The Black Swan: Learning to Survive the Unexpected

If 2020 revealed anything about churches and ministries, it is how thin a financial margin many have. In 2020, Congress passed a stimulus plan that included the PPP Loans (Payroll Protection Program), which became a significant lifeline for many small businesses, churches, and ministry organizations. Some churches thrived through the challenges of 2020 and came through stronger than before. For many churches, however, this “black swan” event forced them to close or to drastically reduce their ministry during a time when the communities around them needed them most.

Much can be said about black swan events. A black swan refers to an unpredictable event beyond the norm, with potentially severe consequences. Usually characterized by their extreme rarity, severe impact, and widespread nature, black swan events are apparent in hindsight and often carry significant long-term effects that change the course of everyday life. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we live forever, and in generations to come, those changes will become the normal way of life.

Because of the extreme impact of black swan events, it is better to prepare for them in advance. While a black swan event is described as unpredictable, we can take specific steps to leave us in a better position to handle the unexpected. Having little to no debt, establishing an emergency fund, being in good standing with local companies, and building strong relationships with our congregations are all keys to thriving during the unexpected. When it comes to black swans, what you don’t know is far more relevant than what you do know. The ability to fall back on healthy relationships and savings allows churches and ministries to weather unknown events together rather than in isolation.

For example, let’s say a church carried $100,000 in debt at the start of the 2020 pandemic and had little savings. As we know, the government urged (or mandated, in some locations) everyone to stay home and avoid gathering to minimize the spread of the virus. Suppose this example church had a strong relationship between its congregants before COVID-19. In that case, the church still could minister and receive financial assistance from congregants to pay the bills and the pastor. However, if congregational relationships were weak, it is likely the congregants used this opportunity to check out other churches (and virtual services allowed congregants to worship from anywhere). Because our example church had little to no savings, it proved much harder to transition to new technology that would allow them to host virtual services. The effects of the COVID-19 black swan for this congregation will be lasting, potentially devastating, and look predictable in hindsight. Sadly, far too many churches found themselves like this example church: unprepared to pivot from in-person services to virtual services quickly and efficiently to keep their congregants together and continue ministry.

Black swan events expose weaknesses, but they also present opportunities. In 2019, local mask makers had no idea that a year later, they would be called upon to help industrial mask manufacturers meet the demands of the pandemic. Yet they were prepared to step up and help through the crisis. Likewise, churches that prepared for virtual outreach and offered online services continued their worship services and outreach without missing a beat. Their advance preparation allowed their outreach to be far more significant than they ever imagined. In contrast, churches that failed to prepare for virtual worship services or had no means for online giving struggled financially during the pandemic. Some pandemic-related changes may continue. While most churches have returned to in-person meetings, online giving and virtual services will continue as well.

Who knows what the next black swan event will be—terrorist attack, financial crisis, another pandemic, changing laws, or new technology? Having the church financial strategy planned and on track will not protect us from the black swan. But planning ahead will prepare us to face it and thrive during the effects that follow.