Results from Our Second COVID-19 Survey of 500+ Churches, Implications and Next Steps
We’re back from our podcast hiatus! And I’m excited to share this conversation with you today. New data. New stories. I get preachy at one point. You’re going to love it.
We recently partnered with Blackbaud for a special edition of our quarterly research report, The Unstuck Church Report. For this survey at the end of May, more than 550 churches shared with us how they’re responding to the coronavirus crisis.
And just to give you a sense of the types of churches that were involved in the survey… we saw the whole spectrum, from churches that averaged less than a hundred people in attendance (pre-pandemic numbers, of course) to all the way up to a church of over 50,000, and everything in between.
And I can tell you after personally analyzing the data: There was a really a good representation of churches throughout that spectrum.
I have confidence we got an accurate reflection of just about every church across the country.
And, since this was the second survey we completed since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most churches across the world, we got an interesting comparative look at where churches are finding themselves today.
There was some good news:
- Churches seem to be finding themselves in a better financial position than they previously anticipated.
- Online engagement remains strong compared to pre-pandemic in-person attendance (in other words, churches still have the sense that they’re actually engaging with more people than before the coronavirus shutdowns).
- And, though most churches have not re-opened (at least through May) for in person services, many are planning on reopening their buildings for weekend services in the coming weeks and months.
In general, there seems to be much more movement.
But there were also a number of things I found alarming, particularly as we consider the long-term ramifications of what we’re experiencing right now.
In this episode, Amy and I discussed the findings of the survey—along with anecdotal findings from our work helping 50+ churches navigate ministry strategy in the last couple of months—and we share our take on what all of it is telling us about what’s coming and how we should be preparing.
- Why it’s becoming clear most churches will never return to “pre-pandemic” attendance levels… and what to do with that realization
- The current financial picture, what looks healthy, as well as why I would advise churches not to get too comfortable yet
- How large churches and small churches are finding ways to be nimble and pivot to new strategies
- The MOST ALARMING thing the data is telling us about how churches of ALL SIZES are failing to connect with new people
- Why re-opening is not going to solve the problem we’re now sitting with, and some practical thoughts about how to change the conversation at your church
Leader Conversation Guide
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For this week, since the conversation is all about our The Unstuck Church Report special edition, we’re going to provide you with a copy of that report.
Opt-in here and get the The Unstuck Church Report Q2 2020 special edition, as well as access to the archive.
Let Us Know on Social Media
We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. We’d really love to hear from you during this time:
- How can we be praying for you as a lead and your church?
- What stories can you share of ways churches are responding well during this crisis and focusing on opportunities instead of loss?
Links & Resources from the Episode
- Special thanks again to Blackbaud Church Management for partnering with us on this special edition report.
- The Unstuck Church Report
(opt-in here to get the report for free every quarter)
- 7 Shifts Churches Need to Make Because of the Coronavirus
- Episode 144 – Clarifying Digital Engagement
- Unstuck Church Assessment – take it for free!
More than 14,000 other churches have used this tool to assess where they sit in the typical church life cycle
- [webinar replay] Same Mission, New Strategies
- Start a conversation with The Unstuck Group
Ready to talk about how your ministry strategy will need to pivot to prepare for a new normal? Let’s talk. In just the last couple of months, we’ve been helping 50+ churches navigate that very thing.
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Sean (00:02): Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. As churches begin to reopen across North America, we’re beginning to see the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown. There’s an evident impact on attendance, giving, staffing and more. Recently The Unstuck Group surveyed over 500 churches of different sizes to assess the effects of these shifts on their ministry. Today on the podcast, Tony and Amy share those results. Before you listed today though, make sure you subscribe to get the show notes. You’ll get resources for this week’s conversation along with access to our podcast resource archive. And this week, you’ll get access to the full Unstuck Church report to go along with today’s conversation. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now, let’s join Tony and Amy for this week’s conversation.
Amy (00:56): Recently more than 550 churches have shared with us about how they’re responding to the coronavirus crisis. And before we dig into what we learned, Tony, tell us a little bit more about the churches who participated.
