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Pastors were not prepared for the digital demands of the pandemic. What does that teach us about the next crisis?

A pastor from a small Methodist congregation in Indiana has to borrow a smartphone from one of her elders. She watches a quick tutorial on Facebook livestreaming, then films a makeshift service from her living room.

And there’s the pastor of a rural Presbyterian church who discovered that the church did not own a tripod — moments before recording his first online service. He fastened his iPhone to a ladder with duct tape.

These are just some of the stories coming out of the Tech in Churches During COVID-19 research project, a two-year study on how churches and their leaders have adopted — and adapted to using — digital technology in ministry.

Funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and working with the Center for Congregations, a team from Texas A&M University is investigating 2,700 congregations that received grants to purchase technology resources during the pandemic to enable them to move their services online.

Before 2020, many churches had never considered the importance of having Wi-Fi connections in their church buildings, let alone internet-enabled cameras or livestream setups. In fact, most American pastors likely never even considered holding worship services online.

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuing lockdowns and social-distancing regulations quickly showed congregations that having access to up-to-date digital media technology was not simply a novel ministry opportunity but a necessity.

The forced migration of worship services online in March 2020 brought with it many stories of churches being caught off guard by these new technological requirements.

Nearly two-thirds of pastors in this study felt that of all the new things they were asked to take on during the pandemic, it was technology work and decision making they felt the most unprepared for.

Through conversations with 500 church leaders, we heard responses like, “This wasn’t the job I signed up for as a pastor”; “I have no training in ‘putting on the tech hat’”; and, “I am a novice at tech — but the only one willing to try and get the church online.”

Leaders’ widespread lack of technology skills, knowledge and experience was further complicated by the digital divide, which many churches encountered for the first time. The digital divide describes the gap between individuals and groups that do and do not have access to technology, especially the internet.

The experience of the pandemic revealed for churches the challenge of what it means to be among the digital have-nots. Smaller and rural congregations in particular discovered that being in a community with limited internet access was not just a disadvantage but often a major barrier to acclimating to or addressing changes in gathering.

Yet the struggle was often more than churches simply not having key technologies on hand or the funds to purchase them. Many congregations battled self-imposed limitations on technology and roadblocks they created for themselves.

This we describe as digital reluctance, an unwillingness among leaders and/or members to embrace technology due to fear or lack of familiarity.

This was expressed by senior members of congregations as well as by church leaders, and this digital reluctance often prevented them from innovating worship and adapting to public gathering limitations.

For example, one leader, who described his congregation as “very anti-tech” and said that he personally “never had an interest in going online,” felt that these factors created significant obstacles for his church during the pandemic. In his view, the congregation’s initial reluctance to consider or even experiment with technology-driven service solutions created unnecessary tensions during already uncertain and tense times.

In other cases, congregational resistance toward technology often corresponded with a church’s general unwillingness to change its liturgical practice or re-envision the church. As one pastor said, “For some, getting on board with online worship was seen as giving up on the core of their faith.”

Digital reluctance also created friction in some churches between the generations. Younger and more digitally fluent members, excited about the possibility of re-imagining the church through digital platforms, often found themselves in conflict with older members or those less familiar with digital media.

Some leaders said the generational digital divide, and the tensions created around it, contributed to the slower return of some younger members once face-to-face services resumed.

“Some of those folks haven’t returned. … Our seniors were taught that you were here every Sunday, so they’re ready to be back. But that’s not the case with our younger people and those who were willing to try to go online from the start,” one pastor told researchers. “Time will tell what impact online tensions created.”

As a grand experiment and learning opportunity, the digital transition many churches underwent during the pandemic provides us with several valuable lessons.

First of all, our research found that pastors who had a positive and open mindset toward changing worship practices and/or engaging technology had a less stressful experience adapting to the challenges of the pandemic. This shows that attitude can greatly influence one’s outlook in times of forced change.

Second, congregations and their leaders who were willing to experiment with technology and learn from mistakes made in the process found that moving to online services opened up the possibility to reconsider the very nature of church.

Congregations are asking questions, for example, about whether church is primarily defined by its Sunday worship service, its community outreach, its technology use or something else. This is a challenging and tiring task, but pastors who felt empowered to be creative in their problem solving seemed to demonstrate greater resilience when handling pandemic stressors.

Third, pastors who used difficulties with technology to facilitate conversations about the nature of the Christian community helped create space for new perspectives to be shared.

This helped refocus the discourse from what was lacking in online worship to one centered on exploring new opportunities for community building, such as reinventing how small groups meet, how leaders perform pastoral care and how hybrid Sunday school can redefine religious education.

