The Church Is Not a Building
Observations and Insights from Narrative Responses to the 2020 Parochial Report
Elena G. van Stee, University of Pennsylvania – July 2021
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced churches to close their physical doors in the spring of 2020, Episcopal congregations across the United States and around the world began to re-imagine what it means to be the church. Almost overnight, congregations implemented innovative new strategies for conducting worship services, connecting with parishioners, and meeting community needs. These innovations were refined and expanded over the course of the pandemic as congregations learned how to adjust to a new, physically-distanced reality.
Though all churches encountered significant challenges to during the pandemic, barriers to engagement were not experienced equally across The Episcopal Church. Rather, fault lines of inequality were exacerbated and exposed. While immediate challenges such as purchasing camera equipment or learning how to stream services on Facebook were unique to the pandemic, respondents frequently noted that such challenges were rooted in more permanent aspects of the church’s social context and demographic composition. The responses suggest that congregations in poor and rural areas; those with limited clergy, staff, and volunteers; and those with aging congregations were especially challenged by the circumstances of the pandemic. Some of the most vulnerable congregations ceased operations altogether.
Even in the midst of these challenges, however, there is also evidence of innovation and growth. Many churches described novel opportunities for connection and engagement during the pandemic. One respondent insightfully described the transition to online worship as a “double-edged sword,” explaining that although virtual worship posed barriers for many, it also enabled churches to reach new populations that had previously been excluded from corporate worship. For some churches, the pandemic also sparked new community-focused initiatives and local partnerships.
The pandemic challenged many long-standing assumptions about Episcopal identity. When churches were prevented from continuing standard operations, clergy and parishioners were forced to re-evaluate core principles and practices. Many expressed a renewed recognition that the church is “not a building” but rather a people. In a similar vein, responses frequently included comments about desiring to keep the flexibility and creative spirit that the pandemic environment evoked in their church. Some identified specific practices developed during the pandemic that they hoped to see continue even after restrictions were lifted, including outdoor worship, new methods of one-to-one communication, and the option for worshippers to join services remotely.
Taken together, the narrative responses paint a complex portrait of loss, grief, innovation, hope, and change that offer new insight into The Episcopal Church’s past, present, and future ministry to the world.
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The disruptions effected by the COVID-19 pandemic had profound effects on Episcopal worship and ministry. In the spring of 2020, Episcopal churches across the United States and around the world pivoted to adapt traditional forms of communal worship, fellowship, education, and outreach to a new, physically-distanced, reality. Approximately one year later, representatives from each church were asked to reflect on the challenges and opportunities experienced by their congregation during the pandemic: what they had learned, how congregational life had changed, and what further challenges and opportunities they envisioned for the future.
The narrative responses depict a complex portrait of both loss and growth. On the one hand, the pandemic amplified many pre-existing concerns, such as those related to membership, aging parishioners, clergy supply, and finances. On the other hand, the responses illuminate diverse and often unconventional ways that churches pursued meaningful connection with God, one another, and the world.
Data and Analysis
- What were the primary opportunities, innovations and challenges in conducting worship during the pandemic? What did you learn?
- What are the primary opportunities and challenges your church is facing as it plans for the future?
- What three things have changed the most in how the church conducts its ministry?
Qualitative analysis of the narrative responses to these questions was led by Elena van Stee. The analysis was a collaborative, multi-stage process that employed both deductive and inductive coding strategies (Patton 2002). In the first stage of analysis, van Stee developed a list of thematic codes based on quantitative data from prior parochial reports and conversations with denominational leaders (General Convention 2021). In the process of applying these codes to a sample of congregational responses to each question, additional codes were added to reflect emerging themes. After finalizing a codebook for each set of responses, research assistants were trained to apply the codes to the narrative responses. The coding process was facilitated by Atlas.ti. Throughout the analysis, all members of the research team wrote and shared analytic memos to identify major themes and patterns in the data. Throughout this process, the researchers intentionally focused on experiences and insights that would not be captured by a quantitative approach.
