As churches begin reopening across the country, they are working to find the best ways to address a new challenge: how to maintain social distance while bringing back programming that is helpful for members, families and the community.
Segunda Iglesia Bautista, a Corpus Christi, Texas, congregation, began its return in late May. The church, which averages between 100 and 115 on Sunday mornings, can seat about 200 in its sanctuary, so they adapted to the need to social distance by blocking off every other row of pews, said Cyndi Jaquez, a former GuideStone® employee whose husband, Esteban, serves as pastor.
“Our congregation was cooperative with the new setup,” she said. “We didn’t require reservations because we knew we would be OK since the majority of our membership is over 60 and they would not be attending.”
Adjusting to new social distancing protocols, along with ensuring proper cleaning, are just two of the many new challenges facing pastors and church leaders, said Jim Welch, managing director of Property and Casualty at GuideStone.
“As churches reopen, they need to be aware that keeping people who live in different households six feet apart is still imperative according to government guidelines,” Welch said. “There are also going to be members who are anxious about returning to in-person gathering, so making sure we’re visibly doing things that help people see cleanliness — like hand sanitizer stations and wiping surfaces while people are around — can help calm some of those fears.”
To help aid churches as they navigate the re-entry process, GuideStone has assembled multiple free resources on its website. The resources include a road map to re-entry, a sample re-entry plan and a sample infectious disease plan. Additionally, GuideStone provides links to resources from Brotherhood Mutual, Southern Baptist entities, Baptist state conventions and outside experts for more guidance.
Churches can find tips on practical considerations, including how to handle bulletins, parking lot concerns, special services and even taking up the offering — something Segunda Iglesia addressed as soon as they started to gather.
Rather than passing the plate, they opted to place a special box at the entrance to the sanctuary for members to put their tithes and offerings, Jaquez said. The church also created some groups of church members who help sanitize the sanctuary before having services. They also added large bottles of sanitizer at the entrance of the building.
Another big adjustment they made was to their schedule.
“We are not having a Sunday evening worship service at this time,” Jaquez said. “We are also continuing to record the Sunday morning services and Wednesday Bible studies and posting them on YouTube and Facebook; that way those that are still not comfortable attending church can still enjoy the services online.”
Welch emphasized that in addition to worship services adjustments, like the ones made by Segunda Iglesia Bautista, including continuing to livestream for those members who don’t feel comfortable returning, churches should also make sure they are considering how to accommodate Sunday school or small groups.
“Many Sunday school rooms may be too small to allow for social distancing,” Welch noted. “We may also find some initial reluctance from members who are excited to be together again and don’t want to feel far away from one another. So it’s up to the church to enforce and normalize safety protocols. Providing space to keep people not in the same household at least six feet apart, along with wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and other safeguards can help bring people together again safely.” For Segunda Iglesia, the decision was made to combine and relocate some classes.
“We are planning to start Sunday school the first Sunday of July, and we are going to change it up a bit,” Jaquez said. “Instead of having the five Spanish classes meet separately, we are planning to have one Spanish class in the sanctuary and have the teachers take turns teaching. Our English class will meet in the Fellowship Hall. We only have one children’s class (grades 1 to 5) and one youth class (grades 6 to 12), and those classrooms are already pretty big. Doing it this way will help with the social distancing.
“We really think it’s important for the congregation to be involved in Bible study, other than just on Wednesday evenings. So adding back this portion of our ministry is exciting for us.”
Making the transition back to in-person gatherings is an important step, GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins said, but one that needs to be executed properly.
“The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we should not neglect meeting together,” Hawkins said. “So while we know every pastor must make the decision that is best for his congregation, and we would never tell any pastor what he ‘must’ do, we want to make sure that churches have the resources to make the best decision when they determine it’s the right time.
“This period of being absent from gathering with God’s people face-to-face has been a challenge for all of us, preachers and the congregation alike. We want to help our church bodies return to their church building as soon as it is safe to do so.”
The return to corporate gathering has been a blessing at Segunda Iglesia.
“The best part of being back in our sanctuary is being able to see our church family,” Jaquez said. “Steve and I really never stopped going to the church building on a weekly basis, but it has been wonderful to be back in-person with our church family.”
Roy Hayhurst is director of denominational and public relations services for GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention®.