Easter Recovery, Easter Discovery

Praise God for the faithful who proclaimed the Good News of Jesus for the hearts that were ministered to by the Gospel! Easter is always a special time in the church. It is the biggest Sunday theologically, and also with attendance. This also means it can be the most exhausting time for pastors. I hope and pray you took extra time to rest after Easter and recover emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I encourage you in self-care and to surround yourself with people who can pour into you.

Before we return to “normal,” take time to reflect on Easter worship. Be a curious investigator and ask yourself questions. Most people will say, “It was good,” but what does that mean? I trust everyone shared the Good Word of God that brings new life. So what else was good?

Everyone usually points to attendance. But the attendance number alone doesn’t tell the full story. It is like reading the introduction of a book and saying I have read the book. You need to dig deeper, get more data, to understand the story so you can decide what the next chapter of the story will be. Here are some questions to help.

What was in-person and online attendance? What was the difference between two years ago and previous Sundays? Who came and who didn’t, out of members and regular attenders – and why? How many guests? Were guests locals, out-of-town visitors, friends or family of regulars, new to the area, Lutherans looking for a Lutheran church, or the ones you only see on the holidays?

You want to determine how guests hear of or know about your ministry and why they came. What promotional material was effective for getting the word out about your ministry (i.e. internet, church sign, yard signs, mailer, invite card, etc.). This tells you what people think of your ministry and who your ministry is for. Many will say we are here for the community but the community never comes. Maybe we are sending a different message to the community. What was the percentage of guests? Is this higher or lower than previous years? Why or why not? Did you have any pre-Christians or people wanting to be baptized or seekers of the faith? What are the God wins?

Another area to look into is volunteers. Did we have enough volunteers? Did our volunteers understand and execute their responsibilities correctly? Did the volunteers have the right resources for their responsibility? Were there any balls dropped, and why?

How much is COVID a factor in your culture? How many wore masks or were very strict on keeping distance etc.? What is your church’s risk level? This is important to see what other ministry your church or community is ready for. If your church has a high fear factor, it will be very difficult to invite or have guests or do other ministries. This has implications that need to be factored for your future ministry decisions.

If you do not have a system for reaching out, welcoming and connecting to guests, or helping guests make a next step in their faith walk, then I invite you to contact me about having a consultation, workshop, or joining the Leverage Network. We can help you be more intentional about your ministry so you understand what is effective and not. You are the local expert; we want to help you leverage your gifts and resources for God’s Kingdom.

by: Rev. Jason Scheler, Mission Executive of the LCMS Southern District

Easter PR Checklist

Jesus told a parable of the wedding feast, of sending messengers out to invite everyone to the wedding. Here is a quick checklist of how you can invite.

      • Bulletin blurb w/ graphic
      • Bulletin invite card/ticket insert
      • Church calendar on your website
      • Website pop-up on your site
      • Website page (integrated or even a separate page like Easter in name of town – i.e. I would do: Easteronthebeach.com, or whattodoforeaster.com, or easterinslidell.com)
      • Outdoor banner
      • Yard signs at church and in the community
      • Church sign
      • Flyers hung in businesses
      • Press release to your area papers and news agencies
      • Mailer (every door delivery/bulk)
      • Chamber
      • Eblast your mailing list
      • Text your mailing list
      • Door hangers
      • New movers targeted mailing
      • Write an article about Easter for the paper
      • Social media (yours and church’s)
      • Facebook (paid ad)
      • Instagram
      • Twitter
      • Nextdoor neighbor
      • Tiktok (is harder to do)
      • Community boards
      • Google ads
      • Decorate the outside of the church

Other ways to PR:

      • Have an event with Easter
      • Have a guy with a sign out front inviting people

by: Rev. Jason Scheler, Mission Executive of the LCMS Southern District

Questions to Ask When Facing Decline

A pastor said, “I am tired of the new normal. I have watched church attendance in general decline for decades. It wasn’t that obvious at first at our church. People stopped coming as often, their kids didn’t stick around as they got older, they didn’t come back when they had kids, and we had fewer and fewer guests at worship. Now that we hit COVID, it has sped things up. People have drifted from the church, others have left our church for another one, and some are staying home and won’t return, and just a few are in worship.”

