Some government authorities have begun allowing churches to meet in-building. You may want to share this decision with board members of whether and how to regather as a church in your building. Click on the 5 questions to evaluate the pros and cons.
5 questions to ask first (Click to open)
As a church leader, ask yourselves five main questions which may challenge whether this is the right direction for your church at this time. Each question will have a fuller explanation below.
- Does your congregation sense compelling net benefits that align with the church’s long existing values (example) to return to in-person gathering that is not met by online, drive-in, or socially-distant small group options? You, your board, and your reopening team will need value-directed enthusiasm to make wisely through the lists, work, and pressure, all adapted to your church and community culture.
- The CDC recommends that the only safe way for attendees to meet in an enclosed room is if ALL present wear a mask. This is especially true with singing greatly increasing airborne transmission, and non-compliance affects liability. Wearing masks means they will hear themselves, which for non-musicians might not be as pleasant. It’s hard to offer appealing activities for kids. Considering the inherent limitation on quality, will attendees still value having in-building church over other methods?
- Entire households with even one elderly, immunocompromised, obese, smoker, hyperactive child, or without adequate health insurance should not participate. Despite some missing, is it worth part of the church still meeting in-building?
- Your church’s greatest audience may continue to be those who will not come to an in-building service. Can staff and volunteers still effectively engage them via online video or other means? Can you still effectively convey a message of “both these spaces have value” and “both of these are going to church”?
- Are you willing to keep attendance and notify local health officials if anyone who has COVID-19, and then to ask attendees of that service to get COVID-19? (If not, health officials would have to broadcast warnings to community, which is bad marketing for church and inefficient for health.)
If your answer to all five questions is “Yes” then your church could consider re-launching in-building services. Here’s a sample announcement for that. If there’s reservation, you could send out a survey (sample), or consider less frequent in-building events.
If you answered “No” to any question, continue to build up drive-in church or online church, online small groups, and socially distant outdoor small groups or visitations. For most churches, these other methods are the most effective way to engage their church and community during a pandemic, and it can make it easier for a transition when communities start attending larger in-building events again (such as high school sports). These churches (and even entire denominations) decide to wait until they can provide a better experience in-building than they can online or other current methods. Here’s a sample letter for deciding to wait.
Once you review the content of this page, take some time to write out potential risks and questions you would want to address before relaunching in-building service. Also here’s a video sample of a cautious invitation for feedback before a decision is made. This gives an opportunity for additional needed volunteers to step up.
Any plan should communicate how it cares for vulnerable people within your community, how it serves newcomers, and the need for flexibility.
Why require facemasks for all attendees? (click to open)
CDC guidelines recommend that all attendees wear facemasks while meeting in-building to help limit virus transmission through air (via aerosol particles) while singing. Read these links to learn more:
- “The virus can remain viable and infectious in aerosols for hours.” (New England Journal of Medicine” (1) “Those droplets 1-4 microns in diameter are called ‘droplet nuclei’; these remain suspended in the air for very long periods and may not only travel long distances, but can reach the lower respiratory tract. Inhalation of droplets and droplet nuclei places virus in the upper respiratory tract, where it may initiate infection.” Vincent Racaniello, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Columbia,
- “The virus can float in the air and be picked up later by an unsuspecting passerby. The virus has been observed to survive in an aerosol form for up to 3 hours.3 Thus, singing and church choirs may be the worst practice one can participate in. Everyone needs to be wearing a mask, saving the N-95s (viral filtering) for healthcare workers, and using cloth or DIY masks for the public.” Kevin Kavanagh, MD
- Infection rate: COVID-19’s R0 is no longer 4, but 5.7 (per CDC) “The distance of spread from a sneeze has been estimated to be up to 27 feet.” 1 Other studies on COVID-19 infection via aerosols.
- Masks work well only if everyone in the room wears them. Those that do not wear a mask in a church and sing are potentially infecting others. The mask does less to protect the wearer, and more to protect others. Anyone can make masks.
- “Research suggests that nearly half of infections are spread by people who don’t even show any symptoms, and thus they probably don’t know they’re ill.” 1
Not only is wearing masks recommended in public spaces, the church is unique from grocery stores and other public buildings. People sing in churches like few other places. Singing disperses air in closed rooms like a cough. Infected air particles collects in room, hang in air, and track on feet.
If a church plans on singing, then the church should require everyone in that room to wear a mask, even a homemade mask. (DIY instructions) If someone comes without a mask, the church should provide them with a mask or not permit them to join for in-building service. If they refuse to wear a mask or cannot wear a mask, they should watch the service from home. Any concerns around non-compliance should be handled by church staff. The church aims to provide a safe and caring environment.
