COVID-19 Response

Safe Church Reopening Guidance

Arkansas Annual Conference Guidance:
The Safe Reopening of Churches In Response to COVID-19

Our Christian Responsibility
When and how churches reopen is not primarily an issue of religious freedom or personal rights. It is a matter of love for God and neighbor. John Wesley’s first General Rule, “Do no harm”  compels those of us who are Jesus’ disciples shaped by the Wesleyan perspective to make sure that our personal actions do not harm others, even if we are not intentionally doing so. This means that we need to exhibit abundant caution and, for the foreseeable future, act as if we could infect those with whom we come into contact.

People trust their church, pastor and leaders. Therefore, it is incumbent that leaders act with common sense, wisdom and constant evaluation to make the right decision at the right time, especially since many participants are children or in an at-risk population.

State of Arkansas Guidance
Governor Hutchinson provided guidance effective May 4, 2020, concerning the safe reopening of in-person church activities. The Governor stressed that this is guidance and not a directive in order to respect the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, it is essential to note that the directives he has issued so far for various industry groups place very strict limitations on the number of people who can gather and how they may gather.

Churches vary greatly in size and complexity. There is no “one size fits all” plan for everyone. Smaller faith communities with limited activities may fully reopen sooner than larger faith communities that may take several months and involve both in-person and online activities. Faith communities in urban areas may take longer than those in sparsely populated communities. Some faith communities may reopen, only to have to scale back because of a surge in coronavirus cases in their community. Once clearance is given to re-engage, most congregations will not be ready to immediately return to being fully open. It will occur in stages; starting with smaller gatherings, then proceeding to medium gatherings and, finally, to larger gatherings.

Regardless of the size of the gatherings, it’s essential that appropriate safeguards such as social distancing, PPE and sanitizing be in place. If they cannot, it is not yet time to re-engage. Additionally, if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 in the state, or if there are cases in an individual congregation, activities will need to be immediately suspended until it is safe again.

In response to both the guidance and directives, Bishop Mueller will issue ongoing guidance utilizing CDC guidelines, the Arkansas Department of Health and advice from the Bishop’s task force that congregations are strongly urged to follow in the process of safely reopening United Methodist churches.

Critical Factors for Safely Reopening Churches

The safe reopening of churches will involve five interactive elements in the coming weeks and months:   

  1. Strictly following guidelines from the CDC and the Arkansas Department of Health
  2. Appropriate social distancing and sanitizing
  3. Cooperation from individuals who are symptomatic or in an at-risk population
  4. Awareness of the unique characteristics of the church’s context
  5. Constant evaluation of available medical data

Federal Guidelines The federal government has recently released guidelines for the reopening of the American economy in three distinct stages. For each stage to take place, certain criteria must be first met by state and regional governments. These criteria include:

  1. Symptoms
    • Downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) reported within a 14-day period
      AND
    • Downward trajectory of covid-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period
  2. Cases
    • Downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period
      OR
    • Downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period (flat or increasing volume of tests)
  3. Hospitals
    • Hospitals can treat all patients without crisis care
      AND
    • Robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing

The safe reopening of churches will involve three stages and each stage will commence when appropriate medical guidance indicates it is safe to do so.

  • Stage 1: Activities involving groups smaller than 10 if appropriate safety measures are undertaken, including social distancing and sanitation. This will allow for small gatherings, Bible Study and accountability groups, and worship in small congregations. It does not, however, authorize church childcare, children or youth activities.
  • Stage 2: Activities involving groups smaller than 50 if recommended safety measures are utilized.
  • Stage 3: Activities involving larger groups. Although this stage allows for much greater flexibility, it will be essential to continue to practice safe and responsible gatherings.

United Methodist churches in Arkansas have demonstrated creative innovation in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. This same determination and willingness to adapt in these unprecedented times will enable them to thrive and serve their communities. The following guidance has been developed to help every church in Arkansas, no matter the size or location, stay safe and stay healthy before, during, and after we gather together again.

Please keep in mind that this is a very fluid situation, and federal and state guidelines might shift as more information becomes available. This document acts as a starting point and will be updated as we are given more directives from our state and federal governments.

General Guidance for Safely Reopening Churches

The following guidelines provide the minimum steps that must be taken for the safe reopening of in-person activities.

Part 1: Creating a Local Relaunch Team
Before we can gather together again, it’s important for every church to assemble a Relaunch Team that will help the transition from physical distancing to in-person gatherings go as smoothly and safely as possible.

