05.28.21 | Congregational Development, Wellness and Missions
Deciding when to re-open a church facility for in-person worship and meetings is an intentional and rigorous discernment process. The Baltimore-Washington Conference’s COVID-19 Task Force has provided a number of resources. The questions below were raised by local church leaders during a webinar on Re-Entering Well Update hosted by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling on May 25, 2021.
General re-entry questions
Is there a date when churches can re-enter their buildings for worship, meetings and other activities?
No. The BWC is made up of churches from Maryland, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. Each has different governmental directives for public gatherings. All of our Baltimore-Washington Conference churches are asked to follow their local directives and to form a task force to complete the BWC’s Re-entering Well process outlined at bwcumc.org/re-entry.
Who makes the decisions about when churches can move back into their buildings and about other aspects of worship and meetings?
Every local church's Re-Entry Task Force, made up of the pastor and other key leaders, makes decisions of when and how to gather. This group is tasked with the discernment around issues related to the pandemic and re-entry. Their decisions will be based on guidance from local governments, the Centers for Disease Control, and their ministry context. Three decision trees have been provided to help the Re-Entry Task Force make difficult decision. Care for the vulnerable among us continues to be a guiding value of The United Methodist Church.
Because of the vastly differing contexts of geographic areas within the Baltimore-Washington Conference, the BWC will not make specific recommendations for local churches. However, Conference leaders continue to advise privileging life and health above all other concerns. Resources to assist local churches in their discernment process are available at www.bwcumc.org/re-entry.
Who is the top authority? The bishop or the government?
It is the stated expectation of the bishop and conference leadership that pastors of congregations will make these decisions based on information available through local Public Health Departments, the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), State Government, Conference Resources, and in collaboration with their congregants in the context of their ministries.
Are you aware of a metric that will indicate we have reached the point where no masks are needed by anyone?
No such metric has been developed at this time. Some health officials predict that masks will continue to be worn indefinitely by those with medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus. Others see masks as a new prevention measure that people will increasingly wear to protect themselves from COVID-19 and other illnesses, like seasonal influenza.
I recently read on the CDC site that vaccinated individuals can still get infected. Is that true?
Yes. The available vaccines are very effective, but they are not perfect. The less-than-100% efficacy for each vaccine (Pfizer-BioNTech: 95%; Moderna: 94.1%; Johnson & Johnson: 72%) means that some fully vaccinated people will experience what is being called a “rare breakthrough infection.” Research is ongoing to determine what factors, such as variants or a weak immune response to the vaccine, contribute to these rare infections.
COVID-19 medical professionals on the news as well as vaccination sites, state that people who have been vaccinated will need a booster shot within 6 months to a year after getting vaccinated. However, I have not seen a plan on how folks can get their booster shots. Is there a plan in the state of Maryland to address this?
Currently, there are no specific plans for booster shots, in Maryland or elsewhere. Active research on the duration of vaccine-induced immunity is underway in sites around the country.
With Zoom worship services still in effect, does the church have the authority to tell Those who are not vaccinated to stay home until they are vaccinated?
Churches may decide to require all people to wear masks, physically distance, and observe other public health guidelines to safeguard people’s health when present in their buildings for worship, meetings, or other activities, but churches should not refuse entry to worship because someone has not been vaccinated.
We have all been hearing comparisons about what “other” UMC churches are doing … and or other denominations. How do we best respond?
Comparisons and competition do not serve anyone. Every congregation is a unique community of people who, through their Re-Entry Task Force, must diligently discern best practices for the care and service of all of their people, particularly the most vulnerable.
Has the BWC prepared an appropriate, non-offensive statement we may use to welcome ALL (vaccinated and unvaccinated) to in-person worship and other gatherings?
The United Methodist Church strives to be a safe and nurturing place for all of God’s people. As we gradually re-emerge from the pandemic, we welcome and celebrate each one of you who wishes to return to our building for worship, meetings, or other activities. We also request those of you who have not been vaccinated to continue the health and safety practices of mask-wearing, physical distancing, and frequent hand washing or hand sanitizing so that we may work together to protect the most vulnerable among us. We are so glad you are here!
Can we sing? Can we take Communion? Can we use hymnals, pew Bible and bulletins? These are the most frequently asked questions as churches begin their re-entry process.
The answer is simple and complex as seen on this CDC-based chart.
Fully vaccinated people are at limited risk when they are around people who are singing, when they take Communion, or when they hold a hymnal. However, unvaccinated people are at risk when they participate in any of these activities. Unvaccinated people should observe established COVID pandemic guidelines such as wearing masks, physical distancing, and frequent hand washing or sanitizing.
