The Great Resignation: Are pastors resigning, redefining or reevaluating?

On a Friday night in 2019, the Rev. Dr. LaTonya McIver Penny miscarried. Less than 48 hours later, still bleeding and in pain — and without a word to her congregation about what she’d endured — she led the Sunday morning service at New Mount Zion Baptist Church in Roxboro, North Carolina, just as she had every week for the previous five years.

She now acknowledges that that should’ve been a sign, but she had been full-throttle for so long that it would take a devastating pandemic and a doctor’s stern warning to even entertain the idea of slowing down.

“I’m supposed to keep pushing and pushing, right?” said Penny, who reluctantly took four weeks of medical leave before resigning as senior pastor in fall 2021. “We’re not superhumans, but we don’t know that, because we don’t want to let anyone down. But the pandemic made me stop and pay attention.”

She wasn’t alone. According to surveys conducted last summer by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, 37% of clergy had “seriously considered leaving pastoral ministry” at least once during the preceding year, and 67% had thought at least once during that time that it was the hardest year of their ministry experience. Likewise, Barna Group, a research firm that focuses on religion, found in fall 2021 that 38% of pastors had considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year, up 9 percentage points from January 2021.

Those numbers fed speculation that the pandemic might be fueling a “great resignation” for clergy. But Scott Thumma, the director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, doesn’t see evidence of a mass exodus.

Thumma noted that 5% of the clergy who responded to the institute’s survey in summer 2021 had thought about leaving the ministry “fairly often,” while another 3% had done so “very often.”

“The 8% who said ‘fairly often’ or ‘very often’ — that’s not insignificant. If 8% of clergy truly did leave, you’d notice,” he said, estimating that to translate to at least 40,000 pastors.

“But it’s also definitely not almost 40%,” he said, referencing the Barna study.

Most of the pastors who expressed serious frustration with their circumstances were already in difficult situations with struggling congregations before the pandemic ushered in controversies over in-person worship, mask wearing and vaccine policies, Thumma said. Racial tensions in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder and political divisions associated in that year’s presidential election exacerbated those challenges; nevertheless, 63% of respondents indicated they’d never once considered leaving the ministry, he added.

Thumma and his team will continue tracking the pandemic’s effect on faith communities in a multiyear study — Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations — funded by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. On the basis of the data he’s gathered so far and conversations he’s had with clergy, Thumma said he anticipates that more pastors will ultimately re-imagine how they do ministry rather than walk away from the profession altogether.

“The pandemic was the hurricane or the tornado, and we’re just now coming out of the basement … and seeing the devastation there. Now, the real work happens of putting things back together, of learning how to be church,” he said.

What are signs in your ministry and your life that you have ignored but need to attend to?

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On the other side of the storm, Thumma said, “You could say, ‘Screw this; I’m going somewhere else.’ Or, ‘What plan do we want for our town? What are the things we didn’t like about it before that we don’t want to repeat? How do we reshape what church looks like? After the storm, how are we going to re-create the world?’”

For Penny, that started with a basic question: “What now?” She’d been the single mother of toddler twins when she walked away from her career as a public school teacher to pursue a divinity degree at Wake Forest University.

Inspired in part by challenges her children faced as preemies, she’d founded a nonprofit disability advocacy group called Mary’s Grace before graduating in 2013. She’d go on to build her ministry around inclusion and radical hospitality, making that the focus of her 2019 doctoral thesis while simultaneously serving as the first female senior pastor at New Mount Zion Baptist Church and continuing to run her nonprofit.

She was also putting in 12-hour days serving victims of domestic violence in her position as executive director of Family Abuse Services of Alamance County. The arrival of COVID-19 only heightened her pace as she juggled virtual services, her children’s educational needs, and the rising demands of both her congregation and those she served in the community.

By the time her congregation returned to in-person worship in September 2021, migraines, chest pain and stomach upset were a regular part of Penny’s day. Being back in the sanctuary “felt suffocating,” she said. Her doctor told her that something had to give.

In reevaluating her call, Penny said, she realized that the heart of her ministry had never relied on the physical church. She’d spent years teaching faith communities how to be more inclusive of those with disabilities or others who might not feel comfortable walking into a sanctuary.

Almost immediately, she and her husband, also a minister, founded Belonging Fellowship, a virtual church that emphasizes inclusivity. Because the church is online and there’s very little overhead, money raised by the congregation has fulfilled wish lists for residents of group homes, stocked the classrooms of first-year teachers, and helped families pay their rent and fill their gas tanks, Penny said.

Are there areas of ministry, congregational life or community connection that you recognize need reshaping or re-creating? What would it take to do that?

McIver Penny and family photos
The Rev. Dr. LaTonya McIver Penny made career changes in the last two years that allow her to do more on her terms, including spending more time with family.

She also made a list of her “nonnegotiables.” After Floyd’s murder, she and her staff at the domestic violence shelter had published a statement affirming the lives of Black people — only to have a white board chairman order her to take it down.

Penny would not take a position, she decided, “where I have to fight for my Blackness.” She committed to spending more time with her children and invested in self-care, like exercise, eating right and saying “no” unapologetically.

In February, feeling healthier than she had in a long time, she became the executive director of the Laughing Gull Foundation, which supports grassroots efforts toward LGBTQ+ equality, higher education in prison, and climate and environmental justice.

“This has been what my soul needed. I matter on the other side of this,” said Penny, noting that she’s not doing less but rather more on her own terms.

“I think pastors are so busy praying for other people that they forget to pray and ask God, ‘What are you calling me to do?’” she said. “Just because you’re called into ministry doesn’t mean you’re called into the same space forever.”

‘Church shouldn’t hurt’

Like Penny, the Rev. Riana Shaw Robinson was exhausted long before the pandemic hit. The mother of four was still nursing her youngest — twins — while earning her seminary degree and serving as associate pastor of formation at Oakland City Church, a multiethnic faith community.

The only Black woman on the senior leadership team, Robinson organized the church’s first anti-racism conference and started a racial justice small group. Every time a high-profile case of violence against Black people made the news, Robinson felt responsible for processing it with her congregation.

“I felt I was responsible for all the people of color at the church. I needed to show up for them, be available for them, listen to them, be a safe space for them — and be responsible for teaching a bunch of white folks,” she said. “I’d hold all of that for so long, and then I’d come home and cry by myself.”

In March 2020, just as the pandemic hit, Robinson attended a three-day retreat sponsored by Liberated Together, an organization dedicated to empowering Christian women of color doing justice work in typically white, patriarchal spaces.

“I was already operating under the expectation that so many women of color operate under: ‘You will save all of us,’” she said. “They put me back together — me Riana, not me the pastor. We listened each other into life. What if that’s what church did? What if women of color showed up and said, ‘I’m so tired’ and the first thing people say is, ‘We believe you’?”

Riana Shaw and women group
The Rev. Riana Shaw Robinson (second from the left) found vital support and encouragement from other Christian women of color engaged in justice work.

Following Floyd’s murder, Robinson said, she resisted requests from her church to lead its response “to give it legitimacy,” instead choosing a leave of absence, self-care and more time with her children. She still loved her congregation, but in September 2020, she let them know that some of her work, particularly on the racial justice front, was starting to feel “extractive.”

