The coronavirus has replaced politics as the headline news during the past week. The stock market had a record week of losses while individuals who had hoarded surgical masks and gloves have made questionable profits on eBay. Personal reactions to the news vacillate between fear and complacency.
Also, during the week multiple countries placed bans on gatherings such as sporting events and public worship. A region of Italy took a highly unusual step to ban assemblies that included Ash Wednesday services.
The United States has seemed insulated from drastic measure, but what if a pandemic or other type of crisis stopped your congregation for meeting for two or three weeks? Have you given thought to what your congregation would do? Below, I’ve listed a few areas every congregation should consider.
Work on your Theology
We would like to think we operate out a biblical worldview and see life through the lens of faith. The pressures of society and the media, however, represent tidal waves of influence. The time is now to get our theology into perspective. If the word “quarantine’ is ever used in the country, fear will challenge our compassion, the strength of our fellowship, and our basic Christian commitments. What do we believe about God’s care and sovereignty? Where is our ultimate trust and hope? Ponder these things ahead of time and keep then firmly in your mind as you preach and minister.
I hope it is unnecessary to mention prayer. What constitutes “news” for most of us is a crisis for many. Add the coronavirus situation to your church prayer list. Include it in public prayer.
The most vulnerable portion of a community’s residents are those with limited income. Many of them depend daily on services provided by churches. Yet, their lack of access to information may result in them being centers of infections. If your congregation provides volunteers for feeding ministries, clothing closets, or other forms of assistance, will your volunteers continue to participate in the face of a pandemic? If not, what will the vulnerable members of your community do without their help?
At the very least, have a discussion with volunteers who staff these ministries. How do they anticipate serving in a worst-case scenario? What safety precautions would they suggest? Do they see alternative ways of providing the ministry? Their answers will provide the beginning of a backup plan.
Many hospitals already place restrictions on visitation during flu season. Consult an appropriate representative of your local hospital to determine their plans if a pandemic occurs. Once you learn the limitations they may institute, you will have a better idea what you can and cannot do.
Many health professionals consider good hand hygiene as the single-most effective way to avoid the spread of disease and illness. Learn good hand hygiene for any visit. If members of the laity provide some of some of your pastoral ministry, be sure to communicate full information to them.
People have become more cautious of personal contact in groups. I know people who stopped shaking hands a couple years ago for fear of catching a cold or the flu. There are people will avoid a group meeting altogether if they perceive they will be expected to have personal contact. The current parlance for avoiding others is “social distancing,” which for many of us runs counter to common expressions of Christian affection.
Help change the expectations about contact in your congregation by giving people other ways to demonstrate fellowship. If we provide alternative forms of acceptable fellowship, they feel less like the only one who doesn’t want to participate. I see individuals who fist bump during cold season and others who touch elbows. If you implement such steps, give express instructions in worship for a number of Sundays in order to get the message to more people. Couch such a change as concern and affection for one another, not fear.
If your church streams worship services over the internet or records services to place on a website, develop a plan that makes sure this ministry continues even if public gatherings are restricted. It takes very few people to have a service for a video camera. Yet, a talking head, one person speaking with little movement or variation on the screen, will not keep some people engaged. With your resources, how can you add interest to a stripped-down service? Assign responsibility for the duties that must be fulfilled to make sure this ministry continues.
If church services are banned or discouraged, it will affect your offerings. Can your congregation function for a month without taking up an offering? Many can, but some cannot.
If your congregation does not offer online giving, explore how to offer it. If you already utilize this service, consider training members in how to use it.
Does your church have reserve funds? If so, ask those responsible which funds they would propose to use in a crisis.
Beyond a Pandemic
I believe every congregation needs plans for a wide range of emergencies, including fire, severe weather, active shooters, and pandemic closings. Each of these have been real situations for churches in recent years.
Do you know where your worshippers will go in case of a severe storm during worship? What happens to the children? Do teachers move them or simply wait for parents to come get them? These are not simple questions, nor are they problems to be solved in the moment.
It is a vital function of leadership to anticipate these circumstances in case the unthinkable happens closer to home. A number of congregations have thought through these issues. If your congregation has no plan, you may be able to borrow plans from another church to us as a template for your own circumstances. Don’t try to write a manual for all circumstances. Start with bullet points of actions that are easy to learn and implement. Work on additional items as you have time.
Now do me a favor. Please go back and reread the section on theology. As church leaders, expressing bona fide faith may be our greatest responsibility should any type of crisis unfold in our communities.