The Church Leader’s Guide to Coronavirus: How to Continue Ministry During a Pandemic

The Church Leader’s Guide to Coronavirus: How to Continue Ministry During a Pandemic

Coronavirus Resources to Help You and Your Congregation Stay Connected When it’s Critical 

In the past few weeks, COVID-19 has spread to 50 states. Schools, businesses, churches, events, and other organizations are wrestling with how to respond to the growing threat of coronavirus, the strain on local healthcare systems, and the fear that is consuming our country. 

Some regions have been affected more than others. Every church has to prayerfully consider what they’re capable of doing in response to this public health crisis and make the right decisions for their congregation and community.

Countless churches around the country have moved to online-only events or explored alternative ways to meet with those who are able. Digital tools and channels that were once considered optional are rapidly becoming essential. In the weeks to come, it’s likely that just about every church in the US will move to online-only. 

The situation looks bleak. But it’s also led to an unprecedented push to modernize the way we do church, and the decisions you make right now could lead your congregation to reimagine what it means to be part of the body of Christ.

In this guide, we want to help your church staff answer:

We’ll also explain how to calculate the risk of exposure in your congregation.

Should your church continue meeting in person?

Short answer: probably not.

While the CDC hasn’t formally shut down gatherings, they’re recommending against groups of 10 or more, particularly “conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies.” The recommendation doesn’t explicitly mention church services, and it isn’t binding for now. And it isn’t intended to overrule recommendations from your local public health officials.

So what should your church do?

Your staff members likely already have strong feelings about whether or not your church should continue meeting in-person. Some, surely, feel that it is all overblown, and that the frenzy shouldn’t interfere with your church’s regular operations. Others are undoubtedly urging you to exercise caution and stop anything that could accelerate the spread of coronavirus.

It’s not a decision any church is making lightly. But it’s important that your decision is formed thoughtfully, and not driven by emotions or assumptions. Many people in your community are genuinely afraid—for their own lives or the lives of their loved ones. How you respond could have a lasting impact on how your congregation and community perceive your church.

Here’s how you should decide whether or not to move to an online-only service:

Follow guidance from public health officials and government

For many churches, the decision has already been made for them. Washington state was the first to officially close all public schools and ban large in-person meetings, including faith-based gatherings. (The ban now extends to groups of 50, as well as bars and restaurants.) Other states quickly introduced similar closures. This will probably continue to ripple throughout the United States as the number of confirmed cases increases in other communities.

Even if your state hasn’t prohibited large gatherings or closed schools, your public health department has likely made recommendations. Your church should take cues from your local public health and government officials before making a decision. Some churches have come up with innovative solutions and alternative ways to gather, like Grove Church in Marysville, which attempted a “drive in” church experience (like the old drive-in movie theaters, but for a church service).

Local recommendations should be the first factor you use to decide on in-person services. If your local recommendations are more lenient, you should still strongly consider the CDC’s nation-wide recommendation—and think about the cost of ignoring it. Just because gathering isn’t prohibited doesn’t automatically mean you should continue holding regular in-person services. 

There’s more to consider.

Preventive vs. responsive action

People are making a lot of decisions out of fear right now. Some seem like irrational overreactions, but there’s a lot to be said for taking responsible, preventive measures as well. 

If your church hasn’t been directly affected yet, it may seem extreme to cancel in-person services, but preventive measures like “social distancing” are crucial to slow the spread of the virus. This reduces the strain on your local healthcare system and ensures that when your community is impacted, your most vulnerable members can get the care they need.

By now, you’ve probably heard of the concept of “flattening the curve,” which refers to this graph:Coronavirus flattening the curveThe earlier your community takes preventive measures (like canceling services), the less severe the virus’ impact will be in your area. Only taking reactive measures (canceling when there’s a confirmed case in your county or congregation) could mean that down the road there won’t be enough hospital beds—or worse, not enough ventilators for the most severe cases.

The difficult thing about flattening the curve is that to be effective, it has to look like you’re overreacting. If everyone waits until there’s ample evidence that precautions need to be taken, it’s too late for a lot of people to benefit from them. 

Don’t just look to public leaders—be them

Communities around the US are looking to local leaders for guidance, assurance, and recommendations right now. In many cases, it has felt like a free-for-all, where every company, church, and event is having to make decisions on their own. 

