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Read and heed ‘Returning to Church’ long before it’s deemed safe to worship in person

A guide from the Wisconsin Council of Churches has valuable suggestions, issues to consider — even a checklist

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Pastor Tim Hart-Andersen leads the congregation in song at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. “Returning to Church,” a new guide by the Wisconsin Council of Churches, gives congregations guidelines to use to help them safely return to in-person worship. (Photo by Randy Hobson)

LOUISVILLE — “Returning to Church,” a thoughtful and thorough resource for ministry during the pandemic and published by the Wisconsin Council of Churches, may be the best thing to come out of the Badger State since bratwurst.

It’s being offered “as a framework to guide clergy and lay leaders in making healthy and pastoral decisions, not as a fixed set of guidelines that will account for every circumstance,” the seven-page document states. “The advice of public health officials may change as more becomes known about COVID-19.”

During the first phase of what’s been dubbed in Wisconsin as the Badger Bounce Back plan — most other states have similar plans — churches should continue holding online worship services only. Bible studies and small groups continue to meet online. High risk individuals — people over 60 and those with underlying conditions — whether staff or volunteers, should continue to shelter in place.

Several weeks later, during phase 2 and depending on “careful observance of physical/social distancing recommendations on an ongoing basis,” churches with fewer than 50 in attendance might consider holding in-person worship, although those 60 and older and people with underlying conditions are recommended to continue to shelter in place. The worship space must be large enough for physical distancing. Congregations should “have a contingency plan for overflows beyond the approved number of people,” the guide states.

At any rate, the document recommends continuing to share worship online even as worship is offered in person, “as there will be many who are at high risk and cannot join you or may not feel safe to return even if precautions are in place.” Each worshiper should wear a cloth face mask. Communion “will continue to be a challenge, as touching a face mask (to remove or shift it) contaminates it.” This may mean the further postponement of offering Communion to the faithful.

Congregational singing “is among the riskier behaviors” because singing more forcefully than speaking spreads the droplets a significant distance and keeps them suspended in the air. “Returning to Church” recommends no singing in the sanctuary when the congregation is gathered.

Use bulletins and then discard them, and don’t use hymnals and pew Bibles for the time being. Use no-touch alternatives for passing the peace and collecting offering and keep empty pews between families. Explore meeting in fellowship hall or outdoors if the worship space is small. “Returning to Church” recommends against holding a fellowship time before or after worship, instead encouraging people to leave the building rather than mingling.

“Don’t yet have small groups?” the guide asks. “This is an opportunity to renew relationships and perhaps start some small groups within your congregation. As conditions shift, these small groups can provide spiritual and emotional support to one another and offer a setting for mission.”

Holding in-person Vacation Bible School is not recommended this summer. Consider online or drop-off activities instead. “Similarly, we anticipate mission trips to be unwise for some time,” the guide says. “This is an ideal time for mission in the local area.” One suggestion: “Keep your groups small so as not to overwhelm the ministries you serve. You are there to assist, not to occupy or divert their resources.”

Regular office functions could resume during this phase “more or less safely while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.” Consider allowing building renters and users to resume operations, with a plan to address cleaning needs and agreement to observe gathering and distancing protocols.

During the third phase of the Badger Bounce Back, physical distancing is not required. But “we recommend that you avoid crowding in the sanctuary to the extent possible.” Fellowship hour is still discouraged during this phase, but “it should be safer for Bible studies and small groups to meet in person,” as well as groups, teams and committees.

In addition to suggestions for additional reading or viewing, the document concludes with an 11-item checklist. Among the questions for church leadership to consider during the coming weeks:

  • Has your insurance company weighed in on benchmarks for reopening? What about your mid council? How will these influence your decision?
  • How many people can your worship space hold if you are worshiping in family groups sitting six feet apart?
  • How will you discourage the “receiving line” after church as well as people congregating following worship?
  • How can you encourage small group gatherings when they’re appropriate?
  • How will you ensure sanitation and disinfection in commonly used spaces?
  • How will you update your building use agreements to reflect the new realities of COVID-19?
  • If someone contracts COVID-19, how will you communicate with your members and friends who may have come into contact with that person, all while maintaining privacy and pastoral care?
  • How will you communicate your safety plan and best practices to the congregation?

More coronavirus resources can be found here.


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