By Neal Michell

COVID-19 shutdown feels like walking on a frozen pond with cracks all around us. Church leaders are so busy trying to keep their congregants together and adjust to the changes wrought by the shutdown, it makes it hard to take the time to reflect on what is really going on. This also makes it hard to have a sense of direction as we respond to our changed environment and look ahead.

We hear a lot about the need to adjust to the “new normal,” meaning that life will never be the same as before the pandemic, and that an unwritten set of norms that are now in effect. This call to adapt to the new normal aims to provide stability, a way of coping with the uncertainty of life in the pandemic by giving us something to expect. It is a way of calming our fears by embracing a new status quo.

There are two problems with this. First, we have not gotten far enough into the COVID-19 way of living to know what the new norms will be; and second, we haven’t really yet gotten used to the “old normal,” that is, how to engage effectively and missionally in an already changed post-Christendom and post-Modern era.  This is especially true for the Church in general, including the Episcopal Church.

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So, although it is still too early to make any hard and fast rules about our “new normal,” I have made seven preliminary observations about what I have seen emerging from this time of quarantine and isolation. These observations are presented as discussion points to encourage our thinking and conversation about how better to lead the churches and parishioners entrusted to our care in this changing environment entrusted to our care.

  1. COVID-19 has accelerated changes that were already occurring in Episcopal and Anglican churches and other mainline denominations.

In the Episcopal Church, it is clear that many, but not all, of our leaders are anxious about the future of the denomination. Numbers in all major categories, such as membership, average Sunday attendance (ASA), baptisms, and weddings decrease year by year. The exception to this decline is congregational giving. (The reason for this exception is that faithful people in our churches tend to give to maintain the church’s current level of ministry and operational costs, even in a time of decline.)

Here is a chart of the major statistics of the domestic dioceses the Episcopal Church regarding membership and ASA for the decade between 2008 and 2018 (the 2008 statistics were provided to me by Iris DiLeonardo):

 

2008 2018 Net Gain (Loss)
Domestic Parishes and Missions 6,964 6,423 (541)
Baptized Members 2,057,292 1,676,349 (380,943)
Average Sunday Attendance 705,257 531,958 (173,299)
Baptisms, Children 32,731 18,873 (13,858)
Baptisms, Adults 3,816 2,924 (892)
Confirmations, Children 10,989 6,684 (4,305)
Confirmations, Adults 12,370 7,977 (4,393)
Received 6,196 5,643 (553)
Marriages 12,816 6,878 (5,938)

To put this data in a different perspective, consider the fact that there were 173,299 fewer Sunday worshipers in 2018 than in 2008. In other words, The Episcopal Church lost the equivalent of all of Province I (comprising the dioceses of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Western Massachusetts), plus the domestic dioceses of Province II (comprising the dioceses of Albany, Central New York, Long Island, New Jersey, New York, Newark, Rochester, Western New York), as well as six dioceses in Province III.

We are not alone. The traditional “mainlines” are all in significant decline:

2008 2018
United Methodist Church  7.5 mil 6.91 mil
Christian Church (Disciples)  64 thou 35.5 thou
Presbyterian Church (USA) 2.7 mil 1.55 mil (2018)
Episcopal Church 1.95 mil 1.58 mil (2018)
Evangelical Lutheran Church 4.27 mil 3.46 mil (2018)
American Baptist Church (USA) 131 thou 116 thou
United Church of Christ 1.06 mil 0.825 mil (2018)

Meanwhile, those who respond to religious polls regarding what faith tradition they identify with respond “None” in increasing numbers. Leaders of TEC are rightly joined in their anxiety for the future of their denomination by leaders in all the mainline denominations. (Read more on the “Nones” below.)

David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, an evangelically-oriented research organization, has predicted that as a result of the COVID-19 shutdowns as many as one in five churches —and one in three mainline ones — could close for good within the next 18 months. The Economist writes, “the pandemic may also lead to the closure of churches that might otherwise have survived for years.”