- A Snapshot of Parish Life During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- The Digital Divide
- Opportunities for Connection and Growth
A Snapshot of Parish Life During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The Initial Response
The narrative responses highlight an array of innovative strategies for maintaining congregational worship, relationships, and outreach during the pandemic. As lockdown measures forced churches to shut their physical doors in the spring of 2020, Episcopal congregations mobilized to implement new, physically-distant forms of connection. Within weeks—sometimes days—of the initial shut-down, many congregations were already recording mass on cell-phone cameras, sending scripture and sermons via email, and making phone calls to check in on one another. Over the course of the next year, many congregations continued to expand their technological capacities and develop new, innovative ways for increasing engagement in a safe, distanced manner. Churches held drive-in worship services; organized phone trees; distributed gift bags with holiday supplies; arranged pick-up systems for pre-consecrated hosts; wrote letters; produced choral recordings; hosted online and outdoor fitness classes; launched virtual book clubs, knitting groups, and bingo competitions; and gathered for prayer garden walks—to name just a few pandemic-era innovations. The following account from one church in a southeastern state captures the gradual and iterative nature of this process:
[Our church] began live-streamed worship almost immediately after the pandemic struck. We soon realized that a cell phone camera didn’t provide the tools we needed to stream the service as we would like to, so we invested in audio/video equipment with help from a grant from [a philanthropic foundation]. After a couple of weeks where the hymns and service music were played by the organist with no one singing, we began to have a cantor rotation from the choir so that one person would sing the hymns and service music for the live stream services. After some time, we began to have communion available for pickup at church or delivery by a VEM after the monthly service of Holy Eucharist. The elements were blessed during the service, and instructions were included for a self-directed home service of Holy Communion. We briefly held in person worship for a limited number of people for a few weeks in the fall before once again suspending in person worship. (church in a small Southern city.) 
 Some responses were lightly edited to improve readability (e.g. fixing capitalization, punctuation, spelling errors) or to preserve confidentiality (e.g. removing names of people and places).
Like this congregation, a majority of Episcopal congregations held virtual worship services at some point during the pandemic. Congregations commonly reported using platforms such as Zoom, Facebook Live, or YouTube to livestream services and/or disseminate video recordings. This process posed significant financial and logistical challenges for many congregations, as few had the technical knowledge or equipment to stream services prior to the pandemic. Yet, many adapted quickly. “A small but dedicated staff quickly learned how to use digital platforms and constantly improved production capabilities,” one respondent recounted, describing how their church advanced technologically over the course of the pandemic: “We expanded our technological resources and skills for sound engineering and production, improved WIFI capabilities in the sanctuary, and learned how to lead worship over virtual platforms using our laptops and cell phone cameras” (church in a small Western city).
However, other congregations found technological barriers to be insurmountable. In some cases, those that lacked the human or material resources to execute video-recorded worship services found less technologically-demanding ways to share scripture and sermons with parishioners, for example by sharing the text of a sermon over email or on a website. Still others instructed members to attend the online services of other (usually larger, more-resourced) congregations, including the National Cathedral. Some churches that did not offer online services during the pandemic indicated that they lost members for this reason. “We started with very few members/attendees, and ended up with none because we had no services or streaming,” one respondent reported, illustrating one way in which the pandemic created further challenges for congregations that were already vulnerable (church in small Great Lakes Region town).
The challenges associated with pandemic gathering restrictions were not merely logistical but also relational and spiritual. “We grieved losses large and small, and we did so in isolation from one another” one respondent wrote, capturing how the traumatic experience of the pandemic itself was amplified by the fact that members could not gather safely to support one another (church in small Southern town). Likewise, many congregations that experienced the death of a parishioner during the pandemic emphasized how difficult it was to mourn in isolation.