However, some congregations will err on the side of protecting the most vulnerable — unvaccinated children and adults and those with compromised immune systems — by requesting that all people wear masks and practice physical distancing. Every congregation will consider best approaches through these times of transition, and some of those approaches may change as new information becomes available and CDC Guidelines are updated. This is a process of discernment that highlights the important work of each congregation's Re-Entry Task Force.
Why is singing worse than talking?
The virus that causes COVID-19 is understood to be spread by very small, aerosolized particles that are exhaled into the air from the mouth and throat, along with heavier droplets that fall onto surfaces that people may touch and then transmit to their own nose, eyes, or mouth. The process of forcefully moving air out of the throat and mouth when people sing and/or loudly project their speaking voices causes many more particles and droplets to enter the air than occurs with standard talking.
Can you provide guidance on choirs singing? Should choirs reconvene? HOw much distance should a fully vaccinated choir have between the group and a parishioner who is not vaccinated?
Fully vaccinated individuals may sing in a choir with other fully vaccinated people.
COVID-19 guidelines recommend six-feet between choir members and 12-feet or more between the choir and parishioners. Unvaccinated parishioners should be wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.
Would it be disrespectful to have all people attending church service in churches to wear a mask?
No. Mask-wearing is a public health practice and an effective tool to reduce the spread of this virus during a time of pandemic. It does not fall in the arena of respect or disrespect; it falls into consideration of the common good and care of the most vulnerable among us. Explore this resource to assist you with decisions related to Safety and Mask Wearing.
Can we put our hymnals, pew Bibles, and pew seat cushions back? Can we hand out bulletins?
Touching these items poses limited risk to fully vaccinated people. However, droplets from the nose and throat of someone infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 can fall on these items and the virus can be spread to unvaccinated adults and children. The choice of how to respond to this risk is the work of the church’s Re-entry Task Force.
My older congregation enjoys Communion "the old-fashioned way;” that is, kneeling around the chancel rail. What is the safe way to celebrate Communion?
Fully vaccinated people are at limited risk receiving or serving Communion around the chancel rail. People who are not vaccinated will remain masked throughout the worship service and may receive blessed individual packages of Communion elements to take with them in order to partake of Communion in their homes or another personal setting.
IS THERE ANY SPECIAL CONSIDERATION FOR PEOPLE WHO WEAR ROBES (PASTORS, ACOLYTES, ETC.)?
When robes are used, they should be clearly labeled as to whose robe it is. Robes should not be shared or used by more than one unvaccinated person. Each person should be responsible for retrieving his/her own robes and hanging them up again. Hanging robes should have enough room that they do not touch one another.
Can we shake hands again?
Fully vaccinated people are at limited risk of being exposed to COVID-19 from handshaking. Be mindful that during this time of transition many people may still prefer “elbow bumps” or exchanging a gesture of peace and welcome. Unvaccinated people need to maintain physical distancing and not shake hands.
WITH PHYSICAL DISTANCING, WHAT IS THE PROCEDURE FOR TURNING PEOPLE AWAY ONCE WE HAVE REACHED MAXIMUM CAPACITY?
While we want to welcome everyone, physical distancing in this pandemic is imperative. Once you have reached the capacity you can safely hold, people should be turned away with grace, courtesy, and kindness. Some churches have reported leaving a few empty spots for first-time visitors so that they can practice radical hospitality to newcomers. This is an instance where sensitive signage outside the building should alert people that no more than a specific number of people may safely be admitted at this time. You also may wish to have an RSVP system in place that allows for better planning and less disappointment.
Should we continue to take temperatures of those entering for worship?
No. Churches are not healthcare organizations and this is not an activity with which they should engage. Bear in mind that everyone does not show a temperature with COVID-19 and people with no symptoms may still transmit the virus. Mandatory masking is the better action if you are seeking to minimize the potential for spreading the virus.
If your congregation’s Re-Entry Task Force decides to continue to take the temperature of people as they enter your building, it is very important to publicize your plan well in advance so that anyone who arrives to attend worship will know that with a temperature of 100.4 F or greater they will be asked not to enter the worship space.
Do we have to register for services so there is a list if needed for contact tracing? Do we have to still keep contact-tracing lists? When can we stop?
The practice of documenting attendance— asking people to provide an email address or phone number — is a sound practice that facilitates timely contact tracing in the event that the pastor or another church employee receives notification of a positive COVID-19 test for someone who was in the church at a particular date and time. How your congregation does this is to be determined by your Re-Entry Team. As long as there are unvaccinated children and adults attending your church, you may want to continue attendance documentation.
With outdoor services, is protocol still the same as far as singing, activities with young people, etc.?