This is a chance for your church to model a rational response to a pandemic that is rooted in faith and not fear, with love and compassion for your community’s most vulnerable members.

Whatever your decision, make it prayerfully and share it publicly. Think about how your leadership right now will look when this is all over. And if there is a leadership void in your community, fill it.

Now let’s talk about your church’s digital strategy. 

How to transition to online-only church

Some churches have essentially been forced into being online-only. Others are choosing to do it out of an abundance of caution. Some are simply making live streaming an option. But every church in the US should be prepared for this transition.

Your ministry thrives on personal relationships. But while right now you need to reduce physical touch points, you have an opportunity to increase digital touch points. And while these may feel like temporary solutions, this moment has the potential to permanently enhance your ministry.

Going digital is going to feel very uncomfortable at first. Most churches add live streaming to a typical service, but you’ll be preaching in an empty room. But what you invest right now and the experience you collect along the way will pay dividends long after the panic wanes. 

Here’s what you should be prepared to do:

Livestream your service

Over the last few years, a lot of churches have used live streaming as a way to serve members who were out of town or sick. Now, it’s a necessity for everyone. And thankfully, it’s easier than it’s ever been. Ideally, you should invest in a high-quality live streaming setup. But if coronavirus cancellations caught you by surprise, you can literally use a mobile device and social app.

When coronavirus fears intensified in Bellingham, Washington, Hillcrest Church decided to do a last-minute livestream. It was in the middle of the week and they didn’t have a camera, but one of the pastors had an iPad. They sent out an email announcing the livestream, posted about it on Facebook, and then used Facebook Live. About 750 people attend Hillcrest, and more than 200 tuned into this impromptu iPad livestream. (The following weekend they had a much better setup, and more than 3,000 views of their livestream.)

You don’t have to think of live streaming as some big production—especially not right now. Do what you can to keep your congregation connected. Give your livestream prominent placement on your church website and in your church app, and then promote it on social media and through email.

Remember: live streaming has always been about trying to replicate the in-person experience for a digital audience. If no one is sitting in your pews, that doesn’t change a thing. Your congregation is still “with you.” They’re just online. You’re not talking to an empty room; you’re still worshiping with the people who typically fill those seats.

So as strange as it will feel, try to facilitate your usual service experience: worship, sermon, announcements, everything.

Keep people up-to-date in your app

Your app should be a hub for everything that’s going on in your church. That should be the case whether there’s a public health crisis or not, but it’s more important now than ever. People want to stay connected to your church, and as long as you keep it up-to-date, an app is one of the best ways to help them explore your content, find out what’s going on, and interact with your church. It’s simple, intuitive, and it can host text, images, video, audio, giving, and more in a clear, organized format.

No matter how much you’ve talked about your app over the years, odds are a lot of people in your congregation still don’t have it. So use your other channels like email, social media, and your website to encourage people to download it, and let them know that this is the best way to stay connected with you during this time.

Take Attitude Polls

One of the greatest challenges in the coming months will be finding ways to actually interact with church members. A quality church app like Pushpay gives you a range of ways to interact with people who aren’t in the room.

Invite your congregation to participate in the service by responding to polls and sharing the results. Attitude Polls let you make a custom statement which church members can respond to with:

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Neither
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree

coronavirus attitude poll

You’ll see your church’s responses in a convenient tab, and you can share the results with your staff or congregation.

Here are some things you might poll your congregation about to gauge their attitude and needs in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak:

“I am afraid for my own health right now.”

“I am concerned about the health of my friends and family.”

“I think [church name] is doing enough to address the novel coronavirus in our community.”

“I want to know how to help the sick and vulnerable in our community.”

“I trust that God is in control.”

“I’ve been leaning on Scripture to get me through this time.”

If you take an Attitude Poll, be sure you remind people that they’re anonymous, so they can be completely honest. This is about getting a sense for how your church as a whole feels, not for singling anyone out.

Create fill-in-the-blanks in your app

A lot of churches use some type of fill-in-the-blank notes to help people follow along during the service. Going digital doesn’t mean that has to stop. You can still use fill-in-the-blanks in your Pushpay app—just let your congregation know that it’s available and tell them where to find the blanks.

Watching from home, church members will likely have more distractions than they’re used to. So fill-in-the-blanks can be a great way to keep them anchored during your service.

