By Cheryl Magness
On March 16, 2020, as COVID-19 cases in the United States broke 4,000, the federal government unveiled a two-week plan to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic via a combination of social distancing, enhanced hygiene and stay-at-home measures.
More than a year later, with the total number of reported coronavirus cases in the United States surpassing 33 million, much of the country has still not returned to a pre-pandemic definition of normal. While the daily number of new reported cases has dropped considerably from its one-day high of over 300,000 in January, and the overall trajectory of the virus appears to be headed downward, some degrees of social distancing, masking and heightened sanitization remain in many public places.
‘Like an apocalypse’
California has been one of the most severe areas of the country in terms of shutdowns and restrictions. Reflecting on the past year, the Rev. Edward Killian, pastor of The Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Inglewood, Calif., said, “I’ve never experienced anything like it. … Even now, places like Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard, which used to be full and busy and vibrant … look like an apocalypse has happened. The windows are boarded up and nobody’s there. There was even a period of time, last spring, when there were no homeless people anywhere.”
Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have led to some easing of restrictions, but Killian said that, in the early days of the pandemic, “someone from the city was calling me two to three times a week to make sure I understood the guidelines. … Even though I was alone in the church office and the streets were empty, if I went out to my car with my mask down, a policeman would stop to instruct me to ‘get the mask up, now.’ I felt like I was in an Eastern-bloc country.”
The state of the church
In June 2020, in an effort to find out how the Synod’s churches were faring under the pandemic, LCMS Research Services distributed a survey to the 4,787 LCMS congregations for which they had a valid email address. As the pandemic dragged on, a second survey, this time of over 4,800 congregations, was distributed in early 2021. The response rate for both surveys was approximately 22% and, combined, represents more than 1,600 of the Synod’s congregations.
The surveys indicated, in part, that:
- Around 90% of LCMS congregations stopped meeting in person for some period of time during the pandemic.
- 92% of congregations provided worship content online during the pandemic.
- 90% of congregations modified their logistics for observing communion when gathered together.
- Most closures lasted for 7–14 weeks during April through June 2020. By March 2021, 95% of congregations had resumed in-person worship.
- 60% of congregations that instituted some form of online worship during the pandemic plan to maintain it.
Additionally, the surveys revealed that, as the Synod’s churches begin trying to return to “normal,” the primary concern is getting people back to in-person worship. Another concern is the potential for congregational tension due to differing opinions on issues such as restrictions and vaccines. The June survey found that finances were not a major problem for many congregations, and the 2021 survey found the situation has improved somewhat since then. However, there still remain a significant number of congregations, particularly small ones, that are in a much worse financial situation than prior to the pandemic.
Congregations reported that what they need most from the Synod right now is help with resources for returning to “normal,” along with encouragement and prayer.
For the Synod’s pastors, two of the greatest challenges have been the frustration of being disconnected from their congregations and fellow workers and the inability to carry out their duties as usual.
The Rev. Kyle Castens, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Festus, Mo., said the first few months of the pandemic, when information was changing rapidly, were particularly difficult. “It was intense trying to keep up,” Castens said. “There were so many opinions, and decisions had to be made at the last minute.”
Immanuel, like many congregations, held online-only worship for several weeks. Castens worried about his congregation’s well-being as they were not able to gather for worship, and events like baptisms, weddings and confirmations had to be delayed or modified. “It was extremely difficult, but we can look back now and see that those things did eventually happen,” Castens said.
In spite of the difficulties, Immanuel saw some unexpected blessings from the pandemic. During the early days of the shutdown, Castens began giving online devotions to remain in touch with members. “In the beginning, I just went to different places in town — Main Street, the cemetery, the fire department — with the Treasury of Daily Prayer.” Later he led series on hymns and on the sights and sounds of the church — “to show our folks we’re still here!” Even though the church is now open and in-person worship has resumed, Castens has continued the online devotions. He said people are viewing and commenting on them that are not members of the church. “It’s one of the blessings of all of this — it has pushed us to a point that we can use this technology to communicate to folks that we might not have otherwise reached.”
Another blessing for Immanuel has been the opportunity to do a needed renovation of the sanctuary, replacing a rotting floor and repairing the balcony. The work began while the church was closed and continued when services resumed, with pews temporarily moved to the church gym. Services have now returned to the sanctuary, and spacing is easier, as the balcony can now accommodate worshipers.
Lutheran schools adapt and excel
The Synod’s schools, like schools across the nation, have faced a host of challenges during the pandemic as they had to convert, in March 2020, from an in-person to an online model of learning. Although most of the Synod’s schools opened the fall term with in-person learning, some early childhood centers, especially those that are freestanding (not connected to a grade school), are concerned about their long-term viability. Yet, in another unexpected blessing, some LCMS schools, both at the early childhood and elementary/secondary level, have experienced an increase in enrollment, most likely from families seeking in-person instruction for their children.
One parent, a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Wentzville, Mo., has two children who attend Lutheran schools: a daughter at Lutheran High School of St. Charles County, Mo., and a son at Immanuel Lutheran School, Wentzville, Mo. He recently wrote a letter to LCMS School Ministry expressing his gratitude for Lutheran schools, especially during the last year:
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my wife and I felt very fortunate that our children were enrolled in Lutheran schools. … The biblical and moral teachings our children receive … in addition to top-notch instruction … is life-changing for our children, especially in today’s world.
“After the COVID-19 pandemic set in, the impact [of] Lutheran schools … is so much more pronounced. … Last spring, both of our schools smoothly pivoted to … remote instruction. This year, both schools have been able to sustain in-person learning while offering remote learning for those interested. Our children have been blessed to be in person, at school. The measures taken to ensure the health/safety of all children and staff (at each school) have been outstanding! Years down the line, I think the courageous leadership of those at our schools — by keeping our children in school — will be evident.”
Christ’s certainty for an uncertain world
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention significantly relaxed its mask and social distancing guidelines. But by all measures, it has been an extremely challenging year for the congregations, workers and laity of the LCMS. More than 85% of congregations in the 2021 survey reported that at least one of their members had contracted COVID-19, and in a third of congregations, at least one person had died. Around 40% of congregations experienced a period of time when their pastor had to quarantine due to either catching or being exposed to COVID-19.
Killian noted that, as both the world and the church continue moving forward from the pandemic, “There’s not exactly a playbook. Yet there’s no greater time than now to proclaim the certainty of Christ in the midst of a world that is uncertain. As a pastor, I try to be faithful to my call in the ministry and also to my call as a citizen — to do what God would have me do in both kingdoms.”
Killian also sees unexpected blessings in the last year.
“I think we all now appreciate even more what Divine Service means to us, and what it’s like to not have it — what it’s like to not be able to gather and to not receive the Sacrament regularly. We appreciate how easy it is to lose those things, how imperative they are to our lives and how different our lives were without them. God was always still with us, but we weren’t always with each other. We’ve come to prize our life together as a sweeter thing than we did before.”
To date, LCMS Research Services has conducted four COVID-19 surveys: two of congregations, one of schools and one of church workers. All four reports are available at lcms.org/covid19-studies.
Posted May 24, 2021