  1. Decide who should be a part of your church’s Relaunch Team
    • The team should consist of diverse leaders from your church including, but not exclusively:
      • Pastor(s)
      • Leadership Team/Administrative Council Chair
      • Lay Leader
      • Trustees Chair
      • Worship Coordinator
      • Medical professionals who are members of your church
      • Childcare Director
      • Other professionals who can assist in areas where expertise is needed (information technology, human resources, communications, etc.)
  2. Your Relaunch Team will be in charge of key aspects of determining how and when people will be able to return to your church building for in-person events:
    • Determine which areas of your church will need to be prepped, cleaned, and sanitized before people can return.
    • Ask for input from your congregation about what will make them feel safe when in-person worship can resume.
    • Determine how key aspects of worship, such as Communion, Baptisms, the Passing of the Peace, Tithing, will be administered while staying in line with guidelines from the federal and state government.
    • Develop a communication plan that will help to spread information quickly and efficiently to your congregation (social media, mail-outs, emailed newsletter, etc.).
    • Stay up-to-date with guidelines from the federal and state government, the Center for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization and determine how these guidelines will affect people returning to your church for worship.

Part 2: Staying Safe When Gathering Together

  1. Physical distancing
    • Masks should be worn by everyone at all times by anyone over 10 years of age.
    • A minimum of six feet social distancing should be strictly enforced in all in-person church activities, except for family groups.
    • Handshakes and hugs are not allowed. Encourage participants to find other ways to greet people, such as air high fives, waves, peace signs, etc.. Meet and greet times should be moved outside and should involve at least six feet of social distancing.
    • Clergy, staff and laity in leadership positions should wear *PPE.
    • Lines for entry/exit should be monitored at all times for proper social distancing.
    • Continue online streaming of worship and other events.
  2. Sanitation
    • Hand sanitizing stations should be at every entrance.
    • All surfaces should be wiped down, including door handles, classrooms, common areas, restrooms, pews, Bibles and Hymnals, keyboards, tech equipment, etc.
    • Remove items that could be touched by multiple people such as pens, Hymnals, Bibles, information cards, etc.
    • Provide adequate supplies for healthy hygiene behaviors, including soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, tissues and no-touch trash cans to everyone.
    • Disinfect church offices every day.
    • Provide masks (and gloves as appropriate) for those who need them.
    • If possible, take temperature readings of everyone coming in or out of the church building.
    • Temporarily eliminate areas where people gather and/or physical interaction is necessary, such as a coffee/snack bar.
    • Ensure that ventilation systems are working properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible (keep safety for small children in mind with open windows).
    • Strongly discourage use of community water fountains.
    • Make sure those who are most vulnerable to the virus, including people 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions, are taken care of, and, if possible, are reminded that they are still safer at home then in areas where people are gathered.
  3. Signage
    • Signs should be clearly posted at every entry advising that people should not enter the building if they have had recent fever, symptoms or contact with patients who have tested positively for COVID-19.
    • Signs should be posted at every entry advising that people should not enter the building if they are a member of an at-risk population.
  4. Youth, Children’s Ministries and Childcare
    • No classes for youth, children or childcare.
    • All church weekday childcare programs are encouraged to follow the guidance of the bishop and cabinet as to when churches can safely begin to reopen.
    • Remember that plans to reopen a church childcare program – including the date to reopen – are the responsibility not only of the childcare governing board but also of the church board of trustees, who have the responsibility for managing liability and for making sure that all church facilities are used in a safe and responsible manner.
    • In order to reopen, the childcare board must
      1. develop a plan showing how they will implement the latest COVID-19 guidelines developed by the Arkansas Department of Health (currently April 8, 2020)
      2. demonstrate the ability of the childcare program to implement the plan
      3. have the plan reviewed and approved by the church trustees.
    • Safe Sanctuary policies should be reviewed and volunteers should be reminded of these policies as plans are made for transitioning back to in-person programming as a shortage of volunteers is a possibility as high-risk adults will remain home. Some changes in policy may need to be considered in order to reduce the possibility of spreading infection (e.g. one person checking all children in rather than parents sharing a device or pen.)
    • Vacation Bible School programming should not be in person this summer.  Churches are encouraged to find alternative methods for VBS.
    • Guidelines and procedures for deep cleaning and regular sanitizing of all space used for children’s ministries should be developed prior to in-person events and programs re-starting.
    • Establish plans for registering or accounting for children expected to attend in-person events and programs in order to limit the number of children and adults according to space size.
    • No matter what phase of reopening Arkansas is in, all church ministries and programs, including childcare, should follow CDC guidelines for sanitation, safety, size, and social distancing.
  5. Employee/Staff Safety
    • Make sure all staff members are following sanitation guidelines.
    • Provide masks and gloves for all in-house staff.
    • Consider staggering days where employees are in the office and limiting working hours to half the day.
    • Provide extended work at home possibilities
    • Offer flexible leave policies
    • Consider employees with children at home because of schools that have been closed.
  6. Mental Health Care
    • Consider those who have lost income themselves or have a spouse/partner who has lost income.
    • Be considerate of children  who have been home from school or daycare and their parents.
    • Be considerate of those who are still afraid of contracting the virus or giving it to a family member.
  7. Drive-In and Outdoor Worship
    • Churches may continue drive-in or outdoor worship utilizing strict social distancing and the wearing of masks.
  8. Miscellaneous
    • Food service should not occur in Stage I and should be highly restricted in Stage II. If refreshments are offered, they should be offered outdoors only in pre-packaged or bagged containers and no buffet or family-style shared dishes are permitted.
    • Signage about appropriate safety precautions should be prominently displayed through the building.
    • PPE* and thermometers (when possible) should be available.

