The COVID-19 pandemic created many new challenges for the church. This tragedy claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their loved ones; more than a million survived the horror of infection and disease. Lockdown led to a crisis in the economy and industry, jeopardizing the business of many small and medium-sized enterprises, and leaving a large percentage of the population unemployed. The restrictions associated with the pandemic affected non-financial areas of life, such as culture and religion; many limits were introduced on gatherings of people. The churches were empty for a long time, as many parishioners did not want to risk their health. At the same time, many people needed support to get through difficult times. The way churches handled the situation may become an example for overcoming future challenges. Many churches have not stopped working but changed the strategy of their activities, focusing on charity. The work of churches during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis is a meaningful experience that should be properly studied.
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This study uses a qualitative method of studying and analyzing scholarly articles about the challenges churches face because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A literature review is an effective research method that allows for developing a good base for deepening knowledge about the problem and determining the directions for further research. Moreover, literature review creates the preconditions for integrating the points of view and results found in the course of study so that such integration strengthens all the research cited. The literature review method is applied to discover which strategic plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic can be most effective.
The literature review method was applied to study how church leadership handled the COVID-19-related crisis. In the Discussion section, an analysis of information collected from 12 scholarly articles was presented. The articles were selected according to the principle of relevance to the topic of interest.
The authors of various scholarly articles cover a wide range of topics related to the adaptation of churches to the pandemic. Most common issues include communication during a pandemic through technology, race issues related to the pandemic, helping those in need, and others. The authors examine how the virus affected the churches’ traditional way of life, what actions were taken, and the likely consequences of the changes awaiting church leadership in the future.
Modell and Kardia (2020) examined how Detroit’s churches have helped their populations cope with the challenges of the pandemic by providing spiritual and material support. The authors note that the CDC has issued 13-country interim COVID-19 response guidelines for the community and faith-based leaders, which could serve as a reasonable basis for emergency response. According to Modell and Kardia (2020), churches, mosques, and synagogues in the city are active, but they have been empty for a long time due to the lockdown. According to Wilke and Howard (2020), COVID-19 hit vulnerable families the most, so the scholars conducted research to define such families’ needs clearly. After analyzing responses from 87 nongovernmental organizations that support 454,637 families, scientists have identified the critical needs of families during a pandemic (Wilke and Howard, 2020). Demands included dissemination of information, funding, spiritual education, and material support.
Twibell (2021) explored the possibilities of social interaction and participation in God’s missions on earth during the pandemic crisis. The author proposed the concept of “social capital” against the background of the structure he developed for using the possibilities of virtual platforms of social interaction. The scholar also presented the concept of “religious social capital” and “virtual social capital” (Twibell, 2021, p. 1). According to Singarimbun (2021), an increasing number of Protestant churches are broadcasting worship services live on YouTube, preserving videos, and realizing the concept of a “virtual” or “electronic” church. At the same time, the author states that virtual communication deprives parishioners of many communication aspects such as touch, expression, and emotion.
Farrell and Turner (2021) examined the advantages and disadvantages of video conferencing as an alternative to live communication among church communities during a pandemic. According to scientists, despite the noticeable benefits, this tool creates problems for interpersonal interaction, including ecumenical dialogue. Raiber and Seabright (2020) studied the response of US churches to the pandemic by analyzing the publicly accessible communities of 4,000 churches on Facebook. The results show that online activity has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. The scholars also determined that the differences that distinguish patterns of demand and cost are generally related to church size and worship style.
Noteworthy, Dunaetz et al. (2018) identified differences in parishioner attachment based on church size and other factors. The scholars identified three types of commitment, including affective commitment (emotional attachment to the church), ongoing commitment (emerging need to stay in church), and normative commitment (believing that it is right to stay in church). The study found that “higher emotional commitment is associated with a perception of greater pastoral humility” and longer tenure (Dunaetz et al., 2018, p. 125). A larger church size determines an increase in ongoing commitment, and normative commitment is associated with greater pastoral humility, smaller churches, and longer pastor tenure.
