At a time when many churches were already trying to attract and retain members, the pandemic has prompted some to seek out new places of worship.
Church shopping is nothing new and some are reluctant to try and find a new religious community, but a couple in northern Wisconsin felt they had no choice but to leave their longtime church because of misinformation about COVID-19 and the lack of pandemic precautions it was taking to protect parishioners.
One member of the couple told Wisconsin Public Radio's WHYsconsin that she believes the pandemic widened differences among the congregation that may not have been apparent before. The woman spoke to WPR on the condition that she nor the church be named.
"I think the pandemic did to our church what we’ve seen happen culturally as a nation," she said. "It’s revealing some things that were there to begin with. Politicization of things that maybe shouldn’t be politicized, religion being one of them, in my opinion."
During Bible class at her former church, she said the pastor was making assertions about the pandemic that were at odds with statements made by public health professionals. So, she started writing them down in a journal.
Among the falsehoods she said she heard:
> Sunlight kills the virus. (Exposure to the sun or to temperatures higher than 77 degrees Fahrenheit doesn't prevent the coronavirus or cure COVID-19, according to Mayo Clinic and the American Academy of Dermatology.)
> Hydroxychloroquine is a cure for COVID-19. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration revoked an emergency use authorization for the drug in treating COVID-19 after people suffered serious cardiac problems and other side effects.)
> The pastor, she said, encouraged them to work on their immune system to fend off COVID-19 "because people with a robust immune system don’t need to worry about getting sick," she recalled. Both she and her husband are in good health, she said. They are also vaccinated and boosted. Health officials say even people who are in good health, should be vaccinated.
"So when these things started happening, myself and a couple other members started questioning the church leadership. We were rebuffed with, 'Well, your faith isn’t strong enough,'" the woman said.
The northern Wisconsin couple has since found a new place of worship since leaving their former church last year.
The Wisconsin Council of Churches recently recommended that congregations return to physically distanced ministry as new infections of COVID-19 surge. The Diocese of Madison, which is not a Council of Churches member, is asking congregations to continue or increase ongoing COVID-19 precautions amid the ongoing surge but stopped short of telling members to move fully online.
Virtual services are "a huge opportunity to reach out to people with the love of God," said the woman who left her Lutheran church in June 2021, shortly before the delta variant began to trigger a more dangerous wave in the pandemic only to be replaced with the highly contagious omicron variant.
Rev. Daniel Schultz is vaccination outreach project manager with the Council of Churches. He said though there are struggles with remote services, it's also an opportunity to reach a wider audience.
"We recognize the difficulty of returning to remote worship, remote ways of gathering," said Rev. Daniel Schultz with the Council of Churches. "It’s a lot of extra work for pastors; it can cause conflict. We know that people want to sing and get together. But this is really an opportunity for congregations to step up and serve their community."
While some are leaving congregations because they don't think there are enough pandemic protections, others are leaving because they believe there are too many. A friend in a different church with strict pandemic protections and a big online following told the northern Wisconsin woman that it, too, had lost members due to disagreements over the pandemic.
In 2020, a Gallup Poll found less than half of adults in the United States said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. Previous findings by the Pew Research Center found attendance at religious services in Wisconsin has been on the decline for years. In 2014, less than a third of those surveyed attended services at least once a week and less than half attended monthly, a decrease from 2007.
Starting a church during a pandemic
Big, established churches are more likely to have the technology and larger congregations that can accommodate changes prompted by the pandemic. For smaller churches, it can be a heavy lift at first.
Passion Community Church opened its doors in September 2019 in a 200-year-old building in Oxford. Pastor James Bondowski said when COVID-19 surged, they wanted to protect parishioners but were wondering how they could afford the equipment needed to conduct services virtually. They started with cell phones, eventually moving on to more advanced technology that allowed them to offer services online when the situation warranted.
Many parishioners prefer services in-person. But Bondowski said they will return to virtual ministry like the Council of Churches recommends.
"When we got the news (to reinstate precautions), it was kind of shocking because we had our hopes up, but it’s understandable because nobody wants to get sick with COVID-19. Nobody wants to pass it to anybody," Bondowski said.
Passion Community Church lost its church director to COVID-19, he said, and its board director also died from the disease.
Misinformation in the pews and from the pulpit is not new.
In May, a priest in La Crosse was asked to resign after spreading incorrect information about COVID-19 and the vaccine.
Rev. James Altman was asked to resign by Bishop William Callahan, who heads the Diocese of La Crosse.
Altman had been criticized for a series of controversial statements, including calling Catholic Democrats "Godless" hypocrites before the 2020 U.S. presidential election. He also came under fire for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.
Pope Francis has urged people get vaccinated against COVID-19.