Churches have always been a lifeline for people during difficult times. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved one of those times, and the church has been forced to adapt in many ways in order to continue its ministry. Despite the challenges churches and pastors have faced, many are looking to the future with hope and optimism.

In November 2020, Rev. Richard Houseal, Ed.D., research director for the Church of the Nazarene Global Ministry Center, conducted a survey entitled “Impact of Pandemic on Nazarene Churches and Pastors 2020.” The survey found that approximately 84% of pastors agreed that “their church will emerge stronger from the pandemic,” and a similar percentage agreed with the statement, “Personally, the pandemic has given my ministry new significance.”

The Viewpoint reached out to two pastors and two district superintendents from the Church of the Nazarene to understand what changes the churches they serve have experienced due to the pandemic and what the future may hold for their churches and others.

Meeting Together While Apart 

When public health orders limited in person gatherings beginning in March 2020, a significant change and challenge for many churches was moving not just their worship services but as many elements of church life as possible online. The technology to meet remotely proved a blessing to many, including Humberto Mena, district superintendent for the Western Latin American District of the Church of the Nazarene.

“Now we are all recording and using electronic communication and social media,” he said. “These means of communication have helped us to facilitate the teaching and preaching of the Word of God. We were blessed because we could still meet while abiding by the local authorities. It has been a blessing for us to learn how to better use social media. We have seen the importance of it, the need of it, and I usually say that it has helped us fulfill the Great Commission at home and abroad.”

Rev. Vicki (Honea) Copp, D.Min., pastor of Cameron Church of the Nazarene in Cameron, Missouri, also found that creating an online presence allowed her congregation to continue to worship together. The COVID-19 shutdown was the first time she had preached online, and within a month, the church was livestreaming the worship team and her messages on Facebook Live. By Pentecost, Missouri was allowing 25% capacity in churches. Continuing their online presence while simultaneously welcoming back members who felt comfortable allowed Cameron Nazarene to serve as many people as possible.

Dave Roberts is the lead pastor of Montrose Church, a Nazarene church in northern L.A. with campuses in Montrose and Pasadena. Roberts has been the pastor at Montrose for 30 years. During non-COVID times, his church hosted four to five services each Sunday. For Roberts, the pandemic requirement to meet online posed two layers of questions: logistical and philosophical.

“For us the philosophical piece was much more difficult to navigate,” he said. “Making decisions about content became the focal point. When everything is said and done, you have lost so much of what makes the church the church – the personal touch, connection, camaraderie, friendships. So we had to ask: how are we creating unity around the content that is being produced?”

These philosophical questions led to logistical questions such as how to connect people with different needs, technology access, and interaction comfort levels; how to fill people’s “hunger for a place that feels like church”; and how to respond to issues such as isolation, politics, and racism.

Montrose was already livestreaming and recording their services before the pandemic due to their multiple campuses. But they still had to think through questions about how to do the rest of their ministry in new ways.

“Do you do a daily Bible devotional?” Roberts asked. “Do you do Zoom? Do you do Facebook? Sometimes less is more. Not everybody wants to be on a Zoom call that is highly interactive. We had to think about all these things.”

In Roberts’ case, the church landed on livestreaming and posting their services; offering online classes; doing small group meetings on Zoom; and providing a Facebook Live “fireside chat” on Wednesday nights, which breaks down the sermon from Sunday and creates a space for people to post questions and comments.

When it comes to the future of the church, Roberts believes that one lesson to come out of this season is that “livestreaming, online, and on-demand content are important.”

Albert Hung, superintendent of the Northern California District of the Church of the Nazarene, agrees that “online is probably here to stay, and that’s not bad.” All of the pastors noticed people joining their online worship from around the country if not the world. They also saw people interacting online, and people gathering in smaller groups or homes to worship online together, all of which had positive aspects.

All of the pastors noticed people joining their online worship from around the country if not the world. They also saw people interacting online, and people gathering in smaller groups or homes to worship online together.

Continuing to provide livestream and recorded opportunities for church engagement is something Roberts believes will be valuable to people’s lives. Providing non-time-bound opportunities for worship and connection has the potential to reach people who can’t be physically present in church on Sunday due to work, illness or infirmity, or physical location. He also believes online options can allow people to dig deeper in pursuing their faith.