Some church members may complain about needing to wear a mask. Some may complain that it is not enough protection. Entire Christian denominations (generally mainstream or liberal) have chosen to forbid singing even with masks, due to potential risk even with masks. “Research shows that even a cotton mask dramatically reduces the number of virus particles emitted from our mouths—by as much as 99 percent. This reduction provides two huge benefits. Fewer virus particles mean that people have a better chance of avoiding infection, and if they are infected, the lower viral-exposure load may give them a better chance of contracting only a mild illness.” 1
You need to watch the results of churches that have required masks, and to watch for local spikes in COVID19 infection, to properly measure the risk. Your church may need to pivot forward or backward in the types of meetings you have.
If your government and weather permit, it is safer for attendees to meet outside, sitting on their own lawnchair or blanket “The virus seems to have a half-life of ~60 minutes in an environment with generally low humidity and no direct sunlight. Half-life means that after ~60 minutes half of the virus is dead or ineffective. In another ~60 minutes, half of the remaining would be dead or ineffective, and so on.” (commenting on White House cited research) “Singing, the Church, and COVID-19: A Caution for Moving Forward in Our Current Pandemic” by Dr. Heather R. Nelson, Ph.D.
Considerations those who cannot wear mask
CDC recognizes that there are some people who cannot wear a mask (“young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance”) For those people, a separate non-singing room could be set up with video livestream for households with members who cannot wear masks to stay socially distant and enjoy the livestream. This separate room should not allow singing, so that preschoolers and younger who cannot keep a mask are not at more risk of infection. Masks are optional for preschool and under.
If you have nursery, consider how to clean and separate children. Parents must ensure that their children maintain 6 feet distance from children of other households. Parents should bring crafts, games, or screens (with headphones) to entertain their children during service. Or the church can provide fun kits with these supplies.
Also, encourage attendees to be extra caring to senior members and children. Many will just want to hug and shake hands with everyone. Though you have to be firm on social distancing, you can make sure to engage in conversation.
Masks for platform personnel
It is possible for pastors and music directors to sing with a mask with a wireless microphone without muffling the sound. This pastor points out that a mask does not impede the sound anymore than a pop filter would.
After worship leaders sing on stage, it is possible for airborne particles to hang in the air for up to 3 hours. So those taking the offering or preaching in the same space would need precaution. The other benefit of platform personnel to model the wearing of masks is that it makes it easier for other attendees to follow the example and wear their masks, which will then be more inviting to some people who would not come unless all wear the mask there.
(A non-mask option) It could be possible for the pastor to preach behind an elevated drum shield and not use a mask while preaching. Either the video quality would be a little less, or the pastor would need to preach for an additional service looking directly into the camera, which is a preferable option for at-home viewers anyway.
Continue to serve at-home viewers
Record video of the services and make it available to them. Ask even healthy people with older or immunocompromised in their household to not attend, preventing spread. Expect that your at-home audience may exceed your in-building audience. So your online engagement is most important, and will be the way that even visitors interact with your church before participating. You may want to even have a separate pre-recorded service for your online audience, where you face the camera. Then have a volunteer engage with the audience when it broadcasts online.
Prepare or find a new believers course and growth class online to recommend to visitors.
Make a social media schedule of content to post daily. Do not worry about saturation! During a strained period, the church needs to hear from their pastor regularly.
Prepare your response plan
Consider your plan if someone reports to you that an attendee has contracted COVID-19. Envision a situation where you get a phone call from the contact tracer from your state’s health department notifying you that one of your Sunday AM service had an attendee with COVID19. You need quick action.
Here’s how to prepare:
- Require each attendee to register (eg. online in advance). This allows you to collect their contact information and sign an waiver. Take down their name, contact information, and seat location. Record contact information of at least one person per household.
- Then seat people from front to back rather than letting them find their own seat. Maintain a seating chart to know where everyone is seated.
- Designate a person besides the lead pastor to maintain registration and seating process. In case of COVID-19 spread, allow this person to interact with public health department, and to assist in contacting attendees to ask them to self-quarantine.
- Knowing the seating location of each attendee also allows you to make intensive cleaning prior to subsequent services.
Keep in mind that the larger your church service, the higher your risk. If even one attendee is diagnosed COVID19 during the following week, then all attendees would need to self-quarantine. The larger the crowd, the higher the chance of a massive rash of self-quarantines. So 300 people attending an in-building service would be twice the risk as 150 people attending.
