2020’s church divide
A pandemic and national controversies have splintered churches and taken a toll on pastors struggling to hold them together
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Chuck Bower and five other local pastors sat at a restaurant patio in King, N.C., to strategize. It was early June, and the pastors realized they needed to rethink church operations since the coronavirus pandemic looked to keep lingering. Yet none of them had ever dealt with such a public health crisis before. Two days later, one of the pastors texted the group: His whole family had tested positive that morning. “I apologize for showing up on Monday,” he wrote. “If I had had any signs, obviously I would have stayed away.”
That was one of many sleepless nights for Bower, lead pastor of Poplar Springs Church of Christ, a man who regularly plunged into blissful sleep the moment his cheek touched the pillow. Now, Bower (thankfully, he and the other pastors in the group all tested negative) can’t remember the last good night’s sleep he’s had. He often wakes up in the middle of the night and tosses restlessly. His mind churns with questions: “What should I do?” “What could I have done better?” “How much more can I take?”
Year 2020 has been a brutal, perfect storm of a pandemic, a contentious election, racial unrest, financial troubles, and rampant conspiracy theories. It’s been a particularly treacherous time for church leaders to navigate when members split over issues like face masks. But it’s not just about masks. Political and ideological tensions within churches aren’t anything new, but pastors say this year each conflict—whether it’s over mask mandates, Black Lives Matter, or presidential politics—overlaps with the others in a confounding Venn diagram.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s any conversation that’s disconnected from conflict in some way,” said Nate Pyle, lead pastor of Christ’s Community Church in Fishers, Ind., who’s seen his own members leave over disagreements on how his church is handling discussions on race. “In a sense, we’re playing whack-a-mole and trying to deal with all of these conflicts at the same time.”
The top “pressure point” Protestant pastors faced during the pandemic was maintaining unity in their churches.
Adding to the dynamic is the fact that usual modes of discipleship and fellowship—meeting in person, reading facial expressions and body language, touching each other, singing and laughing together—are gone. No seminary courses prepare pastors for deciding whether to close their churches, when to open, which ministry to cut, or how to care for the sick from 6 feet away. Some churches have fired their pastors over their decisions on the pandemic. Many pastors have lost church members, spent hours explaining their decisions to an offended party, or lost track of who’s stopped engaging and who’s fallen through the cracks.
A July 2020 survey by Lifeway Research revealed the top “pressure point” Protestant pastors faced during the pandemic was maintaining unity in their churches and dealing with complaints and conflicts, followed by figuring out how to care for members from a distance. Other top pressure points included “personal exhaustion” and ministry “uncertainty.”
THESE SAME STRESSES PLAGUE BOWER DAY AND night. March 15—the Sunday most churches across the United States began canceling in-person services—Bower and his elders did the same and decided to stream his sermon online. Several members emailed Bower, alarmed: Don’t let Rome dictate the church, one member warned. Bower sent a letter to church members assuring them that the church was not facing persecution from the government—he and the elders wanted to keep people safe. In early June, abiding by North Carolina’s public health guidelines, Bower’s church held in-person, socially distanced outdoor services on a field at the church campus. Some congregants grumbled about having to meet outdoors—they said the church was caving to government control.
Discontented rumblings grew louder in mid-September when the church finally moved services back into the building but required social distancing and masks. The day Bower made those announcements, several people told him they wouldn’t comply. Some left and joined another church that had fewer restrictions. One man complained passionately yet begrudgingly came to church flashing a “Trump 2020” mask—but at least he showed up.
These are people Bower has shepherded for years, committed members who served the church, families he’s baptized and prayed for, loved ones he visited in hospitals. To see such a family leave because of a mask requirement or lack of kids’ ministry hurt. Meanwhile, Bower was disheartened to see political bickering and conspiracy theories popping up on social media, so he quit Facebook. In October, Bower led a three-part sermon series on unity within the Church. Most congregants’ comments were positive, but the handful of negative ones clung like barnacles to his memory, including one insisting that all Christians must vote for Donald Trump. Those comments discouraged Bower: “What weighs on me most is, I just wonder … did they miss what we’ve tried to teach over the years about being a disciple of Jesus? How do people get so sucked [into politics] so easily?”
CONGREGANTS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE VARIOUS spectrums are struggling too.
Some churchgoers say they left because church leaders were getting too partisan. Montrell and Kelsey Thigpen had been attending a Calvary Chapel in Sun Valley, Calif., for many years—Kelsey since she was a child, Montrell since he began dating Kelsey, now his wife—and thought their pastor was getting increasingly political. The church featured on its homepage a link to a local voting guide with endorsements for all Republican candidates and conservative ballot measures.
The church held in-person services for a time, then moved services outdoors. But according to the Thigpens, few people wore masks or social distanced. Kelsey, a nurse on a COVID-19 floor, told her pastor she didn’t feel comfortable attending in person because she’s exposed to COVID-19 patients all day and most of the church’s members are elderly. The pastor later mentioned the Thigpens by name in a sermon and said: “They say they don’t want to give anyone the virus.” A few minutes later in the sermon he asked: “Does anyone know anyone in our church who contracted the virus?” No one indicated they had. “Out of 700 people. Not one. … I think this whole thing is an issue of control—it’s to control people, control society; it’s to implement a new Marxist, socialistic government.”