While the digital divide continues to be a challenging reality for many churches, the pandemic revealed important traits church leaders need to prepare for future cultural disruptions and technological shifts. Duct tape and an online tutorial won’t solve all church tech problems, but they do demonstrate creativity and a willingness to try — which can go a long way in moving churches forward.

Don’t be misled by the makeshift counter and tent outside Humphreys Street Coffee Shop in Nashville, Tennessee. The business is here to stay.

That renovated green house is a symbol of permanence, commitment and determination. After all, helping people understand their value is not quick work.

As a social enterprise of Harvest Hands Community Development Corporation, the coffee shop serves up more than cold brew and lattes; it provides jobs, mentorship, discipleship and skills for teens from the community nearby.

“We don’t hire students to make coffee,” Harvest Hands executive director Brian Hicks likes to say. “We make coffee to hire students.”

On a hot, humid August afternoon, local residents pull up or stroll over in a steady stream. One speaks of how he likes both the coffee and the aesthetic. On the edge of a recently gentrified neighborhood, it’s charming, inviting. And powerful.

At  Humphreys Street Coffee, manager Parker Millican takes coffee orders outside, under a tent. Customers are not allowed in the establishment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a non-COVID season, Harvest Hands has met community requests for after-school activities, sports leagues, leadership training and more. Founded in 2007 by Hicks and his wife, Courtney, the organization has grown from a neighborhood gathering of a dozen or so kids to a nonprofit that brings in $500,000 a year in coffee roasting, brewed coffee and handmade soaps, in addition to gifts from individuals, churches and foundations.

Does your organization have empty spaces that could be re-imagined into a way to serve your community in this season?

There are typically 10 full-time staff and up to 50 more in various part-time roles — including those students. In the wake of COVID-19, the shop is currently curbside and delivery only.

After-school programs are shuttered for now, coffee and soap production continues with just a handful of students, and the once-bustling community center has transitioned to a quiet, safe and internet-ready space for younger children to take part in remote learning.

The bright and spacious community center is adorned with colorful murals. 

But the undercurrent of digging in for the long haul remains.

“Numbers are important,” said William Parker, the Harvest Hands director of youth and mentoring. “But they don’t dictate success.”

‘What do you love about your neighborhood?’

It was the Rev. Howard Olds who drew Hicks from Kentucky to the neighborhood. Olds was the longtime pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church, an affluent congregation in an adjacent county. He was interested in neighborhood revitalization in South Nashville, not far from downtown; the church had the resources but not the manpower for the work.

Hicks, a seminary grad who cut his social activism teeth working in inner-city Philadelphia, Chicago’s South Side and Louisville, was hired by the church to lead the nonprofit. As the organization grew, all other staff would be funded through Harvest Hands and represent a variety of denominations, experience and education.

Harvest Hands has roots deep in the community.

Hicks had been further inspired by the writings of John Perkins, co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association, and was ready to see communities empowered through true partnership rather than charity. He was ready to put down roots.

Olds, meanwhile, had attended a community meeting and was told that if he really wanted to make a difference, the church should buy the drug house on the top of a neighborhood hill.

Traditioned Innovation Award Winner

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners received $10,000 to continue their work.

“So they did,” Hicks said. “He didn’t ask the congregation, which was made up of CEOs and leaders. He told them. And that became the entry point.”

The house was torn down, and a fall harvest festival was held on the lot.

“The price of admission was a survey,” Hicks said. “We asked them, ‘What do you love about your neighborhood? And what would you change?’”

The residents were concerned about kids with nothing to do but get in trouble. An after-school program was a simple ask.

The newly formed Harvest Hands bought a small house and started working with children in 2008. It had outgrown that house by the following year, and the Methodist Church donated the building — the former Humphreys Street UMC — that would eventually become the coffee house. But things were just getting started.

Ruben Torres, an introverted middle schooler who would hunch over and fold into himself as if he didn’t exist, was already part of the Harvest Hands program. Hicks saw promise in Torres and asked whether he might be interested in a new opportunity.

He could learn how to roast coffee, “a grown-up, adult thing that was super exciting,” Torres said. Harvest Hands was looking for a social enterprise that would engage teens; a paycheck would be a definite draw.

Whom do you need to invite to get involved in your community’s mission in a new way?

The church provided an introduction to one member in particular: Cal Turner Jr., former chairman and CEO of Dollar General. Hicks asked Turner for not only a Diedrich coffee roaster — a high-quality machine geared toward specialty batch roasting — but also a trip to the company’s Idaho headquarters for himself and one other to learn how to use it.

“That’s like learning to drive from Henry Ford,” Hicks said. Turner told the then-30-year-old Hicks to write a business plan and he’d make it happen. Hicks enlisted the help of the teens. After a few tweaks here and there, Turner held true to his word.