Tony (01:08): Yeah, well, first of all, I want to thank Blackbaud, because in partnership with them, we completed this survey. It actually wrapped up in late May, and over 550 churches, as you mentioned, participated. And just to give you a sense of the types of churches that were involved in the survey, again, we’re looking at obviously pre-pandemic attendance, but it was churches of less than a hundred people in attendance all the way up to a church of over 50,000 in attendance and everything in between. And I was looking at the details of the different churches that responded, too, Amy, and there was really a good contribution of churches throughout that spectrum. So, I have confidence that what we’re going to be talking about today is an accurate reflection of just about every church across the country. So looking forward to today’s conversation.
Amy (02:07): Yeah, me too. And before we get into some specifics, Tony, just tell us what are some of the big overall takeaways from the survey responses?
Tony (02:15): Yeah, actually this is the second round of surveys we’ve completed since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most churches across the world. And when compared to the survey information we collected early in April, the current data indicates that churches are finding themselves in a better financial position than they previously anticipated. So that’s good news. Online engagement remains strong compared to pre-pandemic in person attendance. In other words, churches still have the sense that they’re actually engaging with more people than before we experienced what we’ve experienced through the coronavirus shutdowns. And though most churches haven’t reopened, at least through May, for in-person services. They’re planning on reopening their buildings for weekend services in the coming months. So, there seems to be much more movement and actually we’ve seen some of that in the last couple of weeks, Amy. More and more churches are beginning to either make plans or actually reopen for in-person services. And we’re going to talk a little bit about that too in the coming moments.
Amy (03:28): All right, well, let’s look at weekend services engagement first, cause that’s probably one of the biggest areas of disruption for churches over the last few months. So in that space, weekend services engagement, what did we learn from that data?
Tony (03:41): Yeah, so through the end of May, only 6% of churches had resumed holding in person services at the church. And what we saw in the data was the smaller the church, the more likely they were to have reopened, which makes complete sense because of the guidelines for larger indoor gatherings. In fact, in the survey results at this point, none of the mega churches of 2000 or more in attendance had reopened at the time of the survey. For the churches that had reopened their buildings, it shouldn’t be surprised either that almost every church is experiencing lower attendance than pre-shut down, even for the churches that have re-opened, though online engagement still is outpacing in-person attendance. So I think it does highlight, even when we re-open our buildings, we can’t just drop everything we’ve been doing for the last few months related to our online services.
Amy (04:44): I’d probably add we also can’t just keep broadcasting what we’re doing in the room anymore, when more people are on the other side of the camera. But that’s probably a podcast for another day.
Tony (04:54): That’s very true.
Amy (04:56): Well, from the very beginning, this situation has seemed to change rapidly, right Tony? From day-to-day and week-to-week? So what are you hearing from churches in recent weeks since that survey was completed?
Tony (05:07): Yeah, it was fascinating. You and I were just talking. I had the opportunity, just in the last week, to meet with the team at Connexus Church. You know Connexus because of Carey Neuhoff. I know Connexus because of Jeff Brody and the great leadership team that’s engaged in ministry. As we were talking about planning for the future, one of the government officials in Canada kind of outlined how churches could reopen. And so in the midst of our planning for the future, they had this bomb dropped in the conversation. There’s no doubt that things are changing rapidly. And I’ve actually probably had more than a hundred conversations with pastors over just the last month. There’s no doubt more and more churches have begun to reopen, but based on what I’m hearing, it’s not unusual for churches to be seeing in-person attendance of 25% or less from what they were experiencing before everything shut down. So based on what I’m hearing from pastors, I think reality is beginning to set in. You know, Amy, they had these great expectations for what would happen when they were finally able to reopen their churches and invite people to come back for services. But now the reality is setting in, and people are not coming back, at least the way we hoped they would. And unfortunately, I think it’s becoming clear to me, this is not going to be a V-shaped recovery for church attendance. Many churches have surveyed their congregations, as an example, prior to reopening. And this is what’s strange. People say they want their churches to be opened in the surveys, but they’re not showing up for services in the same percentages. It’s almost as if people want to know their church is open, but they’re not comfortable yet returning themselves. The churches that have been open for several weeks are realizing they’re going to need a longer-term strategy for online ministry, including streaming their services.
Amy (07:16): Let’s talk about online engagement. What did we learn from the survey results there?
