By Eddie Pipkin

The past few weeks we have been focusing heavily on “virtual” ideas and strategies for ministry.  But now, in the immortal words sung by Olivia Newton John way back in 1981, “let’s get physical.”  We’ve been so laser-locked on computer-based techniques and innovations, it’s easy to lose sight of the old-school options for connecting with people that not only can have a powerful impact but can be the link that keeps the technology-averse connected.

How do we move ministry back out into the real world?

Answering this question suggests two different paths to explore:

  • How are we going to re-open our facilities and re-start our regular worship and programming once we are given the government go-ahead?
  • What can we do now to extend ourselves into a physical ministry space while still honoring social distancing and safety rules?

Keep in mind, this blog is read by church leaders all over the United States, and the guidance by local and state governments can vary pretty widely, but at this point 99.99% of churches are keeping it virtual, and we all share a goal of keeping our congregants and staff safe, as well as being role models for the community.  There is an enormous amount of uncertainty about what the timeline is for any progress back towards any sense of normalcy (and even having written that, it’s clear we are going to be returning to some definition of a “new normal”).  That being said, I was in a conversation on Tuesday with a lay leader in a local church who said they were now struggling with two questions:

  • When they are given the green light to start doing some sort of gathering – and even now, there is some guidance that suggests it’s okay to get together with 10 or fewer people – how can they ease back into safe gatherings?
  • For the people not engaged by the online options, how can they connect with them and keep them engaged?

Taking the second question first, there are multiple considerations to explore.  First and foremost, GET BUSY:

  • Make some signs! We’ve seen plenty of homemade signs like the one in the picture, honoring frontline workers in this crisis.  Have you made yours?  Challenge families to join in – have a contest.  Post signs at your church!  Post signs at intersections!  Post signs where people who you know who are medical personnel or first responders can see them!  By the way, if you don’t have some coronavirus encouragement signs or “get help here” or “we will pray for you” signs posted at your church property for all the neighbors to see, you are seriously behind.  There are people bored to tears, sitting at home, just waiting to be given such an assignment.
  • MAKE PERSONALIZED SIGNS AND TAKE THEM TO THE FRONT YARDS OF PEOPLE WHO ARE SHUT IN: This is a great ministry idea for reaching out to people who have been confined to their homes for weeks.  “We love you and miss you, Miss Catherine!”  Make it, drive over with it, stick it in the ground where she can see it right out the front window  — bonus points for doing it as a surprise.  This is an activity that can be done by families, singles, very small groups of people working together, intergenerationally, and cheaply.
  • PAY A SOCIALLY DISTANCED FRONT-PORCH VISIT! There are people in your congregation (or people beyond your congregation that you encourage the people in your congregation to think of) who haven’t had a conversation with a real person in a while.  Let them know you’re coming, then stand 10 feet away on the porch or in the yard while they stand in their doorway (or bring a chair and relax a little) and have a visit.  Again, there are lots of ways to do this, all family friendly and affordable, and these conversations can make a big difference to boost someone’s spirits.  TURN YOUR MUSICIANS loose to do some impromptu front yard concerts.
  • Keep using that telephone! Many churches have been faithful in calling the folks in their congregation and checking in, but we do hear consistent reports that those conversations are short, perfunctory, sometimes awkward:  “Hi, I’m Marcy from Church at the End of the Street, and I’m just calling to see if you need anything.”  “Nope, we’re fine.  Thanks, though.”  It’s probably unreasonable to think that relationships that were formerly expressed in 30-second “passing the peace” sessions are going to be any longer in an out-of-the-blue telephone call, but the calls are a great expression of connection.  You might want to spend some time training the callers, giving them tips and techniques for conversation starters, how to ask open-ended questions, and how to listen carefully to needs and concerns that might not be overtly expressed.  [This whole situation should be giving us a pause to think about the layers of connection that define our faith community.  Were we always hanging everything on Sunday mornings, connection-wise?  It’s a perfect time for a reinvention.]
  • Unleash the mission entrepreneurs! Some of those folks you are calling need help with some yard work.  It’s spring after all.  Very small teams or family teams can eagerly take on outside jobs at people’s homes.  They can wash cars, trim bushes, pressure wash, walk dogs, or plant flowers.  They can supplement sign-making with planting some flowers in a pot and dropping them off.
  • By the way, it’s a pretty great time to take care of some maintenance and improvement projects on your campus. Hey, the building is closed; turn somebody loose to get some painting done!  Have a couple of people (wearing masks) organize those youth closets!  It was always a good idea to wear a mask while cleaning out the youth closet anyway 😊
  • Write letters! Send cards!  You can write to people you haven’t seen in a while.  You can write to the people who are shut-ins.  You can expand your thinking to write to some long-neglected folks: people in nursing homes and people in prison.  (If you ever start an initiative to reach out to people in prison, you will be astonished at home many members in your congregation have loved ones who are incarcerated.)
  • I wrote last week about helping the folks who would like to use the technology but don’t know how. It is possible, with very stringent precautions, to have someone make a physical visit to their home to help them navigate a technical issue.  (There will be a small number of people who need such help, but that help will be pivotal for them.)
  • Don’t lose sight of the enormous financial impact that is looming large in our communities. If you are not actively implementing a response to the shortage of food, shelter, and basic essentials for life (as well as the related mental health issues), you need to get started now.  This is going to be a driving narrative of the rest of this year and probably beyond.  Already, we are seeing news reports of massive lines at food pantries.  How is your congregation staking out its vital role in helping people navigate the tough times ahead?   Part of this can be identifying gifted folks in your church who can be ADVISORS and MENTORS to folks who need help navigating the economic fallout.  People may need help coming up with an emergency budget; they may need help figuring out the bureaucracy to apply for benefits and negotiate with landlords.  Be a connection point for those who need this expertise and those who can provide it!
  • Give people innovative ways to pray. Create that virtual prayer wall.  Post a “prayer drop-off” mailbox at your driveway and invite the community to let you know you can pray for (and support) them.

