Guidelines for in-person worship

This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Most if not nearly all congregations have resumed some form of in-person gatherings. Some congregational coordination teams have turned their focus to helping people in their communities schedule appointments and help with transportation to get vaccinated. 

The challenges to in-person worship now are a little different. We see at least seven that will require ongoing attention.

1. STAYING THE COURSE

Many people are growing weary of ongoing limitations, such as wearing masks, no congregational or choral singing indoors, shortened services, and no “coffee hour.” We encourage church leaders, lay and clergy, to work together to encourage vaccination as it becomes available and to help their congregations stay the course with these necessary limitations for the common good.

2. DEALING WITH RESISTANCE TO BASIC PROTOCOLS

Some people in our communities or congregations may be resistant to following basic health protocols, such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distance for the sake of those who are not vaccinated. You will want to have a plan for gently reminding persons of such requirements to participate in in-person activities, and for inviting them to return when they are willing to follow them.

3. DEVELOPING IN-PERSON CONNECTIONS FOR THOSE ONLINE

During the pandemic, many in our congregations have become accustomed to online services and classes available on demand. Such online, on-demand offerings have helped some congregations reach people they would not otherwise have reached.

However, online “presence” has not been available for all people, leaving some with little or no way to remain in touch with the life of their congregations. As the pandemic wanes, your leadership and pastoral care teams will want to find ways to maintain online offerings and to develop other opportunities for in-person sharing for those who do not have access to computer technology.

4. VACCINATION AND PARTICIPATION

Congregations will face difficult decisions regarding how vaccination status of individuals may affect who is able to participate safely in various activities of the local church. These decisions are fraught with the social realities in our communities. Many persons lack access to the tools they need to schedule a vaccine. Others may lack flexibility in their employment, forcing them to choose between getting a vaccine or keeping their job. These realities disproportionately affect people who are poor, people of color, and people who are in rural areas where access to medical care may be limited. Furthermore, some individuals continue to be hesitant to receive the COVID vaccine for reasons that are deeply personal as well as social.

Just as congregations may come to different conclusions regarding public gatherings, congregations may make faithful, if differing, decisions about whether some ministries may be open only to persons who are fully vaccinated, while others may be open to all who are willing to follow basic safety protocols, or whether in-person gatherings will be delayed entirely until all can safely participate, regardless of vaccination status.

Our core principle is that, at all times, Christians will seek to act responsibly in the exercise of their faith as they fulfill their obligation to love their neighbors as themselves. Christians will refrain from judging the witness of others as long as others are not endangering the common good.

5. VACCINATION FOR CHILDREN AND FAMILIES

New variants of the coronavirus are now affecting children more seriously and at much higher rates, but vaccine availability for young children may be unavailable for some time. Children are an essential part of our congregations, as are their families. We see the harmful effects of isolation on the physical and mental health of children, as well as on their social well-being. When in-person gatherings are otherwise possible, we strongly encourage congregations to find creative ways to include children through in-person opportunities, even if only for brief interpersonal encounters following CDC guidance.

 

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6. FATIGUE IN CLERGY, STAFF, AND OTHER LEADERS

Many clergy, staff, and other leaders have faced higher levels of physical and especially emotional demand during this pandemic than at any other time in their careers. Levels of conflict and dissatisfaction within congregations have generally increased, and clergy and staff have sought to address all of it while nonetheless leading through uncharted waters. The results have been corrosive for congregations and exhausting and in some cases mentally and physically damaging for those who can once again lead them. (https://livingchurch.org/2020/11/25/stress-compounded-for-clergy-inpandemic/) We encourage clergy, staff, leaders, and congregations to acknowledge the reality of mental fatigue and physical exhaustion, especially as they navigate the transition to a new post-COVID normal. We should develop and implement processes for clergy, staff, and leadership renewal so that when we can gather in person, those who lead will be able to offer healthy leadership.

7. RIDING OUT THE STORM

As vaccination coverage increases, we are hopeful that COVID-19 will continue to wane over the coming months. We encourage congregations to remain cautious, to follow the basic public health protocols, and to make decisions about congregational gathering and activities based on sound data, which may vary from week to week.

Congregational leaders, such as a COVID-19 coordination team, will want to develop a communication plan about how worship and other ministries of the church respond to local and regional condition as the pandemic will probably linger to some degree for many months. While we encourage as much inperson gathering as possible given the health conditions, a clear communication plan will enable your congregation to understand the need to “ride out the storm” of the pandemic with patience. For love of neighbor, following the teachings of Jesus, let us commit ourselves to be part of the solution to this public health crisis.

This article is excerpted from CARE-FILLED WORSHIP AND SACRAMENTAL LIFE IN A LINGERING PANDEMIC, available as a PDF for download.

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