Some pastors fear their churches won't survive the pandemic - report

(Photo: Unsplash/Gregory DALLEAU)

Finances and moving church online are just some of the areas that have added to the stresses of being a pastor during the pandemic, a new report has found.

The report, 'Something Other Than a Building', is based on interviews with 32 church ministers from across the island of Ireland and the spectrum of Christian denominations. 

The interviews revealed that for some pastors, the pandemic has been marked by frequent headaches, insomnia, financial difficulties and fears for the future of their church. 

Some ministers reported challenges in moving services online for the first time, with one Presbyterian in Northern Ireland struggling with the constant comparisons with other churches.

"Some people were trying to make a service; some people were trying to do Facebook; some people were sending out an audio; and then there is so much video," the minister said.

"You find that even on the ground one church looks at a neighbouring church and is saying to the minister, 'well if our neighbour is doing it that way, why can't you do this?' Which then would have actually put more pressure back on the local ministers.

"Maybe, it's not their fault that they can't do this, that the church doesn't have the infrastructure that's able to do that or the people technically to help them ... This is the big downside of this video stuff, the competition." 

Another pastor spoke of the difficulty in trying to please everyone once churches were allowed to re-open for a while after the first lockdown. 

"Especially planning returning to church, I was damned if I did and damned if I don't," they said.

"If I choose one day, it's too late for some; if I choose another day, it's too early for some. So, I think it's just leadership.

"There's a point at which you make a decision, and some people will be pleased with it, and some people will be unhappy, and they will express those feelings in different ways." 

While for some pastors, lockdown was a chance to slow down and recalibrate, some said they had felt increasingly stressed as the pandemic wore on.

"I have had more headaches in this last three months than I've had in ten years. I've never taken as many paracetamol all in my life," said one Church of Ireland minister in Northern Ireland. 

"I've had nights where I've just been awake the whole night and not slept at all ... A lot of clergy want to be people who can cope to allow their congregation to cope.

"I did put on Facebook one day, that I'd been crying all day, I'm not gonna talk to you. And I had one man text me and say, just read your Facebook. I'm having one of those days, too.

"I also had a couple colleagues say, are you right to post this. And I wrote, yes because I'm human too." 

A Methodist minister in Northern Ireland also admitted to feeling the strain.

"I was so exhausted. Every week I'm busy preaching on my iPad: talking to it, not to people. You feel tense in a way. Every time I finished a service, I would eat and sleep the whole afternoon on Sunday," she said. 

The report, compiled by Churches in Ireland and Queen's University, Belfast, also revealed financial pressures, with some churches coping better than others. 

"Finances have been a source of anxiety for almost all churches. With church buildings shut, traditional methods for collecting offerings like passing the collection plate were off-limits," the report said. 

Most clergy reported shouldering an extra financial burden at the start of the pandemic because they did not feel it was right to ask for donations at a time when many members of the congregation were struggling themselves.

Some clergy reported that after a while, members of their congregation proactively approached the church to find out how to give, or dropped off envelopes of money.

One Catholic priest said he had not received any salary since services went online.

"I've had no income since we've gone online for Mass. Some people have been very supportive and they've put money in an envelope and popped it through my [letter] box, but it's a fraction of what would normally have come my way," he said.

"But again, as I reminded some of my colleagues, at least we have a roof over our head. And unless we do something awful silly altogether, we will remain to have that roof over our head and we won't be thrown out. More than likely there will be food on the table. So listen, we're not doing too bad."

In general, the interviews suggested that larger urban churches have fared better because they were in a better position to roll out online giving.

The only church that did not experience a dip in giving was a Presbyterian congregation in an affluent part of Northern Ireland because congregants were already giving by standing order each month before the pandemic started.

Small rural parishes reliant on fundraisers and renting out their buildings have struggled more, with small rural Protestant congregations in the Republic appearing to be "especially vulnerable to financial strain", the report said. 

Some pastors admitted they were worried about losing their church buildings.

Among them was a pastor in the Redeemed Christian Church of God who was uncertain of how much longer his congregation would be able to rent its meeting place.

"We don't have any support anywhere from any government, it's just by the little donation contributions that we continue," the pastor said.

"We don't know if we will still be able to maintain our place of worship because of the flow of cash that we will receive. Because this thing has also affected some people that they lost their job. And the care of the family comes first.

"We are struggling, and that has grave consequences." 

Another pastor concerned about the future is a Church of Ireland minister responsible for several rural parishes that have traditionally relied on fundraisers for income.

He said that financially-speaking, the pandemic had "been a nightmare" and that longer-term consequences may combine with the existing challenges of continued decline in attendance to force the churches to close for good. 

"It's probably easier if you're in a big church, which is in no danger of closing in your lifetime," he said.

"But if you look at your church, and see that you're the last generation holding it together ... it's not easy to let go.

"If you're the last generation, you become very much fixated on the building, and the graveyard. Will it still be there for me to be buried in?" 

The full report is available to read here.