As congregations open up again during the Coronavirus pandemic, I want to be the first to say that pastors are under extreme pressure. There are historical moments when ministers (whether they admit it or not) really feel pressure to “get it right” even when the answer of what is right, or wrong, remains a mystery. COVID-19 is one of those times. I call these spaces “middle spaces” or liminal times where the past does not provide assurances and the future only raises questions.
For people used to linear waysof thinking, this time is just crazy-making. For people with cherished plans that seem to go awry (and suffer the condemnation or consternation of watching a good “plan” dissolve), I often recommend a system’s thinking awareness. A system’s thinking approach accepts we are not always in charge since each decision we make is later governed by other decisions… so we have to be learning and adapting as we go. We do not know the future. We may say “God’s got this” but we have no idea exactly what our role is in how God “is” getting it done.
Yet I do think ministry provides analogies that help us, particularly for those pastors who want to serve staff and volunteers during re-entry to the church. The analogy may help us adopt a “posture” to respond to the moment. What I offer is not a plan. However, I do want to offer observations that might help us communicate “why” being well prepared during COVID 19 services proves important.
The analogy comes from my professional experience with another challenge the church wrestle’s with, child safety. For twenty-five years I have worked to either fashion policy around child safety or teach it to students and pastors. It has been an episodic journey, but a journey strong enough to help me see the analogies as churches plan and encourage volunteers to adopt social distancing practices. There are limits as well (I will name them at the end of the blog) but I want to start with the connections.
To begin, often child safety policies and practices are developed with an unknown, but real, threat. The reasons for churches proving naturally susceptible to child abuse has been documented. A desire for hospitality, a trust of people who become part of the community, and a gracious concern of offending people for the wrong reason often drives congregational life. Hospitality and safety are often pitted against each other, even when intuitively we see them as one and the same. Churches often create child safety policies even when the threat is not “real” in their immediate circumstance. We often establish very careful guidelines, provide education, and even ask for commitment from people who have not experienced the pain of having an abused child in their church or in their family. They might struggle with the implications of the practices, feel offended , or just go through the motions. Often it takes an incident in a nearby church or the report of a friend or family to make them sensitive to the problem. You might think of this as a “near miss.” People who know it “has” happened close by suddenly sit up and take notice.
In a way COVID-19 volunteer “preparation” (much less congregant participation) has the same feel. Yes, we now know the number of deaths are over 100,000 in the USA but those are often abstract figures (sort of like reporting traffic fatalities during a holiday) until the are “close to home.” The incessant social media arguments, often questioning the validity of reporting does not help either. The constant posturing on both sides of the disagreements elicit a desire to be gracious to all. It does remind me of people who often argue we put too much money and time into child safety that threatens to run off people. The idea remains a hypothetical…. until it isn’t anymore.
Now, there is no perverse pleasure on either side of an argument when someone we know does become harmed as a child or ill due to the Coronavirus. Just sorrow on both sides. The point is that we have a difficult time preparing for something we do not know will happen in our backyard, until it at leasts happens to in a backyard close to us.
Yet preparations around COVID-19, like social distancing and the use of masks, serve to protect a different vulnerable population. We focus on people who have to rely on our actions (much like children) to provide some safety for them, if not for ourselves. Masks protect others, distancing protect others, and a dispassionate “practice” of learning to wear a mask is no different than the dispassionate need to require check-in proceedures or secure doors to protect children under our charge. We learn to practice these things in order to minimize the possibility of an incident, even if we cannot predict the behavior of others.
The first thing I learned in child safety is that adopting a policy is not enough. One has to have the mindset that the safety of children is just a “normal,” hospitable, expectation of anyone entering a church. Yes, people take risks, but entering a congregation is not a place to put a sign out front that says “enter at your own risk” when it comes to children’s physical safety. No, you cannot protect all children, but that does not mean you absolve your role. The posture that we do these practices for the safety of “others” has to be the first commitment.
Yet those in child saftey also know that a posture, without practice, still fails. This is why most child safety programs take pains to educate “after” the commitment to assure that child safety practice matches posture and policy. I keep using the word “practice” because it is important and probably the hardest part of volunteer preparation. Novel actions take time to get use to and incorporate into our lives. You don’t go from not wearing a mask to wearing one without discomfort and practice (ask any nurse or health professional). You are not aware of social distance in a world if your traditional personal space with other people is much smaller. We have to practice to gain a new way of acting. This does not happen overnight and often requires hours of engagement. The same way people have to “live into” child safety standards at first (so it becomes the expected norm) they have to live into social distancing practices. So a greeter who puts on a mask for the first time ten minutes before greeting is probably going to have a difficult time, unless we educate, rehearse, and guide them the same way we have to educate, rehearse and guide teachers until the child safety practices become “second nature.” While volunteers may wrestle with this part of their “ministry” it does help them become more at home if they spend time during the week at least learning to work with a mask, trying to guage social distance in other settings, and living into the habits they will engage at the church. The same way I never expect a children’s worker to adopt a full on child safety policy right away, I can’t expect a greeter or usher to get a new instruction correctly without going through the plans with them.
So, where does the analogy break down? First, people who might enter our congregation with asymptomatic COVID-19 are NOT child abusers. Nor does it mean that people who enter a church while refusing to practice social distancing are child abusers either. Early in child safety you learn that providing a safe environment does not give you the right to tell everyone how to raise their children. Anyone, everyone, who enters our community should be seen as part of the vulnerable, a potential victim, to an unseen abuser, the virus itself. Second, people will make mistakes, so no “one” person is at fault when it comes to either an abused child or a sick congregant. Systems may need adjustment to make sure the right person is positioned in the right setting, but we cannot place blame on a person not prepared. At times a person might be “moved” from one role to another to assure better safety by the whole team. When an incident happens, the church has to take steps to assure the safety of others either in reporting abuse or in assisting in tracing other people potentially infected. Yet the all of our volunteers need to know that while they may accept their responsibility, no one person should be blamed.
To reiterate, we are in middle space. Pastors face incredible pressure. We need to learn as we go. Armchair quarterbacking is not the answer either, we have to be willing to be engaged. Still, approaching COVID-19 much like child safety, accepting the responsibility of combining safety and hospitality for the sake of others… people who need our disciplined help to assure their wellbeing. This mindset provides a starting posture, if not a final plan.