The Seven Most Common Challenges for Churches in the Second Wave of COVID

Do you remember the excitement when the data began to point to a waning of COVID?

Hospitalizations were down. Deaths were declining. Offices and stores were reopening. Masks were coming off. Crowds were gathering again.

And then the second big wave of COVID came. The Delta variant spread faster and caused more infections. The world was taken aback by the virus. Businesses are shaken. Schools are wondering what to do. And churches, once again, are in the middle of this challenge.

Our team at Church Answers has been working with thousands of church leaders about leading in the second wave of COVID. Here are the seven most common challenges we see with churches:

1. Greater polarization and divisions. In the first wave of COVID, churches faced divisions over politics, masks, regathering, streaming services, and social distancing. All those divisions still exist, but the polarization over vaccinations has been added to the mix.

2. Weariness expanded. We are all tired. Church leaders particularly feel the exhaustion of dealing with so many issues. Both church leaders and members can get ornery and critical as a consequence of their exhaustion.

3. Decision fatigue growing. We have spoken to countless pastors who tell us the biggest surprise of the pandemic as a church leader was all the new decisions they had to make. Every week, many church leaders are confronted with gather or don’t gather, masks or no masks, and other issues unique to the pandemic.

4. Hopelessness pervasive. The first major wave of COVID did not have the sense of hopelessness that is endemic with the second wave. You felt in the first round that it would be over and done, even if it took a year or so. The second wave has been a real challenge. Many church leaders find themselves reminding their church members of the hope of Christ more than they ever had.

5. Confusion about the path forward. With the first wave of COVID, church leaders expressed confidence in one of two paths forward. One perspective was that churches would resume their practices just as they were before the pandemic. The second and majority view was that churches would face a new normal and must learn to adjust. But church leaders today wonder if any stability is on the horizon. There seems to be change after change with no time to catch your breath.

6. Denominational structures destabilizing. Churches that are a part of a denomination had to deal with the reality that the level of resources and help was not nearly what it was in the past. Even before COVID, most denominational structures were shrinking. But with the second wave, we see many denominational structures destabilizing. They don’t know their own future, so they are often at a loss to help the churches they serve.

7. Major personnel shifts in churches. With the first wave of COVID, we saw many churches reduce personnel costs. This second wave seems to be ushering in a new era where church leaders must rethink everything about both full-time and part-time staff. The era of bi-vocational and co-vocational ministry has arrived rapidly. There will not likely be a new normal any time soon, if ever.

Of course, churches have survived greater challenges and endured greater changes in the past 2,000 years. Many churches will survive. Some will thrive. And some will die.

In future articles, we will share with you how we see churches adjusting to these challenges. In the meantime, I would love to hear your insights.

Posted on September 6, 2021

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • All during this pandemic our church has stood firm in our convictions that no matter what, we will do SOMETHING to keep getting the word of God to our congregation. In our prayer time, that is the message we kept hearing: preach the word.

    When we were shut down, we quickly developed a radio broadcast for our seniors who are not tech savvy and don’t do Facebook or other social media. Interestingly enough, we even had non-believers donate money to help offset the cost of the program. Now that was interesting!

    We did parking lot church for several weeks in order to bring everyone together. While certainly not ideal, we learned there is power and a real sense of community in a smile or a wave from across the parking lot. Several neighbors listened from their front porch. Who knew?

    All of that to say that we have learned that we must do SOMETHING to continue ministering to people. To do nothing is not an option, regardless of government mandates. God has certainly blessed our efforts as we see new visitors weekly, and our average attendance is up by quite a bit. In fact, we are now beginning the initial stages of exploring an expansion of our current facility to meet our current and future needs.

    Should we be forced to shut down again, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to carry on. We understand that we must be open to try new things and that we cannot place God in a box because we are operating under a mandate to preach the word, whatever that may look like.

  • Lester Markham says on

    In Canada we are talking “Fourth Wave” Is there going to be a Fifth and then a Sixth and then a – – – ??
    There is so much disagreement and uncertainty. Things that seemed certain are being shaken. “Let God be true


  • One of the benefits of a denominational structure is their ability to do the heavy lifting of data gathering. In our [Episcopal} Diocese, they enlisted assistance from a group of professionals in various Public Health roles: epidemiologists, Social Work, Community development, disease control, and church function (there is a $0.25 word but that is what it is). They gathered information, made recommendations based on the evolving information, and answered practical questions regarding the CDC policies. There is no way I could have reliably gathered that information on my own. But, when tapping our Diocesan membership we could find many of those folks in our Parishes.

