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Church Leadership
During Stormy Times

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Pieter-Jan Bezemer and Sten Langmann

It was a special Monday afternoon in the middle of Advent in 2022. Sitting behind my office desk with the disconnect tone from our final interview still ringing in my ears, it just hit home that a valuable journey had come to an end. Just months prior, Sten and I, both university researchers, embarked on a journey interviewing 65 church leaders about their experiences during the COVID pandemic.

From remote outback towns to bustling CBD churches, we digitally traversed the country. It was a real privilege for us to hear the candid stories church leaders shared with us about triumph, struggles, personal growth, and painful memories. After our interviews, we often went for a walk around the lake that is part of Edith Cowan University’s Joondalup campus, to digest and reflect on what we had heard. In this article, we delve into the themes that kept coming back during these lake walk conversations.

Theme 1: Resilience of church leaders and church communities

As researchers we were impressed by the resilience that church leaders and church communities displayed during this challenging time. While we had expected many stories about problems, decline and frustrations, many of the church leaders highlighted that their communities had weathered the COVID pandemic reasonably well.

About 60% of the church leaders indicated that the size of their churches either remained the same or grew during the period 2020-2022. Additionally, about 65% of the church leaders highlighted that their church income either remained the same or grew during the period 2020-2022. Many reasons were provided for this relative stability, but one thing stood out for us: their engagement with the purpose of the church.

Church leaders and their church communities that spent time reflecting on fundamental questions such as ‘what is church’ and ‘what does church look like when you cannot physically meet’ appear to have generated more effective responses to the pandemic. While the answers were not always clear-cut for church communities, the simple act of stepping back from all the pandemic-related uncertainty and turbulence for reflection allowed these communities to connect and together search for a way forward, without being caught up in rush of the moment. To us, this hints at the importance of a local church community’s active and regular engagement with its purpose.

Theme 2: Being a church leader can be a tough calling

The stories that left the biggest impression on us as researchers were those in which church leaders struggled significantly with what had happened during the pandemic. Several church leaders openly mentioned that they were considering quitting their roles, spoke about having (had) a burnout, indicated the loneliness they had experienced during the pandemic, and described that they had felt inadequate and pretty useless during this time.

Many factors again contributed to these experiences, but church leaders hinted at increased work-loads, the lack of technical skills, limited support from others, lacking guidance from church hierarchies and uncertainty within church communities about the course of direction. Interestingly, church leaders indicated that not the lockdowns, but the actual reopening of churches and transitioning into a ‘new normal’ was the most challenging part of the pandemic.

Often, they were confronted with tensions related to mask mandates, vaccination statuses, and social distancing rules, with communities divided about these measures. Much work also went in making church spaces COVID-safe and regulation-compliant, thus taking church leaders away from their core activities. To us, these challenges highlight the importance of looking well after church leaders, making sure that they have the skills and support they need for the execution of their roles.

Theme 3: Engaging technology in different ways

At the start of the pandemic, about 77% of the church leaders transitioned quickly into the digital space, either through pre-recorded services or live meetings. Their experiences were mixed, as they quickly found out that direct translations of traditional liturgies or worship services to online spaces often did engage not their church communities well.

Unsurprisingly, towards the end of 2022, only about 58% of the churches that went online were still active digitally. Churches that were more effective online long-term, oftentimes adopted alternative mindsets and strategies, for instance, by changing the sermon into an online dialogue, or by changing the large service/mass into small groups activities that allowed churchgoers to meet and interact. To us, these experiences during the COVID pandemic have shown the potential for churches to engage more deeply with online technology, although this will require different, interactional approaches.

Pieter-Jan Bezemer and Sten Langmann are researchers working at the School of Business Law, Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. They hope that these reflections will be a starting point for further conversation on how to strengthen local churches and their leadership. If you are interested to receive a copy of the full research report Australian churches during Coronatide: Lessons & Opportunities, please reach out to Pieter-Jan at
Published in Messenger June 2024

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