Even congregations with abundant financial resources, willing volunteers, and impressive technological innovations emphatically declared that congregational life was “just not the same” without regular, in-person gatherings (church in a Southern city). Reflecting on her personal experience, for example, one respondent described how challenging it was to maintain a sense of connectedness:
A challenge brought about because of the pandemic has been in maintaining a sense of connectedness, and the feeling of being part of a community. The suspension of being able to be near friends during worship, coffee hour, and adult formation, and actually see unmasked smiling faces has been a challenge. (church in small Midwest town)
Another respondent shared a similar experience, explaining that the pandemic revealed “both the possibilities and limitations to ‘gatherings’ and ‘connectedness’ of the church” (church in Western city). Though parishioners were grateful that virtual platforms made some connection possible, many agreed that Zoom worship was no replacement for a service in which members are physically present with one another. As this respondent explained, their congregation “learned [that] the importance of real, incarnate, face-to-face connection with members of the church is both the ideal and essential for the spiritual and relational health of the church” (church in Western city).
A “Tactile Tradition”
Though respondents described missing many aspects of “normal” worship services such as congregational singing and choral performances, the inability to celebrate the Eucharist as a church body emerged as a particularly distressing loss for many. Some respondents described creative strategies for safely celebrating the Eucharist during the pandemic, such as gathering in gardens or on patios and preparing boxes to be picked up or shipped to congregants’ homes (small town church in the Great Lakes Region). One congregation even described celebrating the Eucharist in the context of hiking trips—an innovation that they referred to as “Communion in Creation” (church in small Midwest city).
Yet, such innovations were far from universal. It was more common for respondents to describe sadness and loss resulting from their inability to celebrate this sacrament. For example, one respondent reported that “one of the biggest challenges, of course, has been the long fast from Holy Eucharist. It is impossible to overstate the impact of this extended abstinence” (church in Midwest city). Another simply stated, “it’s hard being a sacramental church without sacraments” (church in small Western city). Furthermore, even those who were able to partake of the Eucharist in one kind (a common practice during the pandemic) frequently wrote that they missed celebrating this sacrament in full. “Parishioners are missing actual Holy Communion in both kinds,” one respondent wrote, “we are awaiting with anticipation the time when we can resume administering the cup” (church in small Western town).
Reflecting on the loss of connection experienced in the absence of face-to-face gatherings and full celebration of the Eucharist, multiple respondents suggested that lockdown mandates and social distancing requirements may have been especially disruptive to The Episcopal Church due to the “tactile” nature of this tradition. “We are a tactile people who gather in person with touch and presence,” one respondent explained, concluding that “this year has been trying in the extreme” (church in small Western city). Others similarly emphasized the importance of touch, explaining that physical touch is central to the church’s sacramental identity:
Given our “high touch” liturgical tradition, we have experienced a deep sense of loss/grief and lack of participation. . . The net result has been a major reduction in in-person or online participation. (church in small Western city)
Every one of the sacraments or sacramental acts is, in some way, predicated on touch: in the Eucharist bread moves from one set of hands to another; in baptism we are held as we descend into the waters; in anointing God’s grace is written onto our foreheads or our hands. [The] pandemic required that we spend a year without touch. (church in Western city)
The Digital Divide
Challenges to congregational worship and engagement were not experienced equally across parishes. Moreover, although practical challenges such as learning how to use Facebook Live or purchasing a video camera were unique to the pandemic, respondents frequently noted that these challenges were rooted in more permanent aspects of the church’s social location and demographic composition. A variety of social and structural factors appear to have amplified barriers at both the congregational and individual levels.
Geography and Socioeconomic Status
A congregation’s physical location and its members’ socioeconomic resources profoundly shaped possibilities for ministry during the pandemic. First, many respondents indicated that their opportunities for online connection with members were limited by the resources available in their area. Rural churches, in particular, frequently described poor internet connectivity. For example, one respondent reported that even though their congregation offered online worship, participation had been limited because “we’re in a rural setting and internet access is spotty” (church in small town in Great Lakes Region). Another respondent similarly described how their location constrained their opportunities for technological advancement: “The primary challenge is that our available internet upload speed is very low, averaging 6mbps. We are unable to change this ourselves, as fiber is not yet available in our area” (church in small Midwest city). As this response illustrates, individual churches were constrained not only by their own resources but also by the resources available in their geographical area.
