welcome first-time guests and then help them get connected as a follow up. 

Here are a few things to think through:

  1. Shift your thinking that “off-site Easter” is a Plan B. Start thinking about it as Plan A and swiftly start planning and implementing because there are less than four weeks till Easter Sunday. 
  2. Where are the places for you to be consistent? What makes Easter Sunday special? How do you bring these elements into your online experience?
  3. What can you let go of during this time? What have been things your church has done just because you always do? This is a great time to let go of things that aren’t working as well anymore.
  4. Where are the opportunities to be creative and/or to try something new? This is uncharted territory, so dream big.
  5. Once you know the answers to the above questions, start communicating to your congregation as soon as possible. Acknowledge the disappointment and then ask your congregation to rally with you to make the most of this new way to reach out to people who aren’t close to Jesus.
  6. Give your congregation online tools to connect with and invite their friends and family to your online experience. Create shareable social graphics, send them an email invite they can forward on to their friends and give them ways they can serve your church and others during this time.
  7. Because your church won’t be spending dollars on special bulletin printing, stage design, etc., use these dollars to promote your services in new ways. 
  8. One of the biggest misses we see with churches each year is not strategically planning for the follow up with guests after Easter. We put so much time and effort into Easter services and the publicity of the dates but not enough time in planning for post-Easter. Make sure to create a plan on how you will invite people to engage with your ministry ongoing. We want guests to continue to want to know more about Jesus and provide them with the resources to help them do this. What are new ways this is going to happen in light of not being able to meet in-person? Maybe you create a Facebook Group to encourage community while we are socially distancing ourselves. Maybe you post follow-up videos each day post-Easter to reinforce the message and encourage people in a time when we all really need it. Maybe you provide counselors for people to chat with or people from your church to pray with. 
  9. The most important question to answer and act on is how are you living out your mission during this time? The church is poised and ready because Christ goes before us. We live with hope because of what Christ has done for us. He has commanded us to be strong and courageous. To not be afraid; to not be discouraged, for the Lord our God will be with us wherever we go. (Joshua 1:9) 

Here is a free Easter Planning Worksheet 

So be bold and dream big because God can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. I’m excited for the church in this time. I’m not fearful. COVID-19 is forcing us to all think differently about how we connect with people online. Being the church in this time in history has to look different if we are going to reach people that desperately need Jesus. 

Our team at Fishhook is praying for you each day. You and your work matter. 

Live Coaching 

Thanks to everyone who joined us on our live Coaching & Encouragement call! Here are the playbacks. 

Call with Churches 700+ in Weekly Attendance 

COVID-19 Coaching (700+)

 

Call with Churches less than 700 in Weekly Attendance

COVID-19 Coaching Call 700-

 

 

 

Leading Your Church Staff From a Distance

You probably didn’t sign up for this, leading or working with a team that you aren’t sitting in the same room with. Most church leaders, communicators and pastors are used to working face-to-face and they tend to be relationally-minded. Within the last week, many churches in the U.S. found themselves caught up in the ripple effects of a global pandemic, leading them to cancel in-person services and sending their teams to work from home for weeks at a time. 

You aren’t alone if this feels entirely overwhelming. We’re all trying to figure out ministry, work, e-learning with our kids and where to get toilet paper in a season unlike any other we’ve experienced in our lives. 

The good news is that remote work is something that many organizations have been doing and research has been collected on what works best for many years now. We can rally, we can learn from and lean on each other and we can rest assured that God has given us everything we need for today. 

For four years, I worked for the YouVersion Bible App and was part of a team of roughly twenty-five team members. Partially remote, about half of us worked in the central office, with the other half being spread out across several states (and one in France). We also leveraged the time and talents of over 400 volunteers from dozens of countries, working in more than thirty languages and providing user support, translation and software development. My experiences taught me a lot about leadership, especially when it comes to collaborating and leading with people who aren’t in the same room.

Here are a few principles and lessons I learned in that time. My hope is that this post helps you find a new rhythm and builds your confidence as you continue to put your whole heart into the work of building God’s Kingdom. 

Trust is the essential foundation. 
If you only have confidence and trust because you can see people do their jobs with your own eyes, this is going to be a big change for you, but one you can make. You need to work from a foundation of trust, that your team is responsible, trustworthy and just as motivated to continue doing good work like you are. Any time there is a gap between two people–whether that’s a communication gap or a physical gap like only being able to connect through video or phone calls–you have a choice: fill the gap with trust or with mistrust. By choosing trust, you give people confidence and empower them to make good choices. If you choose mistrust, they’re more likely to get defensive, feel protective of their role or territory and reflect mistrust back to you. Deciding to trust first is what great leaders do, because it has a positive ripple effect that impacts every other aspect of your leadership and the work environment. 

Create predictable rhythms of communication. 
Churches across the country are in the midst of massive changes in rhythms, routines and expectations. While you communicate to your congregation and staff what is changing, you need to start building in predictable rhythms of communication. Plan regular, scheduled times for the whole team to connect by video if possible. For some teams, this will be a daily rhythm (that’s what it is for the Fishhook team, a quick 30-minute check-in each morning). For others, it may be every couple of days. 

The full team should be connecting at least once a week. You may also want to set up a weekly 30-minute check-in with each individual team member. During these times, don’t just focus on work–ask how the person is doing, what their family needs and pray with them. Your staff is part of your church and need pastoral care in this season as much as anyone. We also have a worksheet to help you think intentionally about the questions and conversations you have during one-on-one meetings any time of the year. 