Tony (07:21): Yeah. So more people are continuing to view online services than were attending services at the church buildings. In fact, two thirds of churches indicated online engagement, since the crisis began, has increased compared to in-person attendance prior to COVID-19. So, that’s pretty encouraging. This percentage has held steady throughout the crisis as we look at the survey data, even earlier in the crisis, Amy. Also online engagement continues to remain strong though there have been declines in that online engagement since Easter. Churches that reported either an increase or decrease in viewers compared to in-person attendance, they reported back that the average increase was 70%, which is very strong. That’s very positive. However, it’s lower than the 115% increase that churches reported in early April. So in other words, there does seem to be a decline in engagement since Easter, and by the way, that data’s consistent with what I’m hearing from pastors. It seems fewer people are watching online services than in the very beginning of this crisis, which I hope signals to churches that their online strategy needs to be more than just streaming their services online.
Amy (08:53): Yeah, that’s so true. You know, specific to the weekend experience, I, Tony, keep coaching churches that I’m working with to remember that it’s an easy exit from online service, meaning, you know, when I’m in the building and I’m sitting through a service, it doesn’t really matter how engaged I am. I’m probably not going to get up and walk out of that service. But when I’m online, you have any drop in engagement and it’s so easy just to click out of that. And so it’s gotta be continuously engaging. And I just, I keep encouraging them to rethink things like the overall length, right? How long should this be because it’s online now? What components need to go into your online experience? And honestly, what needs to be pruned from it? You know, like the 15 minutes of music. I love music. I love worship music. I served in that ministry for many years and that’s good for regulars, but maybe not a good approach if you’re trying to engage new people. I just don’t think they’re going to stay online for 15 minutes to watch you sing and air quotes for a minute, worship. I mean, I think those leaders really are worshiping, but that’s a different experience in how it translates online, especially to new people.
Tony (10:03): That’s for sure.
Amy (10:04): Tony, what do you think the long-term ramifications are? You know, as you’re talking about all these stats and there’s been a decrease in the increase and a decrease from, you know? What are the long-term ramifications do you think for church attendance?
Tony (10:17): Yeah. So we just need to sit with this reality, I think. The data was clear before this crisis. People were attending worship services less frequently, and I’m just anticipating COVID-19 is going to and has accelerated this trend. The data also indicated a dramatic change in attendance patterns by generation. So my generation, Gen X, attended less frequently than my parents’ generation, The Boomers. Millennials, my kids, are attending less frequently than Gen X’ers. And I anticipate that what we’ve experienced over the last month is going to accelerate that trend by generation. And by the way, the oldest folks in our population, The Builders, these are my grandparents as an example, were the people who were most likely to attend a service every week. Now, after several months, we know that that generation is also the most vulnerable to this virus. So the people who are most frequent in their attendance, maybe the last people who are able to return to in-person services safely. So for all these reasons and more, my personal prognosis is that the vast majority of churches will never return to their pre-pandemic attendance levels. And of course, Amy, I see that as an opportunity for the church. It’s a challenge, no doubt, but it’s an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and to become a new church to reach a new generation.
Amy (11:55): That’s so good. It’s so true. Hey, well, let’s shift our conversation to how COVID-19 is impacting finances and staffing. What did we learn there from the survey responses?
Tony (12:05): Yeah. So here, the data showed us that the percentage of churches that agreed that they had adequate cash reserves set aside in preparation for a crisis like this has increased since the crisis began. In fact, what the data showed us was that four out of every five churches indicate now at this point that they have adequate cash reserves to make it through this crisis. And the biggest increase in confidence was actually among the small churches and the mega churches. So kind of on both ends of the size spectrum, as far as attendance is concerned, in both those categories, churches had more than a 10% increase in confidence regarding their current financial position. So that’s very positive. The data also indicated that giving has decreased, though, in a third of all churches, and in early April, close to two thirds of the churches were reporting giving decreases. So we’re in a better position now, as far as those giving decreases are concerned. And though the financial impact has been challenging for many churches, it’s not as devastating as was experienced in the initial weeks of the shutdown. Mega churches are most likely to have experienced a decline in giving, and needless to say, many churches pivoted quickly to offer online giving options, especially those churches, the smaller churches, that that wasn’t even on their radar before all of this hit. So all in all, actually some pretty positive news, as far as the finances of churches.
