How has the pandemic shaped the vitality and resiliency of congregations? Did it really prompt large numbers of pastors to leave ministry? Doug Powe, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, interviews Scott Thumma, principal investigator for the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations research project.
Douglas Powe: Can you share a bit about your research project. All of us who are living through this pandemic know it has created an impact, but you are actually documenting that impact on the life and health of congregations.
Scott Thumma: When the pandemic started, as a sociologist of religion, I quickly realized it was going to have a pretty profound effect on congregations, and it did immediately. But the longer the pandemic went on, the more profound I thought the challenges were going to be. We were in the midst of working on our Faith Communities Today national survey for 2020, which collected 15,000 responses from congregations. Most of that was just prior to the pandemic, so we’ve taken that as kind of a baseline measure.
I proposed to the Lilly Endowment a larger survey to look at how congregations were dealing with the pandemic, but mostly to look at the changes that were going to be happening over time. We put together a five-year project with key informant survey data across those five years. We have a longitudinal panel component. We also are doing case studies on about 100 congregations in eight different locations around the country. Then, mostly in 2023 and 2024, we will do a very large attender survey. We’ll be asking people in the pews how they weathered the pandemic but also how they’re thinking about responding to the challenges to their congregations. We’re trying to capture as much data around what congregations did during the pandemic, but also what they look like in 2023, 2024, and 2025 to see which things really don’t look the same as they did in the past. So, we’ll see how it goes. Thus far, it’s a challenging time, for sure.
Douglas Powe: I know you’re early into the project, but how do you think faith leaders have fared? Based on your early conversations, what toll has the pandemic taken on faith leaders?
Scott Thumma: Our first survey, conducted last summer, we asked the question “Was 2020 the worst year of your ministry?” About 65% said they had thought that at some point in 2020, which led me to wonder what year was more difficult for the other 35%? Maybe it was their first year of ministry, or maybe they’re all introverts and were happy to not have church. But clearly every person and every religious leader that we spoke with talked about being exhausted and worn out. They were on creative overload for so long, and in congregations of about 250 attendees or less without much staff, much of that creative work rested on the shoulders of a single person, sometimes a person who works half time. So, it was a challenging time, for sure.
Douglas Powe: There’s been a lot of talk about the exhaustion, the creative overload that you just named. There has also been talk about pastors leaving the ministry in droves. You wrote an article “Is There a Great Resignation Brewing for Pastors?” that offers a more nuanced perspective. Can you share a bit about what you’ve learned about how many pastors really are running for the door?
Scott Thumma: Yes. In the same survey where we asked, “Was 2020 the hardest year of your ministry?”, we also asked, “Have you seriously considered leaving the ministry?” And about 37 or 38 percent said that at one point they had considered it. And this parallels very closely to what Barna Group research found, that 38% said they had thought about leaving the ministry. So, on the surface it looks like a massive number, almost 40%, beaten down by the two years of the pandemic.
But that just didn’t resonate with what I was hearing from clergy. Certainly, they were tired and worn out. They had been up and down the roller coaster, but it was clear from my conversations that they weren’t ready to get off the ride. They may have thought about it at one point, but nevertheless they were still there. So, one aspect of our question was “How often did you think about leaving the ministry?” Did they think about it once or twice a day, a few times, often, or very often. The people who are pondering this “fairly often” or “very often” drops to 8%, and “very often” drops to 3%. That’s true not only for leaving the ministry but also leaving the church you’re serving or doubting your call to serve God. There is a significant number, somewhere between 25 and 35 percent who have thought it, but the number who are really contemplating it drops down to far less than 10%. Across the board for all three of those questions, just 3% are seriously contemplating it. And when we correlated those questions, that 3% is essentially all the same people.
The percentage of clergy who have given up on the profession is small, and when you dig even deeper, you see that they’re in difficult congregations to begin with. All the other measures that we have of conflict or decline over time or challenging financial situations are active in the congregations that these folks are coming from, so I think it’s not just a matter of clergy giving up because of the pandemic. But the pandemic exacerbated what they were already dealing with in the life of these congregations. This seems much more realistic than the notion of a massive, great reshuffling with all kinds of folks resigning.
Douglas Powe: Would you guess that those in that 3% probably would have eventually left the ministry anyway?
Scott Thumma: Yes, I do think that’s the case, and that in some sense the pandemic offered them an excuse to make the move now. And honestly that group of 3% look like they wouldn’t be happy even if they transferred to a different congregation.
Douglas Powe: You’ve talked about the diversity of congregations in terms of denomination, size, and I’ll throw in race, as well. How do these variables complicate your study of the impact of COVID? Because the reality is some of these congregations would have struggled regardless of COVID.
Scott Thumma: Yes. It’s challenging, to say the least, in part because the pandemic’s impact is still going on. Almost no congregation has recovered in any sense of the word. It’s still in motion and that makes it difficult. Our Faith Communities Today project, which has been going on since 2000, does show that the trends we’re seeing around the pandemic have been developing for the last 20 years. Anytime I talk about the pandemic’s impact on congregations, I always begin with a rehearsal of the Faith Communities Today data across time because what we’re seeing in the pandemic moment is just an extension of what has already been happening. Some of that has to do with changes around the racial makeup of congregations. Some of it has to do with immigration. A lot of it has to do with this shifting size dynamics in American congregations. The pandemic has obviously stressed all congregations, but it just intensified some of the patterns that we saw prior to it. It is hard to tease out which aspects of this are directly due to the pandemic.