The attentive parish leader will ask what trends we have seen in our own larger culture that were present before the quarantine that we now see more clearly and have been accelerated during this time that we need to address.

  1. ASA and membership numbers don’t tell us a whole lot about the spiritual health of our congregations.

Anyone who has read my books and other writings knows that I am a proponent of the use of metrics in analyzing and assessing trends and patterns in the life of a congregation. However, life in this pandemic drives home in a new way that those metrics don’t tell us the full story of the health of our congregations. ASA has become irrelevant in determining the size of our congregations and how we should organize and administrate accordingly in this time of shutdown.

Many local churches are hosting online services; but some dioceses are hosting online services for the entire diocese, while other dioceses are hosting online services presented by a rotating number of their congregations. Cathedrals and larger churches may have an increased number of online “attendees” because people know that cathedrals and larger churches will provide a high quality of online worship services. How do you measure this kind of participation? What does this mean for that local church? And, are those numbers — which measure real people — actually helpful in analysis and long-term planning?

Congregational health is discerned through a combination of hard data (metrics), and soft data (intuitive listening). Although keeping track of ASA, annual giving, and membership can provide a general snapshot of the trend of whether a church is growing, sustaining, or declining, these numbers don’t, by themselves, tell whether a church is healthy and vital.

Leaders who understand the limits of this sort of data will recognize that there is an ebb and flow of parish life, and that churches often naturally go through expanding seasons, stabilizing seasons, and retracting seasons. Sometimes a church’s attendance may seem flat, when in reality, that congregation needs to absorb growth that has occurred and stabilize. At other times, attendance can increase for no discernable reason. At other times, God may be at work among the congregation in ways that are unrelated to numerical growth such that, although ASA may decline in a given year, a deeper work among the congregation is taking place that might not be possible if numerical growth were occurring.

Nevertheless, some metrics can help leaders to discern the health of a congregation. Rather than simply counting at Sunday or weekend services, church leaders should look for ways to measure parishioners’ actual engagement in the life of the parish. One metric to consider is how many members of the congregation are newly involved in outreach, or how many people who are unable to participate in ministries made untenable during this time are finding new ministries to engage in. Another measurement to consider is how many new members your church has in leadership positions. Still another metric for indicating health is how many parishioners are involved in small groups, such as Bible studies, support groups, and so on.

However, just as we often grow spiritually through difficult times, so do churches. Israel was formed through the wandering in the wilderness and re-formed through the exile. During this time of limited congregational gathering in groups, clergy and lay leaders should be intuitively listening to parishioners. Parish leaders should be intentional about calling, emailing, and texting their parishioners to hear stories about how they are doing during this challenging time. There may be real spiritual growth occurring among a congregation during this desert time that most of our traditional data measurements won’t reveal. What are the stories of loving relationships, parishioners caring for the poor and needy in our surrounding communities, and church members reaching out to one another within the parish?

  1. COVID-19 lockdown tests the quality of the parishioners’ relationships.

At the heart of parish life are relationships. God dwells eternally in relationship. The level of trust between a parishioner and her priest is rooted in relationship, and confidence in the parish’s future often lies in the quality of the leadership of the rector, staff, and vestry. However, the strength of a congregation — and specifically the strength of a congregation to endure and thrive during this time of limited group face-to-face gatherings — will be proven by the quality of the parishioner-to-parishioner relationships. I lead a men’s Bible study on Tuesday mornings at 7:00 a.m. Our attendance has decreased only slightly. After about a month of meeting online, one of our members — 80 years old — was feeling depressed, so he took it upon himself to call every man in our group to check in. Although I lead the group each Tuesday, this man is part of the glue that keeps this group thriving.

Wise leaders will ask: how do we remain connected as a congregation when we can’t gather in groups for worship? How do a church’s pastors connect with the church members when everyone in the church is essentially home bound?