Amy (13:48): That’s really interesting that when giving declined significantly, then church’s quickly made changes, right, in their strategies to regain financial health, that’s really encouraging.
Tony (13:57): It is Amy, but you know, it kind of frustrates me because, you know, we’ve watched churches make this pivot as it relates to finances, but at the same time, churches have been experiencing declines in attendance, salvation, baptisms, first-time guests for years. And so, I think these are actually stronger indicators of health for churches. I mean, we’ve had more than 15,000 churches take our Unstuck Church assessment through the last couple of years. More than 85% of those churches land on the declining side of the church life cycle. In other words, their days of healthy, thriving ministry are actually in their rear view mirror. So it’s a bit frustrating to me that churches were willing to pivot quickly and change strategies when giving declined. But with rare exceptions, they tend to stick to their same ministry strategies that have led to decline and they’re unwilling to change when it comes to making new disciples of Jesus. And it just feels like.
Amy (15:08): You’re starting to preach, Tony. You’re starting to preach.
Tony (15:08): It just kind of feels like, why do you do that when your finances take a hit, but you’re not making pivots when your ministry is taking a hit? So again, Amy, just a bit of frustration. Thank you for sitting and being my counselor today.
Amy (15:24): I’m here for you, Tony, always. Actually, I love it. And in fact, I want to repeat what you just said to our listeners. I think you said this: pastors, if you’re experiencing a decline in salvation, baptisms, and first time guests, your days of having a healthy, thriving ministry, how it’s built now, is in the rear view mirror.
Tony (15:44): That’s what I said.
Amy (15:46): And it’s either settle with that, right? Or reinvent yourself so you can reach new people that God has placed around your church. So as always, Tony, I wish I would have come up with that clarity in what you said, but you know, some of the churches I’ve talked to lately, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to actually ask them, “Does it bother you that you baptized three people in the last two years?” Because as we’re doing planning, as we’re talking strategy, sometimes the direction they go, I get a little bit like, I wouldn’t be stewarding this time well if I didn’t bring them back to that question. Cause I know for me, I’m not even leading in their church, but it bothers me, right? So anyways.
Tony (16:30): It just goes back to you’ve heard many people say it. I’ve said it many times, our mission doesn’t change. The mission for why we exist as a church just doesn’t change. But the methods we use, our strategy, or vision or direction, they have to change, especially when we’re not winning when it comes to our mission. So we just can’t continue to do the same things we’ve always done and pray and hope that things are going to change going forward. It’s not going to change. And just like we pivoted when our finances started to decline, we as churches have to begin pivoting our ministry strategy so that we can begin to return to health again when it comes to the mission God’s called us to.
Amy (17:15): That’s right. All right, well, continuing on the topic of finances, Tony, what did we learn about churches that participated in the paycheck protection program?
Tony (17:23): Yeah, pretty interesting here. I don’t know, maybe not surprising, maybe you look at this and you’re gonna be shocked. I don’t know. Three out of every five churches received financial assistance from the paycheck protection program, which, I mean, just step back for a moment, three out of five churches, churches in our country received government funding in the last number of months. I mean, would anybody have expected the federal government would be funding ministry in our churches? I just, that would have been completely off our radar just a few months ago. The larger the church, the more likely they were to receive funding. In fact, more than 80% of mega churches were awarded financial assistance while less than half of small churches received any funding. So it’s just interesting. I mean, when you look at the current financial picture for most churches, giving is up, expenses are down during this season, a lot of churches have this paycheck protection program money in their bank. I mean, if you look at where churches are today, even though we’ve been on lockdown, and they haven’t been having in-person services for months, most churches are actually in a financially healthy position today. And that has shown not only in the data, but that’s what I’m hearing in conversations with pastors as well. But here’s what I would tell pastors right now. I wouldn’t get too comfortable. At this point, the lockdowns have mostly impacted service industries across our country. Commonly, these are lower wage jobs and people in positions like that, though they’re faithful givers, they’re likely to be giving less because they make less. And when you look at the original paycheck protection program guidelines, they required businesses to retain employees for a certain amount of time before the loan converts into a grant and doesn’t need to be repaid. And that’s pretty important for us to pay attention to because I’m seeing signs and hearing conversations and reading articles now across many business sectors that indicate we’re likely to see more layoffs in the coming weeks as after businesses fulfill those requirements. And at that point, we’re likely to see more white collar jobs impacted. And that obviously may impact more of the bigger givers in your church.
