SALT LAKE CITY — As September draws near, the pressure mounts. It’s time for the Rev. Don Coleman and his team to decide what worship will look like for the rest of the year.
Congregants “are asking when, ‘when, when (will we reopen)?’ As a staff, we’re realizing that we have to give an answer,” said the Rev. Coleman, who leads East End Fellowship, a nondenominational Christian church in Richmond, Virginia.
They’re also realizing that the decision will be much tougher than most. Several churches in their area are being torn apart by a pandemic that’s dividing people along political, racial and socioeconomic lines.
“I’ve heard about conflict from most of my pastor friends,” the Rev. Coleman said.
So has Trevin Wax, who helps oversee research on American congregations as LifeWay’s senior vice president of theology and communications. Across the country, religious leaders are struggling with congregants’ conflicting concerns and demands.
“Some feel like you’re opening the church up too quickly or not taking the right precautions and, therefore, that you’re not taking this seriously and you’re putting people at risk. Others say that by not opening the church back up, you’re act like the worship of God is nonessential,” Wax said.
Since April, the share of Protestant pastors worried about how to maintain congregational unity has more than tripled, from 8% to 27%, according to recent data from Wax’s organization. More survey participants named pandemic-related conflict as a “top pressure point” than said church finances, members’ health or their own mental well-being.
Being a pastor has always been a tough job, but the COVID-19 pandemic has ramped up typical headaches to a new extreme, Wax said.
“Everyone is trying to do the best they can with the information they have,” he said. But “a lot of pastors feel beat up no matter what decision they make.”
A new kind of conflict
For a number of reasons, tension tied to the pandemic is much harder to resolve than the debates that pastors regularly oversee, religion experts said. Faith leaders are being asked to grapple with partisanship, misinformation campaigns, conflicting safety guidance and heightened anxiety all at the same time.
“This is not something anybody’s an expert in,” Wax said.
The same could probably be said of any international health crisis, but it’s especially true for a pandemic that’s been polarizing since it first reached American soil. Surveys have repeatedly shown that Republicans and Democrats have very different views on the importance of wearing masks, the need for stay-at-home orders and the significance of COVID-19’s threat to people’s lives.
“Debates over masks, over social distancing and over church reopenings have gotten swept up into the political divides that exist in this country,” Wax said.
Participants in LifeWay Research’s survey shared that partisan tensions have interfered with their leadership efforts. They worry their safety-related decisions are treated by some worshippers as a political statement.
“People’s attitudes have split very much on partisan lines. Half the church is opposed to any reopening. Half the church is frustrated that we haven’t long since reopened,” one respondent said.
Religious leaders also fear being accused of lacking sufficient faith, the Rev. Coleman said. It’s hard to convince someone to accept delayed reopening plans if they believe it’s important to trust God to keep the church safe.
“Some think that being faithful means not being afraid of a virus,” he said.
As if these two sources of tension weren’t enough, pastors are also dealing with fallout from officials’ mixed signals on the coronavirus, Wax said. Every day, new information seems to emerge that either confirms congregants’ worst fears or convinces them that the crisis has been overblown.
“There have been a lot of different ideas circulating out there, which has caused conflict,” he said.
Even in areas where officials seem to be on the same page, people can still stumble upon Facebook or Twitter posts that make them question what they’re hearing, Wax added.
“When (social media) becomes a dominant force ... in your life, it shapes you into the kind of person who lacks grace to bear with people who see things differently,” he said.
With all these factors complicating their response to the pandemic, it’s no wonder that many religious leaders are feeling totally overwhelmed, the Rev. Coleman said.
“I’ve had friends I’ve prayed with and prayed for about this,” he said. No pastor wants his people to feel like they’re doing the wrong thing.
Although pastors and other religion experts generally agree on why congregations are struggling to navigate pandemic-related conflict, they have different ideas about potential solutions. Some focus on what nonchurch actors should to do help, while others call for broader changes to church structure.
The Rev. Mark DeYmaz, who leads Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, is in the latter camp and urges pastors worried about growing tension to consider who is helping them make decisions.
Potentially controversial announcements are better received when congregants know you’ve sought input from a wide variety of people, he said.
“Our executive leadership team includes Black, Chinese, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican and white people. It’s a diverse team,” he said. “You’re able to have a broad, rich and more informed discussion when you have that kind of group.”
However, pastors who oversee congregations that are already divided may struggle to identify new advisers without making matters worse. They would likely be better served, at least in the short-term, by clearer guidance from secular officials.
“In a public health emergency, one of the most important things is to have a single, clear, scientifically based source of guidance. We have not had that in our country,” said Maggie Siddiqi, who directs the Faith and Public Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
Regardless of who pastors turn to for advice, they need to communicate about reopening plans and safety rules clearly and openly, the Rev. DeYmaz said. At Mosaic Church, leaders tried not to leave anything up to worshippers’ imaginations when the congregation began meeting in-person again in May.
“We put out three letters, three weeks in a row and explained everything about our approach,” he said.
Church leaders have also tried to make it clear that no one will be forced to do anything they aren’t comfortable with, the Rev. DeYmaz added.
“We leave it up to the individual and give them multiple opportunities to be involved,” he said.
Similarly, East End Fellowship has tried to ensure that members with very different ideas about the pandemic all feel like they’re being heard, the Rev. Coleman said. The church continues to hold its Sunday worship service online even as it’s allowed small groups of members to resume their weekly, in-person meetings.
“Soon, we hope to do a large, outdoor gathering,” he said, noting that outdoor events are generally thought to be safer and raise fewer logistics concerns.
As they try these and other potential solutions, religious leaders should reach out to others who find themselves in the same boat, Wax said. Pandemic-related conflict becomes a little easier to process when you can share your battle stories with other people of faith.
“Pastors need to be in constant communication with other pastors,” he said. Together, “they can maintain a sense of sanity and proportion about the criticism they’ve received.”