One Church’s Pandemic Story
Every person, business, and organization has their own “pandemic story,” a story they will tell for the rest of their lives about how they survived, thrived, died, or pivoted their way through the pandemic. I’m a pastor, so I’ve been particularly interested in how other pastors and churches have navigated this very stressful year. This morning I had the idea to briefly tell our church’s story (through the lens of my role/what I do) in hopes that it helps other churches come to terms with the story they’ve lived this past year. I don’t know the right way to categorize Garden City Church’s story, it’s been a mixture of survive, thrive, die, pray like crazy, and pivot. The day after Easter seems like a good time to tell a bit of our journey of death and resurrection.
Leadership: “Crap. What do we do?”
In early March 2020, like everybody else, we scrambled to figure out how we wanted to “be the church” when we couldn’t physically gather. Do you see how insane such an adjustment would sound in normal times? Relationships, gathering, being together as a worshipping-people-on-mission is at the core of church life. After an emergency meeting with our Elder Team and Staff Team, Ben Moore and I created our Garden City way of doing things online. We called it (still call it, for those unable to physically gather) the Sunday Liturgy. None of us had a passion for the online thing. But, all of us involved did our best to lead and feed and sing and care through a camera, and we had some fun along the way. We started with short teachings through our Discipleship Culture Guidebook, then pivoted back to preaching sermons once we realized this pandemic would last a while. Pre-pandemic I preached 40 minute sermons. After adjusting for attention spans on screens and the shorter-length outdoor services we’re presently holding, I now preach about 25 minute sermons each week. God has been using these 25 minutes…perhaps it will become the new normal. Our ministry model has always relied strongly on Life Groups, and fortunately our strong Life Group culture became even stronger during the pandemic as Life-Giving “little churches” for people to be connected to. And our staff team has been creative as Max Huss, our Youth Director, has physically gathered our Youth Group throughout the whole pandemic to create strong community; Cindy Garcia, our Kids’ Director, has developed new ways to love on families and kids; Alayne Tadlock, our Administrator has led sacrificially and creatively; And Kobi Boateng, our intern, has served behind the scenes and up at the mic with his killer singing voice for the good of our church.
Sending: “Let’s plant our first church in the middle of this pandemic”
Before the pandemic hit we were advancing plans to form The Garden City Family of Churches and send out our Associate Pastor to plant our first church in September 2020. As the pandemic stretched on we very briefly wondered if this timing was still wise. I don’t think we gave this more than a day’s worth of thought, we quickly sensed and concluded that God wanted us to live by faith and send out our first church plant. Instead of pushing the timeline back, we moved the timeline up by a month. In August 2020 we sent out our Associate Pastor, Fred Mok, and 49 people from Garden City to plant Quicksilver Church. We’ve missed these people and we’ve taken a financial hit from this sending, but we’re so pumped by how our church has multiplied and how God is using this new church plant to make disciples. In a strange way planting during a pandemic may have made things a bit easier on both the sending church and the sent church—because everything else in life was already changing so much this planting felt fitting in a year full of deep change.
Moving: “Everybody’s Leaving Silicon Valley!”
Silicon Valley is a transient place, and it’s become especially transient this year due to the virus and how California just hasn’t been “trending.” In the past 365 days we’ve seen 61 people from our church family move out of the Bay Area. Most of these people were longtime, faithful members of our church. It’s been really hard to experience this as a church family. Sending out 49 people for the church plant + seeing 61 people move away = a loss of 110 people. Yes, we know these folks who move away take Garden City DNA with them and are advancing our mission as they make disciples in their new cities. But, it’s still a loss that hurts. Subtracting/Sending 110 people is a lot for our church. At our biggest, a few years ago, I think (these numbers are guesstimates) our church was getting close to 400 people—typically we have to grow about 20% a year just to stay the same size and keep up with the amount of people who move away. Before the pandemic hit I think we were about 300 people. I’m not sure what size we are now…maybe 200ish? Like every church I know, we’re coming up for air now, regrouping, taking stock of who is still here and who is new here. As one pastor friend said to me, God has definitely “reshuffled the decks” with local churches.
