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Code Yellow: Thinking Through When and How Churches Should Reopen

Charlie Cotherman

On Friday, May 8 much of Northwestern and North Central Pennsylvania will move out of the red phase and into the more permissive yellow phase of Governor Wolf's plan to reopen the commonwealth.

In addition to feeling a bit like a game of Red Light, Green Light or a throwback to a seminary discussion about liminal experiences, this civic time-between-the-times designation is making many rural pastors think hard about just when churches should open doors for in-person gatherings and what those gatherings should look like when they do happen. The problem is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for churches as we attempt to navigate our new color-coded reality.

Widely Varying Responses

All one has to do is scan through social media or drop into a local ministerium’s Zoom call to see that the range of opinions about reopening vary widely. Sometimes even a drive will tell you a good bit about a church’s plans. As I drove down a couple rural roads this week, I encountered church signs that read, “Church Closed. Abortions and Alcohol Essential. Why?” and “Reopening May 10. Wear Masks!” Of course, just a few miles down the road from the church that is opening this Sunday, many other small rural churches are choosing to continue forgoing in-person worship gatherings till at least June based on instructions from denominational offices or a local church board.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for churches as we attempt to navigate our new color-coded reality.

Adding to the difficulty in determining how churches should respond in any given community is the fact that, in some cases, church leaders may feel pressure one way or another depending on the political inclinations of its leadership and congregation. This may not be much of a problem for churches where a vast majority of the congregation share similar tastes in cable news channels and political sensibilities, but for congregations where political loyalties are more divided, questions about opening become all the more complex.

Yellow Phase and Context: Demographic and Spatial Considerations

Even the demographic makeup of the congregation and a congregation’s physical space are important considerations—factors that make it all but impossible to impose even a county-wide plan for coordinated reopening. If a congregation is especially old or medically vulnerable or if a congregation is primarily made up of families with young children, this congregation’s ability to return to normal will be much different than that of a small congregation or a congregation with different demographics. Furthermore, it is almost certain that children’s ministries and nurseries will join long-held congregational standards like church coffee bars and potlucks as some of the last activities to resume.

In addition to demographics, a church’s physical space is another important factor to consider. Large buildings with smaller congregations may be able reopen safely far sooner than congregations that were previously filling their buildings. Additionally, some churches who are renting space may find the decision about whether to reopen made for them as local non-profits and schools continue to restrict virtually all activity on their premises until further notice.

The availability of physical space is one area in which rural churches will likely have an advantage over more urban congregations during the next few months. Compared to most urban and suburban churches, rural churches often have far greater and more manageable resources of space—especially outside the church building. With the advent of warmer weather, these resources may make it possible for many rural churches to simultaneously gather and spread out during times of social distancing.

Spatial resources and other small-church advantages (like denser relational connections) do not mean that moving ahead over the next few months is going to be easy for any congregation. Even if worship is possible in some contexts through parking-lot services, small groups, and Sunday school classes with room for social distancing, there are still going to be many churches whose specific context and demographics make even a staggered move toward normalcy difficult. There are going to be churches that open and churches that don’t, and pastors will likely feel pressure from multiple sides.

That’s why it is going to be extremely important for pastors and church governing bodies to walk wisely and cultivate patience during this transitional period and in the months to come.

Leading with Wisdom and Patience

Right now it is essential that we as pastors and local church leaders pray for wisdom and clear-headed discretion as we attempt to navigate where and how to adapt our current COVID-19 responses to shifting government protocols and changing guidelines from medical experts. I’m grateful that I know many pastors and denominational bodies who are doing just that by thinking clearly about what restarting might mean in their local congregation.

To that end, a number of helpful guidelines (like this one) are also beginning to surface. Many of these documents offer useful tips on everything from cleaning to social distancing within the context of a congregation. As the image below shows, other churches are navigating changing guidelines by working through the way in which every aspect of congregational life will respond to Pennsylvania’s red, yellow, green phased-in reopening.

One Church’s Strategy for Navigating Changing State Guidelines

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Paying attention to approaches like this can help us all think more clearly about how to lead our congregations well during this time.

But even wisdom is not enough if it is not accompanied by patience. For pastors and congregants alike, this is often one of the hardest of the Spirit’s fruit to cultivate. It’s not just us, either. American culture in general is far more inclined toward action than patience, toward instant gratification than gratification that is delayed. Yet the fact that patience is hard and seemingly unnatural in our American context, doesn’t mean that it is unneeded. As one of my mentors frequently says, “Patience is a virtue: difficult to attain, but precious to hold.”

It is hard to be patient, especially as the weeks apart continue to add up and as our government begins to roll back guidelines.

Perhaps never before have our churches had to wrestle with such conflicted feelings about remaining patient. We want to meet. We long to join in congregational songs, give hugs, and see life return to normal. It is hard to be patient, especially as the weeks apart continue to add up and as our government begins to roll back guidelines.

Patience is still precious, though. Right now patience may actually save lives. I hope all of us and the congregations we lead can be prudent and patient—even in rural places. The process of reopening is hardly a one-size-fits-all category, but what one church or community does may very well impact us all. The choice is up to us. Code yellow is looming like a yellow light above a busy intersection. We can cover the brake, or we can hit the accelerator. One thing is certain, what we choose to do will impact more than just our own congregation.

Charlie Cotherman is administrative director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written about rural ministry and church planting for Christianity Today, Evangelicals, Multiply Vineyard, and Sapientia. He is the author of To Think Christianly and co-editor of Sent to Flourish. He lives with his wife, four children, and a cat in historic Oil City, Pennsylvania.