Churches and COVID-19

St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, Boerne, TX

Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks as Americans come to grips with what much of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East have been dealing with for months. Coronavirus or COVID-19 is a global pandemic and, in all probability, is something that we will be dealing with, both socially and economically, for the next several months, at least.

This presents a series of interesting challenges and opportunities for faith communities*. To begin with, how do you maintain and even deepen your community if you cannot physically gather? If this event is over in a matter of weeks, then maybe it isn’t a big deal. But think about what you’ll have to do if it lasts for months or quarters.

You should be thinking about regular contact with your congregation through phone calls, emails, and post cards. In my experience everyone is simply hungry for information right now so over communicate. Under communication leaves people to wonder and worry. Also, don’t rely on one channel like Facebook. As effective as that, or any other medium is, you will have people in your congregation who don’t use it. If your parish uses small groups, enlist them as communication tools as well. Alternatively, if everyone in your congregation is responsible for communicating with and checking on two or three other families, you’ll be that much more ahead of the game. The point is you cannot take your normal means and cadence of communication for granted.

Your worship will need to change too. I know of congregations that sent out a Morning Prayer PDF to their members. I know of others that did Morning Prayer on YouTube. If you’re in a particularly small church maybe a worship conference call would work. There really is no wrong response other than no response at all. I would also encourage you to be thinking more broadly than just Sunday morning worship. How do you maintain mid-week Bible studies or youth groups? What about Mornings for Moms or the men’s fellowship? It is not only possible, but I would argue imperative, that you figure out how to keep these things going albeit in a different form than before. I know of several wineries that are doing virtual tastings. If they can figure this out…so can you. If you have no idea where to begin, start with ideas and resources the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas has provided HERE.

Another area where you will need to be creative and think like a risk manager is your parish’s finances. To begin with, people are used to putting their pledge in the offering plate and, as surprising as this may seem, may not automatically be looking for a way to make their gift if they’re not physically present at the church. Ideally you already have a way for members to make donations electronically. If not, that probably isn’t the first thing I would try to solve, but I would try to solve it. Explore Paypal or other online payment sources. You’ll also need to enlist whoever manages your website.

More importantly though, you need to remind your members of the importance of the offerings, not once but over and over again. Even when we can’t gather in person, your church budget is mostly fixed expenses that still have to be met. Insurance, utility bills, clergy salaries, and other expenses don’t just stop. So, remind your members of the importance of their gift and suggest ways they can make the offering like electronic payments, mailed checks, or checks dropped by the church office. This is an opportunity for you to teach about stewardship in a different way. Take advantage of it.

If the pandemic persists for an extended period you and your church leadership will also need to take a hard look at planned expenditures. I expect the economic fallout from COVID-19 to be deep and lasting. In all probability some of your congregation simply will not be able to fulfill their annual pledges. They want to and would if they could, but now they’re unemployed. Now their business is suffering. Now their retirement portfolio has lost a third (or more) of its value. Your parish needs to take a proactive approach to these risks and determine which parts of the budget, if any, can be postponed. Maybe an improvement project needs to be delayed. Maybe you can make that old copier that jams on every fourth page last a little longer. The point is this is an event which requires flexibility and adaptation across all facets of our lives, including the stewardship of your church.

I would encourage you also, to think about what your parish life will be like when we’ve passed through COVID-19 and things return to “normal”, whatever that means in the future. What do you want your church to be? What do you want your parish to have experienced? What do you want them to have known? Can you look back and know that you found a new way to live out your mission statement? At the risk of overstating this event, I think we could be in this phase of self-isolation or social distancing for many months. If we are not intentional about the outcomes we could find ourselves somewhere we never wanted to be. On the other hand, if we ARE intentional, we could find ourselves somewhere we never dreamed. Christ is in our midst, as He always is. Never despair, never fear, and never lose hope.

You and your parish are not alone. Reach out to other clergy and churches in your area. We’re all going through the same event and we don’t have to solve these challenges in isolation. Additionally, if I can be of assistance to you in any way, don’t hesitate to ask.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, sooth the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen – from the service of Compline, The Book of Common Prayer

*This post is written towards churches but the same principals apply for small businesses. You’re going to have to get creative to maintain and deepen your customer base. Feel free to use the contact form if you’d like to discuss a specific challenge with which you’re dealing.

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