5 rules for life in the pandemic: Help for church survival

Next month the pastors are calling the church to consider our “rule” of life as followers of Jesus. You might like to pick up Ken Shigematsu’s book, My God in Everything, and start reading now. I love it when postmodern people rediscover ancient patterns to grow healthy faith. They give me hope for the world. And we could use some hope right now.

Americans are having a tough time living by any rules at all when it comes to the pandemic. As usual we’re dividing up over something as simple as whether wearing a mask is necessary. I know what I am about to say might not be true about you (at least I hope not), but as a society, the individual freedom to kill seems to be trumping our responsibility to save. As a society, the Americans perfected the world’s largest killing machine — their arsenals and armed “services;” I don’t think anyone would dispute that violence is a core characteristic of the U.S.A. But that trait characterizes the people as individuals, too. The society is debating whether policing means the right to make split-second decisions to kill Black people, especially, and whoever else challenges state-sponsored violence. We’ve been debating whether everyone should be allowed to carry weapons into Walmart. The wild Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is more popular in the U.S. than the NHL or NASCAR among 18-34 year-olds. All this goes to say that Americans lean toward lawlessness when it comes to relating to anyone but their small circle, and white people, especially, tend to think death is “collateral damage” when it comes to protecting their way of life.

Contrary to Disney’s decision to open Disney World, the coronavirus crisis is not over. But some things have changed. To start, lockdowns are ending because cases are low or falling in some areas or because state leaders decided to move ahead despite the risk. Testing has increased, giving us more indicators of community health. Plus we know a lot more about how the virus behaves, how to treat it, and what activities pose the highest risk.

Since life on permanent lockdown isn’t sustainable, public health experts are beginning to embrace a “harm reduction” approach, giving people alternatives to strict quarantine. These options — like forming a “bubble” with another household or moving social activities outdoors — don’t eliminate risk, but they minimize it as people try to return to daily life. We need to have some new rules about how to go about the week.

Nobody knows exactly what will happen as communities open up. The most likely scenario is that virus cases will continue to surge and fall around the globe for the foreseeable future. In the middle of that uncertainty, churches, in particular, are dividing up over when it is safe to do things in person (as are thrift stores and counseling centers!). Will our church and its enterprises survive the pandemic? Will our friends and children know more about harm reduction strategies than Jesus in a year?

Jeremy Cohen, right, first approached Tori via drone, during self-isolation in their respective Brooklyn residences. Then he donned a bubble so they could hang out in person.

5 rules for life in the pandemic

It is a blessing that Jesus can hold your hand as you figure out harm reduction. It seems we have learned to live with masks and social distancing, as well as new rituals of hand-washing after handling packages and touching surfaces. We need some basic rules to minimize risk and still have a life going forward. Here are some ideas for the church culled from public health leaders [thanks to Tara Parker-Pope] that might give us tools to make our own decisions about being the church in person.

  1. We need to know the present health of our state and community

Gwen and I are considering a trip to Vermont in the fall. When I started researching places to stay, I was informed there was  a criteria for entry into the state. I would need paperwork to prove I was not infectious and sign a self-certification! That was sobering. Philadelphia county does not presently make the cut for numbers of cases allowed in one’s home territory to prove I am not too great a threat to Vermont.

To gauge our risk of coming into contact with an infected person, we need to pay attention to two important indicators of Covid-19 in our area : the percentage of tests that are positive, and the trend in overall case rates [Philadelphia] [South Jersey]. When the percentage of positive Covid-19 tests stay at 5% or lower for two weeks, that suggests there’s adequate testing to mitigate transmission and you’re less likely to cross paths with the virus. The lower the number the better, of course. Right now PA has a 5.4 rate but Philadelphia County has about 1500 active cases compared to Vermont’s sense that 400 is the mark to meet.

  1. We need to decide the extent of our “corona bubble”

After three months of being locked up together (or alone!), the safety zone of our apartments or family circles is driving quite a few of us “mad.” We’re widening our circles to include the extended family and friends. The prime minister of New Zealand started calling this extension a  “corona bubble.” Now we need to agree on safety guidelines for our bubbles. The arrangement requires a high level of trust and communication.

Some cells are already experimenting with being a bubble and negotiating the level of social distance their meetings require. More anxious members want to know the number of “leaks” their bubble has — such as trips to the store or office, play dates, children and teens who see friends, or housekeepers and nannies who may visit multiple homes. Others don’t really care, or are unaware of the dangers.

Communication is the key to these arrangements working out. If  a person is not going to face instant judgment about leaks they are less likely to hide them. Our activities are going to change all the time — schools are on the way to reopening, there should probably be more protests. So our arrangements need to be flexible. Is the church important enough to us to learn how to have this level of dialogue? Or will we wait and see what we’ve got when the powers-that-be sound the “all clear?”

  1. We need to think of ourselves as managing an “exposure budget”

During a pandemic, every member of the household should manage their own exposure budget. (Think Weight Watchers points for virus risk.) You spend very few budget points for low-risk choices like a once-a-week grocery trip or exercising outdoors. You spend more budget points when you attend an indoor dinner party, get a haircut or go to the office. You blow your budget completely if you spend time in a crowd.

