The COVID-19 pandemic has caused strain on religious organizations and their leaders. They have been challenged to keep members safe, while also contending with the politicization of the pandemic. They have had to develop or strengthen their online presence while often facing declining attendance. Resources of time, money, skill, and diplomacy have been stretched to the limit.
Learning in Uncertain Times
Where did they turn? Trial and error, sharing best practices with colleagues at other organizations, and their own inventiveness. This has been a time for discovering new resources of all kinds.
Over a six-month period in early 2021, we surveyed the leaders of 100 different congregations in Houston, Texas, and we interviewed 26. Our data clearly show that the number one priority for religious leaders is the wellbeing of members. Of the leaders we surveyed and interviewed, 92% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I am concerned about the health impact COVID-19 is having on people in the organization I lead.” The vast majority of our respondents took the pandemic to be a serious health concern.
But public health was not something they learned about in seminary. And with no recent historical precedent, they improvised. Leaders implemented a range of safety protocols such as suspending in-person services temporarily and, upon return, requiring masking and social distancing. Leaders also adjusted religious practices, such as not giving communion on the tongue or passing the peace by shaking hands and limiting singing.
Yet many of our respondents remained uncertain whether they were making the correct decisions. As one pastor we spoke with told us, “We have some who are wanting me to just go full steam ahead and forget all protocols. We’ve had to do our best to hodgepodge between CDC, state, local and Episcopal guidelines for gathering together and be consistent in all of that. Nobody went to seminary to make health decisions for people” (Interview26: White, Man, 48). Leaders did not feel equipped to judge which sources of information to trust—especially given that sources can be contradictory.
“Yet many of our respondents remained uncertain whether they were making the correct decisions.”
Navigating the Politics
And they felt conflicting pressures from members. Leaders were challenged to deal with new sources of conflict, even as they were dealing with protecting their congregation’s health. Just as leaders have had to learn new skills and find new sources of information, they are also being challenged to navigate new potential divisions, learning to see their congregational culture all over again.
Many leaders we spoke with lamented the politicization of the pandemic and the way their congregations were split on health safety issues. Those on one side felt they were giving in to political pressure to implement masking or social distancing, and others were not attending in person because they did not feel safe without a certain level of precaution. As another pastor reflected, “We shouldn’t have to talk about politics in the church in the way we have to, but we do. Unfortunately, politics has informed more of our theology than theology has informed our politics. In that space, where there’s clear division happening, and then the pandemic becomes politicized, it puts a big strain on relationships” (Interview30: White, Man, 42).
Leaders sometimes worried that these strained relationships were leading to lost members and declining attendance. While internal strife is likely only a small factor in attendance trends, it does suggest the possibility of increased polarization of congregations as those who do not like the COVID-19 response of one congregation move to another or stop attending altogether. Understanding the effects of this pandemic will likely require congregational leaders to assess not only their own ways of doing things, but also the changing ecology of their communities and the religious organizations in them.
Note: For more research on the pandemic’s impact on congregations, check out the project dubbed EPIC, headquartered at Hartford International University.
Our research was supported by the “How Houston’s Religious Communities Are Responding to At Risk Populations in a Time of COVID19” grant, funded by the Building Research on Inequality and Diversity to Grow Equity (BRIDGE) initiative at Rice University, Elaine Howard Ecklund, PI.