Fresh coffee beans from Africa, Central America, South America and Southeast Asia  are roasted and bagged daily at Harvest Hands.

Torres was chosen for the trip. Today, he’s production manager and head roaster, overseeing teens not unlike who he once was. Harvest Hands, he said, helped him learn about his value as a person.

“Something we very much believe in is that everybody in the community has the potential to be greater,” Torres said. “There are also people who have the potential to be leaders. The talent is there. There’s no need to bring a whole bunch of external factors.”

It is easy to default to bringing in trusted external experts to start something new. What potential is already present in your community waiting to be invited to contribute?

He considers himself fortunate to have had an “awesome support system and great parents.” His mother, Jael Fuentes, is now soap production manager at Harvest Hands. But Torres also understands he’s in a position to model change, leadership and motivation for others. His own experience lends credibility.

“They take things to heart from me,” he said. “As opposed to saying, ‘You don’t know my life.’”

Ruben Torres, coffee manager and head roaster, and his mother Jael Fuentes, the  soap production manager, work together at the Harvest Hands facility.

Giving it back to the people

As coffee and soap production grew, the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood began to gentrify.

“The first thing we did,” Torres said, “was to invite the community members in and say, ‘What do you need? What do you see?’”

With housing costs rapidly rising, many were being forced out.

By 2015, Harvest Hands staff knew they needed to relocate. They met with members of the Napier-Sudekum neighborhood, less than a mile away, and learned of the need for after-school programs there, too.

Naturally, there were new challenges. Napier-Sudekum has more than 800 government housing units; crime rates and violence are high, and Harvest Hands notes that the average annual household income is $6,500. But it is also a community in which neighbors look out for each other and untapped talent is overflowing. Hicks found an old warehouse perfect for a community center and set to work.

The brick-and-mortar coffee shop opened in 2018. Online sales have continued through the pandemic.

“It was the craziest thing,” he said. “We beat the realtors and the developers to the building. As much as gentrification pushed people out, it drove up the price of that original crack house lot [in Wedgewood-Houston].”

The property that Harvest Hands had bought for $275,000 was sold to developers for $2.3 million, with plans to add shipping container units for “affordable” housing. The funds from the sale have been given back to the people, in essence, as Harvest Hands continues to expand its reach.

“It’s creatively using gentrification for justice,” Hicks said.

A call to reform

The bright and spacious community center in Napier-Sudekum officially opened in 2016. Named for Olds, who died in 2008, it is adorned with colorful murals and words like “integrity,” “compassion,” “love,” “courage,” “respect” and “wisdom.” There’s a playground and a large lab-like room that now houses two coffee roasters, stacked bags of coffee beans and packaged handmade soaps.

What do the spaces your organization inhabits communicate to others? How do you cultivate a space in which people feel valued?

As one of the first craft roasters in Nashville, Harvest Hands had steadily built a following that has helped sustain the organization through the pandemic. Online sales through its website include coffee from Africa, Central America, South America and Southeast Asia, in addition to liquid and bar soaps, laundry soap and a coffee sugar scrub. The brick-and-mortar coffee shop on Humphreys Street opened in 2018.

When people visit the Howard Olds Community Center, Hicks said, they often seem surprised at just how “amazing” it is. “Several things go through my mind — first, do you think these kids should not have a great space? Is it supposed to be a dump? We try to help kids believe that they are valuable and they are worth it.”

During the pandemic Harvest Hands is offering a smaller group of students socially distanced space for supervised, remote learning.

Jessica Holman, the organization’s senior director of employee and community relations, grew up in the area and came to work at Harvest Hands while in graduate school at Vanderbilt University close to a decade ago. She knows firsthand that local residents have “inherent talents and skills,” she said. “They just need opportunities to let them shine.”

“I wish that people knew the people in these communities,” she said. “There are some amazing people here. Intelligent. Creative. And I wish people knew about the sense of community here, too.”

Consider Jarica Sanders, a self-employed artist, hair braider and mother of three. Her kids, ages 7, 8 and 10, have taken part in Harvest Hands programs for several years. They’ve played a variety of sports with the organization, participated in after-school programs, learned life skills, been encouraged in their faith and are now going to the community center for virtual learning. Sanders is hoping her oldest son, Lemy, will be able to gain work experience through Harvest Hands when he’s older, too.

In her Napier-Sudekum neighborhood, she said, “if you don’t know about Harvest Hands, I don’t know where you’ve been.” And it’s not just the activities and opportunities for the kids. Sanders said the organization has a reputation for truly partnering with residents.

“We have parent meetings at Harvest Hands,” she said. “They give us the chance to come in and tell them what’s working and what’s not working and what they could do better. They get the community involved, and I really like that. A lot of programs, they just come out and say, ‘We have this, this and this.’ But the people at Harvest Hands actually take the time to say, ‘What do you need? What do you think can we add?’ That’s a very big help.”

