We are now into the raging impactive of a Pandemic this first week of November 2020. As you do, I still remember when most of our churches quit meeting in person (it was the week of my birthday in March). Many churches are now in some stage or another of reopening in person and or parking lot worship with a whole new appreciation of expanded online worship. This Pandemic is a season in the church with an unprecedented impact - the Pandemic seems to have its own season. I think we are in one of these stages of that season. I know we probably are all seeing the same thing, but I think it's helpful for us to know that most churches are dealing with the same issues though I know there is some distinction between the city, suburban, rural, and large and small churches.
What I'm seeing as I talk to pastors around the conference this first week of November?
- Churches meeting in person has 20% to 40% of their pre-pandemic worship by in-person attendance. This is a number that transcends the Methodist Church. There are exceptions but not many. People are still nervous about attending in person, some have just got out of the habit of going, and most don't like it as much as they did because it's different. They can't socialize or interact with each other, and many of their friends are still staying at home, and it's just plain a little weird with the masks and added anxiety because of a virus. So if you have begun some stage of in-person worship and your church is not packed, you are not alone.
- Stewardship is typically doing okay, not great, could be worse, but hanging in there. There are a few exceptions on both sides. Churches that were already struggling are in worse shape, sometimes on the bubble; a few other churches are doing better than okay, but not many. The two emergency loans from the government have been beneficial for many. I still believe having money in reserve for when the Pandemic is no longer an influence is critical. We don't want to be playing catchup as we try to walk through what will be new church starts. If possible, keeping and putting money into reserves will be very important. When the Pandemic is over, we don't want the conversation to be about money; we want it to be about the church's mission in a new world.
- There is still some level of conflict in many churches, which extends from a volatile political season that has somehow become interconnected with a virus. It is creating additional stress for churches and church leadership. For some churches, rather than being unified by the crisis, they are becoming more divided. Early in the Pandemic, this wasn't true; people connected around a common connection to the church and its core message. This certainly makes for an exciting season for lead Pastors who are often learning as they go.
- Pastors and church leadership are discovering and rediscovering creativity, innovation, and adaptability when leading their church and what to do next. You are working hard, learning fast, creating new ways to reach people, partnering with parking lot worship, in-person worship, online worship, and outreach in an ever-changing and growing way. Even though I see a level of weariness, there seems to be no let-up in pastors doing everything they can to help their church be the church. I know I can speak for Bishop Lowry and all the Cabinet in recognizing the intensity and faithfulness we see as you lead your churches through this season and into the next.
- The last thing I want to focus on, I think, is essential. We are not just in a battle against a virus, a damaging political season, or the ongoing division in our denomination. We are in a spiritual battle, a battle for our souls, our churches' souls, and the souls of the people in our church and community.
I believe it's very important for church pastors, and really everyone, to recognize this. What we see today is far more concerning than just waiting out a pandemic. This is a time of testing for the church and all clergy. More importantly than discovering who we are, we will discover who we will be. This is where faith, Jesus, God's call, and the solid mission of the church come in. A Bible verse comes to mine, "some plant, some water, but God makes it grow." What healthy seeds are being planted right now? Those are the ones that God will make grow in the next season.
Rev. Mike Ramsdell, Executive Director
Center for Evangelism, Mission & Church Growth