Amy (20:02): Related to finances, Tony, I think the survey also asks questions concerning staffing and churches. So what did we learn there?
Tony (20:10): Yeah. Again, mega churches are continuing to be more proactive when it comes to staff furloughs and lay-offs and reducing compensation. And the biggest increase in furloughs and layoffs, though, in recent weeks was among the small churches, which is also where we are starting to see the biggest giving declines. So I think it’s finally starting to catch up with the smaller churches, at least the ones that responded to the survey. And again, it’s going to be interesting to see how churches move forward with staffing and compensation decisions in the coming weeks. I mean, those churches that participated in the loan program are operating with the same requirements as the businesses that received that funding. And so we could see similar increases in layoffs and compensation reductions in churches, once they have fulfilled their requirements to convert that loan into a grant.
Amy (21:06): And per the survey, I think we also asked about the shifts that they’re considering in the future. What did that data say?
Tony (21:12): Yeah. And again, it seems here larger churches are kind of leading the way. They’re more likely to be considering permanent, long-term staff reallocation, especially to support digital ministry strategies. In fact, more than 70% of the larger churches and mega churches are planning some sort of permanent shift, where they’re kind of reallocating their staff resources from in-person environments to more support for their digital ministry strategies. And by comparison, only 42% of smaller churches are considering that similar change. And, I know these are harder shifts for smaller churches to make, but my fear is this is gonna continue to increase the divide that we see between small church and larger churches, because smaller churches are slower to embrace digital ministry strategies and for the pastors and church leaders in small churches or mid-sized churches, you don’t need to be afraid of this anymore. I mean, there are people in your congregations that are leveraging these platforms for their businesses. Frankly, students in your congregations that this is how they live their lives, that the people resources are there. And every day that goes by, the online resources and tools that are available increases to make it easier and easier for smaller organizations to be moving in this direction. So I just want to encourage you, you have to be thinking about the longer term ramifications of what your church is going to need to do to be able to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in the new normal.
Amy (23:05): Just a bright spot, Tony, I’m working with a smaller church out in Virginia right now, and they’ve actually taken their smallness as a strength of agility. And it is amazing the changes and the new things that they’re trying week after week. Again, they’re holding their strategy, their method, really loosely online, and they’re trying, and they’re watching and seeing what things actually stick and are helpful. And that is a benefit of a small church. You’ve got some agility that larger churches don’t, it’s just, you have to embrace the new reality that you’re talking about.
Tony (23:33): Yeah. And on that note, too, I have a good friend that’s planting a church right now, and talk about you would think this is the worst time to be thinking about planting a church, but it may actually be the best time to be thinking about planting a church because it’s freed them up to be thinking about church in a completely different way. And as a result of what we’re experiencing right now, their digital ministry strategy for this church plant, it’s robust. I would put it up against any of the larger churches that we’re working with right now. And it just, it gets me excited about the new church plants that we may see in the coming months and how they’re going to approach ministry in a completely different way. And we’re going to be learning from them in the years to come. That’s going to be pretty fun.
Amy (24:24): I have to share one more story. One church we’re working with as well has kind of embraced this digital strategy, and they’ve embraced redeploying their staff in new roles. And I just thought this was so good on the human side of things. After they rolled out the new plan, I think it was the senior pastor who met with each one of them and had them bring a symbol from what was as kind of an end. And that’s going to mark the end of this era, and now we’re beginning something new. And I thought, what a great way to just draw a line in the sand and say it’s a new day. And this disruption has given us an opportunity to see our mission field in a whole new way and reach them in a whole new way. So Tony, we asked churches about some other areas of ministry that are being impacted by this crisis. What did we learn there?
