Michael Prevett spent his first few months in ministry measuring out the distance between chairs.
The 33-year-old discipleship pastor says that, to a lot of his peers, going into ministry at all “sounds a little crazy.” But it was even worse in January 2021 when he left his job as a project manager at a construction company and joined the staff at Seven Mile Road Church in Melrose, Massachusetts, just north of Boston.
The pandemic seemed to have put everything important on pause.
“The most difficult thing was the sense of waiting,” he told CT. “It felt like for me, I got an extended time to work on the boat instead of just working in the boat.”
An extensive new study on the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the church from ChurchSalary, which is ministry of Christianity Today, and Arbor Research found that younger ministers were hit especially hard by the pandemic.
Nearly 60 percent of those under 34 took on new responsibilities during the pandemic. About half of those also saw their titles change. That took a toll.
The younger a pastor was when COVID-19 hit, the study found, the more likely the pastor was to consider quitting. Only 14 percent of those between 45 and 54 had serious thoughts about leaving ministry. But 22 percent of pastors between the ages of 35 and 44, 29 percent between 25 and 34, and 37 percent between 18 and 24 thought about it a lot.
Younger pastors also worried about the impact the pandemic was having on them personally. More than 60 percent of those under the age of 35 said they were moderately to severely concerned about their mental health.
Many of them spent the pandemic grappling with how to help their churches adapt to the continually changing situation and sometimes reinvent church, week to week. It was younger pastors who took on the burden of learning new technology and coming up with quick and creative (but not too controversial) solutions to the pandemic problems.
“That’s why younger pastors were going crazy,” said Leon Stevenson, 45, who is the senior pastor at Mack Avenue Community Church in Detroit, Michigan. “It’s like, Okay, how do we do this with less people, and it’s more expensive, and the learning curve is in a week?”
Figuring out how to stream services was a huge, overwhelming problem for those who hadn’t done it before. At the same time, church staff lost the ability to recruit volunteers to help.
“You now have to create a new ministry but you didn’t get a flood of new people,” Stevenson said.
The sudden reliance on technology meant more hours in online meetings, either with colleagues or parishioners, and time spent editing video and audio. Yet while pastors’ days were filled by screens, they were also eerily silent.
“Our business is the people business,” said Marcus Doe, a pastor at Redemption Tucson, part of a multisite church with locations throughout Arizona. “If we’re not able to gather, what could we be doing to shepherd our people?”
When the pandemic began, Doe, now 44, was a pastor at Providence Bible Church in Denver, Colorado. He’d served there since 2016. The pandemic seemed to strip everything away.
“There was a sense of nothingness,” he said. “The days were very slow.”
Doe went to the church for a few hours each day to try to work. The silence was enveloping. It brought a torrent of questions about the future and what it would look like.
“It just felt like there was this cloud that you couldn’t quite shake. Everything was uncertain,” he said.
There are, of course, exceptions. Some ministers recall the pandemic as a period where they grew and their churches flourished.
Chad Granger, pastor of Urban Hope Community Church in Fairfield, Alabama, recalls 2020 as the year that “God’s face really started to smile down on us.”
He admits that’s not how most experienced the pandemic.
“I think we have a very unique journey that’s not normal to a lot of my peers,” he said.
Granger went to Urban Hope in 2016, three years after the Presbyterian Church in America congregation was planted, and was really focused on achieving stability. The multiracial congregation had about 25 members, with average weekly attendance around 40 or 50.
The pandemic surprisingly seemed to draw deeper commitment from people. New people came. The church took significant steps toward stability.
“We were either going to die or bloom,” Granger said. “We bloomed by the grace of God.”
The church recently hit 100 members. It now has an established group of elders. In the fall of 2021, Urban Hope moved into its own building—a purchase that the church fundraised for during the pandemic.
“If anything, we really feel like we started to get momentum and God’s wind behind us in the midst of it all,” said Granger.
He knows a lot of pastors and congregations can’t say that.
And yet many pastors, in fact, reported a high level of job satisfaction now that the worst of the COVID-19 crisis seems to be behind them.
“I can’t think of doing anything else,” said James Williams, 40, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Texas.
Ministering during COVID-19 was incredibly difficult, he said. Much of his ministry focuses on seniors. Barred from hospitals and retirement homes, he found himself banging on windows and waving. The church returned to in-person morning services in May 2020 but didn’t resume many ministries, including children’s Sunday school classes, until later. Many of the teachers are elderly and the church didn’t want to pressure them to return before they felt comfortable.
The church looks different than it did in March 2020, Williams said. Some people have moved away, while others have relocated from California and Oregon to the East Texas city of roughly 5,500 people.
He feels pretty optimistic about the future of the church. There’s a sense that if they got through that, they can get through anything. And after the hard times, every sign of growth feels special, like the first green sprouts after an especially hard winter.
Prevett feels that too. As his church in Massachusetts moved through the pandemic, he got to see the power of the regular life of the church. He witnessed the ways the Holy Spirit moved through preaching, teaching, Communion, and baptism, and people’s lives were changed by going to church.
“It was working,” he said.
These days, the discipleship pastor’s main job isn’t measuring the distance between chairs. But he can tell you what he’s seen from then to now: “People are being built through the church.”