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Responding to Highly Contagious Illnesses

Ways to decrease the risk of infection and keep your congregation safe. Plus, link to the free PDF from Christianity Today, “A Concise Coronavirus Guide for Churches”

Responding to Highly Contagious Illnesses
Image: Dowell | Getty

Mass viral illness outbreaks such as H1N1 in 2009 or COVID-19 in 2020, and the resulting media coverage, have many ministry leaders wondering what to do to keep their congregations healthy and their organizations running.

Quick Ways to Stop the Spread

There are some important steps to take to reduce its spread within your own faith community.

Make adjustments to your typical Sunday morning activities at church. To decrease the risk of the virus spreading through handshakes and other routine touch, your pastors and lay leaders may want to make an announcement that they are suspending physical contact and ask that the congregants respect those who wish to do the same.

Rethink communion. If your church traditionally uses one cup during communion for participants, you may want to switch to individual cups for as long as the threat continues. One common loaf of bread could also pose a problem and an alternative—such as individual wafers—may be a modification.

Encourage handwashing and the use of hand sanitizers. Place signs in restrooms to remind members to wash their hands. Hand sanitizer, placed strategically throughout your building, is also an option. Require those who set up and serve communion to use hand sanitizer (something that already should be a requirement, regardless of a viral outbreak).

Identify “hot” spots. During any flu season, pay closer attention to your nursery and children's ministry classrooms, bathrooms, and kitchen and coffee areas:

  • Clean toys thoroughly after every use. Nursery workers should try to keep toys from passing from child to child. The nursery should also be completely disinfected after each service or event.
  • Signs should be placed in kitchens encouraging congregants to thoroughly wash their hands before serving or preparing food, and prior to leaving.
  • You may also want to hire a janitor to come in and disinfect the bathrooms every Sunday, or immediately after an event, in addition to their normal duties.
  • If you have food out in your kitchen area on Sunday mornings, remind people to "take what they touch" and to throw away all garbage as soon as they're finished.

Staff Sick-Leave Policies

If you don't already have them, create job handbooks for each of the pastoral and administrative positions in your church. This will continue to give your staff and church direction if a staff member is out of commission for a long period of time due to illness. The Salvation Army also suggests you establish the following alternative rules to your current employee handbook in the case of staff infection during a pandemic:

  • Establish mandatory staff leave for ill employees (or those caring for ill family members). This will reduce the possibility of spreading the infection among healthy co-workers.
  • Adopt "leave" policies that do not penalize workers for absenteeism during a serious outbreak when it is related to personal illness or care for sick family members.
  • Be prepared for heavy absenteeism in jobs that interact with "at-risk" populations, such as children, the elderly, or homeless. Workers may fear that working with these groups places them at a higher risk for exposure to infection.

Evaluating Programs

If your church has planned a mission trip to a country with a high risk of a viral outbreak within the next few months, you may want to consider the risks. Make certain to consult with your church’s insurance agent, and consider adding special coverage that assists with securing medical assistance and help in the event someone becomes ill during the trip.

And what about local ministries? Hospital visitations may become more difficult, especially if the virus outbreak shows widespread signs of spreading in your community. Your church may want to establish a phone visitation system, where you can still contact and pray for those in hospital care without endangering your staff. Here are some additional questions to ask before your next outreach:

  • Would the attendees and volunteers be at risk if they attended your planned event?
  • Do these events need to be put on hold for a few weeks or months?
  • What are some permanent preventive procedures you can establish for these events?

Spread the Word

Contact your local public health officials to stay up-to-date on the latest information in your area. Being informed about the latest news will help you make wise decisions about upcoming services and events. The Centers for Disease Control's website, cdc.gov, also may be helpful.

Finally, as news unfolds, be sure to communicate with your congregation. You may want to consider assigning a point person to manage this detail to ensure that correct information is available in a timely way for your staff and members.

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  • March 6, 2020