Dear Church Leaders:
On April 27, 2020, Texas Governor Greg Abbott released “Texans Helping Texas: The Governor’s Report to Open Texas.” This report replaces the statewide stay-at-home order that expires on April 30 and begins a phased re-opening of a variety of businesses and institutions across our communities.
As of May 1, there will be no official state restrictions on churches’ gatherings. At the same time, Governor Abbott writes in his report, “We are each called upon to be Texans: to act responsibly as we re-engage in the economy, to continue following all health precautions and sanitizing guidelines, and to care for our vulnerable neighbors. Lives depend on our actions.” The state chief medical officer adds that all Texans should “continue to practice social distancing, avoid crowds, and limit physical contact.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued “Guidance for Houses of Worship During the COVID-19 Crisis,” which includes a set of minimum recommended health protocols for allowing employees, volunteers, and other attendees to enter the church building for worship and other functions. As the list of recommendations is lengthy, please follow the link to that state document.
Finally, Bishop Schnase has reminded us that our first rule as Wesleyan Christians is to “do no harm.” Working towards reopening should be done intentionally with careful consideration given to your local circumstances and ministry context. This is in part to protect those most vulnerable to the virus, many of whom are participants in our churches’ ministries. The bishop strongly encourages churches to continue their current distancing practices, meeting only remotely, until May 31.
As the bishop noted, churches are essential; gathering in one place is not. Being granted government permission to open is not the same as deliberate, prayerful discernment. So take your time, and know that your bishop will support decisions to postpone opening for the welfare of your people.
As we do look toward resuming in-person worship and activities, our actions must be planned in the light of what could be a long period of response to the effects of COVID-19. Following is a list of things to consider. It may cover things you don’t need and miss things you do need. The purpose is to prompt thinking about preparing for gathering again and to help churches remain flexible amid changing circumstances.
United Methodists in the Rio Texas Conference have done amazing work during this crisis. You’ve maintained connection and care as the purpose behind what we do and how we do it. You’ve proclaimed and lived a resurrection hope in a dark and uncertain time. Thank you for living out your discipleship in such powerful ways! Together we will take our next, faithful steps.
Grace and peace,
Assistant to the Bishop and Director of Clergy Excellence
How will you be intentional and gradual about adding activities according to your congregation’s ability to maintain COVID-19 related precautions? Will you follow the state’s phased approach for businesses, which begins with limiting gatherings to 25% of capacity? What will you do if guests arrive after that capacity has been reached?
The governor’s report notes that persons aged 65 and over, especially with certain medical conditions, are most at risk of contracting the virus. Who are the at-risk people in your community of participants, and what proportion of the total do they comprise? How does that impact your planning?
What plans will you have in place if you gather people for worship, and one of those present is diagnosed with COVID-19? How would you communicate with participants that they have been exposed to the virus, offer pastoral care, and work with health officials in response?
How will you communicate your next steps and state clearly that staying home is still an appropriate and faithful decision?
Will you develop phased plans for resuming gatherings? For 25, 50, or 100+ people?
How will you continue virtual worship, given what you’ve learned about technology, internet capacity, and your congregation’s pattern? Will you record in the sanctuary? Will you try to stream live?
Masks are highly recommended, especially in a context where there is singing. What will you do if someone arrives without a mask?
How will you mark worship seating to maintain proper distancing? (See the Attorney General’s Guidance, pp. 2-3.)
Would multiple services, or in-person attendance on alternating weeks (with others attending online) be a way to maintain distancing and keep attendance numbers within proper limits?
Could you leave doors and/or windows open to facilitate airflow and minimize surfaces touched?
If your church normally uses bulletins and doesn’t have projection, how might you go without a written order of service for now? The worship leader can direct people, or bulletins can be sent out electronically
How will you adjust celebrating holy communion? Think about minimizing touch (elements, communion rail) and maintaining distance between people as they receive the elements.
How will you adjust celebrating baptism? Think about where people stand and how water is applied.
How will you celebrate weddings and funerals? Apply the same distancing and cleaning practices you will observe for regular worship. Is celebrating outdoors an option?
With all of these questions and considerations, how can you maintain a spirit of worship, instead of a focus on the adaptations? Practice the new way ahead of time if you can.
If you have a choir, how will you manage their rehearsals and offerings during worship? Singing in groups is clearly an easy way to transmit the virus with others. Is this a time to continue with other forms of special music?
How will you manage the disinfection of A/V equipment, especially microphones?
Is passing the peace essential to worship if it increases the risk to those who have gathered? Could it become a liturgical act between the leader and the congregation, without turning to neighbors?
If you do observe passing of the peace, what alternative means can you use (prayer hands folded in front of one’s chest, touching the heart, bowing)?
Given the risk of contact at post-service fellowship time, how might you connect and follow up with attendees instead? Move greetings to the parking lot?
Consider refraining from offering food or beverages at church until a later date.
Train greeters not to hug, shake hands, or hand out things, but to smile, speak words of welcome, and offer answers to any questions that attendees might have.
If any items need to be distributed, they should be placed individually on a table for worshippers to pick up.
Offering plates should not be passed but placed at the doors to the worship space; also find ways to continue to encourage online giving.
Might quality small group time, rather than full worship, take care of the need for connection right now? Your time and resources are a finite resource; think about where best to use them.
What adult small groups will you continue online? How will you encourage people outside your church to join?
What will your strategies be for staying connected with children and families? (Find resources here: https://riotexas.org/growingtogether.)
Consider keeping childcare services closed, unless or until you are very sure you can maintain proper distancing and cleaning.
In accordance with the Attorney General’s Guidance (p. 5), what is your plan for disinfecting spaces once they’ve been occupied? If you hold multiple services, this would need to happen before each one. Who could do this work, and how might you organize them? Do you have access to the proper cleaning supplies?
What plans will you put in place for other groups to resume use of your building? What policies will you require them to follow to provide for proper cleaning and social distancing?
Consider well large or intensive contact events, such as fellowship meals, Vacation Bible School, and mission trips. What are some alternative activities that could accomplish some of the same purpose?
Portions of this list are adapted from Ken Braddy, “24 Questions Your Church Should Answer Before People Return.”