They asked for another year of service from her; she gave them 10 months, then, “feeling reduced to dust,” set off on a solo trip to Spain in July 2021 “to sit in old churches and weep and release.”

There had been so much noise over the previous 15 months, Robinson said, that she’d struggled to hear God’s voice. She briefly considered abandoning ministry altogether, but her “accountability group,” the women in Liberated Together, urged her to reconsider. She was still a pastor, they said, even if she didn’t ascribe to the white, patriarchal model of invincibility. “Where,” they asked, “do you feel freest to be honest?”

Robinson read Austin Channing Brown’s “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” and recited Psalm 23, subbing in female pronouns. She began working with women and gender-nonbinary people of color through the Faith & Justice Network and attending a Black congregation, a restorative measure she described as “like going to your grandma’s house.”

Are extra areas of responsibility placed on your ministry because of who you are? What are your expectations of yourself in that regard? Are there boundaries you can set?

Robinson spent July 2021 in Spain after resigning from the senior leadership team of a church.

“Church work is always hard. Ministry is always hard. I just don’t want it to be hard because I have to translate or explain myself or explain how I feel,” she said.

“Church shouldn’t hurt. What if church is where women of color show up and more isn’t demanded of them? They’re just seen and blessed in community and beloved?”

To that end, Robinson is launching a worship community “that unapologetically serves the needs of women of color, period,” she said. She envisions a bricks-and-mortar church with a virtual component for accessibility and hopes to have it up and running by Advent.

“It’s been a really painful year and a really beautiful year, where I feel like God has held me without demanding anything from me,” Robinson said. “I feel like God has been so gracious and gentle, saying, ‘I’m still with you.’”

Ana Tew
The Rev. Anna Tew spent part of her sabbatical in the summer of 2021 considering models for a healthier work-life balance.

‘A call is a dynamic thing’

The Rev. Anna Tew concedes that she was among the 3% of clergy who responded to the Hartford survey last summer by saying she’d considered leaving ministry “very often” the previous year. It wasn’t her congregation that made her feel that way, said Tew, the pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts, since 2016.

Instead, she said, her exhaustion “was an over-time thing.” She felt obligated to be at her desk eight hours per day, had fallen into a pattern of working on her days off, and was following social media accounts that made her feel guilty if she didn’t view “every little work task as a blessing,” she said. As a queer millennial, she was also doing a fair amount of “cultural commuting” within a largely straight, baby boomer faith community.

“I don’t think congregations get better than this, so if I’m not happy here, I might not be happy anywhere,” Tew thought. “That did lead me to really look at, ‘Do I really want to do this? Do I think it’s still worth doing?’”

Tew went on sabbatical in the summer of 2021, engaging in what she calls “the great unfollowing,” muting colleagues that made her feel guilty about wanting some downtime and “finding more clergypeople who had a healthier view of work and boundaries.”

She read Nedra Glover Tawwab’s “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself,” calling it a “life-changer, career-saver,” and spent more time with nonchurch friends who modeled a healthy work-life balance.

“I didn’t know how to ask for what I needed — ‘Please don’t speak to me that way as a pastor’ or, ‘I’m not available right now; can we talk tomorrow?’” she said.

Which responsibilities drain you? Where are your models for a healthy work-life balance?

Anna Tew training
Tew earned her CrossFit Level 1 certification and became a personal trainer.

Tew also earned her CrossFit Level 1 certification and became a personal trainer. She noticed that when she received text messages from her training clients, she didn’t have that same tightness in her chest as when her congregation reached out. Perhaps, she thought, if she stopped treating every pastoral concern as if it were an emergency, she could better appreciate the pieces of the job she loved: the flexible schedule, the personal connections, “creating community around doing hard things” and following Jesus.

“I don’t think I would have done all that re-imagining without a crisis of international proportions,” said Tew, who notes that responding honestly to the survey question was the first step to acknowledging that she needed to approach ministry differently. “This is where I feel called right now, and I’m still careful not to hold it too tight. This is right now. Reevaluating our call is really important — a call is a dynamic thing.”

‘Something different’

By the time the pandemic struck, Ryan Timpte had been a children’s minister for almost 20 years, the last decade at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, California, an 1,800-member congregation with “staggering” resources, he said. Pre-pandemic, the children’s programming ran parallel with adult worship services. When they moved online, he hoped the worship structure would pivot to appeal to the youngest members of the congregation, perhaps using “kid language” to explain how to pass the peace virtually or including some lessons on “why we do what we do.”

Instead, he said, the focus was on replicating what adults at LOPC had been used to.

“The pandemic could’ve been an incredible opportunity to open worship up, make it new. Instead, it was all about [keeping] the adults engaged and plugged in.” he said. “I am sure congregants enjoyed logging on and feeling just a little bit of what their normal had been. It’s just that their normal had cut kids out.”

His church wasn’t the only one to adopt that model, he said. Timpte maintained contact with a group of colleagues who had, individually, come up with creative ways to keep children engaged but had done so largely independent of any support from the decision-making bodies at their churches. With more demands for pastoral care and other church resources, Timpte said, he understood why children’s ministries were not the first priority.

“But it’s just one more way in which the church reflects society,” he said. “Children’s ministry is a lonely thing even in the best of times, and the pandemic was not the best of times. With all the resources I had, I still couldn’t change the system. And if I couldn’t do it there, I couldn’t do it anywhere.”

In fall 2021, his wife was offered a job leading university and young adult ministry at a Presbyterian church in Berkeley. Timpte said it felt like the right time to leave, not just his church, but church-based ministry. He committed to being a full-time dad to their two young sons, ages 7 and 3.

After 20 years in children’s ministry, Ryan Timpte initially planned to be a stay-at-home dad.

Then a new opportunity opened up. A member of LOPC who had volunteered with the children’s ministry when his own kids were little was launching a startup toy company dedicated to following sustainable practices, educating kids about the environment and keeping plastic out of the ocean. Would Timpte like to join as creative director?

“I’m committed to making the world a better place for children, and for 20 years, I thought that was through the church. Now, I think it’s maybe something different,” he said, noting that his calling hasn’t changed, just where he uses it. “There’s a whole other way to make the world a better place.”

How has the pandemic affected your sense of call or where you might serve it? What could that look like?

‘Hope and redemptive purpose’

In an article published by Christianity Today in February, the Rev. Peter Chin acknowledged that he was considering leaving the ministry after 20 years. His Methodist congregation, Rainier Avenue Church in Seattle, had survived the “run-and-gun” style of the early days of the pandemic. But entering the second year, disagreements over masks and vaccines mounted, and relationships among the traditionally tight staff began to fray, injecting “a paralyzing degree of complexity and controversy” into every decision he made, he wrote.

“Even in the best of times, pastoral ministry has always felt like a broad and heavy calling,” he wrote. “But the events of the past few years have made it a crushing one.”

The response he got from colleagues let him know he was not alone. Each had felt crushed at times by the pressures of the pandemic, but no one seemed to have any great advice on how to handle them.

