This Thanksgiving Hymn was written by Rev. Dr. Richard Gibbons from First Presby...
At the first church I served, one of my favorite people was an older gentleman named Harold. I once saw him at church and asked the casual passing question, “How are you?” He said to me, “Dana, never ask an 80 year-old how he is doing, unless you really want to know the answer and have at least 5 minutes.” We laughed a bit, but his point was well taken that we often ask the question casually but we don’t really expect an honest or full answer.
In the last 6 months there have been lots of “How are you?” conversations. We find that these conversations hit surface issues but often will move quickly in the deeper joys and challenges that our leaders and churches experience. Several of us on the ECO staff have shared anecdotally about how our churches and leaders are doing in the midst of this season. We desired to go deeper however, and sent a survey to our pastors. There were some questions related to worship attendance and finances in the midst of this pandemic. There were also some deeper questions about the state of our souls and how congregations are seeing past simply physical and virtual worship attendance.
Here is some of the survey data starting with the more superficial in nature. We were pleasantly surprised to see that most of our churches found that giving was relatively consistent compared to last year at this time. 57% of churches were within 5% (plus or minus) of their giving last year. 5.4% had more than a 20% increase and 7.7% had more than a 20% decrease. While this is just “point in time” data, and certainly year-end giving could be affected with the economy, at this time in general, there doesn’t seem to be the massive financial impact that many had been concerned about at the beginning.
We did also ask that for those who had resumed in-person worship services, what percentage of people were showing up. We saw that half of our churches that responded were seeing between ¼-½ of the normal worship attendance showing up in person. Another 28% were seeing a little more than half of their people resuming in-person worship.
Getting below the surface was helpful to see the good things that God was doing in the midst of the pandemic. Many commented that this season has allowed the church to evaluate their ministry, initiate change, move their covenant partners in a more missional direction, and think differently about what “success” looks like in their ministry context. I looked back on our flourishing church measures and the four questions associated with each of those measures. I was thrilled to see that none of those questions was dependent upon public worship. This isn’t to say that public worship isn’t important or a vital part of our life together. However, the church in the persecuted world is thriving in many places despite not having public worship gatherings. It’s great to see our congregations can thrive even when we are not able to meet publicly. I would encourage you to look again at those measures and the associated questions and ask, “How can we use these questions to enhance our ministry during this time? How can these questions guide us to make adjustments even when we live into a post-COVID world?”
While there have been and will continue to be opportunities for growth during this time, I want to also acknowledge the deep fatigue that most, if not all, of our leaders are feeling. Many indicated that this has been a season of spiritual growth for them, but it has come from tremendous pressures and places of exhaustion. The challenges come from many directions that you are familiar with, but regardless are helpful to name. Challenges include transitioning to online worship, creating hybrid solutions, and seeing this dynamic change almost weekly. Many congregants are on edge because of all that is occurring not only with COVID, but navigating political landscape and the variety of opinions on how to address race relations. In addition, home life has changed especially for pastors with school age children as they navigate distance or hybrid learning, or challenges with in-person learning.
A phrase that has resonated with me since seminary is that the goal of preaching is to ”disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.” I feel as if this phrase not only applies to preaching, but the role that the denomination can play in these seasons as we mutually spur one another on to love and good deeds. It is my deep desire that we could be a place to bring comfort and support to leaders who are feeling tired and disjointed. It is also my desire to be a place where we can utilize this season to bring disruption to help us fulfill the Lord’s call to a greater extent for our churches and as a denomination.
We continue to both pray for you often and seek new and innovative ways to help build flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ. I am so grateful for your ministry and dedication to Christ during upheaval and change. May God be glorified in and through you always!