Coronavirus: What should your church be communicating?

March 10, 2020

The news, social media and watercooler conversations are buzzing about the coronavirus (COVID-19) right now. It’s at the forefront of public attention and the spread of this contagion is beginning to impact more U.S. cities, which means it’s impacting churches and ministries around the country, too. 

We always encourage churches to proactively plan for situations that require strategic communication, whether it’s an overnight crisis situation or something developing over the course of weeks and months, like we are seeing play out nationally right now. 

As you consider how your church will respond to local developments and public health recommendations surrounding coronavirus, here are a few things to keep in mind. 

How to Communicate

  • Communicate calmly and with clarity. The people in your community likely already view you as a trusted, safe voice. You can do a lot to help calm fears and ease anxiety by communicating, through words and actions, a steady, reassuring presence. Be sure to keep things simple and clear, too. Sharing too many details or scenarios can amplify feelings of uncertainty. 
  • Practice empathy. Some people will have stronger responses to this situation. Don’t dismiss their experience or fears. Whether they are in the high-risk population or they know someone directly impacted, it’s important to help them feel heard and comforted. 

What to Communicate

  • Your pastor and staff do not need to be health experts.
    The main thing you will be communicating is how the public health circumstances are impacting how you do the work you do as a church. Most people will generally be informed about the health risks, so focus on acknowledging how this is or isn’t directly impacting your congregation and your local community.
  • Rely on trustworthy, official sources.
    When providing context, resources or additional information about public health recommendations, rely on trustworthy, official sources. To instill the most confidence and trust, rely on governmental organizations like the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, or trusted medical experts, such as Johns Hopkins University. Avoid sharing sources, through social media or through organization email, that are opinion-based, political or controversial. 

    If it would be helpful for your community to hear some of the standard public health recommendations and guidance, keep it simple: 
    • Stay home if you are feeling sick.
    • Wash your hands often, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. Do so after using the restroom, before and after eating and after touching your face, especially when coughing or sneezing. 
    • Even if you are not in a high-risk group for coronavirus, remember that everyone can transmit the germs that could affect those who are at higher risk due to age, a compromised immune system or other contributing factors. 
  • Let people know what is changing and what is not changing.
    There may come a time when your congregation, based on an abundance of caution or at the direction of official recommendations from your local or state health officials, will not be able to physically meet for a period of time. As colleges and universities begin to make changes to their class schedules and as large public events are being canceled, this may be a reality for many churches as well.

    Even if you are not canceling weekend services and there are no confirmed cases in your immediate area, people have questions and concerns. Be proactive and communicate with the full congregation. Build their confidence by telling them how and why the church is anticipating this situation. Offer them a way to get more information and let them know if and when there will be additional updates going forward. 

    If you are canceling weekend (or mid-week) services, communicate with clarity which specific dates and times are affected. If possible, communicate a date for when services will resume–or at least a date when you will reassess resuming services. 

    These larger gatherings are the experiences most likely to be disrupted. Provide guidance on other gatherings as well–small groups, classes, service projects, etc. Be proactive and over communicate when cancelations are put in place. 

    If you do need to cancel services, also communicate the programs, scheduled events, and ministry that will not be affected, or at least not canceled. Because Sunday gatherings are so central, it will cause some to think the church as a whole is shutting down for the same amount of time. Reiterate and over communicate what ministry and organizational functions will continue as expected. 
  • Communicate what steps you are taking to keep your facilities clean and safe.
    Consider updating your procedures for cleaning and sterilizing your facilities, then communicate what you are doing to the congregation. 

    If you’re adding hand-washing or hand sanitizer stations, share that information. Consider elements of your service (handshaking, passing offering plates, communion) that can contribute to the spreading of germs and adapt or eliminate them. Get creative if you can, and, more than anything, communicate clearly what will be changed and make the necessary adjustments. 

What’s your plan for going online? 

While having online services has become more common in recent years, not every church is set up with the technology or ministry support to make the switch if you need to cancel in-person services. Even those churches who live stream their services already may need to make changes if the weekly gatherings are put on hold for an extended period of time. 

The most important question to ask is, “What do people usually expect and need to be able to do when they are at church each week?”

