COVID-19 + Church FAQS
What happens if someone in your congregation tests positive? What happens if you or someone on your staff has been exposed to someone who has tested positive?
The CDC or health department will instruct you about appropriate precautions if someone from your congregation has tested positive. There is a chance they may ask you or others to self-quarantine for at least 14 days. As a reminder, you generally need to be in close contact with a sick person to get infected. Close contact includes:
- Living in the same household as a sick person with COVID-19,
- Caring for a sick person with COVID-19,
- Being within 6 feet of a sick person with COVID-19 for about 10 minutes, or
- Being in direct contact with secretions from a sick person with COVID-19 (e.g., being coughed on, kissing, sharing utensils, etc.).
Please keep in mind that a diagnosis of any kind is personal health information that should only be released by the patient. If you are notified of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in your congregation, how your church responds publicly will depend on how engaged the member has been in your congregation. The county health department should offer you help in determining if your congregation is at risk. A sample announcement for a member who has recently been on the property and engaged with multiple members of the church might be:
“We have recently learned a member of our family community has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. We are still working to notify members and staff that might have been in contact with the member and have requested everyone stay out of the building for at least the next 10 days. After a 7-day period, we will begin the process of cleaning and sanitizing the building. While we learn more and work closely with DHSS to take every precaution necessary, please keep this member and their family in your prayers as they journey back to health.”
What happens if someone in our congregation dies from the virus?
First, treat the death as you would any death. It’s a tragedy but also calls for a celebration of life. At the request of the National Funeral Directors, the CDC released postmortem guidance: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html#funerals. Family members may have to wait for a period of quarantine to end. Certainly, the local Medical Examiner may need to be involved and the processes may take longer than normal. Be sure to work with the family’s funeral director and be in conversation by phone, video or online with the family to do the planning and to make accommodation. See below question on funerals in general.
What happens if you (as clergy) test positive?
Your doctor or the health department will instruct you about appropriate actions if you have tested positive regarding isolating yourself and those who live in your household. If you are clergy, and develop symptoms that cause you to limit your workload or even cause hospitalization, contact your District Superintendent. Our Missouri Annual Conference Standing Rules (406.00) guarantee all full-time clergy at least 4 weeks of vacation. The same standing rule encourages local churches and district superintendents to work together in the event of an illness of longer duration. The intent of the Standing Rule is to ensure that full-time clergy are allowed adequate time for significant illnesses and injuries.
The same Standing Rule states that part-time clergy are guaranteed two weeks of time for vacation, illness or personal days. However, the DS and local church are asked to also work together to ensure adequate recovery time for part-time pastors as well.
Should any illness require a long duration of recovery, full-time clergy have the option of applying for paid medical/disability leave. Those benefits ensure compensation continues at 70% of the pastor’s last appointment. One does not have to be permanently disabled to apply. Rather, the benefits are paid for any significant illness making it extremely difficult or impossible to work for an extended duration (i.e. six months or longer). A doctor must make that determination and complete the necessary paperwork for Wespath’s insurer. However, such leave does mean that the pastor will no longer be “appointed” to the current charge. Rather, the bishop appoints them to Medical Leave.
At this time, it is simply unclear whether the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provisions apply to clergy. The Department of Labor has chosen not enforce other laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act with respect to clergy. However, in this time of uncertainty, churches are encouraged to be generous and gracious with clergy who may become sick or have family members who are. Churches must also remember that it is the bishop who appoints clergy to the charge. Only the bishop can make that change.
In the meantime, while you are healthy, consider asking the following questions:
- What is your plan to care for someone in your family (e.g., a spouse, child, parent) who may develop full-blown symptoms related to COVID-19?
- What is your plan for offering spiritual and organizational leadership for your church if you were to get sick? What is your chain of command– who steps in if the key decision maker becomes incapacitated? Perhaps you reach out to a church within the connection to see if they would be willing to serve as your congregation’s spiritual resource should you become ill (e.g., offering online streaming worship and pastoral care to your congregation in addition to their own, etc.)?
- What are the essentials for your faith community? What must continue?
What happens if a (lay) staff person tests positive?
On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The text of the legislation can be found here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6201/text. The bill takes effect on April 1, 2020, and it will sunset on Dec. 31, 2020.
Rev. Nate Berneking, Director of Finance and Administrative Ministries and Jordan Ault, Missouri Conference Chancellor, discuss the implications on churches. Please note that the situation is constantly evolving: legislation is being amended and interpreted by administrative agencies while new legislation is being negotiated. The recording may, therefore, be slightly out of date. Before making any decisions regarding employment relationships, please review the memo linked below, which will be updated on an ongoing basis.
What about Easter?
