Online and/or In-Person? Guiding Questions

Part of Strategies

As congregational leaders plan a return to in-person programming, congregations may wish to consider the following questions.

Note: these questions assume that in every gathering there are likely unvaccinated individuals present including children who are not eligible for vaccination.

Authority and Identity

Questions about Authority

  • Who will be involved in the decision-making process about resuming limited or total in-person operations? And who will make that final decision?
  • If in-person programs resume, but then guidance or circumstances change, who will be involved in the decision to cease, or put new limitations on, in-person gatherings?

Questions Related to Identity

  • Who are we as a congregation called to be right now?
  • How has our calling as a congregation changed since March 2020?
  • Acknowledging that every person in our congregation might have contact with many people outside of our congregation, who is part of the “we” we are considering in our decision-making?
  • If we gather while there is still risk to some members of our community what would be the social/emotional/spiritual costs of gathering? Who would we exclude? How would this fit with our mission and identity? How could those at risk be included?
  • How will it impact our identity and sense of community if we gathered in small groups in different ways, some online, some outdoors, some indoors?

Risk, Health, Vulnerability

Questions Related to Health

  • The local population—what are the trends in infection, treatment, vaccination, variants of concern, recovery and death in our immediate community?
  • Will we require vaccination of anyone? What about staff? RE volunteers? How will we, encourage vaccination while being mindful of those who cannot be vaccinated?

Questions Related to Vulnerability

  • The members and friends of the congregation—who is still at risk of contracting COVID-19 in our congregation? Who is still at risk of severe disease?
  • The staff and minister(s), their household members—what are their vulnerabilities, and what risks are we asking them to take?
  • Renters, unhoused guests being housed in the congregation’s building, guests in immigration sanctuary, and others who share the building—would they be put at risk by the congregation’s in-person operations?
  • How might our resumption of in-person services contribute to, or detract from, a safer world for everyone?

Programming and Events

Questions Related to Sunday Morning Programs

  • Will it feel strange to gather in person while communal singing (even with masks) is still not considered a safe thing to do? What could take the place of hymns and choir in our in-person services?
  • Are the children in our congregation willing and able to wear masks while indoors and outdoors? Do parents feel safe with their children playing masked on our playground equipment?
  • How will we communicate expectations around distance, masking, social distancing, food and such to participants ahead of time? At events who will enforce protocols around cleaning, face masks, social distancing, food, and such? What kinds of consequences will there be for failure to engage in safe practices? How will this be different with children?
  • How do we take the collection/offering in a way that minimizes physical contact? Can we continue to collect our offering the way we have online?
  • What means do we have in place for hard-of-hearing people to hear others’ speaking, especially when they can’t see lips moving (because of face masks and/or distance)? Is our sound system adequate?
  • If our building does not have space for its usual number of people to attend worship and maintain physical distance, how will we decide who comes when? Alphabetically? Neighborhoods? Other methods? Do we have the means to collect an RSVP ahead of time?
  • Without preparing food or drink, what kind of after worship socializing can we host? Do we have appropriate outdoor or extremely well-ventilated and well-distanced space for people to drink or eat food they have brought?

Questions Related to Small Group Gatherings

  • Are we ready to allow small groups of any age to gather outdoors? If not, what local metrics, new policies, or covenantal agreements would need to be in place first?
  • Have there been any state/local changes around masking policies? What tensions and disagreements might be present around these? Do we have agreement that in all congregational events a culture of masking will continue to protect those most vulnerable?
  • What age groups have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated? Do we trust that the vast majority of our community members have been vaccinated? Are there people who are now safe to gather both indoors and outdoors and want to do so?
  • Do we have small groups such as a retirees’ group or small group ministries whose gatherings would be enriched by gathering in person? What policies would make these gatherings appropriately safe, following science, for our congregation? What covenantal conversation process would be appropriate to help each small group decide if this shift is appropriate for them and is inclusive for all their participants?
  • Do we have technology such that a group could meet in person and still include some people online?
  • If some already formed small groups begin meeting indoors and in person, how can we prevent new exclusive invites for events only for those vaccinated?
  • What ways can we ask small groups gathering in person to have covenantal conversations centering consent if they find their participants are fully vaccinated and want to be unmasked inside, or participants want to be unmasked outside?

Questions Related to the Staff/Volunteer and Technological Capacity of the Congregation

  • What kind of special training will staff need for safe in-person gatherings? Are staff responsible for ensuring that participants are following health and safety protocol? If not staff, who holds this responsibility?
  • If we start to phase in in-person worship and programs, do we have the staff and volunteer capacity to offer two tracks of robust participation (in-person and digital) for a year or more? What might our staff and volunteers need to continue both?
  • If we judge that we have the capacity for two robust tracks of programming: when community health criteria are met, how will we ensure maximum safety for those who gather in person? And how will we carry forward the inclusiveness we fostered while we were virtual-only? How will we ensure that virtual-only participants don’t unintentionally become marginalized?

Building and Grounds Use

Questions Related to the Building and Grounds

  • Is it possible to navigate the building and participate in worship/events/meetings while practicing six feet (or more) of physical distancing? Does this change if someone is navigating the building with a walker, a wheelchair, or a stroller?
  • What kind of space do we have for religious education programs, and how will we maintain appropriate distance and ventilation? How might we need to change how we do these programs? Should the resumption of in-person Sunday mornings wait until children over age one can be vaccinated?
  • What kind of ventilation does the building have in the hotter season and in the colder season, as well as in between? How often is the air exchanged in each of the frequently-used spaces?
  • Do we have hand-sanitizing stations or could we install them?
  • Have we made our bathrooms safer? Do we have excellent ventilation? Or do our toilets have lids that can be closed during flushing to minimize the spread of germs? If they aren’t safer, do we have a plan to space out their usage?
  • How are we cleaning our building, both before we return, and while we are back in the building? To what extent and level? How will we clean adequately while avoiding unnecessary cleaning, including chemicals that impact people’s health? What anxieties does our congregation have about cleaning?
  • Would we consider screening people for symptoms before they are admitted to the building, or might we ask people to check their own symptoms prior to attending any event at the congregation?
  • How might we check-in participants at our events, so we would be able to do contact tracing if necessary?

Questions About Renters and Other Users of the Building Space

  • Could rental groups’ operations put the congregation or its guests at risk?
  • Is it possible to ensure a safe environment for groups that use our space?
  • Are some of the groups that use our space true lifesavers for people in distress (such as groups for people in recovery or people who are survivors of violence)? Do we have the capacity to make additional efforts to ensure that they can use the space safely as soon as local regulations allow?
  • Might any of the operations of the groups that use our building pose additional risk to the congregation and other users? How might those risks be minimized?
  • What restrictions ought we put in place on short- and long-term renters’ use of the building and their operations?
  • How will we ensure that users of the space are following appropriate guidelines, and cleaning/disinfecting the spaces for which they are responsible?