Our research approach

Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations is a multi-faceted and longitudinal research project designed to answer the following research questions: 

  • How did congregations respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? 
  • What are the long-term consequences of COVID-19 on congregational life in the United States?
  • What does congregational life look like post-pandemic?

These are not easy questions to answer! To give these questions their fair due, we will explore the topic with both breadth and depth from a variety of perspectives. We want to see how the pandemic affects congregational life not just in the current timeframe but speculate on what it will look like in the future. Thus, our research project is:

  • longitudinal (taking place over five years)
  • collaborative (done in partnership with other research organizations and religious communities)
  • multi-method (utilizing quantitative and qualitative data)

We hope that this rigorous research will provide religious leaders with solid answers and workable ideas for creating healthier and vibrant faith communities. Below we outline the core research components of the project in more depth.

Quantitative research

Our quantitative endeavors will “zoom out” in terms of a representative national picture of COVID-19’s effect on congregational life. Over the course of five years, we will administer several national key-informant surveys to a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

First, we will build off of the pioneering Faith Communities Today (FACT) project and data analysis of the FACT 2020 survey of over 15,000 congregations to  reveal a baseline understanding of the congregational landscape prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Moving forward, we will work with our denominational partners to replicate this nationally representative survey of congregations in 2023 and again in 2025. These key informant surveys will include thousands of congregations, collected in partnership with our denominational and faith group partners. 

Additionally, we will administer an extensive attender survey in 2024 through this branch of the project. In partnership with Faith Communities Today members, we will administer short topical surveys once or twice a year. These questionnaires will focus on particular topics of interest, such as religious education in the midst of the pandemic, and will be distributed by FACT denominational partners.

Another quantitative component of the project will be a longitudinal panel of 300 churches. This part of the project will select a sample of churches to follow over the course of five years to track how these individual congregations are innovating, faring, and adjusting to the post pandemic world. This sample will be selected and receive its first survey in 2022. 

Additionally, we will administer a survey to the members of each of these congregations to get a “view from the pew” during 2024. Finally, we will also selectively interview and virtually observe these congregations.

Qualitative research

We know that surveys alone cannot tell us the whole story. Thus, our project also has a significant qualitative component. We have carefully selected eight regional sites across the United States, which represent variation in terms of geography, demography, COVID infection rates, and other factors. 

Starting in 2022, researchers will launch in-depth explorations of twelve local congregations at each regional site—for a total of 96 ethnographic congregational case studies. Within these congregations, researchers will observe worship services and other activities, interview pastors and attenders, and review social media content to get as full a picture as possible of the life of each church and the impact of the pandemic on it—and beyond. 

To get a sense of how things evolve over time, researchers will return to these congregations after two years (in 2024 and 2025) to selectively administer follow-up surveys, interviews, and observations.

Analysis of this material will be done by the team at Hartford Institute in consultation with our advisory teams and site coordinators. Findings and corresponding resources will be published on this website, our social media accounts, newsletter, etc. throughout the coming years. We will release full results in a spring 2026 conference and various books and journal articles. 

We feel that this multifaceted approach will help capture and better understand the dynamic challenges facing congregations in a post-pandemic reality. Please connect with us if you are interested in following this research or being part of this effort!