Every Sunday is a little Easter so there is nothing stopping anyone from celebrating the resurrection of the Lord any Sunday of the year. We would suggest to all our churches that they throw the biggest party ever when corporate worship begins again. When we can reassemble as a congregation, whenever that may be, we will sing resurrection songs once again, because in a profound sense, Christ is risen, every day is Easter and every moment is Resurrection.
Once the all-clear comes, Bishop Farr recommends celebrating another Palm Sunday on the first Sunday back in worship and Easter on the second Sunday gathered as a group.
In the meantime, how might your Church plan to do something creative for your scattered congregation and the broader community on Easter Sunday? How about inviting your congregation to go out on their front yards that Sunday morning, read the Easter story, sing as many Easter hymns as they can, and pray for the world. How about door-drop delivery of Easter lilies with a prayer card/order of worship that includes one of the Gospel resurrection stories, prayers of the people, an invitation to online worship and a blessing for the home? Connect with colleagues and leaders in your congregation (safely with social distancing or virtually) to brainstorm creativity for April 12 and for when the limitations are lifted.
What about weddings and funerals?
For weddings, it is always best practice to consult with the bride and groom about every aspect of a wedding and this includes the current climate. Consider postponing or limiting the wedding to a smaller gathering (less than 10 people) and livestreaming it or recording for others and/or postponing it until this time passes.
For funerals, discuss with family about holding a small service (in church or graveside) now (under 10) with a larger memorial service after this time passes. The new guidelines from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) limiting public gatherings suggests that funerals should be limited to a small number of mourners – perhaps to immediate family only – for the next 15 days (which may be extended). The National Funeral Directors Association suggests that funeral directors or, in our case churches, could offer livestreaming as an option for these services/viewings and, perhaps, recommend the family hold a larger memorial gathering at a later date. Services could also be recorded, and the video shared with whomever the family deems appropriate. Severe limitations on public gatherings and social distancing is particularly crucial for events where many guests are considered vulnerable, either because they’re over 70 years old or because of underlying health conditions.
What about Holy Communion during this time of physical distancing?
This is an unprecedented time in recent history of the Church. Our guiding document on Holy Communion, This Holy Mystery, doesn’t provide for online communion and in fact, while you may not realize it, the UMC has been debating online communion for at least two years. We can’t presume to give an answer for all time, especially at the rate at which things are changing. But it seems that right now, since the body is prevented from meeting together, we need some sort of resolution. While other episcopal leaders have advocated for a different answer, Bishop Robert Farr, together with Discipleship Ministries, suggests that we begin with the Love Feast. The Love Feast has historical precedence in the early church and was recaptured by the Wesleys from the Moravians and used frequently in the movement. The Love Feast often substituted for the sacrament where there were no clergy present as a way of experiencing the grace of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of community by sharing together. The Love Feast could easily be done virtually, as folks in their homes can find the elements (usually water and some bread, or crackers or wafers of some sort) and share them with those in the household at the same time as those in the wider online community. On Palm Sunday, April 5, Bishop Farr will release a video at 5 p.m. teaching about the Love Feast and suggesting the practice be conducted across the Conference among the people called Methodist on Easter Sunday, April 12. This video and teaching was emailed to all clergy prior to the weekend.
In the event that pastors are placed in critical situations where they believe that the Eucharist must be shared over the phone or through some type of digital space (e.g., someone is too ill to leave their home and within a nursing home or hospital), Bishop Farr authorizes a digital form of communion. He will continue to assess this situation should our suspension of public gatherings become prolonged. If you have an extraordinary circumstance, contact your District Superintendent for permission.
What if we can’t make payroll?
Failing to make payroll is a significant and serious problem. It can raise the possibility of civil penalties. Failing to pay the associated payroll taxes is a form of tax evasion and leads to penalties and interest owed to the IRS. Avoiding this situation requires advanced planning. Look at the church’s bank balances now. Know what current assets are and how long they can last.
Be aware of patterns of giving and don’t be afraid to talk to people about the church’s financial situation. The whole congregation should be told the importance of continued generosity even if worship must be suspended (payroll and bills notwithstanding). People need to give and should be given the means for doing so. This may mean:
- sending weekly reminders to mail or drop off your tithe at the office (e.g., have a lock box or notify the congregation when they can drop-off their gift);
- having two people go door-to-door to collect offerings if the social distancing restrictions allow;
- speaking individually to regular givers about the ongoing ministries and the importance of keeping those going through financial generosity and ask them to call five more people;
- making strategic asks of people with a history of giving generously above and beyond their tithe;
- inviting generous givers to post and offer testimonies about how they are continuing to give.
Be honest about the church’s position, but emphasize the connection between giving and ministry, not a problem with payroll. And, of course, provide lots of ways for people to give even when not meeting for worship in person. Giving can be continued, but it will take strong communication with people. Here are some additional ideas for giving from the Lewis Center.
