Social Distancing and Community — the Dilemma of Re-opening Churches

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Published:
May 13, 2020

The problem of re-opening society, to begin recovery and mitigate the rolling economic disaster, is complex. In the United States, we presently lack sufficient testing capability, so the authorities cannot adequately know where current infections are and quickly identify new ones to prevent re-accelerating the contagion rate. And because we currently have no vaccine, the ability to broadly detect, contact trace, isolate, and quarantine is then a necessary prerequisite to restoring public confidence in returning to our former social habits.

Nonetheless, for understandable economic reasons, the Trump Administration has been pushing to re-open society. And state governments have either resonated with, or resisted, this desire, based on two basic things: 1) amount of COVID-19 happening in their state, and 2) political ideology of the mayors, governors, and state legislatures. So, there will be inconsistent timing for re-openings across the country. And there will likely be varying degrees of specificity in governmental guidance on just how the various businesses and organizations should implement effective social distancing when they re-open.

One of the most significant institutions Americans wish to see re-opened is the local church. In theory churches ought to be among the last organizations allowed, due to the amount of human interaction and thus higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. However, there is also likely to be significant groundswell to get churches re-opened soon, as church participation is a core value for many Americans. Already there has been an initiative calling on churches to re-open on May 3. And, while I write from an American perspective, re-opening religious institutions is of course a world-wide consideration. Different countries will have different timing and guidelines, but eventually local church leadership will need to consider how this can properly be done, for their specific situations.

In considering what to do, it is important to recognize that the goals of: 1) social distance, and 2) community are almost completely in opposition. Think about what the primary values of church attendance are for participants. There is, of course, religious information (sermons) and discussion (Sabbath or Sunday School). There is worship of God — a personal experience that hopefully is enhanced by the proximity of fellow believers. Local church leaders can probably mostly succeed in retaining such information/worship goals under social distance constraints, albeit with some logistical difficulty. But it will be much harder to succeed at the other, core value of church attendance — community. Ideally, this requires proximity. And, depending on one’s subculture, sometimes a lot of proximity. Hugs and handshakes. Sharing a meal. A packed lobby with kids running everywhere. Lots of talking and laughing. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to recognize this as a (perhaps the) central need and purpose of church attendance.

But now church leaders must also implement a social distancing goal if their congregations are to re-open responsibly. How can this be done without also doing serious damage to community? And, given that various church members will have (perhaps widely) varying understandings and commitments to social distancing, how does leadership manage their cooperation? There will be some — outliers, perhaps — who will not obey whatever restrictions are formulated to prevent the church experience from becoming a contagion free-for-all. But then compliance and risk mitigation is only as good as the weakest links.

To see how complex and messy this might be, consider this starter list of problems local leadership likely must plan for, prior to opening:

1. Children

You’re not going to sufficiently explain social distancing to kids, such that they will rationally cooperate. Church for them presumably involves running around, seeking out and playing with friends, and generally having a good time. It also has organized activities like Sabbath School and Children’s Story that formerly included lots of mingling. Adults will somehow have to seriously restructure all of this and tightly supervise, or expect the kids to continue behaving as they always have. But now that would make them primary transmission vehicles. Yet to rein them into the necessary restrictive paths would probably result in the kids being very unhappy at this unfamiliar, constrained experience. And I’d expect they would be quite vocal (the younger, the louder) about such a change. And an unhappy child doesn’t make for a happy parent. It might not take much for the parents to conclude that their kids’ experience, which likely was a net-positive for church attendance in the past, would now be a big net-negative. Perhaps to the point where parents would stop coming due to the aggravation.

2. Elderly and at-risk members

Under conditions of no vaccine and inadequate testing — unfortunately normative for many months to come — some members either will not attend and expose themselves to an increased danger, or should be discouraged from attending, as leadership recognizes they would be at excessive risk. Either way, the church would and/or should expect a subset of membership to not come back unless/until the community is adequately safe from infection hazard. Multiple problems arise from this. One is that this group often is in leadership roles and cannot resume them in the near term. And, in smaller congregations, including those essentially on “life support,” this subset could be so large as to make re-opening essentially impossible, or not worth it. There would be too few who are not at risk. Finally, in churches that have a broader base, local leaders probably should maintain any current technology analogs — streaming the service, Zoom-based Sabbath Schools, etc. — or else this stay-at-home membership subset would be cut off from participation. So, re-opening doesn’t allow leadership to simplify by shutting down present online options. You would need to hold church both ways.

