The Big Church Leadership Mistake of 2021 (That You Can Still Avoid)

As America and other parts of the world have begun to open again for in-person services, many churches and organizations keep falling into a trap we first identified a year ago.

The mistake? It’s far too easy to step back into the past the moment you step back into your church building.

The biggest mistake most leaders made comes from the emotional rush to get back into a facility, see everyone again, and assemble their teams and get back to ‘normal’. Trust me, I miss it. With COVID surging again in Canada, we haven’t had in-building services for over a year.

That said, it’s just too easy to embrace a model of ministry designed to reach a world that no longer exists.

So many church leaders re-embrace a model of ministry designed to reach a world that no longer exists. Click To Tweet

As many church leaders who have reopened for in-person gatherings have discovered, getting back to 2019 attendance has proved challenging.

That’s because crisis is an accelerator and many of the trends that were already at play before the pandemic were sped up. Chief among them: the rise of post-Christian culture and decentralization. (Here are 8 trends to keep watching in 2021.)

As hard as the last year has been, you’ve learned so much in this disruption that to simply re-embrace what was will destroy what can be. 

So what’s the danger as you gear up for full, post-pandemic services in your facility?


Thinking that when you walk back into your building things will be just fine. In other words, you don’t really need to change anymore.

Which is the fastest path to irrelevance. 

Things have changed. Radically.

The world has changed. Radically.

Getting back to where you were doesn’t actually move you forward.

By way of reminder, here are 5 things that you’ll miss if you step back into the past when you step back into your building.

Too many church leaders step right back into the past the moment they step back in their building. Click To Tweet

1. Your Innovation Curve Will Come to an Abrupt Stop

The coronavirus disruption forced you to change.

I realize that kind of change and the damage the virus has caused has been deeply painful. It has been for every leader in 100 different ways.

But the crisis has shown us that while some churches struggled deeply, others started thriving. In fact, the disruption has shown us three basic leadership approaches: frozen leaders, hesitant leaders, and agile leaders. (See which one best describes you here).

Crisis is also the cradle for innovation.

Most leaders pivoted. Most set up online services, got a Zoom account, figured out how to live stream on YouTube, started shooting more personal videos and got way more active online.

And many leaders saw their online engagement soar, sputter and then settle in.

You figured it out.

But walking back into your building can kill your innovation curve if you let it.

It will feel great to see some people again, and to get back on the familiar platform, and see the team, and connect.

And before you know it, you’ll stop innovating. Especially in your online ministry and in distributed gatherings.

Look…I get it. Change is hard. I’m tired too. But don’t waste this moment. Don’t waste the progress you’ve started.

Don’t let a sudden lack of creativity around methods limit your mission.

Crisis is a cradle for innovation. And the future belongs to the innovators.

Crisis is a cradle for innovation. And the future belongs to the innovators. Click To Tweet

2. You’ll Stop Pivoting

Closely related to innovation is pivoting.

Almost everyone pivoted since the crisis, and those who didn’t have already disappeared or are on their way out.

But pivoting is probably here to stay for a while (see point 4). If you study the history of change and progress, you quickly realize the future almost always belongs to agile leaders who adapt and change.

Stop for a moment and write down everything good that’s come out of the pivoting you’ve done since the disruption started.

Now think through how many of that traction never would have happened had you not pivoted.

The moment you walk back into the past and into comfort, you lose all that.

So if that’s all the growing you want to do for a while, stop pivoting.

If you want to keep pivoting, here’s how to do it quickly and well to move your mission forward.

The future almost always belongs to agile leaders who adapt and change. Click To Tweet

3. You’ll See Online as an Add-on, not the Future

As you settle into old patterns, all your energy will go back into in-person ministry.

And don’t get me wrong, a lot of energy, passion, prayer, and effort belong in in-person ministry. The gathered church is here to stay.

Eventually, you’ll look up and realize you haven’t posted much to Instagram or Facebook recently, and that your team is so busy they haven’t really followed up on comments online or checked out who’s new.

