Planning for pandemic worship

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

As churches gathered more frequently in person for worship, most leaders were disappointed by the gradual and limited participation. Worship planning is now more challenging than before the pandemic.  Here are some planning suggestions from the professors who teach liturgy and music practices.

Planning for beauty

Beauty is fundamental for worship. It is especially important for us to consider beauty when so many things we have relied on in the past to foster our awareness of beauty may not be available to us. Rather than focusing on what still cannot be done at this time, or cannot be done the way it had been done before the pandemic, worship planners may draw upon the diverse gifts of the congregation, including the gifts of children, to discover what can be done in worship to bless God and edify the church. This could be video, poetry, sculpture, painting, dance, fabric arts, audio-visual innovations, and graphic design—whatever can be offered that enlivens awareness of the beauty of God and God’s creation.

Planning with limits

The limits on typical worship practices during this pandemic are apparent. We must wear masks, and we must keep at least six feet away from people not in our own households. More substantial moments of direct physical contact required by some of our ritual actions should be preceded and followed by disinfecting hands, which makes such moments at least a bit more awkward. And because we know that substantially lower air replacement rates indoors increase the risk of transmitting the virus, we must continue to keep worship services indoors briefer than those held outdoors.

None of these limits substantially inhibits Christians from offering vital and vibrant worship. They simply still impinge on ways we had grown most accustomed to worship over time. After all, we do not have to sing, speak loudly, or even be very close to each other to worship “in spirit and in truth.” We could look at the limits we have as barriers, blocking access to some of our familiar pathways. But we may also look at them as ongoing challenges which, with the Spirit’s empowerment, can become a spring of creativity.

There will still be complaints about the limits we must observe. People will want to do what they had always done and what had felt familiar before the pandemic. Some of what was familiar may have resumed. There may still be a fourfold pattern of Entrance, Word and Response, Thanksgiving [and Communion], and Sending. Given a shortened service time, the value of each of these movements of our worship may become more pronounced, and the contribution of each to the whole much clearer. Or if your typical pattern of Sunday worship is built around preaching, singing, and prayer, you may spend more time on prayer itself and a bit less on preaching, and limit singing to soloists or carefullyspaced ensembles.

All of us will feel the pinch of the limits and the pang of longing for the more familiar. Yet now we are given a rare opportunity to revisit our long Christian tradition—the centuries of ways we had worshipped and prayed—even as we are experiencing more of the vast array of gifts of the Spirit among us through the adaptations we are making.

Safer worship, sacraments, and pastoral rites

For every worship gathering, advance planning and careful rehearsal of new or unfamiliar elements is key to doing a good job with leadership. Confident ritual leadership enables the congregation to participate confidently as well.

With the ongoing requirements of spacing and briefer services, there will still be a need for the basic movements of worship to do what they do with as much clarity and power as possible. None of our official worship books offers guidance for how to lead worship while wearing a mask or how to use hand sanitizer dispensers in a worship service. Yet, those of us who resumed in-person worship have learned to do both during the past year. We encourage all worship leaders to rehearse their roles while wearing a mask before each service. When leaders need to use hand sanitizer, we suggest they develop a calm, gracious, and consistent way of doing so, visible to all in the congregation. This allows leaders to model the proper way to use hand sanitizer, and it encourages the congregation to feel at ease with the practice.

The location of a worship service also matters for worship planning. The research on COVID-19 transmission has underscored this. Indoor spaces that are smaller with minimal air circulation and exchange are far more likely to foster transmission among unvaccinated people than larger spaces with more frequent air replacement. Outdoor spaces are almost always more safe for everyone. As you consider plans for in-person gatherings, therefore, keep both indoor and outdoor spaces in mind. It may be more feasible to gather for outdoor celebrations than indoor gatherings. And an airy fellowship hall or gym with lots of space and frequent air replacement may be a better place to begin indoors than a usual worship space. In short, use all available spaces to maximize the safety of those who gather for worship.

