Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Something Better

by Timothy B. West, D.Min. and Lucinda C. West, Ph.D.

The following guest post was submitted by researchers at the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). Interested in submitting your research to be featured? Learn more and contact us!

Our recent research project was conducted in partnership with the Villanova University Center for Church Management fellowship (2021-2022) and was funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. The lead pastors of 126 Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) congregations from multiple states were involved in the original study. Their congregations ranged in size from 20 to 400+. In early 2022, we interviewed 10 of these pastors on their beliefs, values, and family of origin influences on their current leadership of church finances. The focus of this article is based on findings that emerged during the interviews.

Full-time, licensed pastors ordained with the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) or working toward ordination, with an age range from 25 to over 65 participated in the interviews. Most are married (80%), males (70%), and non-Hispanic whites (70%). Minorities include African American, Hispanic/Latino, and other. They are an educated group, with fifty percent (50%) achieving at least one graduate degree. Experience in vocational ministry ranges from less than five years (30%) to more than 21 years (30%).

The results of the original study were fascinating. However, the topic of Covid was inescapable. All participants expressed ways the pandemic presented unexpected challenges, noting the following highlights:

  • Attendance dropped from pre-Covid to the present. A Tennessee pastor noted, “My congregation was a little bit bigger before Covid started. We’re back to almost square one.” Confusion resulted from lack of clarity as to who is even a member of the church during the pandemic as noted by one pastor, “because we don’t just consider those who show up on Sunday mornings to be part of the church.” Pastors and leaders are still trying to figure out how to raise their attendance back to the pre-Covid place.
  • Despite the drop in attendance, pastors reported a minimal or no impact on their congregational giving. An Ohio pastor was unsure how the online services would impact giving but was pleasantly surprised by the generosity of the congregation during the two years of the pandemic, “we brought in more money than what was even budgeted.”
  • Pastors felt uncertain about the future, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, as one pastor noted, “We all wanted to be very prudent with our dollars not knowing where the future was going to leave us with Covid.” The pandemic impacted leadership decisions. A Virginia pastor said, “In Covid, we spent an inordinate amount of money trying to help people.”
  • Despite the pastors’ early concerns when the pandemic hit, as time went on, they felt confident in their ability to matriculate the crisis. For example, a pastor in Indiana commented with a smile, “You know what, I’m gonna pat myself on the back, because I feel like I’ve led you all valiantly throughout this pandemic.”
  • Churches demonstrated resilience. One pastor in Colorado said, “I feel like we are positioned to be as healthy as we can be with all the crazy variables that are going on in Covid.” Pastors chose not to let the pandemic stop them from moving forward.
  • In addition, the pastors came through it with a renewed sense of mission and vision for their church. Another Colorado pastor stated, “We just started a new community outreach.” Pastors reported a change in perspective with new insight into ways they could support the community.

From our vantage point, the pandemic certainly presented some faith or skill-stretching opportunities as pastors led their churches. Nevertheless, the overall tenor expressed by the pastors was much more appreciative of the chance to become better. These conversations remind us of the text from Hebrews 11:40 (NLT): “God had something better in mind for us.”