News of the world-wide outbreak of coronavirus (COVID 19) might find pastors and congregations thinking about — or rethinking — congregational practices to keep congregational gatherings as safe as possible.
What are you and your congregations going to do differently, if anything?
How will guidelines be communicated and enforced?
We asked our Matriarchs to offer some sensible and sensitive help for best practices during this season.
We are not making any plans currently to change our practices; I would say our leadership (including myself) is resistant to adding to a sense of panic when it is unnecessary. I did see on another clergy page verbiage about passing the peace that their church puts in the bulletin emphasizing permission to hug and shake hands, and mentioning the gesture of hands crossed over the heart as a signal that the peace-passing should be verbal only for that person. The pastor who posted it noted that there have been more hands over hearts recently as folks concern over COVID-19 rises. Here is a link to a good article in today’s Washington Post about reasonable responses: How to Prepare for Coronavirus (I like the fact that they led with “Don’t panic”):
It has not come up within our leadership, and I, too, am reluctant to make this a big deal. If it comes up, we will deal discuss it and decide how to handle it.
Kathryn Zucker Johnston
A small group of leaders at my church actually researched this because someone mentioned “germs” being passed around as it relates to intinction (specifically fingers going in the common cup). What we found out was, the best bet for Communion (passed or intinction) is to do it by intinction and have large pieces of bread, handed to each parishioner by one person, and then they dip it into the cup. The piece of bread must be large enough that fingers are almost guaranteed to not go in.
Now, I don’t think we’ll make a major announcement as to why we’re serving Communion like this (we usually only do intinction in the summer), but I do think this is the way we’re going to serve it for awhile moving forward.
As for the passing of the peace, our congregation is well practiced in head bobs and elbow touches instead of hand shaking if someone isn’t feeling well.
Camille LeBron Powell
In my first call folks panicked with H1N1. We went to great lengths to figure out what to do for communion. What we learned is that just showing up to the church is the biggest risk. The rest is mostly common sense and psychology.
My current call actually has an emergency preparedness task force. They’re getting together to talk, guided by this resource from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance: Guidance for Congregations in response to severe infectious disease outbreaks.
Heidi Rodrick Schnaath
The concern may be greater this year but it never fully goes “quiet.” One thing that I think is important for people to hear is that in the passing of the peace it is the words that should be most significant. If we bless someone with the peace of Christ, there is great power in those words. Whether physical contact is made or not, should not overshadow our desire to proclaim that God is present for our neighbor.
It seems to me that this is a time to take a couple steps.
First, how prepared is your congregation and your leadership for any kind of disaster or emergency? Is there water and/or food at the church? Do leaders each have a list of members they are responsible for contacting in case of changes or quick information spread?
Second, it is a good time to remind people of general best practices. Wash your hands. Don’t shake hands or hug others if you’re sick or even when you’re feeling out of sorts. If you’re really sick, stay home for a Sunday. Respect other people’s boundaries- no hugs means no hugs. Check on the cleaning and sanitization of kitchen utensils, dishes, and surfaces. It may be a good season to go to biodegradable disposables and Clorox wipes (just for a while).
Third, check in with the people who are immune-compromised. Adults receiving medical treatment, people with chronic illnesses, parents of immune-compromised children, and caretakers of the very elderly and very young. What have their doctors recommended to them? What shifts in practice would make them most (or more) comfortable? Do they feel empowered and able to ask for what they need or to say no to what they cannot have at church?
Lastly, it is important to keep a level head in the middle lane- don’t wait until there actually is a problem. Don’t catastrophize. You are likely to have leaders who say “In my day, we all had Spanish flu and we liked it” and others who say, “We should probably all wear masks at church. stop singing hymns, and sit a yardstick apart.” The truth and the best practice is somewhere in the middle. God bless you as you try to seek that neutral good.
And, in the spirit of leading our congregations to act on reliable and current information, here’s the link to the Centers for Disease Control Coronavirus Information website.
Thank you, Matriarchs, for stepping up with this timely offering of helpful responses and information sources.
For you, our pastor readers: Do you have other resources or practices that help keep your congregation a safer space during flu season? Please share them in the comments below.
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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