Bishop Jones and the cabinet share guidelines for church re-opening
By Lindsay Peyton
Church is going to look different in the aftermath of the pandemic. Pews might be roped off; communion served in prepackaged containers. There will be no passing of a plate for offering or hugging and shaking hands with neighboring congregants. Even singing a hymn, without a mask on, could be taboo. Pastors have a lot to consider while preparing for reopening, and Bishop Scott J. Jones and the rest of the Texas Annual Conference cabinet have issued guidelines to help churches remain safe.
“I continue to pray for you as you pastor in new ways throughout the re-opening process,” Bishop Jones said.
He explained that church leaders have to weigh safety concerns, the needs of their congregation and guidance from health organizations and the government to make the best decisions for their communities. Staying informed and understanding risk factors is essential in the effort.
“Communicating with your congregation about reopening is also important,” Jones said. “Members are going to be looking to you and your leadership about what needs to happen on the first day of worship.”
Here are a few of the guidelines he proposed as churches in rural areas reopen:
Define the needs of your church by reaching out to members. In addition to following safety guidelines, consider sending a survey to members before taking any initial steps. Congregants can share their thoughts on the timing of reopening and procedures they believe should be considered.
Stay in touch with your congregation. Make sure to communicate with members and staff about the reopening plan and what they can expect when returning to church. Spell out all of the details, even if it feels like you are over doing it. Safety, sanitation and caring for those most vulnerable to the virus are a top priority.
There’s nothing wrong with staying home. Remind members to stay at home if they have any symptoms or concerns. They may need to hear directly from their pastor that there is no pressure to return to church. Their safety, health and comfort is the most important concern.
Stress the need to wear a mask. Remind members, employees and volunteers to wear masks at all times while on church property, to wash hands frequently and follow social distancing recommendations. Let them know that they are not only protecting themselves but also showing love to other members by adhering to these guidelines.
Post signs. Spend time making signs and placing them to help everyone remember proper hygiene, distancing and non-contact greeting.
Stay at a distance. Set up worship according to CDC recommendations, allowing 6 feet between individuals. Try making every other pew open for seating, roping off the pews in between. Decide ahead of time how you will inform people about worship seating requirements. If possible, direct people in one door and out another. Consider using painters’ tape to designate sections of seating that are 6 feet apart –or place the chairs in properly spaced groups. Discourage hugging and handshakes. Comply with government regulations concerning capacity limits, and consider having an overflow room or adding another service. Larger churches can hold several smaller services at staggered times.
Singing requires extra precautions. After observing coronavirus outbreaks at choirs in the U.S. and Europe, experts believe that singing can result in dangerous spreading of COVID-19 droplets. That is why the Texas Annual Conference along with other experts are discouraging congregational singing. Soloists, worship leaders and choirs should sing from the back of the chancel area or another separate location that is removed from the congregations. Choirs must maintain a space of 12 feet between members and sanitize hymnals and folders after each use.
Sanitize, clean, repeat. Cleaning your church will take time and attention to detail. This includes sanitizing pews, bathrooms, doorknobs, microphones and any high touch areas where members or staff gather. Consider shampooing and disinfecting carpet as well. The entire sanctuary should be re-cleaned between services.
Eliminate the need to touch doorknobs. Bishop Jones recommends propping doors open and having volunteers stationed at entrances for welcoming. This same guideline includes restrooms. Prevent members from touching doorknobs, doors and other high touch areas. Rope off water fountains and post a sign that says, “Do not use the water fountain.” Greeters can also promote social distancing by regulating when members enter or exit the building and requiring time to be reserved to prevent crowding.
Make it easy to keep hands clean. Station hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes, at entrances and throughout the church. Keep disinfectant and soap readily available.
Remove any extra items. Temporarily take out hymnals, Bibles and pens in the pews. Instead of paper bulletins, consider emailing members or sharing the information on a large screen at the front of the church. Encourage attendees to register their attendance electronically. Refrain from passing collection plates and instead provide a central collection box in the building or encourage online giving. Consider suspending food and beverage services, including coffee, or follow the CDC guidelines for churches for this service.
Rethink the sacraments. Consider ways the Lord’s Supper can be administered without attendees having to touch any surfaces or objects. Hand sanitizer should be provided for servers, and the pastors should not drink from a common cup. Encourage families to wait for baptisms until the entire family can all be present. If that is not an option, consider hosting Baptism with only the immediate family and video tape the ceremony for other members.
Consider childcare and the nursery. All church weekday child care programs are encouraged to follow the latest guidance from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. Nurseries should be regularly sanitized and disinfected. Keep toys picked up and do not allow children to share toys. Instead, provide duplicates for the second child. Wipe runny noses, and clean both the child’s and worker’s hands with hand sanitizer. Avoid snacks when possible.
Have a plan in place for any potential outbreaks. If someone in your church tests positive for the coronavirus, contact the county or municipal health authority, your insurance company and your district superintendent. Inform all church attendees if they were possibly exposed and comply with CDC regulations for privacy of the individual with the virus.
Don’t get rid of the online options — or forget the lessons learned during lockdown. Even if your church is full on reopening, online services are still a good option for those who are at-risk or who have tested positive for COVID-19 and want to stay home to help everyone else stay healthy. Bishop Jones said that United Methodist Churches across the Texas Annual Conference have been engaged in innovative and creative solutions during the pandemic. These lessons still apply to churches as they strive to stay relevant, adopt technology and reach members where they are. “You are connecting with new people in your area and proclaiming the hope of Jesus Christ in fresh and innovative ways,” Jones said.
Additional resources include:
Consider printing applicable guidance posters available from the CDC and posting in the church in appropriate locations. Posters are available to print.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Reopening Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes
Helpful blog post: “24 Questions Your Church Should Answer Before People Return”
“Rolling Restart” Sample spreadsheet (Credit: INJOY Stewardship Solutions)