Disclaimer agreed at registration
At registration, attendees should check that they agree with guidelines and disclaimer (sample disclaimer/waiver 1, 2). This could include something like “while our church takes measures to clean … all public places with multiple households congregating have an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19. COVID-19 can cause to severe illness and death. Even one person infected following the service would necessitate all attendees to self-quarantine. By visiting [church name] you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19,”
Prepare for social distancing during entire service
From the moment someone leaves their car to come into church until they drive away, you should make sure that every attendee has the space to participate without need to get closer than 6 feet to another other person.
- Ask those who wish to attend to register in advance on your church website or app. (sample) Update the content of your website. 1. 2 Free registration using a ticketing online software gives reassurance to families who have spent extra time to break their habit and come to church. They would then know that they will have seats, and not need to wait for another service with more capacity.
- Seating: For churches with pews, that means preparing signage guiding attendees to sit 6 feet apart from members of other households. This may mean using every 3 pews. It may mean setting blocks of chairs per family. Some blocks would have 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 chairs, to allow for various family sizes. Before service, ushers would seat attendees front to back to eliminate cross traffic. The usher would record where each family sits in the room. At the end of the service, ushers should dismiss each household by row from from back to front, so that households exit through designated doors to eliminate cross traffic.
- You need to make a good guess of how many people can safely fit in your church building. This may mean that you need to schedule multiple services with fewer people to attend each. You would give attendees the option of which service to attend. It may be good to invite seniors to the earlier service.
- You may want to prepare a few blocks of seats for visitors who do not understand that they needed to register. Have spare facemasks to offer them.
- In larger men’s restroom, block off some urinals so those who use the rest of the urinals do not get more than six fee apart. For smaller restrooms, station a volunteer to ensure that only one person uses that restroom at a time. Volunteer sanitize/clean bathrooms between uses, including all surfaces and doors. Have sanitizing wipes in the bathroom, and have hand sanitizer available as people exit bathrooms.
- If your Christian tradition allows, put communion elements at each station of seats, so that household members can take communion at announced time. Include a bulletin (could include song lyrics), offering envelope, and pen. Handle each of these items with mask and gloves. All these items must be disposed after service, and the pens disinfected. If you don’t want to use bulletins, you could make sure announcements are viewable on a designated webpage, an email, your projector, and/or an auto-response via text.
- Allow limited time for conversations before and after service. Only allow people to come in 15 minutes before service starts. They should stay in their vehicles until parking attendant invites them. Ask that as they come in and leave, they maintain six foot distance from others. Some may find it appropriate to shorten or simplify service in certain parts.
- Demonstrate 6 foot distance on the platform and reinforce via video during online registration. Give permission for people to say “6 feet” or some codeword to request others to back up. Otherwise, it might be too embarrassing for some. You can use humor to lighten.
- Make walk-through video showing doors propped open, and someone waving, but no shaking hands. Showing the offering drop off. Showing no more hospitality. Where they sit, and other requirements.
- Avoid using a choir or musical ensemble. Use soloist or strictly limiting the number of musicians or choir members. Keep at least six feet between individuals, and try to have them not sing towards each other.
Prevent unnecessary touching
- Along with masks, they should bring their own Bibles, hand sanitizer, water bottles, and their own mobile phone or tablet to check Bible passages and take notes. Visitors should sanitizes these devices after they leave.
- Remove coffee bar, offering plates, access to playground and water fountains. Close down coffee lobby, unused rooms and hallways to reduce the ability to congregate. When you open them in future, make sure to clean all water systems adequately to prevent health risk.
- Prop open the interior and exterior doors, so attendees to not need to touch the handle. Greeters should stand inside in a place that still allows attendees to stay six feet away.
- Trash cans should require no touching.
- Set up offering containers at easily visible locations for donors to drop in their offering. Label them as “Offering” or “Tithes.” Consider whether they should be locked boxes that donors can insert offering without touching the container. Some may prefer to have an usher watch over an unlocked box, or an offering plate placed up from for a limited time. An offering envelope should be available at each seating place per household.
- People of different households should not hug or shake hands. We will wave, smile, air hug, etc
- All prayer should be done without touch. People can pray from at least a six foot distance for members of different households.
- Provide sanitizing wipes for kiosks and mark social distancing perimeter/lines at kiosks. Encourage people to use their personal devices to register attendance and give.
- If food is offered at any event, it should come in pre-packaged boxes or bags. It should not be served unpackaged from open dishes to people of multiple households.
- Do not plan to have Children’s Ministry until the local school systems offer school of the corresponding ages.