When you throw in the racial and political unrest of the last several years and the challenges around masking and closures and vaccinations, we are in a moment of significant turmoil, not just for congregations, but for other social entities and society as a whole. How big a role each factor plays is a really interesting question. And I’m hoping, not immediately but maybe five years down the road, we will have enough data for some smart statisticians to be able to pull some of this apart. But my main goal with the project is to try to get good, helpful information out to clergy and congregations as quickly as we can. The really challenging questions come when we have some time to do more analysis.
Douglas Powe: How do you think the pandemic has impacted congregational vitality? Tim Snyder, who has been the principal investigator for our Religious Workforce Project, uses the word resilience. Do you see congregations that have exhibited resilience or even real vitality during all the turmoil you just described?
Scott Thumma: That was one of the surprising pieces of the first survey we did. On the one hand, we had a devastating decline in attendance, a significant decline in volunteering, the closure of various programs, and no fellowship activities that knit people together. At the same time, you had an institution not known for being willing to change — certainly not change rapidly — transform itself almost overnight in terms of how they did worship, how they jumped on online giving and livestreaming.
As we interviewed pastors a year, almost a year and a half into the pandemic, a lot of them were saying “You know, we’re really proud of all that we’ve done.” One of them said, “We beat the pandemic”, because they motivated their people to change and to adapt and to innovate. I would never have guessed that. Based on the previous decades of research on congregations I have done, I thought a lot more were just going to close and wait this out. Until congregations get very, very large, they are just not known for nimbleness. But, organizationally, it was very clear that there was a willingness to survive that created quite a bit of resilience and innovation.
The other place that there’s just amazing resiliency is in the clergy. Many of them had a fleeting thought that “this is terrible” but clearly weren’t giving up. We had a battery of mental health and physical health and resilience type of questions. And it looked like there was a little bit of suffering there until I compared it to the average American on some of those same scores. Then clergy were looking much healthier than the average person on the street, both prior to the pandemic and in the early year of the pandemic. It showed that no matter how much clergy were grumbling and worn out and exhausted, they were nevertheless faring well, and I took a lot of hope in that.
You know it’s obviously not over. Clergy must continue to think about how to adapt and innovate because the world they’re coming out of the pandemic into is not the world that they left prior to the pandemic. In some sense, that moment of creativity and flexibility is not over. It’s the perfect time for congregations to continue to innovate because over the last two years the fallow ground has been broken up. It’s a good time to plant some new seeds.
Douglas Powe: Have you discovered in conversations recently that they are still able to do some of that innovation or are you finding that individuals are slipping back into what they were doing prior to the pandemic?
Scott Thumma: That’s the real question: what comes next? As things continue to evolve, we see both stories and it’s going to be interesting to watch it develop over time. But we see that there are at least 30 to 40 percent of congregations that have taken this to heart and are continuing to try new things — in their Sunday school programs, tweaking their worship services to make them more adaptable to both virtual and in-person worship, finding creative ways of doing committee meetings. Maybe 50% of congregations are drifting back to old patterns and old habits.
Unfortunately, it does correlate a lot with size. And that’s incredibly easy to understand, right? A 60-person congregation with a three-quarter-time pastor just doesn’t have the resources or the energy, especially if maybe half those people are over the age of 60 or 65. It’s challenging for a lot of congregations. But some congregations live in areas that weren’t that directly affected by the pandemic. Their social patterns haven’t changed that much compared to congregations in more suburban and urban areas where the world is completely different than before.
It will take a number of years to understand what really shakes out of all of this. There will probably be some winners and some losers. But we went into the pandemic knowing full well that there are probably too many congregations. Part of the shifting and the declining size of congregations is that populations have moved around in our country. But you can’t pick up a congregation, the building and everything, and move it, too. So those places that have gained people through migration and immigration don’t have enough congregations. Therefore, they get bigger. And in the places people have left, like New England or the central Midwest or small and rural areas, congregations are increasingly smaller and smaller. The pandemic just kind of amplified that.
Douglas Powe: What do you hope to share with pastors and congregations in the next 12 months that can help them address some of the challenges that you’ve raised?
Scott Thumma: Well, we continue to survey. We just closed out our third pandemic survey. Within the coming weeks, we’ll be putting out two reports. One is about religious education and how congregations have adapted their Sunday school programs and their adult religious education programs during the pandemic. And then we also have the longer trend of how things are changing over time. We’re trying to map that about every six months, if possible. As I said, we really want clergy and congregational leaders to get the facts. It’s one thing to hear what’s going on around you, but I think it will be very helpful for clergy to see more broadly how congregations are adapting and changing and what practices work best.
We’re also now deep in these case studies. We’re doing interviews and focus groups and making observations within congregations. We’re trying to hear the stories and listen to people so that we won’t have just the sky-high statistical picture. We’re trying to fill that in with some rich examples and stories.
We’re hoping that over the next year this will help give clergy and other leaders a better picture of what’s really going on. It’s easy to get lost in the details of your own situation and think you’re alone in experiencing some of these things, but we hope that our findings will give clergy some hope and also some answers and resources.
- How Has COVID-19 Impacted Religious Participation? by Amy Kubichek
- Positioning Your Church for Growth in a New Season of Ministry, an in-depth interview with Tony Morgan
- 4 Truths About Ministry Revealed by the Pandemic by Tom Berlin
- 2020 Faith Communities Today Report