“Everyone was in the middle of this torrent, swimming at the same time,” Chin said.

Also, no one could believe he’d acknowledged his concerns so publicly in his essay.

“The unanimity of the response was, ‘I feel seen, I feel heard, but I don’t feel I can say these things, because I don’t know how it’s going to come off with other people,’” Chin said. “A lot of the struggle for pastors is this cultural expectation that pastors don’t feel this, because they’ve got a higher calling. But it’s healing to say it and to put it out there and be free from the secrecy of it.”

In May, Chin credited that honesty with leading him to a better place. He said he’s spoken truthfully with his congregation about the stress and grief associated with this time, as well as how God’s love for him — and the expectation that he will love others — has served as an anchor. He’s also openly addressed staff conflicts, leaving no room for gossip or misunderstandings.

“Honesty has really panned out for us,” Chin said. “We need to go beyond creating the illusion that everything is fine, and truth-tell.”

family photo
The Rev. Peter Chin’s decision to openly discuss his concerns about continuing in ministry proved healthy for him and for others.

Much of what has drained pastors predates the pandemic, he said. But the pandemic has quickened the pace. Rather than viewing this as destructive, why not view it as corrective, a chance to shed traditions that weren’t working and embrace new practices that sustain pastors and their congregations?

“This is an opportunity for us to re-imagine and reclaim some things about the church,” Chin said. “In God’s community, there’s hope and redemptive purpose for even the hardest things.”

Questions to consider

  • What are signs in your ministry and your life that you have ignored but need to attend to?
  • Are there areas of ministry, congregational life or community connection that you recognize need reshaping or re-creating? What would it take to do that?
  • Are extra areas of responsibility placed on your ministry because of who you are? What are your expectations of yourself in that regard? Are there boundaries you can set?
  • Which responsibilities drain you? Where are your models for a healthy work-life balance?
  • How has the pandemic affected your sense of call or where you might serve it? What could that look like?

While the country’s politically conservative congregations far outnumber other faith communities, left-leaning houses of worship are on the rise in the U.S., according to a recently published National Congregations Study. If tax laws permitted, liberal congregations would be more likely to publicly endorse or oppose a political candidate than those who identify as conservative or middle-of-the-road, the study found.

More than half of congregations (57%) reported engaging in at least one of 12 political activities surveyed in the study, including organizing get-out-the-vote efforts, distributing voter guides, and marching or demonstrating. Those who march are most likely to do so concerning poverty and economic inequality or in support of immigrants, the data suggests.

Mark Chaves

Those are just a few of the revelations contained in the fourth and latest round of the NCS, which gathered information on everything from size and political identity to worship practices and social services efforts among 1,262 U.S. congregations between July 2018 and September 2019. Taken alone, the study offers an interesting snapshot of congregational life just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s the long-term trends, captured over the last 20 years, that most interest Mark Chaves, who directed similar studies in 1998, 2006-07 and 2012.

“Everybody knows about their own congregation, but they don’t know how they compare or how they fall in the national pattern,” said Chaves, the Anne Firor Scott Distinguished Professor of Sociology and a professor of religious studies and divinity at Duke University. “Are they bucking trends? Are they part of the trends? People like to know what’s going on in the bigger picture.”

Taken together, the four studies, made possible by major grants from Lilly Endowment Inc., aggregate the practices of 4,496 unique congregations representing a range of Christian denominations, as well as Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities. Many of the questions are repeated from survey to survey, to allow for long-term tracking, but each wave also includes a few new inquiries related to topics “in the air at the moment,” Chaves said.

Policies that matter

For instance, nearly 39% of congregations that reported participating in lobbying efforts or marches in 2018-19 said they did so in behalf of immigration policy — triple the percentage reported in 2012.

Amid widespread media coverage of the Trump administration’s stepped-up deportation efforts, the most recent NCS also asked congregations whether they’d discussed declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. While 13% of congregations reported considering it, only 4% ultimately declared themselves sanctuaries — though that figure was considerably higher among Catholic churches, where nearly one-third reported taking that step.

On the campaign trail in 2015, Donald Trump took aim at the Johnson Amendment, a portion of the tax code that prohibits churches and other nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for elected office, lest they risk their tax-exempt status. Though that’s still the law of the land, despite a 2017 Trump executive order, 4% of respondents to the most recent NCS survey acknowledged endorsing or opposing political candidates — a number the study notes is probably understated, given the potential consequences.

But how many congregations would openly take that step if the tax code didn’t prohibit it? Seizing on the moment, the NCS added that query to its latest survey, with fascinating results, Chaves said. Of congregations that hadn’t already endorsed a candidate, 17% said they would if the laws were changed, but most of that interest came from the left side of the aisle.

Does your congregation engage in any political activity? Why? How does your congregation’s theology relate to its political activity?

protest image
Almost 60% of congregations reported participating in one of 12 political activities, including marches or demonstrations.

Though political conservatives have tended to be the loudest advocates for changes in the tax code, only 11% of right-leaning congregations and 15% of centrist congregations said they would support or oppose a candidate if doing so wouldn’t jeopardize their tax-exempt status, compared with 45% of liberal congregations.

“Even though when this is in the news the advocacy is always from the right, the irony is if the tax laws around this actually got changed, it would unleash a lot of effort on the left,” Chaves said.

Most American congregations, 46%, still identify as politically conservative, but that’s down from 62% in 1998. While only 15% of the newest study’s participants declared themselves politically liberal, that’s basically doubled since the original study 20 years ago.

political id graph

Among Christian churches, predominantly Black congregations were far more inclined to enter the political endorsement sphere, with 13% reporting they’d already done it — compared with no more than 4% within any other Christian group — and another 28% saying they would if they could, with only 15% or fewer of white evangelical, Catholic and white mainline Protestant churches saying they’d take that step.

Gospel perspective

The Rev. William Lamar IV, the senior pastor at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C., said he suspects that those numbers represent the response of Black congregations to the resurgence of racist ideals cloaked in public policy.

What are the challenges facing your community? In which challenges does your congregation engage? What does that engagement look like?

William H Lamar IV

Lamar said he personally does not favor faith communities’ endorsing or opposing individual candidates. He described the Johnson Amendment as “a creaky dam holding back the waters of oppression.” If that dam breaks, Lamar predicted, political conservatives — given their numbers — have a greater ability to mobilize and raise funds than politically liberal congregations do. He said he worries that they also have a greater willingness to foment violence in behalf of their cause.

But congregations do have an obligation to speak out on issues that affect their communities, Lamar said. For Black congregations, those issues include living wages, affordable housing and health care, voting rights, and police violence against civilians, which politicians on both sides of the aisle have failed to address adequately, he said.

“You don’t find in either political party a true commitment to those. Party politics on the left and the right sacrifice justice when politically expedient,” Lamar said. “We are derelict if we don’t speak about the issues from a gospel perspective. And if we are faithful to our tradition, neither party would be comfortable with our policies.”

Less-formal worship

Collective worship remains the primary activity within faith communities, with virtually all Christian congregations and many non-Christian congregations typically including a sermon and singing in their services. But “one of the most fascinating and important changes” identified in the study is that worship services have become less formal and more expressive. Since 1998, significantly fewer congregations use a written order of service, play an organ or incorporate choral singing in worship, according to the study.