    One of the difficulties many people have (as alluded to elsewhere here) is the desire to make the perfect decision. A perfect decision is impossible to find in the best of circumstances. In the middle of a pandemic a leader needs to be affirmed and assured that a good decision made now is better than a perfect decision made later. Capitalizing on Robin Jordan’s comment about Naval ships and slow maneuvering, when driving large ships the best decision is to start moving in the desired direction then adjust course as necessary. A stationary ship which is just starting is slow to turn, but a ship that is moving, however slowly, turns much quicker. Head in the right direction and adjust as you go.

  • Nothing is or will ever be the way it was, even from a month ago. You have to be nimble and roll with the situation. Also, it isn’t just the sermon on Sunday that is important. Many ministers are producing daily podcasts and having daily services that get large numbers of views from people worldwide. This is in addition to webcast services with limited people present. The people I know are sympathetic to clergy who did change many things. As always, the best are praying and making the best of it and using this opportunity to teach/reach people they would never have even thought of 2 years ago.

  • Richard Diaz says on

    Interesting information but, at this point in time, our congregation seems to be doing very well which of course, includes Lita and myself. When I’m out in public, I take all the necessary precautions and continue to wear the mask so that’s about the best we can all do. Since I’m here, tomorrow morning I’m scheduled to have my right knee replaced which I think you know about already. My main concern about this surgery is the possibility of developing blood clots which can be quite the threat to one’s health and possibly life. Anyway, I’m in God’s hands and one cannot do better than that.
    Well, let’s continue to keep praying that this threatening variant can eventually be defeated by our medical people and life can possibly return to normal, assuming that’s even possible the way we’re going.

    • “I’m in God’s hands and one cannot do better than that.”

      Exactly! It seems to me that a lot of Christians are putting their trust in everyone and everything except God.

  • Most pastors I talk to, including myself, will not be shutting down the churches they pastor. The churches will remain open, even if the pastors are by themselves preaching over Zoom or FB Live.

    • Rev. Catherine Erwin says on

      That’s wonderful, certainly a blessing for you and yours, but please remember that not all churches have those resources … and not all congregants have computers and wifi. More folks are once again losing jobs. Many who had covid … but gratefully recovered… are facing incredible medical bills. Many small and /or rural churches and pastors are still/again working twice as hard as before to help their folks stay connected to their faith community … and the love and grace of God we help folks feel sure of, especially in these tough times. Holding all my siblings in faith, those where things are going well and those feeling like they’re tottering on the brink, in great prayer.

  • #8. Increased cynicism toward the government and politicized scientists. They told me if I got the vaccine, I wouldn’t have to wear the mask anymore. I got the vaccine, but now they’re telling me I still need to wear the mask. They can’t have it both ways, and I’m sick and tired of the double talk.

    • Ken, I can relate to the frustration. I think all of us who got vaccinated feel somewhat cheated, hoping that the vaccine would help us get back to normal unmasked church life. It’s hard to have to return to masks in church again. The problem is that a significant minority of people didn’t get vaccinated, which gave the virus a chance to mutate. This led to the even more infectious delta variant, which can lead to breakthrough infections, even in the vaccinated. Vaccines are still useful in preventing most cases of severe illness and death, however. 90% of covid ICU patients are unvaccinated. Hopefully if we get to herd immunity by vaccination (a race against time before a variant shows us that can evade vaccines) , we can get back to normal unmasked church.

      • Rev. Catherine Erwin says on

        Well explained. Amen, Virginia.

      • The science I read indicates that it’s not necessarily the unvaccinated that allowed the virus a chance to mutate.The best explanation I heard as to why you don’t “mass vaccinate, indiscriminately” during a pandemic is that it leaves nowhere for the virus to go, thus making it more virulent – just like overuse of antibiotics. We’ve heard for years that when you give antibiotics willy nilly, we end up with SUPER bugs. By vaccinating the healthy, young people, we left no hosts for the virus.

        I heard this explanation back in January, and as I see what’s happening in the countries that are at nearly 100% uptake of the shot, the explanation that it’s the fault of the unvaccinated falls flat.

        I also think this is one more way Satan is using to divide us…we are casting blame on the “other”, whoever the “other may be”! We must take caution of the deceptive schemes he is using.

    • Ken
      I am a scientist with a PhD. This whole pandemic is like the HIV discovery on steroids. No one foresaw the virulence and spread of delta Variant. Had enough people been vaccinated, delta variant would not have been as bad it is. You have to realise that science is data driven and what worked today won’t always work next week. I know it is no fun, but we are all in this together.

      • The “scientists” have contradicted themselves too many times for me to trust them. One thing is certain: I am NOT giving up my constitutional rights – including my freedom of assembly and freedom of worship – simply because the government thinks I should. We are playing a very dangerous game when we entrust the government with that level of authority.

      • Ken,
        Scientists who do things correctly don’t contradict themselves. They just get new data that leads to a change in tack. There is a difference. Every scientist has an opinion and most of us agree in part and dissent in part. Properly done, science is a collaborative effort. Some things work while some do not. The rights of one vs the rights of many has long been debated. Public health is also in the Torah when lepers were to be put “outside the camp.” This was ancient quarantine. Be glad you have the internet where worship can still occur. Remember, God gives rulers their power even those with whom we disagree, awful Cæsars including Nero.