Online church will become an add-on again, something you tag onto the most tech-savvy person’s job description hoping he or she will get to if they have the time (which they seldom do).

And you’ll completely miss the future.

And in the same way remote work will become the new normal for many people in the wider economy, online church might become a default option for many people. Hating that doesn’t make it go away. Leaders, just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Everyone you want to reach is online. It’s time for the church to finally act like it.

If you see online as an add-on, not the future, you’ll miss most of the very people you’re trying to reach.

If you see online as an add-on, not the future, you'll miss most of the very people you're trying to reach. Click To Tweet

So what should you do?

Move more actual staff/volunteer effort into your online ministry when you move back into your building, not less.

Staff online as though it’s real because it is (I have more on digital church here).

Just know this: You can’t have a massive impact online when you spend 10% of your staffing resources on it.

You can't have a massive impact online when you spend 10% of your staffing resources on it. Click To Tweet

4. You’ll Get Crushed by Unpredictability

If only we were going back to normal.

By almost every account, the world we’re stepping into is a new world. A new normal. And a highly unpredictable one at that.

Shopping and restaurants won’t be the same again. Work won’t be. Neither will international travel. It’s not that they’re not coming back, it just won’t be the same, for perhaps a long while. Or ever.

And even viral hotspots will make the future uncertain and unpredictable.  You may be able to travel to one city but not another.

The mayor or governor might make one decision this week and a different one the next week.

There may be a fourth wave of the virus down the road (hopefully not, but have you heard about the Indian variant?) My own country, Canada, is now in the grips of the worst of the virus, 14 months after this all started. No one would have predicted that.

While it’s amazing to think about the re-opening as a universal, permanent change, it’s more probable that it will be different than we think, more unstable than we think, and perhaps involve quick changes more often than anyone wants.

That kind of unpredictability will crush those looking for stability. (Here’s a post outlining some predictions for the 2020s: Chief among them, unpredictability.)

But if you keep your agility and are willing and able to pivot, you can thrive.

Unpredictability crushes those looking for stability. But if you keep your agility and are willing and able to pivot, you can thrive. Click To Tweet

5. You’ll Miss That Legal Permission is Different than Social Behaviour  

A final factor to consider (and last reason not to step back into the past when you step into your building) is that legal permission is different than social behavior.

Example. Let’s assume all legal restrictions for any gatherings anywhere are lifted as you read this post.

Suddenly your church can be jam-packed. Football stadiums and concert venues can accommodate crushing crowds. You can fly anywhere in the world.

Let’s imagine restaurants can have long lines of people waiting to get in for the latest, and you can pack 28 people into your surfer van for a fun Instagram shot.

Question: what if some people don’t want to do that for a while?

Do you want the middle seat on a flight to LA tomorrow (sure, you really didn’t want the middle seat before either, but you know what I mean)? Airlines are re-opening middle seats, but who wants them?

Do you want to be next to the unvaccinated guy at the NFL game who just sloshed his beer all over you and coughed through the second quarter?

Will you want to walk into the crowded bread aisle in the supermarket and stand painfully close to people at the checkout?

One of the interesting trends leaders will monitor as the year unfolds is this: even if people can gather, will they want to? Or at least gather the same way?

Some people are ready to go and still think the virus is overblown, others will be cautious for years.

What’s even more significant, long-term, is that culture shifted.

Many leaders are discovering that there’s a measurable group of people who have simply ‘checked out’. And another group that hasn’t left, but are accessing things online far more often. Even if they’re fine with going to a concert, they’re not as anxious to get back to church. Their patterns and attitudes toward church have changed.

Which toggles us back to all of the other points.

In an uncertain world, online is a life-line. Agility is a super-power.

In an uncertain world, online is a life-line. Agility is a super-power. Click To Tweet

The more you care about people, and the more you want to reach them, the more true this is.

It’s hard to go back to normal when normal disappeared.

It's hard to go back to normal when normal disappeared. Click To Tweet

What Do You See?

I don’t want this post to be discouraging…I really believe the future is bright.

