Many churches are taking a slow, methodical approach to returning to in-person worship even as some states ease restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Plenty of congregations will continue to worship virtually even when services in sanctuaries resume, said Charles Qualls, senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Virginia.
“We’re not going to flip the light switch and just be back to normal,” he said. “None of us are going to just snap things back to normal.”
An opening process that is fully and quickly completed is unrealistic, which is why Franklin Baptist is several weeks away from any type of full reopening, he explained.
“I think opening up is going to be a messy, ramped-up process,” Qualls said. “There are logistical details that must be thought out.”
Qualls and other ministers say returning to worship will be a complex and detailed procedure for religious leaders who have to consider the continued demand for social distancing, procedures for sanitizing spaces, if and where to provide post-worship fellowship space and whether or not to offer coffee and water stations.
For churches, the guiding principle in these decisions is love for neighbor, said Larry Hovis, executive coordinator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina.
CBF of North Carolina is hosting a six-week virtual roundtable to help churches with reopening decisions.
“Let’s put others first,” Hovis said. “I hope we will be careful so we can do this in ways that provide for the safety of both our congregations as well as the neighbor to whom we are called to minister to.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has helped congregations remember that being the church is about more than buildings, he said.
“We used to do gathered church, now we’re doing scattered church. We may have to do a gathered and scattered church at the same time moving forward.”
Many congregations plan to continue online services even after in-person services resume, said Phill Martin, CEO of The Church Network.
“Churches have to be realistic about what staff and lay leaders have the bandwidth to do,” he said. “You can’t do everything you’ve been doing in this crisis and everything you used to do.”
Churches must seek trusted resources to guide them through reopening, Martin said.
“It’s a new frontier that we’ve got to forge together and learn from each other. It’s better to be careful than it is to be too assertive to try to reopen,” he said. “Remember, the church is not closed.”
A plan for reopening is essential for churches, said John Chittom, co-owner of Benchmark Cleaning Consultants in Athens, Georgia.
“Faith-based organizations today need to have a plan to be able to successfully reopen,” he said.
Benchmark Cleaning Consultants recently released a church cleaning manual via CBF of Georgia. The manual provides guidelines on how to properly clean and disinfect, develop cleaning schedules and implement hand hygiene procedures.
“It’s not a mandate. This is an overview so that any pastor could use the manual as a starting point,” Chittom said.
The goal of the manual is to be an educational resource, he added.
Qualls said that a deep clean of Franklin Baptist was completed in March when the congregation stopped gathering for in-person services.
“We wanted this virus to have as many months as possible to die wherever it was in our building, if it was there at all,” he said.
Qualls said ushers must be trained to help congregants spread out in the pews, offering plates will be placed at the entrances of the church and communion trays will not be passed.
“We’re going to get creative about it. I don’t know if you ask people to bring their own elements for communion, but that is certainly one option,” he said.
Qualls said he expects some church members to be back in-person as soon as the doors are open, while others will be hesitant.
The decision to reopen remains difficult and imperfect, he added.
“I would not want any church to place the decision making of this on any one person,” he said. “This is going to have to be something that upper leadership deals with as a body and then be prepared to live with the imperfection of whatever plan they do come up with.”
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