Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Webinar Recording and FAQ: The Pandemic’s Impact on Churches  

In late June, our researchers presented a webinar hosted by Hartford International University for Religion and Peace entitled “The Pandemic’s Impact on Churches: What the Data Show Thus Far” in which they discussed findings from three recent surveys taken from 5,000 churches about how congregations and their clergy are faring. They also addressed the challenges and possibilities facing faith communities.

Below are some questions and answers from the event. Answers have been edited for clarity.

Regarding in-person versus remote worship, one pastor says that in the churches she pastored during the pandemic, they’ve had more people online than they’ve had in person and is wondering how that breakdown plays out on the percentages? Members tell her they just prefer to watch from home in their PJs and not rush and make the kids come out on a family day.

(Dr. Scott Thumma) Basically, what we found is that there’s a wide variety when you talk about hybrid. You’re going to find a large percentage of hybrid congregations that have vastly more in person and some with more online. Overall, the congregations that are only worshiping in person or only worshiping online are not growing at all. Only those that are hybrid are growing. The online versus in person balance needs to be about 50/50 or, at most, twice as many in person than as online, but if it gets more skewed either direction, growth doesn’t happen as much. I think in part, one of the reasons might be that if you get too far to one end or the other, then you forget about the the other population; you’re not addressing those folks who are virtual or you’re not addressing the face to face people if the balance gets too far out of out of sync. But hybridity is the way to go and and I think trying to balance both populations is probably the best strategy.

(Dr. Rachael Lawrence) Because my church’s virtual service was on YouTube, we found it very difficult to discern what the actual attendance was. Sometimes we know people were watching who might be four or five in a family, and we know some people were hopping on for 30 seconds and flipping on to something else. We know we had people joining us from Texas and other parts of the world sometimes and that was very exciting but they’re like, then, how you engage them within a local congregation? These were questions that we never quite figured out how to grapple with in the local church sense.

(Hannah Evans) The only thing I’m going to add to Scott’s comment is that I think it’ll be really interesting to see as we continue to collect our regional data. Some of the preliminary things we’re seeing are that the region matters a lot for whether or not online is still being offered or how much it’s being offered. I noticed that the person asking the question leads congregations in New Jersey and Virginia; those are places that we’re seeing a lot more online still being offered, whereas the congregations we are seeing in Texas and Indianapolis and others are really pushing the in-person component a lot more so.

(Thumma) I was going to say, following up, because a couple of questions were asking about that very thing, about staying open or opening rapidly and it was absolutely clear that the vast majority did not stay open, at least for a brief period of time. The congregations that were most likely to not close were the smallest congregations and probably also very rural, but it’s also pretty clear that the quicker you open back up, the more likely you are to have grown. It looks like from some of the data, the congregation that opened up first actually gained people from some of the other congregations in the area of that same faith tradition, so there is definitely an advantage in some ways to jumping in there first.

What are you observing about churches’ spiritual care of grief?

(Dr. Allison Norton) One of the churches that we’re studying actually ended up holding a grieving circle fairly recently just in the last about six weeks, bringing people together and having a space outside of a regular service or any kind of programming or format for the community to come together and to just hold a space of grief and lament. So, I think we are seeing in some congregations a rise and appreciation, perhaps, for a theology of lament to really grapple deeply with how these changes have impacted us at such a deep level. And for some congregations this has been providing these spaces and opportunities to really enact a theology of a lament in some ways.

(Rev. Anna Tew) I know, at least in my congregation, the observation of Holy Week kind of will never be the same as it was before. Just that sort of journey through the depths of grief and death. And, as I shared during our Pastoral Innovation Network of New England gathering, I was taught how to teach congregations to express lament, but one of the things that I’ve noticed in my church is that people are also hungering for joy, and so figuring out how to strike that balance has been fascinating. But we were actually able to hold our Easter vigil this year and I don’t think we’ve had a more joyful one, so I think this story, at least for us, like our own faith story, has kind of helped us to process the grief. These things have stuck around for thousands of years for a reason, and I think I’ve found that really useful.

