Study: Black pastors led congregations toward safety during pandemic

Published 5:00 pm Thursday, February 3, 2022

A research team at The University of Southern Mississippi, led by assistant professor of public health, Dr. Tanya Funchess, recently completed a phenomenological qualitative study designed to address how African American pastors in Mississippi handled the COVID-19 pandemic with their congregations.

The study focused on understanding the lived experiences of the pastors during the pandemic and how they aided their congregations to limit and reduce the virus’s impact on their health and well-being. Approximately 40 pastors participated.

The study is one of the first to investigate the role that African American pastors played in helping to mobilize their communities for public health safety, addressing the state mandates, and ensuring the members’ remained abreast of health guidelines, policies and resources.

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Funchess noted that pastors found themselves treading unfamiliar terrain as the COVID crisis became widespread. She and her colleagues sought to explore how African American pastors reacted to the virus’ restrictions and limitations.

“Due to the guidelines at the onslaught of COVID-19, several services and programs that are embedded in the fabric of the Black community’s culture and relegated as core responsibilities of the church became restricted or stopped altogether,” said Funchess. “Services such as visiting the sick at hospitals, church leadership officiating congregants’ funerals or supporting them through the loss of a loved, hosting face-to-face worship services, and physically interacting with their congregants were either suspended, limited or stopped completely.”

The study participants consisted of the head pastors, associate pastors and senior pastors of churches located in the northern, central, and southern regions of Mississippi. Each shared their approaches and strategies for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, including how they transitioned to online and web-based communication while adhering to the state’s COVID-19 mandates, maintained operations despite having no to limited physical presence in the sanctuary, and disseminated health education, information and supplies to their members and throughout their communities.

At the onslaught of COVID-19 and following executive orders, 90 percent of the pastors stopped or restricted services in March 2020. While 10 percent of the pastors had established health ministries to help with information and resource dissemination, other pastors were actively involved in sifting through the abundant materials and communication to ensure “culturally appropriate” and “plain language” COVID-19 information was shared with the members via online technologies.

A few of the pastors were engaged with their local government which had formed COVID action teams as a way of securing information and resources for their members. Though pastors were being personally affected by the virus, some losing loved ones and facing insurmountable pressures, they maintained the spiritual diligence for counseling their members facing mental stressors, relationship woes, and trauma due to the virus.

The study reinforced the importance of the pastors’ role to the members and the community and revealed how effective they are as a resource for disseminating pertinent health information during times of crises, and their ability to affect behavior change for the better among their congregants.

“Pastors in this study were relentless,” Funchess emphasized. “They tried numerous approaches to keep their congregants safe, while implementing COVID-19 guidelines. Pastors can adapt in times of crises in ways that satisfy the diverse needs of their congregants to include, spiritual, emotional, financial and social needs.”

For more information about the study, contact Funchess at 601-266-5437 or