It is the first Sunday after the ‘all-clear’ is given in NY. All the church members happily enter the church building exchanging hugs. The Lord’s Supper returns to normal, as the Peace of Christ is passed with warm handshakes.
No, none of that is going to happen. It will be quite some time before church worship and community life as we knew it before March 15 returns to ‘normal’, if it ever returns to ‘the way we were’. My goal in this brief blog is to help churches – ministers, elders and volunteers – to begin thinking through what the near-term future should be and how to plan for it. The critical thing is to begin discussing and planning for the future now.
What follows are simply some things to consider in anticipation of the end of PAUSE. I am highlighting ideas and questions raised by leaders in the PC(USA) and other church bodies (1).
- Our churches have done a great job in moving worship services, Bible studies and meetings online as the ‘stay at home’ directives have been strongly urged upon us. Our churches can’t lose this new flexibility. Plans need to be made to continue much of what is currently being done.
- Realize that high risk individuals – those over 60 years of age – should not return to church until such time that an effective vaccine can be used (or very effective treatments for those who get Covid-19).
- If people are in the church facility, each should wear a face mask. Remember that singing in a group can spread droplets and aerosols which carry in the air – a possible solution is not to sing in church. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper will need to be very restricted at the outset.
- In 2020 there should not be a Vacation Bible School that meets in person; in fact there should be no small groups meeting in person, or choir rehearsals in person. Small groups and Bible studies can continue via virtual meetings.
Questions to Ask:
- Has your insurance company weighed in on benchmarks for reopening, and for operating any programs?
- How many people can your worship space hold if you are worshiping in family groups sitting 6 feet apart? How will you cap attendance when necessary? Will you consider multiple worship services?
- How will you ensure sanitation and disinfection occurs in regard to communal spaces? (Both before and after any activity)
- How will you communicate your safety plan and best practices to the congregation?
Perspectives on the Public Conversation:
1. Guidelines:Take state and federal guidelines for what they are: a general idea about things to be done. Please remember guidelines published by state and federal agencies conflate input from both politicians and scientists.
2. Steps and Cycles: All guidelines should be viewed as (a) steps in a process with (b) the need to plan for cycles of reevaluation. There is no “flip the switch” moment when we will be back to normal, so an ongoing, constructive, evaluative conversations are necessary.
3. Phases and Variations: There are no black and white answers, nor a one-size-fits-all way to respond. There are best practices, common sense behaviors to take, and actions that are medically advisable, but no plan will fit every situation. It is appropriate to distinguish between urban and rural settings as well as large, mid-size, and smaller congregations as leaders craft a plan that maintains health and wellness while allowing for services to resume.
- Key Question: What data source(s) is being used to determine the potential safety for the steps you will take? A loud elder’s opinion is not a data source; local health department websites are a date source.
Initial Steps before Reopening
1. Assessment: Church leadership in every congregation should take a practical, hard, introspective look at what their abilities are and who their congregation is: assess the physical space and lay-out of the building and what percentage of the congregation and staff fall into medical at-risk categories. Churches should not reopen until they have a clear picture of who they are and what their options are. Know your demographics!
- How many members attend vs. how much square footage is in the meeting space?
- What number of attendees can be accommodated safely given the square footage of your space?
- Do you have a plan?
- What values are guiding your actions steps during all phases and during each, specific phase of reopening?
2. Behavioral Plan and Training: What will pastors, other staff, elders and/or ushers do when someone (a) does not comply with the guidance/instructions laid out by the congregational leadership (e.g. not wearing a mask or sitting too close to others), or (b) is obviously sick?
- Staff and volunteers should know the plan and be trained in its implementation.
- What will be said, by whom, requesting a specific, defined behavior?
- What actions will be taken if there is non-compliance?
- What if the non-compliant person is a “powerful elder” or “sweet (and well-elderly) church lady”?
3. Talk—Honest and Forthright: Historically we have found churches safe and comfortable. We need to persuade our pastors and congregations that the virus is just as likely to sit on a stack of bulletins or on an offering plate as on the pump at the gas station.
1. At-Risk Populations: The key observation made is that people should discuss their personal situation with their own physician. Accepting this caveat, other observations include a reminder the following underlying conditions are considered to be at greater risk:
- People over 60 – even if they think they can attend worship, they first need to talk to their doctor
- Anyone with an immune-compromising condition
- Anyone with poorly-controlled diabetes
- Anyone with pulmonary disease
- Anyone who has had a transplant
- Also noted: “Energetic is not the same as low-risk,” so folks should talk to their doctor
2. Agency: Encourage people to take responsibility for their own health as well as promote caring for the community health.
- Some folks who doctors say are at-risk may not see themselves as at-risk
- People who are at-risk do not have the right to compromise others
3. Common Sense: Common sense best practices are vital (e.g. hand washing, wearing masks, maintaining physical distance). It should also be understood that even these commonsense approaches will not and cannot prevent all spread of infection. For instance:
- the advice about maintaining six feet of physical distance is good counsel but viruses have been measured to travel much farther than six feet at times
- the advice about outside spaces being safer than enclosed spaces is true but being down wind of someone who sneezes will be a problem
(1) Dr. Carol Dieckman, University of Arizona, Microbiology (Presbyterian elder)
Dr. Jim Fox, formerly of National Institute of Health and the USDA (cousin is PCUSA minister)
Dr. John Hill, University of Arizona, Astronomy (Presbyterian elder)
Jayne Raffety, RN, Director of Health Ministries (Presbyterian elder with two PCUSA minister daughters)
Dr. Kathy Spandler, University of Michigan, Virology (Lutheran elder)
Dr. David Yost, CDC (Presbyterian elder)
For more helpful information see the resources provided by the Wisconsin Council of Churches at https://www.wichurches.org/2020/04/23/returning-to-church/