Church Leaders Face Tough Choices As COVID-19 Cases Rise

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When Mobile pastor Derek Allen announced on July 1 that his church, First Baptist Church Tillman’s Corner,  was reverting back to online-only services and ministries following a COVID-19 outbreak among staff and volunteers, he acknowledged the move felt like a “step backward.”

“It felt like we were inching our way back to a full schedule” he wrote in an update on the church’s website. “This is disappointing to all of us.”

Allen had addressed the outbreak in a blog post, “Five lessons I learned from a COVID-19 spike at our church,” on his personal website the day before. The post gained national attention as church leaders in Alabama and across the country pondered their next steps in light of climbing numbers of positive tests for COVID-19 and rising death rates due to the illness.

In his blog post, Allen made it clear the decision at FBC Tillman’s Corner was a local one.

“We made the difficult decision [to return to online-only services] because we are witnessing a spike in COVID-19 cases among our faith family,” he wrote. “There has been a significant increase in cases among FBTC members in the past two weeks. We need to move quickly and decisively to stop the virus before it spreads any further. I’m not trying to alarm you, but I want to be clear — this is a serious situation. Several of our members who have gotten this have experienced severe illness. We don’t want to see any of our faith family members suffer through a COVID-19 infection, and we want to do our part to contain this spike as much as possible.”

Many Churches Going To Online-Only

In the days that followed, multiple churches across Alabama announced similar decisions. Some were responding to COVID-19 spikes in the community, others to exposure in their church families.

Poplar Springs Baptist Church, Uriah, in a July 3 Facebook post announced: “Our services will be returning to exclusively online for the next 2 weeks. We have been blessed in that no one in our numbers has been sick, but due to concerns over rising cases as well as the heat and humidity in the morning hours, we feel that this is the best course of action.”

Also on July 3, Church of the Highlands, a multi-site church with locations throughout the state, announced it would resume online-only services at all its locations until further notice.

On July 4, Camp Ground Baptist Church, Ozark, announced it would shift to an online service the following morning “due to the rising numbers of COVID-19.”

That same day, Hanceville First Baptist Church announced it would continue Wednesday night Bible study and prayer meeting “because of the smaller size of the group and the ability to social distance in the fellowship hall” but would hold online worship due to Cullman County being in the highest risk category for COVID-19 spread, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Blooming Grove Baptist Church, Jasper, announced on July 5 it would cancel Wednesday night services through July due to community spread, and Bethel Baptist Church, Dothan, announced cancellation of Wednesday night activities and VBS due to COVID-19 in many church families.

Concord Baptist Church, Bessemer, and Bethel Baptist Church, Columbiana, made similar announcements on July 9.

And in a July 8 Facebook post, Deerfoot Baptist Church, Trussville, associate pastor Will Haynes wrote that the church’s pastor, Glenn Sandifer, had tested positive for the virus.

Trussville Pastor Tests Positive

Haynes wrote, “Due to the surge in cases in our immediate area and Pastor Glenn’s positive test, we must act swiftly and decisively in order to prevent any further spread of this virus among our faith family. We do not want to see anyone in our church family suffer through this virus. Therefore, we believe that it is in the best interest of the church family to go back to an all-online format.”

Deerfoot’s move to online-only services meant the church’s VBS, scheduled for July 15-16, also was cancelled.

Randy Hagan, pastor of Dwight Baptist Church, Gadsden, made the decision to cancel VBS as well. In a Facebook post on July 10, he wrote: “After much prayer and seeking counsel, I have reached a decision that we will not be having VBS on Saturday, August 1. With the COVID-19 numbers all over the chart, I do not believe we can keep our children safe. … This was an extremely tough decision to make. … Please pray for innovative ways we can reach our community for Jesus.”

Phrases like “extremely tough” and “please bear with us” in several posts made it clear that pastors are struggling with challenging times and hard decisions.

Adjusting ‘Moment To Moment’

“This is [a] confusing time, and in many ways we are having to adjust moment to moment,” the Hanceville First post stated.

