As we continue to learn and grow and innovate as churches in the midst of a global pandemic, one of the most important decisions your church will make in the coming weeks and months is how to answer this very direct question:
When and how do we start gathering in person again?
When is it safe? And are there any precautions we need to take? What are the factors that should help us make a safe, strategic plan that is wise, discerning, safe for the individuals and good for the health of the congregation and community?
In this post, we are going to walk you through our recommendations, starting with a list of six priorities to have in place before your church starts gathering in person again.
Before you even begin putting in place a phased approach to meeting, it’s essential that you establish principles or priorities that guide your decision-making throughout what will be a long, shifting and trying process of “getting back to normal” when it comes to gathering in person as a church.
Especially if you are a church of 500+ people, based on the current scientific and public health research, you have to take a long view and expect that meeting in person with your full congregation will not happen for the next six months or longer.
In some places, the curve is flattening and infection rates from COVID-19 are slowing down. Still, in other areas, the peak is still a week or more away. Whatever your local circumstances are, we know that the pressure to “re-open” church is increasing steadily. As state and local governments allow some businesses and industries to reopen and move back toward full operation, the pressure for churches to gather and reopen will only increase.
It’s critically important that churches continue to provide spiritual care and help to meet the physical needs in the midst of this crisis. Businesses may be lost, unemployment is soaring and tens of thousands of Americans have lost their lives to this disease. Doctors and health care workers are serving on the front-lines, undoubtedly leaving a mark on their hearts and minds with each person they work to treat. Grocery store workers faithfully show up to stock shelves and help families get essential food and supplies they need as they shelter-at-home. Schools are closed, family vacations postponed and weddings and funerals forced into intimate if not lonely occasions that miss the mark of our expectations.
There is so much grief, loss, sadness and frustration in the air. This is a very real crisis that churches across the country are rallying to address. The Church has a tangible message of hope, not one built on ideas and philosophies, but on the incarnation of Jesus, built on His life, death and resurrection. We need you, church leader, to help us all find a way through something none of us has ever experienced before.
We need you, church leader, to help us all find a way through something none of us has ever experienced before.
6 Priorities to Have in Place Before You Start Gathering in Person Again
Priority #1 – Honor the guidance and directives of public health and science officials.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC), along with state and local public health officials, are making recommendations, often daily, on how the public can and should take appropriate steps to limit exposure and help to overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic. Their orders, recommendations and advice is based on the best scientific information available and should not be taken lightly.
So long as the CDC is recommending gatherings of ten people or less, no church should consider opening their doors, even in a phased approach. The wisest, most loving thing you can do is protect the physical health of your congregation and community by fully adhering to the orders and recommendations of the CDC and your state and local public health officials.
As guidelines are adjusted, do not rush to exceed any new limits. If, for example, gatherings of up to 25 or 50 are soon allowed, stick to those numbers. Again, they are based on science and research, with the greater good of the public in mind. Even in places where religious gatherings may have a stated exemption from gathering limitations, the most prudent and discerning voices would encourage you to stick with the orders and recommendations from the CDC and science-based public health officials.
Priority #2 – Protect the health and safety of your church staff.
As you consider gatherings, even of 10-25 people at a time, how are you ensuring the safety and health of your church leadership, staff and key volunteers? Who is opening up the building? What are your cleaning procedures? How will you screen individuals who are gathering?
We’ll explore phases and ideas for later—for now, it’s important to make sure you can ensure that your staff and volunteers who will be in direct contact with the public are taking necessary precautions (hand-washing, wearing masks when appropriate, staying home if they are sick, etc.).
Any staff members experiencing any symptoms of the virus should self-isolate and contact the appropriate medical health professionals as soon as possible.
If you were to have an outbreak of the virus among your staff members, you could quickly lose the ability to sustain ministry of any kind–online or in person.
As you ensure the health and safety of your staff members, it will help you set in place expectations and operations with your congregation and the public as well.
Priority #3 – Recognize the limitations of time, finances and energy of your team.
Gathering in person, when taking the appropriate precautions as we’re outlining here, will take more time, money and energy. As you begin to build a plan for gatherings, even small ones, make sure you are overestimating what it will take to successfully pull off.
For the first few weeks, whatever you think you can handle in terms of offering in-person experiences, gatherings or meetings, cut it in half. It’s better to get an accurate measure on how much time it takes to ensure safe and successful gatherings and scale up than to start off big and expose people to unsafe conditions or interactions.
