As the Coronavirus has become a reality in Ohio, a number of pastors and church leaders have begun seeking our guidance to help congregations take steps to keep their church families safe. The following recommendations or ideas may help you as you plan for the next few weeks.
• Protect senior adults and people with other health issues. They are probably the group that is most at-risk at this time. As much as they love being with the church family, it is important to give them your blessing to stay home and be safe during the danger period. If they are not among you in person, please organize a process to check on them regularly (that doesn’t involve in-person visits) to offer encouragement, to be sure they have the supplies they need, to check on their health, and to make certain they are eating each day. The church is a good safety net in times of trouble.
• Protect everyone by limiting personal/physical contact. Most obviously, avoid shaking hands, holding hands during prayer, hugging, etc. Waving may be a better means of greeting each other or passing the peace in worship. Avoid home visits, nursing home visits, and hospital visits except for urgent situations. A number of congregations that have decided to continue worship have cancelled activities such as Sunday School, youth and children’s ministry activities, church dinners, conferences, etc. so that people actually have less physical contact. Ask people who don’t feel well to stay home for their own protection and for the protection of others.
• Make changes in the way you serve the Lord’s Supper. Many churches have decided to wait until after the most threatening period has passed to serve Communion again. This is a disappointment to the family, but it is better than being exposed to the virus as the plates and trays are prepared or passed. Some have chosen to use the sealed communion cups that contain both the juice and bread in a single sealed unit. These are challenging to use, but they are safer than open cups and bread trays. Of course, this is not a time for using a common cup, a single loaf of bread, or homemade communion bread, as is the custom in many congregations.
• Keep facilities clean. Use disinfectants that specify they will kill the Coronavirus. Provide cleaning supplies in easily accessible places at the church so that they may be used on tables, light switches, door handles, restrooms, and other places in the church building that people touch with their hands. Of course, all cleaning supplies should be kept out of the reach of children. Make hand sanitizer available in public areas and encourage its use. Disable or put up signs on drinking fountains so they will not be used.
• Be aware of the information and directives coming from our state’s Governor. He is being recognized nationally and commended across political party lines for seeking good counsel from medical personnel and taking a proactive approach to address the Coronavirus concerns in Ohio. The available information is changing quickly, so keeping abreast of the public information is helpful. While the Governor is issuing orders for nursing homes, hospitals, schools, universities, etc., he has been careful only to make recommendations to churches, honoring the separation of church and state. He has ordered that groups of more that 100 should not assemble. This order isn’t binding on churches, which have the right to make their own decisions about meeting. But you may want to consider the concern that the assembly of large groups increases the possibility that the virus could be shared more readily and widely, even when their purpose is worship. Some larger (and smaller) congregations across denominations in Ohio have cancelled worship and other church activities for two to three weeks. Others have decided to continue to meet for worship, but have cancelled other activities and meetings. Still others are utilizing electronic means to bring people together in spirit but not in person.
You and your church leaders are the ones who best know your congregation’s needs. We encourage you to prayerfully consider the best answers for your church’s care, safety, and assembly during the next few weeks. The two of us would be happy to help you if you have more specific questions you’d like to discuss. We are in prayer for the people of ABC/Ohio as you go through this challenging and uneven time in life and ministry.
Rev. Mark Click, Executive Minister for Administration and Denominational Relations
Rev. Jane Gibbons, Executive Minister for Program and Ministry Development
American Baptist Churches of Ohio