Pastors, churches still dealing with COVID-19 stress
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist & Reflector
According to recent findings from Lifeway Research, while more folks are once again attending church, pre-pandemic attendance levels have stalled.
More than eight in 10 churches have an attendance of at least half of what it was prior to the pandemic. The average U.S. Protestant church reports attendance at 74 percent of what it was prior to COVID-19, which means one in four pre-pandemic churchgoers are still missing from in-person worship services, according to the article.
“People’s return to in-person worship services has stalled,” said Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research “There has been virtually no change in average attendance since August 2021. Some of this is the direct impact of COVID with people getting sick, needing to quarantine or being at high risk. But this also likely includes healthy individuals choosing to not return.”
Decisions of ministers are being cited as the reason churches have not yet returned to pre-pandemic attendance levels and that is unfortunate, according to some pastors and leaders within the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Joe Sorah, harvest field ministry team leader for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, recalled a recent conversation with a pastor in his harvest field.
The church’s attendance has not returned to pre-COVID levels and his decisions regarding having in person and virtual services are being cited as the reason for the church’s decline in numbers.
“Obviously there are no winners in this disagreement,” Sorah said.
“There was no absolute right or wrong way to handle the pandemic when it began. We were in uncharted waters.”
In a column from this issue, Sorah wrote, “If your church is averaging around 30 percent less than you were before COVID, you are experiencing what the average church is experiencing. It isn’t anyone’s ‘fault.’ It is where we are.”
Mike Glenn, pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church, Brentwood, recently wrote that he has had “too many” conversations recently with ministers who are leaving the ministry.
“Pastors were beaten up pretty badly during COVID-19 and they aren’t going to put themselves or their families through it anymore. I’ve talked to a lot of pastors who made a promise to get their churches through COVID-19 and now that things are easing up, they are stepping out.”
Glenn observed that pastors did the best they could during the pandemic. “No one trained us how to handle this kind of situation. … We didn’t have any classes on how to lead a church during a global pandemic. We were watching the same news reports like everyone else. We were trying to decode the statistics at the same time everyone else was. Sometimes we got it right. Sometimes we didn’t.”
Dennis Culbreth, director of missions for Hamilton County Baptist Association, agreed that COVID “has taken a toll on pastors and churches. Our pastors have worked double time to minister to their congregations during the most difficult time in their ministries,” he observed.
“They have persevered and done a great job dealing with many unknowns and volatile issues. I am proud of my pastors,” Culbreth said, adding that attendance numbers appear “to be picking up.”
Former Tennessee Baptist pastor and director of missions Joe Wright observed that burnout has long been a problem for pastors, especially those who pastor smaller-attendance churches and those who are bivocational.
The pandemic has only exacerbated this problem added Wright, who serves as executive director of the Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network.
“Many pastors have experienced ‘decision fatigue’ due to the need to make a decision early in the week but then having to change that decision later in the week. The resultant confusion within the congregation as well as criticism of leadership has a cumulative effect on pastors,” Wright said.
“If this stressful environment were short-lived, most pastors would have been able to shrug off the stress. A pandemic that lasts over two years is another story. This kind of long lasting stress and critical attitudes by some congregations has left pastors feeling totally burned out and beginning to think of stepping away from ministry,” he observed.
Tennessee Baptist Convention president Clay Hallmark, pastor of First Baptist Church, Lexington, noted that “we live in a world filled with ever-changing circumstances and situations. Information changes from day to day and what we are told is true today, changes by the next week.
“In the middle of this environment, pastors are having to make decisions every day in relationship to these changes, especially as it has related to the pandemic since 2020. When the pandemic started, no one knew what the consequences were going to be or what was going to happen. We all made decisions based on the knowledge that we had at the time. Two years later, we now have a much better understanding of this pandemic and how it affects people physically and emotionally.”
Hallmark said many churches, including his own church, have seen a drop in overall church attendance. Sadly, many people like to point their finger at the pastor or other church leaders for this drop in attendance. There are many reasons being propagated by Christian organizations and research groups as to why overall attendance has declined.
“However, there is really only one clear answer: Indifference! The church is a body in which everyone has a function, a role, a responsibility and gifts to use. The key word is the word ‘everyone’,” he said.
“During the pandemic, many people simply stopped serving, ministering to others, doing evangelism, attending small groups, praying for the lost and the hurting, creating opportunities for fellowship, and doing follow up with absentees. We were no longer a mission-driven church because we became an indifference-driven church,” he said.
Hallmark stressed that “it’s imperative that we get back to the main things as leaders and church members. Start where you are and let that be the new baseline for ministry. Then, grow from there. It does not matter where you were. What matters is where you are and what you will intentionally do to get to where you need to be so that the church is making a difference for the Lord in the lives of others,” he said.