At the same time, Rick (2021) notes that regardless of the size of the church, most temples faced difficulties due to the pandemic, which in some cases caused a complete shutdown. The pandemic crisis also caused funding problems, which led to the need to rethink the use of real estate by both bigger and smaller churches. The scholar emphasized that “churches that want to survive should explore alternative uses for most of their built-up real estate” (Rick, 2021). Moreover, according to the scholars, a trend towards the reconstruction of vacant church grounds for mixed-use can be expected soon; during reconstruction, it is imperative to consider the nature of the churches’ mission and the decentralized structures of government.
Boddie and Park (2021) examine church activities during the pandemic regarding anti-racial discrimination and church support. The scholars state the relationship between race and the supportive influence of religion. They also note that understanding racial inequality during COVID-19 “requires taking into account religious beliefs, participation, and collective resources in racial minority groups” (Boddie & Park, 2021, p. 341). Scientists concluded that religion could simultaneously support vulnerable communities and fail to solve access to health care problems, exacerbating the spread of the disease. Noteworthy, Chaney (2020) notes that the impact of COVID-19 on African Americans was particularly pronounced as this group had higher rates of infection and death from the virus. The scientist also looks at associated stressors using the theory of family stress.
Nguyen et al. (2021) researched the importance of community support networks for church members in African American communities. The study results showed that more frequent experiences of racial discrimination were associated with a greater likelihood of meeting the DSM-IV criteria for disorders. At the same time, regular contact with church members and subjective closeness were significant factors in mitigating the psychological effects of discrimination on the psyche of older African Americans. Therefore, scholars concluded that church relationships are an effective means of coping with the stress of discrimination. Finally, Jackson and Williams (2021) recognized the effectiveness of church innovations that have emerged from the pandemic and explored the potential of adaptive leadership theory in times of crisis. The scholars emphasized that this type of leadership is the most applicable in challenging times of emergencies.
Strategies for Changing Environment and Organizational Dynamics
Support, Communication, and Collaboration
The literature review helped identify essential practical challenges pastors faced in the 2019-2021 pandemic. Modell and Kardia (2020) discussed ethical responses to a pandemic, offering an alternative to a strictly utilitarian approach under challenging circumstances. Such an alternative is graduation from a purely utilitarian approach (level 5) to an approach based on human love (level 2) and Divine love or self-sacrifice (level 1). This idea, based on Christian values, should be at the heart of any community work strategy in emergencies. It has significant practical implications for the equitable and broader distribution of vital and health resources and the protection of life.
According to the authors, Detroit’s faith-based organizations are aware of health, nutrition, and other issues relevant to their communities. The churches comprise 5 of 11 organizations actively offering hands-on assistance (Modell & Kardia, 2020). The authors also imply that church health programs on preventing infection with the virus or primary prevention programs can be highly effective. These programs can be carried out with the interaction of members and workers of the church and other community organizations. Such interaction allows reaching wider groups of the population and changing the perception of the problem among the church community members. Therefore, the second recommendation for developing strategies for working with communities during emergencies is an external collaboration or attracting partners to implement key projects.
An equally important aspect of the work of religious organizations is the moral and spiritual support of parishioners. Hope in God during illness can save one from a fatalistic view of the world when a person does not believe in the effectiveness of treatment. At the same time, denying risk and leaving worldly concerns in God’s care can be extremely dangerous and have dramatic consequences. Therefore, the third strategic recommendation for church leaders is to maintain a reasonable balance between self-confidence and divine help in the parishioners. Specifically, the authors propose a formula “to realize better that God, or someone’s personal definition of universal presence, is with us when we experience adversity and take whatever steps seem reasonable” (Modell & Kardia, 2020, p. 2248). During a pandemic, healthy people who don’t work or lead normal lives need inspiration. In addition, people grieving for a loved one who has passed away or experiencing stress from an illness need a sense of hope to move on.