    • Ken, I share your frustration. During the 20th century, we became accustomed to the medical community already having the answers to whatever ailed us. There were refinements to their treatments, but by the time they reached the patient, they had been tried, tested and generally accepted. Even then, if those treatments required a lifestyle change of the patient, its full implementation was abysmally small. Now, with COVID, we are all guinea pigs in the learning phase of a new *and* evolving organism. Even while scientists are learning new things about it, their knowledge quickly becomes obsolete because the virus, as all new just-born life, experiences more frequent and drastic changes in its early days. As they learn more and the virus changes, the methods to fight it must also change. The scientific and medical communities have done a remarkable job of learning and implementing on the fly. At this point, the success of their efforts lies in the hands of each individual’s willingness to make the recommended lifestyle changes. Only this time, each of our decisions affects not just our own lives and well-being, but that of – literally- the whole world. I pray for your fatigue of a constantly changing world, and for God’s blessings as you learn to navigate it. I pray that for all of us. We must remember that the *virus* is our enemy- not science or medicine- they are our allies.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    If anything, we are learning from the pandemic, it is that the 21st century church must be nimble and resourceful. Church leaders need to be quick-thinking and quick-moving. The organization of the church needs to be simpler. Churches can no longer be slow-turning aircraft carriers and battleships. They must fast-moving torpedo boats that can make a quick turn in a new direction at a moment’s notice. Cumbersome and unwieldy must give away to small and light.

    The decisions that church leaders make do have consequences—short-term consequences and long-term consequences—consequences for the church and its members, consequences for the community and its members. Yes, church leaders can make unwise decisions that lead to the further spread of the COVID-19 virus, hospitalizations, and deaths. We need to remember that, while the members of our church may have trusted in Jesus and therefore have hope, our communities are filled with people who have not heard the gospel and do not have hope. We may reassure ourselves, “I’ll go to heaven if I die,” they face a godless eternity. It is very selfish to not consider their well-being in our decisions and our selfishness will not go unnoticed by God. The attitude “God will take care of us, and they’ll have to take care of themselves” is not a Christian attitude. Rather it reflects the influence of today’s “me first” culture.

    Christian discipleship entails more than seeing to our own needs and concerns. It involves seeing to the needs and concerns of others, those outside our particular fellowship. When Jesus talked about loving others, he was talking about a sacrificial love, not a pretense of love that puts our interests first.

    We also live in a time when we need to pool our ideas as well as take a good hard look at the resources that our church has available to it and how we are using them. This requires out-of-the-box thinking. Our church may have resources that are going unused because we do not see them as resources. We have an fixed, inflexible way of looking at things. We need to get rid of this type of thinking.

    Being Jesus’ church in a community does not require as many things as we have come to think and believe that it needs. What it needs more than anything is people who put their faith in Jesus and emulate his teaching and example, live the life that he has called them to live, a life of faith, holiness, and love, a life that glorifies God.

    I sometimes get the impression that God is using the pandemic to winnow the wheat from the chaff, those who are genuine disciples of Jesus from those who are following someone else, a pastor, for example, or something else, a way of thinking and doing things, which upon examination has little to do with Jesus and more to do with our own inward desires which tempt us.

  • I am very interested here
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  • Hey Tom,

    I believe making decisions is not as burdensome as your research would suggest. I wonder what is causing the stress and concern?

    Adjustments do not possess the potential to produce fatality. I do not intend to be super spiritual but the fallacy of all things rising and falling on leadership is bearing its unintended but to be expected fruit. All things in the church rise and fall on Lordship.

    We must remove the notion that any adjustment or decision any pastor or leadership team in a church makes in the midst of this current context is the most important decision they will ever make.

    It is not. It is simply the next decision they have to make. Being paralyzed by a fallacy that it could determine the outcome of their local ministry is simply unreasonable.

    If our motives are pure then even mistakes become opportunities. I believe the church needs a strong dose of freedom not courage. It is time to simply follow the Lord! Hard decisions do not need to be hard to make. Make it!

    If wrong, make the next one! If wrong make another one. Fatality is a fallacy in Christianity!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks, Gregg.

    • Fran Fontaine says on

      True Gregg! yet we find ourselves in that simple but complex ; mind-blowing equation of being workers together with Christ….responsible for input; but not the ultimate outcome! Lord help us make wise decisions that work for our good and HIS glory!

    • Yes, in my experience, a decision is never final. As with most things in the realm of science, a decision is made or a hypothesis is asserted. Once more information comes in, either supporting or refuting the decision/hypothesis, the next decision/hypothesis gets made based on the totality of evidence.