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A Look at (almost) Post-Pandemic Ministry in Suburban Boston

An Interview with Eric Sahlberg

I recently sat down with Pastor Eric Sahlberg to talk about leading on the other side (almost?) of the pandemic in suburban Boston. Eric is succeeding a gifted, long-tenured pastor who recently retired. COVID disrupted the smooth transition that was planned. Eric is humble, thoughtful, a champion of D2MC and its ability to move people into the mission. He recently completed PLI’s Senior Leader. Eric and the congregational leadership are in the process of asking the difficult questions of what ministry and mission should look like on the other side of the pandemic. You’re invited to email Eric if you’d like to share in that conversation.

Eric, introduce us to ministry in New England.

New England used to be the Bible belt! The pilgrims settled in Massachusetts. If you go to most towns in New England, right in the center of town still stands a beautiful white church in the square. Many are closed now. Converted to condos, coffee shops, restaurants….

New England is the least Christian corner of the U.S. today. It’s post Christian, and more like Europe than it is many parts of the U.S. It’s very challenging to be a follower of Christ here and to do ministry. People don’t know the basic stories of the Bible. We have to disciple people differently now. But I’ve seen God advance His Kingdom here. 

Let me tell you about Ping. Ping grew up in China and then came to the United States. He was living next door to one of our members, who brought him to worship on Easter. I followed up. He was clearly a welcoming person of peace. We agreed to meet on Wednesdays and read the Gospel of Luke together. Three chapters each week. He could ask me any question he wanted to ask. After eight weeks, we finished the Gospel of Luke and I asked: “So what do you think about Jesus?” He replied: “I started to believe in Jesus as my Savior 3 or 4 chapters ago!” Then I took him to the book of Acts to talk about being baptized!

Tell me about COVID.

We’re still doing outdoor worship. Boston has been slow to open up. We pivoted to online worship right away. We have members who are epidemiologists, people at Harvard and MIT. We listened to our experts. On Christmas Eve we gathered for worship in 3 outdoor services. We did the same for Easter this year… still outdoors. And, it gets cold in Boston!

Early on, we sought a lot of feedback from our members. We used Survey Monkey. We didn’t have a lot of conflict in the congregation like some churches did. We’ve had 13 lay ministers helping care for and call the members during COVID. 

But it’s taken its toll as it continues to wear on here. It’s worn on people’s patience.

It’s been a real grind. I am succeeding a gifted senior pastor who worked hard with the congregation to make a seamless transition when he retired and I started. COVID washed all of that away. 

You had to make some difficult decisions during COVID?

Before the pandemic, our average attendance was around 250. That’s “big” for New England.

I know the pandemic has affected everyone differently. For us, our giving is down 18%. We’ve had to reduce staff hours by 20%. Cut paychecks by 20%. Those are hard things to do. For women and men in church work, for the most part, they’re already underpaid. Our staff has responded well. They’re a gifted, committed team. 

You’re asking some big questions right now.

Yes. In fact, I’d welcome the prayers of the PLI family. People could email me if they’d like to share in the conversation. 

Before COVID, we knew our ministry wasn’t reaching people the way we want to reach people.

I’ve been meeting with our leaders. PLI has been challenging what the future church might look like. We will be having some town hall meetings to discuss with our congregation members and give them an opportunity to think with us.

When things open up in New England, we don’t think it’s simply trying to reinstall what we were doing before, but we don’t know what it should be. We want to honor our past, but we’re seeing the kids and grandkids of our members not knowing the love of Jesus. We have to do something different.

Help me understand your context in suburban Boston.

It’s a driven culture. People live to work here. It’s assumed that people will work 55 or 60 hours a week at their jobs. Our local school district is one of the best in the state. People are very busy. There’s a lot of pressure for kids to not just get into college, but to get into the right schools. The suicide rates among youth in our community is very high. The demographics of our immediate area have shifted to 50% Asian—Chinese and Indian. And 50% caucasian. 

People need the freedom that the Gospel offers that you can be loved and accepted. Jesus offered His life as a sacrifice so we don’t have to strive to produce. We are free to fail and to start again.

We have some Oromo families from Ethiopia. I just baptized a little girl with the whole family in traditional Ethiopian dress. It was wonderful.

Eric, I love your willingness to ask yourself and the leadership challenging questions without knowing the right answers but willing to discover together. That takes courage. What did you find most helpful in the Senior Leader learning community that you just completed?

Senior Leader was great. I’m using things I learned across the 4 immersions. We recently hired a part time children’s director. She’s great. Senior Leader taught me how to identify candidates. Interview. Write a job description. Onboard her to her new role. We helped her get launched quickly and with clarity.

The teaching on financial stewardship was so helpful. During the pandemic, it taught me how to stabilize our financial situation. Here’s something I had never done before. Anybody who gave any amount of money to our ministry, my wife and I bought Christmas cards and we wrote personal notes thanking each person for their generosity. It was a big job. It’s a relatively small thing but it’s made a big difference. It’s taking everything I learned in seminary and adding to it. 

Eric, a final word?

We did all kinds of new things during the pandemic. We went from feeding 125 people in our community on Wednesday evenings to over 200! Outdoors! …with racks of food.

Barna says that 1 in 5 members might not be coming back to church. It’s heartbreaking. But this has been a season loaded with new opportunity. Online to spread the Gospel? I can’t imagine another time like it. We’re trying to listen to others during this season. Telling us: “This is bearing fruit. This is not bearing fruit.” 

Eric would welcome an email from you if you’d like to join the discovery conversation with him and their congregation. Most likely you heard some things you identified with and maybe a few words that encouraged you to not prematurely surrender your own congregational leadership.

If you have been blessed by the PLI family or your congregation is led by someone that’s been blessed by the PLI family and you’d like to help accelerate the work of PLI, I’d like to ask you to consider a monthly recurring gift to support the work of PLI.

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