Pastoral Ministry in Unsettled Times: A Qualitative Study of the Experiences of Clergy During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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COVID-19 and its associated restrictions around in-person gatherings have created unprecedented challenges for religious congregations and those who lead them. While several surveys have attempted to describe how pastors and congregations responded to COVID-19, these provide a relatively thin picture of how COVID-19 is impacting religious life. There is scant qualitative data describing the lived reality of religious leaders and communities during the pandemic.

Purpose and methods

This paper provides a more detailed look at how pastors and congregations experienced and responded to COVID-19 and its associated restrictions in the early period of the pandemic. To do so, we draw from 26 in-depth interviews with church-appointed United Methodist pastors conducted between June and August 2020. Pastors were asked to describe how their ministry changed as a result of COVID-19 and interviews were analyzed using applied thematic analysis approaches to identify the most common emergent themes.


Pastors reported that COVID-19 fundamentally unsettled routine ways of doing ministry. This disruption generated both challenges and opportunities for clergy and their congregations. In the findings, we describe how clergy responded in key areas of ministry-worship and pastoral care-and analyze how the pandemic is (re)shaping the way that clergy understood their role as pastors and envisioned the future of the Church. We argue for the value of examining the pandemic as an "unsettled" cultural period (Swidler 1986) in which religious leaders found creative ways to (re)do ministry in the context of social distancing. Rather than starting from scratch, we found that pastors drew from and modified existing symbolic and practical tools to fit pandemic-related constraints on religious life. Notably, however, we found that "redoing" ministry was easier and more effective in some areas (worship) than others (pastoral care).

Conclusions and implications

The impact of COVID-19 on pastors and congregations is complex and not fully captured by survey research. This study provides a baseline for investigating similarities and differences in the responses of pastors within and across denominations and traditions. It also provides a baseline for assessing whether changes in ministry implemented during the early stages of the pandemic remain in place in the post-COVID world.





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Publication Info

Johnston, Erin F, David E Eagle, Jennifer Headley and Anna Holleman (2021). Pastoral Ministry in Unsettled Times: A Qualitative Study of the Experiences of Clergy During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Review of religious research. pp. 1–23. 10.1007/s13644-021-00465-y Retrieved from

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Erin Johnston

Research Associate, Senior

David E Eagle

Assistant Research Professor of Global Health

I am an Assistant Research Professor the Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research and the Duke Global Health Institute. I am an expert on the health of religious clergy, the changing shape of churches in North American society, and the implications of these trends for the professional training of ministers.

More recently, my research has begun to branch out internationally. I am doing research on clergy in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and studying the mental health of sexual and gender minorities around the world.

Methodologically, I am skilled in the collection and analysis of survey data, including longitudinal and social network data.


Anna Holleman

Postdoctoral Associate

Anna Holleman is a Postdoctoral Research Associate affiliated with the Duke University Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research and the Duke University Department of Sociology. Her work centers on religion, health, and inequality. Her current research focuses specifically on the health and well-being of religious leaders, congregational political mobilization, and the shifting nature of the American religious landscape in the contemporary social climate. She pursues these research topics through both quantitative and qualitative methodology. Before receiving her PhD, she received a Master of Divinity degree at Duke Divinity School, and thus she approaches her research with an appreciation for the complexities of religious and congregational life.

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