Even as you work to keep giving up, understand how a reduced offering may impact payroll and other bills. Develop a prioritized plan for paying bills. Payroll should be at the top. And, think through the issues with leaders. Do not isolate yourself and try to be a hero. Use the whole leadership to tackle hard problems produced in hard times. As a last resort, if payroll is at risk, especially that of appointed pastors, immediately notify the DS. Depending on the level of crisis, the district and conference may be able to assist. But everyone must be aware, with 730 churches, there will be limits to what the conference and district can do.
Will there be a bailout?
Conference staff and the Cabinet are actively brainstorming ways to be a resource for local churches. The annual conference has some assets, but those only exist because of the sharing of resources by all the local churches. We are better and stronger together. We can certainly assist by shifting how resources are provided. But, at the end of the day, the Conference is only the connection of our 730 churches. The resources it has are those given by the local churches themselves. In other words, we may be able to offer aid to churches in a dire situation, but we can’t give up apportionment income AND offer that aid. The aid will come from apportionment dollars themselves.
That said, we are fully aware that the COVID-19 crisis may generate a situation in which a local church is unable to meet its apportionment obligation or at least delays that ability. The Conference staff and Cabinet are prepared for that and will offer grace when churches legitimately have their existence threatened.
Do any of the programs created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act apply to churches?
Yes, the Act is certainly focused on the business world, but there are several items of interest to churches and church staff. Read more here.
Does the Families First Act have benefits for the Church?
On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. This act includes the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA) and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA). Both the EFMLEA and the EPSLA apply to churches in Missouri, and it is critical that churches extend these benefits to employees. Read more here.
Should we keep sending in our apportionment payment? What about our pension payment?
For now, yes. We will certainly take struggles into account. We will be looking at ways to be of help to struggling churches. Part of that might include apportionment or benefits relief, but we haven’t yet instituted that.
What about Right Start and pastoral transitions?
The Right Start in-person event will be canceled. The current plan is to hold some webinars on April 21-22. Please hold April 21-22 open for an online version of Right Start. A specific schedule will be sent to those involved in the next few weeks. Continue to register and visit https://www.moumethodist.org/rightstart for more information.
What about RE: Flourishing in Ministry scheduled for April 27-29, 2020?
Due to the Federal extension on large public gatherings through the end of April, the Conference has cancelled the RE:Flourishing in Ministry event in St. Louis. The Conference will issue refunds of $150 per participant for those who have paid the $500 RE: Flourishing in Ministry fee. With the cancellation of this retreat, participants who attended the previous two retreats will receive full credit for completing the Eight Year Assessment as outlined in the 2016 Book of Discipline.
Will we delay the start of appointment season?
It is premature to decide about delaying pastoral moves. We are moving forward with planning as if it will happen.
What about Part-Time Ministerial Leaders Course of Study (PML)?
Until the group restrictions are lifted, PML will be going totally online with no trips to Columbia or in-person interaction. The course teachers will be organizing the course via Moodle. Students will need to check Moodle upon registration for specific course expectations and resources. All other Course of Study questions should be directed to the sponsoring seminaries.
What about Licensing School?
Due to the closure of all campus activities at Central Methodist University, Missouri Conference Licensing School will NOT be held at CMU the week of May 17. Missouri Conference Licensing School will held online through the Candler School of Theology. Review information on the Licensing School page for more details.
What about Annual Conference in Springfield?
Our team is monitoring the updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), medical professionals and state and local health departments related to our upcoming events.
It is premature to decide about our annual conference scheduled for June 5-7, 2020 in Springfield. We are moving forward with planning as if it will happen. We will keep the Conference apprised of any decisions should that change. Thank you for your patience! Bless you as you prayerfully discern how to navigate these challenging times as spiritual leaders.
What about summer camp?
Our team is monitoring the updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), medical professionals and state and local health departments related to our upcoming events.
It is premature to decide about summer camps. We are moving forward with planning as if it will happen. We will keep the Conference apprised of any decisions should that change. Thank you for your patience! Bless you as you prayerfully discern how to navigate these challenging times as spiritual leaders.
Will Congregational Excellence continue to financially support our new church or multi-site project?
Yes. Funds have been set aside to complete the agreed upon funding cycle for each project Congregational Excellence supports.
I’m stressed out. Where can I go to get additional help?
It’s normal to feel anxiety and stress in this season of exponential change. Taking care of yourself is essential when you care for others. The HealthFlex plan offered by Wespath Benefits and Investments includes an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for clergy, lay and their families. An EAP is a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems. Call 1-800-788-5614 anytime for confidential help.