Church leadership is never going back to "normal"
Church leaders: I want you to think back to the seven days between Sunday, March 8th and Sunday, March 15th, 2020. In just seven days, you led a transition from fully in-person worship, complete with Holy Communion, choirs, and packed pews, to fully online worship with Zoom, YouTube, or Facebook.
When we think about the ongoing changes in this time of digital distribution, we would do well not just to focus on the technologies we have adopted, but the transformative steps we have taken as leaders. In those same seven days, you started the transition from a leadership model centered around in-person staff collaboration to a practice of distributed, digital-first Christian leadership. The office will no longer be the locus of church leadership. Offline decision making will no longer be commonplace.
A distributed, digital-first model of Christian leadership is here to stay, even after we arrive at an eventual new normal. Such a model aligns well to the cultural expectations of the digital age, and therefore, rises to meet the challenges of contemporary Christian leadership.
Fundamentally, a distributed and digital-first model is more inclusive. Digital distribution opens the doors to more than staff and church insiders because it facilitates contribution without unrealistic commitments of time, energy, and motivation. It’s far easier to hold a Zoom meeting that is representative of the diversity within a community than it is to invite these diverse perspectives to sit in synchronous, face-to-face meetings during the workday. When decision-making processes are not exclusively vested in staff meetings behind closed doors, we have a natural opportunity to include more voices, perspectives, and ideas. As Christian leaders strive to increase the diversity within their congregations and ministries, distributed decision-making practices send a clear message: that your expertise is needed, that your opinions are valid, that your ideas are celebrated.
A distributed and digital-first model is also inherently more collaborative. Most church offices, with their locked exterior entries, closed interior doors, and staff gate-keepers are not suitable for empathizing, ideating, and brainstorming. But digital technology is defined by a commitment to collaboration: the ability to draw more contributors into a project, the ease of requesting feedback, the seamless ability to get things done asynchronously. Cloud-based technologies like Google Docs and Slack naturally nudge us to listen, share, and decide together, while communication tools like YouTube and Vimeo encourage the communal practice of creativity.
In early March, we didn’t know that this time of digital distribution would permanently alter Christian leadership. Now we know that the momentum towards the shared leadership model is unstoppable. Digital and distributed is here to stay, even in the church. Let us be grateful for this ongoing leadership transformation.
Ryan Panzer is the author of “Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture,” a book that explores how our digital culture continues to reshape the practices of Christian leadership. Join us December 1st for a free conference on how this time of digital distribution is permanently remaking the practice of Christian leadership!