Amid much speculation and pundit prophesying about how the pandemic is affecting congregations and will reshape their future, several denominational groups and research organizations are studying the issue in real-time. This isn’t an easy task. Trying to track congregational and public reactions to the pandemic is like attempting to hit a randomly moving target. Nevertheless, much can be learned from these glimpses into the evolving response by religious leaders and the general public. The Faith Communities Today (FACT) collaborative project has attempted to archive many of these research efforts. There have been more than 20 studies so far.
What do all these reports indicate, you might ask? There are no simple summaries given the diversity of surveys, audiences, congregational sizes, and the disparity of the spread of the virus. Nevertheless, four distinct phases seem apparent in the results:
Lost and Reactive Phase – Surveys from early in the pandemic indicated that most religious groups didn’t know what to do. They reacted the best they could, but many were unsure about technology, how to offer worship virtually, whether online access and usage would be feasible for everyone, and what to do next. Religious leaders needed resources and help desperately. Congregations closed temporarily or went online with a variety of formats. There were a lot of mistakes and giving plummeted. The majority of congregations were not ready for a crisis like COVID-19.
Hardship but Hopeful Phase – By April, a number of surveys found religious groups beginning to understand the technology and getting into their virtual groove with online giving and digital ministry. For many congregations, giving began to track upward (though not to pre-COVID levels). Congregational functioning was nothing like before, but leaders were more confident and creative outreach efforts were beginning to be implemented. Being a religious community at a distance was difficult but congregations were functioning overall. Of particular surprise to faith leaders were the large number of participants in their online worship, more than had ever attended in person.
Resilient Stability and/or Expectations of Resurrection Phase – Into May, quite a few surveys indicated a resilience mixed with attempts at creative efforts of adaptation. At the same time, a gap began to open between Protestant churches in different locales, regions of the country, and at different ends of the theological spectrum. Much of this was likely driven by the disparity of initial outbreak patterns. More theologically moderate, urban and east coast churches expressed the desire to hunker down and remain digital as long as necessary. At the same time, some evangelical churches in the south, midwest and western portions of the U.S. began to plan for, or attempt, a phased reopening. They had a glimpse of the end of the pandemic and were preparing for it. Giving had rebounded or was on the road to recovery for many congregations.
Exhaustion and Uncertainty Phase – By June (and anecdotally into July), as much as a third of evangelical congregations were opening, though most had not returned to in-person gatherings and were uncertain about reopening timelines. At the same time, positive cases were beginning to spike in parts of the country previously untouched by the virus. Uncertainty and anxiety were evident in the public, with nearly two-thirds of Americans saying they were somewhat or very uncomfortable attending an in-person religious service. This same tension is being felt within congregations with some members having to return to work while other remain at home, so some are more comfortable gathering than others. In every case, however, both clergy and congregational members are exhausted due to the continual anxiety about the virus (especially as it is now dramatically increasing), uncertainty about a clear way forward to “normalcy,” and the significant additional effort it takes to do virtual ministry with added pastoral care and social ministry demands.
With no clear end in sight, the religious response to the pandemic continues. Check the FACT site regularly for new research as the impact continues to be assessed and reported.
Assessment tools are used in congregational planning. Such tools are helpful in strategic planning, formation of new programs, improvement of existing projects and more.
There are internal assessment tools and external assessment tools. Internal tools help you learn about your congregation, its members, staff and other constituents who are part of your congregation. External tools help you learn more about your neighborhood and the community around you.
Here are five things to keep in mind when thinking about using assessment tools.
- Surveys that you create yourself are not typically reliable. You often receive opinions rather than good data. Plus, surveys that you create yourself do not typically have additional data sets to which you can compare the information you gather. So, I do not recommend surveys that you create.
- Look for tools that have data sets that you can use as comparisons to the information you gather. This is especially true for internal assessments.
- Tools that measure strengths are helpful because you can connect the data to your congregation’s capacity and passion. Assessments that focus on problems or weaknesses can be dispiriting. It is typically more productive to fortify strengths than to try to fix weaknesses.
- It is natural to feel overwhelmed when you receive information from assessments. Don’t try to interpret all of it at once. Start with the data that most closely relates to your original reason for using the assessment tool. Go back to your original questions. Set your original questions alongside the data. What behaviors come to mind? What action steps get generated? In other words, allow yourself only so much time figuring out the data. Go with what generates the most energy and discern what actions, however small, might be first steps.
- Assessment tools should help conversation along. They are not the lasts word. The conversation you have about the results of the assessment is more important than the data. You know the tool is helping you when it leads you to a really good face-to-face conversation.
During the rapidly evolving pandemic, please know that your congregation is not alone. We offer this short list of resources that you might continue your work faithfully and safely.
Looking for different resources? Get information that meets your needs by connecting with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or click Chat with an Expert at the bottom of this page.
Resource List for Online Church
This succinct guide quickly connects leaders to information on a variety of topics: COVID-19 processes and checklists, streaming software and equipment, faith formation, online giving and recorded webinars.
The Episcopal Church provides guidelines for compassionate Christians, instructions for live streaming and mass messaging, plus creative worship and faith formation resources.
Coronavirus Resources for the Church
This Wheaton College resource center offers a congregational planning manual (also available in Spanish), a free weekly webinar to prepare congregations for the coronavirus, a free online summit starting March 26, as well as tip sheets and links to top resources.
How to Lead Calmly in a Global Outbreak
In this article, experienced pastors George Mason and Mark Wingfield provide a pep-talk for faith leaders to lead calmly in a time of crisis.
Q&A: How to care for the elderly without putting them at risk of coronavirus
In this article, the chief medical officer at AARP offers advice for common COVID questions and how to support elderly loved ones.
Virtual Shabbat Box
Create a virtual shabbat with short meditations and readings. Instead of a physical group gathering, engage the senses through rituals that heal the body, mind, and spirit.
Resources for Community- and Faith-Based Leaders
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers official information for emergency planning and action steps, verified information about the virus, cleaning and disinfecting practices, and important organizational practices.
Three Big Communication Mistakes Organizations are Making During the COVID-19 Crisis
Communications leader Kem Meyer offers advice to organizations about communications during the pandemic.