The role of the church in African American life is fundamental and long-standing. In early times, once gatherings could be negotiated, the first Black churches served as anchors for the enslaved African American community. Initially, these gatherings took place in what were called “praise houses.” These houses of worship operated covertly and served as a place of spiritual healing, community building, inspiration, and upliftment.
Praise houses evolved into what we now know as the Black church, a communal institution which continues to serve as a religious anchor for the African American community. It remains a resource for, and spiritual connection between, black people through fellowship, organization, community building, health, civil activism, education, political guidance, and spiritual/mental relief. It is as well a symbol of collective strength.
According to the Pew Research Center, African Americans are more religious than whites and Latinos by many measures of religious commitment. For instance, three-quarters of Black Americans say religion is very important in their lives, compared with smaller shares of whites (49%) and Hispanics (59%); African Americans also are more likely to attend services at least once a week and to pray regularly. Black Americans (83%) are more likely to say they believe in God with absolute certainty than whites (61%) and Latinos (59%). Consequently, anything affecting Black ministries directly impacts African American lives.
What about the pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for all people and organizations, and Black churches were not excluded. In this article, the authors researched how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted several African American ministries – surveying consequences and response. On the one hand, the Black church has coped with the consequences as we all have – masks, social distancing, and cancelled operations. But African American houses of worship also had some unique problems; consequently, some clerics applied creative solutions. After all, said one pastor, “We are supposed to provide hope and counsel to our congregation. How can we do God’s bidding if we are closed?”
Interestingly, a common thread among those interviewed was that though God’s will is always first and foremost in their decision-making, a collaboration between church and science has been necessary. It continues to be so as they consider how to be a safe space for worship and a community resource. As one interviewee related, “A combination of spiritual knowledge and scientific understanding has been helpful in how we have moved forward. Because they actually do align with each other.”
Navigating through the pandemic, Black Americans are rediscovering the importance of the Black church to the community as a spiritual and informational hub.
This article describes how the pandemic has impacted several African American ministries and lessons learned. We interviewed bishops and pastors from several African American houses of worship during summer 2021. The churches are in Michigan, New York, Texas, Washington DC, and Florida; the number of individual church congregants range from dozens to hundreds. Bishops/pastors were male and female. We discussed the following issues:
- How is the church different since the pandemic?
- Pastoral care
- Reopening the sanctuary
- Church-science philosophy
- Additional successes
- Further challenges
There were many individual reactions but also much in common in their responses, despite their diverse locations across the US. All interviewees were forthcoming and appreciative of our efforts to listen to them. Each hoped their story would help others.
In our survey, we found some common reactions such as “Our elders joined the virtual services; they figured it out!” And we also learned responses could vary widely: some churches never physically closed; other churches shut down the sanctuary and remain closed. But no one, not even the two ministers who caught COVID-19, ever lost faith in God or humanity.
We present our results in the words of the pastors themselves. Direct extracts from our interviews are in quotation marks.
How is the church different since the pandemic?
Most if not all the churches surveyed reported the “usual” adjustments, including closings, partial openings, halting/rescheduling events, online/virtual services and pastoral care, shifting to social media to communicate and accommodate membership, services outside and in tents, mask policy and requirements, social distancing, sanitization, family clustering, as you would expect. Some interesting results:
- One ministry immediately adopted an outdoor concept where church people would drive up and stay in their cars. It was basically a drive-in church. (“Say ‘amen’ with a beep.”)
- There was more than usual communication and coordination within and among church leadership. “We actually had to learn how to talk to each other, not at each other.”
- Recommendations to “stay at home” if possible and especially for those who know themselves to be “high risk” or “immuno-compromised.” Of course, they had to discourage hugging, kissing, and touching each other during this new normal.
- “We really had to maintain transparency and share information via social media outlets on our plans to reopen the doors of the church.”
