Small Churches and Re-Opening Our Doors

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Six weeks into COVID-19-closures, I’ve noticed this last week that, at least in the clergy world, the conversation is beginning to shift to re-opening. And I get it – I will be thrilled when my kids can go back to school and church members will once again sit in the sanctuary! I’ve read several articles and guides that address when — and how — to reopen, a few of the most helpful ones which you can find linked at the end of this post. 

That said, most of these articles — including several I haven’t linked  — assume a certain size of congregation, worship space, and programming that aren’t true for many small churches… they certainly aren’t true at mine. These articles have nearly all come out of what’s often called Program-Size churches: they are large enough to have multiple staff and probably have a tech-savvy volunteer base, with active membership of 150-350. 
But what about Family-Size churches, those who average around 50 or fewer? Where do they fit into all this? Many times, these congregations are literally true to their name, and the backbone is a few generations of the same family, and most members are related in some way! That isn’t true in all family-size congregations, of course; the one I serve is in a large city and has lots of geographical transplants, though over the years they have become like family, spending holidays and meals together. 

Many family-size churches don’t have nurseries, youth groups, or multiple Sunday School classes… but do center much of the life of the church around shared meals — and lots of hugs. These small churches also tend to have a disproportionally high percentage of members over the age of 60, meaning that questions of health and safety need to be addressed in ways that take that into account. 

Small churches have been uniquely impacted by this pandemic, for we often lack social media teams and A/V equipment. These pastors have been propping up their phones and tablets on a stack of books to record sermons for their congregations for the past two months, without graphics and music. These are the pastors who watched the world move online, knowing that a good portion of their congregation doesn’t have access to the internet or smart phones, who felt overwhelmed at what suddenly “everyone” was doing, especially as the polished church-up-the-road is now just a click away. These are the churches that don’t have multiple committees and teams to coordinate – and to share the work of the ministry – but for whom a handful of people are the elders and the deacons and the Sunday school teachers and the janitorial team. These are the pastors who can literally name every household in the congregation and what their technology access is, and for whom family dynamics play a significant role in congregational dynamics. 

When close-down procedures first began, one of the first thresholds named by city and state officials was that “gatherings of 50 or more should discontinue.” I saw several posts on social media to the effect of “We’re under that 50-person threshold, so this doesn’t apply to us!” As these thresholds will be named once again as we re-open, I think it is imperative that we ask different questions that consider more than the flat number of people in attendance.

For example, one of the articles I read mentions how difficult it would be for a church of 2,000 to have 200 worship services of 100 people each… um, ahem, that is just not the question I’m asking. 100 people spread out in a building for 2000 would have plenty of space; 100 people in my sanctuary would be standing-room-only. That doesn’t mean we can skip these steps; it just means that the questions we ask need to be different. 

First, some basic assumptions:

1. We will not be back together until our states/local municipalities have lifted restrictions, and that we’ll continue to follow all guidelines and recommendations.

2. We will never — never — meet in the same way we did in February. There’s a lot more to say about this that can wait for another time, but the fact remains that there won’t be one day when suddenly things go back to the way they were. Regardless of what we do or don’t do online, our churches won’t be the same as they were before, for we are not the same as we were before. Re-opening will be a process, not an event, and the ways we gather will be fundamentally different. 

3. Just because we can meet doesn’t mean we should. If we as a congregation hold off on meeting in-person so that people are safer and healthier when they start to go to work, that’s a good witness for caring for the vulnerable and putting the good of others above the good of ourselves. 

I won’t spend time repeating the helpful questions named in the articles linked below, many of which are super helpful (particularly around passing the offering/communion plates, fellowship time involving food and coffee), but here are some other things that small churches, in particular, might consider: 

~ Are your church members committed to maintaining physical distancing guidelines? Whew. I’m going to let you read that one again. It is so difficult, and a tricky conversation to have with beloved church members. As Christianity is an inherently embodied, incarnational faith, being physically close to one another is something that comes naturally. Bearing one another’s burdens often looks like long embraces and hearty handshakes, especially in smaller congregations that function like family. It’s one thing to say “maintain distance” and entirely another to keep lifelong friends, who haven’t seen each other in weeks or months, from hugging. As hard as it is, this is a frank conversation pastors need to have with their congregations before making the decision to re-open. If we don’t, we run the risk of our worship becoming another superspreader event when we thought our community cases were in decline. 

~  If your space is larger than your congregation (such as those buildings built decades ago when attendance was around 300, and it’s now at 25…) and can easily sit spread apart during worship, what other arrangements need to be made around entrances/exits, restrooms, offices, and classrooms? 

~  If your space is small or right-sized for your congregation, do you have enough space to sit six feet apart by households in the sanctuary, even if the threshold of allowed gatherers is higher than your attendance? What about the other common areas named above? 

~ Are there traditions unique to the culture of your congregation that need to be addressed or changed when we begin meeting in-person? Maybe it’s circling up to hold hands for prayer at the end of the service, or passing a birthday card around for everyone to sign using the same pen. Many small churches have rituals and traditions that are important to them and unique to them, which are both incredibly meaningful and incredibly risky.

~ If there are weeks or months during which it is “safe” to reopen but people over the age of 60 are encouraged to stay home, are there people under that age who are healthy who are able to do the work of the church, such as being greeters, deacons, communion preparers, etc? Or are most of your volunteer roles filled by those who should continue to stay home? 

~ Do any of these answers change when you consider there might be visitors? A lot of small churches function as extended families, which means that best practices around things like sanitation and accountability (of finances, children’s workers, etc) sometimes get a little… murky. Because hey, we’re all family, right? How might you think differently if you imagined new people walking through your doors? 

~ Do you have a plan to communicate with people who haven’t yet walked in your doors? Small churches are often really great about sharing updates with current membership, because activating a phone tree and sending an email easily reaches everyone… but often overlook their websites, social media accounts, and outgoing phone messages, because we feel like “everyone” already knows. But in a world in chaos, there might just be people looking for this small-church connection for the first time…   

~ And more existentially… What is it that makes church “church” for your congregation? For many small churches, the sermon and worship is less important than the gathering — fellowship meals, coffee hours, Sunday School, etc —  … which has made stay-at-home orders excruciating. Chances are, people didn’t start coming or choose to stay because of our high-quality music production, or because our graphics were spot-on, or because our children’s programming had professionally-produced branding. How can we meet the needs of “church” while keeping each other safe during this time when so much of what’s important to small-church-members doesn’t translate well online? 

This list is clearly not exhaustive, but I hope will encourage your small churches to intentionally think through what’s best — and safest — for you. If you have other ideas of questions specific for family-sized churches, please comment below! 

 

Recommended Resources:
24 Questions Your Church Should Answer Before People Return

Returning to Church by Wisconsin Council of Churches

Letter to Christian Church in the Southwest, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), by Rev. Dr. Andy Mangum (this is my local denominational guidance)

 

* This blog was compiled in collaboration with Young Clergywomen International’s Pastoring Small Churches subgroup, with thanks to Revs. Breanna Illene, Alex McCauslin, Jessica Cain, and Niki Atkinson! 

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