We also have quite a few questions asking about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on African American communities and Latino communities. With our research, how are we engaging in the disparities and the differences, and how the pandemic has impacted black or brown congregations as compared to primarily white congregations?

(Dr. Allison Norton) I know that we’re really at the early stages of doing that kind of analysis, but I think it’s a very important question and it’s worth exploring as deeply as we can.

(Dr. Scott Thumma) Our representation of survey responses for congregations of color has been less than stellar and and that’s why we’re trying to connect with some other networks in order to oversample some of those congregations. But it’s pretty clear so far that African American congregations do look significantly different; they’re still less likely to be back worshiping in person. They have had, I think, a little bit harder time having people participate at the level that they were participating before. They were also much, much more likely to open up their building to both the larger community, but also to have testing and vaccination clinics. In fact, almost the entire population of congregations that said they opened up were African American congregations, so I think there are going to be some real, significant differences, but we need a little bit larger sample for sure.

There are also some interesting questions about the impact on clergy in terms of burnout. How do pastors respond to the exhaustion of, as we’ve noted, the loss of a volunteer base? And more broadly, how this impacts pastors in terms of their career plans? If they’re retired, thinking about retirement, bi-vocational or the like.

(Dr. Allison Norton) I think this is an important question to engage right now, because a lot of denominational leaders and pastors are asking themselves these questions.

(Dr. Scott Thumma) If you read my RNS article, then you know it was it was very clear that it was the hardest ministry year ever, and a significant percentage of congregations, 67%, of pastors said that they had thought that at least once. But we also asked them if they had thought seriously about considering leaving the ministry, and you may have seen that Barna Research also asked that question and were claiming that 38% of clergy were thinking of leaving the ministry. We found that 37% had thought that at some point in 2020, but we also asked how often did you think it, was it once or twice, a few times, fairly often or very often? And when you start to look at what percentage of pastors thought it very often, it was only 3% and and the same or roughly the same (3%) also said they doubted their call. They also said they were considering leaving their current congregation, and if you look at those, it was almost all the same people that were thinking that and if you look at where they were, they were already in challenging situations. So it wasn’t just the pandemic, it was that they were in a smaller congregation that was struggling to exist that had conflict. So it was the whole context and everything that they were in. It wasn’t just the pandemic, but it is pretty clear that what we’re hearing from clergy is the stress. But essentially what’s happening right now is the pandemic was the hurricane or tornado and we’re just now coming out of the basement or are coming down from the attic and then open the door and look and see the devastation. The work is just now beginning. Before, there was a reaction to this traumatic event and we all had to do what we had to do, but now the real work happens of putting things back together, of learning how to be the church in a different reality and what we have are many stressed, exhausted pastors who are realizing they have fewer volunteers and they have this large work of trying to reinvent what congregational life is going to look like in a new reality and hopefully not just go back to the old patterns of behavior. So I think it is going to be a challenging time in the next few years. Whether all these pastors are going to resign, I think, is probably unlikely, but many of them are going to get exhausted for sure, so we have to give all the love we can.

(Rev. Rachael Lawrence) In order to understand how we come out of this as clergy, we need to start unpacking how all of the community building wound up on clergy’s shoulders during the pandemic. Because it wound up being the pastors making the phone calls to check in on each other and as much as we might encourage and give lip service to reach out to your friends and neighbors, reach out to the people you’re missing, church people didn’t follow through. So I think it’d be kind of interesting, not something you do in a large survey, but to go in and find out what was it that was feeding this disconnect, why did volunteers not want to call their neighbor. I think if we could understand that we might understand a bit about how this happened.

