Returning to church
Dr. Kathryn Jacobsen, Infectious disease epidemiologist and member of Oakton Church of the Brethren, answers many pressing questions in this interview:
Brotherhood Mutual offers guidance to help ministries plan to resume their normal operations.
The Wisconsin Council of Churches offers a model for returning to church:
- Mid-Atlantic District
- Middle Pennsylvania District
- Shenandoah District
- Southern Ohio/Kentucky District
A COVID-19 outbreak could last for a long time. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has developed some useful tools for the faith community as it responds to COVID-19: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations.
Create an emergency plan for your congregation
Plan ahead so there is no uncertainty about policies, actions, lines of authority, etc., during a crisis. Knowing what to do can make the difference between calm and chaos. While concentrating on the coronavirus, many of these points will be relevant to other types of crises as well.
Resources for creating a “Church Emergency Management Plan”
All links are PDF files.
- Brethren Disaster Ministries’ “Church Emergency Management Plan” checklist
- A “Public Health Planning Guide for Faith Communities” from Wheaton College
- “Church Emergency Plan” recommendations from Mennonite Mutual Insurance Company
- An “Emergency Plan Template for Faith Based Organizations” from Knox County, Tennessee
- A “Guide for Developing High Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship,” provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
- Review or create your church’s “Emergency Guidelines” to establish lines of authority regarding decision-making and roles and responsibilities during any crisis situation. Define the leadership structure. Consider things such as:
- Who creates and approves documents related to the plan?
- What is the communication strategy about the plan and who will be the communicator of the plan? Who will communicate during a crisis? A clear, transparent, and comprehensive communication strategy will create trust and reassurance within your faith family.
- Develop methods of contacting the members of the community with important messages related to the current situation (a phone tree, email list, texting, social networking, etc.)
- Who makes decisions regarding whether to hold worship services and events?
- Who is responsible for making sure hygiene is maintained on a regular basis? For example, who will clean frequently-touched surfaces in your church building when the usual custodian is not there?
- What is the procedure for someone who is ill but wants to attend a service? Determine what messaging to provide the congregation regarding when they should self-isolate in order to avoid spreading the virus (or other contagious illnesses) to others in the church, particularly those who are at high risk.
- Decide whether to continue to offer meeting space for groups other than your congregation during the health crisis. How will you manage proper hygiene if you allow outside groups to continue using your church building?
- Determine ways to support those who may become ill or who are at high risk of contracting the coronavirus, or those whose support system is interrupted by the virus.
- Identify members of the congregation who may be high-risk or otherwise vulnerable and who may need special assistance. This may include church members who live alone, have limited resources, who already have difficult health situations themselves or within their families, etc.
- Develop a support network for those who are quarantined in their homes. This network may ssist with food, supplies, etc.
- Develop plans in case essential church staff or congregation members cannot fulfill their responsibilities.
- Consider how to support families who may need childcare if schools or regular daycare facilities are closed.
- Determine ways to support church staff and lay leader who take on large burdens during the crisis.
- Encourage and plan for self-care.
- Provide guidelines for ways to serve church members that do not put staff and lay leaders at risk. For example, use phone calls or virtual contact (Skype, Zoom, etc.) rather than visitation when a member is ill.
- Provide a process by which staff and lay leaders can express their personal concerns regarding their own or their family’s risk of contracting a contagious disease.
- Provide the congregation with vetted information and resources on important messages related to coronavirus. This will provide needed information, counteract misinformation, and calm fears. For accurate and up-to date messages and resources, rely on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC – www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov), the World Health Organization (WHO – www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus) and your local and state health authorities. For printable resources and videos go to www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public and www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/communication/.
- Consider ways your congregation can put non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) into place to help prevent illness. Some examples include:
- Keep surfaces clean with disinfectant or disinfectant wipes. Wipe down everything commonly touched by church goers like door handles, pew tops, and railings.
- Provide hand sanitizer in easily accessible areas of the church building.
- Place tissues in every pew.
- Encourage people to wash their hands and post reminder signs throughout the church. See www.cdc.gov/handwashing/materials.html.
- Consider whether to cancel meetings or gatherings (such as carry-in meals) when the threat of sickness is strong.
- Consider how to modify worship practices that may cause germs to spread.
- Encourage non-contact greeting and social distancing. Officials suggest staying six feet from a person who shows signs of illness.
- Encourage church members to communicate their personal comfort level regarding contact and social distancing with other people during church activities so they still feel they can attend. This may involve leaving a large distance within pews or exiting a worship service without socializing. Encourage others to respect those comfort levels.
- Revise communion practices. Use individual cups, use tongs to deliver bread, etc. Or if necessary cancel communion services.
- Place offering plates in a central place near the entrance to the sanctuary so that they do not have to be passed hand-to-hand.
- Determine whether to continue children’s sermons, Sunday school, nursery care, coffee hours, and other practices that may bring people close together. If you decide to continue such events, consider what could be done to ensure an elevated level of hygiene and/or social distancing.
- If the threat of the virus increases significantly in your area, consider having only one entry point to the building and require hand sanitizing of each person who enters. If the threat is very high but you do not want to cancel services, screen people for illness. The extent of the screening would be up to each congregation, unless otherwise dictated by health authorities.
- If services will be canceled, determine an alternative so that the faith community will still be fed spiritually and emotionally:
- Create ways to share your services virtually. Options include conference calls, Facebook Live, Zoom, Skype, YouTube Live, and others. See blog.capterra.com/a-beginners-guide-to-church-live-streaming.
- If this proves difficult, find another Church of the Brethren that is broadcasting its services and join them in worship. Your district leaders may be able to provide information on this.
- Establish networks outside the congregation to either provide or obtain assistance if the coronavirus affects your community. This might include other local churches both within the Church of the Brethren and outside of the denomination, social services, local organizations, local government (including the health department), emergency services, health facilities, and others.
- Prioritize spiritual care, including pastoral care, and opportunities for prayer and emotional support for your church family. Identify individuals in addition to the pastor and staff who can assist with this, because the need may become great. There are many ways that this can be done including by personal visit (if there is no risk of disease transmission), emails, texts, phone calls, virtual meetings, etc.