Leading churches

Reboot: A Guide for Returning to Church Gatherings

Part 4 in a series on leading through COVID-19

Note: This article was originally published in Alejandro Mandes' e-newsletter on April 21, 2020.

I serve as an elder at Northwest Community Church (EFCA)—and second-language church, Encuentro (EFCA)—in San Antonio. At our last elder meeting, we discussed the potential of reopening when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. After the meeting, I scanned the internet for information on “restarting church,” but most of what I found fell into one of two categories:

  • Christian proclamations of doom, judgment, blame and political Machiavellianism
  • Resources on how to meet online, how to collect money, how to shepherd, etc.
We can't just assume we’ll open the doors and pick up right where we left off.

Everywhere I looked, I found nothing of tactical relevance to restarting, so I decided to start my own list. I shared that list with a few people, incorporated some additions and landed on 12 points of emphasis.

Even as life seems to approach “normalcy” again, it’s critical pastors and elders communicate the priority of their congregation’s safety during the restart process. This transition needs to be well-thought-out, simple and, above all, safe. Of course, preparation will vary depending on church size and local mandates, but the point is to think. We can't just assume we’ll open the doors and pick up right where we left off.

Below is the guide I created, with the help of a few others, to help churches prepare for a restart. Within your local context, feel free to adapt it as you see fit:

  1. Communication: Send an email to your congregations—not just to say, “we’re open,” but to outline your plan for the transition process. Remind your church of how you’re prioritizing their health and safety. Include some (or all) of the next 11 steps in your communication.
  2. Deep clean: Before you reopen, make sure to do a "deep clean" of your entire building—bathrooms, carpets, fellowship areas, tables in classrooms, nursery equipment, etc. In doing so, you remove a potential obstacle to gathering while showing love and concern for your congregation.
  3. Make a social distancing plan: Some questions to consider: Will socially distant seating arrangements require more services? Should we put up signs to remind people about distancing, masks, no touching, etc.? Should we ask volunteers to make masks at home to share with the congregation?
  4. Equip your church with supplies: What should you order now to have on-hand by the time church reopens? Be proactive and think ahead to avoid another potential run on masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, etc. Make a shopping list and order several weeks ahead.
  5. Recruit and train counselors: During COVID-19 and “stay-at-home” orders, we’ve seen a spike in mental health issues around the world. Prepare for those in your congregation who may be traumatized, distressed and/or anxious by recruiting and training counselors to listen and help people transition back to “normalcy.” If you don’t have the resources to recruit/train your own mental health professionals, raise funds for members to seek help from local counselors in your area. [pullquote] Consider the shutdown as a God-given opportunity for missional evaluation. [/pullquote]
  6. Emphasize prayer: Prior to reopening, during the services and into the future, dedicate time, effort and people to praying for the wisdom and discernment of your leaders and the health and safety of your congregations. Organize a prayer team for people to submit needs and specific prayer requests.
  7. Make a plan for children's ministry: Questions to consider: Should children’s ministry start right away? Is it better to keep children with their parents? What about nurseries? If classes and childcare do resume, make sure to maintain proper distance at tables, provide easy access to handwashing/sanitizers and masks, and sanitize tables, chairs and equipment. Before starting, it will also be important to inform and properly train your children's ministry staff.
  8. Update food/drink policies: Will snacks/drinks be offered right away or should these be phased in? To start, you may want to advise people to bring their own travel mugs/thermoses.
  9. Revise order of service: Outline instructions for greeting people (no handshakes/hugs, greeters/ushers wear gloves to hand out bulletins), offering (Will you still pass the plate?), counting money (Will treasurers/volunteers wear gloves?), communion, etc.
  10. Provide advice for small groups: Questions to consider: When and where should groups begin to meet? Should food be served? Should masks and gloves be worn? For groups with children, how should childcare be handled?
  11. Care for those who remain "shut-in" or isolated: Questions to consider: Who should visit them? Who can deliver supplies and food? Who will take them to the doctor? Will you continue to livestream services for those not yet comfortable attending church?
  12. Recalibrate your mission: What has God said to you in this time of physical separation? In the wake of this pandemic, we can’t assume everything will continue as in the past. Consider the shutdown as a God-given opportunity for missional evaluation. Are there things you should stop, fine tune or start in light of new and future paradigm shifts? Do you need to re-evaluate the use of resources (people, money, talent, facilities)?

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and life re-approaches “normalcy,” the Church has a great opportunity. It's time to tap into the parts of our church that have been fallow ground. As leaders, we need to understand that believing we will “pick up right where we left off” will only set us up to fail. Rather than looking for the new normal, let’s provide a safe, flexible plan moving forward and recalibrate our ministries to lead, not react.

Let’s equip the diversity of people in our congregations to step up and help us plan and adapt.

It’s time to utilize the gifts of the church body and empower people of “secular” skills (medical professionals, law enforcement, process thinkers, business minds, etc.) to serve our congregations and communities. Let’s equip the diversity of people in our congregations to step up and help us plan and adapt. Those who previously didn’t see where their “regular” jobs fit into the body now have the opportunity to save the church.

It’s time to reimagine church. Let’s not look for the new normal. Let’s tap into the other side of church we have allowed to be fallow.

The harvest is not coming; the harvest is here…now!

For the first part in this series, read “In Good Company” by EFCA West District Superintendent Tim Jacobs. For the second part, read "5 Ways to Lead Through a Crisis and Into the Future" by Bill Riedel, EFCA Board of Directors and lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church (EFCA). For the third part, read "Contending For Community After Quarantines Lift" by Jennifer Kvamme, student ministries catalyst at Centennial EFC (Forest Lake, Minnesota).

Alejandro Mandes

Dr. Alejandro Mandes is executive director of the EFCA All People Ministry. He and his wife, Julie, attend Northwest Community Church (EFCA) in San Antonio, Texas. 

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