As the Service Programming Director for North Point Ministries, Elizabeth Lincoln is responsible for everything that happens in the auditorium on Sunday mornings at NPM’s eight Atlanta-area campuses.
But what happens when the auditoriums are empty—when the COVID-19 pandemic forces an overnight shift to only online services?
Elizabeth recently chatted with Jessica Duquette, who leads the NP Resources team, about the monumental shift her team has made and the new questions they’re asking about the future of Sunday services.
Elizabeth, let's go back to March for a minute, when all of this started. What were your first concerns?
There were several. Number one: Were we going to be able to record or stream services in a way that kept our staff safe?
Number two: How do we make sure that our campuses are resourced to make the pivots that we're all having to make? Some of our campuses already streamed their services every week, but some didn’t. We had to figure out whether we would all use one stream or each campus would create their own local iteration.
And then three: What is it that people really need right now? What are they feeling, and are we empathizing enough? I’ll give you Easter as an example. We’d been planning for four months, but as things in the world started changing, our plans went out the window.
The circumstances required that we shift our approach. We made the service fairly simple—beautiful, but simple—because I wanted to make sure that we were tangibly communicating empathy, and that our tone matched what was going on in the world. We knew that people would be joining us online who had never joined us in person, so we viewed everything through the lens of: "What might be a barrier for people?" "What might offend or distract them?" For example, it was the first time that we put the singers on the floor for our worship set. We didn't want people seeing a full band clustered together on the stage and get distracted wondering if they were six feet apart, or if they were in danger. We knew if that happened, people wouldn’t be able to engage in the service.
It became clear quickly that we wouldn’t reopen the building for Sunday services anytime soon. Talk about what that meant for your team, since you still had a responsibility to produce something for Sundays.
Right away, we started debating—should Sundays be live, simulated live, or be on demand? We’ve tried it all three ways, but eventually settled on pre-recording most messages. That decision was mostly driven by our speakers; it’s just so weird talking to an empty room. Pre-recording allows them to fix parts of their messages that feel odd because they don't have the interactions they're used to with a live audience.
The other thing we’ve settled on is keeping service programming mostly decentralized. Even when all of our campuses are using the same main message, they’re recording their own welcome and music. So every campus gets its local stream with a local feel and flavor.
We’ve had some exceptions to that—Easter was one. We felt like there was a big upside to all the campuses using the exact same service. It allowed us to promote and talk about it like crazy. And if someone in another part of the city, or the country, heard about it and tuned in, they would have the same experience.
One of the cool things that’s happened for our team is that we’ve had more opportunity to produce things beyond Sunday mornings. Because we’re pre-recording messages, the teams at some of our campuses have been able to try Facebook Live for interviews and prayer services. It’s created some collaboration we haven’t had in the past because we have these pockets of experimentation happening simultaneously.
When I talked with Kendra Fleming recently, she said the same experimentation is happening in KidMin. According to Kendra, one of the most pleasant things she has learned from it is that our standard of excellence may sometimes be too high.
It’s been great to try new things and not require everything to be buttoned up, picture-perfect.
I’m wired to be spontaneous. So I’m comfortable saying, "We're just gonna try it and see what sticks." I'd rather us give something a whirl, and if it’s an 80 out of 100 than to not try it at all. If it's less than an 80 or an 85, I don't want to do it. But if it can be an 80 or 85, we'll do it and learn what we can from it.
My job is to keep us inside the rails. On the one hand, we’ve got all this grace from our audience. There is currently a tolerance for raw and unpolished. On the other hand, we believe in excellence as an organization. First, we serve an excellent God, so we should be as excellent as we can. Second, we've been given a lot of talented people and a lot of financial resources. The Parable of the Talents teaches us that we should be leveraging those the best we can. And third, excellence honors people. It says to our audience, especially our attendees and givers: We understand that you're giving us your time or money believing that we'll do something great with it, and God will use it.
