Urban, Suburban, and Rural Church Leaders Share Their Experiences of Leading Through a Pandemic
By Chris Moon
No two churches are the same, even in how they have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That said, the virus has left a mark on Restoration Movement congregations and pastors across the country.
For some churches and pastors, especially in rural, conservative areas of the country, the pandemic seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. The major difficulty was figuring out how to get the internet to cooperate during a brief closure.
“There’s a lot of things you face like that out here in rural Missouri,” said Rick Mosher, minister at Licking Christian Church.
For other churches, particularly in urban areas, it sometimes is hard to see how or when ministry life will return to normal. Rates of infection are much higher, and local restrictions on gatherings have been slower to ease.
Near downtown Cincinnati, Echo Church decided by June it would not even attempt to formally regather as a congregation until after Labor Day—a full three months after a lot of churches in other parts of the country began to assemble again.
“A lot of [the congregation] were not comfortable to return yet,” said lead minister Kelly Carr.
Christian Standard talked to church leaders from across the spectrum—from big cities to suburbia to small towns—and heard various stories about the impact of COVID-19. Pastors had to find their own, unique ways to respond to the virus as their congregations coped with a strange new normal.
“Being in California, being in LA County, I guess there is more of a heightened sense of fear and concern among people because that’s just what you hear,” said Guy Fox, lead pastor of Diamond Canyon Christian Church.
California’s governor and the mayor of Los Angeles made frequent headlines—locally and nationally—in their response to the virus.
Fox’s church had been planning an online campus. The pandemic put those plans on the fast track, and by summer the church made the move to hire an online pastor.
The church resumed in-person services in June. Fox had heard only 15 to 40 percent of a congregation typically returns at first. He thought his church of 500 people would break that mold. It didn’t.
“We started right at 30 percent,” he said.
It’s indicative of the difficulties pastors have in managing the pandemic.
“It’s been very trying,” Fox said. “You second-guess yourself a lot. This is something no one has been through. There’s no model. There’s no history. I’ve prayed more for wisdom than I ever have before.”
Not seeing people was one of the toughest things for Fox. And even when he saw people, it was from a distance.
But there’s been a silver lining. The church discovered it was over reliant on its Sunday service to drive engagement. The church has begun looking for other ways to plug people into the life of the church.
“I think, in a way, that was a good wake-up call,” Fox said.
On the opposite end of the country, Steve Brooke wanted to make sure he didn’t lose connection with his new congregation, Legacy Christian Church, which sits between Tampa and Orlando.
He started as pastor with the church in December, and the congregation had been in a season of growth—with attendance approaching 400—when the pandemic struck.
Brooke remembers asking, “Lord, what in the world are you doing?”
When in-person services were shuttered, he committed to “meeting” with his church daily on Facebook Live. The daily gathering at 9:01 a.m.—a nod to the church’s address at 901 West Beacon Road—featured streamed video messages based on a Scripture passage. Some of those messages reached 45 minutes in length.
Brooke said all of a sudden he wasn’t just offering a Sunday message but a daily one.
“No joke, not only our church family tuned in, but then people from around the state, around the country, and even around the world started listening in,” he said.
Those messages came alongside the church’s livestream on Sundays. And his “901Pray” gatherings continued even after the church resumed meeting in person—first through drive-in services and then in the building.
Brooke said the heavy emphasis on maintaining a daily online connection paid off with the congregation
“It was a big eye-opening thing with them,” he said. “It was a thing to do when the world around them was crazy. It was that one thing during the day that really helped ground them.”
Brooke said Legacy continues to be showered with blessings—despite the pandemic.
“God has provided unique opportunities that we may not have had otherwise, or maybe we would have tried too hard at manufacturing otherwise.”
No Angst . . . Yet
In an urban part of the midsized city of Fort Smith, Arkansas—the heart of the Bible Belt—lead pastor Tim Beasley said Central Christian Church’s attendance had just crossed the 500 mark when COVID-19 closures hit.
During the lockdown, the church began livestreaming its service, and “we’ve discovered we had a new venue [online] that we didn’t know existed,” Beasley said.
Beasley said his father, who passed away in April, attended church essentially for the first time during the final weeks of his life—totally online.
Central Christian Church returned to in-person services in June, but only about 25 percent of the 500-person congregation showed up.
Reactions to the pandemic have been mixed. Beasley said a 93-year-old man attends every service—and typically removes his facemask by the third worship song. No one bothers him about it.
