COVID revealed challenges for evangelical churches, not the least of which is authority and leadership in the church. How do you respond to state mandates requiring masks or online-only worship services? Who in the church decides how to respond?
Evangelical churches are often loosely affiliated with a denomination, and function more like parachurch organizations being led by the pastor or a small group of enthusiasts within the church.
At Salem Evangelical Free Church, we learned on March 15, 2020 that the pandemic was spreading like wildfire across the Upper Midwest. In a hastily called emergency meeting of key staff leaders and elders, our elder board established a five-person COVID-response team comprising pastors and elders with varying skills and backgrounds appropriate to the challenge.
Since then, the leadership provided by this team, working with the pastors and elders, has helped keep our body of Christians from tearing each other apart. Our church’s response has been imperfect, and we have lost a few families amid tensions, but our team minimized conflict. The team was empowered to make decisions and provide guidance for our church under the supervision of elders. Our intent was to use clear practices that slowed the spread while the church continued to make more disciples.
When a church faces a crisis, gathering a team with diverse talents and spiritual gifts beats autonomy and solo heroism (Rom 12:4–5).
When a church faces a crisis, gathering a team with diverse talents and spiritual gifts beats autonomy and solo heroism.
Here are some of the ways we responded to COVID, and lessons we learned along the way.
1. Use faith and science in dialogue.
While the gospel is our only true hope, people need accurate and helpful information in their daily lives. We resisted division by acknowledging that we faced a faith challenge borne of a biological problem—a pandemic.
The response team created three phases of pandemic response based on epidemiology numbers and our church’s risk. As best we can estimate, as of January, 75 percent of our pre-COVID members are participating in Sunday worship, about half on-site and half online. We also finished the year financially strong, which was a pleasant surprise after finishing 2019 poorly.
2. Honor federal and state orders.
While some churches have used Peter’s words to oppose government restrictions—“We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)—we decided to build our response on the principle of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
We suspended in-person worship from March 22 to June 21. We asked all staff to work from home and made all ministry activities online for a season. We implemented a mask requirement from the start and have enforced that policy consistently.
We tried to be firm in announcing our decisions and reasons, while not being coercive. We didn’t make this a matter of holding an opinion, but about loving neighbors, honoring leaders, and doing our part as a church family to slow the spread of the pandemic. We tried to speak with grace as we listened to objections, and with truth in both the scientific and faith elements of the pandemic. When we set the bar high, most people responded well.
3. Communicate often.
During the onset of this pandemic, and with the deluge of information on social media, we believed it prudent to keep our church family well informed on faith and science. During our first online service, we shared our plans for online community, phone calls, prayer requests, and meeting financial needs. If rules changed, we let people know what to expect for church the next Sunday. We communicated using videos, email, phone calls, signs, and our website.
We hesitated to use video often, but we came to realize it is well-suited for expressing empathy and concern, and all of our pastors became proficient at it. Knowing that mask-wearing had become a sensitive issue, on May 13 we provided a humorous but helpful video presentation to our church regarding the mask requirement.
4. Foster community.
Although we have worked to stay connected through online activities, phone calls, and Zoom events, we are in a relational deficit nearly a year into this pandemic. Some groups have fizzled out; others are Zoom-weary. New families have joined our church, but some struggle to find ways to connect.
We hesitated to use video often, but we came to realize it is well-suited for expressing empathy and concern.
How is our church faring? We don’t know for certain. We haven’t seen many people in person in since the pandemic arrived. While the Lord has kept our church united during this season, we’re wrestling with how to foster community again.
The approach used and the lessons learned during our response to COVID have broader application to church-leadership challenges. It could be other crises, such as large protests or election discord, as we faced in late 2020 and early this year. Or it could be challenges associated with second- or third-tier doctrinal issues, such as eschatology or spiritual gifts. And sometimes it’s church-polity issues or which version of the Bible to use.
Each conflict may test the resolve of church leaders and threaten unity. We’ve discovered that if we respond to crises and challenges empathetically and methodically—with strong and unified leadership, drawing on the gifts and talents of our members, and in constant communication with them—a church can meet challenges without dividing.
This pandemic has threatened to divide us physically, ideologically, and spiritually, but as Paul writes in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”