Because of ventilation issues, the risks of spreading the virus are significantly reduced outdoors as long as unvaccinated people can still maintain physical distancing.
Are churches encouraged to continue to hold hybrid worship?
Yes, holding both in-person and online services is encouraged so that your church’s message of God’s love can reach the greatest number of people possible, including those who are unable to attend in person. See an article on the BWC training event, “Both/And worship is here to stay.”
What about using anonymous polling to get a feel for the congregation's vaccination status and willingness to return to in-person services?
Re-entry Task Forces are encouraged to use formal and informal polling, or whatever other tools they see fit, to gather input from congregation members. Transparency, creating consensus, and providing good information to church members and the community are important factors in a successful re-entry.
Children and Young People
What are the risk factors for children under 12 who have not been vaccinated?
According to the CDC, children, in general, do not seem to be at higher risk for getting COVID-19. However, those with special health needs are at increased risk. Those risks include: Congenital heart conditions, diabetes, lung disease such as asthma, conditions or treatments that weaken the immune system, and obesity.
So, children’s choirs should not be singing?
Correct. Only vaccinated people may sing with low risk. Children who are infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 do not always have symptoms but do carry the virus in their noses, mouths, and throats. Because the act of singing increases the chance of transmitting the virus by forcefully exhaling droplets and aerosolized particles into the air, choirs of unvaccinated children are not recommended at this time.
Do we need to require children under the age of 12 to wear masks or would it be extending hospitality and grace to allow parents to make that choice?
CDC Guidelines continue to recommend masking for unvaccinated children over the age of 2, particularly those with underlying health conditions that increase their risk of serious illness if infected. Most children have grown accustomed to wearing masks at daycare and/or school. In the interest of caring for the most vulnerable among us, Re-entering Well Task Forces must discern what safety measures best care for the members of their congregations. Hospitality and grace will accompany sound decisions when they are grounded in the most current information, science, and guidelines that center the needs of our most vulnerable members and visitors. When Re-Entry Task Force decisions and plans are clearly communicated, members will decide whether or not the time is right for them to return to in-person worship.
When we have children in the congregation who are under the age of 12, should the congregation wear masks? Should vaccinated volunteers working with the children wear masks?
Children under 12 remain the one age group for whom vaccinations are not available. They are most at risk with other unvaccinated children and unvaccinated adults. Both unvaccinated children and adults should continue to wear masks, practice physical distancing, and wash or sanitize hands frequently as per existing CDC Guidelines. Fully vaccinated individuals are no longer required to wear masks indoors and they represent limited risk to unvaccinated children and adults. Of note, some groups are considering the practice of continued mask-wearing by all adults who work and care for children as a way to model the importance of wearing masks and providing extra assurance to parents. These are decisions that Re-Entry Task Forces will be making in each congregation.
This chart provides some insights into safety and mask-wearing.
Some children have been in school. If they can pass a risk assessment, such as no fever, no exposure to infected or suspected people, and no out-of-town travel, should we still not have programming for children at the church?
This is a matter for your congregation’s Re-Entry Task Force to consider. If they decide that programming for children at the church is something they want to pursue, they should create and promote specific safety measures based on continuing CDC guidelines for unvaccinated children and adults so that parents and children will be aware of what they can expect.
WHAT IS A GOOD GUIDELINE FOR VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL THIS SUMMER?
Because children under 12 are ineligible to get vaccinated, congregations must discern if the size of their facilities and outdoor spaces will safely accommodate the numbers of VBS children and adults who would be present while maintaining six feet of physical distancing. Everyone must wear masks and no touching, elbow bumps, or hugs are allowed.
I understand that the BWC's REtreat and Camping Ministries are open for summer camp this year. How can we be doing camping ministries this year if children under 12 haven’t been vaccinated yet?
After making the difficult decisions to suspend summer camps and overnight retreat groups for more than a year, leaders of the BWC’s Camping and Retreat Ministries have been working diligently with infectious disease experts, CDC guidelines, local health departments, and national camping associations to ensure that every aspect of summer camp can be held in a safe and meaningful manner for every child involved. See a listing of the protocols they have enacted. In addition, the CDC has shared a resource for operating youth camps and the American Camp Association offers a field guide.
What are the statistics about the virus living on surfaces?
On April 5, 2021, the CDC issued an updated report entitled “SARS-CoV-2 and Surface (Fomite) Transmission for Indoor Community Environments” that provides the latest information about contaminated surfaces and the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. The report is very readable and statistical details of viral lifespan on surfaces may be found at www.cdc.gov.