Drum playing, however, has more than doubled during that period, and 28% of congregations in the latest NCS reported worshippers jumping, shouting or dancing spontaneously, up from about 19% in the survey 20 years earlier. The study suggests that the changes could reflect the increasing influence of an evangelical “contemporary” worship style or simply a wider cultural trend toward informality.

“Whatever its source,” the study explains, “this trend is part of a decades-long shift in American religion away from an emphasis on belief and doctrine and towards an emphasis on experience, emotion, and the search for a kind of worship with broad appeal in a time of ever less salient denominationally specific liturgy.”

How has your congregation’s worship changed since 1998? How does your style of worship compare with the trends toward less formality and more expressiveness?

Lester Ruth

That movement toward more experiential worship practices has been unfolding globally for the last 250 years within Protestant congregations, said Lester Ruth, research professor of Christian worship at Duke Divinity and co-author of “A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship: Understanding the Ideas That Reshaped the Protestant Church.”

Not everyone is comfortable with the formality associated with “high church,” Ruth said. To bridge the divide, Protestant congregations in particular have adopted practices that feel less like traditional worship and mimic other familiar public rituals.

“People, if they decide to go to a service, want to participate well. And if the ritual is familiar, they know what to do,” he said. “If you invited me to a state dinner in the East Room of the White House, I wouldn’t know what to do. But I know what to do at a rock concert. I know how I’m supposed to participate.”

That invitation to dance, sing and put one’s hands in the air is helped along by the kinds of technologies congregations are using during worship services, he said. Ruth’s own United Methodist congregation in Durham installed TV monitors at the front of the sanctuary several years ago, initially using them in a limited manner to post things like song lyrics, which complemented whatever was in the printed bulletin or hymnal, he said.

But the monitors proved so popular that virtually everything is projected now — “If someone is scheduled to say it, there’s a slide for it,” Ruth said — while the hymnals and printed bulletins are rarely used. In fact, according to the NCS, the use of visual projection of everything from song lyrics to video clips increased almost fourfold in the last two decades, from 12% in 1998 to 46% in 2018-19.

Some of the technology marketed to worship communities is pretty cutting-edge, like environmental projection, a visually immersive process that allows a congregation to, for instance, transform the inside of its sanctuary so that it looks like a medieval cathedral, said Ruth. And the shift isn’t simply an aesthetic one, he added. Projection allows worshippers to lift their heads out of their hymnals and creates a hands-free experience, which for his congregation has resulted in more clapping.

“What if we shift our presumption so that unprompted speech is not considered disruptive, so that layering multiple voices on top of one another is not considered disruptive, so that taking the initiative to respond is not considered disruptive?” he said. “I think this is where we’re going.”

One-third of congregations in the latest NCS also reported encouraging people to use their smartphones during worship, to access Scripture (57%), record part of the service (29%) or donate money (15%), among other uses. While technology that requires expensive equipment or special expertise tends to be limited to larger congregations, cellphones, with their ready availability, are incorporated in smaller faith communities at the same rates as in larger ones, according to the study.

smartphones infograph

Technology pre-COVID

In 2018-19, 87% of congregations reported using a website, Facebook page, other social media account or combination of these ways to reach members and potential members, and 48% said they could receive donations online. Additionally, half of all religious congregations recorded parts of their service for people to listen to or watch later, while one in five broadcast or livestreamed worship services, with larger, younger and more urban congregations taking the lead.

Chaves predicts that technology use among congregations will likely continue to increase post-pandemic, particularly when it comes to offering online worship options.

Just about everything else, he said, is a big question mark. Will people come back to worship in-person? What will financial giving look like? What will community outreach look like?

“The general question for everything congregations did and do is, ‘Will this be a blip and everything returns to normal after the pandemic? Or will we see some lasting shifts?’” Chaves said. “Stay tuned.”

By the numbers

Among other findings in the NCS:

  • The number of congregations established in the previous 10 years has remained consistently higher for white evangelicals (16%) and Black Protestants (13%) than for Catholics (7%) or predominantly white mainline denominations (2%).
  • The proportion of non-Christian congregations has nearly doubled, from 5% of all religious congregations in 1998 to 9% in 2018-19.
  • Most congregations are small, and the average congregation is smaller today than it was in 1998, shrinking from 80 to 70 regular participants. But about half of all churchgoers attend the largest 9% of congregations.
  • Individuals in smaller congregations tend to give more generously than those in larger congregations. Overall, a congregation of 100 adults receives about 17% more per capita than a congregation of 400 adults.
  • Among part-time senior or solo clergy, 27% serve multiple congregations, while 65% hold a job outside congregational ministry. In addition, 14% of full-time paid pastoral leaders serve other congregations, and 17% hold non-ministry jobs. Overall, 18% of solo or senior pastoral leaders serve multiple congregations, and 35% are bivocational.
  • The median age of the head clergyperson has risen from 49 to 57 since 1998, and roughly 28% of people attend congregations led by clergy younger than 50 — down from 43% two decades earlier.
  • Women lead a small minority (14%) of American congregations, with mainline Protestant (30%), Black Protestant (16%) and Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues (about 25%) at the forefront.
  • Racial and ethnic diversity within congregations is improving, with the proportion of predominantly white and non-Hispanic congregations declining from 71% in 1998 to 53% in 2018-19. Diverse congregations — those in which no one racial or ethnic group accounts for 80% or more of the people — tend to be larger and have more young people than racially homogenous congregations.
  • The vast majority of congregations (84%) are active in social or human services intended to help people outside the congregation, with roughly half providing food assistance, making that the most common helping activity.
  • Virtually all (91%) of the congregations reporting marching or lobbying on issues related to gay, lesbian and transgender people in 2018-19 said they support expanded rights for that population. That’s a marked change from 2012, when the split was about 50-50 for and against gay marriage.
  • Twenty-five percent of congregations reported teaching the prosperity gospel, that God gives wealth and good health to the faithful — with 58% of Black Protestant and 21% of predominantly white evangelical congregations driving those numbers.

Plenty of studies focus on the narrative of decline within organized religion, and Chaves acknowledged that there’s a bit of that in the NCS, which notes older clergy, graying worshippers and shrinking congregations. But the study points to vibrancy among faith communities as well, he said, with growing diversity within and among congregations, adoption of creative and technologically charged worship practices, and a burgeoning focus on helping communities meet social and political challenges.

The study makes no judgments about what congregations should be doing, nor does it offer any how-to advice. It’s simply what’s happening right now, said Chaves.

“A lot of what’s here is not about decline or growth; it’s what things are going on. It’s changing the subject,” he said. “It’s descriptive — here’s something going on that’s interesting to think about and ponder what it means.”

Interested in learning how your congregation compares with those in the study? You can find the questionnaire here.

Where is the energy in your congregation? How is your congregation distinctive with respect to the trends identified in the National Congregations Study?