Giving: “Uh oh”
God has blown me away with His provision for Garden City Church. We started with no money and then, very quickly, giving started to pour in. And the giving grew. And every single year of our church our giving has been strong. Until now. Giving is down 33% YoY. There’s opportunity here to develop the giving muscle of the disciples we make at Garden City, but there’s no denying the hard reality of -108 people and -33% giving. ➔ While you’re listening, please consider giving to advance Garden City’s mission to make disciples in this expensive, dark, and amazing part of the world. We need it. We will steward your funds well for the Kingdom. If God leads you to give, it will take just 2 minutes to click the link and set up a one-time or recurring gift to our mission in Silicon Valley.
Realization: “I Haven’t Liked Being a Pastor for the Past Year”
I’ve always loved what I do. Being a pastor is a privilege. My “job” is to enjoy God, pray, love and lead people, preach, multiply disciples and churches, make friends and introduce them to Jesus, etc. But, about 2 months ago this realization hit me: “I haven’t liked being a pastor for the past year.” I know a bunch of pastors that feel the same way. I pastored this past year as faithfully, creatively, and passionately as I could. But, I’m now reflecting and realizing that I really haven’t enjoyed the past year. It’s been exhausting. Preaching into a camera for 1 year is exhausting. Then, finally being able to gather in person and preach to masked and sun-glassed faces you can barely see, no sense of whether your sermon is connecting, is another level of exhausting. I’ve missed being with people, hugging, feasting, laughing, crying, holding hands and praying, visiting people at their workplace, being with people in their homes, signing our hearts our with unmasked faces, etc. The virus brought all kinds of extra stress, rules, fears, self-righteous judgment, etc. that’s just been joy-sucking to navigate. I’m thankful to see some normalcy ahead. I’ve watched several pastors quit in the midst of the pandemic. My sense is that many more will quit as this pandemic ramps down and leaders take stock of their exhaustion and the workload in front of them. It was one thing to survive the pandemic, it’s another thing to hack your way through the jungle of work on the other side of the pandemic.
PS. Because it would’ve taken up too much space, I skipped over devoting a section to this year’s race reckoning and political turmoil, and how all of that has impacted church life.
Doubt: “Have you really called me to pastor this church in this city for the rest of my life?”
Almost exactly 10 years ago I went public with my call to plant a church in Silicon Valley. Early on, and always, I’ve said that I believe I’m called to pastor this church for 30-40 years, believing the most fruitful life and ministry is done by being present, faithful, and obedient in the same place for a long time. This has been a deep conviction from God, a burning in my bones. A desire to spread the gospel and develop disciples in this beautiful, broken, strategic part of the world. This year, for the first time, I wrestled with some doubt over this calling. I devoted 30 days to being very honest with God, my wife, my Elder Team, my Staff Team, and some close friends and mentors. I poured out to them my exhaustion, my questions, my disorientation, my heart. I had a bunch of people praying for me. I got down to the core of my doubt: 1) Can I keep pastoring here when good friends keep moving away? 2) Getting clarity that one of my greatest gifts is creating community, and wondering: Is it good stewardship for me to use this gift in this place where so many people move away and it feels like the community I build keeps getting slapped apart? 3) Can I increasingly grow/be sanctified into the man I want to become while also carrying the intensity of pastoring in this intense place? There’s so much more for me to say on this topic, but to be brief: I arrived on the other side of this doubt with a renewed and even more deeply rooted sense of God’s call on my life here—with the church and city I love. By “arrived” I do mean that I have deeply settled conviction, but I’m also still getting re-oriented and “healing” from this tough year. I feel pretty raw right now.
