In mid-March, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and United Methodist bishops across the United States directed local churches to close their buildings, the response was swift.
Pastors, staff and volunteers quickly moved to doing ministry from their homes. Staff and volunteers adapted outreach ministries – especially those serving hungry people. Churches began new ministries with people suddenly in need.
And, within the first two to three weeks after the closing of buildings began, research by the United Methodist Publishing House indicated that 80 percent of churches that had never had a digital service were live streaming worship. Others were connecting people by conference calls or other technological means.
So much for the idea that the church can never quickly change how it does ministry.
The churches never closed — never stopped doing essential ministry. However, now as the eagerness and desire of many to return to in-person worship and small groups grow, the guiding words are “go slow,” “plan well,” “prepare thoroughly” and “protect the vulnerable.”
In his article, “Why reopening a church is different,” the Rev. Alex A. Shanks urges, “As we reopen our buildings, may we seek to be in God’s time and not our own. …. The church remains open, even as we do not physically gather in our building. We do all of this so that we might fully love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31).” Shanks is assistant to the bishop in the Florida Area.
Wrote Missouri Bishop Robert Farr, “We are to follow our General Rules, the first of which is Do No Harm. My guidance to all our local churches is to take that rule seriously.”
“COVID-19 is far from over,” Mountain Sky Bishop Karen Oliveto said. “While our physical distancing has helped flatten the curve, infections (and deaths) are still occurring. The most vulnerable population to COVID-19 (those over 65) are the majority in our congregations. As disciples of Jesus, we have a serious responsibility to organize and build up ministry in ways that are accessible to all, including the most vulnerable.
Nashville Area Bishop William T. McAlilly urges, “Continue an online service option as you also worship in person until a vaccine is available. Some of our most vulnerable persons will need to continue physical distancing until that time.
The guidance around reopening buildings varies greatly among the annual conferences. Some are giving “no earlier than …” dates – with the caveat that, depending on the congregation and context, churches may open later or in stages. Some will delay on-site ministry for children and youth because of social distancing challenges.
The Nashville Area task force says, “As we imagine gathering again in our sanctuaries, consider alternative worship by developing a house church model of 10 or fewer people with appropriate distancing (or) drive-in worship held in parking lots. As the weather improves, is outside worship a model that could be developed?” Small groups might meet in a coffee shop, restaurant or bakery to worship or watch a live stream together.
In nearly all instances, churches are told to follow the directions and guidance of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and their state and local health departments. Failure to follow official guidelines could negatively affect a church’s liability insurance. In many conferences, each congregation is to assemble a task force or other group to lead their preparations for opening using a detailed guide or other directions to help them. In some, district superintendents or a conference task force must approve reopening.
The Greater New Jersey, Mountain Sky, Desert Southwest, Western North Carolina and other conferences identify similar health and safety areas to be addressed in churches’ plans, including:
- Gathering Size: Set and ensure capacity limits based on state requirements. Discuss holding multiple services to reduce the number of people present. Consider requiring registration in advance, to minimize the possibility of people being turned away. Determine how you will accommodate outside groups.
- Social Distance: Mark-off the worship space to ensure people are seated 6-10 feet. See CDC Guidelines
- Human Contact: Prevent people from touching objects and people. Determine what practices will be used for offering collection, communion, baptism and greetings to ensure the maximum protection of all members of the church. Minimize movement by the worship leaders and congregation. Limit singing and congregational responses.
- Cleaning: Organize sanitation or cleaning teams, policies and practices for all areas that will be used when the church resumes in-person activity. Deep cleaning in advance of reopening should include changing all HVAC filters, shampooing carpets, sanitizing, and disinfecting all hard surfaces. If you have multiple services on the same day to accommodate worshipers of different languages or cultures, what provisions will need to be made for seating or cleaning between services? See CDC Guidelines.
- Vulnerable People: Determine how to continue offering services for the most vulnerable populations who will be encouraged to stay home, perhaps until a vaccine is available. See CDC Guidelines
- Protection: Continue to provide masks, hand sanitizer, soap, disinfectant wipes, spray and cleaner for staff, building users and unexpected visitors. Does your setting make temperature checks a consideration? See CDC Guidelines.
- Signage and Teams: Train greeters and volunteers for every point in the guest's journey from the parking lot to a designated entrance. Hand sanitizer and masks at all entrances are required. Disposable gloves and sanitizing wipes should be available if requested. Direct individuals entering and exiting the worship area. Use signage to inform and educate along the way.
- Communication: Several weeks in advance of gathering, communicate to your congregation and community. Whether through Facebook, email, flyers on doors/windows, a letter to the editor — tell your congregation and community how you are preparing the church for their return.
- Designate one person to record the names of those present, not only for attendance but in the event that contact tracing is needed.
- Outside groups: Determine if they can and will adhere to the same social distancing guidelines, cleaning protocol and other guidance, you have established for the congregation.
- Mission outreach: Do all outreach to vulnerable populations (food distribution ministries, homeless, etc.) with appropriate physical distance and sanitation practices, including no sit-down meals until public gatherings are safe. No mission trips are recommended for this summer.
Go slow. Plan. Prepare. Protect.
“I do not want one case of COVID-19 traced to one of our churches because we did not care for those whom Jesus loves,” wrote Oliveto.
Resources to prepare for in-person worship:
Churches practice caution before reopening, Joey Butler, United Methodist News Service
Directives from your state and county health departments
Annual conference directives
UMCOR “Connecting Neighbors” disaster readiness curriculum, General Board of Global Ministries,
Guidelines for In-Person Worship during COVID-19, projected Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference
24 Questions you should answer before people return (adapted from a blog by Ken Braddy) 13626851
Re-entering Well Decision Tree Baltimore-Washington Conference
The Rev. Kathy Noble is the former editorial manager with the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.