NASHVILLE (BP) – College basketball fans know the third month of the year as March Madness. Fans fill out brackets and college teams compete for their one shining moment.
For pastors, March 2020 will be forever remembered as a time of madness, but for very different reasons. COVID-related mandates and executive orders forced businesses, schools, churches, and community resources to cease public gatherings for months. Even NCAA basketball shut down.
Three years later, pastors are reflecting on the impact of the pandemic.
Larry Anderson, director of church health and evangelism with the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania and South Jersey, said the pandemic led churches to “evaluate everything”.
He says it started with the pastors themselves. As they preached into a camera in an empty room or sanctuary for weeks on end, they were forced to reevaluate their ministries.
“I’m encouraging our pastors to be thankful for who you have and pour into them,” Anderson said. “Believe you can still make a huge difference in your world and community.”
Anderson, also pastor of Great Commission Church in Philadelphia, wrote a book, The Pastor’s Diaries, to encourage pastors during the pandemic.
Of the approximately 350 churches he serves in his state network, Anderson said he personally knows of 10 to 15 that didn’t survive the pandemic.
He said church members being disconnected from weekly in-person gatherings forced some churches to permanently close their doors. In his network, churches stayed connected using technology, but he said, “you had older churches who just could not make that switch.”
Many churches invested in technology and learned on the fly how to start a livestream to conduct a weekly service.
Steve Schenewerk, pastor at Community Baptist Church in Winston, Oregon, says his church scrambled to get online and has enjoyed some unexpected benefits.
“It’s opened up some connections with people that would not have otherwise come to church,” he said.
According to its Annual Church Profile, Community Baptist reported an average weekly attendance of 50 in 2018. In 2022, that number was 30.
Despite a decrease in the number of people meeting in person, Schenewerk said members worked hard to grow the church’s Facebook community. As of February 13, there were 136 members subscribed. In a town of just more than 5,500, the pastor says that is significant.
Community Church also experienced a physical toll.
“Most of our leaders either had it (COVID) themselves or someone in their immediate family had a massive health challenge,” Schenewerk said.
More than 2,500 miles away, the virus took a serious toll on Lakeside Baptist in Birmingham.
Greg Corbin, Lakeside senior pastor, said the church has had “a number of senior adults who passed away or their health deteriorated to the point they couldn’t return.”
In addition, several adults near or around retirement age decided to relocate to be closer to family. This affected not only the church but the neighborhoods surrounding the church as well.
Younger families moved into those homes, and the church has become a younger congregation.
Corbin said Lakeside “isn’t a small church, but it isn’t a mega-church either.”
Pre-pandemic they relied on typical church programs. Now leaders are taking a closer look at everything and being even more intentional with events, meetings, and programs.
Corbin is encouraged by the way relationships were built in neighborhoods during the pandemic. “People got to know their neighbors again,” he said.
“People walked in the neighborhoods. People helped one another.”
He believes this gave church members a greater outward focus.
But make no mistake, they missed worshipping and studying together, according to Corbin.
“One of the things that we consistently heard from our folks was we really miss worship with our church family and we really miss our Sunday school class,” he said.
While leaders were quick to get those gatherings reassembled during the pandemic, they were a little slower in restarting midweek Bible studies. And when they returned, he says they looked a little different.
The church began offering a Bible study and prayer time on Wednesday mornings for those who aren’t comfortable driving at night. The Wednesday evening activities shifted to much more of an “equipping focus” for adults and children.
The shutdown offered time for leaders to ask “is this really effective?” when discussing the church’s ministries.
An increased willingness to ask hard questions is what Adam Mathews, senior pastor at Nolan River Road Baptist Church in Cliburn, Texas, says his church is taking from the pandemic.
“We just became more streamlined on a lot of our decision-making,” Mathews said.
Most Southern Baptist churches have meetings as they make decisions. Mathews said the church discussed how many meetings were needed before reaching a consensus.
He said they found some of the meetings were happening out of habit, not effectiveness.
“ . . . [W]hen you find out we can do this without these meetings,” the meetings go or are at least scaled back, he said.
Like the other pastors, Mathews said the members at Nolan River Road Baptist missed meeting together for worship and fellowship, but they also looked for new ways to care for elderly members who didn’t return after the pandemic.
Not only did it renew the zeal of the church’s deacons, students are now playing a role in caring for their church family.
“We’re intentionally trying to be a multi-generational church,” Mathews said. One of the ways that is being expressed is through an intentional care component in this spring’s DiscipleNow.
The students still plan to gather for worship, study and fun activities, but they also plan to visit elderly members who need a caring touch.
The pandemic will be remembered for shutdowns, social distancing, facemasks, vaccine debates, and toilet paper shortages.
But it will also be remembered as a time when churches found new ways to connect with one another and their community. And, when life began returning to normal, most churches made a point to focus on the basics of Bible study, corporate worship, and caring for one another.