Right now, we are in a time when mistrust could explode in our churches. We’ve been managing “re-gathering” phases, and I’ve noticed some common issues. While most churches have not opened yet in America, and the virus tallies are going the wrong way all over America, pastors are feeling high pressure to open the doors.
Some have confessed to me they’ve re-opened too soon. They were not pressured to do so by most of their members—who are still declining to attend. They were not pressured by the lay leaders in the church, who likely would come to reasonable decisions if given a chance to speak together.
Instead, the pastors have been pressured by a very few members who said, “If we don’t open next Sunday, I’m going to another church!” [The threats could also include, “if we don’t sing” or “if we have to wear masks.”] These same pastors also felt pressure from fellow pastors. “The church next door opened up, so I better, too. Otherwise, I’m going to be in trouble and lose members.”
All this to say that three churches I’ve worked with have called me to say they have exposed their church members to COVID-19 in their Sunday services. I’m not surprised.
Recently, a travel ban at my work was momentarily lifted, and I ventured out to help a church. The key leader had assured me that COVID-19 was virtually absent from his small town, and indeed, the whole county.
What I found when I arrived was quite different. The local hospital restricted access. Patients could enter, but others were stopped at the door—because the virus was active in their community. Eighty percent of the congregation stayed home that day, and those who attended sat far apart and many wore masks—because it was a risk to be there. In fact, before I left, the key leader casually told me his three children had all likely been infected because they had been VERY sick.
How you handle a breakout in your church will determine whether your church members can maintain trust with each other—especially with their leaders.
I cannot give out legal advice, but you may need it, so a lawyer should be at the top of your list. There are real liability risks at stake. Your insurance carrier likely can provide some guidance, too. There may be government assistance—and required notifications—in your area to pursue.
But I’m more interested in the ethical (and relational) issues. Think in terms of getting the word out to your entire congregation ASAP. That might be by Facebook, the church website, phone trees, emails, snail mail, etc. Let them know exactly the potential places of exposure and the date(s). This information will help the attendees determine, on their own, if they were exposed.
One of the churches posted the news on their Facebook page. The fourth comment asked, “How long has the church known that the first person tested positive?” I don’t think it was asked in an accusatory way, but it could have been. Either way, it was a legitimate question. A quick, thorough, and honest report can help protect the church’s reputation.
A question that will be on everyone’s mind is, “Who was it?” That information would help people better gauge their risk. I would hope those with COVID-19 would give signed permission for the church to share their names, as a matter of information, as a request for prayer, and to enhance on-going pastoral care. Try asking them, “Can we include your name so members will have a better chance of assessing their risk?” It might also be the infected people would be willing to share it on their own social media platforms, too … if they haven’t already. However, they may not want to be named. One infected person didn’t want to be named because he had been very vocal that the Pandemic was “fake news.”
Leadership will have to move into a practice of rapid decision-making about future church meetings. Should the church go into a two-week quarantine? Longer? Does the church need a professional disinfection? These will be important questions—but they can wait until AFTER the church has been notified of the potential exposure. I would push to get this notice out the same day of discovery, including “leadership will be meeting to determine the church’s next steps.” I don’t think you have to have it all figured out before you send out the exposure news.
Be prepared. “What if . . . ?” is a good question to ask in your church today.
*With apologies to those who like the misquoting of Martin Luther.