But I do think if we just run back into our buildings we can end up running right back into the past.

What other things are you considering as you move into the future?

What’s on your radar, and what are you going to do to keep innovating and reaching more people?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

The Big Church Leadership Mistake of 2021 (That You Can Still Avoid)


  1. Walter Swaim on April 20, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    Carey keeps me sharpened and will always read – though agree about 60% of the time. I am a bivocational pastor in my 50’s in Texas, small church pastor. Those factors alone make me no expert on anything so I am eating humble pie constantly knowing that, LOL.

    Nevertheless we have moved – semi-permanently, three in-house ministries: small groups and once a month deeper learning, as well as some meetings. So we are not anti-internet/online anything at all.

    Having said that, Covid did not diversify our folks but mainly split the cultural Christians from those who are in a committed engaged walk with Christ. The majority of them (and not all are older) are not pro-only-inside-the-church people. Yet the committed have shown their preference that online is helpful and great tool but not replacing in-house. The nature of in-house is those who desire closer community which online cannot replicate fully: the fist bump, handshake, side hug, presence, etc. In the end it is still just watching something. In-house is fuller, truer engagement, even for some of our younger couples with kids. The complaints are close to what parents say about online education: too many distractions, muting is too easy, constant tech snafus, power or internet outages, etc. In-house does none of these and one is more closely engaged and involved.

    Those who tend to watch have manifested a weak walk with Christ and limited service and engagement preference. They won’t be the ones we re-build the church on. Online is not an add-on but a tool that should funnel eventually to what they can’t get online. It isn’t a matter of either/or (online or in-house) but one feeds the next).

    I have drifted into thinking at times why didn’t Jesus wait to come now, with all the technology, etc. but came rather at a time of zero online and radio technology. Interesting.

    So we will plow on to do online studies, trainings, giving, etc. but keep those things undoable online in-house where its not just seeing but feeling actual presence. In an age studies show constantly we are more connected than ever yet farther from each other more than ever. Another telling side of shifting to “online-heavy or only” is that in a social distancing and online covid culture, suicides and mental illness soar – why? because of no physical presence and touch.

    Ok, I’ve ranted enough. Just hope we keep balance – not to fill a building but to fill hearts better and more satisfyingly with physical presence more than online ever can.

  2. Rev David Fernandes on April 19, 2021 at 10:58 pm

    God disrupts things in life to make us look inward then outward to whats ahead of us. But sometimes we are so programmed
    to what has worked “in the past” we arent open to what is open ahead. Joshua 1:1-12
    Change can be apprehensive but with God in the pages of change – IT IS THE MOST EXCITING PLACE TO BE IN.

  3. Dennis Beatty on April 19, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    Every new ministry should come out of vision. Then comes the purpose the values the direction the target audience the agreed results EtcThe new online ministry must be intentional. Just running live feed without intentionality will not produce very much. No staff position should be created without a job description. This job staff position might be called on line minister of assimulation.

  4. Stacey Olson on April 19, 2021 at 12:23 pm

    Just as Jesus met people at a personal level, so is our call too. The blend of online/building services/in home care/small groups and ministry teams is daunting and chaotic – but we have a mighty God to make our ways within this wilderness. The lessons we can learn here are so many and thank you Carey for pushing this to the forefront. Bravo!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 19, 2021 at 2:09 pm

      So glad to help!

  5. David Nelson on April 19, 2021 at 9:00 am

    Spot on like so many of the posts Carey. We are pleased that not one case of COVID could be traced to our in person church when we reopened and at our mission which provides food to families who are food insecure. For the better part of a year, we held services online which not only provide the immediate connection to other believers but as time went on, prayer requests and encouragement were sought and given. We have witnessed the Holy Spirit moving through us online. In addition, our post service viewing has literally reached people throughout the US and the world.

    I went back to in person yesterday and was filled with joy at our ability to worship together. It is not an either or issue — but our commission is to spread the Good News about Jesus whenever we can. If God made all things, then it is ours to make use of this time to reach people. Blessings to all!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 19, 2021 at 2:14 pm

      Love it David!