Others described a “digital divide” (church in small Northeast city) between parishioners within a single congregation, indicating that the “uneven distribution of technology” among members made it difficult to maintain cohesion (church in small Great Lakes Region town). “Meeting the needs of a diverse congregation was the greatest challenge,” one respondent wrote, explaining that their congregation was split along lines of technological connectivity: “Some folks quickly connected using technology, others struggled, and some have never connected” (church in small Great Lakes Region city). Likewise, another respondent explained how limited economic resources constrained some members’ access to the internet:
The challenges were that about half of our members or more did not have access to internet. The socioeconomic situation in [our area] is such that many people, especially people of color and/or of Latin and Hispanic descent, do not have fast or any internet access. We were challenged by searching for ways that allowed us to reach out online while providing pastorally for our members who could only participate in person. (church in small Western city)
In light of these barriers to virtual engagement, many congregations found outdoor worship to be a welcome alternative. Even one priest from a state with notoriously-harsh winters explained that their congregation was motivated to meet outside in December in order to include those who were not engaging via Zoom:
A core group in this congregation has really embraced Zoom worship, while another core group have been struggling with it. To address this challenge, we hosted outdoor worship (even on Christmas Eve!) that included masks and physical distancing. (church in small Western town)
Though this priest was not the only respondent to describe outdoor gatherings in sub-freezing weather, churches in harsher climates were inevitably constrained by their geographical location. This is another important way in which geographical differences translated into unequal opportunities for physically-distanced congregational engagement.
Human Resources: Clergy, Staff, and Volunteers
The unequal distribution of human resources (both clergy and lay) is another striking fault line of inequality captured in the narrative responses. First, churches without a full-time rector often struggled to maintain basic operations during the pandemic. A sense of loss and weariness is palpable in many of the responses from such churches:
[Our church] had long-term supply priests conducting services for many years, and we did not have the resources to conduct virtual or Zoom services…[we] really had no other choice but to cease operation. (church in Midwest city)
Our church was without a resident priest through the first part of the pandemic, during which time we learned that working lay people did not have the time to organize and lead regular Sunday online services. (church in small Western city)
Like many Episcopal parishes, we have comorbidities – aging demographics and a vacancy in clerical leadership. (church in Midwest suburb)
Since we don’t have a priest it is challenging to keep our faith community together. (church in small Western town)
While leadership challenges may have been most extreme in congregations that lacked a full-time rector, other parishes also described challenges stemming from limited clerical and lay leadership. The transition to virtual worship significantly increased the demands on clergy across the denomination, as priests and staff suddenly became responsible for spearheading a weekly (sometimes daily) video production with little training or equipment. Respondents frequently noted an increase in the time needed to prepare for the Sunday service and described clergy in particular spending much additional time editing and disseminating recordings. Additionally, multiple respondents noted that the service became a project for the priest’s entire family. For example, one priest recounted:
When the church was closed from the middle of March until the beginning of June, my wife, daughter and I recorded the Holy Eucharist on Sunday and posted it on Vimeo and Facebook. I had no prior experience with this. I had to learn some technology that I had not known prior to the pandemic. (church in small Great Lakes Region town)
A respondent from another congregation described a similar scenario, explaining that “most of the planning has fallen on our Rector. He has planned, his wife filmed and then he edited [the service]” (church in small Western city). A third reported that “a challenge is passing on leadership roles to lay leaders so they can run worship without me or my spouse” (church in small Western town).
