Coronavirus: what should churches be doing?

Like many of the rest of us, I’ve been watching news of the coronavirus outbreak with all the fascination of someone who really enjoys the board game Pandemic. And this morning, lo and behold, that virus was ALL OVER my newsfeed, thanks to a couple of new developments coinciding. It seems like it was a tipping point, and all of a sudden, we have collectively decided that this is what we are going to talk about.

All right, I’m in!

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A few days ago the Center for Disease Control held a briefing on COVID-19, the coronavirus that began emerging in China in December of 2019. The briefing made me prick up my pastor-ly ears because of this one line:

Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country.  It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.

(Community spread is a way of saying that new cases are appearing without a known source. It means that containment is becoming a lot more difficult, because you can’t quarantine the unknown source. This is why the case in California that was announced yesterday is concerning.)

Now, let me get something out of the way: I am not a medical professional. My interest in the coronavirus stems from the fact that my roommate let me borrow her copy of Spillover about emerging zoonotic infection diseases (which COVID-19 is!) last year. I’ve been paying attention to the news and staying reasonably informed, but much smarter, more knowledgeable medical professionals will continue to weigh on this and you should definitely take them more seriously than me.

What I can do is tell you how I’m thinking about community spread happening in the U.S. from the perspective of a church leader, especially given another piece of the briefing: the suggestion that at some point, communities may be suggesting or enforcing the modification, postponement, or cancellation of mass gatherings. Like, you know, church.

This suggestion came during a portion of the briefing that talked about how our primary response to a U.S. outbreak will be non-pharmaceutical interventions: NPIs. These will be especially important during a coronavirus outbreak because right now, there’s no vaccine or medications approved to treat it, though you can bet your tushy that folks are working frantically to develop some.

There are three categories of NPIs: personal, environmental, and community. The personal category is stuff you personally can do to mitigate an outbreak. Environmental is stuff like cleaning often-touched surfaces. Community NPIs include social distancing, designed to keep people who are sick away from others.

There are also levels of NPIs. For example, there are everyday precautions you can take, like staying home if you feel sick. But there are also personal NPIs reserved for pandemics, like voluntary home quarantine if you’ve been exposed to someone who’s sick, even if you feel fine yourself.

Crap, how worried about this thing should I be? you might be asking yourself right now. I’ll tell you that on a scale of ten, my anxiety about the coronavirus affecting my community right now is at a two; but I expect it to rise. It’s not something I need to react to RIGHT NOW, but there’s a reasonable likelihood that my church and I will have to do so in the next few months, maybe even weeks, given how quickly COVID-19 spread in China. When that time comes, then you, good and faithful church leader, are going to do what’s needful in order to love your neighbor well, and that’s going to look different for all of us.

Meanwhile, I don’t think it’s too early to start developing a plan with your leadership about what makes sense to do now, and what might make sense for later. If COVID-19 arrives in your community, you’re going to want leadership that is NOT just thinking about all this for the first time. If we equip ourselves to be wise and compassionate now, we have the very best chance of being that later.

As you prepare to talk about this, take the time to inform yourself about this emerging disease, because misinformation and misperceptions are so deeply unhelpful when it comes to emergency planning.

  • The CDC publishes regular updates about COVID-19.
  • I like this podcast for gaining a sense of perspective around the coronoavirus, even if the episode is a couple of weeks old at this point.
  • If you want a deep dive, a summary of a key report from the Chinese CDC was just published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). It contains a helpful breakout of what populations were most affected by the disease, and I think the piece worth noting for us church types is that, like the flu, this virus is much harder on the elderly than on the general population.

So with all that out of the way, what can we reasonably do now to prepare for the possibility of coronavirus in our church communities? Here’s some of the stuff I’m thinking about for right now:


  • I can wash my hands all the time on Sunday mornings. I will channel my inner Lady MacBeth—the mad one, not the one scheming to take over the thanedom. Thane-ery. Thing. Anyway: I’ll DEFINITELY make sure they’re clean before handling communion elements.
  • I’ll raise the question of whether we can change the practice of hand-shaking in the receiving line after worship. I’m also wondering about trying something completely different: deciding that for the time being, the receiving line is going away, but announcing to the congregation that I’ll be in the fellowship hall for a cup of coffee, ready to have a conversation about the sermon/service/local sports team with whoever wants to chat. The conversation about the local sports team will be disappointingly short for whoever my conversation partner is, but I’m there for it.


  • My people shake hands during the passing of the peace. I hope we’ll consider introducing a hands-free practice of making eye contact and saying “Peace be with you” with intention. There are ways to do this differently without losing the meaning behind the rite. Good Lord, this used to be known as the kiss of peace, and now it’s not, because We can do this!
  • We’ll set a firm expectation that NO ONE who’s feeling ill will prepare or serve the communion elements.


  • We’ll have a conversation with our awesome sexton about environmental precautions, especially hitting areas that are touched a lot.
  • We will put. Hand sanitizer. EVERYWHERE.

Hopefully the combined efforts of governments and health professionals mean that the virus can be contained and/or mitigated to the point that we won’t need to go any further than that. But it’s possible that we might need to take more serious measures. Here’s a list of topics for consideration if we get to that point:


  • Figure out when phone calls can replace visits. This is such a regional value that your mileage will vary from mine, but I’ve found that as a transfer from central Pennsylvania to metro-area Massachusetts, my people are often just fine with a phone call when I’m expecting they’d want a visit.
  • Take precautions when you visit nursing homes and hospitals: lots of handwashing, possibly masks. Don’t go to nursing homes or hospitals when you’re not feeling well. Don’t visit nursing homes with confirmed outbreaks of COVID-19. I mean, hopefully they’d be keeping you out anyway.
  • Track what happens in nursing homes or hospitals where you’ve been. It’s possible, though not confirmed, that COVID-19 can be transmitted while people are asymptomatic. Symptoms usually develop within 14 days.


  • Introduce Faith5 or similar at-home faith initiatives to your community. Even if the specter of cancelling Sunday gatherings never arises, it’s a great way to empower your families to take on a more proactive role in keep a spiritual groundedness in their homes.
  • Host an online Bible study. We just started doing this recently at my church (we use Zoom as our platform), and have found it pretty easy to use even for folks who don’t much like new tech.
  • Make use of live-streaming on social media sites, and videos on Youtube, to keep providing your people with resources, presence, and spiritual reflections.


  • The sacraments are the places that it hurts me the most to think about as a faith leader. But: if you have a community that regularly interacts with the water in your font, 1) good for y’all! and 2) think about that. 1/8 teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water may be a precaution you want to consider, and it’s biblical!
  • How’s your communion practice looking? At my church, we do intinction (bread-dipping) and common cup. If/when coronavirus enters our communities, we’ll change this. Yes, alcohol and silver both have germicidal qualities, and yes, I think that gets us a long way, but not long enough in the case of a disease without vaccine or approved treatment.

I’m hoping we never get to that point, and there’s reason to be optimistic! But the thing is, it seems like we’ve been due for this kind of disease outbreak for a while, and we’ve gotten close several times in the last couple of decades. As human environments encroach on animal ones, the kind of zoonotic transmission like what happened with SARS and MERS and now probably COVID-19 is likely to keep occurring. And with humanity as mobile and connected as it is, disease outbreaks are going to be challenging to contain. What I’m trying to gently suggest is: it will surprise me if this is the last time we’ll be having conversations like this. Let’s start learning how to do them well and faithfully.





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