Dear MCECR Pastors & Leadership Team,
Thank you to all of you for your continuing hard work and service to your churches as you navigate through this COVID-19 situation. God has worked through you to provide online services, creative small group connections, new ministry opportunities, and pastoral care for your congregations. I appreciate all of your efforts and continue to pray that God will encourage and strengthen you in the midst of this battle.
I want to pass on “heads up” about a new challenge looming for our churches, one with potential to do significant damage if not addressed—the threat of disunity and relational division as we begin to look to “reopening” public services. That threat flows from a combination of factors:
1. Our God-given personality traits and life experiences lead to variations in how each of us (and each of our congregation members) views the prospect of reopening. Some are more risk averse and cautious, while others are more ready to “get back into things” and push forward. Some are more “people” oriented and some are more “mission” oriented. Such differences provide us with the blessing described in Proverbs 15.22: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” However, those differences in perspective can also lead to friction.
2. The governor of Ohio announced some time ago that May 1st would be the date for “reopening Ohio” efforts, stirring hope for many churches that “the end of the tunnel” was in sight. Since then, though, the guidelines presented for that reopening are revealing a gradual process that frustrates some of us, and those guidelines present interpretational challenges for church leaders. For instance, while some feel that churches may reopen if they follow the guidelines for small businesses (i.e. social distancing, no more than 50% capacity, etc.), others point to the fact that guidelines for group gatherings have not changed, still standing at less than ten, with proposed “phase two—less than 50” and “phase three—unlimited” still not given a calendar date. On top of that, the “stay at home” order was just extended from May 1st to May 29th.
3. We as Christians share a wide spectrum of perspectives of how Romans 13 applies to our present situation. Some note that the church is named as exempt from Ohio COVID-19 “stay at home” guidelines due to US Constitutional 1st Amendment concerns and see that as supporting freedom to move forward with reopening plans. Others feel that there is a significant nuance between “we can reopen” and “we should reopen” and suggest Romans 13 would advise we follow Ohio’s requested guidelines unless some moral imperative would keep us from doing so.
4. The growing flood of information from news, media, and internet seems to span the continuum from “we are still at grave medical risk” to “there never was any risk” and all points in between. Each of us tends to resonate with that input differently based on our individual perspective.
5. We are beginning to hear of some churches in some of our communities announcing return to public services as soon as this Sunday, and that opens doors to the question “so when are we going to start back, and if we aren’t, why not?”
Those factors together create the potential for the evil one to seek to stir division and relational strife. Pray that God will allow us to maintain respect and unity between churches, leaders and congregation members as decisions are made about reopening. Now as always, the priority of love and respect even in the midst of differences is clear. Philippians 2.1-5 is particularly important counsel in times like these: “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”
I feel deeply for all of you leaders as you struggle with the “balancing process” of seeking God’s heart, addressing the specific concerns of your congregation, and considering the directives of our state. Saying “it isn’t easy” is a huge understatement! I trust the Holy Spirit will direct each of you and your church leadership teams as you seek His specific will for your local congregation. From my perspective, the decision of when and how to restart should not be a matter of “rights” or “enough faith” or “what other churches are doing” or the like; it should be “what we sense the Holy Spirit is guiding us to do.” I respect and value your desire and heart to do what pleases the Lord. I plan on focusing discussion on the “restart” question in this coming Wednesday’s 10 AM pastor ZOOM call, and I encourage you to take part if possible.
In the meantime, after weighing the latest information available to me, my recommendation would be that churches continue to follow the state of Ohio’s suggestions on gathering group size. That is based on my best interpretation of the intent of those guidelines, as well as my personal understanding from Romans 13 that government can be a potential “agent of good” in God’s hands. Also, my perception is that the general “posture” of the group contexts around me—whether with schools or businesses or public gathering places like libraries, restaurants, team sports practices, and the like—continues to be “proceed with great caution” in regard to public gatherings. At the same time, I understand that good and godly ministry people may feel led by God to choose a different course for their local church body; I encourage all of us to be loving and respectful in light of such honest differences.
