3 Principles for Communicating When Your Church Starts to Gather Again

May 4, 2020

On May 1, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb announced a phased approach to reopening many businesses and aspects of public life in Indiana. Over time, every state and community will come to a similar moment, when active steps are taken to loosen restrictions and open up public gatherings. The question every church and church leader will ask is, “What does this mean for us?”

Whether you live in a state that has started to loosen restrictions or not, the rest of this article will still be valuable when the time comes to wisely and intentionally begin to start gathering again as a church. Every community and congregation is unique, so we can’t address every situation here.

(We previously wrote an article, 6 Priorities Your Church Must Have Before Gathering In Person Again. If you haven’t read, it establishes some important priorities that this article is built on.)

What follows are principles or priorities of communication and planning we encourage every church to consider as they make plans to start gathering again, when and however that happens for you.

What’s happening in Indiana?

If your church isn’t in Indiana, you can feel free to skip this section or read through and see what you can learn as our state moves forward.

Here is what the state is saying about church services, beginning May 8:

“Religious services may convene inside places of worship. There are specific practices that should be considered for in-person services that are driven by social distancing guidelines and protections for those 65 and older and individuals with known high-risk medical conditions. Examples of services include weddings, funerals, and baptisms.”

Please review the full recommendations for churches on social distancing guidelines, cleaning procedures and the recommendation to continue holding as many remote activities as possible for now. This is specific to Indiana, but will likely reflect what other states are already doing or will be doing in the coming weeks.

Functionally, the restriction on the size of gatherings for churches will be lifted on May 8. However, to effectively carry out social distancing guidelines (maintaining six feet of distance between people) and to maintain safe, sanitized facilities before and after each gathering, many churches will likely have to begin with very small, limited gatherings or hold off on gathering for a while longer.

Note: general limitations on group gathering outside of religious services are still in place for Indiana, increasing to 25 people on May 4 and 100 people on May 24 assuming no resurgence in COVID-19 infections.

Especially for churches of more than 300 people, gathering in your building may not be in your best interest for your congregation or for staff/leadership at this point.

Many factors will play into your decision-making:

  • How is your staff doing? Do they have the energy, focus and time to manage services that will require much more preparation, management and energy than normal?
  • What would the max capacity of your worship area/sanctuary be with chairs spaced at a distance of six feet apart (per guidelines)? Given the resources (time, money and staffing) you have ready, would that size of gathering benefit enough of your congregation to justify everything you would put into it right now?
  • How will you organize who can attend each gathering? Will you be able to offer equal access to anyone who wants to gather?
  • How will holding multiple services/gatherings throughout the weekend (or into the week) impact the church’s ability to carry out other important aspects of your ministry – food deliveries, benevolence, pastoral care, online ministry and digital gatherings?

These are just some of the questions to consider as you make plans for augmented or downsized gatherings these next few months.

At the end of the day, we believe the best choice churches can make is the one that helps them serve the most people through creative, intentional and sustainable ministry.

While we all deeply miss gathering as a church, and while we know we will be able to gather again in the future, the goal now is to provide hope, support and care for the people in our congregation and community, even if that means we continue to do so from a distance, digitally and one-on-one or in smaller groups for a little while longer.

What should your communication as a church look like as you move forward?

Clear communication is essential.

Whatever the circumstances are in your community or state, there are a few principles that apply to everyone. These principles are always true, but become more critical during times of uncertainty or significant change.

You don’t have to be certain, but you do need to be clear.
We love plans. And when it comes to gathering again, we are all looking for certainty to give us a sense of control. The challenge is we still don’t know how things are going to play out two or three weeks down the road. Instead of communicating with certainty what will happen, give people clarity on how you will be making decisions or why you’ve made the decisions you have made so far. You don’t have to be certain about what will happen, you only have to be clear about what you are doing as a church and how you will make decisions and communicate about them going forward.

Balance transmitting information and communicating for transformation.
There will be logistics you need to communicate as you start to gather again. Keep this communication clear and direct. “Clear is better than clever,” is what we say at Fishhook. But if you only communicate details and facts, you’ll be passing up an opportunity to help people listening see the current circumstances in a new way.

Communicate your vision, helping people understand the “why” behind your decisions and communication just as directly (if not more than) as the “what” and the “how.” Help people elevate their thinking beyond the current circumstances and guide them to see what God may be up to through this season. Invite them to take ownership of opportunities to serve, giving them a stake in carrying out the work of the church right now. Don’t settle for just passing on information, help transform their perspective.

