COVID-19 and Church Closures

This week, we hear from David Schoen, dschoen@ucc.org  a Minister for Church Legacy & Closure, UCC Church Building & Loan Fund.


During theThe Last Pastor: Faithfully Closing a Churchzoom webinar this past May, the chat space suddenly filled up with messages from pastors expressing the challenge of engaging in the closure process during COVID-19. Pastors and leaders expressed the difficulty of dealing with closure conversations, meetings, decisions, and buildings during a time of social distancing. Church closure is challenging during any season, but COVID-19 has made it even more difficult. A group of pastors from the webinar have met monthly in a zoom discussion to address these concerns and support each other. More pastors have joined the conversation in the following months. If joining these conversations would be helpful for your ministry, contact your conference or contact me at dschoen@ucc.org .

From January 2019 through June 2020, twenty-nine congregations in the UCC concluded their ministries. From January 2012 through June 2020, a total of 246 congregations made the decision to end their ministries and pass on their mission legacy.

To put this in perspective, on average since 2012 one UCC congregation closes every two weeks. The total loss of 246 congregations over the past 8 years equals the current number of churches in conferences like Illinois (244), or New York (236).  The total loss of 246 congregations also equals the combined current count of churches in six conferences; Calvin Synod (21), Central Pacific (44), Montana Northern Wyoming (27), Kansas-Oklahoma (54), South-East (55), and Southwest (48). 

There is the likelihood that COVID-19 will increase the number of churches making the decision to discontinue their ministry this year and in years to come.

How might the COVID-19 pandemic impact the number of church closures? In an interview at the end of August on Here and Now (NPR), David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a research organization that focuses on the intersection of faith and culture, said ‘As many as one in five churches could permanently close in the next 18 months as a result of shutdowns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.’  Mr. Kinnaman bases his sobering projection on several factors discovered in Barna’s research.

  • Churches that are reopening where and when that is possible have a “lot less people coming”. “They’re recognizing that the relationships that they thought were much deeper with people were actually not as deep as they expected,” Kinnaman told NPR.
  • Many churches depend on weekly giving which has decreased.
  • A drop in the confidence of pastors that their churches will survive the pandemic from 70% responding “very confident” early on to 58% “very confident” more recently.

Before Kinnaman’s comments, early during the pandemic UCC Pastor, Rev. Dr. Jim Keck in an interview in the Lincoln Nebraska Journal Star said “To be concrete about it, Lincoln has 300 churches. I’d say about 50 of them will likely not make it, if this goes four or five months.” In a recent follow-up email with Jim, he wrote “It’s too early to tell but my intuition is that it’s a pretty bleak situation for many churches. But the effect will not really be seen for a couple years.” Churches that may have lived for another several years, may close sooner. Other existing churches may see attendance and contributions rebound but still be depressed for the next five years.

In 2015 the UCC Center for Analytics, Research, & Development and Data (CARDD) released a draft document, Futuring the UCC: 30 Year Projections which showed an ongoing decrease in congregations and membership which pointed to the current count of 4,852 UCC congregations and 802,356 members in the 2020 UCC Statistical Profile. These projections however could not foresee a world-wide pandemic.

Source: “Futuring the United Church of Christ: 30 Year Projections – June 2015 Draft Results” http://uccfiles.com/pdf/Projections-Handout.pdf

CARDD has surveyed congregations on the impact of COVID-19 and the data is currently being analyzed. This information will be crucial for the future of our ministries together.

The current rate of church closures in the USA is around 1% per year. What if closures grew to 5% or 10%, or as Kinnaman suggested 20% of congregations in the coming years? What would be the impact of such an increase in church closure on the future mission and structure of denominations, judicatories, congregations, and church-related organizations? And more importantly, how will significant decreases in congregations impact their surrounding communities and regions?

How do we prepare today to face such a future? These challenges call for conversation, collaboration, and cooperative strategies between churches, conferences, ecumenical partners, national ministries and community-serving organizations on sharing ministries, resources, buildings, financial assets and more.  We are all in this together.

The mission of God and the ministry of the church is at work during COVID-19 and will continue after COVID-19 . May God grant us wisdom and grant us courage for the living of these days.

One thought on “COVID-19 and Church Closures

  1. Pingback: Twelve Important Reasons to Report Annual Church Data | Vital Signs and Statistics

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