Whether you and your leaders, after prayerful consideration, are led to begin public services sooner, or whether you are beginning plans for public services so you can be prepared for the eventuality of such services, I would suggest the following:
A. Plan for honoring social distancing requirements and proper hygiene etiquette (i.e. no handshakes, no hugs, encouraging anyone who feels ill to stay home, limiting group gathering before and after services, moving seating arrangements to allow for proper distance)
B. Plan for sanitizing your facility in a consistent and thorough manner
C. Continue to offer an online option for your congregants who are unable or not ready to return to a public gathering
D. Contact your congregation and communicate that only those who feel comfortable with gathering should attend the public service and that at risk congregants should weigh staying home and sharing in the online service
E. Start with a basic service structure focused on worship and the Word
F. Delay the start of onsite worship hour age group programming (the whole social distancing thing is most challenging with children)
G. Plan for how to accomplish “normal gathering activities” with minimal direct contact, such as allowing persons to pick up bulletins rather than having someone distribute them, no-touch offering options, serving communion in a safe manner, and not providing coffee and food items
As a resource, I have again attached the list of questions Pastor Rex Stump modified from an online source for his leaders at True North to consider as they began planning for resumption of public services.
I love and appreciate all of you and join you in praying that God would thwart any scheme of the evil one to create relational damage as we seek His heart for next steps.
With You in the Battle,
Reopening True North Worship Services and Events
Concerning plans for reopening, we are going through the following list and making plans and having discussions. We have a short time to prepare for the return of our church family, to the actual building. Here is a list of things that we need to consider. I discovered the following list online recently, tweaked a few things…and now using it as a tool for our church.
- What if our worship gathering is initially limited to no more than 50/100 people? We average 350 in worship (two services). Should we be planning on adding a third service, reducing the time to 45 minutes with a 15 minute “passing period?” If physical gatherings are limited in size, you have a few options: (1) offer more services (2) encourage people to continue worshiping online (3) remove chairs from your worship center to help people avoid close contact (4) block off chairs/rows so that people no longer sit right behind someone, reducing the chances of them sneezing or coughing directly into the back of the person in front of them. If we are limited to a smaller number of people by our government leaders, what’s the plan at our church to provide a place and time for them to worship? Will we need to have people sign up for time slots – so that we don’t have overcrowding?
- What adjustments will we make to the communion and baptisms? Do we believe we can conduct communion like we have in the past? What about baptism – it’s going to be impossible to practice physical distancing in the baptism pool.
- Are we canceling VBS, or delaying them until later this summer? This is a big question on people’s minds. Will we be okay in July? There are alternatives, and I know many churches that are delaying VBS until August, using it as a big back-to-school event. Other churches are using their VBS materials in backyard Bible clubs (so that groups are smaller). Click here to read an article by LifeWay about VBS in the wake of COVID-19.
- What are we doing now to sanitize and sterilize our church building? Now is the time to wipe down all classrooms (especially those where children meet because of the toys and other items they touch during the course of a Sunday or Wednesday class experience). Have we sprayed chairs with disinfectant? Who is wiping door knobs and handles? Have you had carpet cleaned and disinfected? Now is the time for all this to take place, not the week of the “you can go back to church” announcement by government officials.
- Are we going to continue offering children’s church? Can you guarantee moms and dads that their children will be absolutely safe in a room in which dozens gather for a kids’ worship time? This is going to be a top concern for parents of younger children. They may view kids’ worship as a Petri dish into which they are throwing their children. As an alternative, is it time to encourage family worship as the primary option in these COVID-19 days? Should parents take their kids to worship, practice physical distancing, and keep a close eye on their little ones?
- Are you going to continue hosting special events? Will your church continue to host weddings? How about funerals? Concerts? You get the idea – there are a number of special events that our churches might host. Which ones will continue, and which ones will be put on hold? And how will you explain which ones continue and which ones don’t?