By the way, if you are a leader reading this blog who is not a clergy person or staff member at a church, don’t forget to let those folks know you are supporting them and praying for them.  These are high-stress times, and those ministry professionals will greatly appreciate your encouragement (and maybe even a chance to vent in a healthy manner, if you happen to enjoy that kind of relationship).

Once we move towards getting together in some way physically, here are a couple of ideas:

  • Keep it outside: Many of you have outdoor gathering places, and as you think about getting people together at a safe social distance, these places are perfect.  People can spread out, and they can feel naturally safer in the outside air.  Plus they can come and go without the natural bottlenecks posed by our buildings (even if the worship space is conducive to spreading people out six feet or farther, how do we safely get them down the halls and through the doors and to the bathrooms, etc.)  An outside gathering solves many of those issues.
  • Think about a rolling schedule: Let’s say you have an outdoor amphitheater, perfect for social distancing, but you only want to host 10 people at a time. What if you had a virtual scheduling sign-up and people signed up for a 20-minute worship session.  You could host four of those back to back, and people would even get to safely wave at one another going and coming.
  • Consider drive-through Communion: (Or some other form of drive-through ministry.)  You can create a safe procedure for families to drive through and receive communion from the pastor.  Or the pastor could pray directly for each family that drives through and offer them a blessing.  There are lots of potential variations on this idea, and it would be a fun and safe change of pace.  Plus, people could wave to one another from their cars.  (There are also possible “walk through” versions of this you could do in your sanctuary.)
  • Narrow your focus to specific small groups: If you want to host a 10-person worship gathering to get things rolling, target it to specific groups (10 people at a time).  Perhaps seniors could be gathered in a way that keeps them especially safe.  Perhaps the “singles” need to get together.  How about those who have lost their jobs?
  • Other adventures in nature: I mentioned gathering outside at the church property earlier, but there are also great options for safe social distancing on hiking trails and on the lake if you have access to kayaks.  People can run together or bike together in a safe manner, and your church can help organize some of these activities, giving people a way to have conversations, breathe fresh air, get some exercise, celebrate nature, and maybe even pray together or share a few moments of Bible study.

There will be a two-pronged challenge for us all: coming up with the procedures to keep people realistically safe, and the things we do and say that help people feel safe.  Because as many officials and economists have noted, it doesn’t matter how safe our facilities and events are if people don’t perceive themselves as safe while in attendance.  They’ll stay home.  (Church feels desperately essential for some, but many folks had a tenuous connection to begin with.)

It’s a challenge to be creative, but also a wonderful opportunity to embrace fresh ideas and be innovative.  How will your rise to the challenge?  How is your church adapting in these times?  Are you implementing some unexpected ‘physical world’ ministry?  Share your stories.  Pepper us with questions.  We’re here for you.