Let people know what is changing and what is not changing.
We’ve said this before and it’s still true, even as we begin to move to relaxing restrictions. The temptation will be to hit the gas pedal and try to “get back to normal.” As you begin to change anything, moving from solely gathering in digital spaces to even small gatherings, help people know what is changing and what is not.

What is not changing is the need for precaution, wisdom and discernment. What is not changing is the availability and need to connect online and through digital experiences. What is changing are limited opportunities to gather in person, with specific steps to keep everyone safe.

Human communication is needed.

The goal of every church is to serve and love people. Change is hard for people, even when that change brings more freedom to gather and resume some activities that once seemed entirely normal. As people process more change (away from “shelter in place” into varying and in-between states of going out), remember that people are processing a lot.

Practice empathy in all directions.
If empathy is the ability to understand what others are thinking, feeling and experiencing while withholding judgment, then it’s critical for us to empathize with each person we interact with and communicate to.

Some people are more than ready to resume full access to public life. Others are deeply anxious about interacting with people outside of their homes. Many are somewhere in between. As you communicate, it’s important to keep the full spectrum of feelings and experiences in mind. You cannot please everyone, but you want to be mindful of a range of responses and questions people will have to your choices. This is where grace, compassion and forgiveness come into play.

Tell stories of hope and perseverance.
People want to hear more than simply an update on what the church is doing about gatherings, online services or midweek prayer opportunities. Those things are vitally important. We also want our community to hear stories of hope in action, of individuals making sacrifices to serve others, of families persevering through hard circumstances and more. Help people feel connected by telling stories, real stories of how God is helping, sustaining and moving in and through the people in your community.

Leave space for grieving and disappointment.
Even as some gatherings begin again, which is cause for hope and some sense of celebration, there continues to be job loss, food insecurity, canceled plans, unmet expectations, loss of life and more heartbreak and devastation. As a church, it’s important not to gloss over and only look at “the bright side.” If anyone is able to look at grief and loss without being overwhelmed by it, it’s those who know Jesus. You don’t have to make every update about loss, but you do need to share a message that resonates with the reality people are still experiencing.

Prepare your people for your spaces and your spaces for your people.

We wrote previously about the questions you’ll need to answer about preparing your spaces for gathering. Have you made plans for social distancing, sanitizing and communicating expectations to people?

Provide clear information about the steps you are taking to keep your facility clean and safe.
Not everyone will want to read this, but some (many?) will want to have peace of mind about the specific ways you are working to maintain a safe and healthy environment. Make this thorough and accessible, then make a simplified version that can be shared through social media.

Provide clear expectations for those who will be attending in-person gatherings.
Will they be required to wear masks? How long do they need to be symptom-free before attending? Are there any age restrictions? Are you providing childcare, and if not, are children welcome to attend? Is there a main entrance you want everyone to use? Will you provide special services for those with additional needs? Plan your gatherings for everyone, so that no one feels left out or overlooked. Be prepared to make accommodations as any special circumstances or needs arise.

Have a plan for communicating potential exposure to COVID-19 for those who have gathered.
We pray you won’t have to enact a plan to communicate that someone who attended a gathering at your church has a confirmed or suspected case of coronavirus, but you need to be ready for such a situation.

Before your first in-person gathering, you need a step-by-step plan for how you will communicate if those who gathered have come in contact with or been exposed to someone who has tested positive or is self-isolating for the virus. This means you have to keep a record of every person (or at least family) who attends each gathering along with their contact information for at least two weeks (the incubation period for the virus).

In the event of exposure or contact at a gathering in your building or on your grounds, you will need to contact your local health department and potentially the state health organization. Work in coordination with health officials on their recommended steps for contact tracing and informing those who are at risk.

Continue investing in needs-based services and digital/online ministry.
Even as you begin gathering in person again, do not abandon what you have learned about doing ministry from a distance. Continue offering services online and having conversations on social media, ministering to people through devotionals, prayers and one-to-one conversations. Double down on keeping your ministry staff visible to the congregation and community and equip volunteers to help keep the conversation going in Facebook groups and Zoom calls.

Follow momentum and trust that God is working even when you aren’t face-to-face. Rally your congregation to gather supplies for individuals in need, medical workers on the frontlines and anyone in the margins who is experiencing difficult circumstances right now.


 

We'd love to help you make strategic choices, hone your communications or even lending a coaching ear to help you plan in this unique season. Find a full list of our coronavirus-related services here or let us know you'd like to hear more by filling out this form!

Author
Adam Bouse

Communications Strategist