Updated November 23, 2020
Deciding when to re-open a church facility for in-person worship and meetings is an intentional and rigorous discernment process that requires answering What? Who? and When? as outlined in the BWC’s Re-Entering Well Guidelines.
Do we have a firm date for returning to face-to-face worship or for re-closing buildings for face-to-face worship?
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 those directives and to form a task force to complete the BWC’s Re-entering Well process outlined at bwcumc.org/re-entry. Once a congregation has discerned the answers to What? Who? and Where? they might answer the questions of How? and When?
It seems that just because a church can Stay open or re-open based on local guidance doesn't mean it should, because the population it serves might be at a higher risk. Is that true?
Yes. Every congregation will do a detailed analysis (bwcumc.org/re-entry) of when and how they will re-enter their building for in-person gatherings. The risks may be too high for a long time for some churches, while others may serve a different population in a less impacted area, be able to make safe accommodations, and open sooner. This will require a complex and intentional process of discernment.
Questions that explore the availability of required supplies, such as masks and hand sanitizer, and how you will adhere to all CDC and local health guidelines to mitigate risk.
What is our legal and insurance liability for those who might contract the virus through participating in our ministries? Do we need for 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 quite 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 which 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
What are the guidelines for a limited number of staff or vocal musicians entering the sanctuary to record vocal music for virtual worship? Are there guidelines regarding small groups, such as two or three staff or musicians, entering the sanctuary to record virtual worship?
Guidelines for the numbers of people in the sanctuary are determined by local and state governmental directives based on the status of COVID-19 cases in each jurisdiction. Within the BWC, this includes Maryland, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Regardless of the size limit in place at a given time, the basics of physical distancing, mask-wearing, and no physical contact apply in all these jurisdictions. If a group follows the guidelines to safely meet in-person to record music for virtual worship, then decisions will need to be made about whether vocal musicians can perform while wearing a mask.
A webinar of major singing organizations in the United States met the week of May 3 to discuss the future of singing while the coronavirus is still active. Here are some of the things that were mentioned about masks and singing: “No masks are currently safe for singing. N95 masks must be fit-tested first. They also decrease the singer’s oxygen levels due to rebreathing expired carbon dioxide and increasing levels (in the body). This is risky for people with asthma, COPD, and heart disease. Humming, even with a mask, is not a viable alternative to singing normally; aerosolized particles are still released through the nostrils and around the edges of the mask.” Vocalists commented that decreased oxygen levels could be the biggest problem with singing while wearing a mask. They also mentioned that when opening their mouths wider to achieve some pitches and vowels during rehearsals that their masks were pulled down off their noses and over their mouths, requiring readjustment during the performance.
So, there will be no singing at all in services? What about litanies and reciting the Lord’s prayer?
Singing is not advised at this time as it projects droplets farther than six feet. One church reports their congregation is learning songs in American Sign Language. Speaking is permitted so long as everyone in the building is wearing masks. It may be more comfortable to keep spoken participation at a minimum.
Do clergy need to wear face masks when they preach?
Yes. Preaching is an activity that may be accompanied by increased energy, voice volume, and droplet projection. A cloth (non-N95) mask, while odd and uncomfortable in that setting, will not only protect parishioners but also model care and concern for each other. Additionally, we recommend ensuring at least 12 feet distance is maintained between the preacher and the first row of congregants.
What about liturgists? Do they have to wear masks, too?
Yes, the same principles apply.
Will children need masks to return to church?
Yes, but because of the dangers of suffocation, masks are not recommended for children under age 2. It is recommended that other children wear masks.
Will churches be requiring gloves since the virus can be transferred to surfaces?
No. Individuals may choose to wear gloves, but they are not required. However, a generous supply of hand sanitizer, available to everyone, is mandated.
Why do we need to remove Bibles and hymnals, etc.?
Bibles and hymnals should be put away in storage to protect people’s health during the coronavirus pandemic. These are common surfaces that aren’t easily sanitized. However, once the pandemic is over, and that day will come, the Bible and hymnals can be used again.
Should we refrain from providing bulletins?
