Stories & Commentaries

Before You Reopen Your House of Worship, Consider This

Thoughts and questions for Adventist congregations from a hospital administrator

woman in mask reading Bible

I serve as CEO for the Central Florida Division of AdventHealth, an organization committed to “Extending the Healing Ministry of Christ.” Our mission includes not only treating but preventing adverse health situations. When my congregation recently discussed whether to reopen on-site worship services, I shared a list of observations, concerns, and questions. I urge all our congregations to consider the following:

The coronavirus acts like a forest fire. Where there's density of wood and underbrush, it burns fast. Think of religious and social gatherings as creating a tinder-rich forest, which just one spark can ignite.

It’s instructive that although professional sports teams are playing, and they’re doing it in “bubbles,” and without fans in the stands, but they’re still experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks among the players.

Some universities opened for in-person classes only to abruptly close them due to rampant infections. Many others have dramatically altered their procedures to try to curtail or prevent such surges.

Many companies have employees working from home. And at AdventHealth, we’ve extended until at least December 31, 2020, our work-from-home policy for non-front-line team members.

Questions to Consider

So, I ask: Is there a spiritual imperative for houses of worship that can be met only by conducting in-person services? And does that imperative outweigh the very real physical risks? If a member becomes ill and dies of COVID-19 contracted during church attendance, will reopening still have been worth it?

Is the desire to reopen truly based on a spiritual mandate? Or is some aspect of finance, tradition, or politics the real driver — even though such considerations may not be highlighted during reopening deliberations?

Has your house of worship adequately planned and prepared to protect all in attendance, using the best clinical guidance?

Do your congregation’s leaders understand your facility’s “safe” capacity, and the need to preserve social distancing throughout the entire service?

Do your leaders accept that all attendees must wear masks for the entire time? Do you accept that certain activities such as group responses or singing increase risk, so they must be eliminated?

Does your team have the strength of conviction to enforce mask wearing and other requirements, even if it causes conflict with members who seek to assert their right to ignore the risks to others as well as to themselves?

Does your team understand that the amount of time spent in a given space is a key factor in transmission, even when wearing a mask? (Masks are like sunscreen: You can still get sunburned, but it takes longer.) Does the team understand that the size of the room, the size of the crowd, and the quality of the air ventilation all contribute to the level of risk?

Does your team recognize that social distancing is crucial during the inflow and outflow of those in attendance? This means that many social needs and expectations of those attending can’t be met because crowds can’t safely gather in the lobbies for pre- and post-service socializing. And safe dismissal needs to be row by row, from the back of the facility first, with those who exit walking straight to their cars.

Visible Reality

The fact that the virus is invisible doesn’t help because our hopes and our habits can easily outweigh and obscure the realities. Many of us wish COVID-19 would at least take the form of an orange cloud so we could actually see it moving around. I imagine that would considerably dampen our eagerness to gather together.

I candidly admit that I’m particularly sensitive about this issue. In the hospitals I lead in a seven-county region, our weekly numbers peaked at nearly 800 COVID-infected people. Thankfully that number is significantly lower today – less than 300, but it’s vitally important that, as a community, we continue to take steps to keep that number on a downward trajectory.

Certainly, we’ve cared for thousands who recover and go home. Many seem to return quickly to pre-infection health. But others face ongoing—perhaps even permanent—COVID-related reductions in life quality.

Knowing these things, and because I’m an advocate of the Golden Rule, I can’t with a clear conscience remain quiet—my great love of worshipping and socializing with others notwithstanding. Considering how we can keep each other safer during a time such as this is a biblical imperative.

— Daryl Tol is president/CEO for the Central Florida Division of AdventHealth.