Part 3: Preparing for ReLaunching Indoor In-Person Worship

  • Strict physical distancing guidelines of at least 6 feet of distance between everyone will need to be followed at all times. Space seating for those who do not live in the same household to at least 6 feet. If possible, mark off pews to limit the number of people who are able to worship in-person.
  • In order to minimize close physical proximity, the sanctuary should be loaded from front to back, and unloaded from back to front.  Congregants should not be allowed to sit where they wish, but instead be directed to the next available row, beginning at the front row.  At the conclusion of the service, each row should be dismissed individually, beginning with the back row.
  • Items that can be touched by numerous people should be removed from the sanctuary.
  • All worship participants and leaders must wear masks.
  • When a worship leader or pastor is speaking or singing, he or she does not have to wear a mask, but must maintain a distance of 12 feet. Onstage bands must be spaced accordingly. No choirs or congregational singing are allowed at this time (please see this CDC article regarding a recent infection of a choir group that had one COVID-19 positive person).
  • If the church offers multiple services, congregants arriving for the next service will be asked to remain in their cars until the previous attendees have left the facility and the sanctuary has been sanitized.
  • The Sacrament of Holy Communion should be served in ways that are safe in the pews.
  • The Offering should be received in a safe manner. Consider online giving, a stationary giving box or postal mail.
  • Continue offering options for online worship for those at-risk populations and those who do not feel safe returning to worship.
  • The Sanctuary should be sanitized after each use.
  • Treat all indoor in-person gatherings (weddings, funerals, support groups, etc.) with the same guidelines as for worship.

Part 4: Planning for Ministry ReLaunch
Although this uncertain future will one day be over and we will be able to resume church as we knew it before, we need to take what we have learned from this experience and make our churches and ministries stronger from it.

    1. How has COVID-19 made you think differently about how you worship?
    2. In what ways have you grown in your understanding of technology and the many benefits of Zoom, Facebook, online giving, YouTube, etc.
    3. How has your mission strategy changed because of the coronavirus pandemic?
    4. How will you prepare your church for a potential second wave of COVID-19 infections or future crises that force you to change how you worship?
    5. How will you continue using Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, etc. as a way to connect with your church members who are unable to attend your church service in person due to various health or physical limitations?
    6. How will you continue keeping your church building free from the spread of viruses or bacteria that can harm the physical well-being of your church members?
    7. Which programs or ministries should be re-evaluated to better serve the needs of your congregation and community?

Part 5: Legal Advice 
Michelle Ator, Chancellor for the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, has provided COVID-19 legal advice for trustees.

In accordance with The Discipline, The Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church cannot direct the actions of the trustees of a local church. In the strongest terms, however, the Conference urges all local church leaders to make themselves familiar with Arkansas Department of Health and CDC guidelines and to put them into practice immediately, if they have not already done so.

Local church trustees are reminded that The Discipline provides that subject to the discretion of the charge conference, they have supervision, oversight and care of all property of the local church. Under Arkansas law, this includes the responsibility to see that church premises are used in a reasonably safe manner. Trustees are urged to take reasonable steps to maintain the health of staff, members and visitors, including following current guidelines with respect to COVID-19 precautions.