2020 - Ongoing

Project status: In Progress



COVID-19 and its associated restrictions around in-person gatherings have created unprecedented challenges for religious congregations and those who lead them. While several surveys have attempted to describe how pastors and congregations responded to COVID-19, these provide a relatively thin picture of how COVID-19 is impacting religious life. There is scant qualitative data describing the lived reality of religious leaders and communities during the pandemic.

Purpose and methods

This paper provides a more detailed look at how pastors and congregations experienced and responded to COVID-19 and its associated restrictions in the early period of the pandemic. To do so, we draw from 26 in-depth interviews with church-appointed United Methodist pastors conducted between June and August 2020. Pastors were asked to describe how their ministry changed as a result of COVID-19 and interviews were analyzed using applied thematic analysis approaches to identify the most common emergent themes.


Pastors reported that COVID-19 fundamentally unsettled routine ways of doing ministry. This disruption generated both challenges and opportunities for clergy and their congregations. In the findings, we describe how clergy responded in key areas of ministry–worship and pastoral care–and analyze how the pandemic is (re)shaping the way that clergy understood their role as pastors and envisioned the future of the Church. We argue for the value of examining the pandemic as an “unsettled” cultural period (Swidler 1986) in which religious leaders found creative ways to (re)do ministry in the context of social distancing. Rather than starting from scratch, we found that pastors drew from and modified existing symbolic and practical tools to fit pandemic-related constraints on religious life. Notably, however, we found that “redoing” ministry was easier and more effective in some areas (worship) than others (pastoral care).

Conclusions and Implications

The impact of COVID-19 on pastors and congregations is complex and not fully captured by survey research. This study provides a baseline for investigating similarities and differences in the responses of pastors within and across denominations and traditions. It also provides a baseline for assessing whether changes in ministry implemented during the early stages of the pandemic remain in place in the post-COVID world.



Jennifer Headley, MSW

Anna Holleman, Ph.D.


David Eagle, Ph.D

Erin F. Johnston, Ph.D.


The Duke Endowment


Erin F. Johnston, Ph.D.

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