- Are we continuing to provide coffee? The thought is “Coffee is a social thing to do, while lingering and talking with each other…” Tables and chairs may need to be placed in storage so that people don’t congregate within a couple of feet of one another.
- Will we continue offering virtual online worship in a similar format? YouTube Live services may give way to worship experiences on campus. But is that the right strategy? I have heard of church after church whose leaders tell me their worship attendance and group attendance are up – significantly – because people are finding them online. It was reported that one Hispanic church in Las Vegas, Nevada, had 1300 people watch their service online a few weeks ago. Why is that a big deal? They normally average 100 on campus. We get this, as our views have gone from 100+ to 700+. (Palm Sunday – 2.6K).
- What is our plan when volunteers step down? Let’s not be surprised if people choose to not come back to teach their preschool and kids’ classes until a vaccine is readily available – it’s just too risky for them because they are most at risk from COVID-19. Will we be able to fully staff your classes like you did back in February? If you can’t find enough volunteers (younger families may be hesitant to return because of the fear of exposing their children to COVID-19, which means their parents won’t be leading younger children’s groups), what will we do?
- What’s our strategy to clean and sanitize our church in real time? It’s one thing to prepare in advance of people’s return to the church building, but how will we keep the place clean and disinfected on a Sunday or Wednesday? Does this give rise to a new team of people whose ministry it is to walk around wiping doorknobs and other surfaces? Who is going to clean restrooms throughout the morning or evening? Remember we’ll have hundreds of people touching things while they are at church.
- Do door greeters do their jobs differently, or at all? Not have door greeters? Seriously?! We’ve always had door greeters. But in a COVID-19 world, do you really want a door greeter holding the door open while a parishioner walks by within a foot or two of them? That’s not in line with good physical distancing practices, is it? The new normal may be for greeters to stand back six feet, inside the church building, and welcome people verbally without opening the door for them. Welcome to the new world COVID-19 has created.
- Is this the time to end our church’s “meet and greet” time?
- Because people may return very slowly to church, how will we count attendance and effectiveness? It’s almost a sure thing that worship attendance on campus will not be what it was pre-COVID-19. You need to decide now if you’re going to count at church only attendance, or merge and add online attendance, too. And how will leaders take a count in their online groups and go about reporting that?
- What’s our plan for Spiritual Growth outside of Sunday? Will we want to continue/start small group learning opportunities.
- Do we have a plan for reducing expenses if our church’s offerings don’t rebound? Churches need to be thinking, “What if…” – what if our offerings don’t hold steady because of rising unemployment of members? Before the church returns to the building, every church needs a “plan B” strategy just in case giving drops in late summer or early fall. There are some who believe the church has not felt the financial impact of COVID-19 like we will in the days and months ahead.
- How will we deal with the rise of COVID-19 related addictions? One mental health expert said in a webinar meeting last week, “I’m hearing that porn sites are giving away free memberships during COVID-19…just what people don’t need.” In that same webinar last week on mental health, the presenter assured the audience that substance abuse is on the rise, too. Alcohol sales are soaring. He cautioned us to be ready to do lots of counseling and referring of people to professionals in our post-COVID 19 reality.
- Are we going to cancel mid-week Wednesday night services and Bible studies? This won’t be a forever thing, but in the near future following the return of the church to its buildings, will you find volunteer workers to support a Wednesday night strategy?
- Will a new staff or volunteer position emerge from COVID-19? Because the church has permanently moved online now, could it lead to the adoption of a new position of leadership? Will churches turn their attention to a person whose job it is to oversee the technical aspects of the new digital frontier? Will they become responsible to develop groups and strategies to reach people online? It’s highly likely that this is going to take place; the role may first be added to a staff person who is currently serving the church, but when it is possible to split that role and afford a new person, churches may hire online pastors.
This list of questions is not exhaustive. It’s representative of many things we should be thinking about right now, before we get the OK from government leaders to gather again.
Stay focused, stay faithful!