(Rev. Anna Tew) I did think about quitting often and I found it hard to believe that was only 3% because it was really stinking hard. I’m actually really glad you can’t see my notes, because I used a different adjective before. I realized that the way that we do ministry, to Rachael’s point, was completely unsustainable. But that also a lot of things that I thought I was obligated to do, actually I wasn’t. I had a lot of flexibility, and then a lot of the things I thought I was obligated to do actually weren’t that useful to my congregation. Like, I was sort of fed this ‘I must sit at my desk for eight hours a day, or else be doing something else,’ which is sort of silly in the grand scheme of things and was quickly leading me to burn out. So I basically just rethought everything and realized that as a clergy member, I have the privilege to do that, especially as solo clergy. I have two bosses, my church council and Jesus, and they’ve both been incredibly gracious through all of this. And so I realized I reassessed my own call and sort of, in very secular terms, my own job and realized that I feel useful and I have tons of flexibility in my work. And, that my expertise is useful, so that allowed me to think about what is essential, what is helpful, what does it mean to have boundaries.

What about the dramatic dip in attendance at Catholic and Orthodox churches in particular?

(Dr. Scott Thumma) I haven’t looked at that particularly, although my guess would be that it was because the Catholic and Orthodox churches didn’t do that much online because online worship doesn’t really work for an embodied liturgical form and therefore you saw that immediate drop, but then you see them bounce back up because they did open up in person more rapidly.

(Hannah Evans) Scott’s comments are exactly it. Catholic and Orthodox churches believe, theologically speaking, in the body of Christ being physically present so to try and to participate in these really important liturgical events in those traditions over Zoom is just not going to be considered, like a real theological event. And so there’s a completely different orientation toward Zoom and online that exists in those traditions, as opposed to evangelical traditions and other mainline traditions. So in the Catholic and Orthodox you see a different effect as a result of, I think, theological belief about the function and purpose of liturgical gatherings. And, similar to what Scott said, is that those numbers dipped more strongly during the middle of the pandemic. But at the point that we are now those numbers have come back up considerably compared to the mainline tradition, which I think has really struggled a lot to bring those numbers back up.

What did you find most surprising out of this data that we’ve uncovered thus far on the impact of the pandemic on congregations?

(Dr. Andrew Gardner) I think the data that most shocked me was the number of churches that just stopped fellowship events. I think it was upwards of 57% that stopped fellowship events, and echoing what my colleagues have said tonight, it in some ways seems like in stopping fellowship events, church just became a chore and a task for everyone, that there was no time to just simply be, that every church event there was something to be doing something, to be done, a task that had to get checked off. Whereas fellowship events are oftentimes an event that, sure there’s planning involved, but once it goes, it goes. You’re there to be with people, and to be together, and that those really just stopped during the pandemic. I think that was most surprising for me.

(Rev. Rachael Lawrence) I think the biggest shock to me was the the vastly different reaction to giving during the pandemic. Some congregations seemed to embrace that they really missed and value church and they wanted to fund it. I know I spoke to two or three congregations during those two years that had increases in tithes and offerings during the pandemic. And on the flip side, there were many that it just trailed off. They would argue that if you’re not passing the plate, you’re not going to get my dollars. So to hear now that they’re kind of stabilizing and back to where they were, or at least close to where they were, it’s a relief, but I do wonder why the differences.

(Hannah Evans) To speak to Rachel’s comment, I found it really surprising that, overall, across traditions, financial giving and tithing was fairly stable in our data, with some fluctuations for sure, but overall, I was surprised to see that many congregations reported that giving had not decreased, even though there was a decrease so significantly in these other things. I’m intrigued to see how that continues to evolve over time and what will happen with volunteering and involuntary increases while giving decreases, and some of these other things that right now haven’t or have yet to happen.

(Dr. Scott Thumma) One of the other interesting things about giving… in our previous Faith Communities Today surveys in 2010 and 2015, I did analysis and found that if a congregation had any online giving, per capita giving went up almost $100 a person if they just had it, and if they emphasized that while having online giving, it went up even more if they called it out. If you think about how many congregations have shifted from plate offering to some form of online giving, it doesn’t surprise me that it rose so much. But it makes sense that in some sense, even if we hadn’t had a pandemic and people had taken my word over the last 10 years to do that, they would have gotten more money anyway. There is something there but it didn’t seem to be interesting to watch, because now those folks are not going to turn off their online giving. So maybe we’re going to see fewer people, but still sustain a higher level and sustain giving per capita, so it could be interesting.