Focus Group Report Given at December 1, 2021 Colloquium
Part of Educating Urban Ministers in Philadelphia After 2020 project
Our focus group took place on Friday November 19, 2021 from 6PM-7PM via Zoom. There were a total of seven participants invited and RSVP’d for the group. However, on the day of, only three showed. Two had family emergencies and one forgot. We proceeded with the three. The names of each participant were changed to protect their identities. The participants were Tamara, Rebecca and Stephanie. Tamara also announced that she had a hard stop at 6:50, so she took an active role in answering many of the questions first.
- Participant #1- Stephanie: age 43; single mother; 1 daughter age 2; Pharmacist; attends large African-American Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
- Participant #2- Tamara: age 39; married; 1 daughter age 5; Community Development; attends large multi-ethnic/cultural Charismatic church in Philadelphia.
- Participant #3- Rebecca: age 36; married; 4 children ages 1-6; Homemaker; attends small multi-ethnic/cultural church in Philadelphia.
What were your pre-COVID-19 worship habits?
Tamara: appeared excited to answer this question. She had been involved in at least six different ministries at her church. She and her husband served in leadership roles. As a result, they attended church almost four days a week in some capacity. Pre-COVID-19 they did not have a child, so their time management looked very different. She said that she was exhausted. At the time she attended a small church that remained very active. But in 2021, she and her husband changed churches and now attend a much larger church. However, pre-2020 she and her husband had been at their church for over 20 years.
Stephanie: attended Bible study, was involved in the choir, and participated in Sunday services. She also was involved in mission trips and certain other outreaches prior to 2020.
Rebecca: changed churches just before the pandemic hit. She had been very active and involved in her previous church which was a small community church in a hyper-focused geographic area of the city. As such, she and her husband were constantly involved in the lives of her neighbors and the church had a very close-knit family feel. Since transitioning to her new church, she does not have as much of a family feel. The church is larger, although still small. But it does not have the same intimacy that the small church had, and she misses that. She has not gotten a chance to be as involved in her new church because they began to regularly attend just before we went into lockdown. As a result, it has been harder to form relationships and that is something that she misses.
How have your worship habits changed since 2020?
Tamara: In 2020, she and her husband adopted a daughter, which changed life completely. Once lockdown hit, her church shifted to Zoom for meetings and worship services. Initially, she tried to maintain the same schedule that she had prior to lockdown, just now virtually. She attempted to do this from March 2020 through August 2020 at which point she realized that she was suffering from Zoom fatigue and burnout. She also realized that her presence on the Zoom calls was causing her to shift to being very performance driven. She began to be concerned about how she showed up in service on screen. And that caused her some alarm. She felt that she had become spiritually unhealthy. She began to pray about potentially leaving her church. Unbeknownst to her, at the same time, her husband was also praying and fasting about leaving the church. They began to seek God together and prayerfully decided to find another church. The new church they found had online services through YouTube and Facebook which was convenient. However, it also did not give her an opportunity to seek community and begin to form relationships in her new church. She also remarked that spiritually it began to become unhealthy because she started to find ways to multitask while also watching the service. Once in-person services resumed, she was more than ready. She was relieved and finds the in-person service to be much more conducive to cultivating a healthy spiritual life.
Stephanie: Her church offers a hybrid model right now of both online and in person with some restrictions on in-person worship. Because she is a clinician in the healthcare industry, she is taking extra precautions to not attend in-person services because her daughter is unable to be vaccinated. She has opted to remain online. However, she wants to set the tone for her daughter to prepare her for when they do go in person and also to ensure that she learns to set aside this time of worship as sacred. She and her daughter both get up and get dressed as if they are going to church. She is very concerned about the vaccination rates in the African-American community. She is growing more comfortable doing small group gatherings in person and feels that she may begin to attend in person on occasion next year, but is not there yet. She knows that she needs some accountability from the community in her church life, so she desires to get back to more in person soon.
Rebecca: Since her church closed pre-COVID, she and her family tried to attend a new house church that just did not work out for them. They then shifted to their current church, but then everything shut down. During shutdown, they began watching service online as a family, but she soon shifted to watching services at other times without her family and also multitasking while doing so. She noticed that this was not healthy for her spiritual life and also did not model great behavior for her children, so she began watching with the family again. She and her family were greatly relieved when in person services resumed as they were eager to attend. It gave her more of the community feel that she was longing for, even though it was still not like her old church.
Follow up question for Tamara: What made you decide to leave your church instead of altering your ministry commitments at your, then, current church?
Tamara: She felt strongly that having begun at that church when she was in college, meeting her husband there and now becoming a parent there, she was being led out of that church. It was painful to make the decision because of all of the emotional attachments that she had to that church, but she felt that God was calling her and her husband from that place. She felt relieved when her husband said that he felt the same and had been praying and fasting to discern what their next move should be, if anything. But she says that her church functioned under an old system that thought that in order to be spiritually healthy, you had to be busy. And she also subscribed to that mentality. And now as a parent, she felt that she could not remain at that church with that level of activity and expectation and be a good parent to her daughter. She would not have had the time to focus on her daughter the way she wanted to and felt was needed.
What type of support do you feel you need from the church now?