The goal is to try and maintain the core elements you offer in person. Teaching and worship are key elements, but don’t forget offering, prayer requests, announcements, signing up for new classes or groups and even communion are elements of service you will want to plan to lead the congregation through if you aren’t going to be able to meet in person for a number of weeks. 

If you already have live stream services…

  • Identify what it is you want to continue providing on a weekly basis. You already have a weekly rhythm for live stream, but are there other elements you will want to provide now? A self-guided devotional experience? Kids curriculum parents can use? Determine what is both important and sustainable for you to maintain over the course of time you aren’t meeting in person. Don’t overcomplicate things, but consider what will be encouraging and helpful in the absence of a weekly physical gathering. 
  • Build around what you already have in place. Not everyone in your church has used your live stream before, so don’t expect a seamless transition. Increase messages about when and how to access the live stream. Add bandwidth if needed and anticipate additional costs if you see a significant uptick in traffic. Provide additional technical support so that people who aren’t comfortable with technology can learn how to get help if the stream isn’t working or they are having issues getting connected. 
  • Enlist the help of those who are good with technology. Use your imagination to rally people in your church who can help others learn where and how to use technology to stay connected. Offer up tutorials on using social media, the church website or even video conferencing tools like Zoom or Skype (especially if you want to do pastoral care or counseling sessions without being in person). Find others who have influence through social media to help share messages, updates and resources from the church. And of course, you may end up needing a group of volunteers to help answer email, Facebook or other incoming messages about schedules, changes and needing support. Ask for people to help out and help them make the connection that this is ministry work and it requires a variety of skills and availability. 
  • Encourage your pastor and/or leadership to be visible and engaged. Not only will this instill a sense of confidence and comfort amidst change, it’s a way for the church to actually draw closer. People may already be used to seeing your pastor on screen or through social media video, so use this to your advantage. Make video updates a regular part of the week, including teachings as well as more conversational or informal opportunities part of the plan. 

If you don’t have live stream services yet…

  • Take a deep breath. You don’t have to reproduce service exactly as it is in person. This is a chance to get a little creative and even pull in some individuals who can help you bring fresh ideas to the table. You don’t have to overcome these challenges on your own. 
  • Identify what it is you want to continue providing on a weekly basis. A sermon/teaching? Probably. Worship through music? Possibly. A self-guided devotional experience? Kids curriculum parents can use? Determine what is both important and sustainable for you to maintain over the course of time you aren’t meeting in person. 
  • Once you determine what you’re trying to create, consider what tools you can use to make it happen. If you have the technical support to make it happen, you could set up the Church Online Platform pretty quickly to offer a live stream and live chat. But that may feel like too much. Consider doing a Facebook Live video if you are doing a sermon/message. Pre-record a sermon or devotional and upload it to YouTube or Vimeo, then distribute it through social media, your website and your email lists. Leverage your ministry-specific email lists to send out kids resources, written devotional content and anything else that can help individuals, families and small groups continue to be encouraged and supported. 
  • Enlist the help of those who are good with technology. Use your imagination to rally people in your church who can help others learn where and how to use technology to stay connected. Offer up tutorials on using social media, the church website or even video conferencing tools like Zoom or Skype (especially if you want to do pastoral care or counseling sessions without being in person). Find others who have influence through social media to help share messages, updates and resources from the church. And of course, you may end up needing a group of volunteers to help answer email, Facebook or other incoming messages about schedules, changes and needing support. Ask for people to help out and help them make the connection that this is ministry work and it requires a variety of skills and availability. 
  • Encourage your pastor and/or leadership to be visible and engaged. Not only will this instill a sense of confidence and comfort amidst change, it’s a way for the church to actually draw closer. Start a new rhythm of having your pastor do a Facebook Live video once or twice a week, to either offer encouragement through a devotional or to simply say hello, pray for others and to give a show of life continuing on even if it is in a different rhythm. 

No matter how the coronavirus or any other major event is impacting your church, it is an opportunity to remind people of God’s faithfulness and His care for us all.

Invite everyone to join you in prayer for those who have been directly impacted with the illness, for those whose schedules or routines have been disrupted and for the quick end to something that is impacting millions of people around the world. Be a source of calm, helpful information and encouragement and trust that God is at work in the people of your church and those impacted around the world.

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Author
Adam Bouse

Communications Strategist