While the vast majority of churches quickly closed their doors through March, April and early May, the startup for churches may be a bit slower. State-mandated guidelines and local orders will determine many churches’ start dates. Some churches have already begun meeting; others have shared plans, while more have announced they are studying the issue.
To aid churches in returning to at least some semblance of normal operations, GuideStone Financial Resources has created a landing page with resources assembled from reliable organizations.
“We are not making any suggestions as to when a church decides to gather in-person, as there are many variables to consider,” GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins said. “We simply want to make sure churches have resources available to consider as they work through when it is right for them to begin meeting in-person again.
“Churches have to understand what the comfort level of their members and staff is, along with local or state restrictions on gatherings. There are also practical concerns, like whether a building system needs to be repaired after being unused for a period of time, along with concerns around securing enough volunteers to return for most ministries to function at a normal level.”
GuideStone has created the following Q&A document for churches to consider as they work through reopening their campuses:
I. Questions around the physical property
Are the building’s plumbing and electrical systems in working order?
After being closed for the better part of two or more months, make sure the air conditioners, water heaters and other systems are in working order. Perform any monthly or quarterly maintenance, like HVAC filter changes or fire extinguisher checks. Flush all the toilets and turn on water at all faucets to confirm operation.
Are the building and surrounding areas in good shape?
Check fastenings on handrails to ensure they are snug and that there are no new potholes or cracks in parking lots or sidewalks. Check the building for water leaks that might have been missed from spring rains. Ensure that the sound system and computers used in the worship center are in good working order. Remember, too, a vacant building can draw in unwanted pests, so pest control may need to be called in before you return to services.
What should we do about playground equipment or outdoor seating?
Remove or secure all non-essential items to reduce the chances of touching these surfaces in the near term. As public health authorities open local playgrounds and parks, the church can consider reopening once any necessary maintenance needs are addressed.
II. Questions around social distancing
What guidelines should we use to restrict attendance?
If a member has any of the following symptoms/conditions, he or she should be encouraged to join the worship service via livestream:
— Fever of 100 degrees or over
— Cough or sore throat
— Shortness of breath
— Contact within the last two weeks with anyone who has COVID-19
How will we adequately implement social distancing on our campus?
It’s helpful to break this down into social distancing from the moment a person or family arrives on campus until departure:
1. In the parking lot, many churches are using greeters, who wear masks, to direct members and guests to use every other parking space to help separate people as they arrive and walk from their cars into the church building. Depending on the shape and layout of your lot, filling spaces closest to the building and then working out to the farthest spaces may help keep traffic flowing while also provide a safer walk for people as they walk to the entrance.
2. Many churches have determined they will help control flow by allowing people to enter through only one or a small handful of entry doors and exit through others. Placing greeters and ushers in this area to help funnel people into worship space can be helpful as they arrive. Families should be encouraged to arrive together and sit together to ensure churches can provide six feet of distance between families while maximizing the number of people in the worship service(s). To maintain social distancing, it may be necessary to limit the number of people using restrooms on campus by marking off half the number of sinks, for example.
3. In the worship center, blocking off every other row (or removing chairs from every other row) can help aid in social distancing for ushers helping to seat people, leaving six feet of space between individuals or families. Tape, ropes or other materials can be used to signal a closed row. Ushers should seat members from front to back, alternating sides, to further maintain distance. (When dismissing, ushers should dismiss rows from back to front.)
Should we have Sunday school/small groups?
Some churches have decided to continue having small groups and Sunday school classes meet via ZOOM, Google Hangouts or Facebook Live. Most churches who have already started meeting have elected not to have small groups meet during the initial weeks. However, if small groups decide to meet in-person, it is important that they continue to maintain six feet of social distancing, removing chairs from classrooms to help facilitate those distances.
How should we handle preschool and children’s ministries?
Because of the need to maintain strict social distancing and because of a lack of volunteers (some may be older and not comfortable returning), it may be best for churches to forego relaunching preschool and children’s Sunday school classes in the initial weeks. If churches decide to have those options available, it is necessary to be vigilant in disinfecting the space as children and preschoolers use toys, pencils and other materials in the space. Churches should also consider making sure any new or temporary volunteers are properly background checked and trained.
How do we handle weddings and funerals?
Churches should consider applying the same rules for weddings and funerals that they apply for worship services, if they choose to host weddings and funerals on campus.
How do we limit the number of people on campus? We don’t want to turn people away at the doors.