  1. COVID-19 lockdown is causing churches to “do outside the box.”

For years we have been hearing that our churches need to “think outside the box.” Rather than actually thinking outside the box, we have mostly been trying old ideas and pretending they were outside the box. (For those Episcopalians reading this, do you remember when we were going to re-imagine the General Convention and the structure of the church?)

Now, because of the COVID-19 lockdown, churches really are coming up with new ways of being the Church and doing ministry and mission. We are shifting from “thinking outside the box” to “doing outside the box.”

Our churches are finding their reach extended as they broadcast their worship services online to more people than just their current members. As they provide online services of Morning, Evening, Noonday Prayers and Compline, they invite people to send in prayer requests. Some of these requests are prayed for in real time over Facebook Live. More people are able to participate in corporate worship through these online services. One church has established an “Epiphany Cares” ministry that runs errands for anyone requesting. Some churches are establishing online pastors for those new “distance parishioners” who have no access to Episcopal worship in their own communities.

A question to ask about your church at this time: what are some of the “outside the box” things that we thought of before and didn’t do that we might reconsider?

  1. Lay people think more about relationships than theology.

This awareness is nothing new, but it has been highlighted over the discussion of how to provide Holy Communion to people who have been formed to view the service of the Holy Eucharist as central to our worship. Now that we cannot gather in groups, the vast majority of Episcopalians are deprived of the body and blood of our Lord.

One of the issues that emerged early on as a result of the lockdown was whether “virtual Communion,” wherein people would receive Communion in their own homes after remote consecration by a priest in an online liturgy, would be allowed. The general conclusion of the bishops’ discussion of this issue during the most recent House of Bishops online gathering, according to the Episcopal News Service, was “a strong reluctance to be going anywhere near virtual Eucharist.” This was after several bishops and parish priests had allowed this practice. Although receiving Communion is important to most of the people I have talked to, not one person mentioned to me the House of Bishops’ deliberations. Most of the concerns expressed were about missing being with their friends in person.

  1. The role of the bishop and the bishop’s staff is changing.

Some diocesan staff members will be uncomfortable with this observation, but it is apparent that the role of the bishop’s staff has been changing. Whether you are a member of the clergy or a lay leader who considers him- or herself connected to the inner workings of the diocese at the “corporate” level, consider what your diocesan leadership have necessarily done regarding you and your parish during the shutdown. If the normative functioning of the local parish has been impeded by this shutdown, the diocesan leadership has been overall even less connected to actual ministry in the local parish. We are seeing a “bare bones” involvement of the bishop and staff in the life of the local parish.

This does not mean that the diocesan structure is irrelevant. It does imply that much of the busyness we see through the administrative activities of the diocese are not much missed, and that the role of the bishop and staff have shifted to basic administrative duties and more pastoral and spiritual oversight and support. During quarantine, clergy and lay leaders have mostly heard from the bishop for pastoral caregiving, responding to parishes in distress, questions about how the diocesan office can assist parishes financially where giving is down, general communications of policy (such as the bishop’s position on virtual Eucharists), how and when to return to in-person worship, rector and vicar searches, and discernment for those seeking Holy Orders.

Gone are the days when the bishop’s staff had a Christian education professional, youth ministry professional, and so on. Rather than looking to the diocesan staff to provide expertise and help, local parishes are networking, not only among Episcopal and Anglican parishes, but also beyond their denominational fellows.

At its core, this pandemic has shown us that the proper role of the bishop and the bishop’s staff is to symbolize the unity of the Church, and we’ve recognized that most of our ministry and mission are lived out at the local parish level. That is not to diminish the role of the bishop in the life of the diocese but to clarify it. So often our bishops are so busy running the institution of the church that they don’t have time to pastor their clergy and “tend the flock that is in [their] charge” (1 Pet. 5:2).

Just as parish clergy and lay leaders ought to spend time during quarantine reassessing the ministries in their local parish, so bishops would be wise to do the same. The wise bishop will ask, “If my pastoral relationship with my clergy is at the heart of my ministry, what things prevent this ministry from taking place?”  Similarly, the wise parish priest and deacon will ask, “How can I connect with my parishioners, either directly or through a leader in the parish?”