Tamara: The church needs to be relevant. And not in the sense that it has to be seeker-friendly, but that it must be able to take a look at the current climate and the needs of their particular church community and make adjustments to ministry accordingly. She remarked that the church schedule that she was following at her old church is the same one that her mother and grandmother followed. Now she is in a home where both parents have to work, and they have a daughter, so it is not realistic for her to function the same way that her homemaker grandmother functioned. Old models may not be relevant to today’s generation. Churches should consider a broader option for service delivery and take into account each population in the church: single, married, divorced, widowed, single parent, dual parents, etc.
Rebecca: Chooses to keep her children with her in services as opposed to sending them to children’s church. She feels strongly that she wants the children to know that the church as a whole belongs to them, too; that they are a part of this community and that God’s Word is for them, too. She thinks that the church needs to find ways to make sure everyone feels connected and like the church belongs to them and that they are a part of this community. She desires for her children to have a connection to the sacred.
Stephanie: Feels that the church has to find ways to be socially connected while also being physically distant. She has accepted the fact that the pandemic is turning to an endemic and COVID will be with us for the foreseeable future. As such, the church has to find ways to keep everyone safe and protected while also knowing that we need the in-person community.
How have your churches responded to COVID-19?
Tamara: Her old church went to Zoom immediately. Her current church shifted their Bible study in person to now being a “Discovery Class” online that features three pastors discussing a topic and allows the participants to interact. She said that this has been very engaging and a nice change from the old Bible study. She is also able to watch the Discovery Class at other times while she takes time to spend with her daughter at children’s church on Wednesday nights. The flexibility allows her to do both things. They have cut down their number of worship services from five to two in-person and the rest online.
Stephanie: Her church has adopted a hybrid model. They used to have an in-person Saturday service but shifted that to an online service, and Sundays are hybrid. They’ve gone down to just one Sunday service from three services before COVID-19. Bible study during the week is also hybrid. The church put out a survey to solicit feedback from the congregation as to what they wanted to do and what they were comfortable with before making changes. She thought that was a best practice because you can take the temperature of the congregation and know that you have some buy in.
Rebecca: Her church is back in person and continues to offer an online option. Everyone wears masks and social distancing is practiced. Many of the small groups have started to go back to in-person and children’s church has just started back again.
What changes from the pandemic would you want to see your church keep and which ones would you do away with?
Stephanie: So many of the things that we did were busy work and unnecessary. The pandemic has caused us to focus on what is essential for ministry and not a lot of the fluff that we used to do. She wants the church to keep evaluating the busyness of the church and get rid of things that don’t truly matter.
Tamara: Busyness does not equal effectiveness. The church needs to focus on the things that actually bring souls to Jesus and to focus on what God has actually called us to do. So much of what we were doing was not actually helpful in bringing souls to Christ.
Rebecca: Echoes the other two comments about busyness and adds that the church has to also focus on things that will make ministry more effective. She adds that church for her has been a family, often at times when she could not depend on her biological family. And she misses that family feel of her old church. One of her old church members passed away a few months ago and she was able to grieve a little with her old church family but still missed the way that would have happened if her old church was still open. She thinks that the community needs a way to speak into those type of losses in life and the family of God plays a large role in that.
If you were starting a church today, what would that look like?
Stephanie: She would make sure that the church had Bible study. She feels that is essential to keep people in the Word of God. She would also continue to ask the congregation what their needs are and solicit feedback often to ensure they are serving the congregation well. She would also be sure to keep some level of flexibility in their services to allow for more diverse participation. She also thinks that small groups that focus on different things would be good so that more people could find connection in a way that is relevant to them and where they are in life. For example, there could be a group that meets at an off time to accommodate people who work at night or that meets at times convenient for single parents.
Rebecca: She feels that Bible study is important but should focus on helping people be accountable to learn to read the Word for themselves. And also preaching is important from a pastor who is following the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Tamara: Would have to seek the Lord. She wouldn’t know until seeking God about what the church should do. She comments that she would not want her spiritual gift of mercy to dominate the church’s vision, so she would need to seek God to find out what He wanted from the church.
How would you suggest that a seminary prepare prospective pastors for future ministry?
Tamara: They have to get back to holiness. She is frustrated with the number of pastors who are involved in scandal. She wants them to seek God for holiness. And she is tired of seeing empty churches in communities where there is great need. And church must be prepared for the role that women play in the church as a whole. Pastors also need to be able to practice self-care well and take time to rest.
Stephanie: Pastors must be honest about their own limitations and ask for help. And they need to have people around them to help guide them and pour into them as they pour into others. They have to take the time to foster a strong relationship with God for themselves.
Rebecca: Pastors have to be able to build a strong relationship with their family. Too many pastors have families that are falling apart while they are busy serving the church. She wants to see them prioritize their own home and ensure that they care for their family as they care for the church. She also says that with all that has happened in the “pressure-cooker” that was 2020 and beyond, pastors have to be able to speak into so many things now: technology and how it affects our kids; racial issues; politics and how we should be thinking about these things from a faith-perspective. They cannot ignore these things.
The group concluded with Tamara leaving at 6:50PM. Prior to her departure she said that she was so glad to have participated in this focus group. She didn’t realize how much she needed space to be able to process some of these things, that it felt therapeutic to her. The other two echoed her sentiment and were visibly joyful about their participation. They desired to hear more about the study and its results next year.