Harvest Hands follows the tenets of asset-based community development, which include focusing on those strengths, gifts and talents already present rather than just working to “fix” what’s wrong.

How much of your organization’s work is “fixing” what is wrong, and how much is building upon the strengths, gifts and talents already at work?

Parker, a Memphis minister who came to Harvest Hands in January, said those concepts had always been part of his story; he just didn’t know them by that name.

Learning about the powers that systemically oppress communities — especially communities of color in urban environments — tugged at his heart. So did the opportunity to continue his work with teens.

The Rev. William Parker works with a middle school student during a remote learning session.

“It’s not enough for me to just believe that Jesus Christ has changed the world through his actions,” he said. “That same spirit that is in Jesus is in me, and it’s calling me to bring reform, to change, to be with the community and say that it doesn’t have to be this way. The gospel is more than just the theological ideology that we hold that sounds good on Sunday mornings. It calls for social reform to be in the mix.

“I’m just trying to lean into that social holiness piece and say, ‘OK, justice is really close to the heart of God.’ If I want to be able to understand how faith is played out in communities, I need to be in a position to hear stories and say, ‘Where is God in that story, do you think?’ … What drew me to Harvest Hands was to have space to ask the big questions without attempting to fix anything. That’s where real healing takes place, where people are brought back to themselves.”

Living Jesus out loud

That same hot day that customers were lining up for coffee at the shop, Parker was sharing a classroom in the community center with a middle schooler taking part in remote learning; the city’s schools had not yet opened for in-person classes because of COVID-19.

Across the hall, Chartrice Crowley, the director of elementary programs, had a handful of younger students of her own. The kids have been on alternating days from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., mindful of social distancing limits, with sibling schedules matched to ease the burden for parents.

This effort, too, came from going to the community and asking rather than assuming what was needed. It is the difference in saying, “We are here for you, not because of you,” Parker said.

How might your organization’s work be different if it existed “for” people rather than “because of” people?

In more normal seasons, Crowley plans after-school enrichment opportunities like African drumming and ballet, homework time, personal development, fun, and a faith component. Harvest Hands allows her to “live Jesus out loud” in a way that working in a public school would not.

Chartrice Crowley, director of elementary school programs, helps supervise remote learning, an effort which grew out of asking community members what they needed.

“The thing that makes me most proud about working here is that I get to see the fruits of the seeds that have been planted,” Crowley said. “I get to see greatness every day. These kids are amazing. They’re fun. They’re witty. They’re smart. They blow me away every day with what they know.” Even when they’re figuring out learning through a screen.

Students come to the community center on alternating days with sibling schedules coordinated to support parents.

There’s a cultural element to Harvest Hands, too, one that opens doors of opportunity, knowledge and respect for the predominantly Black community. Classrooms, for example, are named for historically Black colleges and universities, with those names changing each semester to increase exposure.

“Students are placed in their ‘house’ at the beginning of each semester,” Holman said, “and they participate in house games throughout the semester, where they are able to win prizes. We think it’s important for our students to know the history of HBCUs, why they were created, and that they are an option for them to further their education. It’s important that they learn about Black excellence at an early age so that they grow up learning that greatness lies within them.”

Local street artist Charles Key serves as another inspiration; his work can be seen throughout the community center (as well as at various Nashville sites). There are portraits of lesser-known Black leaders — many of them from the area — on the walls of the middle school classroom.

Overall, the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19 makes some aspects of the future unclear. What is clear is that Harvest Hands will keep asking the community what it needs and endeavoring to incorporate the resources available to bring it about.

Torres hopes to develop a roasting certification program for the students he oversees. Hicks is looking forward to hallways full of kids once again. Parker is exploring pathways to success for high schoolers. And Holman will keep seeking opportunities to tell the story of long-term vision and sustainable success.

As for others hoping to do the same? Holman suggests that they’d do well to check their “why.”

“Will you be there for the long haul, willing to relinquish power to the people within the community and let them shape it?” she said. “Our goal, at the end of the day, is to work ourselves out of a job. If we’re doing what we aspire to do, that means the community will lead. Then they’ll be the ones out there doing what needs to be done.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • Does your organization have empty spaces that could be re-imagined into a way to serve your community in this season?
  • Whom do you need to invite to get involved in your community’s mission in a new way?
  • It is easy to default to bringing in trusted external experts to start something new. What potential is already present in your community waiting to be invited to contribute?
  • What do the spaces your organization inhabits communicate to others? How do you cultivate a space in which people feel valued?
  • How much of your organization’s work is “fixing” what is wrong, and how much is building upon the strengths, gifts and talents already at work?
  • How might your organization’s work be different if it existed “for” people rather than “because of” people?