“We need to create on-demand Bible education, so people can take a class when they want to or when they can,” Roberts said. “We want to create a master class on fundamentals of the Bible.”

“I also think house churches are going to be a thing,” he said. “We’ve seen people have pastoral responsibilities in a peer group — gathering neighbors to watch a service, which doesn’t have to be Sunday livestream. The idea of empowering people to be part of the church without having to show up has been controversial. People say that’s not the church — do not give up gathering together — but the writers of those words were in house churches. We can make those who are online feel just as much as part of our church, not second-class citizens. Some pastors say we have to do things so people have to come [physically in person] to church. That might be how Sears looked at Amazon or how Blockbuster looked at Apple TV. We have to free the church from time and place.”

Despite the corporate comparisons, Roberts doesn’t believe churches should be online in order to be more marketable or to appease people’s tastes but to better serve and share the Gospel.

Financial Impacts 

In the Church of the Nazarene’s global pandemic survey, 69.4% of pastors agreed that COVID-19 “put the financial viability of their church at risk.” Churches in the Mesoamerica Region agreed with that statement at a rate of over 90%. Smaller churches were also more likely to have financial concerns than large churches regardless of location.

Hung noted that early in the pandemic, predictions were that one in five churches would be forced to close. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. In fact, some churches have thrived financially. 

Mena shared that for his district, “To God be the glory, we did better financially. God has blessed us more despite the pandemia.”

“I still believe the pandemia should not be a reason not to have hope,” Mena said. “We can still trust in the Lord and expect that He can do great things. The price to be paid is praying, fasting, and going back to the Word of God, to the foundations. I believe God still wants to bless us.”

Similarly, in Copp’s case, her congregation’s continued faithful giving of tithes and gifts was a significant blessing. 

“I told them that their faithfulness in giving had alleviated some of the stress of the situation,” she said.

Hung said the financial situation has been more mixed in his district. He noted that some smaller or older churches weren’t able to make the shift to online when they weren’t able to gather in person. There are also some churches, especially Spanish- speaking churches in his district, where the culture has been to only give cash, which meant that when the churches weren’t meeting in person, gifts weren’t coming in to pay the rent or the pastor’s salary.

“The same way the pandemic disproportionately affected people of color financially and health-wise, it has disproportionately affected churches of color as well,” Hung said. “It has exposed some of the disparity, inequality, and privilege within churches.”

In Hung’s district, churches that were doing well shared money with churches that were struggling and with pastors who weren’t being paid. That sense of solidarity was a positive that came from a difficult situation. In fact, collaboration with our churches was something that blessed many pastors in other ways as well.

Partnership and Serving 

Houseal’s survey found that “A large majority of pastors agreed* (88.1%) with the statement, ‘This church has identified and embraced new opportunities for ministry since the pandemic.’” Mena, Copp, Hung, and Roberts all appreciate the ways their partnerships with other churches and the community allowed them to make a difference during COVID-19.

Copp belongs to a ministerial alliance with pastors in her area from other denominations. The group regularly meets on Zoom to receive information from the county health department as well as to connect with pastoral care resources. But another important part of the ministerial alliance has been working together to serve the community.

“We have a food pantry and clothes closet, funds from the Salvation Army bell-ringing, Backpack Buddies, and other programs of ministerial alliance,” Copp said.

Because of the faithful giving of her congregation, Cameron Church of the Nazarene was also able to make a monthly donation to the ministerial alliance to help people pay their utility bills.

“I was so proud of the church for coming up with that plan,” Copp said.

In the Northern California District, pastors coming together was equally important.

“Right away, within a week of the shutdowns, we recognized that we weren’t going to make it if we didn’t stick together,” Hung said. The pastors met on Zoom to discuss transitioning to online, seeing missional opportunities, and caring for pastors. “One of the good things has been a sense of solidarity – a sense of collaboration.”

Churches helped each other with finances and technology and resources. They also inspired each other to serve. Food ministries ramped up, and churches collaborated to offer online activities for youth. Five new churches were planted in the district during the pandemic, including an online church intended to serve people of Chinese descent around the world.

