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Pastoral Response to the Novel Coronavirus

by on March 10, 2020

The longer one serves in the pastorate the more one discovers how inadequate seminary training is. This is not the fault of the seminaries, but rather the multitude of demands on the pastor. In addition to everything else, these past weeks have added anxiety management to our roles as pastors.

As pastors, we have to listen to give people a chance to express their anxieties. We have to respond to them from a pastoral perspective which is sometimes in tension with the biblical or theological perspective. It is helpful to be knowledgeable about whatever it is about which people are anxious, so we are constantly keeping up with politics, economics, social dynamics, psychological development, and health matters.

Any of these topics can disrupt the church’s life, but in my years as pastor nothing has required a greater responsiveness as the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and its related disease COVID-19. Here are some of the ways we are responding at my church.

First, it is important to remind the congregation of best practices for preventing the spread of any virus. These include:

  • Limiting physical contact. During this time we will encourage substituting other rituals of friendship for hugs and handshakes. Popular alternatives are elbow bumps, toe taps, or gestures of peace. We may need to discontinue the “sharing of the peace” all together.
  • Regarding the offering, we may do a passive offering, that is, not passing the plates hand to hand throughout the pews but having people place prayer requests and financial offerings into a receptacle as they depart or on the way to Communion. If so, then the musical offertory becomes a time of prayer and reflection as our musicians offer their gifts for God’s glory and our edification.
  • Not touching one’s mouth and nose. We will remind people of this and model it as best we can.
  • Regularly washing one’s hands for twenty (20) seconds with soap and running water. Demonstrating this could easily be a children’s sermon. We will be including regular times of twenty-second pauses during prayer (the confession, the intercessions, contemplation, as examples) to get people familiar with how long that is. Hand sanitizer is an alternative but less preferred option.
  • Maintaining six (6) feet of distance from anyone coughing or sneezing. Pastors can model this if we sit with other liturgical leaders. It is important to give people permission to practice this without fear of being judged. But it should be necessarily rare because . . .
  • People should stay home if they don’t feel well. We will tell people this through pastoral calls and newsletters. We will remind them to prepare for this self-quarantine by having fourteen (14) days’ supplies of food, petfood, water, medicines, and prescription drugs on hand. And we will remind them to let someone in the congregation know.
  • Disinfecting commonly touched surfaces. Our custodian does this regularly. Our kitchen and nursery users will be encouraged to spot clean following use. Coronaviruses are spread between people through droplets that are airborne and inhaled, or touched and then transferred to the nose or mouth. It is helpful to keep in mind that by the time our pews, hymnals, Bibles, pencils, etc. are used by a second person, the risk of contagion is gone.
  • When one coughs or sneezes, do so into a tissue and discard the tissue immediately. Alternatively one may do so into one’s sleeve or elbow. We will increase the availability of tissues and trash receptacles throughout the church. This would be less of a problem if people who don’t feel well stay home.

During past flu seasons we have heard concerns about Communion, which we celebrate each week. Here is some guidance on this most important Christian ritual.

  • We serve the bread by breaking off pieces from a large store-bought loaf. This is the most sanitary way to serve bread. In this case, only three people touch the bread before the members of the congregation: the person who bakes, the person who prepares communion, and the server. We can trust bakery regulations and our preparer to wash their hands, and prior to handling the bread our server conspicuously uses hand sanitizer.
  • We will tear longer, thumb-length portions of bread to make it easier to grasp and dip into the cup.
  • We will no longer place the bread into the open hands of people. Instead we will hand the bread to them (fingers to fingers). This avoids the bread carrying any germs from their hands to the cup.
  • What about cutting bread in advance? There are too many variables. Do we know the knife was cleaned properly–not only the blade but also the handle? Do we know the cutting board was disinfected? Have these been stored in a clean environment? Can we ensure those before us do not touch our bread cube when they retrieve their cube? For these reasons tearing the bread as we do it is more sanitary.
  • Additionally it’s important to maintain the sacramental significance of sharing one loaf.
  • We serve the cup through intinction, that is, dipping the bread into cups of wine or grape juice. Serving the cup in the manner we do is the most sanitary way we can do it. (There is a more sanitary way, namely with silver chalice, wine, and wiping between sips–as the Roman Catholics do–but our congregation will not tolerate that. And it doesn’t work with grape juice, which we are required to have available, because unlike grape juice, wine acts as a natural disinfectant.)
  • The most compromised situation our method risks is if someone inadvertently dips their fingers along with the bread into the cup. Adults and children both do this on occasion by accident. It is less a concern with the wine than the juice for the reason above. We hope to avoid this by tearing longer pieces of bread.
  • Another other option we’ve considered is the use of “pouring chalices” which have a pouring lip. The server tips the chalice and pours the contents into a communion cup. This helps avoid fingers in the wine/juice, but see below.
  • What about individual communion cups? As with pre-cutting bread, there are too many variables. Someone, perhaps more than one person (given the labor intensity, which is significant) has to touch each cup on its rim. The wine and juice are handled more frequently and through more surfaces (pouring into the squeezer, squeezing into the cups). People’s fingers touch other cups when they pick their cup out of the tray. If taking from a package of cups to receive with a pouring chalice, the same thing happens. Given that it’s better to have more than enough than not enough, it’s wasteful of wine and juice; and those plastic cups are bad for the environment. Do we have reusable glass cups. Yes, but washing them is labor intensive and also bad for the environment.
  • There is a theologically suitable practice that may help alleviate some people’s concerns. In the middle ages the Roman Catholic Church came up with theological justification for “communion in one kind.” This refers to receiving the whole Christ in only the bread (they were interested in withholding the cup from the laity). The Reformers rejected this practice, but the theology still holds. So in years past I have taught this to the congregation and invited people to commune in only one kind, namely the bread, if they have concerns about sharing germs by dipping in a common cup.

