Leading Through Covid and Learning From It

Jeff Henderson is the lead pastor at two of North Point Ministries’ eight Atlanta-area locations. He knows what it’s like to launch and lead a local church—having been tasked with that job three times in the last two decades.  


At Gwinnett Church, Jeff has built a culture founded on being FOR the local community. How are they responding then, when their community faces this kind of crisis?

Jeff recently talked with Emily Beach, who works on the NP Resources team, about the innovative things his team is trying and how shrinking their focus has expanded their impact.

Jeff, let's rewind to March when we decided to close our local churches. What went through your mind as a lead pastor?

I used Facebook Live to talk to our congregation that night, and I said, "The church is perfectly positioned to be distributors of hope." The early days of all this were so uncertain. To me, it felt like an opportunity to really show the people in our community—many of whom might start listening for the first time because of their fear—that our church was for them.

When we launched Gwinnett Church, we rallied around the idea that the church for too long has been known for what it is against. We want to be known for what we are for. We are FOR Gwinnett. In fact, one of our goals is to be a church that is so loved and valued in the community that people would protest if we ever closed down.

So, we saw this as a moment to prove what we’d been saying—that we are for the people and businesses in our community.

And fortunately, we had some experience being a church without in-person gatherings. Gwinnett Church was up and running for 10 months before we launched any Sunday services. Instead, we hosted free Friday night concerts for our community and joined 10K races together.

I tried to communicate the same thing this time that I did back then: the church is open. When people asked me, "When are you reopening?" I said, "We're still open. It just looks different."

Talk about some of the ways it has looked different—some of the noteworthy things Gwinnett Church has done while your doors have been closed.

We’re used to interacting with thousands of people every Sunday. We can’t do that right now. So right away, I challenged our staff to think not in terms of thousands, but in terms of ones and tens. In moments like this, we know the more personal, the more remarkable.

When I worked for Chick-fil-A, I heard Dan Cathy say he wanted to "grow a small company." I love the dichotomy of that. It’s what I want to do here—grow a small church where people feel known.

So, our team just finished making 4,000 phone calls. That’s everybody on our donor list. We just checked in and asked how they were doing. We used our social media accounts to highlight local businesses and encouraged those who were able to buy gift cards. We hosted digital business breakfasts to support the community with helpful content. And we tried to engage with the day-to-day pressures people were facing. For example, we used Instagram Live to host a parenting expert and give people the chance to ask him questions.

What are some lessons you’ve learned by trying those new things?  

One thing we discovered early on is that people are not necessarily missing content. They want content, but they aren’t missing it because they can still get it with the click of a button. What they are missing is community.

So, we’re trying to get people together in a safe way, like hosting prayer walks on Sunday nights. The feedback we’re hearing is that it’s so nice to see people. The trick is that we’re located in an area that is still struggling with high case counts of COVID-19.

That’s driven us to ask, "How can we gather people together digitally?" I’ll give you two examples of things we’re trying. We created the opportunity for our Guest Services volunteers to gather together on Instagram Live for 15 minutes before our online services start. And we’re hosting Facebook Live gatherings after the services to re-create the experience of standing in the lobby on Sunday mornings, bumping into, and chatting with people.

In the church world, we’ve all been asking over the last few months, "Which is better: in-person gatherings or digital?" I don't think that's the right question. I think the question is, "How can the church leverage in-person gatherings and digital gatherings and content in a way that helps encourage people in this moment?" I'm a little concerned for churches that rush too quickly back into meeting in person. I totally get it—I understand the fear of how this will work out financially. But I think there's an innovation process that we can lean into if we aim for the best of both.

Innovation is a word we’ve been talking a lot about as an organization lately. Andy challenged our campuses to come up with new ways to reach their local communities and promised that, organizationally, we’d support those efforts. How has that shaped what you’re doing?

I told our team, "Hey, if you've ever thought, ‘I wish the church would do this,’ now is the time." We’re as free as ever to try new things.