  1. The church is not the building.

We Anglicans value holy things. Sacred space is important to us. Meeting with each other online has revealed that, important as our buildings are, our relationships with one another are even more important. We are, for the time being, content with meeting in parking lots, on church lawns, and even finding spiritual nourishment through online worship services. We are finding that the strength of our churches is in the relationships that we have built up over the years. Having a beautiful building is helpful, but not having the building available has not kept the Church from truly being the Church.

One of the changes that living in a Post-Christendom culture has brought about is that the church building is no longer considered a “safe place” by most non-Christians. In bygone days — roughly before the mid-1960s — clergy and churches were held in high regard. People would attend church sometimes out of a sense of duty or as a place to connect with other influential people who could help with social status or advancing a career.

In the current cultural environment, attending church is no longer “a thing.” The local church, as well as the institution of the Church, is viewed with suspicion, with mistrust, and as irrelevant by an increasing number of people in American society. While the number of people identifying as atheists in the United States has increased from 2% in 2009 to 4% in 2019, and the number of agnostics have increased from 3% in 2009 to 8% in 2019. In addition, 26% of Americans identified themselves as unaffiliated with any religious body (the “Nones”) in 2019.

Some Episcopal churches have recognized that the locus of evangelism in this Post-Christendom era has shifted away from the church building — the most popular manifestation of this being some sort of presentation of the gospel in a pub. These events are known by a variety of names, such as: God and Guinness, Theology on Tap, and so on. Another iteration of this phenomenon is to hold a “Blessing of the Animals” on or around St. Francis’ feast day (October 4) at a local pet store or dog park.

However, with the multiplication of online broadcasting resources, such as Google Meet, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Slack, churches are now hosting not only Sunday worship services online, but Sunday school classes, Bible studies, small group gatherings, and church leadership gatherings. St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas has introduced the slogan, “The Church Has Left the Building” with “#bethechurch” as a way of encouraging its parishioners to be connected in smaller discipleship groups.

Thoughtful leaders will use this time to reassess the whole ministry structure of their churches. Make a list of every ministry in the church. Write the name of the leader. Then ask, if we were starting this church over again, would we start this ministry?

Conclusion: “Get used to different.”

The biggest mistake that church leaders can make is to think that after the shutdown has ended and churches are able once again to gather together on Sunday morning, that things will go back to normal. This shutdown is an opportunity for church leaders to view with fresh eyes what new things God might have for us in this non-normal time. One recent movie of the ministry of Jesus and his followers depicts Jesus telling one of his disciples, “Get used to different.” If we don’t “get used to different,” we will have missed a great opportunity to see with greater clarity what is uniquely possible during this­­­­ time when “normal” has been stripped away and we are able to see ministry and mission through fresh eyes.

The Very Rev. Dr. Neal Michell was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Garland. Until recently, he was prebendary in the Diocese of Dallas and dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. 

About The Author

The Very Rev. Dr. Neal Michell was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Garland. Until recently, he was Prebendary in the Diocese of Dallas and Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. 

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C R SEITZ

Are we meant to anticipate that there will be no medical remedy of any serious character? Viz., the ‘new normal’ will preclude returning to worship as previously.

Or is the idea that the effect over these past months will be irreversible?

If the latter, that is worth evaluating. It would speak volumes about what ‘church’ has meant all along, in the form we have known it.

Or are the declines already well documented just getting a final push? That is an explanation now being made in the CofE.

J L Kattelman

I look out my kitchen window and see a Catholic church that resumed celebrating Mass months ago. They’ve recently added a Saturday afternoon Mass and quietly removed “seating limited” from their electronic billboard. It fills me with a strange melancholy to see their parking lot fill up with cars each Sunday morning. I am a (sadly rare) millennial convert to the Episcopal Church. Try as I might, I can’t bring myself to even consider (let alone condone) the wholesale revision of parish life that so many in Anglican circles seem to envision these days. The idea that TEC will successfully… Read more »