Earlier this year, in the midst of the pandemic, communicator, author and pastor of North Point Ministries, Andy Stanley, made national news when he announced that his church would remain closed to the public through the end of 2020, a decision many church leaders have been hesitant to make.
On the most recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, podcasts hosts Nieuwhof and Kinnaman sit down with Stanley to discuss how he and his team went about making the decision to keep their church buildings closed through the end of the year and what it takes to lead well in the midst of uncertainty.
Pastors Are Rethinking Whether COVID Will Propel Spiritual Growth
In the early days of the pandemic (March 20-23, 2020), half of church leaders (50%) hoped that the crisis would increase their congregants’ personal faith. Now, months later (August 27-31, 2020), pastors are increasingly less likely to say they see their congregants’ faith growing during this season. Currently, three in five (62%) see personal faith of church members staying the same, while a little over one in five (23%) says it could increase. Sixteen percent, however, now believe their congregants’ personal faith journey will decline during the pandemic.
“Pastors are coming to realize that COVID won’t propel spiritual growth as much as they thought it would in early days of the pandemic,” says David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group. “At present, pastors are only slightly more likely to think that the pandemic will increase people’s spirituality than to believe it will diminish their spiritual appetite, highlighting a huge shift over the past four months.”
For Stanley, the decision to keep North Point Ministries closed provided he and his team with the opportunity to on new, creative things to continue effectively ministering to their congregants.
“I have about 550 staff, I didn’t want them waking up every Monday wondering, “Is this the week we open?'” said Stanley. “My responsibility as a leader was to bring clarity to this uncertainty… Clearing the decks for this large block of time has been extraordinary in terms of releasing creativity and some innovation, and discovering new opportunities.”
Pastors’ Desire to Reopen Church Can Contradict Their Response to Restrictions
In a recent pastor panel survey (August 13-17, 2020), 88 percent of church leaders agreed it is important for them to lead by example and follow all local and national government regulations regarding COVID-19. A high percentage (59%) of this same group of pastors, however, also say that, as a church leader, it is more important for them to do what they think is best for their church, even if it means going against what local or national government says.
Stanley shares how making the decision to keep his church closed was not at all a political statement and moreso about what was best for his people and the community.
“One-hundred percent of the pushback [we received after the announcement] was political in nature,” says Stanley. “That wasn’t exactly surprising once I got into it, but I was not anticipating that [response]. I just was excited about doing the right thing for our community. When you do something very, very big and different, everybody stops and looks, and then you have to decide, ‘What are we going to do with this attention? And can we leverage it in such a way that increases our influence in the community?’”
“People sense that this has become politicized, like everything has, so that’s been an interesting thing to navigate,” Stanley notes, “but I’ve had some fascinating conversations along the way.”
More Church Leaders Are Struggling with Their Emotional Well-Being
Over the course of the crisis, pastors, who were at first very optimistic about their and their congregants’ personal well-being amid the pandemic, have slowly shown a downward trend in their positive thinking. In an early pastor panel survey (April 7-13, 2020), just one in 10 pastors (11%) said their emotional well-being was below average or poor. The majority (65%) said they were doing good or excellent.
Now, one in five (20%) say their emotional well-being is below average or poor, and those who are faring excellent or good now sit 15 percentage points lower than just a few months ago (50% vs. 65%). This is 10 times lower than data presented in The State of Pastors, a 2016 Barna study which found only two percent of pastors ranked their emotional well-being as below average—none rated it as poor—while the majority (85%) said it was good or excellent.
During the ChurchPulse Weekly conversation, Stanley notes how difficult this season has been for church leaders, and why it’s important for pastors to remember that their worth is not measured by the number of people who are or aren’t showing up for worship services.
“My routine is so messed up,” explains Stanley, “Honestly, I feel like I’m busier than ever… I’m leading people that you don’t see very often, and that’s been challenging. This goes back, I think, a little bit to why pastors emotionally are where they are right now. It’s hard to know what the win is, and it’s hard to know if we’re even winning and how to measure success.”
“I think for some pastors, this is why they are so anxious to start meeting again,” continues Stanley, “But if our sense of worth, self-esteem and success, revolves around that hour and 10 minutes on Sunday morning, it would make sense that to want that back. We are designed to do something, and when we can’t do it anymore, we just don’t feel successful. I think that is where some people have taken a hit emotionally.”
Stanley concludes, “[We’ve] had to figure out different ways to measure our success and help our staff determine what is a win in this season, because if they don’t know what the win is, then, once again, they find themselves not knowing what to do. So those have been some of the tensions that we’re still playing in right now. That’s not in the rearview mirror.”
About the Research
COVID-19 Data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–August 31, 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
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Week 15, n=336, August 13-17, 2020
Week 16, n=315, August 27-31, 2020
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