Leading Through Covid and Learning From It

Clay Scroggins has been part of the North Point family since 1998 when he started attending and volunteering as a high school small group leader. He went on to work in student ministry, and, for the last decade, he has served as Campus Pastor at three of NPM’s eight Atlanta-area locations.


Clay currently leads the Buckhead Church campus, located in the heart of Atlanta. We caught up with him to talk about the tough conversations he’s helping his congregation navigate and how his team is "bumping into" new folks in an age of social distancing.

Clay, give me two adjectives to describe how you’re feeling at this point in 2020.

Overwhelmed and excited.  

I think 2020 has overwhelmed all of us. What are you most overwhelmed by these days?

All the unwinnable decisions! It seems like every decision—even a seemingly small one—has the potential to escalate to a situation where someone needs to talk to the person in charge. As a result, I find myself being brought in on things that were once completely handled by our staff. For instance, we’re talking about our middle school students meeting face-to-face (while social distancing) on Sunday. If we move forward with that decision, some parents will be furious. On the other hand, we’ve had parents calling us asking, "When will our children be allowed to meet?" No matter what I decide, someone is unhappy. I have decision fatigue.

Buckhead Church has a very, very diverse congregation, which means we've got people with all kinds of differing views. I could hang up the phone after a conversation with someone who’s upset we haven’t said enough about racial justice, and my very next call might be someone who feels like we need to stick to talking about Jesus and move on from all the race stuff. And both people feel equally strongly about their point of view.

As a leader and pastor, I want to help people zoom out and take a broader look at situations. But that seems 10 times as hard in 2020 with all the heightened emotion. All of us at times, myself included, have a myopic perspective. Sometimes, what’s "right" seems so obvious to me that I find myself getting frustrated or annoyed that anyone could think differently. It feels like God is using this season and all these tough conversations to grow me—to broaden my perspective and teach me how to be comfortable in the tension of differing opinions.

What are you most excited about?

The freedom to try new things! This year has forced us to redefine our "win" and the path to it. Our organization’s mission is to inspire people to follow Jesus. But with our in-person services canceled for the remainder of 2020, it's no longer about getting people to show up on Sunday. So, we’re asking ourselves, How do you inspire people to follow Jesus when the way you’ve always done it in the past [Sunday services] isn’t an option? 

In business terms, how do you continue to meet your business objectives when the thing you’ve always done becomes obsolete? If you look around, we’re seeing incredible innovation happen. People are figuring this out. I'll give you a marketplace example: Chick-fil-A has now had their best three months of performance ever . . . and their dining rooms are closed! It’s exhilarating to me to think that those restaurant operators have gotten so creative and efficient with delivery and drive-thru that they're outperforming where they were even when the dining rooms were open.

It’s never been truer that necessity is the mother of all invention.

Conversely, this season has reminded me that success is the devil of invention. Success creates sacred cows. Historically, when we tried something new and it underperformed, we drew the conclusion that the prior way must have been the best way. Thanks to the pandemic, some of those sacred cows are gone, and we’re being forced to innovate and get creative. The freedom of that experimentation is incredibly exciting.

So, what is the "win" you’re aiming for right now, and what are you doing, specifically, to achieve it?

Do you see that building right there? [Pointing] An apartment complex is being built right next door. Over the next few months, 1,200 people will move into that building. Our win is figuring out how to get them to bump into Buckhead Church. How can we get them to notice us? How can we offer something that might help them in some way? How can we serve them in such a way they would be willing to take one step toward us?

Attracting new people isn’t a new strategy for us—we were doing that when we could meet in the building. But our approach has obviously had to change. Bumping into Buckhead Church no longer includes an invitation to a live Sunday morning service. Instead, we’re trying to create lots of new ways for people to first notice us. We’re casting vision for our attendees to invest and invite their unchurched friends and we’re offering easier things to invite them to.

As an example, we’ve been hosting digital Business Breakfasts every month. Buckhead is in the heart of the business district of Atlanta. So, the idea behind these Business Breakfasts is giving people digestible, inspiring content that they can share—maybe with their work team or friend group. A couple of months ago, we had Darren Eales, president of Atlanta United—the Major League Soccer team that’s become one of the biggest heartbeats of our city. I asked Darren (who attends our church) to join me for a video interview about his role at Atlanta United and some leadership principles he’s learned along the way.

Events like these are "the top of the funnel" for us. They’re easy, secular ways to connect with a big group of people and get them to notice—maybe even love—what we’re doing.

Darren's interview helped introduce us to a whole new crowd. Then the challenge was figuring out how to nurture those new connections toward deeper engagement with our church. So, we’ve reallocated staff into new roles. Because when an interview with Darren Eales attracts hundreds of new people, we have to be able to follow up in a timely manner. Having someone dedicated to first steps and next steps has been critical.

