Recent studies suggest that the United States may be about to experience a devastating wave of COVID-19 infections, even as a vaccine offers a glimmer of hope. The news likely bodes ill for the Episcopal Church, which already is facing a precipitous decline in giving due to the pandemic. Moreover, the timing is particularly troubling, for it comes at a time when most parishes are in the midst of their annual pledging and financial planning processes.
Here in the author’s home of Virginia, where the state just topped 300,000 COVID-19 cases, an updated University of Virginia model reflects the lack of social distancing during Thanksgiving.
A predicted surge, culminating in the week ending February 7. During that one week alone, 98,000 new cases are expected, or 13 times the previous peak of 7,500 cases for the week ending August 9.
Other states face similar, and often more dire, predictions.
So what does that mean for the Episcopal church?
First, existing church financial forecasts generally appear to be predicated on a steady state scenario for the pandemic, culminating in a vaccine that begins the transition to a more normal state of affairs. This outcome appears increasingly unlikely, at least for 2021.
While a vaccine, together with continued social distancing, may eventually result in an easing of the situation, the catastrophic job loss, hospital utilization, and financial/social disruption resulting from the upcoming tsunami of COVID-19 likely will further erode income and participation in 2021, with damage possibly lasting into the indefinite future.
Second, the aging demographics of the Episcopal church make the situation doubly challenging. Indeed, 31 percent of Episcopal church members are age 65+, versus just 14 percent of the US population. Thus, the church will be hit harder than the population at large, and even with a vaccine, church members will need to remain vigilant in social distancing and other measures to reduce the risk of infection. This means that a return to “normal” worship will not happen any time soon.
Moreover, Episcopal liturgical practices, among them the common cup and congregational singing, will remain problematic. And preschools, nurseries, and other community services provided by Episcopal churches, even with social distancing, will result in church buildings remaining high risk locations for older congregants.
Crisis of conflict
Third, it is axiomatic that financial issues engender conflict. Thus, the tsunami of infections will almost inevitably bring with it a crisis of conflict, even as society as a whole struggles with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues emanating from the depression.
Indeed, the Episcopal church data referenced above reports that finances are the most common source of intra-parish conflict, with declining parishes facing more overall conflict and more areas of serious conflict. For example, in the relatively tranquil year of 2014, which was not marred by the massive upheavals caused by the property recovery litigation. 38 percent of parishes reported at least one area of serious conflict. That contrasts, for instance, with PCUSA churches, in which just 8 percent report serious conflict.
Nor is the Episcopal church good at dealing with conflict in a positive manner. The Episcopal survey identified above reveals that, in churches with serious conflict, 74 percent lost members as a result, while 35 percent experienced members withholding funds. Only 56 percent report that the conflict was dealt with openly, and just 36 percent reported that the conflict made the parish stronger. In other words, two thirds of parishes find conflict damaging. This is indeed troubling, for it is well-established that properly managed conflict can result in interpersonal and organization growth and health.
Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that many Episcopal congregations will remain true to form, and respond to the challenges faced by the rising tide of the pandemic with poorly handled internal strife, member loss, and reduction of giving. It also bears mentioning that multiple authorities report a hidden pandemic within the pandemic, which is a huge upswing in domestic violence related to stay-at-home-orders and the breakdown in normal domestic violence reporting systems, including schools and doctor’s offices.
Flat-footed denominational response
Unfortunately, there’s little sign that diocesan or denominational officials recognize the surging alienation and conflict likely to emerge in the coming weeks. Indeed, this would be the ideal time to formally offer online training on:
- Maintaining mental health.
- Recognizing that conflict can be both healthy and normal. Indeed, conflict can be a gift from God.
- Practical strategies to live into the baptismal covenant.
Specific competencies the church might teach:
- Active listening.
- Guidelines for dealing openly and positively with conflict.
- Strategies for respectful engagement.
- Recognizing and reporting domestic violence or abuse in the absence of normal reporting systems.
In addition, dioceses would benefit by helping their parishes move towards healing and wholeness in cases of longstanding conflict, versus the usual Episcopal practices of passive-aggressive behavior, avoidance, and papering over conflict. Indeed, how many times is the phrase, “We just need to move on,” heard in parishes, with no attempt made to address the underlying issue. In short, the pandemic is the ideal inflection point to address long-standing problems within the church, even if not rooted in the current crisis.
For the record
For the record, church leaders should not conflate the usual Christmas sermons about light in the darkness, joy, and hope, with the need for more extensive educational opportunities to deal with financial disruption, safety and health, and conflict. The latter should be addressed at every level, including within parishes, in the workplace, and in society as a whole.
A healthy church is one that is healthy on a holistic level. A church cannot, for example, have great financials and unresolved conflict and still be a healthy parish. Similarly, a church cannot have friendly, welcoming, members and a cash flow crisis and still be a healthy parish.
Nor can one respond effectively to the pandemic using the tried and true Episcopal tactic of ignoring it and hoping it will go away. COVID-19 is here, and left to its own devices, it will devastate an aging and increasingly irrelevant church and its membership. And the devastation wrought will not just be the death of members; it will play into every one of the church’s problematic organizational dynamics, including conflict, passive-aggressive behavior, dysfunctional leadership, declining worship attendance, and more. In short, the pandemic kills in many ways, and attacks on our physical health is just one of its myriad tactics.,
Neither is the solution regathering. Indeed, the upcoming tidal wave of infections suggests now is the time to cease all in-person worship. Indeed, there is a good argument to be made that even live-streaming services from churches is simply not worth the risk when one can remain safely at home.
As to the socially distanced and outdoor Christmas services happening at some churches, let me say this: Growing up in a home where Christmas was celebrated with splendor, I well understand the emotional ties of Christmas.
But the looming wave of human death and suffering amidst the pandemic surge makes any notion of an in-person service during one of the holiest days of the year not just ill-advised, but utterly contrary to the Christmas message. Light in the darkness warrants keeping our brothers and sisters safe, and should override our nostalgic desire for a “traditional Christmas.”
In other words, having an in-person Christmas service, even if outdoors and socially distanced, is downright stupid.
While many are suffering from pandemic weariness, COVID-19 is a ruthless disease that plays a long game. Now, even as we approach widespread access to a vaccine, is not the time to let down our guard. And prudent church leaders need to understand that an effective response to the pandemic is a holistic response that includes:
- Spiritual health.
- Health and safety.
- Employment issues.
- Financial matters.
- Mental health.
- Interpersonal issues.
- Organizational dynamics.
Nor are these issues that can be relied on to sort themselves out. Neither can any of these issues be adequately addressed without addressing the other issues, for they form an interconnected web of human pain and suffering.
This Christmas, let’s hope that leaders at every level of the church look at the surging pandemic not merely as a challenge, but as a divine invitation to positive growth, health, change, rebirth, renewal, and resurrection.