It’s hard to believe that on the first day of spring 2020, there were only 37 deaths in the United States from COVID-19. Businesses and schools were open, and people were gathering socially, recreationally, and in houses of worship everywhere. Many in the Christian faith were preparing for Passion Week services and everything was still rather “normal.”
Fast-forward to the present where there have been nearly 35 million COVID cases in the United States, claiming the lives of over 610,000 men, women, boys, and girls. Spouses, parents, siblings, children, co-workers, neighbors, and friends have had their “normal”–and their faith–shaken. Even those with no religious or spiritual alignment or affiliation found themselves confounded by circumstance and questions for which there were no reliable, readily available, or acceptable answers.
When gathering restrictions began in 2020, it became clear that organized religion was going to look quite different after the COVID-19 dust settled. From seating within houses of worship to religious rites and ceremonies, clergy and lay leaders alike were now faced with the daunting task of creating safer spaces for people to fellowship and worship. Early on in the pandemic, despite special provisions in most jurisdictions that granted religious gatherings special exemptions, and because congregant gathering events were attributed to numerous “super-spreader” events, many organized religious entities closed their physical doors, opting for virtual platforms.
As the COVID floodwaters began to recede and the landscape of organized religious activity began to take shape, attention began to shift to effective strategies to re-tool and re-organize for in-person religious gathering experiences for which so many had prayed for so long. Having endured over a year of virtual religious participation, with the persistently improving case data and ever-increasing vaccination numbers, many religious organizations have again started to implement plans to return to in-person congregant gathering.
As of May 6, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance affirmed that fully-vaccinated individuals could begin to safely return to “normal” in-person gathering, while unvaccinated and incompletely vaccinated individuals remain limited to continued virtual religious participation. But as has been the case since the pandemic began, even seemingly simple and logical truths and recommendations have been far simpler to conceptualize than to put into practice.
Human beings are inherently social creatures. Gathering people, particularly as it relates to organized religious activity, is as practical and productive as it is therapeutic. Data has consistently demonstrated that there are an innumerable number of physical and emotional health benefits to “religious participation,” including improved mood and optimized pain management. And while this pandemic has tried and tested the substance of the faithful, it has also highlighted the truth that there exists a critical need for a bridge between religion and science. How religious organizations have navigated this tumultuous space has illuminated the importance of the blending of faith-based and evidence-driven decision-making on both the micro (individuals and families) and macro (communities, workplaces, and institutions) level.
The emotional rollercoaster that has been the COVID-19 global health pandemic has made pragmatic vetting of the truth and fact-driven behavior challenging because the understandable emotional responses often stress the framework of most religious doctrines that espouse faith to be the foundational solution and fuel for believers in times of danger, doubt, and peril. In other words, it is challenging to remain hopeful, faithful, and encouraged–no matter how deep your religious roots may be–when surrounded by uncertainty, darkness, and information that is often contradictory and masquerading as fact.
As we enter into this new chapter of pandemic management, organization and planning must remain faith-fueled within the context of the practical, the feasible, and the facts. There are several critical questions that may help guide religious and lay leaders in their journey to re-opening within the framework of the “new normal.”
WHEN should religious entities re-open?
There is no cookie-cutter blueprint for the process of re-opening and returning to in-person congregant gathering. In fact, this is new territory for organized religious entities everywhere, and leaders across faith-belief systems are struggling with this question daily. Because every organized religious entity is different and the logistical and community dynamics are variable, leaders will find it challenging to find specific guidance or recommendations about when to re-open as local mandates, congregational demographics, and a host of other facts can and should factor into any decision.
Aside from organizational and emergency management best practices, leaders can find encouragement and empowerment within the context of faith-driven best practices, diligence, prayer, fasting, meditation, and a host of other established religious disciplines. These time-tested elements born of faith traditions have proven their power and effectiveness for millennia, and there is no reason to contend that their value, utility, and effectiveness has somehow waned amid the pandemic. Effective leadership practices call for understanding and responsible stewardship of all the resources at their disposal including:
- Evidence-based information from clinical and public health experts
- Mandates and guidance from federal, state, and local government
- Wisdom of a trusted and diverse leadership team
- Power and insight derived from trusted religious leaders across denominations and faith-belief systems
- Support from a prayerful and faithful congregation
- Knowledge, insight, and wisdom from established religious/denominational doctrine and/or sacred texts
The leadership and support group(s) should be guided by the following questions to help in determining the feasibility of returning to in-person congregant gathering. Though these will not be the only questions, religious leaders will likely find these questions to be essential and rate-limiting:
- What do state and local officials say is permissible?
- What is the congregational sentiment about gathering publicly?
- What is the surrounding community’s sentiment about gathering publicly?
- What is the vaccination status of the likely congregant-gathering group?
- What is the vaccination status of the majority of community members where the religious entity resides?
- How will congregant-gatherers serve and otherwise participate in established, common religious activities when there is a return to in-person gathering?
- How will returning to in-person congregant-gathering impact the entities’ ability to safely serve children, elderly, and other gatherers with special/unique needs?
- What pre-COVID religious practices can be continued and what practices must change? How will the changes be implemented?
- What is the plan to communicate the intention to return to in-person congregant gathering?
