Gammon Theological Seminary joined with five United Methodist organizations, seeking to hear the voices of Black pastors and leaders who have faithfully led and served God’s people amid the unprecedented COVID-19 global health pandemic in June 2021.
The goal was to amplify the progress and concerns of Black United Methodist churches since the pandemic began.
Gammon is the only predominantly Black United Methodist seminary of the 13 U.S. United Methodist theological schools. The Atlanta-based seminary developed and launched the 20-question survey in June, garnering an overwhelmingly positive completion rate from 619 respondents representing all five of the denomination’s U.S. jurisdictions.
“I was surprised by the number of responses we received so quickly,” said Rev. Candace M. Lewis. “People wanted to speak and share their experiences.”
Lewis, the newly elected 17th president and dean of Gammon, started her tenure on April 1. She is the first woman elected to this role in the school’s 138-year history.
The other participating organizations in the survey included Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, Black Clergywomen of The United Methodist Church, the Convocation for Black Pastors in The UMC and Discipleship Ministries.
Survey questions focused on the pandemic’s impact on emotional well-being, church finances, average worship attendance, launching virtual worship, and how the church remained in mission and ministry during and after quarantine.
Another goal was to discover the factors influencing the decision of Black United Methodist congregations either to return to meeting in-person, to develop and maintain a hybrid in-person and online worship experience, or to continue virtual worship services only. Finally, survey developers wanted to assess respondents’ needs in maintaining effective ministry.
Lewis was amazed to learn that before shutdowns in March 2020, 74% of Black United Methodist congregations (accustomed to in-person worship in a physical building) lacked online, hybrid or digital worship experiences.
“This surprised me to grasp the disruption and immediate pivot that occurred,” she said. “The need to adapt technically to this new reality and ministry landscape is to be commended.”
Since then, the percentage of Black churches offering digital or hybrid worship has increased to 98%, with such options as drive-in and stay-in-vehicle parking lot worship.
Long-term sustainability of hybrid digital and in-person worship in smaller Black United Methodist congregations is a major obstacle facing Black clergy and laity, Lewis acknowledged.
“I fear many will rush back to an in-person, in-the-physical-building worship experience and ‘over spiritualize’ the decision because it’s most familiar and too difficult to ask for the resources needed to build a sustainable, quality, hybrid worship experience,” she said. “Immediate needs for many Black United Methodist churches are (obtaining) resources to upgrade technology, recruiting, training, upgrading skills of volunteers with technology and equipping clergy in innovative ministries.”
The survey indicated that of the 38% of Black United Methodist congregations not yet returning to offering in-person worship, the top reason was concern for safety, especially among older adults.
“This risk factor,” Lewis said, “is mitigated by developing a connected hybrid, virtual worship experience and creating additional opportunities for high-risk members to stay connected to the congregation.”
She shared the story of her 86-year-old mother. “She’s not comfortable returning to in-person services,” Lewis said. “She’s enjoyed the Zoom services. Yet, prior to the pandemic, she’d never heard of Zoom. She said ‘the pictures and sound aren’t always clear,’ which translates to technical issues that could be improved with upgraded equipment and advanced training for the pastor and volunteers.”
The report also stated that Black United Methodist congregations’ greatest need is for resources to help with digital discipleship as well as youth and children’s ministry.
Lewis expressed excitement that Gammon can now ‘amplify’ and quantify such needs.
“Based on this new data,” she said, “we can assist Cokesbury, Discipleship Ministries and other United Methodist general agencies with focus groups to help them respond to this dire need for contextual, digital discipleship resources for children and youth in our Black congregations.”
Sixty-two percent of the respondents said their congregations have returned to offering some form of in-person worship experience. However, the increase in positive COVID-19 cases, along with the emergence of delta and other variants, present new challenges.
“The need for investing resources in higher-quality digital and virtual ministries is now greater than ever,” Lewis said. “We must continue to equip our Black clergy leaders to continue to be innovative in ministry and give them ‘permission’ not to quickly return to business as usual just because it’s the most familiar.”