The Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has thrown American life, and specifically Ohio life, into disarray over the last several days and especially the last 48 hours. This situation is challenging all of us, given the uncertainty surrounding this new virus and how to best address its spread. After receiving a briefing for denominational leadership yesterday and consulting a professor of microbiology/epidemiology in our regional family, I want to share some possible action steps.
Before sharing specific information, let me say that we as Christian leaders are called to a posture of confident wisdom in the face of such challenges. While so many around us struggle with fear and even “panic,” we are called to “step up” with assurance: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1.7). Our God is in complete control, even when we cannot easily perceive His plans and purposes. At the same time, as shepherds, we must do that which safeguards the flock. It is in that spirit of assurance and concern for His church that I pass on to you some observations concerning the present virus outbreak and suggestions for steps we can take to address it.
ABOUT THE VIRUS: COVID-19 is a newly discovered member of the coronavirus family. While the large majority of persons who contract this respiratory virus will experience only slight or moderate discomfort, the virus has proven particularly dangerous, even deadly, to some in the segment of our population over sixty years old, and particularly those persons with underlying health conditions. One aspect of this virus that makes it more challenging to address is that virus sufferers can be contagious even before they show significant symptoms, making it difficult to manage the spread. After efforts to contain the virus at its origin and to stop it from entering our nation and state proved ineffective at ending the spread, the goal is now to slow the advance of the virus to allow time for medical agencies to prepare treatment processes and treatment centers for those in need of such services. For instance, development of a vaccine takes significant time, sometimes up to a year. In the meantime, while a majority of sufferers may show only mild symptoms, they could pass on the virus to the most vulnerable population—senior citizens and those with existing health problems—who are at much greater risk of serious complications and death than other age groups.
ACTION STEP GOAL: Generally to slow the spread of the virus by limiting exposure; specifically to shield vulnerable older persons and those with underlying health issues from contracting the virus by limiting the number of other persons who might pass it on to them and keeping them from situations allowing possible infection.
THE CHALLENGE: Experts are suggesting that the “run time” of the COVID-19 viral spread could be as long as 12-18 months. Some epidemiologists are suggesting that a significant portion of the American population might be effected by the virus in that time frame. In short, there is no promise of a “quick fix” for this pandemic. The efforts our churches make to deal with this virus may need to be “long term” solutions rather than quick temporary adjustments. While we must pray for God to intervene and trust that God is in control, we must also recognize the possibility that this COVID-19 challenge will be with us for an extended period of time and plan accordingly.
WHY THE RECENT DRASTIC GOVERNMENT ACTION? Ohio and related entities have enacted several dramatic actions in the past few days—canceling school for three weeks, limiting non-religious public gatherings to 100 or less, prohibiting outside visitors to nursing care facilities, canceling athletic and entertainment events, etc.—because experts in the infectious disease field are recommending that the spread of the virus is best slowed by limiting contexts where people are in close proximity. The response is not based on “panic,” but rather on aggressive action based on the best of medical knowledge.
AS CHURCH LEADERS, WHO OVERSEE LARGE GROUP GATHERINGS (OUR SERVICES AND PROGRAMS), WE MUST ACT WITH GODLY WISDOM. Inaction is unacceptable—we need to seek God’s heart and guidance for how we will deal with the reality of this virus situation, knowing that there is no “easy fix” or “guaranteed formula,” but trusting that God will honor our heart to both trust in His care and demonstrate His wisdom.
SO, WHAT CAN WE DO?
1. Gather your leadership team as soon as possible to seek God’s guidance and develop a plan of action. It is important that each church leadership group comes together to pray for wisdom and then develop and communicate a plan of action. Our congregations need to see us stepping up to provide guidance, even as we know that God may lead us to modify those plans as events unfold. If your leadership senses that your local church family is particularly alarmed or panicked concerning recent developments, perhaps your leadership might sense that a “snow day” one week cancellation of service might be appropriate, with the communication that the local church leadership will be developing an action plan and communicating it to everyone in the week to come.