Questions to consider

  • Does your congregation engage in any political activity? Why? How does your congregation’s theology relate to its political activity?
  • What are the challenges facing your community? In which challenges does your congregation engage? What does that engagement look like?
  • How has your congregation’s worship changed since 1998? How does your style of worship compare with the trends toward less formality and more expressiveness?
  • Where is the energy in your congregation? How is your congregation distinctive with respect to the trends identified in the National Congregations Study?

At the outset of its Opening Doors capital campaign in 2016, leaders at Austin’s Covenant Presbyterian Church made a pledge: Once the congregation had paid off its remaining $7.5 million in building debt, some of the yearly savings from debt service would go to broaden its missional work, both existing ministries and new endeavors.

Celebrating its debt-free status in January 2019, the church began honoring its promise, using $100,000 of that year’s surplus to erase more than $16 million worth of secondary medical debt that had burdened Austin’s poorest residents.

The following year, its missions committee awarded another $100,000 in grants to four community organizations addressing homelessness in Texas’ capital city.

Thomas Daniel
Thomas Daniel

Alongside traditional missions work, Covenant also established the Institute for Missional Formation, tasked with addressing a more abstract problem. Too often, senior pastor the Rev. Thomas Daniel told his congregation, we lead “bifurcated lives,” with our faith lives entirely separate from our work lives.

What if the church could equip its members to integrate the two — “where God has you seven days a week, where you are, for a purpose”? he asked. What would that mean to the city of Austin?

Task forces within the church brainstormed ways to engage the issue, suggesting everything from establishing a lecture series to opening one of Covenant’s buildings as a missional outpost in the middle of the city.

Ultimately, Covenant took a hard look at its vision statement and decided that the solution wasn’t going to be one big idea driven by the church but a multitude of smaller efforts fueled by the passion and expertise of its 2,000-plus members.

Covenant Presbyterian interior
The worship team leads the contemporary service at Covenant Presbyterian Church.

“Our vision statement is ‘Encouraging one another to follow Jesus wherever we live, work, and play.’ What if we fund that?” Daniel asked. “The best gift we can offer is our people, rather than a program. What if we invested in our people to seek to live this out? What if Covenant became an incubator for lots and lots and lots of individuals to explore these kinds of callings themselves?”

Built on the idea that God has called Covenant Presbyterian to be “a love letter to the city of Austin,” the Institute for Missional Formation established the Love Letter Fund, which will award up to $100,000 each year to social justice projects led by Covenant’s members.

The projects must improve the lives of Austin’s most vulnerable, be sustainable beyond the church’s initial investment and, perhaps most importantly, provide tangible ways for members to use their gifts to follow Jesus’ example.

What would it look like to fund — literally — your church’s vision statement?

congregation detail during service
Congregants of Covenant Presbyterian Church worship together.

The Love Letter Fund committee received 17 applications in December 2020 for the initial round of funding, and in August, the church announced its first grant recipient: a nonprofit founded by three church members dedicated to offering low-interest microloans to refugees, recent immigrants and other underserved populations who might not qualify for traditional business loans.

Though none had prior lending experience, all three have backgrounds in either finance or business development, and all three “started with a burden: ‘What does God want to do in my life, and how do I solve this bifurcated life?’” Daniel said.

And that’s the beauty of the arrangement, he said. The projects, which will change from year to year, flow not from the church’s clergy or session or even from its missions committee but rather from individual church members who have the expertise and desire to do good in the community— but may need some coaching and a little seed money to get started.

Covenant Presbyterian interior
Covenant’s choir sings during the traditional worship service.

The people are the plan

“It’s not about us. It’s not about our program. It’s about being an invisible catalyst behind our people,” Daniel said. “Our plan is whatever you come up with next.”

Too often, church leaders are in survival mode, “lurching toward quick fixes” in search of one all-encompassing mission that will solve the world’s ills and energize the congregation, said Tod Bolsinger, the executive director of the De Pree Center’s Church Leadership Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Covenant’s approach sidesteps the common misconception that the church as an institution is the solution, no matter what the problem is. Instead, Bolsinger said, Covenant has focused on discipleship, inviting individual members to use their unique skills — skills that church leadership may not have — to identify needs in the community along with creative solutions that the church can help support, though not necessarily lead.

“The goal is not to just launch some new things but to ask as we become more in tune to our neighbors, ‘How might the charism of our congregation help? And how might that inspire us to change?’” said Bolsinger, who advised Covenant as they created the Love Letter concept.

Being an “invisible catalyst” can be a challenge for institutions wanting to make a visible difference with their investments. To what efforts does your church contribute in which your investments are invisible?

volunteer with wheelbarrow
The Covenant mission team does volunteer work at a local school for a service project in 2019.

That transformative component was critical for Covenant Presbyterian. The 60-year-old congregation in downtown Austin is not the first to offer financial backing for creative social impact ventures, said Daniel, who pointed to similar programs at First Presbyterian Church Houston and First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. At least during this pilot phase, Covenant grant applicants are required to be members of the congregation.

“This is specifically so our people have to wrestle with their own call. Our people have to own it; they have to roll up their sleeves,” Daniel said. “It’s not just about who in the world has a good idea to help other people. It’s about our people’s discipleship. It’s a commitment to the formation of our own people, not just other people.”

group of three women
Volunteers on Covenant’s mission team smile for a photo on a service day in 2019.

Unveiling the Love Letter Fund during a Sunday service last October, Daniel noted that the old model of church participation — “If you build it, they will come” — is collapsing.

Worship services are no longer the feeder system for all the church does, he said, and waiting for people to come into the building to experience God’s love isn’t going to work. So the church was trying something new.

“You’re the idea. You’re the plan,” he told worshippers. “We’re going to invest in you, the thousands of gifted people in the Covenant orbit, to experiment and try something new [so] that you might be able to make a difference.”

That willingness to experiment is abundant in entrepreneurial settings but sometimes less so in faith institutions, said Bolsinger, who leads workshops aimed at helping churches adapt their ministries to a changing world.

Through the Church Leadership Institute, he has begun working with about 40 other churches in an 18-month program that uses much the same process he introduced at Covenant, Bolsinger said.

He preaches “adaptive capacity,” the ability to evolve and meet new challenges through learning, facing loss and navigating competing values — like attracting more people to the pews versus having an impact on the neighborhood, he said.

supplies at church
Items collected from the Covenant congregation support the church’s ministry with refugees from Afghanistan.

As part of that process, Bolsinger urges congregations to identify “pain points” in their communities and then learn how best to address those through “safe, modest experiments” that play out over time. That takes patience and works best in churches where a great deal of trust already exists between the congregation and the leadership, he said, churches where overnight results aren’t necessary to keep everyone engaged. It also requires clergy who can tolerate efforts that don’t work as planned.

“You’re changing the conversation from, ‘Is this successful?’ to, ‘What have we learned?’” said Bolsinger, who is also a senior congregational strategist and associate professor of leadership formation at Fuller. “This is a really different process and approach, but the goal is the same: for people to experience the love of Christ in the midst of broken places in the world.”