So the question for our team has been, "What does it look like for us to be excellent enough?" How do we produce incredible stuff without it being so flashy and expensive that our audience thinks, "I don't know if I'll have a job in two weeks and you're spending money like it's never going away?"
During the COVID-19 crisis, everyone’s job has changed somewhat. But your team is really swimming in new waters. You went from being a team built for live production every weekend to being a team that films and manages post-production. What has it been like now that Sundays are different?
It's wild. The switch happened overnight when we realized that Andy specifically—but, in general, all our communicators—would be more comfortable pre-recording. It’s certainly nice to have a weekend; that’s something you don’t really get in our world. But it’s weird to have an entire service ready three weeks ahead of time. You're not working toward this singular day.
It has challenged us to think about things we’ve never had to consider before. Without an audience there to experience it live, we’re trying to figure out: How do we capture a feeling? How do we edit so it’s not just shots of the musicians, but we’re really showing the relationships?
I do miss a live audience. Anyone who has a job like mine likes the pressure when there’s a live audience, so things have to be great. But it’s been fun to realize that filming still has a lot of energy.
And honestly, things are shifting so fast that we’re still experiencing the intensity of a normal Sunday. There’s an immediacy to everything at the moment—a feeling like you have to respond right now. The racial justice conversation is a good example. There’s pressure to speak up immediately, but also to get it right. So, we’ve still had to be nimble in a way that we’re used to, even though, in theory, we’ve been able to plan ahead.
In some ways, the things that have made this season survivable are the same things that made our team successful on a typical Sunday morning—our commitment to excellence and Andy’s commitment to clarity.
The leadership team at North Point has challenged the staff to use this season to consider: What do we need to rethink, retain, and retire? What are some of the things you’re evaluating in the Service Programming Department?
We’ve gone through many iterations in the last few years, but recently (before the COVID-19 pandemic), our online services were essentially a live stream of what was happening in the room—nothing more. We weren’t using a live host or doing anything custom for the online audience.
Now, we’re looking at months of offering only online services. That has huge implications! We’re asking ourselves these questions: If you're designing an experience only for an online audience, what would you do? Does the experience need to feel live? If people are observing and absorbing instead of participating, what should we do differently?
For example, when people aren’t in the room, do they really want to listen to three songs? I'm sure some people sing at home with their computer, but a lot of people don't. So we’ve tried Sundays with no songs and Sundays with just one song; we’ve tried songs people aren’t familiar with. We’ve gone shorter and longer than our typical 60 minutes. Does that give us more freedom with our programming when we return to in-person services? I don’t know.
We’ve also experienced some benefits from pre-recording. It helps the clarity of the message. It allows our marketing and promotion to be proactive instead of reactive. It makes it easier to sync with other ministries, like providing discussion questions to our small groups. So, we’re rethinking lots of things these days. What will we retain once this season is over? Time will tell.
As we wrap up, how has this season tested you as a manager and leader? What’s something you’ve learned?
I like to delegate. It's been hard to feel like there are so many things I can't hand off because I just don't have enough information to set somebody up to succeed.
Information is powerful and empowering. And when people don't have it, it's deflating. They start to think, "Well, why didn't I know that? Why wasn’t I told?" So, I’m just trying to communicate like crazy. I’m constantly reminding people that we need to keep trusting each other. I’ll share information as soon as I have it.
The other thing I’m learning is what it looks like to take care of people, and let them take care of me too. They need me to lead and, as Andy has said, give clarity where I can. But they also need me to be a person and to let them look out for me. So I’ve said, "Hey, if I seem out of sorts or out of whack, please tell me. If you feel like I need to take a 30-minute break, please tell me." I’ve given them permission, and I’m working on receiving it well when they speak up.
As a leader, you feel like you're supposed to be rock solid. But I’ve realized that it’s even better when the team comes together to accomplish big things and look out for each other.
If you'd like to talk with your team about some of the things Elizabeth mentioned, we have a discussion guide to get you started.
If you missed our chats with the North Point leaders who oversee the organization’s finances and family ministries, catch up now.
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?