Congregational leadership:  Responding to COVID-19

Guest commentary by Susan Krummel

For leaders in congregations, the current health crisis is new territory. I was in worship on Sunday, March 8 in a congregation with which I am very familiar. I noticed that there were about half as many people as usual there. This is the time to begin planning ways for your congregation to continue to be a source of worship, comfort, challenge and peace even when we cannot gather together for worship.

One hundred years ago during the flu epidemic that followed World War I, congregations were not allowed to have worship services for several weeks. They did not have all the electronic tools we have today for staying in touch and had to find other ways of staying connected. They found ways to be the church even in the midst of such changed circumstances.

Congregational leaders will be the ones to make the best decisions about which events will continue as usual – including worship – and which you will alter in some way during the coronavirus outbreak. It may be, as well, that the decision is taken out of your hands because of orders from your local health authorities. It is time to gather a group of leaders in your congregation to make some plans.

Here are the things that you will want to consider:

  • How will you continue to include those who are ill or afraid or following the recommendations or requirements of governmental officials so that you may all participate in worship and other spiritual practices of your congregation? Do you have a way to produce a video of worship? Are you on Facebook live?  (Remember, you cannot stream music that is copyrighted.) Do you post your worship services to YouTube? Does the pastor post the sermon or prayers? This is a good time to increase your online presence so that all of your members and friends can stay connected to your group spiritual practices over the next weeks and months. If you are still together in worship this Sunday, you might want to have a tutorial for people who will need to learn how to use the electronic means you have chosen so that they can participate. For those who do not have access to electronic communications, duplicate and mail a bulletin, the sermon, the prayer concerns, etc.
  • Have you considered holding smaller events as Zoom meetings or by Skype or FaceTime? For instance, do you have a Bible study that meets regularly? If it becomes important for people not to meet in person, have you helped them find a way to continue that practice electronically? What committee or session meetings can you hold electronically?
  • What about pastoral care? This is the time to remind deacons, elders, Stephen ministers and staff that they should not make pastoral visits if they are themselves feeling unwell. This is also a time to think about how to help people feel the care offered by your congregation without physical contact. Do you have a robust ministry of sending written notes, making phone calls and contacting your shut-in or ill members or those experiencing loss by electronic means?
  • Do you have a way for members to make contributions electronically? The best way to do that is to have people set up Electronic Funds Transfer so that their contributions are made on a regular basis. (Your bank or the Presbyterian Foundation can help you with this.) Is there a place on your website where people can make an online contribution? Can people contribute by text? This is the time to improve all of these systems for your congregation.

But perhaps the most important thing your leaders can be doing now is planning about how you will get people back. For the next few weeks or even months, it is likely that there will either be smaller congregations present in sanctuaries or we will make the decision or be ordered to cancel worship altogether. People will find out that there are other things to do on Sunday morning. They will find other ways to meet their spiritual needs. The trend in this country is already away from worship attendance. What kind of event will you sponsor, what kind of special worship will you have, what kind of celebration will you plan to welcome people back to church when this is over? And that is what we need to remember — it will be over.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

 is the executive presbyter of Chicago Presbytery. She has previously served as a presbytery executive and stated clerk, as pastor of congregations from 30-1300 members and with the national church. She and her spouse, who is a pastor, have two adult daughters who are educators and six grandchildren.