“I think our folks are ready to get back to life as normal,” he said.
But it is not unanimous. Beasley said he received an email expressing concern after photos from a youth event circulated on social media showing students who didn’t appear to be social distancing.
Beasley is concerned about whether the church has lost ground. Would 500 people return to the Sunday morning services if the virus suddenly disappeared?
“If there’s any angst, it still hasn’t landed yet,” Beasley said. “I think time will tell. Will we ever be back where we were, or will we be starting from scratch?”
‘The Church Is Their Family’
Some urban ministries aren’t yet wondering when things will get back to normal. They’re still puzzling over when they’ll resume in-person worship.
Echo Church—about a mile from downtown Cincinnati—got a lot more pastoral during the pandemic closures. In that way, the dispersed nature of the church played to Kelly Carr’s strengths.
“The pastoral side of ministry is definitely my strong suit and passion,” said Carr. “That’s what we’ve had to lean in on.”
Her church is a young one, comprised mostly of millennials with young families. Regular phone calls have afforded the opportunity for some deeper conversations with congregants than time ordinarily would have allowed.
Carr’s next step is to make the call about when to resume services. “We have to be aware of what the trends are to know what’s safe and what to decide for our congregation.”
Like so many churches, Echo has taken its services online. The close-knit, 60-person church has embraced the technology. The idea of gathering again in the large, old Methodist church building the congregation rents has been slow to catch on.
“We still have a contingent of people who don’t feel comfortable gathering there,” Carr said.
The church instead established three regular backyard church meetings for members to attend.
But even these are carefully managed. Nearly everyone in the congregation knows someone who has been infected with the virus, although the church itself has remained healthy, Carr said.
Efforts to be safe do come with costs. Church members miss seeing one another.
“A lot of people in our church are not from Cincinnati,” Carr said. “The church is their family.”
Getting Back to Normal
Church life is different away from the city.
Licking, Missouri, population 1,500 or so, didn’t see its first case of COVID-19 until June.
“No one in town really seems upset about it,” said Rick Mosher, pastor of the 100-member Licking Christian Church.
The church stopped meeting in person for about six weeks, only because the governor temporarily put an end to such gatherings. The local government issued no shutdown orders for churches.
“We’re in a very conservative, rural county,” Mosher said. “We’re in a part of the country where half the people still think it’s fake. I’m not exaggerating. We have people around here who make Fox News look liberal.”
Mosher said the church learned during the pandemic how to stream its services online, but only after upgrading its internet service. Rural internet can be spotty. The church also added online giving as an option.
So there have been some silver linings to the pandemic, Mosher said.
But like many pastors, Mosher found himself at a bit of a loss during the closures. There was no bulletin to print each week and no Sunday school lesson to prepare.
People weren’t moving around as much. The church even went six weeks between board meetings—a rarity.
“In some ways, it was a little extra time off. In some ways it was a little depressing,” Mosher said. “It’s hard to describe. It was different.”
When the church did reopen, it switched services to its gymnasium so families could sit six feet apart. The only person who wasn’t happy with the arrangement believed the church should have been meeting in the sanctuary instead.
“I don’t really think it’s going to have a long-term negative effect on church attendance,” Mosher said.
An Odd Season
Not all small towns are the same, of course.
In Kalkaska, Michigan, Andy Bratton said he expects plenty of time to pass before any sort of normalcy returns. The minister at Kalkaska Church of Christ—a 400-member congregation in a town of 2,000—said his church returned to in-person services in mid-June.
Only 140 people showed up. Bratton said he doesn’t expect attendance to bounce back until next year.
“Until there’s a vaccination, I think people are going to be a little leery about being in gatherings again,” he said. “People aren’t going to feel comfortable.”
His community isn’t homogenous in its feelings toward the virus. Some days, Bratton walks into a store and sees no one wearing masks. On other days, everyone is wearing them.
Bratton, in his fifth year leading the church, had always felt obligated to attend everything the church had going on. His calendar has eased considerably.
Bratton is spending more time on the phone with those in the congregation, and the conversations can go deeper than in the past.
“I personally probably thrive better one on one,” he said.
And there has been a more difficult adjustment.
“The hardest part for me has been preaching to a computer monitor or preaching to a very small crowd. It’s not that they’re a small crowd . . . they’re spread out over our worship center.”
And yet, Bratton recognizes times inevitably will change.
“Every season in ministry is just odd,” he said.
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.