How the rural church can help during COVID-19

March 18th, 2020
This article is featured in the Offering Hospitality issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

We won't soon forget these last few weeks. Universities have moved to online classes, the country faces an increasing likelihood of recession, school systems are closing, the NCAA tournament (which borders on being its own liturgical season in my house) has been canceled and entire nations are entering into quarantine.

It’s not surprising that churches are closing. After the rector of a church in Washington, D.C. that worships more than 500 tested positive for COVID-19, it’s easy to imagine how the church can be a place that fosters the spread of infectious diseases.

In rural communities, the local church has a special responsibility as one of the few permanent stakeholders. In communities where there are few anchor institutions, the rural church can serve a pivotal role in the community response to COVID-19.

After talking and listening to colleagues in rural churches, healthcare, education, and other fields, I've put together a few suggestions for rural churches to help their community during this pandemic.

First and foremost, rural churches should remember that they are trusted institutions. In a cynical world, where even national emergencies are debated along partisan lines, the rural church is still generally trusted. Now that COVID-19 is a national emergency, rural churches can be positive examples for cautious behavior and vital sources of information.

If you haven’t already, suspend worship services and activities for a few weeks. Many churches have already made this decision, but if you haven’t, reconsider. Even if your church worships only a dozen or two, rural churches tend to have more high-risk populations in their pews. By suspending worship, the rural church can model cautious behavior and help other members of their communities take current events more seriously. Communicate clearly the reasons why  to protect high-risk populations, to limit the spread, and because we have an ethical responsibility to prevent harm.

Second, remember that just because you suspend worship does not mean that your church should stop being the church. Have the pastor or a church leader call the local health department, local hospital or clinic and ask them what they need communicated in the local community. They may emphasize specific needs for your community that are going unnoticed in national reports. Share that information regularly through your phone tree, newsletter or email. This gives key health leaders an additional avenue for communication. And, because your church is a trusted presence, members are more likely to take this information seriously.

Third, establish a care team that makes regular phone calls (but not visits!) to those who are most susceptible to COVID-19. Many churches informally do this already, checking in on shut-ins, elderly couples and people with underlying conditions. In addition to checking on their health, these practices foster community when people are feeling isolated and lonely. Make sure they have necessary supplies and find ways to safely deliver them if needed.

Fourth, if your church has Wi-Fi or access to the internet, consider making that access public for the next few weeks. Many colleges are moving to remote teaching, and a number of rural students won't have access. Let local colleges know that your Wi-Fi is available for students who don't have regular access to internet in their homes.

If you have multiple Sunday school classrooms, you can allow students to spread out to continue practicing social distancing. At most, it will likely be only a handful of students using the internet at different times. Provide Lysol wipes so that students can wipe down surface areas before and after they use the rooms.

Finally, if you have a feeding ministry, remember that students who normally receive meals at school may not have access to nutritious meals if school is canceled. Just like many students in poverty go hungry during the summer, a long absence from school can create hardships at home. This can be exacerbated if parents have to take time off without pay in order to take care of their kids who are out of school. Remember too that some workplaces will close, leaving employees without pay for a few weeks.

If you have the means, consider launching your summer feeding ministry early, or even offer extra food. Make sure that the food you're providing is healthy, filling and has a long shelf life. Rather than have people gather in a central space to collect the food, offer a drive-through service or even home delivery for some. Consider including items like soap and feminine hygiene products, as well.

During pandemics, the isolation of rural communities can be a mixed blessing. It slows the spread of pathogens, but rural communities will more deeply feel the impact of fewer anchor institutions. This is a time for rural churches to step up in their communities.

Even when worship is suspended, Bible studies are canceled and choirs don’t practice, the rural church is an anchor institution that can provide meaningful leadership during anxious times.

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