Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Covid, Churches and Community Service

By Patricia Tevington, PhD

While we are gratefully observing a decline in cases and an accompanying loosening of safety measures (at least at the time of this writing– March 2022), the pandemic nevertheless caused damaging effects on many aspects of social life in addition to individual illness and loss of life.

Immediately following the start of the pandemic, the United States experienced a huge surge of unemployment—reaching a high of 13% at one point. For parents, the pandemic worsened the already looming crisis around child care. School-age children likewise faced their own struggles while virtual schooling was introduced. Further, concerns about mental health and well-being were at the forefront of many professionals’ minds. Many nonprofits and social service organizations faced financial instability as a result of the pandemic, all the while the need for their services increased.

Churches are more than just buildings for worship and fellowship. They play an important role in providing social services. Many of us would point to a congregation in town as providing homeless shelters, food pantries, or tutoring. Further, churches also often physically host community programs even when not providing them directly. Chances are, your local scout troop or a recovery program meets in a church basement.

In November of 2021, the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations research team launched another topical survey, querying key informants from 38 different denominations about how their churches were responding to the pandemic—specifically in terms of their ministries and programs. We found that churches are doing quite a lot to meet the needs of the community during this tough time! While we document this in more detail in our report, and highlight some key innovative stories elsewhere, let’s take a look at the role that congregations are providing community services and how the pandemic has affected this outreach.

The vast majority of congregations—nearly eight out of ten— in our study reported offering some form of community service. As documented in our report, 54% of congregations started new or significantly expanded a ministry or program since the start of the pandemic. Among the most common new or expanded ministries were correspondence to the elderly or shut-ins (23.1%) and personal protective equipment creation or distribution (14.8%).

Source: Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations study, Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Probably unsurprisingly, many congregations also reported that the “need” for these services has stayed the same or increased since the pandemic. For instance, 25% of churches saw an increase in the number of individuals seeking food assistance since the start of the pandemic while an additional 43% reported that the number had remained the same. The alleviation of material needs was not the only service provided by churches either. Indeed, about 37% of congregations saw an increase in the number of individuals seeking mental health counseling.

Were churches able to meet this demand? For the most part, congregations seem to be coping well. Nearly 58% of churches agreed that their ministries had continued uninterrupted. By and large, donations remained stable (38.9%) or actually increased (32.5%) since the start of the pandemic. On average, congregations report that 23% of their participants regularly volunteer in the congregation and that 10% of their participants have taken on new roles since the start of the pandemic.

Source: Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations study, Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Churches play an important role in their communities, as the vast majority provide avenues for support and social services. While the pandemic has hit churches hard, many have risen to the occasion and significantly expanded or created new ministries in response to the challenges introduced or worsened by COVID-19. There is a great deal of good being done “on the ground” by religious communities, even in the midst of devastation and disruption. While the future is uncertain, many churches feel equipped to continue helping their communities.