Daniel assembled what one Covenant member called “an all-star cast” of creative thinkers and business-savvy professionals to spell out how the Love Letter Fund would work and what criteria would be used to judge applications. Another three dozen or so church members, including attorneys, accountants, marketing executives and writers, volunteered to mentor applicants and help them navigate some of the complexities of launching a startup.

Proposals ran the gamut, from a medical student establishing a COVID testing program for Austin’s homeless residents to an attorney who wanted to help low-income families preserve generational wealth by providing low-cost wills.

What might happen if your church stopped asking, “Is this successful?” and instead asked, “What have we learned?”

person receives a vaccine
Covenant Presbyterian partnered with Austin Public Health to offer a vaccine clinic to people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to providing a solid business plan that addressed an unmet need in Austin, applicants had to show how the project would contribute to their faith formation and how it would continue beyond the life of the church’s initial grant.

Using those criteria, the committee narrowed the initial pool of written proposals to three or four finalists, who then pitched their ideas in oral presentations, said Ethan Burris, who is the chair of the Center for Leadership and Ethics at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business and serves as chair of the Love Letter Fund committee.

Steve Goldsmith, a committee member and software executive, said it was refreshing, as a lifelong churchgoer, to have his faith and work worlds “collide.”

“I’ve done Bible study. I’ve done prayer groups. And this is the first time — I’m in my late 40s — that I’ve felt like I can really engage with my whole capability and not just be in spectator mode,” he said. “I’ve gotten so much out of it.”

welcome committee
Staff members Amy Skaggs and Kathryn Sedberry greet visitors and members at the coffee bar on Sunday morning.

The group’s favorite proposal was submitted by Shirin Keshavarz, a businesswoman and Iranian refugee who had launched a catering business during the pandemic preparing her grandmother’s Persian recipes and delivering them to friends, neighbors and the less fortunate.

She proposed expanding her home-based operation into a prep kitchen — and eventually a food truck or restaurant — and hiring other women refugees so they’d have a source of income and marketable skills.

But in April 2021, days before the church was set to announce Keshavarz as its inaugural Love Letter Fund recipient, she learned that the breast cancer she’d beaten several years earlier had returned, this time at stage 4. Keshavarz died in June.

Meanwhile, another group of applicants had decided to forge ahead with their idea, even without the Love Letter Fund grant, working to improve their business plan in light of feedback they’d gotten during the process. Still mourning the loss of Keshavarz, a beloved member of the congregation, the committee invited that group back to make a follow-up pitch.

Calling their idea the Margin Institute, the group proposed creating a nonprofit that would grant low-interest loans to recent immigrants and others who might not have the credit and collateral to qualify for funds from a commercial lending institution.

Dan Michel, an accountant and partner in a wealth management firm, said he started thinking about the concept after reading an article about government-backed lending in distressed communities. That led to a conversation about microlending with fellow church member Dan Pucci, who has a background in business development and had done mission work with Indigenous people and with inner-city populations.

Michel and Pucci knew each other from one of the church’s small groups; another member of the group overheard the two talking and suggested that they meet with Matt McMichen, an accountant and controller at a health care solutions firm who had experience in startups. The trio was breathing life into their idea right about the time Daniel announced the Love Letter Fund concept, and participating in the application process helped them refine their business plans, Pucci said.

In August, Covenant awarded its first Love Letter Fund grant to the Margin Institute. And in mid-October, Margin made its first loan — to one of Keshavarz’s adult daughters, who is pursuing her mother’s dream of running a catering business that employs women refugees.

“This is exactly how I want to give back as a Christian,” said Pucci, a day after Margin awarded that loan. “Twenty-four hours ago, it hit me — this is all coming together for all the reasons God wants us to be here on earth, walking the walk he wants us to walk.”

How does your church cultivate spaces in which ideas can be “overheard” and shared to multiply creativity, resources and contributors?

commission of Dan Pucci
The Rev. Thomas Daniel prays over Dan Pucci as he is commissioned on behalf of the Margin Institute, the first team to receive a grant from the Love Letter Fund.

Michel said he now plans to retire from his full-time job at the end of the year and focus his efforts on Margin, which already has about 10 potential clients referred to them by Refugee Services of Texas and several area congregations.

In addition to initial investments from its founders and seed money from the Love Letter Fund, the Margin Institute hopes to attract missions funding from other congregations and be certified as a Community Development Financial Institution, making it eligible for matching funds from the U.S. Treasury.

“We set out to help people change their lives. And sure enough, along the way, I’ve been exposed to people I never would’ve been exposed to and heard stories I’d never heard before,” Michel said. “It has absolutely been phenomenal for me. I don’t know how that’s not transformational.”

At Covenant, they’re tweaking the Love Letter Fund process using feedback from the first round of applicants before starting another cycle in the spring. For instance, they’re planning to match grant applicants with mentor “navigators” within the congregation earlier in the process to promote “greater connective tissue” within the church and lead to stronger proposals, said church member Jewel Crosswell Stone, a former strategy consultant at Deloitte who now works full time for an Austin nonprofit that provides low-cost loans to low-income women entrepreneurs.

Stone had never worked in a church before but was recently hired part time at Covenant to help with the Love Letter process; before that, she offered volunteer guidance on microlending to the Margin Institute team.

They’re also examining ways to create a more meaningful experience even for those who don’t ultimately receive grant money so that they still gain from the process — whether it’s a better-defined vision, a list of next steps or simply a deeper understanding of how to live out their faith, Stone said.

“I appreciate so much the humility it takes as a church to see a need and be willing to recognize that they’re not the ones to necessarily solve it,” she said. “They’ve been deliberate about bringing in people with a variety of experience, but not necessarily church experience. There’s a ton of humility around learning and just no ego.”

What does transformation look like in your church?

Goldsmith and Burris said the committee has tried to balance being good stewards of the church’s money with taking calculated risks in the name of spiritual formation. 

Some of the Love Letter Fund projects may not work out, Burris said, noting, “You don’t make big, massive changes in the world without taking some risks and making some failures along the way.”

For now, Stone said, they’re using “soft metrics” to gauge success of the program. Are applicants tapping into creative thinking? Are the projects sustainable, and do they provide tangible benefits to Austin’s most vulnerable populations? Does the effort promote stronger connectivity within the congregation? And do members of Covenant feel empowered to use their gifts to make a difference?

Goldsmith noted that the answers to those questions may be years down the road. Churches need to have “a longer-lens desire” to sponsor programs like this, because — just as with a mission or a child care operation — it’s a long-term commitment, he said.

What would a calculated risk in the name of spiritual formation look like in your setting?

people fill out forms at a table
People from Street Youth Ministry, a mission partner of Covenant Presbyterian Church, fill out paperwork to receive vaccines.

Along the way, grant recipients will be asked to share their experiences with the congregation, Daniel said, including what they’re learning about the Austin community and how the effort is affecting their individual faith journeys.

The entire process is creative, collaborative and limited only by the imagination of Covenant’s members, Daniel said.

“The cool part about this is you have no idea where this is going to go. We say to our people, ‘You’re the big idea,’” he said. “They’re going to come up with something I never dreamed of. There’s something so empowering about that.”

