COVID-19 challenges faith community assemblies like this 2015 community worship event in Sullivan, Indiana
COVID-19 challenges faith community assemblies and raises unprecedented worship issues

COVID-19 challenges faith community assemblies and raises unprecedented worship issues. Churches must decide how to promote health and safety without compromising spiritual priorities. This article describes churches’ coronavirus challenges and offers some resources that church leaders may find helpful.

Deadly Choir Practice: A Worship Safety Wake-up Call

The Skagit Valley Chorale’s 121 members questioned whether the choir should suspend rehearsals as the coronavirus spread through Washington state earlier this year. No cases had appeared yet in Skagit County, and schools in other public organizations continued operating normally. So, conductor Adam Burdick emailed singers on March 6 that he would still lead the March 10 rehearsal at the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in Mount Vernon, Washington. The 60 members that attended the 2 ½ hour rehearsal used hand sanitizer and practiced social distancing. Sadly, 45 members showed COVID-19 symptoms, three members required hospitalization, and two members died within a month after the rehearsal.

Scriptural Mandate Versus Pastoral Responsibility

Christian sermons across centuries have recited admonishments in New Testament’s letter to Hebrew believers in this passage to promote church attendance:

And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

Holy Bible, Hebrews 10:24-25 (King James Version).

Most Christian pastors also express a sense of pastoral responsibility for church members’ well-being. Pastoral responsibility pours from passages like Jesus’s reconciling instructions to Apostle Peter:

Feed my lambs… Take care of my sheep… Feed my sheep.

Holy Bible, Excerpts of John 21:15-17 (New International version).

Legal Responsibility for Health and Safety

Modern spiritual leaders are legally responsible for decisions affecting congregants’ health and safety on church property and in church activities. For example, results from an Internet browser search of “church abuse litigation” include stories of lawsuits against church leaders for not preventing their subordinates’ abusive conduct.

Government Guidance for Faith Communities on COVID-19

State and federal government officials have issued public health guidance to help churches protect members from coronavirus infection. Indiana has posted its Revised Guidance for Places of Worship (https://backontrack.in.gov/files/BackOnTrack-IN_PlacesOfWorship.pdf, referred to in this article as the “Revised Guidance”). The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the “CDC”) also published its Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/faith-based.html, referred to in this article as the “Interim Guidance”).

The Revised Guidance and Interim Guidance (referred to collectively in this article as the “Guidances”) offer many practical precautions for members of churches and other faith-based organizations. For example, the Revised Guidance says, “Keep cafés, coffee, and other self-service stations closed.” Likewise, the Interim Guidance states, “If food is offered at any event, consider pre-packaged options, and avoid buffet or family-style meals if possible.” The Revised Guidance also says, “Consider waiting to reopen the preschool and children areas until schools reopen.” The Guidances include several other details that should be self-evident to church leaders.

Guidances’ Constitutional Limits

Churches may find the Guidances’ principles helpful in composing, communicating, and enforcing indoor worship policies and procedures for everyone’s safety. Leaders seeking specific details will find frustrating gaps in the Guidances because constitutional restrictions limit the Guidances’ coverage of worship-specific issues. In fairness, it may not be possible for the Guidances to address specific worship practices definitively without encroaching on worshipers’ First Amendment limits. Multiple controversies proved that point earlier this year when churches protested government restrictions on public worship gatherings. Church leader protests would erupt loudly if the Guidances discouraged specific worship practices like congregational singing or communion (Eucharist) observances.

Churches’ Worship Risks

Recent airborne pathogen studies have raised challenging questions about aerosol transmission of COVID-19 by people singing and speaking loudly in enclosed spaces. Sara Austin’s plain-language article entitled “Why Singers Might Be Covid-19 Super-Spreaders” summarizes the issues with links to peer-reviewed scientific sources at https://elemental.medium.com/why-singers-might-be-covid-19-super-spreaders-57607ed71b9b.  Also, Lee A. Reussner, M.D., Director of the Kansas Voice Center in Lawrence, Kansas, has published a 2-part video series entitled “Singing (and Speaking) Safely in the COVID Era” on YouTube at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jY_HueZbRNg and

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JM1msYMn5vA.

When and how to Worship In-Person

COVID-19 challenges faith community assemblies to maintain healthy environments for congregants to worship safely without government micromanagement. Many churches have produced “virtual worship experiences” to help members stay connected while sheltering in place. Other congregations have tried to adapt by broadcasting worship services to outdoor congregants with loudspeakers and radio transmissions to worshipers’ vehicles in church parking lots. Most churches recognize that these responses to the COVID-19 quarantine are poor substitutes for in-person gatherings.

Churches may base outdoor worship plans on reports that warm summer temperatures might reduce the virus’s contagiousness. Probabilities may be very low for spreading COVID-19 in outdoor assemblies of worshipers practicing responsible social distancing. However, variable summer weather conditions and irritating insects may discourage consistent outdoor worship participation.

Virtual and outdoor worship limitations present churches with a persistent question of when and how to meet indoors. No solution is perfect, but Indianapolis-based Center for Congregations provides a generous offering of articles and other resources on its website at https://thecrg.org/collections/COVID-19_Resources.

About the Authors

Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers. They are also active members of the Indiana State Bar Association and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois.

Jeff is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the Indiana Bar Foundation.  He is also a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the Indiana Association of Mediators. He served as the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association, and he is a registered civil mediator.

Hawkins Elder Law is one of the few elder law firms that Martindale-HubbellTM has rated AV Preeminent, with both of the firm’s lawyers (Jeff Hawkins and Jennifer Hawkins) also rated AV Preeminent.

More Information

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