For example, we had a high school intern suggest using Fortnite to engage middle school students. He used the video game to create this community our students could invite their friends to. And ultimately, it was a step toward connection for all these kids. That idea probably would not have happened without the current circumstances, because we’re typically under the pressure of here comes Sunday.

It’s also a great example of what can come out of considering, "What would we do if we had no money?" It’s common to think, "If I had more money, I could be more creative." But that’s not the way innovation works, typically.

The other thing I’ll say—from an organizational level—is that we’re trying to share and replicate the most successful ideas among all our Atlanta-area churches. I don’t know that we have a good system in place yet for that idea sharing across campuses. But one of North Point’s core values is being open-handed, so it’s incumbent on us to figure that out and to learn from each other.  

Can you talk about how this season has changed the way you communicate—both personally and as a church?

I didn't know that I would be preaching sermons from my dining room! It’s been a balance with my family, like "Hey, everybody, can you all be quiet for the next 30 minutes?" [chuckle]

One thing we’ve learned—I’m not saying this is true for everyone—is that it's better to have shorter content. We’re trying to get sermons down to 20 minutes. Counterintuitively, it takes more time to preach shorter messages because you have to edit. Now, when we return to live gatherings, I don't know that we’ll necessarily need or want to keep sermons that short. But I think this season might be a gift to help communicators and pastors sharpen their skills.

The other thing that’s changed for us is rigidly thinking about content as a Sunday morning thing—like, "We communicate with people on Sunday mornings at 9:15 and 11:15. The next time we’re going to engage with them is next Sunday." We’re trying to stay as fresh as we can with digital content. We’ve done mid-week business breakfasts and digital shorts. The other day, I did a short video with two little girls who attend our church, just asking them, "How do you have fun?" People raved about it!

You lead the staff teams at two of our campuses. What have you tried to focus on as a leader responsible for so many people?

Well, one thing I’ve tried to do is reach out to one staff person a day. I don't like talking on the phone. It just zaps me of energy. But every day, I call or text one staff person, just to check in. I imagine they see my name come up on the screen and think, "Oh, no, what did I do wrong?" [chuckle] I just think this moment needs the church. Which means the emotional health of our team is really important.

I’ve seen churches struggle not because of unhealthy strategies, but because of unhealthy people. So as much as I can, I want to surface people’s anxiety and fear and unhealthy emotions, then provide help. That’s the only way they’ll be able to serve others.

That goes for me, too. I’m trying to give myself some grace and margin. My dad was a pastor. I’m a huge fan of his, so I often think, "What would my dad do?" Then I remember that my dad never led through a global pandemic and racial reckoning in an election year. It’s like a triple storm! So, I’m trying to remember that it’s okay to be making this up as I go along. The best I can do is make sure my physical disciplines are consistent, because I know when those are in place, my spiritual and emotional disciplines follow.

To wrap up, what would you say to other lead pastors right now? Do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement?

General Colin Powell has this thing he calls the 40/70 principle. If you make a decision based on 40% of the information, you’re probably deciding a little bit too early. But if you wait until you have 80% or 90% or 95% of the information, you’re going to decide too late. The sweet spot for decisions is 70%. I would tell pastors, you're making decisions with probably 70% of the information. We all are! Some decisions will look great in hindsight, others not so great. Your job is to pray James 1:5—God, give me wisdom. Then, make the best decision you can.

The other two words I would offer are: Remember when. A friend of mine leads Chick-fil-A’s field operations. He basically serves all 2,500 stores. Back in March, he called me and said, "What are you going to do?" I was like, "I’ve got two locations. You have 2,500! What are you going to do?"

He said, "Here are the two words I’m thinking about: Remember when. At some point, we’ll look back and say, ‘Remember when this hit?’ Right now, we’re writing the rest of that story." Those two words have helped me. Yes, this is a crisis. It’s also an opportunity to write a really good story—to put something great after remember when. 

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

In the coming weeks, we'll be bringing you thoughts from other members of North Point's leadership team. We hope reading about the experiences of other leaders like you will be helpful and encouraging.

What other ministry areas do you want to hear from?

Leadership Interview Footer