Monday, May 27, 2024

Pastor’s vision team was key to his church’s 15% growth during COVID

By Julia Duin | Hartford Institute for Religion Research

Chad McMullin speaking to his congregation/Contributed

If Chad McMullin had to list what made his church flourish instead of fade as a result of the COVID crisis, he’d list three things:

  1. He had a stand-out media team that was already streaming the service online when the disease hit.
  2. His church aggressively used Zoom, personal visits, specially crafted videos and even concerts to connect a community that felt abandoned and alone.
  3. Within a few months, a group of his most active members came up with a vision for post-Covid healing that centered on reflection, rest and connection with God. They followed it, and the community responded.

Today, a church that was averaging 260 attendees on a Sunday has risen 15% to 300 people attending in person with an equal amount listening online. The church budget jumped 20% and building expansion plans are on the table.

McMullin, 53, is pastor of First Christian Church in Sedalia, a town of 22,000 in central Missouri about 88 miles east of Kansas City. First Christian is part of the Disciples of Christ, a , mainline Protestant denomination headquartered in Indianapolis that has about 277,864 adherents.

The town’s roots date back to the 1860s, when Texas ranchers drove their longhorn cattle hundreds of miles north to the nearest rail head – which at the time was Sedalia – get their beef on an east-west line that would ship the cattle on stock cars to Chicago. First Christian was the town’s first congregation.

McMullin, who stands 6 feet tall with silver/grey hair, a close-cropped goatee and mustache and black-rimmed glasses, arrived in town 13 years ago from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The church was down to less than 150 people.

“The church was not in good shape when I got here,” he said. “It was a crisis scenario I came into. They were hemorrhaging members; morale was low, and they were in a bad place. I was in a place where I needed a new start and we seemed to be a good fit from the get-go.”

Over the years, he grew the congregation by more than half, so that by the beginning of 2020, some 260 people were attending on Sundays. Part of his strategy was steering clear of politics.

“Me and my church leaders have an intentional strategy of not going there. We do not let our differences divide us. We had a 32-year state Democratic senator sitting next to a Republican poll worker and this is a place where we do things differently. I think a lot of churches fail because they lean too far one way or another and it’s just not the place for it,” he said.

McMullin had also established a once-every three-years “vision process” where he selected a group of 12-15 church members who spent six months discerning where First Christian needed to go for the next three years. The concept created a committed core and helped members “own” where the church was headed.

That “vision process” with a new team of 15 was just getting underway when the pandemic started. The church already had one ace in the hole: It was streaming its worship online even though only 10 people were watching.

“So when the pandemic hit we were poised and ready on that,” McMullin said. “We still had to make a few adjustments but not as many as some of the other churches. We had good technicians, and the online service grew quickly. Our organist and pianist put on online concerts. Thousands of people watched that. I had some experience with cameras and strategies that helped with presentation of worship online.”

His small staff amped up the personal, one-on-one engagement with shut-in people.

“One of the hardest parts of the pandemic was the isolation,” he said. “We were still engaging people physically, visiting them in their homes, on their porches, while wearing masks. We were even doling out money to church members who were having hard times.”

The youth group was the first to use Zoom, but soon the whole staff was having Bible studies on it, engaging 30-40 people in that way. McMullin estimates seven-to-10 people joined during the worst part of Covid, mainly because First Christian was out there connecting with the community.

The church produced a worship video. The building was kept open during the week so people looking for something to do could come for individual prayer. The former associate pastor and his wife concentrated on reaching out via social media.

This paid off financially as giving increased during the pandemic. What once was a $380,000 budget is now approaching $500,000.

After five months, the church slowly began to re-open, albeit with masks and social distancing.  Meanwhile, the vision team was clarifying what the church should look like post-COVID.

They decided to solidify the church’s brand as a congregation with a big emphasis on spirituality, justice and what the pastor calls “radical welcome of everyone.”

Another goal was for a time of extended rest and healing, a counterintuitive move considering that people had been forced to be inactive for much of the previous year.

But congregational leaders had discerned an underswell of grief and weariness that needed to be discussed, dealt with and dispatched before moving on.

“That was one of the best things we did,” McMullin said. “We gave a sacred experience to offer them reflection and rest; conversations that matter, things that were more experiential across the board.  We offered a more healing space.

“Like we’d have guided meditations, the stations of the cross or when people gather, you give people the opportunity as to what they bring into this space. We even brought a grief counselor for those who were really struggling with grief,” he said. “They needed to enter into that, so we thought, ‘Let’s create a space for them to enter into it.’ It was not business as usual. Sometimes the church gets too administrative, and we moved away from that. We helped people connect with pain and connect with God through it.   In our worship services, we offered more reflective space.”

They also decided not to pressure those who had left the church nor make them feel guilty for having mixed feelings about being there. It was also not a time to do hard-sell evangelism or needless chit-chat.

“We said, ‘Come whenever you’re ready.’  We had to completely change gears from what motivates people to be here; it needs to be what’s already here; it is not so they can chat about the Kansas City Chiefs.”

This approach has worked in a town set in the corn and soybean fields of central Missouri.

“Two weeks ago, I had this couple show up and they came down the front during the in-person service,” the pastor said, “and they said they’d been watching for two years from a town 30 miles away. They wanted to join the church and get involved.

“It’s neat to be part of something that is working and working well. I have to give all the credit to the Lord and hardworking leaders around me who’ve been willing to make so many adjustments,” he said.