Can you relate or maybe even feel the grief, sorrow, fear, love, and discouragement in his voice? I know I did, and I have eaten the emotional soup since COVID hit. Circumstances keep stirring the pot and that has brought a high level of anxiousness and stress for many pastors today.

So what do you do in this situation?

1. Spend more time with God and others who will support you. When decline happens in the church, it is easy for us to take it personally. It can get unhealthy, but if you are feeling pain, it usually means you care about people’s spiritual well-being and your own. That is a healthy thing. Take more time to let the Word of God shepherd your emotions, thoughts, and soul. Meditate on God’s promises and trust His leadership of His church. You might find it helpful to have someone who knows you and your ministry to speak words of love and encouragement to you. Having a person who asks good questions helps me know what is me or not and to own my part.

2. Accept the fact that church is not coming back to the way it was. God is leading His church to something new, and no one really knows what it will look like. Keep sowing the seeds of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Keep doing the work of an evangelist. There is an old saying that I find to be true: God hits a moving target. God blesses and honors our efforts. I am not saying that if you sow seeds your church grows. In fact, I would argue that if you only sow to grow your church, you need to check your motivation. Sow because that is what we are to do. God will grow His kingdom and we ask the Lord to build His kingdom with us; sometimes that means it will grow. (Also see follow-up comment at the end of this blog.)

3. Losing people is difficult, something I struggled with and continue to struggle with. I think there are many reasons why I struggle. Answers vary, from: The loss hurts me in an unhealthy place of me wanting all to like me. It’s also pride. Me thinking I’m good and better than others, especially in our theology. People leaving also hits my ego because of concern about numbers. Sometimes it crashes my ambition because we can never seem to get ahead. I learned from my mentor to do ministry with an open hand, not a closed hand. The people we serve are God’s people, not ours. God brings people to your church for seasons, not always for life. God sends the people you need when you need them, and if you don’t need them or use them, God moves them on to other churches where their gifts are needed. The other part is that if your hand is closed, trying to hold onto people who don’t want to be there, your hand is not open for God to bring new people into your ministry. The Bible says, He gives or takes away but I will bless His name. So when people leave, I try to ensure they are leaving to another church God wants them to be active in. I see it as my work is done. As the Apostle Paul said, some plant and some water but God makes them grow. After all, you need people who are for the vision, mission, and you – not people who hold you or the congregation back. Lastly, I learned I can’t minister to all, and people need others, not me. So do your best, be faithful, and trust God.

4. This is the best learning I have had in dealing with a loss – It is never bad to go back to basics because basics are what you need. In decline, we often focus on what we are losing (i.e. people, volunteers, programs, ministries, and money). Many of us have shut down a lot of ministry. In these situations, you have to adjust. You need to cut back on budget and ministry to survive. And that is fine, but don’t get into a survival mentality. Survivor mentality is self-preservation. It is circle the wagons, and it puts the congregation in a defensive and inward-focused mode. People die off slowly until there are no more. When we return to basics, we have an opportunity to build ministry again around what God is doing new. And what is exciting is new ministry reaches new people. I ask myself this question: What do I need for the basics or to build? The answer is not money or a building. It’s people. Jesus built a movement with 12 people. Well, how many people do you need? If it got so bad that you had to sell the building and start over, how many people do you need, and what responsibilities do you need them to lead? Who are essential personnel to build again? I have found that when I focus on what I have and how to leverage that, God adds more people, more money to what we need. It’s not as fast as I like, but it is what we need to move the mission forward another baby step.

I think we are in an exciting era of ministry. The world is getting darker and the church is getting brighter. The church has always grown more under persecution or difficult times. We all grow more spiritually when we are being pressed. This is a personal growth season that will lead to a harvest in the future.