“One church had a group of ladies who sewed 10,000 masks for first responders, the homeless, and others,” Hung said. “They were from a 50-person church and were on the news for the disproportionate impact they had on their community.” 

Mena has always loved compassionate ministries. Before he became a district superintendent, he pastored in Selma, California, and Los Angeles. In Selma, he and members of his church were part of food and homeless ministries that are still important in the area. During the pandemic, Mena again appreciated the difference compassionate ministry can make in people’s lives. He knows these ministries often provide “an opportunity to reach out to the lost and needy and preach the Word.”

“I have seen the importance of the pantry ministry because of the lack of work,” he said. “We had 3 million people on unemployment … People were highly affected, so the food ministry has been very helpful. Every weekend, we give food to those in need who are coming to church.” Roberts also believes serving the community is an important form of outreach. Montrose has been involved in a number of community partnerships throughout his tenure, including the Special Olympics; Central City, which cares for the homeless; and Saving Innocence, which helps rescue people from sex trafficking. They also have a mission partnership with a church in Eswatini where they helped build a child center during the pandemic.

“If we aren’t responsive to our community, then the only ones who care about our mission are other Christians,” he said.

Supporting Churches and Pastors Now and in the Future 

Like so many essential workers, pastors have endured a great deal of stress throughout the pandemic. Whether it has been navigating their church’s financial situation, learning to minister online, serving in creative ways, comforting the fearful, sick, or mourning, or coping with pressures from people with differing opinions and politics, the challenges facing pastors have been many. Hung pointed out that many pastors have had to learn new skills, and with reopening, they are serving both in-person and online congregants. Many delayed sabbaticals and are facing high levels of fatigue. So, how can we support the leaders who have been supporting us?

The pastors we interviewed said that people staying engaged and showing loyalty make the biggest difference in sustaining them.

“One of the biggest things people can do is show up, come to church, even if it’s online,” Hung said. “Knowing you are there is very reassuring to a pastor that their work is meaningful.” 

Roberts agreed. “I just think pastors are expected to be there through the hard times, and this has been a hard time. Pastors have needed their folks to be loyal and faithful and to know that we are trying to figure it out. It’s heartbreaking when people you thought were your comrades in ministry bail out because you didn’t do it exactly like they thought you should.”

“One of the biggest things people can do is show up, come to church, even if it’s online. Knowing you are there is very reassuring to a pastor that their work is meaningful.” 

Hung also suggested that we could offer to help out wherever we are needed and to help with the care of people in the congregation. Not only might this lessen the load on a pastor, but seeing members helping and caring for each other can be a source of joy and encouragement.

In Copp’s case, she has experienced extraordinary care from her congregation during an especially difficult time. In the midst of the pandemic, her husband, Dan (77), was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“We’ve been absolutely overwhelmed,” she said of her congregation’s response. “They have sent cards, gifts of money, and food. I was wondering what would happen if I got COVID. Who would take care of Dan? My people had thought of that and came up with a plan just in case. ”

When Dan’s care demanded that Vicki take a pause from preaching, the church was more than willing to bring in a relief pastor, Bill Kirkemo (B.A. 91, M.A. 93). At the same time, the church basement sustained water damage, and they raised the money needed to repair it. More recently, the Copps’ daughters, Megan (09) and MacKenzie (08), temporarily moved to Cameron with their small children to be near their parents during their father’s illness. Both of their husbands stayed behind to work. A church member is lending them an apartment and others are providing the families with babysitting and food.

“For a terrible situation, the blessings have been overwhelming,” Copp said. 

Though most pastors have fortunately not had the same burdens as Copp, all pastors can be blessed by demonstrations of support. The issues the church and society have faced in the last year, from the pandemic to political division, social unrest, racial tension, and mental health crises, are extremely complex. As we attempt to make sense of the issues we face as individuals, families, and churches, we can give our pastors the gift of our willingness to listen, to remain faithful, and to show grace and compassion. Beyond notes of encouragement or financial donations, such gifts are often the greatest blessings of all.

Christine is the editor of the Viewpoint magazine at PLNU.