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Flu Season: Some Things to Consider

Every year the flu virus makes an appearance in our communities, and some years, like this year, seem especially anxious about a virus. It is smart to think ahead about what a church community can do to mitigate some of the more obvious places of viral contagion, while remembering that nothing we do will guarantee any health outcome. A church leader can help by staying calm, staying connected and up to date with the news, and staying focused on how to live out the church’s mission, even in times of fear and illness. 

We are not doctors (and don’t play doctors on TV!) and we are not giving medical advice.

We are thinking through ways in which a world-wide virus situation might affect our local church community, and these are some things to think about:

  • First – Pay attention to CDC and local recommendations, as well as your personal doctor.
    • Local health officials at your local health department will have updates and information for your context.
    • As you have probably already heard, good hygiene is critical – everyone should be washing hands and using good (60% or greater alcohol) hand sanitizer, and if you are feeling ill, do not be around other people as much as possible.  These issues are true for any virus, including the current issue of the moment, the 2019 novel corona virus
  • Worship Services
    • Let’s remember to pray for the people affected, remembering our local neighbors and our worldwide neighbors. This is a good time to be thinking about how we treat people, and whether or not we let fears rather than love lead us.
    • In worship, consider sharing in children’s time or a missional moment reminders of basic hand washing techniques (20 seconds, sing “Happy Healthy Day to me” three times), how to sneeze into an elbow rather than hands, and the use of hand sanitizer.  John Wesley was taught and wrote about good health habits as part of his ministry; this might be an opportunity to remind people that our Wesleyan heritage includes care for body, mind and spirit.
    • Consider those handle the offering – they are touching things touched by many people. Provide gloves, hand sanitizer, and encourage hand washing frequently during counting.
    • If local officials announce that communities should not gather, pay attention and do not gather the church. We should follow the instructions of our local officials in these matters, and prepare our congregations to worship at home.  Some ideas for this:
      • Prepare (hopefully before the crisis!)  one or two worship services people can do at home, including family-style readings, worship, songs, etc. Post the ‘at home’ service on your website, including music and ideas for sharing as a family, or for having a contemplative time with God.
      • If you don’t already do this, consider how live-streaming the majority of a worship service might be helpful to your community. You could pre-record a sermon, music (with the proper copyright licenses) and a time of prayer for people at home. 
      • A pastor could also record a meditation and prayer time from home and upload to Facebook, post on a website, or email a link to the congregation.
      • As a next step for many churches – how can you help people share prayer requests? Maybe a closed Facebook group, or email the pastor and a small group can pray at a certain time in their own homes.
      • How can you help people continue their ministry of stewardship for the church? There are many options for online giving, apps for helping congregations to do this. This may be a chance to try one of these options if you have not already.
    • Worshipping at home may also be a decision made by the church when you observe a significant number of people are out with a contagious virus. This would be contextual to your community. In these days of the novel Corona virus of 2019, the elderly seem hardest hit, so a congregation of mostly elderly folks might take a break more quickly than a congregation that is made up of younger folks. In other years, with other viruses, there may be youth or children’s events cancelled. Consider this an opportunity to teach worship as a lifestyle, and not just an event!

  • Communion
    • Most communion practices these days include a pastoral squirt of ‘holy hand sanitizer’ (HHS), before touching the bread and cup; this will hold you in good stead in most communion situations.
    • The HHS and/or 20 second or more handwashing with soap should also be employed by those who prepare pre-made bread and the tiny communion cups; they might consider using gloves as well.
    •  In a viral season, if your congregation traditionally takes their own piece of bread off the common loaf, you should consider having one person with just-cleaned hands serve, or having the bread pre-cut by those who have taken hand precautions.
    • Large common cups that are shared from person to person should be discontinued for this season if that is your practice.
    • Some churches might also reconsider intinction for a season, for fear of the dreaded ‘double-dipper’ who puts into their mouths, then pulls it out to dip in the cup, or if you  find a lot of fingers slipping into the cup in your church. If that is an issue for your context – use individual juice cups or forgo the juice altogether for a season – it is still valid communion without the juice.