Consider other ways you need to communicate as well. If there are weekly decisions being made about an online service, service opportunities or other ministry decisions, commit to an update day and time where everyone can anticipate final decisions and directions for the week. In this season, you honestly can’t overcommunicate. People are comforted in the midst of uncertainty by clarity and confidence. Be honest about reality, but be clear about how and when you’ll be making decisions, communicating changes and providing updates on important information. 

Establish some new norms early on. 
One reason why it may be hard to be productive for a week or two after dramatic changes to your work environment or routine is because we don’t have a sense of normalcy that helps us focus. If you are used to having a commute, sitting at a particular desk or drinking a certain type of coffee, then your brain is having to process all this new information and can’t spend as much energy focusing on the work you still have to get done. So you need to create new routines and norms as quickly as possible. 

Create a new morning routine and stick to it. If you don’t have a 30-minute commute now, resist the temptation to sleep in and get up at the same time each morning, showering, getting fully dressed and eating breakfast like you would if you were going to head into the office. 

If you’re working from home, set up a specific spot to work from rather than moving from the couch to the kitchen to the dining room table throughout the day. Help your brain know that when you sit in this particular place in your, whether it’s a makeshift office in the corner of your living room or in a spare bedroom that you’ve taken over, that you are ready to focus and do work. 

Not everything has to be rigidly scheduled or structured. It can’t be, especially if your kids are on perpetual e-learning days and crawling around at your feet every thirty minutes. Pick a few things each week to establish as normal and let those be anchors that help you build a new sense of routine and stability. Then, roll with the punches and own the fact that things are simply going to be different for a season. 

Limited communication channels doesn’t have to mean limited communication. 
You don’t have a watercooler or lunchroom and you likely aren’t grabbing coffee on Sunday morning, but that doesn’t have to mean your team has to be less informed or connected. In fact, research shows that having a limited range of communication methods doesn’t mean overall communication effectiveness will decline. What does have a negative impact? Infrequent, vague, unpredictable communication. That’s true in any environment, even more so when you can’t see the people you are working with. Make it clear that communication is a priority by establishing a rhythm of communication, formal and informal, that fosters personal connection and clarifies goals, progress, feedback and success.

If your team is new to digital communication (beyond email), here are some tools you can check out. Pick one or two, communicate how you’ll be using them, and only keep using them if they’re helpful. 

*Zoom - video conference, one-on-one or group calls

Marco Polo - popular mobile app that is a combo of texting and video chats

Loom - record your screen, voice, and face to create an instantly shareable video 

*Slack - communication platform with plenty of integrations

*Basecamp - project management and communication platform

iDoneThis - daily tool to share progress and increase transparency

Know Your Team - designed to help mid-sized teams stay connected

15 Five - weekly check-in platform to increase dialogue and transparency

*currently used by Fishhook

Your leadership style will probably need to shift. 
Many who are leading a remote team for the first time find their default style falls flat or isn’t as effective as it usually would be. Leading a remote team takes almost everyone out of their comfort zone, at least initially. The impact of how a leader leads is magnified in remote environments, for better or worse.

Leaders who just want to get stuff done (i.e. “transactional leaders”) make remote work harder for individuals and the team. Leaders who demonstrate inspirational or transformational leadership qualities (evoke enthusiasm, loyalty, and trust; leverage positive emotions; demonstrate empathy and active listening) are much more effective and successful. In fact, research shows that inspirational and transformational leaders can actually be more effective in a remote environment compared to when they lead in a traditional face-to-face environment. 

Look for opportunities to empower “informal leaders,” those on the team that rise up to support, encourage and develop the team through their own relational connection. Because you will likely have less interaction with each person, great leaders understand that informal leaders play an important role filling in gaps you won’t be able to fill single handedly.

Establish some new goals so everyone gets to succeed.
While spring break plans are getting canceled and other plans are being put on hold, disappointment and grief is very real for most people in some way right now. It’s likely that Easter may look very different for most churches this year as well.

As a leader you need to find a way to help your team (and your church as well) feel a sense of satisfaction and progress. People like to win and having a sense of progress toward success is motivating and good for our mental health. You may need to come up with new ways of measuring success as a team. Invite your team to brainstorm things that will be a success each week and then celebrate when you hit the target. These can be just for fun (most laps walked around your neighborhood) or they can be ministry-related (meals served, phone calls made, Facebook posts responded to, etc.). At the end of the day, especially in ministry, you want to continue to point people to your mission and celebrate stories of how you are living it out as a staff and as a church. 

Emphasize grace and flexibility. No one imagined most churches across the country would need to shut their doors and go online for weeks at a time. These are such unprecedented circumstances. That makes it even more important to practice empathy, grace and compassion for others. This includes your team and your co-workers.

If there is flexibility in work hours or being accessible by email or phone, communicate that. Where you can offer people the comfort of knowing they aren’t being expected to be as productive because of the circumstances we are all wrestling with, encourage people with that perspective. Don’t assume anyone knows where things are flexible or when an expectation has changed. Keep an ongoing conversation about the kind of culture, values and relationships you want to see being created within the team, even at a distance. 

As you step into the coming days and weeks, give yourself space and grace, to slow down and stay connected to Jesus so that you can sustainably continue serving your church and community. 

Fishhook is here to help. If you need a sounding board for ministry ideas, help building a communication strategy for social media or your website or if you are looking for leadership coaching in this season, we’re ready to jump up in and support you all the way through.

 

Our team wants to serve your church in whatever way we can. If you have questions or need help, let us know!