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Life After COVID: 8 Labor Market Trends That May Impact the Church

COVID-19 has created several labor market trends that are likely to have a residual impact on churches and religious organizations.
Life After COVID: 8 Labor Market Trends That May Impact the Church

In 2021, Texas State Technical College released a white paper that explored fifteen societal and labor market trends that are likely to have a residual impact on higher education, the job market, and student preparation in the aftermath of the pandemic. Several of these phenomena have direct relevance to churches and religious organizations.

The church is not a business, but …

In several ways, church attendance is a supply and demand concept—people want religious attachment and an opportunity to exercise their spirituality. Most churches have a fixed dogma that attracts segments of that spiritual population. The extent to which a church can adapt their religious practices to meet a broader need, the more likely it is that attendance and contributions will grow.

Moreover, the church community is subject to many secular economic and social trends which influence the availability of talent, the ability to identify and attract new congregants, and meet their pastoral obligations.

The following eight secular trends have been gleaned from the original fifteen as having the strongest applicability to the church community.

#1 – Welcome to the less-than-full economy

Social distancing will take a big bite out of available capacity. In the case of churches, limited capacity translates to limited earnings since so much revenue comes from in-person offerings. Many service and retail establishments, sporting events and concerts will be limited by the number of customers they are allowed to serve or seat at one time and churches have been no exception.

Forecasts show church attendance is likely to rebound to pre-pandemic levels. However, with 84 percent of churches experiencing plateaued or declining membership, a return-to-normal may not be sufficient for many churches.

#2 – Brick and mortar stores will continue to decline

Online retailing will continue to accelerate, speeding up the decline of bricks and mortar retail stores, many of which will be forced to move online in order to survive. This e-commerce movement, already well underway, was accelerated during the pandemic and will continue in the aftermath.

Churches must build out an online presence to reach more people. This is akin to the circuit rider clergy concept; minister to people where they are. And right now, most people spend much of their time online. This includes social media.

In addition, churches must have a multitude of online payment/contribution options. Sixty percent of people prefer to give digitally. Churches need to pursue multiple ways for members to give: perhaps even options via ApplePay, PayPal, Venmo, or automatic bank withdrawal?

On social media, churches should consider pursuing sponsored posts and low-cost ads to increase giving/raise revenue and to support their virtual outreach, with the ultimate goal of bringing worshippers to their brick and mortar location.

#3 – Social conventions and interactions will change

COVID-19 may spell the death of the handshake, the hug, the buffet, and it certainly increased the number of plexiglass barriers.

Business will find ways to provide services without touching the customer and social media will continue to dominate the lives of younger people. Therefore, churches must have a social media presence.

However, the downside to a more virtual world is less personal interaction. This lessens empathy/caring for others and creates a disconnect from community. Millennials are craving greater community engagement through their employer—why not their church? It can be argued that with only 42 percent of Millennials attending church and only 68 percent of those with a religious preference, the church is ideally suited to attract more Christian ‘free agents’ to their congregation, if the messaging speaks to them.

#4 – School may never be the same: back to campus or cyberspace?

Recessions typically trigger a return to college or at least a renewed vigor to learn newly marketable skills to catch the next wave of economic recovery. Churches can capitalize on this trend.

Many churches moved their small groups and discipleship classes online during the pandemic, to mixed success. But it may be possible for churches to further leverage the recession recovery by extending more formal religious education classes online at both the private school (Christian middle and high school education) and church level. Private schools could perhaps even charge enrollment fees to homeschoolers, allowing them access to curriculum and experienced teachers while maintaining the home-education environment. Churches could offer discipleship materials and curriculum, along with the ability to participate in a remote class, for a flat fee—instead of charging for individual small group member books.

These options, even as a hybrid arrangement with some in-person instruction, could expand the reach of the church into younger populations. The jury is still out as to whether remote learning is as effective as in-person instruction, but there is no doubting the effectiveness of greater reach.

#5 – Remote work or work-from-home arrangements will become more commonplace

After the pandemic, the skills required for success in the work-from-anywhere marketplace will include huge doses of employability skills such as time management and digital hard skills, even for entry-level jobs.

Not every job can (or will) be performed remotely. And yet, if more people can work at home, where ‘home’ is matters less. This will change individual and business location decisions and consumption patterns. People are becoming accustomed to ‘taking care of business’ remotely. This will include their religious commitments. Churches without some type of online/hybrid arrangement will miss out on an opportunity.

On the plus side, a more virtual labor market opens opportunities for churches to bring in ‘guest talent’ who can speak on spiritual topics that might be of interest to current and prospective congregants. The number of Americans without a religious preference has more than doubled over the past 20 years to almost 20 percent.

#6 – Public sector budget woes will emerge

Who’s going to pay for all this? When the private sector sneezes, the government gets a cold. Unbudgeted costs for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, protective equipment, unemployment insurance benefits, etc. will continue to challenge state and local budgets, affecting every government program, including health and human services and public education. Schools and governments are now awash in federal relief money.

Churches should recognize that they are eligible for PPP/CARES and American Rescue Plan Act funds.

#7 – The stay-at-home culture: new forms of digital entertainment emerge

If we’re not personally interacting, then we’re spending more time at home. And that usually means more time in front of a computer or television screen.

Those that are homebound are turning their attention to improving their home environment and discovering a wide range of digital entertainment options. Churches must compete with these other forms of multi-media diversions. Minister to them where they are!

Competing with all this engaging content online means that sermon content and form matters, even more! Sermons must demonstrate relevance to the lives of younger people and how scripture applies to modern society, especially to get/keep the attention of Millennials and Gen Z. Spiritual ‘tele-visits’ to homebound persons via Zoom, WebEx or Microsoft Teams can allow pastors to personally reach a greater number of congregants without travelling the town.

#8 – Small business suffers while the gig economy flourishes

The pandemic has disparately affected the service sector, notably retail, leisure and hospitality, and personal services. These industries have a higher proportion of small business which have been traumatized by the economic lockdowns. The trend from the last several decades in which new businesses have fewer employees with more entrepreneurs becoming freelance operators than business proprietors will be exacerbated.

Small churches with older congregations will be hard-pressed to keep up with area mega-churches, which means budgets will be tight. Churches should consider outsourcing basic church administrative functions through contractors (individuals or small businesses) to focus on ministering to members. This could include shared efforts to make more youth ministries available, and even introduce internships for church administration functions such as church bulletins, graphic design, music, scripture and sermon research, etc.

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