What Aussie Christian leaders can learn from Covid-19

Pieter-Jan Bezemer & Sten Langmann’s interviews with Australian church leaders about their experiences during Covid-19 show several opportunities to provide better support.

This is the second Eternity article based on Pieter-Jan and Sten’s research. Click to read the last article, ‘Long-term lessons for Aussie churches from Covid-19‘.

In late 2022, we interviewed 65 Christian church leaders across Australia about their experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. We were surprised to find that these leaders had vastly different perspectives.

One group talked about the challenges of coronatide but saw it as an opportunity to change and grow. They were excited about learning new technological skills and going online. One church leader even viewed churches going online as a historical turning point, stating that they “firmly believe[d] that Covid has been the greatest thing since the Reformation.”

Another group said Covid did not affect them much, characterising it as a “little hiccup, no big deal,” or “I think Covid was a very minor issue in the last 18 months”, with things returning to normal quickly after the initial lockdowns.

However, a significant number of leaders mentioned that while their church managed this period well, it took a toll on them personally. Many of them felt “exhausted”, “stressed”, “spiritually damaged”, “lonely”, “keeping my head above the water”, and “pretty useless”.

A few leaders struggled so much that they “had to pretend that we [and] everything was OK” and were “wrestling with living in a world where things do not go the way that you want.” Some were thinking about taking time off due to stress, retiring early, or leaving their leadership roles altogether.

So what explains these different experiences? Our research found that various things affected how church leaders experienced the pandemic. Three things especially stood out for them, that are potential areas for attention to better support church leaders in the future.

Factor 1: The practical skills of church leaders

Many church leaders felt they lacked the practical skills needed to handle the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. They struggled with technology and working online.

One said, “[I was] not just preparing the content for worship, but then presiding over its recording and then editing and then uploading to YouTube; unprecedented.” Another reflected that “I would wish that I were better with technology.”

Some leaders did not handle change well.

But it was not just technical or IT skills they lacked. They also felt they needed better people skills. Church leaders struggled with managing conflicts about government mandates and dealing with their community’s pandemic-related anxieties.

Some leaders did not handle change well and one leader observed that “I have seen some instances of real pain caused by ministers who just did not understand basic change management – who just did not understand enough about leading teams.”

In short, the pandemic showed that some leaders had gaps in skills that made it difficult to respond quickly and effectively to the rapidly changing environment during the pandemic.

Factor 2: Teamwork within churches

The church leaders’ stories showed that teamwork was a big help during the pandemic. Working together meant that church leaders could support each other and had help to share burdens. It also meant that church leaders did not rely too much on individual people, enabling them to capitalise on the diverse skills of people and continuity of support.

But for those without teams, it was tough and lonely. Leaders said that “Working alone is difficult” and were “really hoping or looking for somebody to, you know, share the burden, you know, take the load off me”.

These experiences made church leaders think about investing more in the training of lay ministers or community members to help lead activities. They realised it might mean changing how they usually do things.

Some leaders also talked about moving away from controlling everything. One interviewee noted: “Our control is a big thing with a lot of pastors. A lot of pastors run an on authoritarian model. I raise up leaders. I let them try almost anything they want to.”

Another added that this is a very active process: “[You need to] give more permission to people in the pews to do more things within the church. We’ve always had a very clergy-centred model.”

In sum, coronatide showed that having a more collaborative approach to church leadership could be a good idea.

Factor 3: Support from church hierarchies

The talks with church leaders showed that their experiences with church hierarchies during the pandemic were mixed. Around 59% felt happy with the help and guidance they got. They found: “We did actually have clear directions from the diocese and hierarchy, which was very helpfully actually.”

However, about 41% were unhappy. They felt the hierarchies responded with “deadly silence” and thought “they obviously did not know what to do either.” They even felt that the guidance was “not terribly helpful”, “fairly impractical”, “friendly fire” or “out of touch”.

For these leaders, the directions from higher-ups added to their challenges. They said: “We got a lot of directions from the [church hierarchy], but the [church hierarchy] is a long way away and [they] were putting out directions to please the government. And I presumed they were so silly that they could not be meaning them.”

In the end, these mixed experiences show that there is room to make the support from church hierarchies better, both at higher levels and closer to the ground where leaders are working.

Training and future skill development

Pieter-Jan & Sten view these three factors as crucial areas for church leaders to develop their skills in the future. Many leaders mentioned that these skills had not been taught at Bible schools or seminaries.

One church leader observed: “We only learned about the Old Testament, New Testament, text criticism and stuff like that. So, we were never trained. It was on the job learning, really.”

Another added that there needs to be more “organisational, administrative but also evangelistic [training].” This means going beyond just studying texts to including practical training for the organisational tasks they handle in their local churches.

This is the second Eternity article based on Pieter-Jan and Sten’s research. Click to read the last article, ‘Long-term lessons for Aussie churches from Covid-19‘.

If you are interested in receiving a digital copy of the full research report “Australian churches during coronatide: Lessons & Opportunities”, please reach out to Pieter-Jan via email at [email protected].

Pieter-Jan Bezemer and Sten Langmann are researchers working at the School of Business Law, Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

Pieter-Jan Bezemer and Sten Langmann conduct research into Australian churches and Australian Christian leaders during Covid-19

Pieter-Jan Bezemer (left) and Sten Langmann (right).

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