Questions to consider

  • What would it look like to fund — literally — your church’s vision statement?
  • Being an “invisible catalyst” can be a challenge for institutions wanting to make a visible difference with their investments. To what efforts does your church contribute in which your investments are invisible?
  • What might happen if your church stopped asking, “Is this successful?” and instead asked, “What have we learned?”
  • How does your church cultivate spaces in which ideas can be “overheard” and shared to multiply creativity, resources and contributors?
  • What does transformation look like in your church?
  • What would a calculated risk in the name of spiritual formation look like in your setting?

Update:The fencing around St. John’s Episcopal Church was removed March 1, 2021.

Editor’s note: P.A.I.N.T.S. Institute founder John Chisholm, who is quoted in this article, died unexpectedly before publication.

A war-weary Abraham Lincoln sought solace in one of its weathered pews, and Franklin D. Roosevelt prayed for guidance inside its domed sanctuary. In fact, every sitting president since James Madison has attended at least one service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, earning the Greek Revival-style house of worship its nickname: “the Church of the Presidents.”

Since its opening in 1816, St. John’s has also amassed a long tradition of community engagement and equal rights advocacy, something the Rev. Robert Fisher wanted to emphasize when he became rector in June 2019.

The Rev. Robert Fisher and John Chisholm
stand in front of a painting of Archbishop
Desmond Tutu. Photo by Rachel Jones

So he asked his congregation: How can we let our neighbors know that St. John’s is as much a sanctuary for them as for any president?

It’s safe to say that barricades and boarded-up windows were not the look they were going for.

Unfortunately, that’s been the reality for St. John’s since June 2020, after someone set a fire in the church’s basement amid protests over the murder of George Floyd. Even then, the church pledged to serve as a safe space for protestors, hosting prayer vigils and providing water, food and hand sanitizer to the thousands who filled the streets in support of racial justice.

But several weeks later, after acts of graffiti and a growing encampment on church grounds, St. John’s reluctantly agreed to the district’s plans to erect 8-foot fencing around the property.

Although the church’s history, location and recent events make it unique, churches in cities across the country struggle with the same issues: how to make the physical space both secure and welcoming.

Church leaders reluctantly agreed to security measures such as fencing around the church property. Photo: iStock/miralex

“All of us — the bishop, the wardens, me — hated the idea of a fence and reluctantly said OK because we felt it was the responsible thing. The buildings are a ministry, and we didn’t want to see that building go away. It’s important to me that it lives to serve future generations,” Fisher said. “But it was an extremely uncomfortable thing.”

How does your organization negotiate uncomfortable yet responsible decisions?

Since then, Fisher and his congregation have done their best to get out from behind that fence, reaching out to neighborhood activists with offers of support and solidifying relationships with organizations that can help them better serve their community.

That includes a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that recruited local artists of color to paint images of healing and hope on the plywood that conceals the church’s stained-glass windows.

Eight months after the barriers went up — Fisher still comes and goes through a padlocked gate — the stunning works created by artists affiliated with the P.A.I.N.T.S. Institute are like a salve on an open wound.

Artist Shawn Perkins created two murals, including this serene pastel Madonna, during the painting day at St. John’s. Photo by Rachel Jones

Having barricades around the church has been heartbreaking, Fisher said. But it has also forced the congregation to build bridges where they hadn’t previously existed, an effort Fisher called a “heart-opening experience.”

What relationships does your organization have that are better than fences?

“Relationships are better security than fences, and we now have deeper and more meaningful relationships than a year ago,” Fisher said. “Those bless us and help us be a better church serving the community.”

‘You’ve been vulnerable for so long’

A steady presence at 16th and H Streets NW for more than 200 years, St. John’s is within sight of the White House. In retrospect, said longtime member Chase Rynd, its location may have given the congregation “a misplaced sense of security,” what with FBI headquarters a few blocks away and Secret Service personnel right across the street.

It wasn’t as if the church had never thought about safety planning, said Rynd, who is also the retired executive director of the National Building Museum. About a year and a half before the fire, renovations to the church’s parish house reconfigured the entrance so visitors would encounter a greeter at a reception desk rather than an empty hallway, and a new elevator was installed that required security badges, said Rynd, who chaired that effort.

The project also added a 21st-century fire protection system, including fire doors that have been credited with limiting damage from the 2020 incident. Federal officials continue to investigate the fire.

A security assessment subsequently underwritten by the DowntownDC Business Improvement District concluded that St. John’s had gotten lucky, Rynd said. The DowntownDC BID is one of 11 special taxing districts in the city that support economic development and social services.

“[The assessment] basically said, ‘You guys have skirted through history with an enormous amount of luck or protection from God or whatever, because you’ve been vulnerable for so long,’” Rynd said.

A surreal moment

On June 1, the day after the fire, clergy, parishioners and volunteers from throughout the region gathered on the patio of St. John’s to offer first aid, snacks and water to protestors.

Levi Robinson paints a Scripture to
accompany his sprawling image of Archbishop
Desmond Tutu, the centerpiece of the murals.
Photo by Rachel Jones

In an interview with Fox News host Martha MacCallum that evening, Fisher was expressing continued support for those rallying for justice when he learned that police were using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear people gathered around the church so then-President Donald Trump could stage a now widely criticized photo op.

“We seek to be a space for grace in this city,” Fisher was saying on camera as the surreal moment played out. “We strive to make it so that the space, when you walk in the door, whatever background you may be, you feel that it’s a place where you can breathe, where you can experience the Spirit.”

The next morning, federal officials began fencing off Lafayette Park across the street, barring access to one of the country’s most storied protest sites and essentially pressing demonstrators up against the walls of St. John’s. Protestors set up camp on the church’s tiny property, next door to the newly established Black Lives Matter Plaza, raising concerns about sanitation, staff access and fire safety, Fisher said.

What is your church’s stance toward protesters? What if they came near or on your property? How would you respond?

Church officials planned to sit down with protestors to address some of those concerns, he said, but before that could happen, police forcefully cleared everyone from the property, arresting those who resisted and tossing their tents, bicycles, laptops and other belongings into a pickup truck.

“It was a really tough thing to have happen around our church,” Fisher said. “The church hadn’t asked for that.”

St. John’s has been encircled by a fence ever since. No one likes it, but Rynd acknowledged that it has bought some time to come up with a better, more long-term plan.

“The fence just broadcasts such a poor message, but we didn’t sort of put up barricades and hide,” Rynd said. “We took this as a message that we need to be really attentive and seize this as an opportunity. In the end, the church is going to be better for it, in terms of the look of it and the way we use it.”

Rynd is now part of a small task force, which includes a combat veteran and several church members with State Department security training, charged with prioritizing the recommendations made in the church’s security assessment.

To ensure that any physical changes to the church’s property are in keeping with both its aesthetic and its ethos, Rynd reached out to landscape architect Laurie Olin, whose firm had designed subtle yet effective post-9/11 security improvements for the Washington Monument, keeping the experience of visitors in mind. Olin agreed to create a master plan for the church “for almost nothing,” Rynd said.

In addition to physical improvements, the task force is looking at policies governing who has access to St. John’s and whether staff and volunteers might benefit from more training on how to spot potential security issues while engaging with visitors.