The report's conclusion reads as follows: “People can be infected with (the virus that causes COVID-19) through contact with surfaces. However, based on epidemiological data and studies of environmental transmission factors, surface transmission is not the main route by which (the virus) spreads and the risk is considered to be low. The principal mode by which people are infected is through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying the infectious virus. In most situations, cleaning surfaces using soap or detergent, and not disinfecting, is enough to reduce risk. Disinfection is recommended in indoor community settings where there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 within the past 24 hours. The risk of surface (fomite) transmission can be reduced by wearing masks consistently and correctly, by practicing hand hygiene, cleaning, and taking other measures to maintain healthy facilities.”
Can the church’s water fountains be used? What about water coolers with individual cups?
Water fountains and water coolers pose limited risk to fully vaccinated people and pose risk to unvaccinated people. Some churches have opted to keep water fountains closed so that children under 12, who are ineligible for the vaccine aren't tempted to use it and expose themselves to risk.
My church has a small elevator from ground level to the nave. Not everybody who attends knows how to operate the elevator. Do we recommend having a vaccinated "elevator operator" to facilitate movement by elevator?
An elevator is a space that does not easily allow for physical distancing. In order to be safe, the elevator operator should be vaccinated or should wear a mask.
At what point would it be safe to host a post-funeral meal? Do we abstain, or trust that those who are staying to eat are/have been vaccinated?
This, again, is a matter for your Re-entry Task Force to discuss and decide upon. Deciding that only vaccinated people may attend a church function may not be advisable. When in doubt, it’s often best to proceed as if the guidelines are in effect to keep all people safe.
Can or should food ministry resume in which lunches are prepared at the church and distributed to seniors, sick, etc.?
Yes, these ministries have been in operation throughout the pandemic in some form and can resume, with special precautions and care for cleanliness and the meeting of health concerns.
Should the church be professionally cleaned at all times or is it safe to have the sexton clean the church as usual? How often should bathrooms be cleaned on a Sunday?
Most churches have stopped paying for added, in-depth cleaning services and have resumed their regular cleaning schedules. Having hand-sanitizer available for everyone continues to be important.
Does the responsibility for cleaning the church rest with Trustees or the Staff-Parish Relations Committee?
The responsibility for these tasks may lie with different groups at different churches. Typically, the SPRC doesn't get involved unless there is an issue raised by staff or congregation members. The important thing is to make sure that the expectations are clearly defined and communicated to everyone involved.
What are the risks for fully vaccinated people?
The risk of getting COVID-19 is not zero for fully vaccinated people. The Pfizer or Moderna vaccines offer 95% efficacy, while J&J offers approximately 65-70% efficacy. There is active research underway to study
When is it appropriate to ask volunteers and church members about their vaccination status, given that this is a very personal medical decision?
This is a matter for your Re-entry Well Task Force to discuss. Because this is a public health situation, it is appropriate to inquire about a person’s vaccination status if concerns arise. However, care must be taken not to discriminate against people because of their vaccination status.
Do Churches have a legal right to ask people if they've been vaccinated and to ask to see their vaccination cards?
There is nothing illegal about asking people if they have been vaccinated or to see proof of vaccination. Be mindful that while most people have a choice about whether or not to get vaccinated, others don’t. Local church Re-Entry Task Forces need to consider how policies and procedures reflect the values and ministry context. As necessary, local churches may wish to consult with a locally licensed attorney to determine if any laws or regulations prohibit or allow a ministry to mandate this request for information. Guidance should also include the appropriate process for safekeeping the information once it is obtained.
Is it a violation of HIPPA to ask if someone is vaccinated? Is it a violation to ask them other questions about their health as it relates to COVID-19?
No. HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act enacted in 1996 and updated in 2009. It includes provisions to protect a person’s identifying health information from being shared without their knowledge or consent. The law only applies to specific health-related entities, such as insurance providers, healthcare clearinghouses, healthcare providers, and their business associates. HIPAA is not a prohibition on asking for information; it is a prohibition against the above-listed entities sharing that information without the involved person’s consent.
Joshua Sharfstein, a public health expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a recent interview that “The misconceptions about this law likely stem from people widely using it in conversation as a short-hand for privacy. If someone is asked a question about their health that they view as intrusive they might say “I can’t tell you because of HIPAA” when what they mean is that they consider the information private.
How do you determine if someone is fully vaccinated?
When they tell you, you believe them. However, news reports show that not everyone is honest about their vaccination status and counterfeit vaccine cards are available. Churches need to take this into account and plan accordingly.
What happens when the pastor is the one who cannot be vaccinated?
Pastors who are unable or unwilling to be vaccinated should contact their Staff-Parish Relations Committees. The Conference Pensions and Health Benefits Office has information about how arrangements can be made so that the pastor can continue in their job and not pose a threat to the congregation.