The Thigpens were watching the service online and felt publicly shamed. Montrell visited his pastor to discuss his concerns but felt dismissed. That was the last time the Thigpens spoke to him, though Montrell said they love him: “[He] is 100 percent one of the best men I know. An awesome mentor” who was his wife’s pastor “for all 27 years of her life” before Montrell and Kelsey got married. But they still decided to livestream services from another local church.
I emailed the pastor twice and called three times to ask questions but received no response.
Others have left their churches for the opposite reason. In the spring, many people assumed online services would provide a short-term season of digital worship. But weeks stretched to months, and people now suffer from Zoom fatigue: Some Christians can’t gather, sing, hug, or break bread with the church body. The loss is not just physical, but spiritual, mental, and emotional.
As a homeschooling father and data artist who already works remotely, Robert Rouse decided worshipping through a screen wasn’t an option for his family: “To me, online churches are no different than a low-budget TV show.” Before the pandemic, he once taught a Sunday school class on the limits of digital interaction. So when most churches near his Dallas home shut down in-person services, Rouse and his family quietly looked for another church. He didn’t want to voice opinions against his church leadership’s decision to livestream services, but he also felt too strongly about the necessity of gathering.
Currently, the Rouses attend a church called Free Grace Bible Church that’s still gathering in small groups indoors. It doesn’t have its own building, so different families host the service at different times. Each Sunday, Rouse and his family drive 40 minutes each way to a farmhouse, where about 15 people sit scattered throughout the living room, sing hymns with a piano, and freely hug each other. “It’s just not as much of an issue,” Rouse said. “Everybody’s like-minded … it feels like an escape, at least for once a week,” from what he describes as “a world gone mad.”
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE THIGPENS AND the Rouses is a common headache for pastors: One couple in California doesn’t think their church takes the coronavirus seriously enough. One family in Texas left because they thought their church restricted too much. Many churches have families from both sides of the spectrum in their congregations, and pastors feel they’re twisting into pretzels trying to minister to both. “It’s like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree,” one pastor told me. No matter what they decide, someone’s mad.
Pastors are wearing themselves out trying to manage other people’s emotions, said Sean Nemecek, a third-generation pastor who counsels other pastors and blogs at The Pastor’s Soul. “That constant criticism just beats you down over time,” he said. “In every little thing, you’re being attacked and judged. A lot of pastors are just afraid of being hit one more time.” Nemecek said he’s seen a “dramatic increase” in pastors seeking counseling this year, many who say they’re burned out, especially as they watch engagement drop, not knowing which congregants are gone for good.
Barna Group in late April and early May polled Americans who identify as Christian, claim faith is very important in their lives, and attend church at least monthly before COVID-19: One-third said they’d been streaming a church service online other than their own, and about 14 percent had switched churches during the pandemic. Another one-third said they were completely disengaged: They’d stopped attending any church or even viewing services online. What’s happening to these people?
These silent disappearances are what most bother Chuck Frost, who pastors two small United Methodist churches in Vancleave, Miss. When Frost first decided to livestream services in mid-March, he was the only pastor in his area to do so. Most other churches remained open. At first, Frost was apprehensive: Was he overreacting? Then in October, his entire family fell ill with COVID-19, including his 90-year-old father-in-law, who died soon after contracting the virus. His wife, a special needs teacher, contracted the virus at school. When I spoke to Frost in November, he still had not fully recovered his sense of smell.
“We’re going through storms like we’ve never seen before, but our anchor is the Lord. An anchor doesn’t guarantee there won’t be storms, but it holds fast.”
The last several months have been grueling. Early in the pandemic, responses from his two churches were heartening: Online viewership was high, and people from other churches were also tuning in. Members donated $7,000 to buy better equipment for livestreaming, then raised another $4,000 to help a couple of families fix their roofs. But over time, viewership started to dip, even as Frost ramped up online content: four devotionals a week, a Sunday sermon, a Wednesday Bible study, and kids ministry videos. He tried everything he could think of to create some sort of normalcy for his congregation, yet online attendance continued to bleed. Frost stopped counting numbers because it depressed him.
Both his churches have now resumed in-person services, but people are required to wear masks and social distance, and many congregants simply never showed up. Many didn’t report why, but “pastors hear a lot,” Frost said. Some people didn’t like the mask requirement. Some were upset that Frost had closed in-person services. Some feared the virus and didn’t want to risk coming. Frost can only imagine why others disappeared without a word, and he keeps wondering: Will they come back? Are they even in touch with God?
“I’m 54 years old, and this is the most insecure I’ve ever been about my job in ministry,” Frost said. Like many other pastors, he wrestles with the list of all the things he could have or should have done differently: “This year has exposed where people are spiritually. But you can also say the same—that it has exposed my own pastoral deficiencies.”
Nemecek hears about such insecurities a lot from pastors: “Honestly, the environment of what’s going on has less of an impact on the pastors than what’s going on in their own souls.” During his counseling, he tries to diagnose the source of each pastor’s burnout and help separate identity in Christ from the circumstances of ministry: “When pastors get to that place, then they’re better able to navigate what’s going on in the world around them.” Pastors tell me that’s the only thing keeping them going. “We’re going through storms like we’ve never seen before, but our anchor is the Lord. An anchor doesn’t guarantee there won’t be storms, but it holds fast,” said Bower, the pastor in North Carolina. “That’s my comfort.”
These days, Frost’s prayers are simple. He prays, “Lord, have mercy!” Then, “All thanks be to God.” Though short, his prayers are anchored on a divine assurance that’s unshakable and unchanging even as the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain: “We were made for joy. We were made for hope. We were born to love. And so that’s what I intend to do.”
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