010 | The Medical and Mental Health Impact of Re-Launching Physical Gatherings

May 28, 2020

As more areas of the U.S. work through the phases of reopening following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches are faced with the weighty questions of whether to open their doors and, if so, how to maintain safe social distancing while still welcoming people back into their regular locations.

As more areas of the U.S. work through the phases of reopening following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, churches are faced with the weighty questions of whether to open their doors and, if so, how to maintain safe social distancing while still welcoming people back into their regular locations.

This week’s ChurchPulse Weekly episode, hosted by Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman and featuring expert guests Dr. John Fankhauser and pastor Rich Villodas, offered valuable insight into current data, posing three questions church leaders should ask themselves before they reopen their buildings. You can watch the latest broadcast of ChurchPulse Weekly here or listen to the most recent episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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What are the local and government regulations currently in place in my church’s area, and how should I lead my congregation in light of these?
Just last week (May 12-18, 2020), new Barna data showed that pastors are conflicted when it comes to leading their churches in compliance of COVID-19 guidelines. The majority of pastors (89%) agrees that “as a church leader, it is important for me to lead by example and follow all local / national government regulations and recommendations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic” (36% strongly agree, 53% somewhat agree).

However, in addition, just over half (54%) agree that “as a church leader, it is more important that I do what is best for my church, even if that means going against what local / national government officials are saying” (14% strongly agree, 40% somewhat agree).

In light of this data, Nieuwhof notes, “It seems there’s a growing divide between those who are thinking about health primarily versus those who see it as a crisis about the economy, and even others who see it as a question of constitutional rights. This is uncharted territory, and it’s a highly complicated issue.”

Co-host Kinnaman also comments, “I think now—three months in [to the COVID-19 response]—we’re starting to see a diversity of opinion and expression in discussions about how the Church should show up and whether worship is meant to be public or private. I think it’s not unexpected at all that we’re in this place now where people are wondering how to act in accordance with both the dictates of our conscious as well as the regulations and concerns of the medical and governmental authorities.”

How can I intentionally connect with my people—and encourage them to connect with others—without putting them at risk?
Recent data show that while two in five pastors (40%) don’t expect to physically host worship services in their usual location until June, another three in 10 (30%) have reopened or hope to reopen this month. Still, a quarter of pastors (24%) believes their congregation won’t begin to physically gather together again until July or August, and the remaining 6 percent are holding out for even later this year.

While there is a noticeable divide between pastors in terms of the timing in which they’ll welcome members back into their physical locations, a number of church leaders admit that a return to worship will not be without safety precautions. For those who plan to meet again soon with precautions in place, four in five pastors say their church will ask people to stay home if they are sick (83%) and to avoid touching such as handshakes and hugs (80%). Three-quarters (77%) will have people sit farther apart, and six in 10 (60%) will not pass the offering plate. Seventy-five percent of church leaders say they will continue offering an online worship service.

ChurchPulse Weekly guest Dr. Fankhauser offers these words for faith leaders who are wrestling with questions of reopening. “I think the key here is to not give up the habit of meeting together [as the Bible says in Hebrews 10]. Right before that [passage], it says to stir each other up to love and good works, and right after that it talks about encouragement. I think we as believers have to figure out a way, in the context of a true threat, to stir each other up to love and good works [without putting people at risk]. … How can we connect with each other in the absence of being able to meet in a room together?”

“This is going to go on for a while,” concludes Dr. Fankhauser, “and I think the things that we do now will determine how long that [time] truly is.”

What has the pandemic revealed about my formation as a church leader and what opportunities are before me because of this?
As church leaders are often looked up to for spiritual guidance, the daily tasks and expectations of a pastor can cause these leaders to be weary, anxious or overwhelmed—especially during a crisis.

Over the last two and a half months, Barna has checked in weekly with a Protestant pastor panel to see how church leaders around the U.S. are faring in the midst of the pandemic. While pastors have remained steadily optimistic, some worrisome trends in their mental, emotional and relational health have come to light, as well as changes in how they perceive their calling. COVID-19 has also surfaced some unusual situations for which pastors do not feel completely prepared.

Villodas, lead pastor at New Life Fellowship in New York City, has this to say about pastoring in a new reality. “I think pandemics also reveal that we [as pastors] have not been properly formed up to this point. When pandemics and pain and suffering arise, the way that we have been conditioned to live our lives, we’re not able to meet the particular pressures of the day.”

Villodas continues, “It’s a good opportunity for a greater reflection. Moving forward—and we’re not going to be out of this in a week or two—what is the kind of life that’s required to move through this in a way that wisely navigates the terrain that we are encountering today?”

“More than anything, I think this is a moment for prayerful, discerning reflection,” Villodas offers as closing remark for church leaders. “There are lessons in silence, in solitude and in social distancing that are available to us, and my grief would be that we would run past all of these realities that are before us and miss out on what God is trying to say to us personally as well as corporately as the Body of Christ.”

Caring for Souls in a New Reality, Barna’s State of the Church webcast which took place on May 20, drilled deeper into the knowns and unknowns the Church must navigate at the start of this new and complex decade. Barna researchers and expert guests presented findings related to human flourishing, organizational thriving and effective leadership, primarily focusing on three things church leaders can do as they care for the souls entrusted to their leadership:
Reset: What culture and faith trends have emerged as a result of the pandemic?
Refocus: How can we leverage the digital landscape to make resilient disciples?
 How is God forming us to be more humble, resilient and dependent on him?

If you missed the webcast or want to watch certain clips, visit Barna Access—a new digital subscription service—to view the replay for a limited time. Barna Access is also home to our ChurchPulse tools, which can be utilized with a free membership.

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About the Research
COVID-19 Data: 
Barna Group conducted these online surveys among 1,759 Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–May 18, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size.

Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020

Featured image by Finn Hackshaw on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2020