Right now, as we focus on helping houses of worship reopen safely, it’s important to acknowledge that although the building was closed, the Church never shut down at all. As my pastor said, “We didn’t close; we just changed venues.”
That said, the building is the gathering place of believers, physically. So, helping churches resume in-person gatherings — smartly — has been a major focus for our team in recent months.
What we’re seeing is varied. Many of the churches we insure have returned to meeting, with new precautions in place. Some are still only meeting virtually. A few of our small, rural churches never stopped meeting, as their local jurisdiction didn’t issue stay-at-home orders and their congregations are small enough to socially distance at any time.
We’ve seen a lot of creativity, too — drive-in, outdoor and additional services to allow for social distancing, all while continuing to offer online services as an alternative.
One commonality among all these churches is the desire to minimize their COVID-19 related liabilities. Due to the sheer volume of churches we serve, we were able to ascertain some best practices for reopening.
#1: Survey the congregation
Many churches are conducting surveys to assess their congregations’ comfort level as they prepare their reopening plans. Some of the questions they’re asking include:
• Are you comfortable returning to in-person services knowing we’ll continue offering online worship as well?
• Are you more comfortable if masks are required?
• Would you be comfortable coming back knowing that sanitizing took place in between services and that we only use every other pew?
• Would you rather worship outside?
• Will you be comfortable returning once a vaccine is developed?
#2: Consider your variables
Church leaders are considering several variables as they navigate reopening: geography, size of congregation, median age, ability to provide virtual services, finances, and governing guidelines in their communities.
With regards to “geography,” keep in mind that even bordering states have entirely different reopening guidelines. Every state’s (and even county’s) guidelines can differ, so churches must adhere to the most current guidance and information. In the event of a lawsuit, a jury might conclude that a church which disregarded generally accepted guidelines didn’t do what was “reasonable and prudent.”
In terms of “finances,” it’s worth noting that we’ve spoken with many churches whose attendance — online or in person — continues to thrive, as does giving. Other churches, however, weren’t (and aren’t) structured for online worship and giving. If they’re small enough to have plenty of room for social distancing, closing was maybe never a necessity.
#3: Treat reopening the children’s ministry as its own process
Churches with plenty of space — and an abundance of qualified volunteers willing to serve during COVID-19 — have been able to reopen their children’s ministries slowly. We’ve also seen hybrid models offering in-person and virtual opportunities for learning (having family fun boxes delivered, or kits with crafts and teaching materials for lessons at home).
In lieu of children’s ministries, some churches provide packets for children during the worship service if they’re attending with their parents.
For church leaders still navigating this challenge, surveying the congregation is a great start. Children’s ministries should have their own unique set of questions.
• Would you be comfortable coming back to work with children at the church?
• If so, under what conditions? (That we provide you a mask? That you know all workers’ and children’s temperatures are taken? If class size is limited?)
#4: Call your agent or carrier
As an agency, we specialize in insuring churches and represent many of the leading church insurance carriers. So, we can share some great, carrier-specific resources.
But more than that, many of our church clients appreciate our availability to just listen as they talk through their plan. While it’s never our position to tell a church how to do ministry and we can’t offer legal advice, having insured hundreds of churches for several decades has given us a unique perspective.
In particular, we encourage church leaders to talk to their insurance representative, now. They share your greatest concern: the moral and ethical responsibility to create a safe environment.
But of course, every church leader is human. As such, they’re also wondering: What happens if someone claims they contracted COVID-19, here?
We haven’t yet seen many actual claims to this effect, so it’s hard to speculate what the burden of proof might be. This might also be more difficult to determine if people coming to an in-person worship service are also going to the grocery store, sporting events, and so on.
Liability indicates negligence. That’s why we encourage churches to reach out to their agent or insurance carrier to help analyze their exposures and do all they can to minimize the risks. If a church feels they have a potential claim, it’s best to report it to their insurance carrier to determine if, and how, coverage will apply based on the specific details in a given situation.
This pandemic is a unique and evolving situation with changing regulatory and governmental response. As always, we need to extend grace within our churches and toward other churches.
Guidelines and guidance might shift with the virus, but the overarching goal will not: protecting the church family while advancing the Gospel.
Tips you can use now
Sanitize properly and frequently. Hand sanitizer, masks and gloves must always be available for staff, volunteers and attendees.
Minimize the use of pass-around items. This includes bulletins, offering plates and communion plates. Project announcements and lyrics on screens (with proper copyright licensing); encourage online giving or have places to deposit offerings at entrances or exits; use prepackaged communion elements; and avoid sharing equipment such as microphones.
Think through proper protocols to ensure social distancing. How should chairs be set up? Should pews be roped off? Also, be prepared with an overflow space if your sanctuary reaches the recommended capacity.
Communicate the plan to staff, volunteers, members and non-members who might attend. Offer additional training if warranted. Display signage that outlines expected safety protocols. And remember, it’s important that leadership sets an example in following the plan.