Churches are beginning to open for in-person worship as states ease restrictions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
And pressure – real or imagined – is building on those clergy and lay leaders who prefer a more cautious pace, Baptist ministers and state leaders say.
The staff at the Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, Alabama, felt that heat in May as neighboring congregations were moving toward physical gatherings.
“Three or four weeks ago we looked around at each other said, ‘OK, we need a plan,’” said Valerie Burton, associate pastor for Christian formation at the church, which is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “We felt pressure to have a plan.”
The staff’s intuition was to proceed slowly and to see how the easing of restrictions across the city and state impacted COVID-19 rates. But the ministers were nervous about how members of the congregation would respond.
“One of my colleagues said, ‘I’m afraid if other churches open around us and we don’t open, they may leave us,’” Burton said.
They forged ahead with a plan centered on infection rates and trends, not on dates influenced by government action or the pace of church openings. The approach was shared during a virtual business meeting, on the church website and finally in an online forum with members.
“It was graciously affirmed,” Burton said. “It assuaged our fears or anxiety about the pressures around needing to get back sooner.”
It was a relief to know lay people shared their ministers’ concern for safety, she said.
“As a congregation and as a staff, the last thing we want is for someone to get sick and say it’s because they came to church.”
‘You don’t want to be on the news’
But in other churches members are pushing clergy to resume in-person gatherings, said Jody Long, executive coordinator of CBF Georgia.
“I’ve talked to a lot of pastors who are feeling that pressure from folks within their congregations who are saying it’s time to get back together and start worshiping because such-and-such church down the road is looking to open,” Long said.
He urged caution against opening as a response to pressure, which can lead to minimizing potential consequences on congregational and public health.
“You don’t want to be on the news right now,” he said. “You don’t want to be the church that opens and two weeks later you are doing press conferences about people who have contracted this.”
Congregational witness can also be damaged if the return to physical gatherings goes wrong.
“It could set back ministry goals for months or years,” he said.
And why not wait until restrictions are further eased to allow seniors to attend, Long added.
“If the people over 65 don’t come or shouldn’t come, you are going to have a fairly small crowd,” he said. “So, who are you really opening for?”
‘Remember, we are staying the course’
Grappling with such weighty matters should not be left to individual clergy, said Bill Wilson, founder of the Center for Congregational Health.
“I feel for these church leaders, lay and clergy, because this is not a one-person decision,” he said.
Wilson suggested church leaders rely on standing or ad-hoc committees – where possible including health care, education, business and other professionals – to weigh the many factors in deciding to reconvene in-person worship.
“It’s not to spread the blame but to increase the wisdom in the room,” he explained. “No one person has all the wisdom.”
Chris Aho, the pastor at Oxford Baptist Church in Oxford, North Carolina, said he is benefiting from the committee approach to returning to physical gatherings.
The congregation has a logistics team consisting of government, manufacturing, health care and other representatives charged with examining best practices, he said.
“It would be easy to go back really quick, but they are charged with asking what is the best way for Oxford Baptist to act at this moment.”
Communicating regularly with the deacon chair, the committee provides a shield against mounting pressure to re-open, Aho said.
“I think about half of (the congregation) wants to get back at it, but there also is a significant percentage who are leery about it.”
And there’s the pressure Aho said he’s brought to the conversation.
“I have said, ‘let’s go back with limited numbers with constraints,’” he said. “And they come back and say, ‘remember, we are staying the course.’”
Sharing the decision-making “helps buoy the mood swings we are all wrestling with at this moment,” Aho added.
‘Pressure could increase’
In some states, CBF leaders are hosting conference calls and Zoom meetings in which pastors can share ideas and stress around launching in-person services.
CBF Florida Coordinator Ray Johnson has convened virtual gatherings in which outside experts offer guidance on challenges, including how ministers can respond to the political divisions and conspiracy theories around COVID-19.
Alabama CBF Coordinator Terri Byrd said it’s important that churches who do decide to open their doors be supported within the Fellowship.
“Many of our churches are in conversations with each other … and have released each other from the pressure of having to be on the same timeline,” Byrd said.
Jakob Topper, the senior pastor at NorthHaven Church in Norman, Oklahoma, said he has yet to feel any pressure to return to in-person worship.
Partly that’s because his CBF-affiliated congregation is on board with the go-slow approach. It also helps that the city has lagged behind the state in easing restrictions.
“But that could change in the next couple of weeks” as congregations in Norman begin to open, he said.
“I suspect when my people look around and see other churches are back, pressure could increase.”
But no decisions will be made before June 15 when NorthHaven’s executive committee meets again to consider the issue.
“Mostly there is just a whole lot of watch and wait and praying for patience while we do what we can to help the most vulnerable people,” he said.
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