- Prepare signage on topics like
- How to use your mask
- “Closed for use” on drinking fountains and coffee areas
- Social distancing instructions
- How to wash hands
- Please use disinfectant wipe to clean kiosk after use.
- Invite feedback to maintain a safe, non-touch experience
- Commons signs and symptoms associated with COVID-19. This should remind that people can still be infectious without showing signs or symptoms.
People who should stay at home
- Those with a fever, or any symptoms of cold, flu or Covid-19.
- Those who had contacted people Covid-19 in the last 14 days.
- Those whose households have older or immunocompromised.
- Those who have difficulty to maintain social distancing.
- Appoint, announce and support volunteer coordinator and assistant. They should make sure that they have cell phone numbers of all volunteers.
- Have all volunteers sign off on waiver and the church preparedness plan.
- Schedule virtual meeting to discuss process, and rehearse potential issues and how they should be dealt with.
- Assign specific staff and volunteers to interact with potential COVID-19 attendees. Train them on precautions.
- Set up a streamlined method for people to make suggestions. (eg. designated email)
- Prepare them to be both firm with social distancing requirements, but also serve with humility and selflessness for people who dislike rules or are scared of others breaking rules.
- Train volunteers and staff how to handle non-compliance with safety policies (eg. lack of physical distance, refusal to wear masks). Help them to understand their limitations to enforce and when to contact coordinator or staff.
- Provide them on the website a list of common signs and symptoms associated with COVID-19
- Show volunteers where to get spare masks and how to hand them to attendees without contamination.
Procedures for volunteers
- Check the temperature for all volunteers as they check in.
- Ask all volunteers to model social distancing and follow hygiene guidelines.
- Get protective equipment to provide to volunteers as needed for all ministry assignments (masks, gloves, etc.).
- Regularly disinfect all common and high use areas.
- If the greeter has to leave their position, they must remove or replace their gloves before they touching anything else. If they return to their position, they should put on fresh gloves.
- Each staff who speaks or sings have their own designated microphone.
- Offering buckets should be held out with extension rods to maintain social distancing.
- Before services starts, increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible by opening windows and doors. You can use fans that sucks air from inside to outside. Do not open windows and doors if they pose a safety risk to children using the facility.
Prepare volunteers to clean
Make a list of every item that would be touched during a service in Sanctuary, non-closed lobbies, bathrooms, doors and ushers room. Instead of using tissue boxes, put tissues into zip-able packets. Disinfect them in between uses. Between services, volunteers should sanitize all areas that have been used. Throw away all remaining tithe envelopes and tissue packets from the Sanctuary. Gather pens and place in a bucket to be sanitized later. Put out new tithe envelopes and pens after Sanctuary has been sanitized.
To prevent transmission through chairs, here are several options:
- Spray Lysol on chairs if it doesn’t damage. Other options here.
- UVC light (not yet tested for COVID19, proven for flu, other viruses 1) source 1
- other cleaners and for wood surfaces 1
- electrostatic disinfectant sprayer (explanation) 1
The duration of time between services determines whether liquid cleaners with odor (bleach water) can be used.
Practices leading up to first relaunch day
- Pick a consistent way to describe this day. Some use relaunch, re-enter, regather, welcome back, welcome back-ish, reconnect and rejoice.
- On day before meeting, send email to give update that ensures whether or not the meeting will still happen. Communicate any changes.
- On early Sunday morning, send a text message providing update and any changes.
- Ensure that your staff will have no financial incentive to hide sickness. Set up flexible sick leave and flexible policies for them to work from home.
- Arrange back-up staff or volunteers to take over roles of each staff if health issues prevent their work.
- Direct staff at higher risk for illness towards virtual participation if possible.
- Review and mitigate the normal practices of the staff and volunteers that might cause unneeded risk.
- Appoint a staff member to answer questions and feedback on COVID-19 from media, congregation, or community.
- Once everything has been done to make sure giving is easy as possible for each person, can you project long-term trends of giving of tithes and offerings.
- What are additional expenses? (eg. cleaning supplies, new ministry expenses) Can those items be donated?
- What are areas of budget reduction, or can be deferred until later?
- If extra expenses are needed, can those be done without congregational vote.
- Prepare an online donation campaign. Include milestones and incentives to help your church. Behind the scenes, rely on phone calls, described here.
More questions and resources to consider
Here are two lists (1, 2) with 48 questions for you to consider. Each church should consult their insurance company, legal counsel, church network leadership, and risk management experts in developing their guidelines. Make sure to comply with local, state and federal regulations. When you have decided on your place, set out your guidelines on your website. (example)