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Singing and music

Music is a gift from God given to all creation. It is a means of connecting with God and with one another, and of unifying our thoughts and understanding, our heartbeats and breath. Whether by singing, playing, moving, or listening, music is an integral part of the majority of Christians’ worship life. Praising the Lord is a scriptural mandate (see Psalm 150), and singing is a primary way most Christians have “praised the Lord” together.

However, we still face this disconcerting fact: The coronavirus is spread through breathing. Several recent studies have confirmed that forceful, sustained breathing, such as during singing by congregations or choirs and playing brass and wind instruments, pose a greater danger of spreading the coronavirus than ordinary speaking at regular volume, especially indoors, since air handling systems in most buildings, including churches, are not designed for the level of air replacement and filtration that make these activities safe. fullarticle/2779062

These findings lead us to recommend the following during the pandemic:

• Congregational and choral singing are possible outdoors, if it is safe to meet outdoors, and if all singers are masked, remain 6 feet from persons not in their households and 16 feet from others in the congregation.

• Singing by a soloist or a small ensemble (4 to 6 persons) is possible indoors, if it is safe to meet indoors, and if all singers are fully vaccinated, masked, remain 6 feet from each other, and 16 feet from others in the congregation. [MinistryMatter's editorial note: in one congregation, particpation in worship doubled in one week when the vaccinated and masked 30-person adult choir and 20-person youth choir spread out inside the sanctuary and made their first full appearance in 18 months. The families and relatives of the singers came back to worship too.]

• Congregations are free to participate with body percussion such as clapping, tapping their thighs, and stomping.

• Wind instruments may be used as solo or ensemble outdoors if covered with a bell mask. Wind instruments may be used as solo indoors if covered with a bell mask (https:// www.

• Non-wind instruments may be used, indoors or outside.

• Employ silence effectively. Consider using American Sign Language to sing a hymn or song silently.

• Keep up to date with ongoing research from reputable sources such as The Hymn Society of North America:

Preaching and prayers

Preaching and praying have been essential practices of public worship from the earliest days of the Church. It is hard to imagine a Sunday service without preaching and praying. However, since these actions involve the voice, they have the risk of producing aerosols (droplets that remain suspended in air) that can spread the coronavirus, especially indoors. With this in mind, we continue to recommend:

• Keeping services (including sermons) brief (30 to 45 minutes indoors, 60+ minutes outdoors).

• Encouraging all speakers to speak at a normal volume and, if possible, to use a wireless microphone.

• Adopting some standard gestures or using American Sign Language for brief liturgical responses.

• Teaching children these gestures to encourage them to participate. Refraining from loud congregational responses indoors.

• Projecting a full script of the service, including the sermon, for those who are hearing impaired if your congregation has projection capability.

• Wearing a mask while leading worship or preaching if indoors. If outdoors, worship leaders who remain at least 16 feet from all others may remove the mask while leading (but not singing).


Many of us experienced a long pause before we could share services of Word and Table (Word and Sacrament) in the fellowship of our congregations. Holy Communion can be resumed in ways that honor both distance and intimacy. At this time, if it is safe to gather in person, we believe it is possible to give and receive the bread and the cup, even if not in previously familiar ways.

Because the celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion necessarily involves brief breaches of physical distancing, we offer these possibilities for how it may be celebrated responsibly. When indoors, we recommend that the pastor and other servers take the elements directly to the people at their seats rather than asking the people to form lines. We do not want people to walk through aerosols produced by others to receive the sacrament.

When outdoors, lines can be formed maintaining six-foot distances between different household and everyone else. However, it may be simpler for the pastor and servers to bring the elements directly to the people at their seats.

We offer the following suggestions:

1. One person who wears a face mask and who has thoroughly washed or disinfected their hands before touching the elements and their containers prepares the elements and places them on the altar/table before the service begins.

