This resource is provided in a collaborative effort by the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center’s Send Institute, Exponential, Leadership Network, Discipleship.org, and ARC. As stay-at-home orders were issued in early March, churches had to quickly respond to the challenges of not being able to meet. The Wheaton College Billy Graham Center partnered with Exponential and other networks to survey pastors and church leaders on how they were doing early on in the pandemic. The first survey showed churches were quickly pivoting and that leaders were anxious but also getting on mission. Last week, we issued a second survey to see how churches are faring, and particularly how pastors and church leaders are doing as they lead this far into the pandemic.
The world is changing rapidly. Initiatives and solutions that were fresh only a few weeks ago now ring stale in the minds of leaders, searching for ideas to keep pace in the changing context. While we understood the gravity of COVID-19 several weeks ago, few could have anticipated—and indeed many still do not fully appreciate—the depth of change we are living through.
In our initial survey, we uncovered several important issues in the early response of pastors and churches to the virus. For many respondents, the challenges of navigating the initial turn to online church, combined with uncertainty over the length of the crisis, dominated the results. As a result, pastors and church leaders were looking for practical advice on how to effectively make the transition while continuing to minister to their members and communities.
This most recent edition of the survey builds upon many of the same questions while also exploring in greater detail the impact of the crisis upon the financial state of the church and the mental health of the pastor. We are well over a month into the crisis and many have been on shelter-at-home orders for several weeks. This has placed not only a significant strain upon the resources of the church and its members but a burden upon pastors to lead and shepherd through this uncertainty. Even as there are emerging signs of optimism in combating COVID-19, the demands of this season on pastors and church leaders are not likely to lessen in the near future.
As with the previous survey, this is a convenience sample of churches within Exponential and the partnering networks, and is not a random or scientific sample. As such, it represents a snapshot of a subset of churches (connected to these organizations, online, mostly evangelical, willing to respond, etc.), to help church leaders get an understanding for how churches are faring and what steps they are taking, as they continue to adapt to remote ministry. The large size of the sample makes it more valuable, and is perhaps the best available snapshot we have until randomized samples can be fielded.
This survey represents 1,937 responses, submitted online from April 13th to 17th of 2020. This survey was conducted in partnership with the Billy Graham Center’s Send Institute, Exponential, Leadership Network, the Association of Related Churches (ARC), and Discipleship.org. This marks the second survey in what is planned as a series to be repeated over the span of several weeks with willing survey respondents to track responses over time.
This survey yielded several critical takeaways important for pastors and church leaders to consider as they begin to consider issues of reemergence and recovery. For over a month, pastors have needed to be innovative in their services and ministry, yet signs of stability in this transition are beginning to emerge. The optimism pastors expressed over financial concerns has continued in this survey although this attitude appears to be in tension with significant declines in giving. Churches continue to prioritize their services and members while seeking help to optimize their other ministries and outreach in quarantine. Even as online articles are the most vital platform for content, many pastors and church leaders are looking for collaborative and discussion-based formats for assistance.
To help equip church leaders for this next phase, this survey includes strategic insights on how churches can respond to the data. In these Future Focus sections, we offer not only next steps but critical resources that may aid churches in responding well.
When asked about their current approach to corporate worship, 90 percent indicated their services are strictly online. Over half (54 percent) indicated their online services have a different format than their in-person gathering. This marked a six percent increase from the first survey. Thirty-six percent indicated that their online services are following the same format as their in-person gathering, nearly the same as the first survey.
Moreover, among the pastors and church leaders who completed both surveys, 15 percent have changed their in-person gathering format to a different one. In essence, an increasing percentage of pastors and church leaders are experimenting with different online formats to find the expression that best suits their members and community.
This desire for innovation is also reflected in a shift in the kinds of resources churches are looking for during this season. The survey asked, “What kinds of resources do you need to lead your church, staff, or organization in this challenging time?” In response, 40 percent of pastors and church leaders asked for technology training, a notable surge from the 30 percent of respondents in the previous survey.
While most churches have successfully transitioned to livestream and conference calls, churches are looking for help in leveraging new technology to create engaging experiences for their people and/or to reach out to those spiritually interested in their communities.
At the same time, there are signs pastors and church leaders are gaining confidence in their current online Sunday services. When asked how best to describe their future plans for corporate worship, the percentage of pastors and church leaders who answered they were going to continue as they are now was up from 27 to 39 percent while those who were uncertain and taking things one week at a time dropped from 53 to 40 percent.
As you establish a normal rhythm around your online weekend services, this is a good time to focus on discipling both existing and potential leaders. Depending on your state guidelines, in the next few weeks to months, smaller groups may be able to meet again in person. This is a good time to begin thinking about what leaders need emotionally and spiritually in order to lead effectively through the spring and summer months. Watch this webinar, Rise of the Microchurch, for how to think about decentralizing churches for missional engagement: exponential.org/microchurch-webinar.
As with the initial report, and perhaps surprisingly, the majority of pastors and church leaders remain optimistic regarding finances. When asked how prepared their church is to face the financial crisis, over 80 percent indicated they are either not concerned or that expenses can be reduced without too much pain.
Over a quarter (28 percent) report that finances are not a concern while over half (53 percent) responded that while it will be tight it would not be too painful. Similar to the previous survey, few leaders indicated a concern that layoffs were likely (nine percent) or that key initiatives would have to be canceled (six percent).
In addition, there was a notable increase from the previous poll by those pastors and church leaders who reported finances were not a significant concern—rising from 20 to 28 percent while those citing a likelihood of significant cuts or layoffs falling from 14 to nine percent.
Moreover, among pastors and church leaders who completed both surveys, those that changed their answer from finances being tight to not a significant concern was double those who switched the other way (10 percent to five percent). In essence, not only are pastors and church leaders optimistic but this attitude seems to be increasing even as economic figures falter.
Pastoral optimism was likewise reflected in the kinds of resources pastors and church leaders were looking for during this season. Across the two surveys there was a significant decline in pastors and church leaders looking for resources to help surviving the financial crunch (55 percent declined to 33 percent) and help maximizing giving (49 percent declined to 39 percent).
This confidence is unexpected as we believed that, as the impact of the crisis upon the economy deepened and church members faced unemployment, pastors and church leaders might register a deeper financial crunch. Indeed, this survey did report significant declines in church giving that seemed contrary to the confidence pastors and church leaders have expressed.
While 30 percent of pastors and church leaders reported that giving was close to the same, over 60 percent have seen their giving go down. This includes a quarter (25 percent) saying that giving was down at least 10 percent and nearly another quarter (24 percent) at least 25 percent. Most concerning is the 11 percent of pastors and church leaders who replied that giving was down by at least 50 percent.
This decline in giving was felt most acutely by rural, urban, and small churches. Among churches that reported a decline of at least 25 percent, rural (41 percent) and urban (44 percent) were notably higher than suburban churches (31 percent). Similarly, 25 percent of churches under fifty recorded giving declining by at least half compared to only four percent of churches over five hundred.
Thus, even as pastors and church leaders are increasingly optimistic about giving, there has been widespread and, at least for many churches, deep losses in giving. For these churches, this level of financial recalibration, if prolonged, will have significant and ongoing financial implications.
Even as some churches are doing well financially, many are struggling. It is critical at this juncture in the crisis for established churches to begin or continue to support church plants and missionaries. For churches that are able to help other struggling churches, a new ministry called Churches Helping Churches was established to coordinate this effort. Go to their website to learn how to give a grant or to apply for one: churchrelief.org.