Tony (25:12): Yeah. Most churches are now offering online small groups and that includes every mega church and now more than 70% of the small churches are also offering online groups. Additionally, 45% of churches indicated that small group engagement has increased through the coronavirus crisis. I’ve had a number of conversations with pastors, specifically talking about small group engagement, and churches are actually likely to continue offering online options after this crisis is behind us. And I think what they’re learning is for people, especially for parents with kids, it eliminates that whole question of what do we do about childcare for groups to connect? For guys like me, who used to travel all the time and pretty sporadic when it came to group engagement, online offers an option for someone like me to stay engaged with my group. And it may be that groups aren’t completely online going forward. Or maybe you offer just a couple of those opportunities for folks, but even in home groups may kind of rotate between in-home gatherings and online gatherings. So I think there’s some opportunities for churches to think about what future strategy might look like there. Additionally, almost every church is also offering content and/or ministry environments outside of their weekend services, which I was glad to see that. I’m assuming most of that is around kids’ environments and student environments. But Amy, it kind of gets to the point that we’ve been trying to make, which is your digital ministry strategy isn’t just about online services. It’s about everything that you do in your church to connect with people outside the faith and outside the church, and then helping people take their next steps toward Christ.
Amy (27:09): Yeah. That online engagement is good. I agree with you. Our small group does a mix of online and in person, and it’s been a great way to be connected. I just sense that you have something else to share though.
Tony (27:21): You do?
Amy (27:23): I can see it in your eyes.
Tony (27:24): Yeah. Yeah. Well, in fact, in all the data we collected, Amy, this final bit of information was the piece that was most alarming to me. There are very few new people that appear to be connecting with churches during this crisis. In fact, what we found in the data was on average, and this includes churches of all sizes – remember the church that is less than a hundred and includes that church of over 50,000 too. When you look at the average of all churches, they’ve only added 33 new people to their church databases since this crisis began now a few months ago. And that’s understandable in some respects because every church had to pivot pretty quickly to protect their base of support, especially their financial support and good news there, we won. At least for most churches, we succeeded there. And quickly, we needed to provide online options for people who are already connected to our churches, but what we haven’t figured out yet, and it’s very obvious when you look at that data point, is how do we engage people outside the church and outside the faith? And my fear is that just reopening our buildings to in-person services is not going to fix this problem. I mean, just reopening our buildings, we’re likely to get a small percentage of people who are already part of our church to return to those in-person services. But I think it’s going to be highly unlikely that new people are going to take that risk. And if that’s the case and we still want to fulfill the great commission, we had better figure out how we’re going to mobilize our congregations to be on mission with their neighbors, their coworkers, and in their social circles. And we better figure out how we’re going to leverage a digital ministry strategy to engage and then eventually connect people who are outside the church and outside the faith. And on that topic, I would strongly encourage you to go back, listen to episode 144. We invited Tiffany from our team to talk about clarifying digital engagement for our churches. And I think that conversation is a conversation every church needs to have.
Amy (29:47): Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Tony (29:51): Yeah. As I stated earlier, this is not going to be a V-shaped recovery for churches. Another friend in ministry suggested we’re likely only finishing the third-inning of the baseball game at this point. If you think about it in those terms and regrettably, I think he’s right. In fact, I’ll take that analogy a step further. I’m not convinced we’ll ever return to the same ball game we were playing last year. As churches, we need to prepare now for an entirely different ballgame. In the months since this pandemic first hit, we’ve been providing coaching and consulting. I counted them up, Amy, over 50 churches in the last few months to help them prepare for what church will look like in the future. If you and your team are ready to talk about how your ministry strategy will need to pivot in order to prepare for this new normal, we’d like to engage that conversation with you as well. So please reach out to us, go to theunstuckgroup.com/start to let us know you’d like to talk about options that are available for you and your team. And next week, Amy and I will start a brand new series on team shifts to help your team navigate this new future. So join us next week for that first conversation.
Sean (31:11): Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. As Tony mentioned, at The Unstuck Group, we’re working with churches all across North America to help them clarify how to be a thriving church in a post-COVID-19 world. If that’s your desire for your church, we can help visit us at theunstuckgroup.com/start to begin a conversation. Also, if this podcast has been helpful for you, we would love your help in getting the content out. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, giving us a review and telling somebody about the podcast. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, we hope you have a great week.