The Leverage Network of the Southern District is here to assist you in your mission and ministry. We care about you and your church. Please contact me if you would like to connect and see how we can come alongside with encouragement and resources to help you fulfill your calling. For more information, contact Pastor Jason at j.scheler@southernlcms.org.

by: Rev. Jason Scheler, Mission Executive of the LCMS Southern District

Follow-up comment on this post from Rev. Jason Scheler, regarding bullet point #2:

“2. We need to accept that churches are not going to be the same.”

I need to clarify this part of the blog. I am not suggesting we need to create gimmicks or change the Divine Service to get people to come back. I acknowledge the cultural shift of how people view church and worship has and is creating many challenges. Churches have fewer people coming back to in-person worship. Many churchgoers are seeing online as acceptable and preferring it because it fits their schedule, etc. I can have church on-demand like my other services are offered. Therefore, the ministry does look different and it will remain different. It is not the same and, yes, churches need to consider how to use the internet to disciple, because that is the new Roman road of the Gospel. I also serve as a chaplain at our local hospital, and pastoral care has gone to a “Zoom” format because of COVID and staffing shortages. I do not have to drive to the hospital to provide spiritual care, and it is 24/7 on-demand.
I love people to be in-person, but the world is changing and we need to think of both avenues. There are many other changes and challenges COVID and culture have created.
It is not all doom and gloom. God is on the throne, and He will build His Church. He builds His Church numerically, put more importantly – spiritually. We see the pattern in the Old Testament.

As it says in Hebrews 10, “23Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (ESV) Amen.

A Pressure Cooker

A great blessing of being at Christ the King is getting to know the people. One couple, Larry and Chris, both now sainted, had invited me into their home on a number of occasions. On one of them, Larry was cooking a roast in a pressure cooker. I am not sure of the science involved, but a roast not only cooks faster in such a device, but it will potentially be more tender. As I recall, Larry’s cooker looked dated, with an interlocking lid and a small release valve. Pressure cookers have since gained more safety features, but, initially, if the lone release valve became blocked, it was possible for the pot to rupture. Larry’s pot did just fine, and the roast was great!

I have recently thought of the pressure cooker as a metaphor regarding the stresses and anxieties of life. Have there been times when you felt your life was like being in a pressure cooker? Perhaps you feel you are in one now. I was on a Zoom call the other day, listening to a speaker talk about all the added pressures that have resulted from dealing with the coronavirus. This tension has left some folks fearful and worried, as well as agitated and impatient. We certainly do not want pastors and/or parishioners letting off too much steam or blowing up at each other!

One would think with the development of therapies, the implementation of vaccinations, and with herd immunity potentially on the near horizon (good Lord willing), this pressure would diminish. But even so, will that mean all will go back to normal?

When a pressure cooker is removed from the stove (or unplugged), heat and pressure dissipate. The food is ready! That works great in preparing a meal, but not so much for us humans. Even when we are removed from the “heat and pressure” of our specific situation, the effects of extended time under stress and anxiety can still be evident. In other words, all could go back to “normal” (whatever that means) tomorrow, but the impact of the strain on our lives and in our relationships may continue and take extended time to heal. Our Lord knows this and in the midst of disease and death and grief and mourning, as well as health and life and joy and celebration, He invites us to Himself.

Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

No one wants to be under extended trial and tribulation but, as a pressure cooker can soften a tough cut of meat, so God can use the heat and pressure of life to “soften” our rough attitudes and outlooks. You may be feeling a little delicate, a little fragile, a little weak, a little weary these days, but God in His grace can use that tender heart (your tender heart) to bless you. He can use it to bless you as He teaches you His Word and will. He can use it to bless you as He opens your eyes to the pressures others are undergoing. (You are not alone!) He can use it to bless you by being a blessing to someone else: providing a listening ear or a compassionate voice, offering a helping hand or a time of prayer. He can use it to bless you as you allow others to minister to you.

Let us pray …
Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. (LSB, p. 311 #193)

by: guest blogger Rev. James Endrihs, Pastor of Christ the King in Enterprise, AL

What Are You Wearing?