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The scholars also emphasized the effectiveness of the provision of social services to the population by churches. These can include various physical aids, such as food pantries, soup kitchens, free grocery delivery for people with disabilities, the elderly, single mothers, and the unemployed, lunch delivery for healthcare workers, and student laptop loans (Modell & Kardia, 2020). The latter service is a remarkably successful find. After most schools have switched to online learning, a computer is needed to continue their studies, but not all families can buy it. Interestingly, the social service delivery strategy is based on collaboration, as are the Church’s health programs. Scientists redefine social services – as “public assets”; it can be any help of community members to each other. Therefore, the fourth policy recommendation is to consider the community’s actual needs when building “community assets” that will be the determining factor in the success of the church’s community outreach.
Dunaetz et al. (2018) emphasized that there should be a classification for the organizational dynamics in churches, depending on their size and type of communication with the congregation, which may also depend on the denomination or individual approach of the church leadership. The church is the place where people come to find the way to God; therefore, all churches have similar goals – to help their parishioners resolve spiritual and moral-ethical daily and more global problems. However, depending on the church size and the number of parishioners, the style of preaching and communication may differ. In churches with fewer parishioners who attend Mass weekly, it is possible to create a more intimate, hobby-club-like environment where congregants can gather in the kitchen to socialize or host outdoor events.
In churches with a large number of people and a greater fluidity and instability in the composition of its members, it is better to pay attention to the sermons. These sermons can appeal to a broader audience and focus on issues and problems faced by people who are unfamiliar with the modern church and feel like newcomers. Perhaps such parishioners will have distorted ideas about faith or a relationship with God or a priest, formed under the influence of parents, relatives, and the environment. Any strategies to change the church environment need to consider how the size of the church affects the way parishioners perceive the new rules and regulations, as well as their overall commitment. Interestingly, large churches are more likely to lose parishioners due to innovation, while smaller churches may refuse to change for fear of disapproval or criticism.
Importance of External Collaboration: The Role of the Church in Conflict Reduction
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown coincided with another major social event – a renewed struggle for civil rights or racial awakening. The assassination of George Floyd and the inappropriate behavior of law enforcement officials based on ideas of white supremacy and racial hatred sparked a wave of protests among Americans. Therefore, the churches had to develop new strategies for organizing communication with parishioners in order, firstly, to preserve the possibility of communication and, secondly, to respond to socially significant events. In a way, the second part of the question turned out to be even more important than the first, since ensuring peaceful coexistence for all community members is the mission of the Christian church and one of its primary tasks.
Boddie and Park (2020) note that the transformations brought about by these two events should be considered, and this experience should be used. In particular, scientists stressed that the pandemic exacerbated discrimination problems, as the restriction of access for African Americans and other racial minorities to medical services and assistance has had particularly dramatic consequences. At the same time, the changes brought about by the new wave of civil rights struggles must be implemented in pro-African American church communities that provide material and spiritual support to each other. Churches with a predominantly white congregation should also be aware of current societal trends and the reasons for protests against racial discrimination, including alarming evidence of uneven distribution of health care.
Boddie and Park (2021) pointed out that racial discrimination problems are encountered not only in the wider society but are also clearly felt in the form and content of religious trends in the United States. According to scholars, “the racial nature of US social life has shaped religious identity and beliefs, as well as religious interactions and structures” (Boddie & Park, 2021, p. 341). Therefore, the result of discrimination was the creation of the Black Church, whose members provide each other with significant support.
Anti-racism has become closely linked to religious beliefs, according to recent reports. For example, Boddie & Park (2021) argues that “according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, most black adults consider countering racism important to their religious beliefs” (Boddie & Park, 2021, p. 341). Given these facts, churches should be prepared to create a new discourse in sermons and public discourse, even if there are no racial minorities in their flock. A broad discussion of the topics of racial discrimination in an eventful and deeper socio-religious context will help develop an ecumenical dialogue between white and black churches.
