When a crisis strengthens your church: Re-shaping outreach

In the midst of any crisis it is easy, and understandable, to turn inward. Fear and anxiety get the better of us and we react more selfishly than we might otherwise. Given this reality, my colleagues and I at Made to Flourish were delighted to learn from our spring “Listening Tour” survey that many pastors and congregations have risen above these impulses in the face of the COVID pandemic. Given a choice of 12 activities they might focus on, we found the most commonly listed priority was “mobilizing congregants to serve our local community” (see Table 1).

For many, this involved getting food and household supplies quickly to elderly, isolated, and at-rick community members. Often this was being executed through new partnerships with other congregations, community nonprofits, or local government agencies. A pastor from a small town in Pennsylvania, for example, reported that he and eight other pastors in the community had banded together in a ministerium. Within two weeks, the group had established an emergency food bank. “None of us could have done anything like this on this level alone,” he said. A Denver pastor told us of a church cooperative involving seven congregations.  This group typically meets monthly, but they gathered virtually every week during the initial weeks of the pandemic. Two churches in the group from particularly hard-hit neighborhoods partnered to provide food. Group members are also helping each other by sharing information about job openings.

Table 1. Pastors’ Top Priorities and Percentage Indicating Top 3 Answers

Priorities:  %
  • Mobilizing congregants to serve our local community
  • Establishing technology solutions for streaming services and/or online giving
  • Reaching out to elderly, isolated, and at-risk community members
  • Thinking/planning beyond the pandemic about how to help congregants who become unemployed
  • Providing financial resources to those who are struggling
  • Offering ongoing digital or distance ministry options for our children/youth
  • Collecting and distributing needed items like food  and household supplies
  • Mobilizing prayer teams/prayer support for those impacted by the crisis
  • Helping members connect to available community and government resources
  • Designing ways to help our missionaries affected by the crisis
  • Providing childcare for those who need it

The crisis has stimulated some new cross-cultural partnerships. An African American pastor in Kansas City, for example, told us of a new relationship with a local Hispanic pastor: “This pandemic has brought our churches together better than if we had not had the pandemic.” A white pastor from Minneapolis had a similar comment about a new relationship his church was forging with a predominantly Black congregation less than a mile away.

Helping the unemployed

Some churches have responded to the needs of newly unemployed congregants and community residents with notable creativity. In an Appalachian town, Crossroads Church is using its “makerspace” ministry as a manufacturing center for masks and other forms of personal protective equipment (PPE). Three families that have suffered a drop in income as a result of the pandemic have been able to earn money by sewing masks. When we gave that information to another pastor in the network that we were interviewing, he was so enthusiastic about it that he donated $200 to enable Crossroads to purchase another sewing machine.

Carl Johnson, an inner-city church planter who leads a congregation of about 35 people, talked about how his community suffers from the digital divide. “They don’t have the internet at their homes,” he explained, “and now the public library, which had some computers online, is closed down.” This was making it difficult for residents to apply for unemployment benefits or to search for job leads. This pastor upgraded the internet service at the local convenience store he owns and bought a couple of laptop computers. With those and the help of a few church volunteers who own their own laptops, he was able to create a hub where people could get online to complete their taxes or search for new jobs. Other pastors in hard-hit neighborhoods told us that they, too, were helping people file for unemployment benefits.

At Highpoint Church in Madison, Wisconsin, a congregant with an MBA who works as a job transition consultant offered to provide free, online training webinars to assist newly unemployed church members. Some 25 people have participated, including individuals from outside the church who were invited by congregation members. In addition, Highpoint’s internal website (a social network available to congregants) includes a classifieds section where people can post job openings or prayer requests on job-related issues. The staff person who oversees congregational care tracks the site to stay informed about “who is looking to hire and who needs a job.”

Churches helping churches

In addition to discovering how pastors were responding to the crisis, our Listening Tour was aimed at identifying churches with urgent needs and matching them with other network members who might be able to help. Out of 115 congregations, we found six with particularly pressing needs. We were able to match four of these churches with donors. In south Florida, for example, a congregation of under 200 members gave $2000 to help a smaller church in a nearby city so it could continue supporting its janitor, a single mom who’d been laid off from her other job at a daycare center. A church from Oregon sent $4000 to a predominantly Hispanic congregation on Chicago’s south side. The gift paid the rent for some newly unemployed congregants and will scholarship other unemployed members who are joining a local entrepreneurship training program. Several pastors reported that their churches were assisting other congregations within their own communities or denominational networks.

The crisis’ impact on parishioners and giving

Roughly half of the 115 pastors participating in the survey indicated that their congregations had been influenced “some” by the crisis. Seventeen percent said their church was impacted “a lot” (see Figure 1). These findings were consistent across the varying sizes of congregations.

To what degree has your congregants’ well-being (health-wise, financially, spiritually) been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The economic pain of the crisis is real. A pastor at a small rural church in Minnesota told of calling each of his roughly 50 parishioners in the initial weeks of the crisis. He found that 15 had had their hours cut. Another pastor, from an urban congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, that includes a significant number of resettled refugees, said four families in his congregation had been affected by lay-offs or cuts in wages. They needed help paying their rent and the church’s benevolence funds were exhausted. A modest-sized multiethnic church in Phoenix quickly gifted $3500 to assist this congregation.

Nearly a third of pastors (29%) reported that giving was down but 47% indicated that giving had remained stable. Eighteen percent said giving had increased (see Figure 2).

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S., donations at my church are:

A higher percentage of churches under 100 members reported decreases in giving. Thirty-eight percent of pastors from congregations of this size indicated a drop in giving, compared to 29% of pastors overall. Pastors who worked another job in addition to their employment at their congregation were also more likely to report a decrease in giving. Among this group, 38% indicated donations were down. By contrast, only 20% of pastors from churches with over 1000 members reported a decrease in giving.

While this data does not cover all churches everywhere, it does show an encouraging trend toward community and congregational flourishing even in suffering. It’s the church being the church, and we pray it continues!

Made to Flourish conducted the Listening Tour Survey between late April and late May, then followed up with phone interviews with 22 of the 115 respondents.

About the Author

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).