The initial crisis response is over, if some states ever had one, and we’re moving into  long-term management. There is a lot of work on a vaccine. But it is unlikely to be ready by January, even if people keep promising it. We need to have a long-term plan about how to limit our exposure and still have a life. Gwen and I want to see the grandchildren. But it might make sense to stay away from Home Depot as a trade-off. It makes sense to go over the week and assess what the budget should be and how many risks we are actually taking.

  1. We need to keep higher-risk activities short

We need to be together and will be together again. Let’s not forget. Until then, we are blessed with any number of ways to connect: phone, the dreaded Zoom, the now-expensive Marco Polo app, email – and people used to write letters and feel close to people at a distance. Budget in connecting, however possible or inadequate, before depression makes you even more isolated.

When you are going out into some risky territory, it might be a good rule of thumb to ask, “If an infected person happens to be nearby, how much time could I be spending with them?” It takes an extended period of close contact with an infected person, or extended time in a poorly ventilated room with an infected person, to have a substantial risk of catching the virus through the air, it is said.  Keep indoor events brief. For a few more months we can move social events outdoors. Wear a mask and practice social distancing. Here’s some guidance about time of exposure.

Brief exposure: Brief encounters, particularly those outside — like passing someone on the sidewalk or a runner who huffs and puffs past your picnic — are unlikely to make you sick.

Face-to-face contact: Wear a mask, and keep close conversations short. We don’t know the level of exposure required to make us sick, but estimates range from a few hundred to 1,000 copies of the virus. In theory, you might reach the higher estimate after just five minutes of close conversation, given that a person might expel 200 viral particles a minute through speech. When health officials perform contact tracing, they typically look for people with whom you’ve spent at least 15 minutes in close contact.

Indoor exposure: In an enclosed space, like an office, at a birthday party, in a restaurant or in a church meeting, you can still become infected from a person across the room if you share the same air for an extended period of time. There’s no proven time limit that is safest but it is best to keep it less than an hour. Even shorter is better. We went to Michael’s to get some framing done the other day then I was appalled that my 70-something brother went to get a haircut! I find it difficult to figure out what is appropriate! Dr. Erin Bromage suggests we consider the volume of air space (open space is safer than a small meeting room), the number of people in the space (fewer is better) and how much time everyone is together (keep it brief). His blog about timing and risk has been viewed more than 18 million times.

Circle of Hope’s mapping process is helping us decide how we want to live as the people of God in a pandemic. If you read every link in this post, your personal decision might be better informed. But I doubt you would be certain about what is the right thing to do. As the Bible teaches us so well, our behavior is going to be a mixed bag and we’ll need to accept one another. Read Romans 14 and 15 again and learn to accept the one who stays quarantined too long and the one whose behavior seems to risky. I am learning to accept that I am at risk as an older person (albeit a fairly healthy one) and I might die. I have friends my age who have already survived an infection, but I am preparing not to survive, as well. Businesses and churches are in the process of dying. It all feels terrible. But along with physical risk management, I am also managing the spiritual risk I am facing. I will live forever, but I would like to be living that eternal life now, not when the pandemic is over.

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  1. Unfortunately, we need to keep up the precautions and make some rules

I’m surprised how many disparaging remarks I have heard about Florida this week. (Well, half of them might have been from me). My friends skipped their beloved month down south (but my pastor went south to enjoy the tropical storm!), since the whole state decided the President had the power to declare the whole pandemic a hoax. Thus, they are setting infection records.

Here’s the common sense about precautions, so far:

  • Keep your mask handy. Wear a mask in enclosed spaces, when you shop or go to the office and anytime you are in close contact with people outside your household.
  • Practice social distancing — staying at least six feet apart — when you are with people who live outside your household. Keep social activities outdoors and keep indoor activities brief.
  • Wash your hands frequently, and be mindful about touching public surfaces (elevator buttons, hand rails, subway poles, and other high-touch areas). Gwen put hand sanitizer in my van, since I touch my face all the time.
  • Adopt stricter quarantine practices if you or someone in your circle is at higher risk.

When will precautions allow us to “open” the church? Actually, if you have any decent theology at all, you know the church is open 24/7 if it is filled with God’s Spirit. We can’t be closed because we are it. But it sure would be great to have meetings and to serve people face to face in the community! We need each other. We don’t know how to do more than online meetings, at this point (so don’t miss them!!).

But before we start thinking about when to get in a room together (or outside, as we might), would you start thinking about how Jesus wants to you take care of his church? What rules your life? What is your rule of life – the desires and disciplines that form your behavior and fill your schedule? Your rule matters more than ever to protect our lives and our church. We need each other to take some precautions in regard to our tender faith — our own and one another’s. We are not subject to the pandemic in such a way as it defines us – that is, not really. We need to help one another get through this with our faith, hope and love intact, not just our bodies.

About Rod White

Development Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

2 thoughts on “5 rules for life in the pandemic: Help for church survival

  1. Thanks Rod. It is good to read something both real and encouraging in this crazy time. If only people could see reason and not be ruled by fear, anxiety and boredom.

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