Remarkably, Boddie and Park (2021) provide alarming statistics on the spread of the coronavirus. According to the data, the infection rate in counties where African Americans live was more than three times higher than in white counties; the death rate was six times higher, with the highest rates in New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, Louisiana, and Illinois. Inequality and discrimination in health care and living conditions continue to grow for all minorities, making the death rate of Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders at least twice that of whites. In this regard, Church leaders must take responsibility for initiating various humanitarian programs that help narrow the gap in well-being and access to vital resources and services, including housing, work, health care, healthy eating, and healthy living.
Community Meetings and Free Testing
Scientists also warn of the potential dangers associated with mass gatherings if infection prevention rules are not followed. Many religious communities began to appear in the news headings as virus hotspots. Boddie and Park (2021) cite a selection of news: “In early March 2020, two people visited a village church in Arkansas infected with COVID-19 and spread the virus to more than 30 parishioners, of the 92 victims, three died” (p. 341). Then scholars note that after twenty-six people from a community in Washington state infected with COVID-19 attended church in April 2020, after a church choir was singing together, 45 out of 60 choir members were infected, three people were hospitalized, and two people died (Boddie & Park, 2021). Finally, In June 2020, 236 people became infected due to the coronavirus outbreak in a Pentecostal church in Oregon (Boddie & Park, 2021). Therefore, strategic decisions to hold assemblies must consider the potential risk of infection and take steps to prevent the spread of the virus.
The nature, mission, and purpose of church meetings do not always allow for digital communication alone. It is noteworthy that for many religions, especially for religious or other minorities, the general assembly is a central sign of adherence to the faith. For example, non-Christian groups may perceive the dominance of Christianity as a motivation for holding community meetings. Therefore, meetings can be held, but with the observance of safety measures, such as measuring the temperature of the participants, social distancing, or requiring certificates of tests or vaccinations. Moreover, churches can arrange free testing and vaccinations for their parishioners.
Gatherings can be especially important because of emotional communication, which provides psychological benefits for members. Unfortunately, digital technology cannot offer the same level of intimacy and mutual support. Churches can also be centers of ethnocultural expression, so congregations can help parishioners confront the daily challenges of ethnic discrimination. Scientists emphasize that religious communities in the United States today remain the “largest repository of social capital” of ethnic minorities (Boddie & Park, 2021, p. 341). Therefore, the termination of gatherings can have an additional psychological blow to parishioners, who are deprived of emotional support and possibly material support, especially in the case of asylum seekers, refugees, and people awaiting citizenship.
Church leaders also need to understand that due to the higher death rates – more than three times higher than among the white population! – African Americans are more likely to have funerals and experience grief and loss. Failure to grieve with others can cause additional psychological damage (Boddie & Park, 2021). Unfortunately, technology does not allow to fully reproduce the tradition of the Black Church since the funeral ritual presupposes a personal presence and subsequent joint dinner. Therefore, church communities must find a way of safe personal communication in times of pandemic crisis. One good decision is proving free testing and vaccination for the parishioners.
Examples of External Collaboration
There are many examples of churches working successfully with parishioners and other partners to provide support. For instance, Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas was one of the first to conduct free COVID testing. At the same time, another Black church, Catalyst Church in West Philadelphia, preached on the emotional trauma and loss that racial unrest and pandemic inflict on the population (Boddie & Park, 2021). Browns Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Chester provided a good example of effective digital communication by hosting the Spotlight online event for Black Churches in Zoom and on Facebook with 2,400 views (Boddie & Park, 2021). In the Cleveland area, The Word Church and other Black Churches provide food for parishioners’ families.
The Rhema Fellowship Church and other churches are also hosting educational webinars about the pandemic. The Asian New Story church provides food to 800 families weekly through a partnership with the white megachurch, of which 70 volunteers have agreed to participate in the project (Boddie & Park, 2021). The organization of such initiatives is an excellent strategy for dealing with a crisis, which can be even more effective when implementing external collaboration.