In addition to Business Breakfasts, we’ve realized that parenting is another topic that everyone is struggling with these days. I haven't met any parent who’s feeling confident about raising their kids in this season. Is it safe to send them to school? Will they be okay without the socialization that comes from the classroom? Are they spending too much time on devices? Just this morning at the breakfast table, my kids [Clay has five] were fighting over who was going to wear the two pairs of protective eyeglasses I bought since they’re staring at their screens for school all day. Six months ago, I could not have predicted this would be a parenting problem I needed to solve.

So, we’re teaming up with our North Point campus to host a digital summit on parenting. We hope it's an easy way to introduce people to our church by providing helpful content in an area where there’s a lot of doubt and uncertainty right now.

Professionally, what's the biggest thing on your mind?

The health of our staff.

People are just exhausted. That’s not unique to Buckhead Church, certainly. I think mostly it’s decision fatigue. Here in Atlanta, we’ve had an ongoing conversation about school reopening. Everybody sees it differently because the value metrics they’re using to reach a decision are so different. Some people are concerned about the overall health of the whole community; some people are concerned about the mental health of their kids; some people are concerned about the aging parents that they're around, or their compromised immune systems. Weighing all of these things for every choice takes a big emotional toll.

I’ve seen data that the happiness level of Americans is the lowest it’s ever been. Divorce rates are up compared to this time last year. Addiction is up too. As chief cheerleader for Buckhead Church staff, I want to do whatever I can to protect our team from these trends.

I heard a leadership talk early in the pandemic about how much teams should be meeting right now. The answer: just a tick more than the change that's happening around you. So, I upped our team’s touch points—making them more frequent but shorter to accommodate the chaos of life right now.

Our directional team talks every Monday morning for 30 minutes. Everyone comes prepared to answer the question "What’s in my way this week?"

I also carve out time for our entire staff to connect—kind of a "Motivation Monday" thing. People are struggling with the redundancy of pandemic life. Every day feels the same; there's no difference between Saturday and Tuesday. So, I'm trying to help our team stay inspired.

About a week ago, I led some of our staff through a development exercise that was incredibly helpful. We went around the room and shared one affirmation [e.g., You’re such a strategic thinker; You’re always so prepared] and one request [e.g., I wish you demonstrated more confidence; I wish you’d slow down and listen] for each person.

It sounds scary, and now might feel like an indelicate time to reflect hard things, but it ended up being so great and helpful. As an example, my teammates affirmed that they felt empowered by me. At the same time, they asked for clarity on what a "win" looks like these days. Feedback like that takes the guesswork out of what we need from each other and it celebrates people—out loud—in their strengths.

Andy preached a series called Better For It a few months ago, in which he said, "Pain without gain would be a shame." From your seat as lead pastor at Buckhead Church, how are you and your staff going to be "better for it" on the other side of this pandemic?

Well, at the very least, we're going to be more resilient. I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t experienced adversity up close and personal this year. That will serve us well in the next crisis.  

I also think 2020 is making us zero in on defining success. It's so easy when everything's going well to confuse the "win" with having a full building and hitting budget. But that's not why we got into ministry. So, this is making us go, Okay, well . . . what is the win? What do we want for people? What do we hope for people? What do we want to count and measure and work toward as an organization? 

And lastly, I said this earlier, but I think God is using this season to grow my depth of emotion and empathy for people who don’t see things the way I do. Years ago, Andy coined a phrase in a sermon that sums it up nicely—It’s better to make a difference than a point. In a season of history that is so full of divisive topics and opinions, I’m learning how to focus on making a difference.

Any final thoughts for our readers, Clay?

A month or so ago, Frank Blake, the former CEO of Home Depot, said something to me in our Business Breakfast interview that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. He said, "Crisis is the time to put your stamp on the soul of an organization."  

Great leaders want to have the ball when things are hard. Great leaders want to be the one leading people through—and out of—crisis. The decision fatigue, the emotional health of the staff, the uncertainty of what COVID-19 will mean for our ministry beyond 2020 . . . this is the crisis I have an opportunity to lead through. Yes, it’s hard. But if everything was just hunky-dory all the time, eventually that would be like having vanilla ice cream at every meal. This is the moment when great leaders can make a difference, really change things, and introduce new ideas. That’s exciting.

If you'd like to talk with your team about some of the things Clay mentioned, we have a discussion guide to get you started.

Did you miss any of our other interviews? We've talked with a handful of decision-makers on North Point's leadership team. Catch up on those chats now.

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