BENNINGTON — The story of faith communities impacted by COVID-19 is one of loss and change. But also of resilience.
Throughout the nation, churches, mosques and synagogues have tried to balance the spiritual needs of their congregations with the safety of their members. Living in that tension has taken a toll.
“I think that, emotionally, it’s been very difficult on people throughout the pandemic — people not being able to visit a loved one in the hospital at times, not being able to be with dying relatives,” said Scott Buckner, cantor at Israel Congregation of Manchester.
He’s not the only religious leader to observe a change in how we grieve.
“None of my parishioners have died from COVID,” said Kathy Clark, who has served as the reverend at the Federated Church of East Arlington since September 2007. “But I’ve had parishioners die during COVID, which was complicated by the COVID restrictions. Either the funerals that we did were not quite what they would have had, or the people that could be there or the circumstances near the end of their life, who could see them — all of those things were complicated by COVID.”
For Ed Blue, pastor at the Missionary Alliance Church in Bennington for about 20 years, a COVID-19 scare meant he couldn’t facilitate a funeral he’d offered to speak at. He had to send an elder with his written notes instead.
But the surrogate arrangement worked out.
“The family was okay with that because they didn’t want to put it off any more, and my elder was good friends with the guy, so it was a good match,” said Blue. It was a small bit of normalcy in an abnormal situation.
And it’s not just the end of life that’s affected by congregants’ limited access to their religious leaders.
Especially in rural areas, pastors often serve as marriage counselors, therapists, crisis intervention and social services — all rolled into one.
It’s caused controversy in recent years, with critics pointing out that pastors aren’t licensed therapists or social workers. Their many roles do offer clergy huge influence in people’s lives, an influence that has historically sometimes been abused.
But it also means that people who might not normally have access to mental healthcare, or might not be willing to seek it out from professional sources, get the benefit of a listening ear.
And that benefit has now been limited by COVID-19, or at least altered in substantial ways.
“You could still try to do it on the phone,” said Blue about conducting a counseling session. “But it’s not the same. People tried it, and they just didn’t like it.” He said he still spends about the same amount of time counseling, but it’s with fewer people, and not the same folk who sought counseling prior to the pandemic.
By the numbers
Kathy Clark was quick to point out that reduced numbers could be incidental. She explained that she requires counseling sessions of a couple before she officiates a wedding, as many clergy do.
She’s officiated fewer and fewer ceremonies the past few years, but doesn’t think she can lay that squarely at COVID’s feet.
“People are delaying getting married until a lot older than they used to,” she explained. “We’re a less churched culture.”
She’s right. Churches, mosques and synagogues all over the U.S. had seen a decline in attendance numbers even before the pandemic, especially in younger demographics, according to a Pew Research study. So congregations are mostly made up of people who will age out in the next few years. In the last decade, too, people who don’t identify with any religion at all have seen a 10 percentage point rise.
Not all of the drop can be explained by a restless generation’s mass exodus from organized religion, though.
Regular church attendance is way down locally, according to Blue. “We’re at about 50 percent,” he said of his congregation. With virtual attendees, that number increases to about 60 to 70 percent. Finances have remained relatively stable despite this.
Beyond the numbers
Some religious mainstays have stuck around. Infant baptism is still possible for Bennington Catholics, for instance.
“We’ve not done baptisms during mass, but after mass — maybe on a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon — we do the baptisms. Families would come to that,” said Father Bob Wiseman, of Sacred Heart Saint Frances de Sales in Bennington. He’s served the community since 2013.
He explained that for his denomination, COVID policies are a bit different.
A fair amount was up to the discretion of religious leaders when restrictions began to lift. Many local churches had to meet with boards and reach out to congregant members to see if they’d like to meet in person again, and decide how stringent beyond state mandates they would be about guidelines. But Wiseman took his cues directly from the Catholic Diocese of Burlington.
“They told us when they shut down,” Wiseman said. And Sacred Heart was one of the first churches to take up in-person meetings again, with diocese-recommended precautions.
The bright side
Some good has come as a direct result of COVID — or human ingenuity in the face of COVID.
For Kathy Clark’s congregation, who only resumed in-person services last may, the Zoom option has allowed new bonds to form.
“We open up Zoom a half hour before the service begins. The regular viewers from home have become like their own little subsection of a community. They chat with each other and they ask about each other and they know who everybody is,” said Clark.
Clark, 63, estimates that a large majority of the congregation is older than she is. So her mostly aging congregation has not only adapted to the virtual option, but made it a source of connection.
The physical option has looked different too. This summer, the Federated Church of East Arlington’s in-person option was hosted outdoors under a tent loaned to them by another church. It was a big hit, and something they’ll return to in fair weather even when the pandemic ends.
But the virtual option has opened up new possibilities.
“The interesting thing, too, is we have three screens worth of humans that would never be able to be here with us in-person. One lives in New Jersey and two of them live in Michigan,” Clark explained.
At Israel Congregation, the virtual service has expanded the congregation’s reach too. “We have congregants not just in the area but all over. People have been coming to our services virtually from New York, Florida and New Jersey. So that’s kind of a silver lining to adjusting,” explained Buckner.
Setting up a good streaming option was a collaborative effort. “We have had a committee as a small group that has worked on technology and has really upgraded and improved our abilities to stream in higher quality streaming from the sanctuary,” said Buckner.
And that option will stick around. Streaming has changed the landscape of faith communities permanently, which might not be a bad thing.
But beyond virtual services, Kathy Clark feels she learned, or at least relearned, something important through the pandemic.
“I’ve come to appreciate so much the importance of neighbors taking care of neighbors. It’s obviously a basic tenet of Christianity. But regardless of anybody’s faith tradition, or lack of faith tradition, I’ve come to see how wonderful and how heartfelt people’s concern for each other is. So that’s been a positive that’s come out of COVID,” she said.