How rural churches can plan to reopen

May 20th, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Currently, the largest debate in our country is whether or not — and how — to reopen our seemingly dormant communities. Colleges and schools are making plans for the fall, balancing a desire to return to normal operations with a desire for safety. Government leaders, meanwhile, are shaping policies for restaurants and businesses that encourage both safety and a desire to limit economic fallout. 

Churches, too, are having to make plans to reopen. Already webinars and blogs are sharing helpful questions that churches should consider. Regional and denominational leaders are creating guidelines for churches in their areas. Likewise, the CDC has issued detailed guidance that congregations would do well to heed.

As always, though, context matters. When planning their next steps, rural churches should pay close attention to how rural communities have been impacted by COVID-19. 

The reality is that for many rural communities, the worst of the pandemic has yet to hit. Because of their built-in physical distance, rural communities are usually spared the initial brunt of any virus. But this shield only lasts for so long. Once the virus enters, it can stretch the already thin health care in many rural places, overwhelming local hospitals. While the coronavirus spared rural America in March, April brought an eightfold increase of cases to rural America

This is potentially exacerbated by a number of factors. City-dwellers wanting to escape hard-hit urban areas can overwhelm smaller communities, as grocery stores and hospitals are ill-equipped to handle the increased population. In my own town, people drove from more than an hour away to our small family-owned store when the nearest cities ran out of certain products. 

The industries within a rural area will also have an effect. There is often an erroneous assumption that “rural” is synonymous with “agrarian.” In reality, the USDA classifies only about 20% of non-metropolitan counties as farming-dependent, concentrated in the Midwest. Other communities might be dependent upon mining, manufacturing or even recreational tourism. 

The myth that rural communities will be indefinitely safe because everyone lives on vast farmlands is not borne out. Instead, manufacturing communities are currently seeing the fastest rates of infection in rural America, as plants begin to open and a large number of people are concentrated in small spaces. This, of course, disproportionately impacts low-wage earners and people of color. 

All of this means that rural church leaders need to ask themselves a different set of questions as they begin planning their own reopening policies. 

First, rural congregations should remember that, even though they haven’t yet felt the impact of COVID-19, rural communities are often hit later, with the effects lasting longer. Just as the fallout of the Great Recession lingered in rural places after metropolitan areas had recovered, the effects of COVID-19 will linger as well. How will the church respond to these delayed effects, even after COVID-19 no longer dominates national news headlines? 

Second, churches must pay attention to the industries that support their communities. If the county is driven by a large number of manufacturing firms, for example, how might the church care for those working in the plants while protecting vulnerable populations in the community? 

Third, churches in rural communities should be comfortable making decisions based on local data. While everyone should follow CDC guidelines until they are lifted, rural congregations might see a need to reinstate physical distancing guidelines or alternative forms of worship well after urban areas have resumed in-person services. Pastors should begin having these conversations now with lay leaders, and reach out to health care leaders. 

Finally, rural church leaders should be mindful that they are examples to the whole of the community. As responses to COVID-19 begin to be politicized, church leaders have to remember that rural churches are some of the few trusted, permanent anchor institutions. Wearing a mask and practicing appropriate distancing guidelines sends a signal to the entire community. 

The good news is that the rural church has always been an adaptable institution. Already, we’ve seen how rural churches in areas without internet have adapted to worship, moving to conference calls and mailed devotionals. We’ve seen how these churches remember the importance of pastoral care and find unique ways to care for all of their parishioners.  And, we’ve seen how these churches are finding ways to be in mission, sewing masks for local hospitals and partnering with schools to deliver food to members of the community. 

The need for adaptive leadership will not disappear in the months to come. While leaders can hope for the best, they should also prepare for the worst. In the rural church, that means paying attention to the ways our rural communities are uniquely impacted by this pandemic.

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