As one respondent pointed out, many parishioners were likely unaware of the behind-the-scenes labor that went into producing the service: “[Virtual services] really doubled the effort being made by our clergy and staff,” this respondent explained, adding, “often in ways that were invisible to those confined at home by lockdowns” (church in European city).
In this context of heightened needs and challenges, church activity was often contingent upon the availability and skills of lay volunteers. At one end of a continuum, some congregations reported that lay participation flourished during the pandemic, making new forms of physically-distanced engagement possible. For example, one respondent reported that their church created a new digital ministry team that “explored, organized, and managed the equipment necessary to pre-record and live-stream services.” According to this respondent, their congregation was lucky to include “parishioners with skills and talents willing to step-up, learn, and assist in production of online worship” (church in Western city). Financially backed by a denominational grant, the willingness and skills of these lay volunteers made it possible for the church to share professionally-edited services via Facebook and YouTube. Attesting to its technological prowess, this congregation also assisted more than a dozen nearby churches with their respective technology needs.
In stark contrast, a respondent from another church in the same diocese—presumably the rector—explained that their “primary challenge” had been navigating the transition to virtual worship without assistance from staff or volunteers: “The primary challenge in the beginning and mostly throughout the year has been that I have had to shoulder the entire process of worship planning and the technology alone,” this respondent wrote. The respondent attributed this lack of support to the demographic composition of the church, explaining that “this is not a congregation of technologically astute members” (church in small Western town). Taken together, these two contrasting accounts illustrate how lay involvement shaped the pandemic experiences of clergy and their congregations.
Age: Barriers for Old and Young
Finally, a digital divide split congregations across age. Although online methods of worship and fellowship had many benefits, there were also several downsides when it came to engaging children, teens, and elderly members. Many elderly parishioners had little to no experience with technology or did not have adequate access to a device or network where they could view the services. As a result, conducting remote worship was especially challenging for churches in which the congregation included a large share of elderly members. For example, one respondent reported that “new technology for an aging parish population made ensuring accessibility difficult and, honestly, this issue hasn’t been completely resolved” (church in small Southern city). Another insightfully described the transition to online worship as a “double-edged sword,” explaining that virtual services removed barriers to participation for some “tech-savvy” parishioners while creating barriers to participation for many elderly congregants:
The pandemic compelled our congregation to communicate and worship together through online communications (email, Facebook, Zoom services). Virtual gatherings were a new experience for many and proved a “double-edged sword.” While they enabled us to reach a broader and previously untapped audience of more computer savvy (and often younger) individuals, many of our older members were/are not comfortable online, and some lacked internet access. This has created a challenge administratively, as our staff and leadership had to learn how to effectively communicate with these new tools and find innovative ways to help others do so. (church in Midwest city)
In addition to the challenges associated with engaging elderly members, churches also struggled to connect with children and youth. Respondents explained that it was difficult to engage young families through online platforms. “It is very challenging, if not next to impossible, to get young children to settle down in front of the computer screen for a one-hour Zoom service,” one respondent noted, echoing the sentiments of many others (church in Southern city). Respondents frequently noted that the challenge of engaging children was amplified by the fact that many children (and their parents) were already “screened out” from attending online school: “the children are already overburdened with being on Zoom every day for school, and their families are overburdened with one more activity to supervise” another respondent explained (church in Western city).
Even so, some respondents described successful strategies for engaging children. The following quotes provide a snapshot of these congregations’ creativity:
It was a particular challenge to keep the children and youth connected via Zoom because of their online educational requirements. To address this we created weekly children’s faith formation videos hosted on our web site that could be watched at their convenience. We devised activities appropriate to the liturgical season involving materials delivered to their homes. We recorded a Christmas Children’s Pageant with multiple families participating. We scheduled socially distanced outdoor activities for the older youth like a holding a drive-by Halloween “Trunk or Treat”, walking a local church’s labyrinth and sledding at a park. (church in Midwest city)
Since they could not come to the church, the church came to them. “Faith at Home” was used to get the family involved and stay connected. The Christian Education Director and Youth Leader personally reached out to the families and children through text, phone calls and letters and that has helped strengthen relationships. (church in Southern town)
Overall, there appears to have been more energy and success regarding efforts to connect with children, compared to efforts to engage the elderly. Though a handful of respondents described successful efforts to maintain connection with the elderly, the overall tone of such responses tended to be more pessimistic. Many respondents indicated that barriers to engaging older members were—at least in part—cultural rather than practical. Older members were frequently characterized as being uninterested in virtual forms of engagement.