By now, no concept or idea is too off-the-wall for the Rev. Barry Randolph and his congregation at Church of the Messiah in Detroit.

More than 200 affordable housing units run by the church? Check. Free internet for residents who didn’t have access? Done. A growing list of incubated businesses with products ranging from tea to deodorant to a clothing line? No problem.

This innovative Episcopal church anchors the Islandview neighborhood on Detroit’s east side. In a city with an estimated poverty rate of 36%, more than three times the national average, Randolph is driven by a desire to foster an equitable community whose residents have a stake in its success.

Parishioners attend Sunday church service outside the Church of the Messiah. Photo by Rebecca Cook

“You can’t throw money at it. It’s not about just getting somebody a job. Now you have to teach people how to keep the job,” said 57-year-old Randolph. “And it’s not about just bringing people up. Sometimes you gotta bring up the whole community.”

What challenges does your congregation face that cannot be solved with money?

This approach helped Randolph transform the church, once on the verge of shuttering, to a community hub that’s now more than 300 members strong, racially diverse and majority young.

Randolph and his parishioners see the church as an incubation center. At the church, someone with a business idea can team up with accountants and attorneys to get it off the ground, and many have.

“You need your phone charged? Here’s a charging station,” said Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, referring to Church of the Messiah’s four solar-powered community charging stations. “The entrepreneurial spirit, that kind of spirit, is what our church longs for.”

2020 Traditioned Innovation Award Winner

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners received $10,000 to continue their work.

People returning home from prison can seek help getting a job from the church’s employment office. The church is also the home base for a marching band that secures college scholarships for teens who once thought they wouldn’t graduate from high school.

To Randolph, it all ties back to providing people a path out of poverty.

A relatable approach

Ask members at Church of the Messiah their impressions of Randolph and his leadership and they’ll likely say he’s the “realest” pastor they know.

Before he became a priest, Randolph was a businessman. He co-owned a distribution company, dabbled in catering and managed the deli at a local market for a decade.

He doesn’t write down his sermons. He doesn’t preach from the pulpit, because he doesn’t like to be elevated above his congregation.

He dresses casually, wearing a short-sleeved button-up and khakis during a recent outdoor service.

His congregation calls him Pastor Barry, not Father.

Randolph welcomes parishioners to the church’s outdoor Sunday service. Photo by Rebecca Cook

Of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan’s 90 active priests and deacons, he’s one of six Black clergypeople.

Bucking the trend of the majority-white denomination, 60% of Church of the Messiah’s members are Black men under 30. Randolph says 70% of his congregation is under age 35.

“It was kind of different for me seeing people exactly like me, the exact same mentality,” said 22-year-old Samijai Blanks, a Black man who has been involved with the church since he was a boy. “A lot of people my age wouldn’t even think about church.”

Randolph lives at the church and doesn’t take a salary. He has a large family — 11 brothers and sisters, and 31 adult nieces and nephews — who pitch in to support him financially. His relatives pay for his groceries and help with transportation, because he doesn’t own a car.

Foundation funding, philanthropic donations, and a mix of spiritual and secular collaboration sustain the church’s ministries. Over the years, the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and others have financed efforts such as the business incubation program and the employment office.

“We never do anything based on money. We do it, and then the money seems to follow,” Randolph said. “People see the work, and then they come in and they help us to be able to build.”

What could your church do if you pursued an idea first and trusted that the money would follow?

Church of the Messiah’s work in the community has drawn interest from as far as Latvia and Uganda. The church is spearheading what it calls The Master’s Plan, a coalition of 103 religious organizations seeking to rebuild communities and lift people out of poverty by drawing on the talents of their congregations. Randolph is leading churches in doing an asset assessment to identify members who work in the medical field, skilled trades, education and other professions to “help build the kingdom.”

“We’re trying to use other churches to be able to do it in their community and neighborhood with no excuses,” he said. “It’s worked for us.”

The hardest aspect of this type of community building is for churches to shift their mindset from focusing on what people are missing to realizing what they have, said the Rev. Michael Mather, the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Boulder, Colorado, and a faculty member at the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University.

What would it take to shift your church’s focus from what’s missing to what assets are present?

Mather is a former pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, where he revamped the church’s approach to ministry by asking people what their gifts were and looking for opportunities around those talents.

“One of the rules that we followed and that we’ve tried to think about a lot was that money should always flow into the hands of the people who don’t have much,” Mather said. “In the past, what we’ve done is we would pay ourselves to run programs for people whose problem was they didn’t have money. But we didn’t see the irrationality of it when we were doing it.”