  6. Rick Rabe on April 19, 2021 at 8:28 am

    Thanks, Carey – My own congregation has been virtual since last year and our community has grown more towards each other than I have ever seen. What a paradox that because we are forced to remain physically distanced we strive harder to connect with one another. Our online study attendance exceeded our in-person groups before and included people from three states! Our women’s group took on the task of weekly call-ins for those who are alone, often offering to help them with groceries, doctor appointments, even help them get online! The list is longer than this but it makes me think that I hope we never go back to ‘normal’ which was church on ‘the church’s terms. Can’t make our Tuesday night study …too bad. Can’t make Sunday morning worship… sorry for you or worse “get your priorities straight.’ As we prepare for re-opening our building I keep asking everyone… how do we keep the church open for everyone because that is our mission.

  7. Gregg Doyle on April 19, 2021 at 7:48 am

    Based on my reading of Think Again by Adam Grant, most professional ministry people cannot change. Regardless of how many articles you write and studies published, the “no proof required” thinking will keep change from happening. Just like the smoker jumpers at Mann Gulch, the majority will be unable to rethink their survival. For the last fifteen years, I have heard and read many pastors blaming people for not coming to their buildings. This attitude of entitlement is the real culprit. As Peter repeated Jesus’s words to Mark in 1:15, “The time has come, metanoia…”. Why is it that those who preach metanoia are unable to live it out?

  8. Matt Lane on April 19, 2021 at 7:29 am

    It’s an interesting social experiment that we are living in. I agree with a lot of what you are saying if churches are looking through a lens of not having in person gatherings for a year. I’m curious to know the percentages here though because my church (and SO many others) has been meeting in person since last July and most of those social hesitancies have been overcome a long, long time ago.

    That being said, it’s not 100% back to normal because of state restrictions. But for those that have wanted to get back to normal (and there are hundreds of us), things pretty much have been. Small groups are even meeting in person.

    I’m grateful for having an online option last Spring and every once in a while when we need it. But worshipping online is rarely the same. I admit this gets into personal preferences but I strongly believe being physically together when possible is best. Watching baptisms, hearing other saints sing, watching faces during worship, praying over one another, taking communion…all these things can be done online and are. But doing so leaves out a personal connection with one another that God had designed us for.

    Anyway, as always, thanks for the great content!

    • Melissa Frye on April 19, 2021 at 7:51 am

      Bravo! Keep up the good work! The churches that I am seeing grow are the ones that have tried their hardest to maintain some sort of normalcy through this whole thing. Sure, they might now have an online presence (some already did), but because they were faithful in the small things, God has blessed them abundantly with bigger things!

  9. Tim Claus on April 19, 2021 at 6:34 am

    Interesting article. Pre-COVID, we were already seeing a drop in attendance in large sporting events such as NFL, MLB, NBA, etc. Malls were closing due to lack of foot traffic, and many shopping centers have vacant store fronts in abundance. The world was already changing, but folks weren’t seeing. In person church attendance was already a problem in most denomination and churches, with few exceptions. Not much point pining for a past that was already failing across the board.

  10. Chuck Congram on April 19, 2021 at 6:23 am

    Thanks, Carey. Going to use your thoughts as a reflecting point for our Presbytery meeting tomorrow night. Can’t help but feel the pivoting we face may not be dissimilar to that of the early disciples post-resurrection ?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 19, 2021 at 6:32 am

      Tend to agree with that Chuck. This is massively disruptive. So glad you see and sense that. Appreciate you!

      • Mike Jones. on April 19, 2021 at 11:18 am

        An equally big error will be to ignore the stages of response to emergency disasters. Leaders who fail to address the second stage which is the need for emotional recovery will fail their people. That happened in my family after the Spanish flu crisis in 1920 and my family carried the effects for a century.

    • Nemesio M. Orteza Jr. on April 19, 2021 at 7:58 pm

      Tnx for your insights of wisdom! Great help! God bless! SHALOM

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