This week, the Ontario government moved to Phase 2 of re-opening the province in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 12, 2020 additional businesses and services are allowed to re-open with appropriate social distancing protocols in place. This re-opening will be phased in with areas outside the GTA and the Greater Hamilton area opening first. The date for re-opening the GTA and Greater Hamilton areas has not yet been determined.
However, it appears that places of worship throughout in the province will be able to open this weekend provided that the buildings are filled to no more than 30% of capacity and with physical distancing protocols in place.
In May, our National Offices published a Session Resource on Re-Opening Church Buildings. It reminds us that while the government may allow places of worship to re-open, it is the session who makes the ultimate decision. It further identifies best practices for a safe re-opening.
As we consider the ramifications of re-opening, I would invite you to consider not rushing to get your doors open for the earliest date possible. While re-opening is good news, it should also be treated cautiously as we consider how we might re-open our churches safely and carefully. It might be better to meet as a session and come up with an individual re-opening plan that best suits your circumstances.
This conversation might include determining (among other things):
- Will there be one service, or more? How long will it be? How will you clean the church between services? How will you decide who stays if more than 30% come?
- Will there be music? Will you do away with bulletins and hymnbooks so people can’t touch them?
- Who will clean and disinfect the sanctuary?
- Will the bathrooms be open? Will their use be restricted? Who will clean and disinfect the bathroom following each use?
- Will elders or greeters need special training?
- Will you need masks, screens, wipes, and lines marked on the floor?
- Will your service need to be adjusted to include children given that nurseries and Church schools are not able to provide assurances of physical distancing among other concerns.
Many of our ministers will soon be taking summer holidays. What will you do about pulpit supply? I suspect most congregations might feel uncomfortable asking a preacher to come from another bubble to their congregation’s bubble. I believe many preachers will feel the same. Perhaps it would be worth waiting until your minister is back from any holidays before you move toward re-opening.
In other words, I am suggesting that it might be worth taking the time to make sure you get it right, rather than rushing to get the church open. It currently seems as though we have more questions than answers. As well, given that so many of our members are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, it might be worth waiting at least two weeks to see if Phase 2 brings about any uptick in cases. Finally, you may want to survey your congregation to see if they are even comfortable coming back to church, and if they are under what circumstances.
Many of you will know that Tori and I are huge Disney fans. Whenever Disney World opens a new attraction they always have a ‘soft opening.’ A ‘soft opening’ is the trial run that takes place before the actual official opening date. A limited number of people are able to go on the ride in small groups, often by invitation only, and all the bugs are worked out before the official start date. I wonder if it is worth considering a ‘soft opening’ for your church as we move to the next stage of life under COVID-19.
One final thought. My sister and her husband have been bringing my mother food throughout the past weeks. My mother decided that she wanted to go shopping for herself. She got to the store early, she was second in line, and once she got into the store she panicked. She felt rushed, she felt anxious, and when she was finished she had missed half the things on her list. For her, an activity that would normally be experienced as a fun distraction and a symbol of her freedom had become a troubling reminder of how the world has changed. You might find that for your congregation (and probably for you) physically gathering for worship might be more upsetting to members of your congregation as people are presented grim evidence of how different the world now is and how many things are not the same. It might be harder than we imagine.
Know that Tori and I are keeping you in our prayers and remain available to serve you in these days.
Blessings, John-Peter Smit
Regional Minister for Congregational Health, Synod CNOB
For additional reading
Ontario Government Statement:
Church Statement on re-opening:
This is the statement from the Alberta Government. The size of gathering numbers are not relevant to Ontario but the suggestions are.