Making the word of God tangible

Randolph first came to Church of the Messiah in 1991. He attended a service to hear his mother, a member, speak about faith.

He hadn’t been to church in two years. Raised a Baptist, he’d always believed in God. “I just couldn’t stand organized religion,” he said.

He found the Episcopal service ritualistic and dry. He hated the chanting. The hymns reminded him of a funeral march. Bored by it all, he swore he’d never return.

But the church was looking for someone to tutor kids in reading, and Randolph agreed to it. The church’s commitment to the community, demonstrated through efforts like the Church of the Messiah Housing Corporation founded in 1978, and his respect for the people behind those efforts, including then-rector the Rev. Canon Ronald Spann, eased his skepticism. Randolph eventually became a member.

Affordable townhouses built by Church of the Messiah. Photo by Rebecca Cook

His relationship with the church deepened thanks to his love for working with kids. He became the Sunday school teacher, then the youth director, then the worship leader.

Randolph moved to the Islandview neighborhood in 1997 to be close to Church of the Messiah. He grew up six blocks away, but unlike Islandview, his childhood neighborhood had no concentrated poverty. When he moved there as an adult, he realized that while his upbringing had been more privileged, he felt more at home in tightknit Islandview. The residents were the jewels of the community — they just needed opportunity.

Becoming an Episcopal priest wasn’t in Randolph’s plans. But in 1998, God spoke to him and called him to bring more young people to Church of the Messiah as a priest.

The church’s numbers had plummeted to 40 members by the time Randolph became ordained in 2002. The situation only worsened over the following years. With Church of the Messiah in debt and the building in disrepair, Randolph knew he needed to do something different.

“Church of the Messiah was always a community church in the sense that people knew that we did housing or summer camps or after-school programs,” he said. “What they didn’t get was how we worshipped. They didn’t come to worship. They came to everything else.”

The traditional service didn’t resonate with the community, so Randolph redesigned it. He added a noon service to attract young parishioners. Mindful that some people might be illiterate, he got rid of the collective readings. The outline of the Episcopal service remained, but this new version was wrapped in a package that was accessible to first-time churchgoers.

“He attracted all these young people,” said Kenyon Reese, 48, who has been a member nearly all his life. Reese recalls the service dwindling to just eight or nine people before Randolph switched it up. “He just changed the energy,” he said.

Samijai Blanks holds his daughter Lyrie Blanks during a worship service. Photo by Rebecca Cook

Randolph geared the service toward bringing out parishioners’ greatness, with the church acting as the incubation center to help people realize their goals. Through the doors came formerly incarcerated people, former gang members and individuals who’d dropped out of school. These new parishioners wanted to know how to tap into the greatness Randolph preached about. What did greatness mean for them when they couldn’t find a job? Randolph directed them to the church’s employment office and entrepreneurship mentoring.

How might you make your church and its offerings more accessible to more people?

“We were putting things in place to where we were making the word of God tangible, regardless of your background,” Randolph said.

Word traveled in the neighborhood and beyond. The buzz attracted professionals, doctors and attorneys curious about the church’s growing reputation as a business incubator, an employer and a housing provider. The church’s membership grew to 100 people within six months, Randolph said. Then to 200 the next year. Within three years, Church of the Messiah was home to 300 members.

Though the coronavirus pandemic has forced changes, Church of the Messiah has been growing. Photo by Rebecca Cook

Investing in second chances

Some arrive at the church out of necessity and come to view it as a community center and a home.

That was 26-year-old Dwight Roston’s path.

At 16, Roston said, he was getting into trouble — skipping school, fighting and stealing cars — a product of being young and bored and unable to find a job. He showed up at Church of the Messiah to do community service as a condition of his probation. He wasn’t looking for guidance, but Randolph quickly noticed that Roston was artistically inclined.

How can you train your parishioners to notice and affirm the gifts of others?

Randolph asked him: Why was he stealing cars if he was this good at drawing?

So Roston stuck around. At the church, he learned to use a screen press to make and sell his own T-shirts. He recorded music. He worked for Nikki’s Ginger Tea, the longest-running business incubated by the church, which showed him the ins and outs of wholesale and retail. He learned to install free internet in the neighborhood through the church’s participation in the Equitable Internet Initiative. He learned video production, worked on a project with PBS and started his own company, I Am Productions.

The church service is only an hour on Sundays, but Roston finds himself at the church every day.

“It has all these different programs, and you can’t find that anywhere else,” he said. “They don’t care about what kind of past you have or anything like that. Are you willing to be a productive person? Everybody has something to bring to the table, like a bunch of puzzle pieces.”

Kimberly Woodson, 50, credits Randolph with helping her find a job and launch her own nonprofit after she served 29 years in prison for a murder conviction as a juvenile.

