Guidance for Returning to In-Person Faith Formation

Guidance for Returning to In-Person Faith Formation

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Children in worshipAs our country moves toward “re-opening,” many congregations are wondering how soon they can safely return to their church buildings. We long for the familiarity and comfort of pre-pandemic church life together. Yet many faith formation and youth ministry leaders wonder just how safe it will be to gather the children and youth in person. Given their developmental ages, children and youth are less likely to completely comprehend the critical importance of meeting in more restricted ways. What are the safest modalities for offering programming for our younger ones while the rest of the congregation begins returning to the church building?

Common Recommendations
Just about every church judicatory is recommending that children’s and youth programming be continued virtually until a vaccine has been distributed, or at the least, a few months after a marked decline in COVID-19 cases. The rationale behind this is that prior to the availability of a vaccine, it would be difficult to enforce social distancing measures with these age groups due to the impulsive and exuberant behaviors of children, and the strong desires of teens to be social in person. Another consideration is that more adult volunteers and meeting spaces than may be available will be required to ensure social distancing and sanitizing measures. For help addressing this next phase of ministry, refer to our document, “Questions To Address Before Resuming On-Site Faith Formation Programming.”

Concepts to Convey to Children, Youth, and Families
While it is human nature to long for the return of comfortable and familiar routines, we need to understand that there is no going back to “the way it was.” Take time to talk about what will be different, and take the time needed to settle into new routines and expectations. Also be sure to remind them there is no guarantee that the virus will go away. Prepare them for the possibility of having to return to sheltering at home if the virus’ spread increases again.

Continue Virtual Gathering During the Transition to In-Person Programming
When in-person programming is resumed, your congregation’s leadership will most likely choose to place limits on the number of people gathering at one time in the church building and in its meetings spaces. Some parents may not be comfortable with your church’s re-opening plan and will choose to keep their children and teens at home. And some will be considered high-risk and need to stay at home. This will require you to continue the virtual programming that you put in place for the quarantine.

What Are Your Community’s Schools Doing?
While it may make sense to compare your plans for returning to in-person faith formation programming with the decisions the schools in your community are making, remember that they are able to rely on paid staff to carry out all of the additional safety and sanitizing measures that will be in place. However, both the schools and the church will need to consider how to replace leadership that falls into high-risk categories.

It’s All About Relationship
Some faith formation and youth ministry leaders are finding that the bonding that is happening during virtual gatherings is more solid than when they were meeting in-person. Yet other leaders are seeing a decline in the desire of their children, youth, and families to want to meet online together, often due to “screen fatigue.” Every congregation’s culture and experience is different. Take a moment to look at the goals you have for building relationships within your programming. Which is more important for your people right now — having a program or gathering to further their relationships? (Or a combination of both?) Your answer to this question will impact how you make plans for the next season of programming. For more information about the importance of fostering relationships for and with children and youth, visit Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships webpages. 

Leadership Shifts to Consider
With our current dependence on virtual programming, you may want to consider how you are using your ministry hours. If you have been working longer hours with accompanying stress, you may want to consider recruiting or hiring someone with technology skills to assist you for the long term. As you recruit volunteer teachers and leaders for the next season of programming, consider what sort of technical, social media, and online relational skills they will need. And how will you continue to engage the gifts of your continuing volunteers who may not be as tech-savvy? Also, review what tasks you have taken on during the pandemic that can now be delegated to a volunteer so that you can adhere more closely to your job description. Given all of the shifts and changes we’ve experienced and will be experiencing, does your job description need to be updated?

Continuing Virtual Gatherings Even After the Return to In-Person Programming
You also may be finding that some of your virtual programming has produced more effective results than your previous in-person activities. Take the time to identify the outcomes you wish your children, youth, and families to experience and then evaluate how well each delivery model you’ve used has met those expectations. What will be the best way to move forward during each phase of returning to in-person programming? What will be the best delivery models to use when in-person programming is considered safe again? And how will you continue to support parents in their role of nurturing faith formation in the home?

We’re In This for the Long Haul
Remember that any decisions you make before a vaccine is provided is just risk management. You and your church leadership must determine how much risk you are willing to manage. So keep maintaining self-care practices, and encourage the members of your congregation to do the same. Do a Google search on “self care” and create personal and family routines to keep you healthy — mind, body, and spirit. Here are some free, timely resources to help:
Guide to Self-Care for Families at Home from SALT Project
Coronavirus Anxiety Workbook from The Wellness Society

This time of adaptation is a time of value, purpose, and mission. As we continue our dedication to keeping our congregations as safe as possible, may God give us the strength and courage to be faithful ministers to and with our children, youth, and adults.

For a complete list of resources, visit the SNEUCC Phased Re-Opening webpage.
For help in planning for what's ahead, watch Jake Morrill's Church in These Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VOCA) Times.

 
Photo by Linda M. Davis

Author

debbieglineallen.jpg
Debbie Gline Allen

Debbie Gline Allen is the part-time Associate for Faith Formation & Youth Ministries for the Conference.

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