Reopening Small and Mid-Sized Churches: A Discussion on Leading after COVID-19

William Vanderbloemen | Vanderbloemen Search Group | Thursday, May 14, 2020
A church sanctuary, Reopening Small and Mid-Sized Churches

Reopening Small and Mid-Sized Churches: A Discussion on Leading after COVID-19


When the government announces that groups of 200 can gather, 85% of churches in America will be able to gather again. But what should that look like? How do you reopen safely? How can we start preparing for operations after such an unprecedented change in the way we preach, gather, and worship? To start working through these challenges, I discussed life after COVID-19 with highly esteemed leaders of small to mid-sized churches.

Panelists included:

  • Jon Ritner, Lead Pastor, Ecclesia Hollywood
  • Leonce Crump, Senior Pastor, Renovation Church 
  • Jim Gribnitz, Lead Pastor, Rockland Community Church
  • Dr. Lillian Daniel, Senior Pastor, First Congregational Church of Dubuque  
  • Dr. Matt Waterstone, Senior Minister, The Reformed Church of Bronxville 

Primary Ways Leaders are Forecasting for Gathering Again

The most common strategy leaders are planning to begin regathering is finding ways to interact with their church community in small numbers. Each panelist shared the ways they are relying on data-driven results and the directives of their state’s governor right now. 

It’s vital for churches to truly take time to pray and think through creative ways to initiate the transition into the physical location of their church, ensuring the safety of their community is prioritized adequately. Here are a few ways churches are practically planning to move forward:

  • Gather in phases: Create a system that allows the community to gather in small phases to continue healthy social-distancing measures throughout the week. Then eventually return to larger gatherings on Saturdays and Sundays. One church is using an RSVP system to monitor the number of people that can attend each service until we can gather in large numbers again.
  • House parties and small groups: Most churches are looking to late-summer as they prepare to gather in groups again and are planning to implement small groups or “house parties” as some are naming them. This will include people gathering within each other’s homes and streaming services together with 10-15 people. It’s going to be vital to keep these groups as small as possible and obey social distancing guidelines initially.
  • State guidelines: Churches are taking cues from state guidelines while also evaluating the level of comfort of the congregation. Even if your state allows larger gatherings, your congregation might not be ready. Leave space for flexibility as you communicate with your members, and be comfortable with not having all of the answers. Lean on your leadership team to help you brainstorm creative solutions.
  • Accept changes in the norm: Take time to acknowledge that some yearly traditions, such as celebrating teachers during a Sunday service, may not happen this year, and intentionally care for those most affected by these changes. 
  • Balancing virtual churches: It will be common for churches to rely on the technological process and systems that they have developed during COVID-19. Pastors may find themselves becoming even busier because they’ll be balancing both virtual and in-person worship experiences. During this time before we gather again, pastors may find it helpful to think about what methods will be most effective for them and their congregation to move forward without burnout.

The Future of Children’s Ministry

It’s common for parents and guardians of children to be more comfortable with sending kids to smaller gatherings and events rather than larger ones. This is something that all leaders are having to take into consideration when it comes to the future of Vacation Bible School and other church-wide children’s ministry events. Pastors are looking to data and state regulations for children’s ministry in order to refrain from moving too quickly and causing a major setback.

Leaders are realizing there is no such thing as a regular rhythm of the children's ministry; it will inevitably experience a major shift after COVID-19. However, the gravity of safety precautions is the top priority of pastors during this global pandemic and the structure of the children’s ministry while planning to gather again. 

Watch our webinar on reopening children and family ministries after COVID-19.

Providing Pastoral Care During COVID-19

  • Increase the frequency of communication. It’s natural for people to seek comfort and prayers from their pastor during trials, so communicate frequently with them to ease any worries they have while isolated. Ways to do this are: 
    • Responding to emails and interacting with the community daily.
    • Updating your directory with numbers and emails to help people stay connected
    • Calling and texting church members regularly to check on them
    • Offering pastoral care and spiritual direction virtually
  • Address the technological divide that may exist in the congregation. It’s challenging for people who don’t have certain technology or may not know how to use it, so it’s imperative for leaders to provide clear instructions and assistance for those who may need it. This might even mean a special outreach program to provide some people with technology to communicate in this time.
  • Virtual funeral services. An unfortunate reality is that there are many churches who are not having funeral services during this time due to social distancing and wanting to ensure everyone is safe. Those who are having them are tending to have them virtually.
  • Taking precautions at wedding ceremonies. The wedding ceremonies that are currently happening are limiting the number of family members present while also requiring everyone present to wear face masks for safety precautions. This will be another event that's slow to recover to its previous pace.

Giving During COVID-19

  • For churches with a community that's uncomfortable with or unable to participate in online giving, leaders have had to be more creative. One small church had a leadership team drive to member's homes who placed their offerings on their porch or mailbox to collect cash and checks.
  • It’s common for people to be more open to giving when they are able to witness life happening within their church community. Some leaders have been taking time to communicate the ways God is still moving in their church even in the middle of these challenging times. This has been beneficial to a few churches who are now seeing an increase in giving.

Communion During COVID-19

Communion practices vary from one congregation to another. There are some leaders who are seeing their members finding communion to be very meaningful from the comfort of their own homes. For those participating, make sure you are aware of your unique audience members before communicating communion changes. Remember that you'll have large families with children, as well as individuals living alone participating. It's important to be sensitive to each unique situation before determining processes. Churches who offered more structured communion are taking breaks from this practice.

Another positive way leaders are navigating this moment is by playing music during communion time so those who prefer not to participate are able to worship or pray during this time.

The Transition From Online To Offline Church

All churches are considering how much they will continue their online church presence post-COVID-19. While the in-person church experience offers an important aspect of community, there are still many who will want to participate from home. Continuing online options allows more people to hear the gospel, so if you continue virtual options, be sure not to make online attendees feel less valued than those in-person.

This is a time for leaders to take a step back and be careful and intentional with their language. It’s important to communicate that the online church community isn’t secondary, but just as important. Moving forward, leaders can implement ways to intentionally disciple their online community through online small groups and pray with them in order to truly establish an effective virtual church community. Though we are all experiencing disruptions in the way we’ve known church for as long as we can remember, this is a good time to lean into the new thing God is orchestrating for the future of church after COVID-19.

Photo courtesy: Chuttersnap/Unsplash