And as Allen learned, the moment-to-moment decisions required these days may be necessary even when churches have heeded state and federal recommendations. The church reopened only after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey lifted restrictions on public gatherings, and even then, the church practiced social distancing and mask wearing, Allen said. In fact, the church added up to five services a day to accommodate the 130 people they allowed per service in a sanctuary that normally holds 1,000 people. Still, he acknowledged, mistakes were made.

“On a few occasions, we were a little lax in those policies. We can trace almost all of the infections back to one of those times,” Allen wrote in his blog post.

In an interview with CNN, Allen warned other pastors to prioritize their members ahead of any political messages around COVID-19 and the pandemic.

‘Err On The Side of Caution’

“Don’t get caught in the political conversation, be concerned about your local flock. And if you have any hesitation, err on the side of caution,” Allen told CNN.

Allen also acknowledged there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the complex decisions church leaders are now being asked to make.

“What is right for my church is not necessarily right for another person’s church,” he said.

After protests from churches around the nation about religious liberty infringement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made it clear that its guidelines for faith communities are voluntary recommendations.

“Gathering together for worship is at the heart of what it means to be a community of faith,” the CDC site states. “But as Americans are now aware, gatherings present a risk for increasing spread of COVID-19 during this public health emergency. CDC offers these suggestions for faith communities to consider and accept, reject or modify, consistent with their own faith traditions, in the course of preparing to reconvene for in-person gatherings while still working to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

In addition to practices related to cleaning, sanitizing, social distancing and other preventive steps to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC recommends the following steps faith-based communities might take in responding to known COVID-19 cases in the church.

What To Do If Someone Who Is Sick Has Been In Your Church Building

Identify an area to separate anyone who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 during hours of operation, and ensure that children are not left without adult supervision.

Establish procedures for safely transporting anyone who becomes sick at the facility to their home or a healthcare facility.

In the event a person diagnosed with COVID-19 is determined to have been in the building and poses a risk to the community, it is strongly suggested to dismiss attendees, then properly clean and disinfect the area and the building where the individual was present before resuming activities.

Close off areas used by the sick person and do not use the area until after cleaning and disinfection. Ensure safe and correct application of disinfectants and keep disinfectant products away from children.

Notify local health officials if a person diagnosed with COVID-19 has been in the facility and communicate with staff and congregants about potential exposure while maintaining confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or other applicable laws and in accordance with religious practices.

What To Do If Someone On Your Church Staff Gets Sick

Staff, volunteers and members should stay home if they have tested positive for or are showing COVID-19 symptoms.

Staff, volunteers and members who have recently had close contact with a person with symptoms of or diagnosed with COVID-19 should also stay home and monitor their health.

Advise staff and congregants with symptoms of COVID-19 or who have tested positive for COVID-19 not to return to the facility until they have met CDC’s criteria to discontinue home isolation.

Precautionary Steps Your Church Can Take

Check state and local health department notices daily about transmission in the community and adjust operations. See a map of Alabama counties and COVID-19 cases by clicking here.

Educate staff and stakeholders about when they should stay home and when it is safe to gather in person with other people for work or group activities. Actively encourage stakeholders who are sick to stay home.

Develop policies that encourage sick employees to stay at home without fear of reprisal, and ensure employees are aware of these policies.

How To Communicate With Your Church Members And Community

Designate a staff person to be responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns. Staff, clergy, volunteers and congregants should know who this person is and how to contact them if they become sick or are around others diagnosed with COVID-19. This person should also be aware of state or local regulatory agency policies related to group gatherings.

Communicate clearly with staff and congregants about actions being taken to protect their health.

Alabama is currently under an amended Safer at Home Order until July 31 at 5 p.m. View the Emergency Order Suspending Certain Public Gatherings Due to Risk of Infection By COVID-19 “Safer at Home” Order (Spanish version) issued on June 30, 2020.

To see what’s new and what’s staying the same for the previous order, view the Office of the Governor’s Proceeding with Caution Info Sheet.

Editors Note: This article Reprinted from Baptist Press (www.baptistpress.com), news service of the Southern Baptist Convention and recently appeared on tabonline.org and courtesy of TAB Media.

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