You’ll likely need to secure gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, soap, paper towels and more. How long will those supplies last and how readily available are they in your area? How much time is needed to sanitize doors, countertops, tables, chairs or the general environment after gatherings occur? What additional costs will you incur for cleaning crews or staffing up to make sure you have the right ratio of people to attenders? You have to include these resources and time investments in your calculation on what is sustainable and wise as you start gathering again.
Priority #4 - Environmental factors and social behaviors need to be addressed.
Think about the physical spaces where you may be gathering soon. And think about all the information you’ll need to communicate about those spaces. There are a lot of questions here, but it’s important to think through every single one with intentionality and discretion. And there are likely more questions to consider for your unique circumstances and environment.
- Can you restrict entrance to your building to one point? If not, how many entrances will you be using?
- How many doors will people need to open up? Can you prop them open to limit surface contact?
- How narrow are the hallways leading to their destination? Will people need to be within six-feet of one another as they arrive and navigate your space?
- How big is the room where a gathering is taking place? What is the maximum capacity for seating if you are adhering to social distancing recommendations? (i.e. distancing seats appropriately)
- How will you communicate social behavior expectations to those who will be attending? What does it look like for a family who lives together to be among people they need to distance from? (i.e. will families be allowed to sit together or will they need to distance just as they would with everyone else in attendance?)
- Will attendees need to wear gloves or masks while in the building?
- Will hand sanitizer be available? What about hand washing stations with soap?
- What is the maximum number of people who can attend each gather and how will they sign up or be notified? How do you ensure equal access to in-person events?
- Are you making any recommendations on who should attend based on age or other contributing risk factors related to COVID-19?
- Will childcare be available? (If so, you’ll need to answer all of the above questions for each of those spaces as well). How are you ensuring the safety of the kids, testing the workers and sanitizing toys, tables, chairs, etc.?
Answers to these questions should be addressed well in advance of any gathering, while also communicating the answers and expectations to all staff members who will be working at the gathering. Clarity is key in all circumstances.
Priority #5 – 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 must have 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).
Before your first in-person gathering, you must have 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.
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 your state health organization. Work in coordination with health officials on their recommended steps for contact tracing and informing those who are at risk.
It’s also important to protect the privacy and personal information of anyone in your congregation. Your church should never publicly identify an individual who has tested positive or is self-isolating due to a suspected case. The individual or individuals involved have the freedom to do so, but the church should not make that decision for them.
In the event of exposure, prepare to postpone all future gatherings for a two-week period. Plan on how you will communicate this with your congregation, along with how you will address questions from the community and media.
Priority #6 – Continue investing in needs-based services and digital/online ministry.
We are all wrestling with circumstances we have never had to deal with before. Many leading voices in the church world, though, are all encouraging churches to plan for the long haul.
You’ve all done an amazing job shifting to doing ministry online, in digital spaces where people are looking for hope, connection and purpose right now. Even as you begin gathering in person again, do not abandon what you have learned about doing ministry from a distance. 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.
By some estimates, fully open public spaces won’t be available to us for six to 18 months. Medical experts are beginning to prepare the public for the potential of a second wave of infections in the fall or early winter. It’s critical that you continue investing in online conversations and digital ministry.
Get creative in how you share the hope of the gospel. Release your congregation to take ownership of ministering to one another through prayer, care packages and random acts of kindness. Be a constant voice of empathy, compassion, hope and love. We need you and we know you can do this through the strength and love of Jesus.
Even as you begin gathering in person again, do not abandon what you have learned about doing ministry from a distance. 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.
As one pastor recently said, “Don’t abandon your post, but also don’t be an idiot.” Don’t let fear be the deciding factor for gathering too early – fear of public opinion, fear of lost financial support, fear of losing influence, fear of feeling lonely.
Remind yourself daily that God is still active, in control and working to build His kingdom here and now. Keep in mind other churches in your immediate area as well. As one Church, the Body of Christ, how can you partner with and move forward unified with other churches on your street or nearby? Don’t look at one another with competition, but with compassion and unity.
Whenever possible, coordinate your plans for reopening to gather with those churches, so as to best serve your local community and provide a clear, strategic plan for not only meeting the needs of your community, but to instill the greatest sense of hope and faith. We are all called to shepherd and encourage and take care of the people God has made a part of our community, which includes protecting them physically while also caring for them emotionally and spiritually.
We'd love to help you make a strategic communications plan for sharing these decisions with your congregation and community. Let us know you'd like to hear more by filling out this form!