Irish Council of Churches. Irish Inter-Church Meeting

‘People Still Need Us’: A Report on a Survey of Faith Leaders on the Island of Ireland during the Covid–19 Pandemic

Dr Gladys Ganiel





People still need us.

These are the words of a Catholic Religious, responding to a ‘write–in’ question about what lessons faith communities should learn from ministering through the Covid–19 pandemic. It succinctly summarizes the main insights of the survey: faith leaders and communities have not only played important roles in providing pastoral care and social services during the pandemic, but there is also evidence of increased prayer and surprisingly high levels of online religious practice among people on the island of Ireland.

This report sets out and analyses the results of a survey that was a collaboration between Queen’s University and the Irish Council of Churches/Irish Inter–Church Meeting (ICC/IICM). The principal investigator at Queen’s, Gladys Ganiel, worked with the General Secretary of the ICC, Nicola Brady, and representatives of member denominations to develop the survey questions. It was distributed to more than 2,000 faith leaders, with 439 usable responses received from every county on the island.

It provides us with a snapshot of how faith leaders and communities are adapting in a time of rapid and disorientating change. They 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.

Irish Inter–Church Meeting co–chairs Bishop Brendan Leahy and Rev Dr Ivan Patterson noted:

Covid–19 has had a profound impact on the Irish churches in many different ways. In our inter–church meetings we have been sharing experiences and supporting each other in the shared challenges we face across the island of Ireland. We have been conscious of the need to document the learning from this experience and, in particular, how local churches have responded. Speaking on World Communications Day, 24 May 2020, Archbishop Eamon Martin said: “ I hope that philosophers, sociologists and media commentators might critique how key relationships have been impacted – for better or worse – by this pandemic.  I encourage our theologians to consider what this crisis is saying about Church, about our identity and mission, about our relationship with the State, and about prayer and faith”. Dr Gladys Ganiel’s detailed survey of local faith leaders is therefore a very welcome contribution and useful resource for our member churches, and we are very grateful to her for the opportunity to collaborate.

The key finding that local church communities have demonstrated resilience in challenging times reflects our experience. 

We have been inspired and greatly encouraged by the determination of clergy and lay leaders to continue pastoral ministry and social outreach in the community while observing best practice in the protection of public health. 

At the same time, the fact that we have been unable to gather as Christian communities in prayer and worship is something that is deeply painful, and the research reflects that reality. In particular, the impact of restrictions on person–to–person pastoral care has been keenly felt.

Marking Mental Health Awareness Week (UK) last week we drew attention to the significant mental health impact of Covid–19 and encouraged those in leadership at local church level to be mindful of the importance of self–compassion as they seek to care for others. The research underlines the importance of adequate attention to mental and emotional health and provision for self–care. The consequences of this pandemic will be with us for a long time, and we need to ensure that our responses are sustainable. Not only have we been needed by many people in lockdown, but our experience tells us that we are likely to be even more needed as restrictions ease and communities seek to gather round those who have been bereaved. In that context, it is significant that this research points us in the direction of increased partnership and sharing of responsibility at local church level.

Finally, it is a real encouragement to see how new initiatives in the digital space have enabled clergy to both support members of their congregation, and engage with a much wider audience, some of whom are seeking faith support for the first time or after a long absence. While the majority of respondents intend to continue some aspects of online ministry in the longer term, the research rightly notes that there are limitations to this form of engagement and on its own it cannot replace that coming together as a community of believers.

In the Irish Inter–Church Meeting we look forward to continuing to share experiences and support each other as we prepare for the gradual, safe return to public worship, and this research will be a helpful resource for us in this work.

Key Findings of the research include:

89 percent of faith leaders said that faith had helped people cope with stress during the pandemic. They provided examples of people praying more and people who had previously demonstrated no interest in faith or religion tuning in to religious services or seeking prayer.

Religion Online

Before the pandemic, 44 percent of faith communities did not provide online worship opportunities; now only 13 percent of faith communities do not provide these opportunities.

70 percent of respondents agreed that they would retain aspects of their online ministries when restrictions on public gatherings are lifted. In ‘write–in’ questions, faith leaders described how blending online and in– person ministries could enhance religious practice in the future.

Social Services and the Wider Community

74 percent of faith communities from the largest denominations – Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist – were providing social services to the wider community during the pandemic.

Among those providing services, 42 percent said their services had increased, 33 percent had stayed the same, and just 25 percent had decreased their services, demonstrating resiliency in challenging times.

Stress and Ministry

Forty–six percent of faith leaders said their ministry had been more stressful than usual.

The most stressful experiences for faith leaders during the pandemic have been:

  • 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’
  • learning new skills for online ministry
  • balancing work and life.

‘People Still Need Us’

The survey included ‘write–in’ questions that enabled faith leaders to make these points:

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.

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