In recent weeks, COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported at churches large and small. Eight members of a worship team in Florida tested positive. Fifteen staff members at a church in Texas contracted the virus. And cases among a church choir in Oklahoma spread to 70 people.
How did this happen? They had hand sanitizer stations in the lobbies. They practiced social distancing in their services. Some even conducted temperature checks at the doors.
The reality is, no matter how many preventative measures we take during this pandemic, there will continue to be infected people — at the grocery stores, in health clubs, on college campuses, and even in churches.
One thing that makes navigating this virus tricky is that people can spread it before they begin showing symptoms — and some remain asymptomatic for the duration of the infection. That’s why our focus must be on preventing outbreaks.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines an outbreak as two or more cases that are linked, whether through contact tracing or proximity.
Our church carefully weighed the risks as we prepared for reopening. My husband, Wayne, is our lead pastor. At 45 years of age, he is immunocompromised and was scheduled for surgery soon after our planned relaunch. Our team took seriously the responsibility of protecting him and others.
We established a COVID reentry team, led by one of our campus pastors. Incorporating our state’s guidelines, we created a plan that is several pages long. It covers our expectations of staff and volunteers, how to handle exposures and quarantining, policies for kids’ classrooms, mask requirements, and social distancing guidelines.
This went a long way toward answering questions, but guiding our volunteers and staff members through the process still required some training and repetition.
Two weeks after we returned to Sunday gatherings, we had a volunteer workday on a Saturday. We required everyone to wear masks. A few days later, one of the staff members who had attended tested positive for COVID-19. For all our planning, this threw us into panic and chaos.
Our entire staff at that campus and several key volunteers had been exposed. According to our protocol, they would not be allowed to attend on Sunday morning. This included the campus pastor, worship leader, youth pastor, kids’ director, administrative assistant, backup worship leader, lead deacon and an elder.
Did we really all have to quarantine? Was there any way around it? Other churches were not requiring quarantine for exposures. Nevertheless, we stuck to our policy and required everyone who had been exposed to the confirmed case to quarantine for the remainder of the 14 days. We brought in a guest worship leader and had our local Chi Alpha director speak.
It was excruciating. The loss of productivity personally pained me. But in the end, by the mercy of God, we did not have a single transmission.
This is not to say we could never have a transmission in the future, or that our church leaders are experts on these matters. During this pandemic, we know there are risks every time we leave our homes. And we are still learning about this virus along with the rest of the world.
However, our church has discovered some simple lessons by vigilantly maintaining the goal of preventing outbreaks. Of course, correctly and consistently practicing social distancing is the most important way to prevent transmission. Beyond that, here are some key components of our strategy:
Masks are always required. This rule is not just for Sunday mornings. It also applies to small groups that meet in person, including student groups. We require masks in the office and for all one-on-one meetings. When someone walks in the office, we kindly ask that they put on a mask. We even wear masks if we stop at someone’s house or ride together in a car.
We need to be prepared for periodic quarantines, changes in plans, improvisation, and self-sacrifice.
I know there is significant debate over masks in some parts of the country. I live in New Orleans, which was one of the early outbreak areas in the southern U.S. With city and state mandates in place, masks aren’t particularly controversial here.
Yet there are still a few vocal opponents of masking who spread confusion and intimidate community members — sometimes in the name of religion. Sadly, this is one reason why many people are uneasy about returning to, or visiting, a local church.
I find the use of masks to be pro-life and pro-economy. They have given us back some measure of normalcy in our activities. I certainly prefer masking up over staying home indefinitely.
Some pastor friends recently had dessert outdoors with some church members. One of the people present was pre-symptomatic and infected the pastor and his family.
A recent CDC study found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were more than twice as likely than those testing negative to have dined out in the previous 14 days.
While it is possible to wear face coverings during worship, eating and drinking require unmasking, which may increase the likelihood of transmission.
This is why we eliminated food and drinks during church activities — not just on Sunday mornings, but also during small group meetings and informal gatherings. As tough as it may be to give up my coffee on Sunday mornings, it is a small price to pay for a safer environment.
For those who have been exposed to COVID-19, quarantine is by far the most difficult measure. It requires an admission of the reality of COVID-19, which can be a major challenge in church culture. It also requires tremendous self-sacrifice that, on the surface, may appear pointless and disruptive.
Quarantine is not about personal protection; it is about protecting others. Unlike isolation for those who have already tested positive, quarantine is a precaution against the possibility of having a contagious illness.
It is inconvenient. It is frustrating. But it is better than being responsible for transmitting the virus to others. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). We’re only asking for 14 days.
There is a lot of misinformation around quarantine. I’ve often heard people say, “Go immediately to get tested, and if it’s negative, you’re in the clear.”
However, current CDC guidelines recommend remaining in quarantine even if there is a negative test result. COVID-19 has a two- to 14-day incubation period, which is why a two-week quarantine is recommended, starting with the date of the last exposure.
There’s also confusion about who needs to quarantine. An exposure is considered 15 minutes within six feet of an infected person, whether indoors or outdoors. If someone in your immediate family tests positive for COVID, you absolutely need to quarantine in your home.
I highly recommend reading the CDC guidance for quarantine, which includes helpful examples for different scenarios.
If you’ve been tested, please stay home while you await results. If you have cold symptoms, don’t assume it’s allergies or just a sniffle. Get tested. Don’t be in denial. That’s not faith; it’s selfishness.
Create a contingency plan. Then, create another one. Have a plan ready to go in case all your speakers and worship leaders are out because of symptoms, quarantine or illness. Have a backup worship leader behind the backup.
There are worse things than not having live preaching. Have an awesome preaching video ready to go. Chances are, at some point in the next six months, you will need your contingency plan, if you haven’t already. If you don’t have a plan, you will feel pressured not to quarantine when you have an exposure.
We have to start learning how to live with this virus. If your church has already experienced an outbreak, it may not be the last.
The negative impression left on communities when they hear that outbreaks are coming from churches with lax standards is only complicating our efforts to come back. We need to be prepared for periodic quarantines, changes in plans, improvisation, and self-sacrifice.
This strenuous time makes me think of Nehemiah 4:17, where laborers carried their loads with one hand while holding a weapon in the other hand.
We cannot continue to be caught off guard. We have to be prepared for this protracted battle as we continue to shoulder the load of ministry.