Across the U.S. we are beginning to see the loosening of “stay-at-home” orders and restrictions on group gatherings. This is encouraging news for everyone. However, the uneven spread/impact of COVID-19 across the country, alongside the variety of orders and restrictions imposed at state and local levels, has led to some difficult questions. Many pastors and congregations are asking, “when can we (or should we) begin to have worship services and other group gatherings?” and, “what should we consider or what precautions should we take in making our decisions?”
The Leadership Council of BIC U.S. has been discussing these challenging issues so that we can offer counsel and guidance to pastors and congregations. We have also been gathering resources produced and circulated by others and plan to make some of them available soon.
In the meantime, we fully recognize the differences that exist across the country. Congregations have gatherings of various sizes and operate in a variety of ministry settings and contexts. Leadership Council offers the following suggestions as you think through resuming gatherings in your own ministry context.
- Reopen with grace. Clearly communicate to your congregation that a person’s faith in God and their loyalty to their congregation will not be judged by their presence or absence at the reopening of your worship services. Each individual and family has a number of important factors to evaluate personally. We would do well to remind everyone to love their neighbors as themselves, and to offer each other as much grace as possible as individuals and families decide when to return to public worship.
- Listen to local authorities. Each of our congregations differ in size and operate in diverse ministry contexts. We are all aware that stay-at-home orders and the timelines of the loosening of those orders varies from state to state – and in some cases, from county to county. With this in mind, we advise pastors and ministry leaders to be aware of current guidelines put in place by their local government and health officials. Submission to these governing authorities (Romans 13:1,5) pleases God, promotes social order, and is a positive witness to those around us.
- Create a workable plan. Each pastor and congregation will need to create a plan with the input of their leadership team to determine how they will minister to their congregation. Does your seating allow for social distancing? How many people can gather at one time? Should a congregation move to multiple services to accommodate its attenders? Should a congregation’s online presence and small group gatherings continue? Pastors and leadership will be forced to consider not only what they can do, but what they can do well. Each congregation should consider their priorities and their limitations in ministry, and set forth to accomplish those to the best of their ability.
- Create a safe environment. Many of our attendees will continue to be concerned about personal health and safety as they re-engage in public worship services. Most, if not all, governmental jurisdictions will have guidelines and regulations that will be required for public gatherings of a certain number of people. Space people out. Encourage sick people to stay home and watch online. Multiply your hand-sanitizing stations. Encourage the use of broad smiles as a short-term replacement for handshakes and hugs. Do all you can to ensure that everyone who attends feels welcomed, but also feels safe.
- Do away with food and drink. For a congregation to gather for worship without coffee, refreshments, and fellowship meals seems the antithesis to our BIC sense of community and love of food. However, since areas of food and drink are most often self-serve, it seems best to hold off for now on providing these opportunities at worship gatherings. Instead, consider encouraging people to bring their own refreshments, and to consider eating together in smaller groups in homes following the service.
- Offer consistent guidelines for weddings, funerals, and other gatherings. When assemblies like funerals and weddings do start up in your facility again, make clear that the same rules for social distancing, food, etc., apply to everyone and for every gathering.
- Communicate new protocols to ministry leaders and volunteers. Congregations need to provide training to leaders, teachers, and volunteers on new post-COVID-19 protocols and procedures. Greeters will need to be trained on how to greet from a distance. Many congregations will be putting nursery and children’s ministry on hold. All these new ways of “doing church” will need to be decided upon by pastors and boards together and then communicated carefully, consistently, and compassionately to volunteers.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of online ministries. Most congregations have begun online services, meetings, and small groups with great success and, at times, an expanded audience. Consideration should be given to whether these new ways of gathering and proclaiming the Gospel should be continued, and in what forms. Do congregations have the right staff to do this well? What equipment needs to be purchased in order to maintain a quality online presence? Can pastors care for their people, hold public worship services, and prepare for online gatherings as well? The new reality of expanded online ministry opportunities requires pastors and congregations to consider the best ways to be wise stewards of their time and resources.
- Creatively consider how to do communion and baptism. Since the practices of communion and baptism are so central to our faith as followers of Jesus, it is impossible to consider not doing them for very long. While congregations may consider placing these ordinances on hold for the near future, there are creative ways to consider keeping these practices front and center in the life of the church. Communion may be done online in smaller gatherings, with each household providing their own bread and drink. Some churches have held baptisms online with the pastor, the person being baptized, and their family members in person, while live-streaming to a wider audience. Congregations will want to consider creative ways to continue these and other vital practices in the life of the church.
- Offer extra care to the addicted, depressed, and lonely. In the midst of this pandemic, the time of separation from brothers and sisters in Christ has been particularly challenging for those struggling with addiction, depression, and loneliness. Give specific attention to these individuals, whether in person or in an online support group. It may well be that those who have the greatest need to gather may find it difficult to re-emerge from their weeks of solitary confinement in their homes.
- Continue to minister to needs in the community as well as your congregation. During these days of staying at home, many people have connected in new ways with friends and neighbors. As we begin to return to congregational gatherings, we must also work hard to retain, and even expand, our contacts and ministries in and to our communities.
- Provide people with multiple ways to give. It may be that passing the offering plate becomes a thing of the past. As one blogger has suggested, how would you feel if you were the 100th person in a worship service to touch an offering plate that 99 other people had just touched? Would you be worried about COVID-19 transmission? Most of our congregations have already given attention to the issue of giving as they have moved their services online. The question is, how should these giving options be expanded or refined as churches look to reopen? Pastors should consider best practices when it comes to providing people with options of how to worship God with their tithes and offerings in this post-COVID-19 world.
In the coming days and weeks, as our congregations seek to reopen across the U.S., we will humbly and prayerfully look to God to guide us and show us the way forward. Let us rely on him together and learn from one another. We will be reopening our doors to a world not only filled with new challenges, but one also brimming with fresh opportunities to impact our communities for Christ.