2. Immediately implement anti-infection steps. Insist that anyone in your congregation experiencing any illness symptoms should stay home rather than attend church events. Provide hand sanitizer in several places around your building and encourage persons to use it (if you cannot find hand sanitizer in stores, look online for ways to make a suitable substitute). Institute a “no handshakes, no hugs” policy—replace it with an elbow bump or some other gesture. Advocate for consistent hand washing protocol. Use sanitizing wipes regularly on all “touched surfaces”—door handles, countertops, railings. Look online for further recommended steps.
3. Identify the most “at risk” members of your congregation, consider asking them to not attend services for a period of time, and develop plans for keeping in touch with them while they are not attending. Take them church bulletins, a recording of the service, assign someone to call them by phone regularly—but remember, the goal is to keep them from being exposed to the virus.
4. Consider suspending age level and education programming for a period of time. The overall goal is to keep people from gathering in contexts where the virus can be spread. Even though evidence so far suggests that most younger age groups are less impacted by the effects of the virus, the problem is that if they do become infected, they might pass that virus on to greater risk groups later. An option is to cite the example of the state of Ohio, which has suspended school for three weeks, and communicate to our local church that we are also suspending our age level programming for one month, and that we will re-evaluate at that time.
5. Work on plans to decentralize your Sunday morning gatherings. This one is a big question for our churches—should we “cancel” our Sunday service? In the event that this virus situation does indeed develop in to a long term process, it would be wise to have alternate plans for communicating worship and sermon input to your congregations in contexts that do not require a large group gathering. At least one MCECR Church, Pleasant View, has already taken the step of suspending services for a period of time, delivering messages via video and internet (Jeff Gerig sent along a link for you to review their Facebook post as a sample of what one church is communicating). I am aware of some larger churches that are making plans to change their one large gathering into a series of smaller multiple services on Sunday mornings to decrease the size of each gathering. Another suggested option from our epidemiologist for his particular congregation to consider was separating the church into groups of ten, each led by a church elder or leader, with those groups meeting in homes to pray, view the pastor’s sermon by video and discuss it together. The huge challenge for some of us is getting video capability to record our sermon, as well as technology and skills to broadcast this content and for individual members to view these recordings. Please contact us at the Region for ideas on how you might do this. In any case, it is critical that each local church consider how they would communicate their message and work in the absence of a Sunday morning gathering, since if one of our congregation members was to test positive for this virus, or if more drastic action was to be taken by government authorities to limit the size of gatherings, it would necessitate that we have such an option.
6. Encourage your congregation members to arrange for digital giving. With the possibility that attendance at services will decline during this outbreak, and even that perhaps large group gatherings might be suspended at some future point, it is important that your local church investigates how your congregation might be able to give financially in alternate ways. Encourage your congregation members to explore ACH automated giving through their bank to your church, or have your leadership investigate using a service like “Tithe.ly” to automate your giving processes.
7. Again, identify your most “at risk” congregants and help them prepare for the possibility of long term “stay at home” living. Given that this virus will likely be around for a long period of time, your church should consider encouraging your older attenders and those with underlying health problems to stockpile food and a multi-month supply of medications so that they can limit their exposure to group situations like grocery stores, pharmacies, and other gatherings. Consider developing teams from your church who will visit these persons and make sure items they need are brought to them. Identify nursing facility residents and set up a phone contact system to keep them connected and communicate love and support.
These action steps are a starting point, and I share them with the recognition that God may guide each particular local church to its own course and combination of steps. I also feel for you as leaders, knowing that whatever steps you take, it is likely some in your congregation will be uncomfortable and will express their frustration or disagreement. The important fact is that “as leaders, we are called to lead.” Inaction is unacceptable. However, if we move ahead trusting in God’s guidance, I am confident He will steer us through this challenging time and “adjust our course” as needed.
Finally, let me echo many other Christian leaders in saying that we cannot miss the unprecedented opportunity this virus is presenting for us to be able to share the Good News of Jesus with others. With the combined impact of both health concerns and economic upheaval caused by this pandemic, the security and stability that so many Americans have taken for granted for so long is being shaken. It is a great opportunity for us as Christians, the ones who can have hope and confidence through Christ even in the midst of this present turmoil, to shine as examples of the peace and life available in Jesus and to share the message of His love and salvation.
Know that we in the Regional office are praying for all of you, and please let us know how we might come alongside your local church in the midst of this challenge. We will continue to send along communication from our denomination as it becomes available.