Paying for praying
As you can imagine, many a church’s income was severely challenged, but through innovation and adaptation, they are surviving. Many encouraged the mailing in of offerings via the US Postal Service. Many parishes had to provide alternative methods to tithe and offer. Several employed “digital donations” apps such as Givelify, CashApp, and PayPal. “We embraced an electronic mode of accepting tithes and offering before the pandemic. For example, you could walk up to a designated point in the sanctuary and process your credit card. Through our Covenant Connection virtual newsletter (available to the general community, with a doorway to the church) we communicate the various ways the community can do touchless donations via PayPal, Stripe, automatic withdrawals, mobile payments, apps. We also use QR codes during our virtual sermons and Zoom meetings.”
On the other hand, at least one church had to strategize on ways to be competitive with the larger, richer churches nearby which have bigger budgets and higher production levels with their media products.
“Budgets have been paired down based on giving. Doing more with less is very real impact of the pandemic.” Overall, we found that church tithes and offerings have been maintained somewhat because of the adjustments ministers and their staffs made. Still, says one minister, the age we are in requires money. “You need money to be able to move in the way the church needs. Knowing how to raise that money is going to be critical to how you evolve as a church post-pandemic.”
Some innovative changes
- “We adopted a philosophy and plan around the theme of ‘A Return to a New Normal’ rather than a return to church.”
- “Many of our digital sermons are made available through YouTube! The sanctuary became our studio.”
- “We became a vaccination and testing location for the community with a mobile unit on site. We were also a distribution site for NARCAN (A prescription nasal spray used for the treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose) and provided training and education.” Several noted they saw more clearly their place in the community as a bridge between community and government.
- “We now have a children’s ministry. We provide children in our church a virtual way to pray with us, read scripture, and encourage their participation through projects we mail to their home and can do digitally.”
The Digital Stairway to Heaven
All ministries developed new perspectives on the importance of digital communications for their members and congregants. They had to become creative and imaginative, especially to reenforce the idea their congregants were not abandoned. “We needed to shift into doing things differently.”
Many responders stated they had to learn how to deliver the word of God through the lens of a camera. “Preaching to a camera is not the same as preaching to a congregation. I call it a ‘psychological booster’ for me to preach as if the sanctuary is jam packed. I share with those joining in that ‘I can’t see you, but I can feel you.’”
Said another, “We increased our social media platform to enhance our website, set up Zoom capability, live streaming, expanded our presence on Facebook to include the church profiles, and my personal profile.” Some set up an adult Zoom and a children’s Zoom to accommodate different aspects of their congregation.
Interestingly, in some domains church attendance has actually improved since the advent of online services and social media outreach. Congregants in locations which were previously too far away from a physical location were now able to engage from the comfort of their homes. “This was actually a good thing as far as reaching potential new members. Our numbers are better than ever.”
Curiously, clothing became an issue. “I have to think about being camera-ready, making sure my wardrobe allows for the type of presentation intended. So, I now have to be mindful of what I wear; I have to present as a representation of Jesus Christ.” He chuckled and said, “I am currently working on my new wardrobe!” Another minister pointed out that congregants got too casual with getting dressed for church. The Zoom attendees didn’t wear ties or suit jackets and often just had on sweat suits. “I am looking forward to dressing for church again!”
Typically, church members seek pastoral care and ministerial sustenance. During the pandemic, most churches reported this has increased. “We have always been respectful of people’s feelings and needs; our pastors/ministers still made themselves available for spiritual counsel in the sanctuary and in person but respecting social distancing and safety protocol.” Many had to prioritize the need for conferences, revivals, and annuals. In some cases, there were no weddings, baptisms, christenings, or funerals. For those impacted by the loss of loved ones, churches provided comfort virtually as best they could. It was not easy.
A common theme was ministries having to focus on communicating to their members. Digital/online has proven to be very effective. Church staff also made themselves available by phone and online. “Phone prayer and care increased exponentially.” Bible study and most educational lesson work was moved to online. Several responders have since expanded their view on the importance of their media team and equipment. They said they learned to work smarter and better with more consideration to the work-life balance. “If you can work from home, do it from home.”
