As a culture walking through the uncharted territory of an international pandemic, we know that we have to begin the process of reopening businesses, parks, restaurants, schools, and even churches. While plenty of measures have been taken to flatten the curve of the COVID-19, we all acknowledge that, at some point, we have to reverse operational trends, yet we must make changes at a reasonable pace.
- For all the efforts made to reduce risk thus far, we will never be confident of how successful we have been.
- For all the energy spent on discerning the best way to reopen, there will never be a perfect answer.
As any type of leader, those uncertainties are frustrating.
As a church leader, you seek to find your seminary notes on leading through international pandemics, and you, unfortunately, can’t find that notebook. I had the best seminary training in the world, but who can prepare for times like these? I heard that navigating this crisis is like building a parachute on the way to the ground. It certainly feels like that some days.
Your church gatherings will reopen at some point.
You need to consider not only when you reopen church gatherings but how you will reopen church gatherings.
What I Know for Certain
Seminary did teach me to rely on the Word for direction. So, I do know this:
- God listens to my prayers (1 Peter 3:12).
- God gives me guidance from his Word (Psalm 19:7).
- God promises to give me wisdom when I ask for it (James 1:5).
- God provided the Spirit for guidance (John 14:26).
- God equips the Church with gifted believers (1 Corinthians 12:7).
- God encourages wise counsel (Proverbs 12:15).
At some point, you will need to reopen church gatherings. Without a doubt, some people will think it is too early and some with think you drug your feet too long.
You are responsible to God for how you lead your flock – not another flock.
Considering that, here are some questions I am considering and maybe they can help you process some things as well.
Questions to Answer
- What is your intermediate next step? Most likely, you will not transition from closed gatherings to the previous regular schedules in one week. You will need an intermediate step if not intermediate steps along the way. Your next plan won’t be the new normal, but see it as a proper step in that direction.
- How will you organize your gatherings? Your intermediate next step will probably include multiple, smaller gatherings. You can wait for your local government to provide stipulations on gathering size, or you can use the 20% occupancy limit as a reasonable guide. What is 20% of your worship space? Make that your cap for the first wave of services. Either assign members to worship hours by small groups and accompanying families or set up some type of online registration. Before creating too many worship opportunities, I would find some way to survey your members to see who will realistically come at the time you are considering reopening. Smaller gatherings will feel awkward enough, so you don’t want to create too many of them. Utilizing small classrooms might be too overwhelming at first. Consider that 20% marker as a guide for now.
- What alterations will you make to the typical gathering? For the time being, you will need to take extra consideration for how you handle seating, spacing, offering, bulletins, childcare, groups, communion, entrances, and inside traffic. You will have to make the call on some of these knowing that it will affect some people’s decisions to come. There is NO perfect answer. Talk with people in different stages of life to help you think through all the things you might not be considering.
- What steps will you take to limit concerns before gathering? Many of your actions will reduce germ exposure, but most of them will honestly alleviate nerves. The more intentionality you show to reduce risks will ease anxious minds (which is an admirable goal by the way). Make sure to deep clean intended gathering spaces, and close off other portions of the campus. If you need to revamp seating or direct traffic patterns, go with it. Any effort will help.
- What steps will you take to limit concerns while gathered? Your main job is to reduce risk but also to calm fears. Have a greeter stationed to open doors. Consider giving an entrance door and an exit door for all to reduce back and forth traffic. Provide seating expectations by skipping rows, guided ushers, or detailed restrictions. Give an hour break between each service so your cleaning crew can disinfect all doors, rails, handles, and bathrooms.
- What is your target date? I would pencil in a date on the calendar and start working towards that time being aware that, at any time, the state of your community might change and you might have to move forward or backward on the date. Work as if the date is certain, but be flexible enough to adapt as you go.
- What counsel have you sought before finalizing the plans? Your church and your community are filled with potential advisors who have expertise in areas you do not. Seek them out. I would consider presenting a penciled-in plan to medical professionals, community leaders, and church gatekeepers (the people you may not have to seek permission but their affirmation goes a long way). Don’t come with an ambiguous plan. Present a solid, thought-through concept and let them advise you how to alter it. You will gain wisdom as well as an affirmation from others when you inform them of your quest for professional counsel.
- What is your essential list of workers? Due to multiple gatherings, you need to create a skeleton crew that can serve at each service. I would assign a staff member and/or church leader to be the “host” of every gathering, and I wouldn’t require them to come to another. Let them be the direct contact with your people assigned to that service. Have multiple smaller worship teams that can take on 2-3 services each. Assign some door holders for each service based on which service their groups are assigned to come.
- How will you communicate the plan well? You have different types of learners in your church, and so I would use every means at your disposal to communicate plans. Whatever you do, make sure there is a detailed written list of plans and precautions. Answer every question before they ask it. In addition, I would make extra consideration regarding your senior adults with some effort to call every single one with a team going through a script to discuss options for them to consider their health. Be willing to bend over backward for those precious saints if you need to help set up technology at their house, deliver sermon videos, etc.
- What alternatives will you provide? Hopefully, you have improved your online services over the last few weeks. Keep it up. Many nervous people will take longer to return to your physical gathering. If you decide not to offer childcare (which is probably a wise first scenario), you will take some families out of the equation due to their concern over being able to handle their children in service. Provide a solid offering online for those who can’t experience your intermediate phase in person.
- What attitude will you portray? I would encourage you to be conscientious about not only what you say but how you say it. Do not demean anyone for the decisions they make regarding the health of their family. If you criticize “those people” who don’t come to services the first chance you open them up, they may not want to come around later either. People are frightened, and even if you personally think their concerns are overblown, you will never convince them otherwise, especially if you demean them. Give a reasonable plan, and allow people the freedom to act in accordance with being fully convinced in their own minds (Rom. 14:5).
- Who else needs to be informed of your plans? In addition to communicating with your church membership, you need to consider visitors or potential guests that you don’t have a way to track. How will you inform the community about your plans and allow people to come to worship who aren’t on your lists? How do you prepare for that? And what community leaders or organizations need to be aware of your plans? If you have a detailed list of what your plans are, it wouldn’t hurt to communicate that to local officials so they are informed by you rather than by someone else.
I intentionally didn’t provide you with all the answers, because I don’t have them, and they will be different in every situation. I do hope though that these questions help you process your direction.
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.James 1:5
Here are some additional articles I have posted on dealing personally and corporately with the COVID-19.
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Travis Agnew serves as the Lead Pastor of Rocky Creek Church in Greenville, SC. His most recent book is Just (About) Married.
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