Although such initiatives may be new for many churches, there is a severe need in society today to receive material, spiritual, and intellectual support. Therefore, white, Asian, and Latin American churches must leave their comfort zone and follow the example of the black churches, which offer many models of general health programs and other types of support. Moreover, limited staff and resources should not become obstacles, as today’s initiative can be even more valuable than resources. Therefore, small churches can look for partners and enlist the support of large churches to implement socially significant events and projects. In other words, the close cooperation of churches for the common good should become the basis for the subsequent functioning of churches in times of crisis. Particular attention should be paid to the fact that for many African American and ethnic minority communities, church and other communities may be the only vital source of health care.
Digital Communication during the Pandemic
Given the ideas presented above, it is clear that face-to-face meetings and gatherings remain an essential part of the life of the church community, especially during a pandemic crisis. Digital communication can have its advantages and disadvantages, and correcting these shortcomings should be a good solution to empower the organizational dynamics of churches. Farrell & Turner (2021) examined the advantages and disadvantages of video conferencing for ecumenical dialogue or dialogue between representatives of different branches of the Christian church. According to scientists, the main obstacle to online communication is more formal interaction, the inability to freely express ideas and jointly participate in dialogue, the lack of moral preparation when traveling, and the failure to read participants’ non-verbal signals. Video conferences are also usually more limited in time and are included in a tighter schedule, which imposes restrictions associated with comprehending and digesting information and creates additional stress.
Therefore, church leaders must evaluate and understand when online communication can be preferable and when it can do more harm than good. It is noteworthy that online communication is likely to continue even after the end of the pandemic, so you can start developing appropriate strategies right now. The advantages of video communication are the closest proximity to live communication, compared to emails, chats, or telephone conversations, including audio conferencing. Scholars note that ecumenical dialogue will benefit from the digital possibilities of video communication (Farrell & Turner, 2021). It should be added that video conferencing and online broadcasts can also be helpful to reach a broader audience that is geographically distant from the church. However, digital communication should not wholly replace real-life meetings, as it is only a limited semblance of the latter.
Notably, the disadvantages of videoconferencing include a critical element of the lack of transition time between meetings, which reduces the concentration of attention of the participants. The lack of preparatory time that is usually allocated during travel to ecumenical meetings precludes the possibility of informal, unscheduled contact and creates a sense of detachment (Farrell & Turner, 2021). Lack of face-to-face communication thus makes it impossible for participants to assess each other’s more profound and personal beliefs. Then, video communication makes it difficult to understand non-verbal cues, such as direct eye contact and other feedback signals and communicator focus, disrupting the atmosphere of cooperation and fostering distrust (Farrell & Turner, 2021). The inability to be in a shared environment interferes with the ability to evaluate positive and negative environmental signals and the response to environmental cues, making it difficult to interpret the interaction. It may happen due to technical flaws and because technology will always have limited capabilities compared to life.
The third major drawback is the lack of opportunities for third-party conversations that help participants get to know each other better. Personal remarks on the side during or after a meeting sometimes contain important insights. During a video conference, participants can only speak in turns, which is highly unnatural for group meetings (Farrell & Turner, 2021). The function of virtual rooms cannot replace personal, informal discussion. It is because of problems like lack of preparation time, the impossibility of unplanned interactions, weak interconnection, and lack of opportunity for third-party conversations.
Practical Strategies for Enhancing the Organizational Dynamic
During quieter times, church leaders tend to look at ways to expand and grow their churches, restructure, or use resources and assets more efficiently. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the church’s activities should be aimed primarily at solving the practical problems and problems facing the parishioners. On the positive side, people are more willing to interact to achieve a common goal during a crisis.
Strategy 1 – Communication and Support
Given the information stated above, it is necessary to highlight several main points of this strategy. Firstly, when implementing a communication strategy, material, educational, or spiritual support of parishioners, it is necessary to consider the prevalence of the principle of human and divine love over the utilitarian approach, especially when allocating important resources. Secondly, communication and support strategies must be implemented with the involvement of external partners. The interaction of church workers with representatives of other organizations will expand opportunities and subsequently allow them to reach wider groups of believers.
