Responding to the pandemic of the coronavirus has raised questions for many local church leaders. We’ve compiled an FAQ to address some of the questions Conference leaders have received.
A Resource Guide is available at https://www.bwcumc.org/article/coronavirus-resources/
Q: What did area government officials say that prompted Bishop Easterling to direct Baltimore-Washington Conference churches to cease gathering for worship in their buildings?
A: On Monday, March 23, Governor Hogan of Maryland issued an executive order ordering the closure of non-essential businesses, and on March 25, schools were ordered closed through April 24, 2020. Mayor Muriel Bowser of the District of Columbia issued an order on Tuesday, March 24, directing the closure of non-essential businesses as of March 25. Effective Tuesday, March 24, Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia issued a stay-at-home order for residents of West Virginia.
Bishop Easterling has also been in consultation with medical practitioners and has been following experts like those at the Centers for Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/guidance-community-faith-organizations.html
Q: What public health goals should churches be most concerned with?
A: Among the most important public health concerns today are:
- Stopping or slowing the spread of the virus.
- Protecting vulnerable populations (our seniors, those with health conditions, and caregivers).
Q: Is there a framework for decision-making that could help local churches in their efforts to stop or slow the spread of the virus?
A: In their decision-making, churches should ask:
- Is the ministry activity to be held in the church building essential to the congregation or to the community?
If the answer is yes, then how can that ministry be accomplished with public health and safety protected? Will participants be able to maintain social distancing?
If the answer is no, can the activity be rescheduled or are there other ways to accomplish the essential aspects of this ministry activity? (For example with Zoom or Facebook Live)
- How does the ministry activity affect vulnerable populations? How can they be protected as participants in the activity, or as recipients of the ministry activity, with explicit directions and actions?
- Who will assume responsibility for overseeing that good hygienic and cleaning practices are implemented and maintained?
Issues about which the churches are asking district superintendents for guidance:
Q: What financial assistance is being offered to local churches?
A: The Baltimore-Washington Conference is promoting a multi-layered approach to support the financial health of our churches at this time. These initiatives are designed to assist local churches by waiving local church benefits obligations for three months and providing grants to the 252 small churches that don’t pay clergy benefits. Several other measures have also been adopted. Learn more at www.bwcumc.org/article/local-church-financial-relief-consultations.
Q: Several churches have inquired about the operations of food pantries, recovery groups, feeding and shelter ministries, and other congregations using a church’s space. How should they address these concerns?
A: Again, when making decisions, discern what is essential and act accordingly. If a program or initiative is essential, do as much as possible to protect those participating, including insisting that room be made for social distancing, washing hands, and other recommended public health measures.
Provisions should be made to separate any persons who are ill or exhibit symptoms of illness. If anyone who has been involved in the ministry activity is later diagnosed with COVID-19, that information must be reported to all participants so that appropriate actions may be taken.
If you still have questions or concerns, consult with your district superintendent.
Q: How does the pandemic affect daycare and preschool centers housed in local churches?
Decisions about these centers should be made at the discretion of local church leaders.
In accordance with Governor Larry Hogan’s executive order of March 23, 2020, Bishop Easterling is not advising day care or preschool facilities in Maryland to close at this time. The governor’s executive order requiring non-essential businesses to close by 5 p.m. on March 23 does not include preschool or day care facilities, according to reports in the Baltimore Sun. Bishop Easterling is requesting all churches to follow the CDC and WHO protocols for hand washing and other hygienic practices to reduce transmission of any illnesses.
In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser recommended earlier this month that day care facilities close, a move that would affect more than 400 businesses. Since day care facilities are privately owned, the mayor is not forcing them to shut down.
In West Virginia, Governor Jim Justice is asking day care facilities to stay open, if possible, to handle the need.
“We have actually asked people to try to keep day cares open,” West Virginia State Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp said at a news conference March 19. “It’s a really critical piece,” she said. “Several organizations are starting to work with health care centers to really support child care for our health care workers, and that’s a really important piece of maintaining our health care workforce ... and other essential personnel so they can have child care that is safe and effective while they can get their job done.”
Q: What about funerals?
A: Governor Hogan's order does not prohibit funerals or viewings, "but funeral directors should use reasonable efforts to keep the size of gatherings at funerals below the required maximum gathering size (currently 50). Funeral directors should monitor and follow all applicable guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) and the Maryland Department of Health (“MDH”), and the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (“OSHA”) regarding (i) social- distancing and (ii) environmental cleaning and disinfection of rooms and equipment." In an effort to protect the most vulnerable among us, clergy should consider smaller services within funeral homes or churches and larger graveside services.
Q: Should church staff (including the pastor) be paid during the time the building is closed? Should this be counted against their personal or sick leave or vacation time?
A: Clergy should still be working, although they may be called upon to use technology more than they usually do. If during this time, they are sick or on vacation, the appropriate leave should be used. Teleworking is a consideration if it can be accomplished. These decisions are contextual. Remember that those who are most vulnerable are hourly employees; the disruption of their work is not their choice, and so, vacation or personal leave is discouraged. This is a time for as much grace as we can offer, and privileging human beings over finances.
Q: How should pastoral care be addressed?
A: The care of human beings, both physical and spiritual, is always central to our ministry. And, in these extraordinary circumstances, that care must take into consideration the health and well-being of all involved. Pastors should discuss this with their Staff Parish Relations Committee to develop an acceptable protocol within their given context. If pastors or SPRC chairs have questions or concerns, they may contact their district superintendents.
Anticipation of the future & best practices:
Q: What if a church member tests positive, or has someone in their household who has been exposed to COVID-19?
A: As with any illness, this person should seek medical attention and work with doctors to address their symptoms. HIPPA rules concerning patient privacy discourage the sharing of names of people who are sick and the details of their illness. While it may be appropriate to share that someone from your congregation has been exposed to the virus and to hold them in prayer, it is better not to announce or share their name.
The Centers for Disease Control offers good advice for businesses that can easily be applied to church settings. If a congregant or church employee has a sick family member at home with COVID-19, the pastor should be notified. They can run a risk assessment of potential exposure. If a parishioner is confirmed to have COVID-19, pastors should inform the congregation of their possible exposure to COVID-19 at the church, but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Q: Would open-air worship be an acceptable substitute for worshipping in the building?
A: It depends. Current wisdom suggests that each person should remain 6-feet apart from other people to hinder the spread of the virus.
Q: What if a pastor becomes sick?
A: As with any illness, the pastor should seek medical attention and work with doctors to address their symptoms. They should also contact their district superintendent and the Staff-Parish Relations Committee so that the appropriate arrangements can be made.
About Conference actions:
Q: Will there be apportionment relief for churches if this becomes a protracted closure?
A: For the foreseeable future, caring for people and the public health should be everyone’s primary concern. The conference will continue to work in partnership with local churches and assess this situation on an ongoing basis as it unfolds.
Q: What date can we reopen?
A: Bishop Easterling’s current directive is to refrain from gathering in person, through Sunday, April 26. However, the future of the virus and its effects are uncertain and church leaders are asked to pay attention to future governmental action and communications from the conference.
Please know that we are working diligently to provide ongoing staff support and resources for use throughout the conference. We are also praying for each of you as you work to respond to this pandemic and State of Emergency. May we remember that God is with us and remains our source of strength and comfort.