By Eddie Pipkin

As the coronavirus outbreak (now known by the more precise name given to this unique strain, COVID-19) slips past the emergency efforts to control its transmission, it is becoming more and more likely that the impact will spread worldwide, including to the U.S.  Having watched the dramatic images from China over the past several weeks, it seemed like a drama that was playing out in a faraway place, no need to panic here.  But it now looks increasingly likely that our own cities and towns may face the same challenges posed by this new and scary pandemic.  How will churches prepare and respond?  Even if we –hopefully – don’t need to know the answer to that question in the next few weeks, it’s a useful exercise in preparation.

Just last week I wrote about being proactive vs. reactive, and here’s a perfect case in point.  On the one hand, the comfort and assurances (and potentially support) that we can offer the people in our faith community are consistent with the kind of hope, assurance (and support) that the church has always offered to communities facing disasters.  On the other hand, this kind of emergency could pose some unique challenges.

If the virus manifests in a specific region, we could potentially see travel restrictions and prohibitions on public gatherings such as have already become policy in China, South Korea, and now parts of Italy.  (In South Korea, the outbreak of the virus has been directly linked to a doomsday church cult.)  In such a scenario, local churches and related ministries could be effectively shut down for weeks.  Even if government officials don’t initiate closures, it is quite conceivable that individuals would choose to self-isolate, spending as much time in their own homes as possible in order to prevent potential infection.

How many churches are prepared (even theoretically) for such a development?

For most congregations, the most applicable planning will be referencing their ‘disaster plans,’ if they have formulated them.  Disaster plans generally are tailored to responding to natural calamities (hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and floods).  In areas that are prone to natural disasters, such planning is common – such as here in Florida, where hurricanes and hurricane response are a routine part of life.  In areas of the country where disasters are infrequent, such planning may be less formalized.  But every church of every size in every location should have a basic disaster plan in place: a clear chain of command when disaster strikes, a process for responding and moving forward, and an off-site repository of important documents.

In the case of a pandemic, there will be no physical damage to structures, but there could be major disruptions that take weeks, if not months, to return to normal.  Worship services cancelled.  Youth activities curtailed.  Ministry events from festivals to retreats and special events needing to be cancelled or rescheduled.  Regional or international trips in jeopardy.  And even if the scientific facts don’t call for a wholesale response, don’t underestimate the ability of social media and news consuming people to panic out of all proportion to reality.  That panic, if it comes, will have different levels and variations: some people will be freaked out early and wanting you to shut everything down immediately; some will be irritated and rolling their eyes that other people are freaking out; some essential staff members and volunteers will fall into each of those categories.  It is important to think through how the people you know will respond.  It is even more important to discuss in advance with key leadership and staff what guidance you will look to in making decisions about if and when to curtail ministry activities.

Already, denominational organizations are anticipating the need for guidance.  The Church of England has already published related guidelines for how local congregations should respond, as has the Methodist Church in England.  Although risk is still described as “low” there, they are reminding congregations of the value of hand washing and discouraging communion by intinction (in which the bread is dipped into the wine or grape juice before being consumed); this is the preferred method of communion for many congregations.

Leadership can also look ahead to potential financial impacts.  What would happen if the offering plates did not get passed for two or three weeks in a row?  Are there enough emergency funds on hand to bridge the gap?  Even presuming that, once worship services resumed, the congregation would respond to make up that gap, is there a process in place to temporarily pay the bills.  It is probably not even reasonable to assume that the gap would be made up in a coronavirus shutdown scenario.  Any situation bad enough to curtail gatherings at churches would mean that businesses across the board were impacted and economic strains in the community would be widespread.  If families are struggling with reduced hours at work or employee cutbacks, a temporary decline in church giving is almost a certainty (memories of the Great Recession of 2008 spring to mind).  Frugality is a mark of sound and responsible stewardship, as are careful planning and preparation.

Planning and preparation can also be applied to thinking about and testing the ways that ministry could work remotely to keep people connected even if there was a scenario in which people could not get together in the same physical space.  Technology makes it possible to “gather” in ways that have never been possible before.  A virtual worship service, live-streamed to people gathered around their devices in their homes, is a real option.  Social media can be leveraged to keep people informed and engaged.  Google Hangouts and similar technology can be used to keep small groups meeting together.  These technologies offer tantalizing possibilities for us as leaders even without the threat of calamity, but the work we do in familiarizing ourselves with them now can pay enormous dividends if disaster strikes.

From an internal perspective, can you identify ways that staff and volunteers could keep connected and busy doing meaningful work from home?  If we have an idea of long-range planning or research projects that we plan to get to “some time when we have the time,” we can make use of unexpected down time (rather than just catching up on Netflix).  From an external perspective, do you have a robust system in place for checking in on people who may be isolated, shut-ins who may need help with basic necessities or the reassurance of human contact if normal routines are disrupted.

One of the best things church leadership can do is calm people down and reassure them that God is in control.  Using the full menu of the available tools of communication, pastors, staff members, and small group leaders can ease people’s fears and direct them to resources that deal in facts and practical tips.  One of the nuances of this unfolding crisis is the profusion of “fake news,” misinformation, and conspiracy theories that is exploding on social media.  We can be a force for global good by referring people to credible sources and tamping down the panic.  We can help reduce anxiety by reinforcing good models for prayer and remembering the promises of the Scriptures.  We can use this moment in time to celebrate the ways we can and will take care of one another as part of an energetic faith family.  We can even reach directly into our surrounding community to be a lifeboat for people who are struggling with their anxiety as they read the daily news.  For many people who have no close relationships, a major news event reminds them of how disconnected they really are and how they would like to find a place to belong.  We can offer them the resources and connections that they seek – but we can’t assume they are just going to drive by our campus and figure that out on their own.  We need to intentionally communicate our availability in as many ways as we can think of to creatively do it.

In the end, planning for any individual potential crisis is planning for all potential crises.  It means we take stock of where we are in terms of resources, communication chains, connection processes, and ability to flexibly respond.  If we discover “holes” in our planning or misalignment in our shared understanding as leaders, it is time well spent.  If we are able to create a seamless strategy for communicating a consistent message to all the people in our community, we have developed a process that will serve us well a thousand times over.

Does your church have a disaster plan in place?  Is it flexible and adaptable, able to function in the face of a tornado or a coronavirus outbreak?  Have you experimented with technology that can keep your congregation connected even if they aren’t in the same physical space together?  Share your positive planning stories here; share your fears as well, and as a community working together, we’ll help one another “keep calm and carry on.”