Communication is the key to any relationship whether we’re talking about a business partnership, a marriage, or a pastorate. That’s especially true in a crisis. Even though it will soon be approaching four months, this coronavirus pandemic still qualifies as a crisis. Now more than ever, we need to communicate and maybe overcommunicate.
One of the things this crisis has made even more evident, in addition to the racial disparities in infection rates and healthcare access, is the digital divide. Not everyone has access to the internet, and even if they do, they may not feel comfortable using the internet to access online worship services or feel the need to check their email more than, say, once a week. There are probably teenagers who fall into the latter category, but it’s more likely those other generalizations describe the older generations that make up the majority of our church members. How are we communicating with them?
When things first shut down in March, many churches divided up their congregation among their session members or deacons and asked them to contact the members on a regular basis. Hopefully, that’s still happening. As time goes on, though, that’s likely to slide or get put off. Every week becomes every two weeks, then every month, then I can’t really remember when I last talked to them. That’s human nature. We don’t want to leave these people behind. How can we help them feel included, and what steps can we take to help the people who have been worshiping with us online feel more included and begin to consider themselves a part of the church?
As church resume in-person worship, our cleaning routines and precautions can begin to slide as well. We start talking to someone in the parking lot and the facemask becomes uncomfortable so we take it off, or the conversation becomes animated and we forget about social distancing until we’re standing right next to each other.
Pastors have an important role to play in communication, but really, sessions do too. It’s not just the pastor’s decision or the pastor’s responsibility to contact church members, enforce appropriate protocols, and make decisions about when to resume in-person worship. It’s important for pastors to choose their language carefully when making announcements about these things in order to reference the session’s role. It’s also important for session members to take responsibility for the decisions they have made and choose their language carefully as well, so they don’t just blame or give credit to the pastor. We’re in this together. Together, we have to let people know what decisions have been made, where things stand, and if we haven’t taken this step, when we’re going to revisit when it’s going to be appropriate to resume in-person worship.
Another important decision to make and communicate is what is it going to take to suspend in-person worship once you’ve decided to go back? How many people have to be infected in your congregation, in the county, in the state? What’s going to be the tipping point? It’s better to make that decision ahead of time and communicate that to your church members rather than look back with regret about how many members got sick because we just kept plugging along.
The recent outbreaks that have been traced to churches in West Virginia should give us all pause. Yes, we can make fun of them because they weren’t being all that careful or careful enough. Just having masks along with a bottle of hand sanitizer available on a table at the entrance to the sanctuary doesn’t help if you don’t use them. They thought they were doing enough and doing the right things. The same could be said of each of our churches. My fear is that eventually this is going to happen in one of our churches. I don’t relish the fact of getting that phone call, seeing that email, or hearing about it on the news.
Starting Wednesday (July) 1, we are going to start to reopen the Presbytery office. We’re planning to alternate who comes in when so that only half the staff will be there on any given day. Some of us will also be taking vacation during the month, so I would encourage you to phone ahead to see if the person you want to talk to in person is actually going to be there before you drop by. It’s not that we don’t want to see you; we don’t want to disappoint you or waste your time. If things go well, we’ll resume a more normal schedule in August. We too need to decide what our tipping point is going to be and what it’s going to take to shut down the office if one of our staff gets infected or if there’s a spike in cases in Kanawha County.
These are challenging times. These are difficult decisions. We’re better served and we make life easier on all of us if we communicate what we’re doing and keep people connected as we go along.