Opportunities for Connection and Growth
In the midst of heightened fears, changes, and isolation, respondents also described novel opportunities presented by the pandemic. The transition to online worship brought new possibilities for engagement, including the ability to reach a broader audience and engage congregants on weekdays. Churches developed new ways of connecting with one another, and many respondents hope that these innovations will persist long after the pandemic. Finally, in some churches the pandemic invigorated members’ sense of calling to meet the needs of their broader community. Some developed new community-focused initiatives that enabled the congregation to serve others in new ways.
Reaching a Broader Audience
Over and over again, respondents identified reaching a “broader audience” through online worship services as a key opportunity presented by the pandemic. The ability to join the worship service from any location increased access for a diverse array of groups, including families with young children; people who work on Sundays; former members who moved away; those in hospitals or nursing care facilities; and those prevented from traveling due to health issues or the weather:
Live-streaming allows us to reach many, many people outside our parish; even former members who now live out-of-state, and those who are curious and just want to “take a peek” inside an Episcopal service. (church in Southern town)
We’ve found church, coffee hours, and programs via Zoom to be inclusive of so many people we might have missed in our traditional, in-person format: those who are unable to travel, those whose medical challenges make it difficult to join, live far away, and even those who had physically moved away from our community who have joined us again in worship. (church in small Western city)
As one respondent observed, these populations could have benefitted from online services prior to the pandemic. The pandemic exposed an “unmet need” and forced congregations to find a creative solution:
We found that there was an unmet need in our congregation for providing the services online and that we received positive feedback from several who are now able to be connected to the life of the church in that way. (church in Southern city)
In addition to reaching new members, the pandemic also provided opportunities for some churches to connect with existing members in new ways. In particular, midweek services appear to have gained new popularity during the pandemic. “We have gone from saying Morning Prayer one day a week to twice a week plus added Compline once a week, all by Zoom,” one respondent wrote (church in small Great Lakes Region town). “Pandemic worship forced us to learn to worship in new ways,” another respondent reported, explaining that their congregation became more familiar with the liturgies of Morning and Evening Prayer during the pandemic. This respondent suggested that logistical barriers to midweek participation were removed during the pandemic because parishioners could attend without traveling to the physical church: “Due to our location, we had never had a successful pattern for in-person offices midweek, but were able to launch a daily evening service on Zoom that is still going online” (church in Southern city). Others who reported an uptick in midweek participation suggested that midweek services gained popularity because people had more flexible work schedules and fewer social commitments.
Pursuing Social Justice
The pandemic exacerbated inequalities and poverty, and many churches stepped up to take care of the people most affected by the pandemic. Some of these initiatives were a continuation or expansion of existing ministries, while others were launched in response to the pandemic. Respondents described a diverse array of initiatives that included efforts to combat food and housing insecurity; provide menstrual hygiene products and school supplies; offer physical gathering space to other religious groups; and host physically-distanced social events for community members. There is also evidence of increasing awareness of racial injustice and a sense of conviction to prioritize racial reconciliation. Some churches described concrete actions taken to support the Black Lives Matter movement and educate members about issues of racial justice, though such churches were in the minority (e.g. churches in Southern city, Great Lakes Region town). Finally, some congregations took an active role in public health initiatives to prevent the spread of COVID-19, for example by offering the church grounds as a COVID-19 testing site (e.g. church in Southern city).
