3 December 2022

Exhaustion, ‘erratic’ church attendance require ministers to lower expectations

Reverend Luke Pedersen says attendance at his parish has changed since COVID-19. Image: Supplied.

Kirralee Nicolle

11 July 2022

Anglican churches across Melbourne have been hit with a drop in attendance on Sundays due to exhaustion following COVID-19, say ministers.

Merri Creek Anglican senior minister Reverend Dr Peter Carolane said that the average attendance rate had lowered, according to statistics he kept.

However, Dr Carolane said that overall numbers in the church had not dropped.

He said that prior to COVID-19, the average adult had attended 59 per cent of Sunday services. Following the pandemic, this number had dropped to 44 per cent.

Read more: Down one third in one decade: Fewer choosing ‘Christian’ on census

“It has the overall effect of looking like people aren’t attending,” he said.

But Dr Carolane said that the drop in attendance rates didn’t necessarily reflect his parishioner’s commitment levels.

“Our thinking is that the main reason numbers have dropped is that if one person in a family has a sniffle, the whole family doesn’t come,” he said.

“This year’s been one of the worst years for influenza. On top of that, there’s still a general lethargy around. There’s a residual effect after the lockdown years where people are more tired.”

Dr Carolane said that mental health issues had been cropping up in the community as well, and that many were still fearful of crowded environments.

“It feels like as a minister, you have to have a lot more patience and lower expectations for what you can achieve,” he said.

“The most important thing is that we can keep meeting in person [and] care for people.”

All Saints Clayton senior minister Reverend Charles Fletcher said that attendance at All Saints had become more erratic since COVID-19.

“Every week, numerous people are pulling out at the last minute,” he said.

Mr Fletcher said that he had thought this would be the year that the church got ahead in planning and organising programs for reaching the community, but he said that instead it had become clear that the focus would instead be on recovering from the effects of the pandemic.

He said that despite this, parishioners seemed to still feel like they belonged in the community, and that they had even welcomed new attendees.

He said he believed this was due to the use of Zoom for services during lockdowns.

“It wasn’t as slick as a livestream, but it made people feel connected,” he said.

Read more: Clayton Census results reveal new engagement opportunities

NCLS Research found little change in overall religious service attendance levels in Australia since prior to the pandemic, with 21 per cent of research participants reporting regular attendance in 2021, as compared to 22 per cent in 2019.

However, recent census results from 2021 show that there has been an almost 10 per cent decline since 2016 in the number of Australians who identify as Christian.

RAFT Anglican Church Rowville assistant curate Reverend Luke Pedersen said that the pandemic had changed church attendance habits, but said it was mostly among those for whom church was a secondary priority to other Sunday activities, such as sporting events.

“Those who are regular – [attending] weekly or fortnightly – remain just as faithful and committed in their attendance,” Mr Pedersen said.

“Those who [were previously] attending once a month have returned even less regularly. But our regular faithful members have returned in a similar way to before the pandemic.”

But Mr Pedersen said this trend had put extra pressure on those regular attendees who shouldered the burden of volunteering.

“Those are the ones who feature heavily on the rosters, and are doing lots of ministry,” he said.

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