“This is a really important piece of, ‘How do we both address the security of the building and still have our arms wide open and welcome people?’” Rynd said.

Artist Mohammed Gafar chose to feature the symbol of a dove for his mural. Photo by Rachel Jones

A security assessment to identify vulnerabilities is the right place to start the process, said Mike McCarty, the CEO of Safe Hiring Solutions, an Indiana-based company with a program geared toward ministries.

Security goes beyond physical concerns; in what other ways might your organization be vulnerable?

How do people come and go from the building, who has access, and when? How are children checked in and out of youth programs? Is the congregation prepared for medical emergencies? With so much religious life online during the pandemic, is the congregation cybersecure?

Answers to those questions help congregations focus their efforts, and that kind of forethought allows faith communities to put measures in place that address risks while honoring their culture, he said.

In many cases, including at McCarty’s own nondenominational church, congregations create lay-led security teams.

“Being prepared doesn’t have to look militant. A lot of times, it’s just being educated and having the right team,” McCarty said. “A lot of it is more sweat equity than expensive solutions.”

Other churches also grapple with security concerns

At Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, several blocks north of St. John’s, hospitality and security have never been mutually exclusive, said the Rev. William H. Lamar IV. As a predominantly Black congregation in America, Metropolitan has always been mindful of who gathers near its 135-year-old building; that’s ingrained in the congregation’s DNA, he said.

When members of the far-right Proud Boys descended on Washington for pro-Trump rallies in early December, they stole and destroyed the church’s Black Lives Matter sign — but never gained access to the building, Lamar said.

“We’ve been schooled to pay attention, because there is a constant threat,” he said. “We’ve got to be vigilant. … We open our hearts. But we’re not going to be sitting ducks.”

To that end, Metropolitan AME partnered with a security firm in a way that Lamar describes as more of a relational undertaking than a contractual one. Blowout Security’s owner, Leon Russell, was already a longtime friend of many in the congregation, and as head of security at his own Washington church, historic 19th Street Baptist, he understood the balance between securing the premises and preserving its feel as a house of worship.

Russell’s security team worships alongside Metropolitan AME’s congregants. Team members escort seniors to their cars and are on a first-name basis with worshippers, who have been known to bake them cookies, Russell said. They are vigilant, often armed, and treated as family, he said.

“What we’re trying to do here is set everyone at ease,” said Russell, a Vietnam veteran. “I don’t want uniforms in there and for it to look like it’s a fortress. It’s a sanctuary. It’s where we pray.”

McCarty recommends that congregations seek guidance from their insurance companies to establish safety protocols. And both men noted that it’s important to communicate regularly to the congregation that safety planning is happening, without broadcasting the specifics — for obvious security reasons.

About three blocks east of St. John’s, New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is known for its protestor hospitality. But it, too, has had to balance that hospitality with safety.

In June, members of the church’s session, its governing body, met daily via Zoom to discuss how they could safely support demonstrators amid the pandemic, serve as a resource for neighboring congregations of color, and continue to host the popular Downtown Day Services Center, which provides resources including food and medical care and shower and laundry facilities for the city’s homeless and vulnerable populations.

“We’ve been in the thick of it,” said the Rev. Dr. Heather Shortlidge, the church’s transitional pastor, who recalled helicopters skimming over the church’s steeple and “roving packs of law enforcement, some of them un-uniformed and unbadged” at the height of the protests.

What does “Everybody is welcome” really mean?

The session wrestled with who should be allowed inside the church during the unrest and ultimately decided that only unarmed individuals could enter, Shortlidge said. That meant law enforcement could not come inside, an issue that remains “unsettled” for the congregation, she said.

“That’s been really sticky for us. You want to say, ‘Everybody is welcome,’ but we also felt we needed to start to have boundaries,” she said.

“Radical hospitality is not ‘anything goes,’ which is hard for a bleeding-heart liberal congregation to swallow. But it’s not radical hospitality if people aren’t safe.”

‘You cannot waste a crisis’

First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, adopted a similar stance in August 2017, serving as a respite for activists countering the Unite the Right rally and a home base for street medics and trauma counselors, said the Rev. Phil Woodson, the associate pastor.

Two years earlier, after a white supremacist shot and killed nine worshippers inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, clergy in Charlottesville had begun organizing. They created the interfaith Charlottesville Clergy Collective, which began meeting regularly, learning how to engage in nonviolent resistance and work together to keep people safe amid confrontation.

“You cannot waste a crisis. You must grow in these times of trial. Otherwise, you’re spiritually dead,” Woodson said.

“For as much evil and horror as went on that day, the goodness that came out of it is that relationships have thrived among people in the community. I don’t see any future where these Nazis show back up to Charlottesville. But if they did, I’d like to think the people in this place know what to do and how to do it,” he said.

At St. John’s, Fisher is celebrating new relationships, too. In partnering with the DowntownDC BID to complete the church’s security assessment, the congregation was introduced to the broad range of services the organization offers.

Before the protests — and the fencing — several homeless people used to sleep on the church’s porch at night, which wasn’t a problem for St. John’s but “probably wasn’t best practice,” Fisher said.

In retrospect, he said, those folks might have been better served if the church had connected them with the Downtown Day Services Center, which is managed by DowntownDC BID, at nearby New York Avenue Presbyterian — something they intend to do from now on.

The DowntownDC BID also helped link the church with the P.A.I.N.T.S. Institute, a nonprofit that serves as an incubator for local artists and a support for underserved communities. The murals created by P.A.I.N.T.S. — which stands for Providing Artists with Inspiration in Non-Traditional Settings — are catalysts for conversation, founder John Chisholm said.

Indeed, as the artists toiled in the hot sun outside the church in early September, among the most beautiful of spectacles were the dialogues sparked between the artists and congregants, activists and passersby, he said.

In “normal times,” said Fisher, when roughly 400 worshippers would gather in the sanctuary each Sunday, the light streaming through the stained-glass windows would wash over them, bathing them in a swirl of color “like a blessing.”

How could art be part of your message to your community and congregation?

In such a time as this, he said, the murals project love and light outward, a sign of God’s promise of better things to come and the church’s pledge to be part of that. The Smithsonian has expressed an interest in displaying the murals once the stained-glass windows are uncovered, Chisholm said.

“What the paintings do is cause people to look up and find hope. Because if you’re not looking up, you’re going to be looking down. Despite the barriers, our hearts were never this at any moment,” Fisher said, gesturing to the fences. “Our disposition didn’t change just because the architecture changed.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • How does your organization negotiate uncomfortable yet responsible decisions?
  • Security goes beyond physical concerns; in what other ways might your organization be vulnerable?
  • What is your church’s stance toward protesters? What if they came near or on your property? How would you respond?
  • The Rev. Rob Fisher said, “Relationships are better security than fences.” What relationships does your organization have that are better than fences?
  • How does your church decide who has access to its buildings and campus?
  • What does “Everybody is welcome” really mean?
  • Fisher describes the color of the stained-glass windows as “a blessing” and the murals as “a sign of God’s promise of better things to come.” How could art be part of your message to your community and congregation?