3. Greeters

Handshakes probably should be forbidden. Should face-masks be required of everyone? And provided if people came without them? How about temperatures taken at the door? If so, the church must procure supplies that have sometimes been hard to obtain. Greeters would necessarily be tasked with explaining and policing such culturally abhorrent rules, and they never signed up for that. Many would be reluctant to have such a shift in job requirement. Also, greeters are often extroverts and could have a hard time even being compliant themselves. Thus, convincing and training this first line of “defense” would itself be a major undertaking. Should you then consider just eliminating greeters altogether and substitute some sort of instructional signage? That’s great for community, right?

4. The Church Lobby

This traffic is inherently chaotic in normal times. And that was formerly fine as it provided opportunity for random interaction, sometimes leading to new friendships. Just what the church wants. But now a six-foot-distance rule seriously constrains all this, if people even can or will obey. The best one could hope for, from the perspective of social distancing, would be for people to minimize lobby interaction and just head directly to their seats, first Sabbath School, then church. But this works in opposition to community, and worse, starts to reprogram people’s operational mindset to stop interacting with others. There’s going to be a lot of confusion here. People trying to maintain their human ties and simultaneously keep distance. Even the most conscientious will do this imperfectly. Worse, a (hopefully small) minority won’t even try very hard, and will move around freely, to the abhorrence of others. Then the “leper” reaction could occur as people distance themselves from such “loose actors” — physically and even judgmentally — which is itself a community-killer.

5. The Sanctuary

Issues here would be largely logistical, and somewhat analogous to those faced by theatres. Some seats would be occupiable, and others probably would need to be roped off (or equivalent), to tacitly both create and enforce distancing. Perhaps people could be seated and dismissed by ushers/deacons, like old-style church services and weddings. But all this process comes at great cost, both in terms of effort but also community. Further, it greatly reduces sanctuary capacity. If pre-COVID attendance levels were still retained after re-opening it might be necessary to offer an additional service. But perhaps the suboptimality of a social distance church experience would discourage attendance, so the reduced capacity might be adequate. Leaders can’t really know what will happen in advance. Must there then be extra, perhaps unnecessary planning, in case reduced physical capacity is problematic?

6. Bathrooms and drinking fountains

Probably most churches have constrained passage from the bathroom door to the facilities. This would violate the 6-foot rule. Urinals are side-by-side which might mean one-at-a-time, or covering every other one in larger restrooms. But it is unworkable to expect only one person at a time in the bathroom — except in the smallest churches. Physical urgency obviously happens, so there is the necessity for people to police their own distancing. Drinking fountains are both a source of proximity and contagion. Should they be shut down? If so an alternative, like bottled water, would have to be available. More effort and expense.

7. Potluck

In many smaller churches this is a major part of the social “glue” facilitating community. The simple move here would be to cancel it, and the cost then is in harm to the church’s member cohesion. What good is holding church if too many “limbs” of the community “tree” have to be lopped off to minimize contagion? If potlucks were held you would have to establish protocols for how people interacted in the kitchen, and implement seating separation. But, as conversation is a major benefit to people attending, and seating in normal times is usually side-by-side and directly across, such distancing necessities would seriously undermine the value of potluck to those who would normally choose to participate.

Now, I’m not really trying here to present an exhaustive list of difficulties and corresponding approaches for handling re-opening under social distancing. What I hope to do is raise awareness for those local church leaders who will, at some point soon, need to work through the myriad details of policies and policing.

Given human nature, we could easily have a lose-lose situation. That is, enough distancing to deeply compromise the value of church to the participants, and enough contact through compliance breakdown to significantly transmit the virus, if present. Now, for-profit businesses — such as theatres — will more likely have the incentive and expertise to devise and implement plans for re-opening. It is surely possible, with much effort, for people to come into proximity for some event, and have a positive experience while being minimally at-risk of infection. But community in those contexts is not a goal. Conversely, churches are staffed with volunteers and will likely lack resources to adequately follow through on the sort of onerous, complicated rules and enforcement I’ve alluded to here. Plus some leaders and church members may well be skeptical of the need to social-distance, being fed by politicians and media that downplay health risk and emphasize individuality. Churches driven by these values might just wish to re-open with inadequate effort toward distancing. All this suggests to me that re-openings, unless very carefully planned, are likely to be a mess.

Here is where the Seventh-day Adventist conferences, at minimum, have an important role to play. They, in concert with any detailed instructions from government, need to mandate a degree of uniformity and seriousness that the local churches would have to follow if they want to re-open. There surely ought to be some measure of partnership between local church leadership and denomination administration. Each church will have unique problems and re-opening with the new and conflicting goals of community and distancing will take more work than I think is presently understood. And sadly, in the near-term at least, if one of these goals has to be sacrificed somewhat — it must be community. The church cannot be the vehicle to re-accelerate the pandemic. But will community be so compromised as to make re-opening a net-negative experience? That is a big and very real risk.

 

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

Image Credit: United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

 

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