1. Communicate with your people
In times of crisis, anxiety and fear, we look for guidance and leadership. Church leaders are in a unique position to respond to that need. While we are clearly in uncharted territory church leaders should not remain quiet. People want to know leaders are aware of the challenges and are preparing for any eventuality.
Communicate regularly and honestly, sharing plans that have been made and acknowledging how things will likely change. Reassure your congregation that you travel together as a faith community and may need to use different means of connecting. Now is a time when church leaders should be communicating more, rather than less.
2. Communicate with key leaders
As part of my pastoral strategic planning course this week, we discussed how every church in the world should have the same top pastoral priority today — responding to pastoral needs during the coronavirus pandemic.
Common preventative measures go a long way in limiting the spread of this virus, but we are well beyond the simple steps of not shaking hands or emptying fonts of holy water.
In order to reassure people that you have a plan, you need to make a plan. It is critical for pastors to gather a group of core leaders to help them think through this unprecedented challenge. Minimally, there should be daily conversations to process the latest information. There is no greater priority for church leaders today.
In many areas, Masses and services have been suspended. Establish a plan if this happens in your community. If there is no Mass for six weeks, how will you continue to attend to the spiritual and communal needs of your people? If members of your community become sick, what support can they expect from their church? How can they access that support?
Contingency plans should be created immediately. Plan for the worst-case scenario. Pray for the best case.
The planning team must not work in a vacuum. Church leaders should cooperate with government and health officials to be part of the solution and to reinforce the right messages. Consistency from government, healthcare, and religious leaders provides a sense of security for people who are feeling ill at ease.
3. Educate your people
Rather than scold or mock them for strongly held misconceptions or misunderstandings, take the opportunity to educate them lovingly. I was with a senior leader last week who shared matter-of-factly that if a person is sick, they are relieved of the Sunday obligation. It made me wonder how many parishioners are aware of that fact?
Many regular Mass attendees may have a different understanding of Sunday obligations. Receiving guidance from their bishop or pastor could help them make better decisions if they are feeling sick.
If we can no longer gather as a community to worship, can we educate people on the concept of spiritual communion? Can we teach them the prayer of St. Alphonsus Liguori when they are physically unable to receive the Eucharist? If we are quarantined, can parishioners witness the Mass on TV, radio, or the internet?
If we cannot gather in large communities, can people connect in smaller gatherings with neighbors? Can we form people in the ritual of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest?
Local pastors and communities have many options for how to practice their faith when it is not possible to gather. With proper education, people can use creative options now, preparing to return to full, active, and conscious participation in the Eucharistic celebration once the virus is under control.
4. Make sure you can connect with everyone
The steps above only work if there are effective communication channels in place. Now is a great time to make sure every church has a way to connect with every one of its members. People may use email, text, social media, or websites. Some may need the old-fashioned prayer chain.
Whatever methods our people prefer, churches we should be prepared to make sure they can stay connected spiritually and emotionally, especially when we are required to disconnect physically.
A best practice is to have a dedicated place people can access the latest news and updates. Some churches have a special link on the top of their website homepage. Some use Facebook. Some use a simple recorded phone message every morning at the same time. The actual medium depends on the community members, but the commitment to be in touch is the most important principle.
5. Pray as a community
This should not be overlooked. Purposeful intercessory prayer works. It always has and it always will. Just because people may not be able to gather physically as a community does not mean they cannot pray as a community. Pastors and church leaders can facilitate this use technology and timing. I know of 60 business leaders who call-in to a conference line every Friday for a prayer meeting. Entire churches could do that.
Small groups can use tools like Zoom or Facetime to videoconference for Bible study or group prayer. As someone who teaches in an online format, I can attest to the power of community that is maintained using videoconferencing on a weekly basis.
And even if technology prohibits audio or visual connections, a parish community can agree to pray a certain prayer at the same time each day. In this way, people remain united with one other as part of something bigger than themselves, much like the universal church unites each day praying the liturgy of the hours.
This crisis is an opportunity for the Church to be Church and to share the love and peace of Jesus Christ with all around us. I believe we can and will answer the call.
Matthew Manion is a professor of practice in the Department of Management and Operations and faculty director of the Center for Church Management at the Villanova School of Business.
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