Yes. Information, including the order of worship, can be emailed to the congregation ahead of time, shared on a big screen, or shared verbally. You may choose to place bulletins on seats while gloved but they must be discarded in recycling containers before leaving the church. There are technology grants available to help churches increase their technological capacity.
What is suggested regarding the handling and counting of money?
Congregants should place their offerings in secured containers at entrances and exits from the sanctuary. Counters should wear masks, disposable gloves, and maintain six feet of physical distancing between themselves for the entire time the money is being handled and safely packaged for deposit.
My congregation is a creation-care congregation and we will not be using the pre-packaged Communion elements. We don’t want to risk the health of the environment in an effort to protect the health of the congregation. What are our alternatives?
While it is better for the environment, a common, reusable chalice is unacceptable when attempting to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. One suggestion is to invite parishioners to bring their own Communion elements from home and have a small supply of pre-packaged elements on-hand for newcomers or those who forget to bring their own bread and juice. Please see guidelines for instructions on safe handling of pre-packaged Communion elements.
Do you have any specific guidance for baptisms and new-member celebrations?
Follow the same local and state governmental directives for faith-based organizations and the BWC Re-Entering Well Guidelines for determining if your congregation is prepared to meet all safety recommendations toward reducing the risk for transmission of coronavirus.
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 churches be taking temperatures of congregants upon entry?
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.
Any recommendations on how many months of PPE and sanitation supplies would be a good base?
It is hard to predict this in advance. Each church’s Task Force will assess the number of people who are likely to attend in-person worship. Some congregations are contacting members directly to ask if they intend to come to in-person worship when the building is re-opened or if they plan to continue virtual church worship until a later time. This may be an opportunity to form a cooperative of churches to purchase items in bulk and distribute supplies according to need.
We have not found any product to disinfect wooden pews, which concerns us. Any advice? What impact does the virus have on cloth seats inside the sanctuary?
Many sanitizers are damaging to wood unless clearly stated on labels. Some churches are covering the seats, backs, and tops of wooden pews with plastic sheeting that may be cleaned or replaced between services. Other churches have moved their wooden pews to the periphery of the sanctuary and replaced them with washable plastic chairs. Congregations may consider holding in-person worship in other meeting spaces where surfaces and seats are easily cleaned between events.
Will the conference design signage and other comprehensive messaging for use by churches in the area?
Yes. Click below to download signage to use in your local church.
Does the Conference have a policy for sick leave for clergy and the carryover of vacation time since many vacation plans are being altered?
Please see our Conference Policies Paragraphs 4033 and 4035.
Questions about the percentage of congregants who are vulnerable to the virus, and the high degree of discipline that will be necessary in order for the pastor and congregation to be vigilant about adhering to guidelines and helping others do the same.
How do we deal with the challenges of having pastors/staff who may be in vulnerable categories or who may not be able to return as quickly as others?
Pastors, staff, and other servant leaders who are vulnerable to the virus need to be given the flexibility to serve from home until Phase 3. The safety and well-being of every person continues to be our priority. If pastors and staff are vulnerable to COVID-19 they should continue to work from home. Leaders at risk of contracting the virus will not be required to return to the building until it is safe to do so. Pastors and staff with specific concerns should speak with the church’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee and/or their District Superintendent.
Are there people we should ask to stay at home?
All people who are feeling sick or who are living with someone who feels sick should stay home. People who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are living with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 should isolate themselves for 14 days. Finally, people who are in the vulnerable category “older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions” might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and are asked to stay at home until Phase 3 except for essential activity.
Are there people we will need to turn away due to sickness or known travel?
Anyone who is known to have traveled out of state or out of the country should not attend in-person worship until they have quarantined in their homes or another location for 14 days. Note that a quarantine always requires staying in one’s home unless an emergency occurs. Anyone who refuses to wear a mask must be asked to leave the building. Anyone who reports that they are unable to wear a mask because of breathing problems or other health-related reasons must be asked to leave and to continue participation through virtual worship and meetings until public masking directives have been lifted.
What suggestions are there for tracking attendance for contact tracing if we can’t ask people to write on cards/attendance sheets?
