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Soon but safe: Pastors urge courage, caution and compassion in reopening churches

NASHVILLE (BP) — Even as some states begin the process of reopening, pastors eager to resume in-person church services are urging both courage and caution.

While they long to meet together again, many are not yet sure what a return will look like as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. It likely varies by location and with each church’s specific context — which is why some envision a phased-in approach before returning to something resembling church services before the pandemic.

“We are not wanting our passion to exceed wisdom,” said Wayne Robertson, pastor of Morningside Baptist Church in Valdosta, Ga. “We are trying our best to walk with that as faithfully as we know how.”

It’s all part of a process that will require careful planning, as well as the ability to adapt to sometimes rapidly changing circumstances. Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, said while everyone is asking when in-person church services can or will resume, the more important question is how they’ll look when they do.

“Everything in the world has changed over these past few weeks,” Floyd said. “Therefore, we must adapt to these changes in order to meet the challenges of today. The normal of yesterday will not be the normal for tomorrow.

“While we want to go back to church soon, we also want to go back to church safely.”

While pastors and church leaders will likely consider similar questions to accomplish that goal, they might come up with different answers. And it’s likely those answers will change over time and as circumstances change.

This week, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled plans to reopen many businesses; the plans would allow in-person church services, though he asked that social-distancing guidelines be carefully followed.

“I urge faith leaders to continue to help us in this effort and keep their congregations safe by heeding the advice of public health officials,” Kemp said at a news conference Monday (April 20).

Michael Lewis, pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., said his team is cautiously planning to reopen as early as May 10, though the date is tentative and dependent on progress as measured by the official guidelines for reopening set out by the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Lewis said Marietta, one of Atlanta’s northern suburbs, is almost through the Phase 1 of the COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening states. When the city enters Phase 2, Roswell Street Baptist, which averages about 700 in attendance Sunday morning, would conduct two worship-only services.

Two staff members would monitor two designated entrances. There would be no greeters, but those doors would remain open throughout the services. Attendees would be seated by household, with groups separated by at least six feet. They would be formally seated and dismissed in order to maintain social-distancing. Restroom use would be limited. The church would not print bulletins.

“We’re going to adhere very strictly to the CDC guidelines,” Lewis said, noting that the May 10 target date could be postponed if necessary.

Other pastors outlined similar protocols, even as they’re not sure when they’ll implement them. Micah Fries, pastor of Brainerd Baptist in Chattanooga, Tenn., expects an incremental approach.

“We anticipate that reopening will not be instantaneous,” Fries said, “but rather more like a slow return over a period of months.”

For Brainerd Baptist and other churches, those considerations include more than worship services, but also whether and when to resume Sunday school classes and programs for children and youth, as well as nursery care.

Brainerd Baptist’s plans to return are complicated by several factors — not the least of which is that while the church’s main campus is in Chattanooga, another Sunday gathering takes place across the state line in Rossville, Ga., which means the church must consider the different guidelines and timelines issued by the states of Tennessee and Georgia.

Sundays at Brainerd’s main campus averaged about 1,900 in attendance. The North Georgia campus drew about 300, while a Spanish-speaking service elsewhere in Chattanooga drew about 100.

“We believe it will be lengthy and, at times, unknown,” Fries said. “We will take it slowly and show a lot of grace.”

In Atlanta, Christ Covenant Church’s plans are dependent in part on the availability of its venue at a public school. Jason Dees, Christ Covenant’s pastor, said the 2 1/2-year-old church plant, which averages about 500 in attendance, might not be back to normal — whatever that is — until late summer.

With Sutton Middle School closed, Dees plans online-only services at least through May, though he said leaders might begin encouraging small groups to watch together.

“Georgia is beginning to open up, but we would want to see that doesn’t increase the caseload in Georgia,” Dees said. “We would want to see that people are actually practicing good social distancing guidelines before we even take that next step.”

Robertson said Valdosta’s Morningside Baptist, which averages about 350 in attendance, would consider conducting two services in order to maintain social-distancing, but suggested the church might begin instead with the now familiar drive-in service, where members of the congregation would remain in cars.

“It may be that they feel more comfortable [with a drive-in service],” Robertson said. “As you decide what you will do, you want your people to be happy and not thinking that they are taking a risk even if you had multiple services.”

In the coming days, many pastors will search for the correct balance of courage and caution as they transition back to in-person gatherings. Dee urged compassion as church leaders and members navigate an uncertain path. He said encouraging the congregation to reengage was important, but acknowledging the continuing threat of COVID-19 infection — and fears related to the pandemic — was equally as important.

“I’m very confident in our pastors’ and our elders’ ability to find that balance,” Dee said. “One of the reasons is they know their flock. They’ll know where they probably need some nudging and where some may need some warning.”