One of my mentors was wondering how much influence he had in the congregation. He started wondering about this when he noticed a majority of the guys seem to dress like him with jeans and untucked shirts. So, he made a deliberate change to start wearing khaki pants and tucking in his shirt. In a month or so, the dress code changed in the church without him saying a word. The reason is – leadership is influence. Jesus called us to be salt and light, influencers. The question is: “How is your modeling, your choices influencing your congregation?” I am talking more than dress code but attitude, aptitude, choices, etc. How are you influencing the congregation, and to what level? Can you point to different behaviors or values in your church culture that are a direct reflection of your modeling or leadership? If not, why not?

One of John Maxwell’s favorite lines is if you want to measure the health of a church, put a thermometer in the mouth of the leader. In other words, congregations reflect their leader. If you are negative about life, the future, and the mission and ministry of the church, so will be your people. If you’re positive about the future, opportunities, etc., so will be your people. If you say, “My congregation doesn’t reflect me,” then you may not be the leader.

I hear so many people say that I can’t get my people to do outreach. My response is, “What are you doing to help them get there? Are you telling them or modeling? Which one do you think has better influence, or who would you rather follow: the guy telling, or the guy who reaches out?” It’s true whether we like it or not – We are leaders, undershepherds of the Great Shepherd, Jesus. This is one of the gifts and responsibilities of the office. It is one of the ways we make disciples. I encourage you to take time and reflect on your influence in the congregation. How much are they like you in their attitude, values, and behavior? Can you identify specific examples in the congregation? If not, why? If yes, why do they adopt that specific thing, and how can you learn from it for other areas of ministry? Speaking metaphorically, can you change the dress code of your church?

by: Rev. Jason Scheler, Mission Executive of the LCMS Southern District

Is There a Ghost in Your Church? I Hope So!

Does your church have ghosts? I think you do. Now, to be clear, I am not talking about New Orleans ghosts … lol … or even the Holy Ghost. I am talking about the ghosts that churches have whether you are a new or old church. Ghosts are the people who watch you from a distance. These ghosts used to be on the outside of the church, observing the activities of the church. They used to stay away unless there was something they felt was safe for them to attend, like a VBS or cookout. But now they are inside our churches. Have you seen them? So, before you think I am losing it, let me share what I am talking about. On Monday, I received an email from a couple who has been worshipping with us through FB since March of last year, and they requested to meet. They had been a ghost attender for almost a year, and we had no idea they were worshipping with us. We had no idea they were watching to see if this is a safe place to belong and be accepted. If you broadcast your worship, you may have ghosts inside your church. So, it raises the question – “How do you recognize or engage those worshipping online?”

Here are a few quick tips to help you connect with ghosts.

1. Recognize Them
Realize that people are watching who you don’t know. They are checking out the church – not from afar or a drive-by, but inside at the very heart of ministry. Therefore, welcome those online. Talk to them directly and thank them for coming. Make sure your announcements and other elements of worship are understandable for those at home.

2. Engage Them
Ask them to post their name at the welcome, or a word in the sermon. Recruit a volunteer to host the worship on Facebook, to engage in conversation with those online. The host can welcome them, pray for them, post a connection / guest card, post important points of the message, ask questions, etc. I encourage you to make a goal to engage those online 3 to 5 times in the worship service.

3. Offer Next Steps
Invite the people online to other events like Bible study, prayer group, ladies’ or men’s gatherings, especially if they are also online. You could simply invite them for coffee with you or give them a way to send in prayer requests. The goal is to provide a path for them to make another step in connecting with the church and their faith walk.

If this is new for you or you would like help to improve, please reach out to me. We are constantly learning as we go along in this new phase of ministry, and we can help. If you want to see how this is done for traditional and contemporary worship settings, then I recommend Pastor David Moerbe at Good Shepherd in Gardendale, AL. His church is one of the most proficient and consistent in engagement of online guests. He is also very helpful if you want to know what technology to use for worship.

by: Rev. Jason Scheler, Mission Executive of the LCMS Southern District