Many respondents described the benefits of partnerships—old and new—with nearby churches and nonreligious community organizations. “The church also really built out its partnerships with other churches and with the community in order to continue to meet the practical needs of our neighborhood,” one respondent wrote. This respondent went on to describe how their church, in collaboration with a variety of community partners, addressed a wide-ranging assortment of practical needs during the pandemic:
An existing committee, including two churches from a nearby county, was able to supply us with masks to distribute during our food pantry, and also made it possible to still do a back-to-school supply giveaway, a Thanksgiving dinner distribution, and a Christmas toy drive for families – all with adaptations made to accommodate the health and safety concerns of the pandemic. Other church partnerships also developed with led to an additional 1,000 pounds of food being donated through a reverse Advent program. The food pantry, especially, also was able to receive funding from a wide variety of public and private sector grants, and new donors, to meet the challenge of feeding additional people while also dealing with the need for stronger sanitation and other protocols. One of our most important innovations was developing a delivery service for households with disabilities and/or medical vulnerabilities, which allowed to serve an additional 30+ households each week, primarily using volunteer drivers from the local community. (church in Mid-Atlantic city)
Another respondent similarly described their congregation’s efforts to meet the “practical” needs of the local community during the pandemic. Like the congregation described above, this church found that collaboration was essential:
Two weeks after the pandemic hit, we began a contactless food drive in our parking lot delivering food to a nearby food pantry. A nearby congregation began to follow this idea so now we both advertise and support each others food collections, ensuring that much more needed food will be delivered if it had been only one congregation. We will seek to do more with our local congregations. (church in Northeast suburb)
The same congregation also discovered that their outdoor space was a valuable resource that could be shared with others:
We invited a local Jewish congregation to use our meadow for their High Holy Days. For over a week at 7 services, over 700 people worshipped on the field, enjoying the abundance which we were delighted to share. Another nearby church participated in our worship with an outdoor dance performance around Michaelmas. . .With the pandemic our abundant lands became a real source for community gatherings- movie night, concerts, yoga and meditation plus our day school held outdoor classrooms as did our Sunday school. We’ve begun to actually experience using this space in meaningful ways with our congregation and community. (church in Northeast suburb)
These responses paint a striking portrait of congregational vitality. It is important to acknowledge, however, that such active congregations appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Although the manner in which the report data were collected precludes systematic comparison between parishes, the pattern of responses observed suggests that thriving local partnerships and community-focused initiatives may be disproportionately concentrated within a relatively small share of the denomination.
- Hopes, Fears, and Lessons Learned
Hopes, Fears, and Lessons Learned
Challenging Taken-for-Granted Assumptions
The pandemic challenged many assumptions about what it means to be Episcopalian. When churches were prevented from continuing their standard operations, they were forced to evaluate which elements of church life were essential and which were merely traditional:
Another opportunity is to rethink what our church is for and assess whether following and sharing Christ with others was, or should be now, our focus, rather than habitual practices and traditions. (church in Midwest city)
The pandemic gave us a tangible example that we really don’t have to do things the way we’ve always done them. We have an opportunity to reimagine our approach to carrying out “the mission of the Church…to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 855), and this reimagining can and should affect everything in the parish including liturgy and music, mission and outreach, evangelism, and stewardship. Everything we do should reflect the love of Christ, and that is both the primary opportunity and the primary challenge facing the parish. (church in Southern city)
The greatest opportunity and challenge is letting go of returning to “normal.” The church will never return to normal and there is a great opportunity in realizing and capitalizing on that. The challenge will be resisting the urge to go back to normal. (church in Western suburb)
In particular, many described gaining a renewed sense of conviction that the church is not a building but rather a people. When asked to describe how their congregation had changed during the pandemic, for example, one respondent wrote:
The first thing that comes to mind is that this pandemic has forces the church at large to embrace the fact that the church is not a building. It does not start and stop when the bells announce service is beginning or end when the deacon dismisses us to go out into the world. (church in Western town)
Others offered similar reflections:
We have learned that, utilizing technology, we can remain connected even if we are not together physically. . . We were reminded of the truth that “the Church is NOT a Building” and that even though the building was closed for the better part of 2020, the Church was certainly NOT CLOSED!! (church in Mid-Atlantic town)
As always in grief, there were learnings. We learned – or, better yet, we remembered – that that church is not a building but, rather, is you and me. We discovered and created competencies with streaming. Via necessity, we reached something like peace with liturgical and pastoral experimentation. We found new interactive elements to our worship via the YouTube comments. And we were surprised anew by places to which Jesus is leading us. (church in Western city)
In a similar vein, many responses included comments about desiring to keep the flexibility and creative spirit that the pandemic environment evoked in their church practices. “The staff and congregation are willing to try new and innovative ideas,” one respondent wrote, “creativity has been instrumental, and we should nor lose sight of that when looking forward” (church in Southern town). Another respondent similarly described increased flexibility as a positive product of the pandemic: “The biggest opportunity that has come of this is having been forced into a much more flexible and dynamic way of being community and being a worshiping body” (church in Western city).