Promote digital giving

The plate is gone. But that doesn’t mean giving has to stop or even slow down. In fact, with the convenience of Pushpay and features like recurring giving, you may find that some people will start giving more, because giving with a tap from the comfort of your couch is far easier than writing a check or stopping at an ATM before the service. Once people start giving digitally, they may never go back.

At the same time, it’s going to be increasingly important that churches be sensitive to possible financial hardships. More church members than usual are going to experience significant healthcare expenses, job loss, and other financial difficulties. Christians are called to be generous in the good times and the bad, and a lot of churches are about to become very dependent on digital giving, but it’s important to talk about giving without pushing people beyond their comfort zone or being insensitive to their circumstances.

You may also want to consider creating some new funds during this time. If you don’t already have some sort of benevolence fund, this could be a very important season to have one. As specific needs arise in your congregation and larger community, those could be worth creating dedicated funds for as well. In your Pushpay app, you can easily create new funds for your congregation to donate toward.

If anything, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated how important it is for churches to make a big issue out of prioritizing digital giving. Too many congregations who have made the tough decision to put gatherings on hold are completely reliant upon Sunday-morning offerings. 

coronavirus new fund

Start sharing a devotional

Your congregation needs encouragement now more than ever. If you haven’t already been sharing a devotional from your staff regularly, now is a valuable time to do so. Whether you do it daily or weekly, a devotional increases your touch points with your congregation and gives them additional opportunities to draw from the wisdom of their pastors.

Ideally, try to get into a rhythm and share your devotional at a consistent time or on a consistent day, so your congregation can begin to expect it. Mornings are a great time to post because it encourages church members to start their day with a time of reflection before going to work, taking care of their kids, or stressing about how to fill all this unexpected time.

This isn’t a responsibility that has to fall on one staff person’s shoulders, either. You may want to create a schedule and have a handful of staff—or volunteer writers at your church—write something to share. This spreads the burden across more hands and allows your congregation to benefit from more perspectives and voices in your church.

Launch a podcast

Right now, you want to give your congregation as many opportunities to hear from your staff as possible. They need your wisdom, leadership, and presence. You’ll want to have a plan before you start your podcast so that people know what to expect when they listen, but you can take it any direction you want. You could use it to:

  • Supplement your sermons with the things you didn’t have time to share, or any interesting rabbit trails that came up during sermon prep
  • Interview local leaders to talk about coronavirus in your community and explore ways your church can help
  • Highlight people in your community or congregation who are being the hands and feet of Jesus
  • Share an audio devotional where pastors and other church leaders talk about what God has been teaching them lately

Like sermon recordings, your podcast episodes help church members connect Scripture to their lives, reflect on their relationship with God, and consider ways to live out their faith as they go about their day.

Not a podcast person? Try listening to some of these podcasts for Christian leaders to get a feel for what a good one sounds like.

Use push notifications

You have plenty of ways to communicate with your congregation. But push notifications are often one of the most underutilized. 

If you have a church app, push notifications lets you send messages to anyone who has your app (and has push notifications enabled). They display prominently on their mobile devices, regardless of if your app is open or even on the home screen. 

More importantly, they link directly to your app. So if you send a push notification that your livestream just started, someone’s phone buzzes, they read your message, and they’re in your app watching your service with a tap.

You can also send push notifications to specific groups of people, or even target them based on location—so if someone comes to your campus, you can send a timely reminder that your campus is closed and invite them to join you online. If you have data on which service someone goes to, you could create groups based on service times and send reminders about your livestream at the relevant time.

Push notifications can reinforce your other communications like emails and social media posts, or they can simply let people know when there’s something new in the app you want people to see, such as a daily devotional, podcast episode, or an important message from your staff.

With Pushpay, your push notifications also come with helpful analytics. You can see how many people received one, how many people opened it, and how many people took the action you desired. As you experiment with different ways to use push notifications, you’ll develop a better idea of what kinds best engage your congregation.

Should you meet in small groups?

The CDC is recommending people not meet in groups of 10 or more, and in some states, local health officials and politicians are mandating these guidelines and closing businesses like bars and restaurants. Some churches have used CDC and local guidelines to essentially splinter off into smaller house churches and core groups. Others are switching to online-only for large group gatherings but continuing small group activities.