Per the CDC, the federal government does not mandate (require) vaccination for anyone. Additionally, the CDC does not maintain or monitor a person’s vaccination records. Whether a state, local government, or an employer, for example, can require or mandate COVID-19 vaccination is a matter of state or other applicable law. It is important to contact your state government or an employer if you have specific questions about requiring vaccination.
Remember that CDC Guidelines are still active for promoting safe practices for working with children by wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, and providing access to soap and water or sanitizer for frequent hand washing.
How do congregations monitor groups that are implicitly anonymous and cannot be monitored like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous?
This can be a matter of trust and ongoing conversation. Be sure to provide specific guidelines and expectations to the groups’ leaders and follow-up to make sure they understand the policies put forth by your church’s Re-entry Task Force. Signs may also help convey important messaging.
Does the church have a responsibility to set guidelines for those smaller churches who rent our space?
Yes, these guidelines will be helpful for any groups using the church building.
We sponsor a Scout Troop. The Scout leaders wonder about the church's position on Scouts sharing tents and whether carpooling is permissible. Any advice?
Scouts have extensive guidelines of their own that you can use as a basis for your conversation. Visit https://www.scouting.org/outdoor-programs/camping-covid-19-resource-center/ to learn more. If people are vaccinated, no accommodations are needed. Unvaccinated people need to be masked, practice physical distancing and use hand sanitizer or wash their hands often. No masks should be worn when sleeping or engaging in strenuous activities.
What is the deadline for the tech grants of $1,000?
June 30. Learn more and apply
We only pay our pastor a salary, no one else; does this mean we are not qualified for employee retention credit?
Yes, the employee retention credit only applies to the salaries of lay people.
Should churches still be giving out 1099 to employees who are making a minimum amount of wages? The IRS is really hurting some of these employees. What can be done?
IRS Form SS-8 can be used by churches to determine the appropriate employee’s status for purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholdings. Employees receive a W-2. Contractors receive a 1099-Misc.
What mental health resources do you have for the average church member who is struggling with issues raised by the pandemic?
The pandemic has raised a great many spiritual and emotional issues. Churches are encouraged to provide informal counseling and provide referrals to those who may express a need for them. The following resources might be helpful:
- NAMI – The National Alliance on Mental Health
- Mental Health in the Time of COVID-19
- May is Mental Health Month
- Adolescent Mental Health
What is our legal and insurance liability for those who might contract the virus through participation in our ministries? Do we need to use waivers for outside groups who will be using our church buildings?
Most conferences have decided against asking churches to require parishioners to execute waivers before attending worship (when in-person worship resumes) or otherwise visiting the church premises. The experience of a few that have announced such a policy – and the expectation of those that have not – is that such a policy would be poorly received by the membership, leaving the impression that the church was unwilling to take all reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of those they were inviting back for worship or other activities.
However, requiring a waiver is reasonable when an outside group is seeking to rent space in the church for its own purposes. All who make use of the facilities during the COVID pandemic should sign acknowledgment forms that require them: (1) to acknowledge the risks; (2) to disclose certain information regarding their own possible exposure to the virus before their event begins; and (3) to adhere to all relevant COVID-related restrictions and guidelines through their stay on the camp premises or participation in any camp activities. The acknowledgment forms may be tailored to this particular context. Here are samples that might be useful for review:
- BWC Retreat and Camping Ministries "Release and Waiver of Liability/Participant Health Screening" (PDF)
- COVID-19 Addendum on Facilities Use (Word doc)
- Health Questionnaire (Word doc)
If a lawsuit were to be filed, the church’s liability insurance coverage would likely both provide legal counsel to defend the church and cover the cost of any damages deemed to be caused by the church’s alleged negligence, but only up to the limits of the policy coverage. Insurance coverage may not apply, however, to cover damages awarded if it is determined that the church committed gross negligence — that is, that it acted with reckless or willful disregard for the health and safety of others.
WHAT MODIFICATIONS DO WE NEED TO MAKE TO OUR HVAC SYSTEM IN ORDER TO IMPROVE THE AIR QUALITY AND MINIMIZE THE RISK OF CIRCULATING THE VIRUS?
Most of us do not have the financial capacity to install new HEPA systems like hospitals have. At the mission center, in addition to implementing several measures to ensure best safety practices, we have made two adjustments to our system:
- Upgrade #1: Installed of HVAC ionization modules
- Upgrade #2: Upgraded HVAC filters from MERV 8 to MERV 13
See an archival copy of FAQs on Re-entering Well that were created in August 2020.