July 20, 2020 Update
I have updated our list of "Healthy Practices for Reopening Sunday School" to reflect the latest CDC guidelines.
The following discussion is based on what I'm hearing from friends in other churches and what I'm reading in the latest ministry articles, news, and blogs across the web. Your thoughts are welcome.
Where are we with "re-opening"?
Here in July 2020, the situation continues to evolve, and in some ways regress. Some states have rolled-back reopening plans (which include public worship recommendations), and churches are recalculating timetables and options as well.
Many of those planning and hoping to reopen this fall are limiting their plans and taking a wait and see approach -- especially now keeping an eye on what will happen when public schools open. For many churches, this meansno Sunday School or small groups for the foreseeable future until a clearer picture in their region or state emerges.
Many of the educators I've talked to are still not sure what their fall program will look like -if any- and are getting anxious about it. Most are expecting LOW attendance for some time even when they have reopened. The "slow return" is already being experienced in some regions and churches that have reopened or had limited experiments in reopening.
Some churches have reopened worship and fellowship in limited ways, and some have chosen to close again due to infection rate spikes.
Some have stated they may not or will not reopen public worship for the rest of 2020 -- deciding to marshal all their resources toward in-home and online ministry. This seems like the strategy many Sunday Schools will need to deploy if the pandemic continues to grow, things don't go well with the public school reopenings, and where churches decide to reopen theirworship services only.
What seemed like a likely return this fall now seems more iffy and difficult.
- Some church staff and leaders are "burning out" providing "interim" solutions and are anxious due to the uncertainty and weight of the decision to reopen.
- Some churches are planning to "phase in" things like Sunday School once members and leaders are comfortable coming back to worship, infection rates seem under control, and more families are ready. But as one church educator wrote, "planning a whole program for one-third of our regular attendance isn't feasible."
- Some churches are planning on returning to WORSHIP this fall with COVID-restrictions, but are waiting to make a decision about small group meetings and Sunday School.
- Some have said they are waiting to see how reopening goes in daycares and public schools before reopening their small group, children, and youth ministries.
- Some have created or plan to create small groups/classes that only meet with each other apart from (larger group) worship -- either at an alternate day and/or alternate site (such as a member's home).
- To deal with the uncertainty, a few churches and educators are creating "at home" resources and outreach plans NOW rather than waiting to see when worship reopens and when regular (or COVID restricted) Sunday School or fellowship programming will return. Many churches, however, lack the leadership and resources to carry out such approaches.
- Some professional CE staff are beginning to wonder if they'll have a job in the fall as church finances continue to decline across the country.
- Large children's ministry programs and those built around "children's worship" or "large group learning" are faced with challenges that many smaller or more traditional churches are not. Those churches may be able to hold onto staff, but will have to revamp their model to avoid large group gatherings.
Regardless of our plans, many members will have their own time table for return.
Members will make their OWN decisions about returning to worship and Sunday School, and the decision for some may not occur for many months. We're seeing this "individual reticence" in churches which have reopened, in the general public with regard to returning to jobs, day care, and restaurants, and in the surveys of parents and teachers about their feelings about returning to public school this fall. As we get closer to the fall, we can only hope things will look brighter, but we can't count on it.
Here are some of the implications of this "individual reticence" to return:
- The need to reach out to "non-attenders" will likely persist through the end of 2020 and perhaps beyond. I know that's something many of my worn-out friends don't want to hear, but it will be the new normal for some time to come, and may, in fact, be a blessing in disguise. Read "Connecting and Caring Beyond the Classroom."
- Churches should expect smaller numbers, which at first will help social distancing.
- Social distancing for those who do return will initially be easier due to smaller class sizes.
- Recruiting teachers will be harder due to those not yet wanting to return.
- Many Sunday Schools will likely need to "broadly grade" for some time to consolidate numbers and resources.
- Those who choose not to return may feel guilty about it, and sometimes those feelings push them even further away. Our "messaging" needs to be one of support and care.
- Advent may look very different in 2020, which will be an opportunity to focus on learning, celebrating, and sharing the message of Advent in some new ways that are not centered in a building.