The third point is that, in their sermons, pastors must consider the dangerous tendency among some believers to entirely rely on God or, on the contrary, to overly believe in the inevitability of fate or fate. Therefore, pastors can deliver the message that God is always with a person when he is in trouble and takes any steps that seem reasonable to him. The fourth key point is the need to examine and consider the specific priority practical, emotional, educational, and spiritual needs of the parishioners when developing initiatives.
Strategy 2 – Working with Racial Disparities
Racial discrimination became especially pronounced during the pandemic crisis, and therefore a special strategy must be developed to deal with racial injustice, with several key points. First, the changes brought about by the struggle for racial justice must resonate and be implemented in all churches that share the idea of racial equality. The Black Church sets an example of effective mutual support. Still, in white churches, parishioners should be aware of the current trends in society and the reasons for the protests. It is also important to communicate inequities in health resources and care distribution among racial and ethnic minorities.
Secondly, work should be carried out to eradicate the already existing racial prejudices, including on the spiritual and religious plans. Such biases could have been inherited from the founders of the Christian church in the United States, and, therefore, eradication can be particularly challenging. Still, it is highly necessary to reach justice and create a base for external collaboration. Third, the pandemic crisis creates a need and a unique opportunity for a new discourse and ecumenical dialogue between white and black churches. A broad discussion of racial discrimination on the eventual and socio-religious level will create an ideological basis for support and interaction.
The fourth key point is the need to create humanitarian initiatives and programs to support vulnerable populations. Church leaders must help narrow the gap in well-being and access to vital resources and services, including housing, jobs, health services, healthy food, and healthy lifestyles, among vulnerable populations of all races and ethnicities. The fifth point relates to community meetings, which are extremely important during this difficult time. Given the alarming news of increased infections among Church communities, strategic decisions to hold meetings must consider the potential risk of disease and take appropriate action. Then, given the limited access of some groups to medical services, churches can provide free testing and vaccinations for their parishioners and everyone. Finally, church communities should try to provide support for people who are grieving and bereaved, such as helping organize and conduct funerals so that people can grieve together.
Strategy 3 – Digital Communication during the Pandemic
Online communication should be carried out, considering some disadvantages that may impede creating a friendly atmosphere based on mutual understanding. Church leaders should not overestimate the importance of online communication, even in video conferencing mode. This type of communication has disadvantages such as the inability to evaluate non-verbal signals, the lack of time to prepare for a video meeting, the failure to perceive signals from the shared space, the lack of informal communication, and the ability to share personal comments. Conscientious church leaders can ponder how to overcome these shortcomings. Live streaming can be a convenient way to bring people together in remote areas. Online communication can be a good addition to live meetings and a place to exchange ideas for all generations. However, church leaders must understand the specifics of virtual communication and not abuse it, as it will never replace the joy of face-to-face meetings.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, church leaders faced many new challenges, such as the inability to meet physically, the limited resources of churches to help parishioners, the difficulty in identifying suitable methods of communication, and new perspectives for external collaboration. This article provides ideas for developing strategies to overcome these problems. The implementation of these strategies will help change the world for the better and get one step closer to fulfilling the mission of creating a harmonious society, the functioning of which is based on the principles of love and justice. In particular, the communication strategy should include the predominance of the principles of love over utilitarian principles, be based on attracting external partners, create the correct messages in sermons that would stop the fatalistic mood of some parishioners, and focus on the specific practical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of parishioners. Then, the strategy of working with racial disparities should rely on the principles of information, assistance, ecumenical dialogue between white and black churches, eradicating existing prejudices, supporting vulnerable populations, organizing face-to-face meetings, and providing free testing and vaccination services. Finally, a digital communication strategy should take into account the gaps and shortcomings of online communication and not allow virtual communication to replace live meetings completely.
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