  • Baptism
    • The pastors should use a bit of HHS before touching the water and the child/adult with their hands. Sometimes churches don’t change the water, or add a bit of holy land water; consider making this a season of changing the water before baptisms and holding off on other additions to the clean water.

  • Passing of the Peace
    • This can be a time of creativity for the community – consider bowing, elbow touching, or speaking certain words to each other, such as “Beloved child of God, I greet you”, rather than the usual hugs and handshakes. Fist bumps might also be considered sources of contagion.  This is where a few visible bottles of HHS in the sanctuary may also be useful for people who forget, and shake hands, and wish to clean them.

  • Staff and volunteers
    • Model good practices of going home and avoiding community when you are ill. Send home staff and volunteers who show signs of illness, especially fevers. Viruses spread when we do not take care of ourselves, or we expect others to serve despite their own illness.

  • Facilities maintenance
    • Those that care for our facilities most intimately are sometimes the least likely people to be able to take sick days when they are ill; this is both a compassion and justice issue.  Please check in with the people that clean your church and help them with sick pay or other ways of assuring they are able to stop work and recover if they are sick.  They are most vulnerable because they touch so many things in our facilities. Make sure they also have proper cleaning items such as anti-bacterial cleaners and gloves.
    • If the cleaners for your church are unable to work, ask the Trustees to have  a “Plan B” set of people who would be able to do a wipe down of the entire church with proper cleaners.
    • If you do not have a church cleaning after worship usually, consider adding additional cleaning sessions.
    • If your church is closed due to too much sickness, consider hiring professional deep cleaners that can give the entire church a thorough cleaning, more than is usual on a weekly basis.

  • Compassion Care
    • In times of widespread illness, you may need to have additional help checking in with vulnerable people, especially those who live alone. Though you might not normally, consider making weekly phone checks on these folks.
    • This might be a time to set up a ‘viral compassion/get well soon kit’ with ‘get well soon’ card, canned chicken soup, crackers, Gatorade, Kleenex, HHS, and other things that might help someone feel the care of their local church.  If you set enough of these kits up, you might also consider checking in on the local neighbors regardless of their affiliation with your church – imagine the love and grace that is shared when you help care for afflicted people  who aren’t even related to your church!

  • Food based events, such as potlucks and pizza parties
    • In a high season of viruses, a church might consider postponing such events. (If local health officials have urged people to cancel community events, we should of course cancel them.)
    • If you do have these events, consider having a person who has taken hand cleaning precautions plate the food, rather than leaving it open in a buffet.
    • Consider cutting up doughnuts and pizza and parceling out fellowship snacks in small plates or in small bowls rather than people picking up from a common bowl or box.
    • Always a good idea to have Holy Hand Sanitizer on the tables and in the bathrooms and kitchens!

  • Community assistance
    • Taking precautions as are discussed above, and local health considerations, this might not be a time to stop clothing drives, food drives, etc. – the vulnerable communities we serve are often the hardest hit by illness and lack of health care. If needed, use handwashing and sanitizer precautions, and model healthy practices like sneezing in the elbow and cleaning places people touch.
    • Follow all state department and CDC recommendations on travel for local, national and international missions – these are almost always optional for us, and we often contribute to the issues of illness spreading. Consider sending funding rather than people, because the needs continue, even if we aren’t able to come in person to serve.
    • Asking local officials how you can help in a crisis like this would help your congregation see themselves as part of a whole community. Could you make phone calls to check on people? Could you share some “get well soon” kits in the community with people that social workers might know are in need?
    • Your local school systems may need to up their quotas of Kleenex and HHS – can you do a missional project to raise funds or collect these for them? Maybe put stickers on the Kleenex that say “stay well” and “don’t forget to wash your hands”?
    • Could hospitals use help?  Volunteers to take newspapers and magazines around while other health care workers might be overloaded?
    • Would blood drives or other acts of mercy like this be of service in your community?

These are just some ideas to take into consideration in a season of contagious viruses. If we take the time to think through our practices with an eye toward avoiding harm to ourselves and others, we need not be afraid, and we can learn to care a little more for each other, and for our community, and for our world.