Where to Start?

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Is your congregation overwhelmed? Confused about how to move forward towards some in- person ministry? Facing too many options? This post is for you.

We will all be learning together through this transition, and you don’t need to know your congregation’s long term plan now. All you need to do now is decide on your next steps. What you learn by taking your next steps will help you plan the steps after that. As always, reach out to your region’s Congregational Life staff for support.

The sections below outline our recommended next steps for Community Building, Worship, Children and Youth, and Building. Within each are sections that briefly describe where your congregation might be right now along with a few possible next steps for your congregation to take. Please choose one at a time rather than all at once!

Overall we suggest you focus first on community building, then children and youth, then worship on Sunday mornings. If people are reconnecting as a community, they will be able to wait longer for a more normal Sunday morning. Families with children and youth have had particular difficulty with online worship, but younger children and youth are still not vaccinated or fully vaccinated. Your building preparation is important to do ahead of time to be ready for use of the building for seasons when outdoor activities are not possible at your location.

Community Building: What Events to Plan?

If You Haven’t Gathered in Person at All and Have Outdoor Space

  • Create guidance for how small groups can gather in person outdoors at your congregation and encourage small groups to be able to gather
  • Prep groups leaders on both outdoor safety guidelines and readiness to support people in social awkwardness
  • Plan for when and how small groups of those age groups able to be fully vaccinated can gather inside at your congregation.
  • Plan ways fully vaccinated adults can help the larger community and bond with each other at the same time: volunteer with the food bank, mutual aid network, host playground playdate for families.

If You Haven’t Gathered in Person and Do Not Have Outdoor Space

  • Plan a series of small outdoor events with a lot of variety: evening bonfire in a backyard, afternoon hike, kids meet up on a playground, sing along in a park, trash pick up day. Have a leader of each group prepped on both outdoor safety guidelines and readiness to support people in social awkwardness
  • Plan for when and how small groups of those age groups able to be fully vaccinated can gather inside at your congregation.
  • Plan ways fully vaccinated adults can help the larger community and bond with each other at the same time: volunteer with the food bank, mutual aid network, host playground playdate for families.

If Your Congregation Has Been Gathering in Small Groups

  • Set up the next stage of reintegration and healing to help people re-form relationships, community and process the last year through small groups. Be sure there are in person small groups and online small groups to join.
    • One possibility: form new small group ministry, especially time limited groups (e.g. meeting 6 times) to focus on these connections and create an arc of topics that helps people process, reconnect, and explore what this time means for them spiritually and emotionally.

Children and Youth: How to Support?

Begin by talking with parents and guardians about their families’ safety and readiness for in person programming. This will likely be different for those 16+ who may already be fully vaccinated, those 12-15 who could be fully vaccinated by July, and those under 12 who are not yet eligible.

If Your High School Youth Group Has Not Been Gathering in Person

  • Begin with a few socially distanced outdoor community building activities like bonfires, hikes, lawn yoga, and sidewalk chalk art following outdoor safety guidelines.
  • Provide ways for parents to connect during the event
  • You may want to do monthly outdoor activities while continuing weekly online connection to facilitate deeper check-in with the youth as this may be more accessible for more families.

If Your Middle School Youth Have Not Been Gathering

  •  Begin with a few socially distanced outdoor community building activities similar to high school youth but with a strong focus on games and play and following outdoor safety guidelines.
  • Provide ways for parents to connect during the event
  • You may want to do monthly outdoor activities while continuing weekly online connection to facilitate deeper connection. Online games work particularly well with middle school youth.

If You Have Not Gathered Families or Younger Children in Person

  • Create social meet ups where children can engage in safe outdoor play and parents can connect.
  • Ask those who cannot attend in person if they would appreciate a way to connect online with families who are similarly impacted.

Worship: What Next?

Once metrics (e.g. case numbers, test positivity, vaccination rates) reach a safe enough threshold for your congregation to allow small numbers of people to worship together inside or to have socially distanced outdoor worship:

If You’re Doing an Online Worship Service From People’s Homes

  • Start streaming some portion of the service from the sanctuary to begin gaining skills. As you test this you'll get a better sense of what technology upgrades you'll need.
  • Help people reconnect with the sanctuary for instance: host a ritual for people to visit the sanctuary in a socially distanced way. Could include time to spend silently in the sanctuary or include rituals like placing flowers or rocks on an altar.
  • Host an outdoor worship service to allow technology volunteers to experiment with what is possible while allowing people to attend in person. Set expectations low.
  • Host a short outdoor low tech family focused worship service.

If You’re Already Live Streaming Worship From the Sanctuary and Your Building Is Ready

  • Start with a live studio audience with an rsvp for a small group to attend worship in person, knowing the worship is still primarily focused on the online experience.
    • Initial invites could go to those who will be volunteers in multi-platform worship (ushers, technology volunteers, etc)
  • Help people reconnect with the sanctuary for instance: host a ritual for people to visit the sanctuary in a socially distanced way. Could include time to spend silently in the sanctuary or include rituals like placing flowers or rocks on an altar.

If You’re Already Live Streaming Worship From the Sanctuary and Your Building Will Not Be Ready Soon

  • Move your live streaming operation outdoors once a month to allow some of your congregation to attend in person. Help them recognize that the quality of the worship service will still be focused on those online, but they will get to be together.

If You Are Comfortable With Zoom Worship but Do Not Expect to Be Able to Live-Stream Worship Soon

  • Continue online worship for near future.
  • Begin offering monthly outdoor low-tech worship at a time other than Sunday morning.

Building: Getting Ready

If You’ve Done Little to Assess the Readiness of Your Building

  • Evaluate your building’s ventilation including airflow and filtering.
  • Evaluate your bathrooms’ ventilation. Without excellent ventilation and toilet lids, consider reduced capacity by limiting the number of people using each bathroom at a time.
  • Evaluate how many people can be seated in your sanctuary at a variety of distances - 6’ is preferred, but if you don’t use the space until you have a high percentage of people vaccinated your COVID Response team may set a lower standard.
  • Create traffic flow patterns that allow people to spread out such as one way through certain hallways.
  • Within these traffic flow patterns plan where to set up a check in table and where it makes sense to put hand sanitizer,

More Resources

Our Trusted Resources page has links to help you with the above building assessment and readiness.

More guiding questions on your building and readiness to open

When you’re ready to plan further ahead, consider these potential ways forward and these additional possibilities.

About the Author

UUA Congregational Life Staff Group

The regional Congregational Life staff are congregations' local connection to the UUA. All of the program Congregational Life staff have expertise in most aspects of congregational life and each also has a few program areas of expertise. See the...

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