Closing churches when the pandemic hit was easy — nobody had a choice in the matter. What’s harder is reopening.
That’s one of the things leaders of Canada’s four largest Mennonite conferences are finding as the country begins to emerge from lockdowns due to COVID-19.
“Things are so uncertain for churches,” said Tim Dyck, executive director of Evangelical Mennonite Conference. “It’s hard to make plans when you know you may have to throw them all out at a moment’s notice and start over.”
As Mennonite Brethren churches reopen, pastors are finding there is less demand than expected, said Elton DaSilva, executive director of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.
“They are finding not everyone is ready to come back to in-person services,” he said.
Lyn Dyck of Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference noticed the same thing.
“A majority of young families are reluctant to come back to church,” he said. “They aren’t ready for that kind of mingling yet.”
One thing they all are emphasizing is for churches to follow health protocols and guidelines for safe reopenings.
“Everyone is working to be safe,” said Tim Dyck. “There is no disregard for the rules. We are telling pastors to err on the side of caution.”
Lyn Dyck said EMMC is encouraging pastors to go slow.
“Pastors need to listen to their congregations” to see if they are ready to return, he said.
Something on the minds of the leaders is clergy burnout, especially since the pandemic will be around for much longer than people expected.
“A certain fatigue is setting in,” said Tim Dyck of how leaders in EMC churches are being challenged by all the demands.
“I can sense pastors are tired,” added DaSilva, noting it’s not just because of the ongoing work but also because of the uncertainty and “having to constantly reinvent things.”
“Many pastors are exhausted,” said Lyn Dyck, adding that the reopenings came right at the time in summer when many pastors typically take some time off. “This year, they weren’t able to catch their breath.”
As for giving, donations to churches that are part of Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian MB Conference are down 15 percent to 20 percent, although MC Canada executive minister Doug Klassen and DaSilva said they won’t have a full financial picture until the end of the year.
For EMC and EMMC, giving fell dramatically in March and April but has bounced back to about where it was a year ago at this time.
All four conferences are being cautious about budgeting for the future.
“We remain hopeful,” said Klassen, noting there are many unknowns the longer the pandemic goes on.
“The financial picture for 2020 is good, but there is uncertainty for next year,” added Tim Dyck.
While the pandemic has created many challenges, it is also providing opportunities to re-think the meaning and purpose of church.
For Klassen, “COVID-19 has revealed how worship-focused churches are at the expense of being missional communities.”
With churches having been closed for four or five months, and having to meet online, people are thinking about the meaning of Sunday mornings, he said.
A major area of change DaSilva sees for Canadian Mennonite Brethren is also Sunday mornings.
“Something is happening that will reshape how churches gather,” he stated of how the closure of churches is causing them to evaluate the purpose of Sunday morning services.
One thing that could happen, he said, is churches may put less emphasis on Sunday mornings and more on smaller gatherings during the week in homes.
Tim Dyck observed the pandemic has made new ministry possible, such as for two small Ethiopian EMC congregations — one in Alberta and the other in Ontario — that are meeting together online to support each other despite a two-hour time- zone difference. Their pastor is even farther away, in Ethiopia.
“It means some time juggling, but it works,” he said. “When people are online, it’s the same distance.”
Added Lyn Dyck: “We’re telling churches this is a time for them to look for new opportunities to do ministry and to evaluate current ministries and look at them in a new way.”