However, most observed the protection of self must not only be a spiritual aspect but a physical one as well. Several ministries stopped all in-person care to reduce the possibility of COVID-19 transmission. Having said that, in some cases pastoral care still took place in person with social distancing and health and safety precautions. “We had someone always in the church if a congregant was in need to come in as well,” said one pastor.
Black churches figured out how to do things creatively, effectively, and safely. It was a hybrid approach to pastoral care during the pandemic, and it is working.
Though historically a challenge in the past, digital engagement with the older demographic of the congregations has proven encouraging. All responders reported that despite the initial concern elders were not technically savvy enough to participate, it turns out they were!
One way or another, the elders adapted and figured out how to engage with the church for virtual services and events. The pandemic created an environment of necessity to learn and participate. “We have found they are more active than ever on Zoom. They have learned how to engage.” If they could not figure out how to join in on Zoom or other social media, they would have someone join for them, or be somewhere where they could participate.
Even in adversity, there is God’s grace. Pastors reported their churches saw a rekindled relationship between their millennials and the elderly; each had their own wisdom to share that was mutually beneficial. “Our millennial membership was quite instrumental in understanding the digital platforms we are using so they could transition from a physical aspect of communication to online.” They were more than willing to share their knowledge with the elders. “The lesson is to value what all generations bring to the table.”
Reopening the Sanctuary
As of the Summer 2021 interviews, re-opening ranged from “we never closed” to a future date with social distancing practices to be employed. However, our respondents provided their perspectives just as the Delta and Omicron variants were on the horizon. One or more churches may move their re-open dates further into the future.
For those planning to reopen, many were developing and implementing a “Sanctuary Re-opening Plan” which included church leaders, security, and even musicians. Others will wait and see as their planned date approaches. All indicated communications with staff and congregants was of the utmost importance. This was summed up best with “We must reiterate ‘church is a safe space’ as we move closer to that date.”
As noted in the introduction, a collaboration between church and science has been necessary. From the science point of view, many congregations will follow CDC and state guidelines. Several indicate they will watch what others are doing, have a better idea of what is happening, and understand how businesses and organizations have successfully re-opened. There are some hybrids, for example, “As the state has reopened and lifted requirements, so will this church. But we will allow people to be people. If you decide not to wear a mask, this will not be policed. Clustered (family/associated) socially distanced seating is anticipated but is not marked off.”
Just as important is the divine aspect of response. “We are a prayer-based church. Prayer is always the foundation of everything we do and always was at the onset.”
What are ministries supposed to do? Believe the changing science-based guidelines? Trust solely in God? In the beginning the government said people needed to wear masks, then they didn’t, then they should, etc. Keeping up with shifting information is challenging for the work which needs to be done. But prayer, belief in the Lord, never changes. One minister wrote, “We need to move forward in a way that reflects our spiritual belief system and in accordance with what governmental agencies were releasing regarding health and safety.”
Churches want to move forward in a way which reflects their spiritual belief system and in accordance with government agencies’ health and safety guidelines. Again, not easy but necessary. Perhaps a rephrase of the World War II song “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” today would be “Praise the Lord and Pass the Sanitizer.”
All respondents answered yes to the following inquiries:
- Do you support vaccinations?
- Have you been vaccinated?
- Have you recommended to staff/congregants they get vaccinated?
One pastor wrote enthusiastically, “Yes! And (we) require them for staff, leaders, and lay workers. We also hold (monthly) vax and testing clinics.”
After that, the issue diverged a bit.
When asked if there will be a policy involving those who are vaccinated and those not when the sanctuary re-opens, there were some yesses, some noes and a couple in-betweens: “We are working on protocols for those who elect to refrain from vaxing. I proposed we adopt NYC restaurant and theater protocols of vaccination-only events.” Another minister said “Not at this time. However, we will continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, and maintain sanitizing procedures.”