Regarding other church gatherings, it’s probably not a bad idea to have food handlers wear gloves, and perhaps nursery workers also. At potlucks, we will have dedicated food servers rather than serving family style to limit the number of hands touching serving utensils.

Should someone get sick during an event at the church, we will have masks for the sick person available and a room available for immediate and temporary quarantine. Wearing a standard mask does NOT protect a healthy person from getting infected. Only specialized air-filtering masks protect the healthy person. We should not need to purchase these if all the other safe practices above are implemented, and medical professionals working with the sick need them.

We are planning for further responses if there is an actual outbreak in our city. We will develop a reliable, fast, and exhaustive communication system. Some churches have a calling tree initiated by elders or deacons. In addition to using our Facebook page and website, we may create a twitter account. We will use our email newsletter distribution. Other options will need to be identified, assessed, and implemented accordingly.

If we come to the place where significant numbers of people are not attending worship, how shall we provide spiritual formation for people at a distance? One opportunity already in place is my blog which includes sermon summaries each week. This allows people to access the sermon at least.

We will invest in different ways to have a pastoral presence to people remotely with greater frequency and in smaller doses. This will include our electronic newsletter, more phone calls, use of other technology, and perhaps a YouTube channel.

These strategies will be utilized by the Deacons who already have the congregation sorted into flocks. Our elders would reasonably participate in this ministry as well. We may initiate a weekly huddle with me and other pastoral leaders to equip everyone with a consistent care message through these channels.

For a long time we’ve needed to install cameras or find an alternative way to make our worship service available to interested folks remotely. This isn’t rocket science, but it will likely require some money and a learning curve. To change metaphors, this wheel has already been invented. Many congregations already have audio if not video streaming of their worship services available for their remote congregants. If done thoughtfully, this technology upgrade would be useful for many applications over several years.

Finally, I offer some comments of a more specifically pastoral nature.

In times of uncertainty, and especially as exacerbated by quickly evolving circumstances and conflicting, inaccurate, or insufficient information, people typically fill the knowledge gaps according to their personality and experience. Thus if one is predisposed to fear, the gap is filled with fear; to prejudice, with prejudice; to conspiracy, with conspiracy, to denial, with denial, to intellectualization, with intellectualization. We all need to be aware of this in ourselves and as we relate to others.

But we also must remember that we are people of faith, and so our response should also reflect our belief in a God who delivers his people, works all things out for good, and uses communities of people to accomplish these things.

We need to remember that we are bearing witness to our children and to the world as well as to one another by the way we respond to this and any anxious or fearful circumstance.

The concerns around this coronavirus, and any disruption, open doors for ministry and mission. How we worship together, care for one another, and serve the world (my church’s mission statement) must always take real and emerging circumstances into consideration. This is what it means to be incarnational. This conversation is healthy and can be productive for the church’s witness if we are open to the Spirit’s leading and careful in our deliberations.

We need to remember that anxiety, lack of sleep, and depression suppress our immune systems. Thus it is necessary to take care of ourselves physically and mentally. Eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, balance vigilance with amusement, and socialize. With precautions and discipline, all these are possible and they will keep our bodies strong against sickness of body and mind.

To all these ends, it is important that our first and final preparation is prayer. Let us set aside personalities and experiences and attend to God’s presence every time we begin and end our responses to this and every concerning situation. The more thoroughly we practice prayer at the beginning and end, the more quickly we will return to prayer in the middle.

May God’s peace attend us all.

One Comment
  1. Kari Francisco permalink

    Information and reliable advice is being updated quickly. On 3/11 Gov. Polis’ gave a 32+minute press conference where at the 19.45 min. mark he answered a question about Faith Communities. He relayed advice that those age 60 and older, and those specifically with underlying health conditions, should strongly consider avoiding all public gatherings. Since your blog posting, K-12 schools & college campuses have closed, many social, entertainment, sporting events have cancelled. Work sites are making pre-emptive plans, etc. I am reminded that all of this is not about me. We are protecting the most vulnerable in our society. “Flattening the curve” means that we can help avoid the awful situation faced by medical workers in Italy and other countries – having to triage those who are sick, and having to decide who gets treatment and who doesn’t because of limited medical resources. Despite all the information thrown out in the media over the past weeks, this sobering information from Atlantic monthly really hit home for me:

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