Innovations for the Future
On a more practical level, respondents identified specific practices developed during the pandemic that they hoped to see continue even after restrictions were lifted, such as outdoor worship. For example, one respondent reported:
There is a strong contingent of people who seem to prefer worshipping outside experiencing God and creation in ways they couldn’t have imagined possible a year ago. They have asked to have regular worship outside to continue. (church in Northeast suburb)
Others appreciated new methods of communication developed under lockdown. For example, one respondent reported that the pandemic provided an opportunity for members to “[reach out] to each other as a church family in a more direct way than ever before.” These forms of direct connection included “checking on each other, making phone calls, listening and being emotionally and spiritually present with our fellow parishioners.” Others described similar experiences and indicated that they hoped to see this deeper level of care and consistency continue after the pandemic:
One of the biggest innovations at [our church] was the rapid deployment of our phone tree. Within weeks of the suspension of in-person worship, members of the parish were calling on each other weekly. It provided a deep sense of continuity and connection and is something we will continue even when we are able to return to in-person worship. (church in Western town)
We learned [that] we needed to reach out to our congregation on a one-to-one basis. So, [we] started taking turns calling them to make sure they were doing okay or to see if there was something, we could do for them. [Prior to the pandemic] sometimes we just assumed if we saw them in church everything was okay (church in Western town)
Additionally, many emphasized that virtual services—while not a satisfying replacement for in-person gatherings—could be a valuable aspect of church life going forward. Many expressed plans to continue the use of technology in the future to reach homebound members of their congregations and their appreciation of technology as a tool for reaching individuals beyond their geographic regions. As one respondent explained,
To be able to finally have a worship presence online has been huge. It is something we always talked about doing but never really knew how to begin and it wasn’t a priority. Now we know what a blessing the online services are and we plan to continue that presence. (church in Western city)
At the same time, excitement about the church’s future was paired with a fear that members would not return to in-person services when it became safe to do so. “There is some small hesitancy to continue online services, which is desired by the rector,” one respondent wrote, explaining that “some fear it may turn into people not coming to church but watching at home instead” (church in small Great Lakes Region town). In a similar vein, many expressed concerns that individuals were out of the habit of going to church and had developed a preference for the comfort and convenience of worshiping from their couches. Such responses capture the mixture of fear and hope associated with the anticipated end of pandemic restrictions.
Patton, Michael Quinn. 2002. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
The General Convention of The Episcopal Church. 2021. “Data Trends.” Retrieved July 16, 2021 (https://www.generalconvention.org/data-trends).
The author would like to thank Michaela Hampton, Isabella Jiang, Autumn Leak, Alice Mao, Nneka Okoli, Marion Standefer, Victoria Verhulst, and Carolyn Wang for their valuable research assistance.