Why most churches aren’t rushing to reopen
When the State Government approved up to 50 people at a time in church buildings late last month there was a mixed response, to say the least. Some people rejoiced, some wondered how to manage it, while others were too anxious to even contemplate real-life church just yet.
Then there’s all the boxes to tick: measuring the church to check how many will fit under the 4-square-metre rule; cleaning everything before and afterwards; no congregational singing; no morning tea; don’t give out bibles; take everyone’s details just in case… and on it goes.
Some parishes in the Diocese are running a physical service, but most have opted to keep church online, at least for now.
The rector of Clovelly, the Rev Dave Rogers, says the 50-person announcement “speeds up some people’s expectations but the reality of it is complex. Some people would stay away for a while anyway because they work in a hospital, or because they feel more anxious, or are elderly… but we also have people exploring Jesus who are really missing church. It’s complicated!
“The other issue is that 50 persons is still smaller than our smallest service, and at our largest service we’re getting 65 adults and 50 kids. What are you going to do with your 50 persons?”
“People are keen to be together, but I think they want to be together, all together.”
Worth waiting for
The rector of Park Road Anglican in South Carlton, the Rev Gary Bennetts, agrees. His parish has already decided it won’t open for physical services until July at the earliest – although that decision will be reviewed mid-way through this month.
“The restrictions on meeting – in terms of what we can do and the number of people we can have together in the space – really makes rushing back to be together not all that attractive,” he says.
“I don’t think [the cleaning issue] is insurmountable, but two of our three congregations would not be able to meet together in their full number… and the one that could is predominantly filled with people in the over-70 age group, so they face a higher risk of infection.”
In terms of making it work with the larger congregations, he adds, “I’m not sure how we would do that apart from A-K one week and L–Z another. People are keen to be together, but I think they want to be together, all together.”
Kirsty Bucknell, an organisational psychologist who took part in a Centre for Ministry Development webinar on this topic on May 29, says, “We want to be thinking through how we can love other people through this… We’re all different, and [our responses are] not necessarily right or wrong. We need to appreciate our differences and start to understand and help each other through this – to be gentle and to bear with one another in this situation.”
Pray for your church leaders
Our pastors and leadership teams are already seeking to love their congregations through the decisions they make. We need to be in prayer for them as they do so, as there are many reasons why they may choose not to open the church doors just yet.
At Rosemeadow-Appin Anglican Churches, rector the Rev Brett Hall and the ministry team are taking it slowly – seeking to do any new ministry element well before moving on to something else. That being the case, he doesn’t want to start physical services before they can be sustainable for the long term.
Multiple services across both church sites aren’t not workable at the moment but, with about 180 adults and children attending church in the parish at least monthly pre-COVID, starting up even one Sunday service is also fraught with complications.
“It’s not as simple as opening the building and letting whoever comes, come,” Mr Hall says. “Who’s willing to come back, when and, even then, how do you pick? They’re the things we’re trying to get a sense of at the moment.
“We will also need more people lined up to do specific things just so we can open, like cleaning, like a tech team to accommodate the people who can’t come onsite for however long that is. We also need to have people around who are across what the compliance requirements are and can gently say to people, ‘Can you just make sure you do this?’ and keep an eye on everything.
“It almost feels like having to plant a new church from scratch!”
“It’s not as simple as opening the building and letting whoever comes, come.”
God’s kingdom can still grow
The Rev Roger Fitzhardinge at Fairy Meadow says that, looking solely at numbers, his 8am and 6pm congregations could meet, but there would need to be three iterations of the 10am service to cater for everybody.
“We could do this [but] we have to have a system for taking everyone’s names and disinfecting all the chairs and the toilets and foyer and the door handles. And we still don’t have a way to run 10am three times and do children’s ministry in a way that won’t exhaust and demoralise people after three weeks!”
He adds that there have been very few COVID cases in the Illawarra, so meeting in person would “probably be okay… but what I want to be able to do is to look back in six months and say we cared more for the vulnerable among us than for the ones who were super-eager to meet, even though we weren’t quite sure what might happen.
“This is one of those moments where you want to look after the weaker brother – whether it’s immunologically weaker or just worried. If the past 12 weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the kingdom doesn’t fall over if you can’t meet physically. God’s people are going to keep hearing his word and encouraging each other, and will also see each other again, hopefully before we gather around the throne.”
Kirsty Bucknell is inviting people in ministry to take part in her PhD training program, which aims to strengthen resilience in ministry. Those interested can sign up here.