What if a member states they will not get vaccinated? Is there a protocol in place? Some have such a policy, others do not. Several are still looking at the issue. “We have begun messaging (them) to encourage them to continue joining worship online. How we will respond to these in-person is still in committee.”
Many accomplishments are pointed out above. A few others stand out. According to the ministers:
- The people of God have grown in faith during this time.
- Congregants are engaged with prayer and bible class more since moving online
- The community is more responsive to the church
- Congregants were forced to remove the proverbial mask of “I am fine” and to request help. “The church is here to answer those requests.”
It may be a remarkable observation that when discussing challenges faced by the ministries, many noted the “usual” challenges such as sanctuary closings, masking, social distancing, and social media. The “usual” challenges, indeed; such are the current times. As for unusual challenges, the congregations faced several of those too. Two of the pastors interviewed themselves caught COVID-19. Probably the most poignant ordeal was the minister who contracted COVID-19 and infected three congregants. In words:
“We lost seven members of the church to COVID, and I was personally infected as well. My case was mild, so it did not halt church operations. At the time, I was in ‘go’ mode for the church and focused on building the virtual aspect of the church for our members. As things have taken form and the urgency has slowed, I realize I am emotionally impacted by these losses; we lost elders of the church including our oldest member. I am personally responsible for three COVID infections. It is a huge impact. I plan to take some time off to contemplate and to refresh in preparation for our sanctuary reopening.”
What do you do when someone is ill?
“In the beginning, when we were doing temperature checks,” said the minister, “there were instances when we had to request some congregants go home and follow up with their medical professional. How do you reconcile turning someone away who is seeking help? The church is supposed to be a place where they can always go.”
The honor system for people coming in and out of the sanctuary is a challenge as well; church leadership does not want to put others in fellowship at risk. Balancing that responsibility is not taken lightly.
Finally, reassuring the congregation the church never closed has been a challenge, many reported. “The House of Worship as a building may have been shut, but ‘the church’ has never closed.”
The respondents’ recommendations crystallized into two paths: theological and organizational.
As stated previously, a combination of spiritual knowledge and scientific understanding has been helpful in how Black churches have moved forward, because they do align with each other. One needs to consider all the information provided. Said one interviewee, we need “increased awareness of him, fortify ourselves in him.” Said another, “We have been shown we need each other to survive, so (we should) serve from humility and love. Pray more. Our only failure is a prayer failure.”
One pastor admonished the church to continually show the love of God. “Listen to the vulnerable, meet them where they are, at their point of need; that allows us to lead them to Christ and embrace God.”
These recommendations are straightforward: Have a plan; implement the plan; listen to and follow health agency guidelines; be careful and be safe. The ministers also recommended:
- Cover yourself. Make sure the business of the church is as protected as well as the congregants are. Ensure there is a system of accountability. If something goes wrong, have a plan/process to respond quickly and investigate.
- Have a team in place to execute procedures which have been established and will be to the benefit of the church and the congregants.
- Communication is key – Be sure there is a way to share what is needed to address the concerns of the congregation and leadership. Regular leadership meetings and membership meetings are necessary.
Going back to sanctuary? There were several suggestions and even warnings. Again, in the pastors’ words:
- You can’t hurry love! Rushing to keep up with the Joneses to get back into the sanctuary – that’s not going to work.
- The confidence of the congregation is so important, do whatever you have to do to make sure they know what the plan is and that the church is a safe space.
- Be health conscious; you cannot be responsible for any more upticks in infection levels because of a perceived need to get back into the building.
- We are far away from truly being post-pandemic. Please keep this in mind as you prepare your plans.
- Chastisement must be made to check your ego to get back indoors vs. the health and well-being of your membership.
And finally – “If you are itching to go back to the sanctuary without all due diligence and respect to the health and safety of your members, go to therapy!”
One might argue the pandemic is God’s will. But these representatives of the Black church took the events as God’s challenge. And each proved they were up to the challenge.