The Post-Pandemic Church
In a world rocked by COVID-19, Churches of Christ face…
ROUND ROCK, Texas — At the Round Rock Church of Christ, longtime member Kay Whitehead was eager to return to serving in the children’s ministry.
This summer, Whitehead jumped back into coordinating the toddler class. She is a kindergarten teacher in Round Rock, north of Austin, and has participated in her church’s children’s ministry for 33 years.
“It’s been harder to find all the people we need, but for me, there was no question,” she said. “I told our ministers that I’m there. I’m ready when you’re ready.”
The Round Rock church is like many Churches of Christ across the nation that have been gearing up for a return to normal, resuming ministries that were paused for months on end when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Some congregations have seen decreased participation as they have urged members to return to volunteer roles, forcing church leaders to rethink ministries across the board. From children’s ministries to community engagement, ministry teams are wondering if members will reengage at previous levels.
According to a Barna report, 84 percent of parents are concerned about the pandemic’s long-term impact on their children. Parents of young children especially, often isolated from other families and their church family, have grappled with many complex decisions.
As an educator, Whitehead said she knows the value of the socialization church environments can provide for kids growing up and the detriment of taking away their Bible classes.
“It’s important for kids to be taught about Jesus and the word of God,” Whitehead said. “Hopefully, our kids are being taught that in their homes, but it’s so important that they see other people in their life who love God, too.”
Robin Marrs, Round Rock children’s minister, has ramped up recruiting efforts for volunteers and hopes more, like Whitehead, will see the value of serving children.
So far, Marrs has seen decreased participation and commitment for a church that typically has seen active engagement. The church, which has just under 400 adult members, previously had 100 volunteers across its children’s ministry.
“One hundred adult volunteers is a huge percentage of our church, much higher than other churches our size,” Marrs said. “And even with that many, it’s still usually not enough.”
By the end of July, half that many — 48, to be exact — had committed to the new school year. But amid concerns over the delta variant, another handful of those volunteers withdrew their commitments.
In years past, Marrs set up a table in the foyer for people to sign up for positions. This year, she opted for personal conversations, phone calls, emails, announcements from the front and posts on social media, blanketing any connection she had to members with her request for volunteers.
“As I feared, we’ve had so few people commit that we are meeting with the elders to try and figure out how we can still offer as much for our families with fewer people,” Marrs said. “And it will probably require a change in our worship structure.”
She has diagnosed a few reasons people aren’t returning to their old positions. “There are older members who have served for years, and this was their first break,” Marrs said. “Anyone looking for an out, COVID gave them an exit. And we’ve had people form habits of either not coming in person or now acclimating to the ‘get in, get out’ mentality of not volunteering on a Sunday.”
Marrs also noted that a tremendous amount of apathy seems to have settled in, and some members have cited a fear of working with kids again given the risks of the coronavirus, particularly the delta variant.
In all, this has posed a problem for the ministers on staff and the elders as they have sought potential solutions to bridge the widening gap between wanting to return to normal and not having enough workers to do everything that was done before.
Marrs said she feels like the leadership and the families at church are at a crossroads and need to stop and reevaluate what needs to be done and what can be done.
Before March 2020, Round Rock had a first and second worship service with Bible class in between, along with children’s worship environments and a nursery during both services. But the church suspended all in-person gatherings from mid-March to mid-June last year, closing for around 12 weeks total.
In the months that followed, the church had stripped-down Sunday offerings that have gradually expanded over the past year. Now, the church has resumed two services, both mask-optional. Children’s environments, minus the nursery, are only offered in the second service. Some Bible classes also resumed in mid-September.
But even for a church that maintained a steady stream of in-person gatherings, Round Rock has faced the difficult task of rebuilding its new normal, which has caused rippling effects across the congregation.
“When we can’t offer a full kids’ environment, it’s obvious, and the demographics in our services shift,” Marrs said. “First service becomes noticeably more older members, and families come to second service when there’s somewhere for their children to go. So now we are asking the leadership, ‘Are we willing to change to ease the burden?’”
The problem facing the Round Rock Church of Christ is not an isolated one.
It encapsulates bigger questions of involvement churches face after a tumultuous year where children’s ministry and other volunteer hubs often suffered.
Travis Irwin spent 12 years as an involvement minister for the Athens Church of Christ in Tennessee. Since retiring at the end of 2020, he has been consulting with Churches of Christ on issues related to involvement and volunteering and has seen several dynamics at play.
One challenge in seeking volunteers that Irwin has observed: the abrupt end to so many ministries last year. Many churches cleared their schedules of everything but a worship service — offered only online, in many cases — for an extended time. And as they have weathered the virus surges, they have found it increasingly difficult to work back toward all that was offered before.
Some churches seem to be hibernating, Irwin said, likening the lack of volunteers returning to groundhogs hiding out the winter in their holes. Others have ramped up community-focused efforts and managed to keep members connected in creative ways. He said small groups and active elders checking on members are key for maintaining involvement.
“When it comes to volunteers, you can’t just put something in the bulletin anymore and expect people to come flocking to volunteer for you,” Irwin said. “People haven’t had to volunteer in over a year, and they’ve got into another groove.”
Despite an overall desire to return to normal, Irwin urged churches to take time to reevaluate the future of every ministry to see if they were functioning, effective and fulfilling their mission statements.
Matt DeLano, Round Rock discipleship minister, has worked alongside Marrs to connect with members and draw them back into pre-pandemic levels of volunteering. DeLano voiced hope that the fall will mean greater participation in the life of the church.
“We have already built a culture at our church where serving our community is something that we do in our DNA,” DeLano said. “We have to understand that in order to be a Jesus follower, we have to be active in the life of a community.”
“We have to understand that in order to be a Jesus follower, we have to be active in the life of a community.”
Although they can’t go back in time, Marrs and DeLano said they wish the conversations about reimagining the future of volunteering at Round Rock had begun much earlier.
Both agreed: The fallout of the pandemic has given the church space to reflect and re-imagine the future.
“Everyone has been asking these questions of what is important after this last year,” Marrs said. “The church is not exempt. But I want to ask, ‘Is the old normal what we want?’ We have the opportunity to reevaluate everything. And I’m all for thinking, let’s start from scratch; let’s do it differently, and let’s do it better.”
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