Some states already have been working with houses of worship on following guidelines for carefully reopening, but many will interpret your call as a signal that it is safe for churches nationwide to reopen.
Friday’s news conference could put a strain on pastors because parishioners might pressure them into making hasty decisions. And it threatens to divide congregations who have different opinions about when and how to reopen.
Earlier this year, many pastors received inadequate information on when to close their doors, and some faced deadly consequences. Your announcement makes decisions harder for church leaders by complicating clear public health messaging that caution during reopening is key.
Of course we want to go back to church. Some pastors who began opening in certain states have been preparing for several weeks for how to open safely and in consultation with their local public health officials. But an announcement on Friday does not give pastors adequate time to take the necessary preemptive steps to open by Sunday.
And pastors, just because the president said on Friday churches are “essential” and should reopen does not mean that you should switch the lights back on this Sunday.
Public health experts have urged caution in resuming in-person mass gatherings. Earlier this week, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins publicly said, “I think as Christians we have to have as our number one priority that we are going to care for the sick and the vulnerable. I cannot see, therefore, that it’s justifiable to bring large numbers of people together even in the name of worship, because of the risk it carries.”
Before any church opens its doors, leaders must spend time setting up policies and guidelines that protect those who will be in attendance using the best science and guidance available.
As leaders who have navigated pastors through natural disasters in the past, we provided a checklist for reopening churches. For instance, we recommend churches reach out to their insurance company to make sure they aren’t putting their congregation financially at risk. Churches also need to be able to secure proper sanitation supplies that would help prevent the possible spread of the coronavirus. Leaders need to recruit and train volunteers to guide the reopening process, such as helping with social distance measures. Leaders especially need to communicate to attendees about possible policy or procedural changes, such as how Communion might look different.
We encourage faith leaders to look to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has new guidance, for how best to respond. We have also regularly encouraged church leaders to look to local officials and authorities, including public health agencies, for direction.
Unfortunately, public health guidance from the federal government has been confusing. Early draft guidelines for houses of worship that were direct and concrete ultimately were shelved after much debate in the White House and replaced with less concrete guidelines on Friday. For example, the new guidelines do not make recommendations about important questions pastors are navigating, such as whether singing is safe or logistics of how people should gather in the building.
Friday’s announcement makes it harder for leaders to look to federal agencies as trusted resources based on how Trump already has used his executive authority. He has minimized voices who hold differing views (such as suppressing earlier CDC guidelines for faith communities), he goes against current medical knowledge by saying he would take malaria medication that scientists have warned against using to treat the virus, and he refuses to wear face masks in public.
Trump’s pronouncement corrupts our country’s ability to respond justly to this pandemic by putting politics over public health. The purpose appeared to be aimed at reaching evangelicals and Catholics, who will be valuable voters in the coming election.
Several faith leaders we have spoken with say people in their congregations, who already are under emotional strain, express a range of opinions about wanting to come back to church buildings. Some will stay away until there is a vaccine, and some want to be (or have been) back the minute it’s possible.
If we gather and cause community outbreaks, as happened in a large church in South Korea, and this week here in the United States in Georgia, Texas and Arkansas, it risks people’s lives. We must care for others in how we reopen.
In some places in the country, starting to gather in person can be done cautiously, wisely and with joy. Those of us who live in areas where caution remains high can continue to be creative in worship, in supporting each other, and in serving our community. If we choose to emphasize the impact on our rights over the public health impact of our gathering, we diminish our love for our neighbor.
As the Apostle Paul once wrote, “ ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say — but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ — but not everything is constructive.”
During the states’ lockdowns, many Christians expressed frustration at seeing liquor stores remain open and categorized as “essential” while houses of worship had to close their doors. Of course houses of worship remain crucial to the lives of many people and provide key resources to their communities. Churches are absolutely essential, but gathering in person is not yet.
Kent Annan is director of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College. Follow on Twitter at @kentannan or visit kentannan.com. Jamie Aten is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit jamieaten.com.