Woodson was pregnant and looking for housing when someone brought her to Church of the Messiah a few years ago. She shared her story with Randolph and later became a member.

Kimberly Woodson stands on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol building after speaking at a rally organized by the National Lifers of America. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Woodson

Woodson told Randolph that she wanted to help others reenter society after incarceration. He introduced her to a woman who works in prison ministry and could walk Woodson through the process of starting a nonprofit. She helped Woodson fill out paperwork for articles of incorporation and apply for an employer identification number, steps that Woodson said would have been overwhelming without guidance.

The ministry of introduction can be a simple act with profound repercussions. Is there someone you know who needs to be introduced to someone else?

Now Woodson’s organization, Redeeming Kimberly, has been operating for a year and hosts events such as clothing drives and resource fairs at the church.

Randolph could help the community by simply giving away food and clothing, Woodson said, but instead, he chooses to invest in people and their ideas.

“He don’t just give you a fish. He’ll give you a fish and a fishing rod, tell you how to get to the water, the best methods to make the bait and how to catch the fish,” she said.

Randolph believes that people have been blessed with talents from God. And at Church of the Messiah, he invites them to grow those gifts.

“We’re created in the image of God,” he said. “So we need to bring it into fruition. We don’t want to waste that gift or talent.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • The Rev. Barry Randolph says that you can’t just throw money at a community in poverty to improve it. What challenges does your congregation face that cannot be solved with money?
  • Randolph’s funding has largely come after he’s pursued ideas. What could your church do if you pursued an idea first and trusted that the money would follow?
  • Changing from a scarcity mindset is difficult. What would it take to shift your church’s focus from what’s missing to what assets are present?
  • Randolph redesigned the service to allow the community to engage. How might you make your church and its offerings more accessible to more people?
  • Randolph saw how talented a parishioner was and encouraged that talent. How can you train your parishioners to notice and affirm the gifts of others?
  • The ministry of introduction can be a simple act with profound repercussions. Is there someone you know who needs to be introduced to someone else?

I have spent my entire ministry believing that disruption can be a good thing. Maybe that’s hard to accept in the midst of a pandemic. But when things are disrupted, something new can break in.

My ministry was born out of a frustration that too often we perpetuate models that no longer apply to the world in which we live, excluding and leaving people behind. To me, that is the antithesis of the hope of the gospel.

I have spent over 20 years pursuing alternatives, the last 15 alongside entrepreneurs faced with intractable challenges and systems that just aren’t working. I founded Matryoshka Haus, a nonprofit that was part incubator, part community, part training organization.

Yet after training entrepreneurs to tackle wicked problems and think in new ways, Matryoshka Haus found itself in a place where its model was no longer working. We had to do what we have advised others to do: we had to pivot.

Our organization has become three different nonprofits, including RootedGood, which empowers institutions, social enterprises and entrepreneurs to make good in the world. You’ll hear more about why we did this below.

From this experience, we have identified five distinct phases of a pivot — five stages you need to move through when the structures you’ve built no longer work.

In addition, RootedGood just released a tool called “What Now?” — a decision-making tool that helps leaders understand and map their changing needs and constraints, consider their resources and design new ways to respond to the challenges and opportunities they face.

I am sharing both our experience with the five stages and the free online tool because I believe they are relevant to all of us today.

The What Now? tool also can help congregations trying to decide whether to reopen.

The five stages of a pivot

1. Recognition

Recognition is often the hardest stage in the process. You have to see that something isn’t working.

Cognitive bias predisposes us to retell a narrative suggesting that something is working or that the outcome makes it all worth it.

To recognize that something isn’t working does not mean that nothing good has come of it — rather, that the good does not fully reflect the intended impact.

At Matryoshka Haus, by some metrics we entered our pivot year more successful than ever. We were winning awards and getting the work we wanted with the people we wanted to work with.

At the same time, the wheels were coming off internally. We were burning through volunteers, our team was overfunctioning, and our reserves were tapped out. We were working harder and harder but not able to come up for air.

We hired a managing partner, and when he held the mirror up to us, we had a come-to-Jesus moment. Something had to change.

We can extend this to the COVID-19 world around us as well. Can’t we recognize that there is something broken in our ecclesiology and in our economics when the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger? Can’t we see that our churches’ economic models are failing when the church looks as busy and stressed out as the business world?

It is time to recognize that we’ve been totally out of control and the way we’ve been living hasn’t been good for people or the planet.

2. Grief

Once you recognize that things have to change, you feel loss — and with it, a deep fear because of the uncertainty of what will replace it.

Christians are a people that believe in a gospel of death and resurrection. But too often, we rush from death to resurrection and don’t acknowledge the pain and the loss. The challenge here is not to rush or move on too quickly. We need to acknowledge the loss and make space for our feelings.