2. The presider and assisting ministers wash their hands thoroughly or use hand sanitizer immediately before the Great Thanksgiving.

3. If outdoors, the presider, if fully vaccinated and at least 16 feet away from others, may remove the mask. If indoors, presider and assistants all wear masks during the rite.

4. The presider leads the Great Thanksgiving from at least 6 feet away from (and preferably behind) the Lord’s Table. The presider speaks at a regular volume to reduce aerosols. If possible, the presider should use a wireless microphone to keep hands free. The presider may approach the table briefly for parts of the rite that require touching or raising the paten, chalice, or flagon.

5. The congregation may say aloud the liturgical responses or unison prayers at a regular volume, or silently mouth the words to the liturgical responses and prayers.

6. The presider may be served the bread and cup as Church or local tradition indicates. If the presider receives first, the presider will use hand sanitizer again before serving others.

7. To serve the bread, the server may place the bread or wafer in silence into the opened palms of the one receiving, avoiding touching the recipient’s hands.

8. To serve the cup, a pouring chalice or flagon may be used to pour the wine/juice into individual cups that may be picked up at entry or placed at seats ahead of time.

9. Another assistant may prepare consecrated elements for distribution to those unwillingly absent.


Until the CDC has determined that a sufficient number of the population has been fully vaccinated, including children, we still need to wear masks when we gather in person with others, indoors or outdoors. Church gatherings tend to be longer than 15 minutes, which is enough time to transmit the virus between unvaccinated people. Even though persons who are fully vaccinated are at low risk, our worship gatherings are usually multi-generational and may contain persons who are not vaccinated or who are at high risk. We send a clear message that we care for the health of all our neighbors, whether they are vaccinated or not, when we all wear masks at our gatherings.

The exchange of peace

The Exchange of Peace is an important ministry of the church. Early Christians grounded its use as a means of reconciliation and blessing in the teaching and example of Jesus: Matthew 5:23–24

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” John 20:19 [O]n that day, the first day of the week . . . Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Throughout history, the sign of peace has taken on many forms—a kiss, a handshake, a hug. This sign of “reconciliation and love” includes both word and gesture as worshippers receive and extend to one another the gift of Christ’s peace.

We still need to maintain physical distancing in public worship for the sake of children and others who may be unvaccinated. So, while the words may be the same, the gesture must avoid physical contact.

We offer these suggestions for words and gestures:

• The presider may greet the assembly from an appropriate distance, speaking the typical words announcing the peace. This may be accompanied by a gesture of extending both arms to the assembly.

• Without speaking, the assembly may respond with a similar gesture to the presider, or say, at a regular volume, “And also with you.”

• When the congregation is invited to exchange the peace among themselves, they may do so without spoken words or physical contact using:

• A gentle nod, or even a deep, reverent bow toward one another.

• Signing the phrase “The Peace of Christ be with you,” with American Sign Language.

• A simple wave to one another.

• Crossing arms over the chest, as a symbol of an embrace.

• Teach children these gestures to encourage them to participate.

The laying on of hands

Churches use the laying on of hands in services of baptism, confirmation, healing, ordination, and consecration. This gesture in Christian worship is a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit and is essential to these rites, even though it requires a brief time of physical closeness and touch. At baptism, the minister or priest places hands on the candidate and prays for the work of the Holy Spirit. Prayers for healing typically include touching or laying on of hands by the one leading the prayer. A bishop lays hands on a candidate for ordination or consecration. In many communities the number of persons who touch others in each of these services has increased by local custom.

The need for physical distancing prompts us to make the following recommendations:

• All those leading and participating in such services wear masks.

• The ministers disinfect their hands in full view of the congregation immediately prior to the gesture and again after completing the laying on of hands.

• Only one person offers the laying on of hands for each candidate unless the ritual requires otherwise.

• Other persons may participate in the service from an appropriate distance. They may be asked to stand in place and raise a hand, palm down, pointed in the direction of the candidate or recipient during the prayers.

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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