Location: “How did we get this great location?” + “Happy Easter, we hope to see you next week, but we don’t have a location for next week”
We spent the year before the pandemic looking for a permanent home for our church. We didn’t find one. I was so frustrated about that. In hindsight, it was a gift. We didn’t need a building during a pandemic. This past fall we started experimenting with some small, low-key Sunday gatherings in a park. They were awkward and great. Then we started gathering at a location I would’ve never considered: the stadium for the San Jose Earthquakes. This spot wasn’t on my search list the year before the pandemic, I would’ve never thought to look for an outside location. How did we end up here? I still don’t really know. God did it. Prayer did it. Shea did it. One of our elders is a long-time star player for the Earthquakes, and he asked if we could meet at the stadium, and they said yes. It’s been awesome. Under our agreement we had the stadium until Easter, then had to find a new location as the Earthquakes start their Major League Soccer season. We’ve spent the last 6 weeks trying to find another location. Every lead I’ve chased has proved to be a dead end. On Easter Sunday (pic at the top of this post is of our Easter service) our elders announced that we have no idea where we will meet next Sunday, and asked the church to pray big and send us ideas. There’s been a lot to trust God for this year. He keeps deepening our dependency on Him. ➔ While you’re listening, if you have any ideas for a home for Garden City, please contact me. We’re open to all sorts of possibilities: churches, schools, community centers, partnerships, etc.
*UPDATE: I wrote most of this post on April 5th, the day after Easter. I’m finishing it right now on April 6th. We just got word that we can continue to meet at the stadium!!! And, just yesterday the new name/sponsorship of the stadium was announced: PayPal Park!
Prayer: “Only God can solve this.”
There’s been so much to trust God for this year. We’ve prayed like crazy this year. We keep facing problems that we can’t solve, and we keep doing the only thing we can do: pray. I can confidently say that my prayer life, our elder team’s prayer life, and our staff team’s prayer life has deepened considerably this year. Which means our faith and freedom in God has really grown. It’s fun to be a Christian and watch God come through. I think many in our church have experienced this deepening intimacy and dependence in their walk with Jesus.
People: “Where did all these new people come from?”
On March 7th, 2021, 1 year after the shutdown hit, we started gathering again every Sunday. Since then more and more new people have been showing up every week. Every Sunday we’re asking ourselves, “Where did all these new people come from?” As we’ve experienced the “death” of sending/moving, we’re beginning to experience the “resurrection” of new people coming into our community. It’s exciting. It feels like the beginning, like we’re planting a church again. It’s a new beginning.
It’s Day 1: “Day 1 change starts in the heart of the Lead Pastor”
I keep telling our church “It’s Day 1.” We’re building upon an unchanging theological foundation, core values, and simple philosophy of ministry, but this year has given us Day 1 eyes—eyes to stop doing some things that don’t make sense any more, start doing some new things, and to constantly approach our nearly 10 year-old church as though we’re starting fresh. Just last week I started Manhood Bootcamp (a ministry to men) and Garden City Roots (a ministry to connect and care for people in our church who have a long-term call to living in this Valley). Our leaders are all taking a Day 1 approach to things and coming up with some exciting ideas and experiments. I’ve also noticed a pattern in Scripture and church history that often when God wants to do something new in and through a community he establishes a beachhead of “new” inside the heart of the leaders of that community. It’s been exhilarating to sense God doing a new work in and through my heart—opening my eyes to see some new things, setting me free from some old ways/sins, healing some old wounds, and calling me to step into greater freedom and fruitfulness. This year has been one big J-Curve, and just now I’m tasting the resurrection side of the J. I see God doing this with many men and women in our church. The “death” side of this J-Curve/pandemic has not felt good. But this “resurrection” side is pumped full of Life, joy, freedom, and excitement. I guess that’s the way of the Christian: death precedes resurrection. For God’s resurrection power to show up, there must first be a death.
What’s been your pandemic story? The tomb is empty. It’s Day 1.