Using the formula we shared above for calculating the risk of someone being a carrier, the percent chance obviously goes down in smaller groups of people. But it’s important to remember: the chance of someone in your congregation being a carrier is the same, there are just a smaller number of church members they can infect. 

So the risk of spreading COVID-19 through your church is still the same if you meet in small groups.

But small groups are one of the most essential functions of many churches. Your congregation is going to need a lot of prayer, support, and fellowship right now. If you choose to continue meeting in small groups, pay attention to local updates to the number of confirmed cases or recommendations, and decide what level of risk you’re comfortable with.

You can facilitate many of the core functions of small groups digitally, but the right medium will depend on the members. Some may prefer to simply use email or social media groups to share curriculum, prayer requests, and important updates. Others may want to use video calling platforms like Google Hangouts. You may even want to consider trying a premium service like Zoom and opening it up to small group leaders. And of course, your church app can still be a hub to keep small groups organized and share what your church would like groups to do.

Whatever it looks like, the main thing is to maintain a line of communication and encourage your congregation to make an intentional effort to encourage, support, and love one another.

How your church can serve your community right now

As people become increasingly isolated, the economy continues to crash, hospitals reach capacity, and resources become more scarce, your church is going to have some huge opportunities to lead your community and support those who need it most.

Here are just a few of the ways your church can be a light during these dark times:

Offer to help those who are vulnerable or quarantined

Some people in your congregation will be avoiding public places and gatherings by choice because they’re too at-risk, or they’re being responsible and trying not to spread the virus. Your church is in a position to serve both groups of people right now, within your church and your community at large.

If your leadership team is on board, consider creating a video message inviting young, healthy, symptom-free people to volunteer to do grocery runs and other important errands for the elderly, vulnerable, or sick. Invite those who can’t or shouldn’t be in public to reach out for help. Your volunteers can leave groceries and other essentials on doorsteps. Remind people to use gloves and sanitize anything you drop off.

Provide childcare for those who can’t take time off

With schools closed, there are a lot of people without childcare right now. Many jobs can’t be done remotely, and if people can’t take paid-time off, they’ll simply have to continue working in spite of the risk. Lack of childcare can financially cripple families. 

Obviously, taking care of someone else’s kids significantly increases someone’s risk of exposure to COVID-19, but this act of service could make the difference between whether or not someone keeps their job or even loses their house.

Support local small businesses

Many restaurants, coffee shops, barbers, boutiques, and other small businesses are going to lose enough revenue during this season that they’ll have to lay off employees. Some may have to shutter their doors for good. 

Your church can play a part in helping local small businesses stay afloat through this tumultuous economy. Encourage church members who are able to buy gift cards and certificates from these businesses–ideally online. You could even buy them as a church, or consider creating a dedicated fund for businesses that don’t have gift certificates or cards. Remember that behind every business is a group of people, and this is a chance for your church to help keep them employed.

This can be fun, too. You could throw in free childcare and other perks and auction off gift cards to be used for a date night when the fear and risk of COVID-19 dies down.

It’s time to create digital pathways to participation

No matter what precautions you take or how low the level of risk in your community is, some people are simply going to stay home and avoid in-person gatherings. If you don’t already have a livestream, church app, etc. now is the time to introduce these digital options. It may not be long before you have to rely on them to function as a church.

Your congregation is more primed now than ever before to choose digital experiences. So offer them.

This is a moving target

Our country’s response to COVID-19 is evolving daily. The CDC and Trump administration are updating their guidelines as new data comes in from other countries and within the US. States are adjusting those guidelines to fit their own communities. And in the days to come, more of those guidelines may solidify into prohibitions and proclamations. As the church, we need to be prepared to adapt. And right now, that means modernizing our churches on a scale we’ve never seen before.

Don’t let fear stop you from being the church

This is a frightening time for most Americans. But it’s also a unique opportunity for the church. Over the next few months, a lot of people are going to completely change the way they think of church, and now we get to prove that church isn’t just a building.

If your church needs help setting up your digital pathways and staying connected to your people during this critical time, talk to one of our experts today.

Ryan Nelson

Ryan was a volunteer youth leader with Young Life for eight years. Now he teaches people about the Bible on OverviewBible.com. He lives in Bellingham, Washington with his wife and three sons.