For me, the grief about Matryoshka Haus was as much about the lost ideal as anything else. For so long, I believed that if we just worked harder it would all be OK. I believed that we really could overcome any obstacle. We were smart, creative and tenacious, and we were in it together. One of the hardest things was acknowledging that we, as a team, couldn’t move into the future together, and that whatever came next would be different.

With the current pandemic crisis, we’ve lost some of our sense of security. We are separated from others. Our economy is crumbling around us. And one of the hardest things is that we aren’t comfortable with grief. If we cannot acknowledge what is being lost, it is impossible to move forward in a healthy way.

Grief needs a way to commemorate and memorialize. At Matryoshka Haus, we created a ritual to allow ourselves, our community and other stakeholders the space to mourn and celebrate. We held a service that allowed other people to mark the changes with us, celebrate the past and pray for the future.

3. Learning

You don’t want to sit in grief forever. In this step, we start to see the things we want to take with us and the things we need to leave behind. We need to find a way to sift through the rubble and pull out the essential and meaningful parts from the past, but we also need to identify the assumptions that were problematic.

At Matryoshka Haus, we had several faulty assumptions. Things that worked for us when we were young and small became part of our Achilles’ heel as we grew.

For instance, we believed that our complexity was a gift, being part incubator, part community, part training organization. And the truth is that when we were young and new and small, it was an asset. But as we grew, that asset became a liability; everything became messier and more entangled.

However, we still had a lot going on that was good and worth celebrating. One of the most beautiful and powerful things that happened at our commemorative service was hearing people who had worked with us in different seasons talk about how they had been affected.

Our work was having a lasting impact, and in more powerful ways than we knew. There was gold in that, and whatever we do next, we want to create more ripple effects!

In our new COVID-19 world, we are still learning, but some lessons are becoming clear: how fragile our economic and civil systems are, as well as our models of church.

If we really have the courage to be honest, people on the margins have been telling us this all along. The church has been measuring success by the number of people in the pews and the amount of money in the offering plate — as if that reflected authentic discipleship or the existence of beloved community.

Surely, we are realizing that individualism only gets us so far. We are interconnected. The opportunity here is to ask, What, then, is our path toward mutuality and interdependence, toward mercy and justice?

4. Renewed vision

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “knowing your why.” Your why is what helps you get back in the ring. When you truly grab hold of your why again, then the how you do your work and the what you do doesn’t matter.

What matters is the telos. To what end are you working? What is your desired impact? What transformation will you see in people, places, policies or systems? When you think through the lens of impact and purpose — the why — then you can more easily redesign the how and the what.

This is the step where hope can break back in. It’s where we can be more aware of both the opportunities and the challenges. We understand the reason we exist, and we can acknowledge our false assumptions.

At Matryoshka Haus, I had to go back to what got me into this work to begin with. Acts 17:6, which talks about “the ones that have turned the world upside down” with the gospel, has been a driving force for me.

It is the impulse of Christian innovation to demonstrate that another world is possible. So when Matryoshka Haus decided to restructure, we did it with our core intent in mind: whatever we did, we wanted it to be doing transformative work at a systems level.

In our infancy, we did that by incubating our own projects. In the next season, we will do that in partnerships.

I don’t know the why for America or the world in this time of crisis. But for Christians, surely our why takes us back to the fact that we are not meant to serve ourselves but the Lord. We are called to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Maybe that seems simplistic. But it is the answer Jesus gave when asked what is the heart of the gospel.

5. Re-imagined practice

Once you get clearer on your why and the impact you want to have, then you can re-imagine the how. This is where new practice can be developed.

In stage five, we hit the place where it is time to be brave again. But as we start again, we do it with our eyes wide open. Knowing more than we knew before, we get back in the ring.

Kenda Creasy Dean teaches practical theology and social innovation at Princeton Theological Seminary. She says that 90% of first-time entrepreneurial ventures fail but 80% of second-time ventures succeed — yet 90% of first-time entrepreneurs don’t try again.

Our pivot ended with a birth of new things. We decided to restructure all of our work into three new organizations, two in the U.K. and one in the U.S. In my new role, I am a co-founder and the lead cultivator of the U.S.-based RootedGood. The other spinoffs are Goodmakers Society and the Ti Group.

Rather than holding on to the complexity we once cherished, this restructuring allows each organization to focus on its mission and landscape and live out its prophetic imagination.

I have shared this five-stage process because I believe that the current disruption of a global pandemic is a moment in time where we, as Christian leaders and the church writ large, are being invited to pivot.

The world needs us to show up as a hopeful people and to be good news people. And this current crisis gives us the perfect opportunity to turn the world upside down with the gospel.