Church unity a top concern for Protestant pastors as pandemic lags on, poll shows

Attendees worship at Transformation Church in Indian Land, South Carolina.
Attendees worship at Transformation Church in Indian Land, South Carolina. | TRANSFORMATION CHURCH

The most pressing concern among American Protestant pastors is the disunity and conflict they see in their congregations as the coronavirus pandemic lags on, a new study conducted by LifeWay Research suggests.

The survey, titled “Pastors’ Views on How COVID-19 is Affecting Their Church,” analyzed responses of 443 Protestant church lead pastors across the nation. The survey was conducted between July 20 and July 22, 2020.

The respondents were all part of the LifeWay Research’s “Pastor Panel,” which consists of “pastors who agree to be contacted by email” for future LifeWay Research surveys. The data has a 5-percentage-point margin of error.

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When asked what “pressure points” they are “feeling the most” amid the coronavirus pandemic, over one-quarter of pastors surveyed (27%) reported “maintaining unity/conflict/complaints” in their congregations as the biggest challenge. 

LifeWay included example excerpts of pastors’ responses along with the data. Some explained that “half the church is opposed to any reopening” while another half of the church is “frustrated that we haven’t long since reopened.” 

Another comment explains that some parishioners are calling for churches to “violate public health orders” and pretend “the virus isn’t real.”  No matter what they do, some pastors are being told what the church is doing is “too much” or “not enough.”  

Other “pressure points” experienced by pastors during the pandemic included difficulties from conducting pastoral care from a distance (17%) and concerns about the safety and well-being of members (13%). About 9% of respondents said that “planning for return” was a top area of pressure for them, while 8% of pastors surveyed listed “church finances” as a top pressure point. 

While division among congregations regarding coronavirus was a top concern for about a quarter of the pastors who participated in the LifeWay survey, one Protestant pastor who did not partake in the study reports a slightly different experience. 

In an interview with The Christian Post, Pastor Scott Sauls of the multi-campus Christ Presbyterian Church in the Nashville Metro area of Tennessee indicated that his congregation is surprisingly unified as the community grapples with coronavirus.

“It’s not been a divisive season for our church in particular,” Sauls said. “I think what’s made it a relatively peaceful, unifying season is that our church offers three options,” he added. 

Attendees of Christ Presbyterian Church can choose to attend in-person worship services in the sanctuary, online live streaming and outdoor live streaming where worshipers can gather together while practicing social distancing.

The survey also asked pastors about the impact coronavirus has had on the economic well-being of the congregants and their church as a whole. 

Nearly three-quarters of pastors (74%) said that “an attendee’s income has been affected by reduced hours at work.” Meanwhile, 48% claimed that at least one attendee lost their job because of COVID-19. 

A smaller percentage of respondents said that at least one church attendee had either been diagnosed with the coronavirus (28%) or died from it (5%).

A plurality of pastors surveyed (34%) said that the total offerings they have received in 2020 are below the offerings they received at this point in 2019. 

Among pastors who said that giving has decreased within their congregation since last year, 13% reported a decrease of 50% or more and 15% said church giving is down less than 10% from 2019.

About 77% of the 144 pastors who said giving was down in 2020 said offerings are down at least 10% or more since 2019. 

The survey also asked respondents which weekends over the past several weeks they held in-person worship services. 

The share of pastors whose churches held in-person services gradually increased from 15% on the weekend of May 3 to 73% on the weekend of July 12. The percentage of churches holding in-person services declined slightly to 71% during the weekend of July 19.

Previous surveys conducted by LifeWay in March and April found that the share of churches holding in-person worship services dropped from a high of 99% during the weekend of March 1 to a low of 4% during the weekend of April 19. 

In an interview with The Christian Post, Scott McConnell, the executive director of LifeWay Research, spoke about the differences between the responses given in the March and April surveys and the responses to the most recent survey. 

“Obviously, we see a really nice rebound of a lot of churches going back to meeting,” McConnell said.

However, McConnell indicated that he does not believe that all churches that have reopened are in the clear when it comes to coronavirus. 

“There definitely were churches that, even after they reopened, had to close again for a few weeks. Even at the end of July, there were new state regulations that were causing some churches to pull back and to not meet together in person,” he added. 

“We’ll expect to continue to see some churches needing to stay closed. And in some of those who have opened, needing to close for a period of time … while their community rebounds for a while.”

Pastors holding church services indoors have implemented numerous precautions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Nearly all (94%) of pastors said their churches “provided hand sanitizer, masks, or gloves to those needing it.” 

A majority of those surveyed “conducted additional cleaning of surfaces” (86%), “closed seats to increase distance between people” (76%), and “recommended masks” (59%).  However, just 35% of pastors required their congregants to wear masks.

McConnell was pleased that churches are taking precautions. 

“Likely, a lot of these precautions churches are taking and … even their slowness to add back Bible study times in addition to worship services, those are all expressing the extra measures the churches are taking to be careful and to protect their congregations,” he said.

About half of pastors indicated that they have yet to decide when in-person student ministries will resume. Currently, 23% of pastors say that they are currently holding such activities. 

A slightly higher share of pastors (29%) reported that their churches had resumed in-person adult Bible studies. Meanwhile, 42% have yet to determine when their churches will start holding those activities again.

As for Sauls’ congregation, the pastor reported that student ministries have started to meet again. But, they’re meeting outdoors with social distancing.

“We’re really only doing services and … we do have a lot of small groups that continue to meet,” he said. “In terms of our larger-scale programming, the only thing we’re doing is Sunday services.”

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