- How will the leadership group answer questions about returning to in-person congregant-gathering from participants and the citizens of the surrounding community?
- Aside from logistics and feasibility, is returning to in-person congregant gathering the “right” and wise thing to do?
HOW should religious entities re-open?
There are a multitude of factors that must be considered when making the decision to re-open the physical doors of organized religious venues—each requiring considerable amounts of time, energy, due-diligence, and prayer.
Once the faith and evidence-driven decision has been made to re-open, additional work and effort is required to transition from plan to practice. A systematic and staged approach to returning to in-person congregant gathering can be guided by four core considerations that frame the larger reopening plan:
- Guidance and evidence-driven decision recommendations from vetted and reliable medical, public health, and government leaders
- Guidance from the religious entities’ liability insurance carrier
- Survey of the sentiments of the congregation and community at-large
- Implementation logistics and leadership dynamics during the re-opening process
Managing “vulnerable” populations
Despite the availability of vaccine products, the odds are that congregant gathering venues will include a percentage of gatherers who are unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated. Current estimates place the total percentage of fully vaccinated, vaccine-eligible individuals at just under 48%–meaning that 1 in 2 potential congregant-gatherers are still unvaccinated. Within the context of a growing number of variant strains of concern, these immunologically unprotected gatherers are a source of increased risk. COVID-19 is still an “equal-opportunity infector” and faith-associated congregant-gathering is still a potential source of super-spreader events.
Within this improved but still suboptimal public health landscape, plans to return to in-person congregant gathering should not only acknowledge, respect, and account for the vaccine and variant data, but these plans should also account for the vulnerable. This includes serious consideration regarding recommendations for vulnerable and vaccine-deficient prospective gatherers to remain distanced and virtual in their fellowship. At the very least, the leadership approach and plan must include a due-diligence effort to inform these vulnerable individuals of the assumed risk of attending in-person gathering events.
There will never be a perfect or fail-safe system to identify and isolate the sick or identify the fully vaccinated. Organized religious entities might still consider continued, modified symptom screening. Your church can provide some screening measures, while framing language that clearly encourages those who are sick and/or potentially exposed to stay at home. The leadership will need to determine who is responsible for initial screening of those entering meetings and other gatherings as well as how identified potentially sick participants will be monitored and potential contacts informed. Those responsible for screening will likely employ the simple process outlined below:
- What is your vaccination status? Can you provide a vaccination card so that “full vaccination status” can be verified?
- Do you currently have a fever?
- Have you been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last 14 days?
- Are you sick now, or have you been sick or symptomatic with COVID-concerning symptoms in the last 14 days regardless of vaccination status?
- If you are unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated, have you been in contact with anyone currently believed to be infected?
- Will you permit your temperature to be checked?
“Sick” rules and expectations and contact tracing
Religious in-person congregant gathering should incorporate “new normal” best practices, including clear signage notifying congregant-gatherers that “sick” and symptomatic individuals are encouraged to remain at home and to consider COVID-19 testing, particularly if unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated.
This pandemic experience has signaled a clarion call from organized religious entities across faith-belief systems turn supernaturally in the direction of the divine, outwardly to the strength garnered from faithful co-laborers, and inwardly to the often intangible elements of strength, courage, and conviction—all fueled by the power of the religious experience. Beyond the logistical planning, transitioning from the virtual worship space back to the in-person gathering venue will require careful attention to faith, organizational planning, and science. The irony is that there are very few organized religious entities where blind faith is encouraged.
Be vigilant and flexible
The post–COVID organized religious experience, like all of us, must be viewed as a work in progress. As we continue to learn more about this virus, recommendations and best practices may be modified. Not only should we anticipate this truth, but we must adopt language that prepares prospective gatherers as well. The language and the optics should not imply expertise but should convey a best-effort attempt to create a physical and spiritual “safe space” where people might engage in meaningful, transformative, and therapeutic encounters with the divine.
Leadership groups should remain accessible and approachable, never fearful of admitting limitations in knowledge or planning. Leading the charge through this challenging phase of pandemic recovery and restoration will require those who can lead by example—seamlessly and consistently intertwining faith-fueled trust in the divine with the empowering confidence that comes from science and facts. Leaders can model the challenging, often fragile but integral, balance between staying informed and the emotional dysfunction created by either information overload or misinformation.
With each day, the post-COVID picture becomes clearer, and as religious entities wrestle collectively with the decision to return to in-person congregant gathering, the goal is to remain fact-driven, faith-fueled, and committed to the strength and empowerment that comes from the marriage of these two powerful elements of the believers’ toolkit.
As individuals, families, and communities begin the process of post-COVID physical, emotional, financial ,and spiritual recovery, many longtime and novice faithful believers will look to venues of organized religious gathering for hope, solace, answers, and support. Preparation will drive the response and the outcomes as together as faith, facts, friendships, family, and fellowship provide the foundation for the new normal upon which this new and uncharted landscape will be built.
- CDC: Large Gatherings
- CDC: Fully Vaccinated
- CDC: Variant of Concern
- Coronavirus Vaccinations
- The Impact of COVID-19 and Religious Restrictions on the Well-Being of Ghanaian Christians: The Perspectives of Religious Leaders
- CDC: Science Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2