Some churches have reported using Eventbrite or other registration websites to reserve seating. Churches simply say how many seats are available — say 100 seats in a sanctuary with capacity for 400 — and once 100 reservations are made (each member of a family unit should be counted in the reservation), then Eventbrite will inform those responding that there are currently no more seats available. While not perfect — no one wants to turn people away — it is a better solution than having people arrive and be turned away.
III. Questions around hygiene and cleaning
How do we deep clean and disinfect our building?
Disinfecting and cleaning practices can help minimize the spread of diseases like COVID-19, the seasonal flu, stomach bugs and other viral and bacterial diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommendations for cleaning facilities where there have been suspected/confirmed cases of COVID-19. They include helpful steps on cleaning and disinfecting, whether there have been cases confirmed or not.
Should we update our cleaning procedures?
Perhaps. It is important that churches have gloves, masks, disinfecting wipes and sprays as well as other cleaners, all of which are in short supply right now. Cleaning high-touch areas is especially important. Brotherhood Mutual offers tips listing some of the common surfaces that should be frequently addressed, including seats/pews, door handles, table or counter tops, touch-screen electronics, restroom fixture handles, light switches, chairs in new mothers’ rooms, changing tables, toys and bins, sinks and check-in stations.
If hosting multiple worship services, leave time for disinfecting common surfaces between each service and to ensure people can maintain social distancing as they leave and enter the worship center.
How can we continue to monitor and be prepared as we re-enter?
Churches and ministries should consider updating or creating an infectious disease plan. Our colleagues at Brotherhood Mutual have information about what such a plan should include and a link to the CDC’s guidance on getting a plan started.
IV. Questions around communal sharing
How should we do the Lord’s Supper, offering and greeting times?
Churches should consider that plates passed to collect offerings or to distribute the elements of the Lord’s Supper can help move germs, including bacteria and viruses, around the congregation. While that has always been true, it may be more obvious to members during these times. Consider collecting offerings electronically, placing locked boxes at the doorway or even positioning offering plates at entry points to the worship center (overseen by a greeter, usher or security).
For the Lord’s Supper, handing out the elements prior to the service to be taken early in the service could be helpful. Prepackaged cups with the juice and the cracker enclosed are also available.
Many churches have also suspended the greeting time for the sake of time and not passing germs. Remember, for churches who are also livestreaming, many of your members will continue to join remotely, which could make greeting time an awkward reminder that you are not all together.
Frequently touched items like hymnals, orders of worship and flyers should also be considered. Making them available electronically, even as a mobile-friendly PDF downloaded from the church’s website, can reduce the need for printed materials.
Should we have donuts or coffee available?
No. In most cases, it is best not to have food or drink available as we work through the pandemic.
V. Questions around when and what to communicate
What should we communicate to our members when we’re ready to relaunch in-person worship?
Clear, concise communication can calm fears and endear your people to their church. Let them know of the steps you are taking to ensure their safety. Prepare them for changes — it will be disconcerting for many to see chairs removed or pews roped off. People will likely need to sit where ushers tell them, not in “their seats,” where they may have sat for decades.
Be sure to communicate whether masks are required, per local or state restrictions, or encouraged. Remind people through emails, videos and on-campus signage to maintain six feet of distance, and, for the time being, no hugging or handshakes. (Ushers or other assigned leaders may need to offer friendly reminders.) Make sure you let your members know what changes are coming — from parking to closed entrances.
Make sure you communicate with your deacons, Sunday school directors and teachers, and others in leadership roles, encouraging them to offer friendly reassurances to those in their sphere of influence that these are unusual times, but this partial return to normalcy is a good thing.
And please be sure to remind your vulnerable populations — seniors or those with underlying health concerns — that they can continue to join virtually until their health allows them to return. Work to ensure they remain plugged into the church and its ministries over the coming weeks.
How should we communicate?
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, email and your church website are all indispensable tools right now. A simple letter mailed to members is also a welcome communication channel, especially for those who may still lack computers or smartphones. Frequency of communication is important so that your people feel safe, and it will encourage others to join the in-person worship experience as they are ready.
VI. Question about resources
Who are some trusted resources we can reference when making decisions?
GuideStone has created a helpful landing page with a road map to re-entry, a sample re-entry plan, links to helpful articles from Brotherhood Mutual, Ministry Grid and Southern Baptist partners, as well as links to resources provided by Baptist state conventions around the country.
— Roy Hayhurst is director of denominational and public relations for GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.