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Faith matters in COVID crisis, say faith leaders in Queen’s University survey

By Cian Molloy - 30 May, 2020

A survey of Christian faith leaders in Ireland by Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and the Irish Council of Churches (ICC) has found that, despite the closure of places of worship, religious practice has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Principal investigator Dr Gladys Ganiel of QUB says the survey provides “a snapshot of how faith leaders and communities are adapting in a time of rapid and disorientating change”. Her report on the survey is headed People Still Need Us, following a comment made by one of the survey’s participants.

“They [the results] show us how people of faith are grieving, coping, moving religion online and serving the wider community. They also allow us to see how faith leaders are coping with the stresses of ministry,” says Dr Ganiel, who worked with ICC general secretary Nicola Brady to seek the views of representatives of the council’s member denominations.

Surveys were sent to more than 2,000 faith leaders and 439 useable responses were received, with responses coming from every county on the island of Ireland.

Faith leaders observed increases in prayer and in online religious practice, improved interaction with people, new opportunities for pastoral care, new appreciation for faith leaders among laity, greater lay involvement, greater opportunities for service, and more time and space for themselves.

One of the survey’s key findings concern online faith resources. Before the pandemic, nearly half of faith communities (44 per cent) did not provide any form of online worship opportunities, now only 13 per cent of faith communities do not provide such opportunities.

Additionally, 70 per cent of respondents stated that they will retain aspects of their online ministeries when restrictions on public gatherings are listed. Several participants indicated that in future, blending online and in-person ministries could enhance religious practice.

Notably, nearly all (89 per cent) faith leaders said that faith had helped people cope with stress during the pandemic. They provided examples of people praying more and some who had previously demonstrated no interest in faith or religion tuning in to religious services or seeking prayer.

Of Ireland’s four largest Christian denominations – Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist – 74 per cent of faith communities said they were providing social services to the wider community during the pandemic: 42 per cent said their services had increased, 33 per cent said services were at pre-existing levels and 25 per cent said services had been decreased. Dr Ganiel commented that this demonstrates “resiliency in challenging times”.

Nearly half of faith leaders (46 per cent) said their ministry had been more stressful than usual and the most stressful experiences cited were: comforting those bereaved by COVID–19; comforting those bereaved of other causes; conducting funerals; “feeling guilty that I am not doing enough to respond to the Covid–19 pandemic”; and learning new skills for online ministry

“Faith leaders also indicated that the pandemic has revealed that ‘faith matters’, not just for faith communities themselves but for wider society,” said Dr Ganiel. “Future ministries must blend online and in–person aspects, and ministry should be a team effort, including greater involvement from laity.”

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