This is not a simple task but is very important if someone tests positive for COVID-19 after a service and everyone present needs to be notified of a potential exposure. Contact tracing by the health department relies on names and phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Some suggestions include having a volunteer record the names and contact information of all who are present. Another suggestion is to have a list of members or those who have RSVP’d for the gathering and have a volunteer check their names off a list and/or write out the names of visitors.
Is there any special consideration for people who wear robes (pastors, acolytes, etc.)?
Use of robes is discouraged until Phase 3. 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 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.
I am retiring at the end of June. Will district superintendents guide pastors and congregations in how to honor pastors who are retiring or being re-appointed?
Yes, superintendents will extend grace and work with pastors and congregations to express gratitude for one another as they make important transitions.
Since the planning and implementation of re-entering will cross over the June 30-July 1 dates, how involved should an incoming pastor be in the planning for re-opening?
These are new and unprecedented times. Collegiality, connectionalism, and being nimble are key, but pastoral authority still needs to be maintained. As with many things in this season of pandemic, the situation will depend very much on the context and the people involved. If there are any questions, consult your district superintendent.
What is a good guideline for Vacation Bible School this summer?
Phase one openings does not allow for enough teachers, staff, volunteers, kitchen personnel, and children to gather in-person to safely conduct Vacation Bible School.
Once local and state government guidelines are released for Phase Two, 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.
Please note that all on-site camping programs within the BWC have been canceled for this summer.
Attention to ongoing governmental assessments of pandemic numbers and modifications of guidelines will be required throughout the summer.
Will there be guidance for re-opening preschools and education centers?
Please follow local and state governmental directives related to educational programs. Discern if your congregation is prepared to meet all safety guidelines prior to reopening these programs.
Questions concerning the size and configuration of your space(s) including parking lots, foyers, sanctuaries, bathrooms, classrooms, etc. and what that means in terms of meeting health guidelines.
Can you provide guidance/definition for what “limited attendance” means?
Each state has set different guidelines. Furthermore, as we move forward, states will likely end up creating different maximum attendance numbers for different counties as hotspots occur. For example, when West Virginia raised the attendance number for the state to less than 25, hot spot counties were being advised to gather fewer than five.
Is it okay to hold open-air services outside or to have drive-in services?
Yes, but whether inside or outside of the church building, all the physical distancing, sanitation, and other guidelines still apply. The same is true for those communities who want to hold drive-in style worship. Churches may consider offering “drive-in worship,” although guidelines must be followed to do so safely.
- Coordinate with your local law enforcement or emergency management agency.
- Utilize volunteers or signage to direct parking.
- Everyone, including volunteers, staff, and clergy, must always follow physical distancing guidelines.
- No one should leave vehicles for any reason.
- No playground.
- Park every other spot.
- No one exchanges anything.
- If the building is opened, all guidelines must be followed.
Where should we/could we safely conduct weddings, funerals, and baptisms?
These activities, like in-person worship, are subject to the same local and state governmental directives regarding numbers of people allowed to gather in-person. The consideration of all BWC re-entry guidelines, including the ability to ensure physical distancing and mask-wearing must be used until these directives are lifted.
How should we address the use of restrooms when we first come back to the building?
The Re-Entering Well Guidelines ask that every church consider how physical distancing can be observed in their restrooms, including the use of alternate stalls and sinks, and how to control and monitor traffic in these areas. Additionally, there needs to be a thorough cleaning of restroom surfaces between gatherings. Encourage sanitary practices within restrooms through excellent signage. Signs should be posted reminding ALL users that hand washing for at least two minutes is important, in addition to your "masks must be worn" notice. If possible, reserve a restroom for seniors over 65. Signs should be displayed outside the restroom offering instructions on proper procedures, and again on the inside of the restroom stalls.
Should we mark our floors with 6-foot guidelines like open businesses do?
Yes. Especially in the early phases, visual markers help people maintain 6 feet of distancing. Some good places to do this is where lines might form (e.g., entrances, exits, bathrooms, etc.) Also, marking where people are to sit in seats or pews would be helpful.