There was no way we could have known the impact COVID-19 would have on our parishes. But in hindsight, we can see clearly the path the virus took through our normal operating procedures, dismantling with ease the methods and processes we had relied on. Looking back, we can see the steps we might have taken months or years ago to avert the worst of this crisis.
As I write this, some diocese across our country are beginning to reopen churches for private prayer and, in some cases, public Mass. Some see this as a positive development that reflects the impact of our collective efforts to contain the virus. But while we might be tempted to assume that reopening will bring back all as it was, we might do better to take this opportunity to reflect on what the future might hold.
In hindsight, we can see clearly the path the virus took through our normal operating procedures, dismantling with ease the methods and processes we had relied on. Looking back, we can see the steps we might have taken months or years ago to avert the worst of this crisis.Tweet
It seems increasingly likely that mitigation strategies will be with us for much longer than we initially expected. In my own state, reopening will occur in phases, with large gatherings, such as we experience for weekend Masses, permitted only in the final stage. The length of these phases will be dependent on measurable variables like hospitalizations and ICU capacity, meaning limits will likely be present for as long as the virus is with us. To think that things will go back to normal in a few weeks or even months would be a mistake. Besides government regulation, there are other, more practical, challenges that we will face:
- Will there be limits on occupancy of our church buildings? Will we have to operate at some percentage of capacity for an extended period? How will that be enforced?
- Will it be safe for the elderly to return to campus? How will we replace the impact of lectors, ministers, and ushers who are at-risk?
- Will there be a second wave of quarantine in the fall or winter bringing renewed stay-at-home restrictions?
- Will larger parishes have to stay closed longer than those with smaller congregations?
And then we will have to reckon with how to create a contactless church experience for those who do return:
- Will interior and exterior doors have to remain open?
- Will choirs be able to sing together?
- Will we have to remove common touchpoints like hymnals?
- Will it be safe to have children’s ministry?
- Will we still be passing the collection basket?
- Will Holy Water Fonts and the Sign of Peace become things of the past?
- How will Communion be distributed?
I do not raise these questions to frighten or confuse. By asking now, when we have time to prepare, we can make sure the work of our mission is uninterrupted come what may. Until now, we’ve merely been reacting to the crisis. Now, we can look ahead and try, as best we can, to anticipate the steps we can take.
Reevaluate your content
“Content is king.” This golden rule of digital media means that your content is the defining factor to how people are paying attention to you online. Create systems and channels now where you can continue to publish creative and compelling digital content well into the future. For example, if you cannot gather children together safely on the weekend, consider turning your children’s ministry or Liturgy of the Word into a weekly resource for parents. At our parish, our children’s discipleship team collaborates on a weekly video lesson that is creative, funny, and compelling for kids. Distribution channels like a private Facebook group or weekly email carry this content to parents.
But, it’s also important to recognize that not all content transfers well to digital media. It would be a mistake to simply digitize what you used to do in-person. The 30-minute lecture that works for your Wednesday night Bible study crowd will probably not capture the attention of someone casually checking Facebook. But, a 5-minute summary, complete with visual cues and reflection questions, might.
Reevaluate how you use technology
Technology enables you to do more with less. Many parishes have noticed that online livestreams of services have attracted, in some cases, more people that would have stepped foot in their church on a given weekend. And they did it all with less effort, expense, and stress than a whole weekend of in-person gatherings.
Technology enables you to do more with less.Tweet
Although some view it as a stop-gap measure, consider continuing or even investing more into your livestreaming operation. When churches are reopened for services, there will still be a large part of your congregation that cannot attend. The elderly, the immunocompromised, and the sick will continue to stay at home. Livestreaming also has a large role to play in evangelization, which I have discussed in detail here and here.
Technology has a large role to play in creating contactless church experiences when we do open. Online giving can, and must, replace passing the basket. Music lyrics and responses projected onto a screen can replace physical hymnals and missalettes.
Reevaluate the way you hire and develop staff
The pandemic will likely have severe impacts on parish finances meaning furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts for lay parish staff – and I don’t want to make light of that. Each of those impacts real people with real families. But, over time, we will recover. We’ll be able to take stock of our finances and how our hiring decisions reveal our priorities in ministry.
When hiring for the future, we should value certain skills that like digital communication and aptitude with technology. We should also value certain character traits such as adaptability, flexibility, and grit. For existing parish staff and those who will be retained from furlough, we should provide ample opportunities for development of their existing skills with an emphasis on using technology in their current roles.
My friend Pastor Carey Nieuwhof writes, “Because crisis is an accelerator, it reveals and amplifies the weaknesses that were already there, and also accelerates trends that were emerging anyway. Crisis doesn’t create failure, it accelerates it. Crisis doesn’t create momentum, it accelerates the momentum that was already there.” (link)
COVID-19 didn’t create many of the changes we are seeing in the Church and culture. It only accelerated what was already happening. By preparing now, we can set ourselves up for success moving forward.
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There are a couple of questions on my mind:
1. How will churches handle rule-breakers? Right now, we have people defying one-way aisles and refusing to wear masks. So it’s not a stretch to think that some parishioners are going to try to defy any measure churches have to take. Clearly, pastors and staff are going to have to come up with a plan of action for what-if rule-breaking scenarios.
2. How will churches handle COVID-19 divisions? We all have strong opinions on COVID-19 an the measures taken. COVID-19 is going to be the topic du-jour for many days and is bound to come up. Because opinions are so strong and different and bound to come up in conversation, they do threaten to fracture church communities.