Six pastors shared their congregations’ plans to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic, acknowledging the road back to church will be a long one for most churchgoers. The Illinois Baptist State Association assembled the pastors for a virtual town hall meeting May 14 on how churches are preparing to return amid Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” plan.
Pritzker’s reopening plan, which has been met with frustration by many church leaders across the state, limits gatherings to 50 people until a vaccine or effective treatment is developed for COVID-19, or until herd immunity is achieved.
Panelists at IBSA’s town hall acknowledged the guidelines project a slow reopening process for churches, and shared their own churches’ plans to gradually start meeting in smaller groups. In the words of one panelist: “We want to maximize our gatherings while staying within the state’s directives.”
Some churches in Illinois and across the U.S. have said they will meet in spite of the limits on gatherings. Salem Baptist Church in Decatur, a non-Southern Baptist congregation, posted on its website its plans to meet in person May 17, with social distancing precautions like no handshaking or hymnals.
The IBSA pastors at the May 14 town hall highlighted the struggle between following the biblical mandate to meet together, submitting to authorities, and loving their neighbors.
“All those are tough to put together at this time,” said Doug Munton, pastor of First Baptist Church in O’Fallon. He admitted he’s frustrated at the prospect of possibly not meeting together for a year or more. Prior to COVID-19, Munton’s church averaged 1,600 people in worship on Sunday.
“It’s hard to see how to do worship services well short of civil disobedience,” the pastor said. But, he added later in the webinar, we’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves. “We do have to think about other people in this as well and not just about our desire to meet together, as much as that matters too.”
Pastor Josh Parsons of Western Oaks Baptist Church in Springfield said it this way: “The question I consider primary is not can we meet, but should we meet?”
For now, in-person church gatherings will likely be limited to 10 people or less until late June under the “Restore Illinois” plan. If the state is ready by then to move to the next phase, church groups of 50 could begin meeting.
Each phase also includes other sectors that can open, including retail businesses and offices. That’s where churches may have room to challenge the reopening plan, said Joseph Infranco of Alliance Defending Freedom. Infranco joined the town hall meeting to provide a legal perspective and offer counsel to churches navigating tricky territory.
“We’re looking for places where the churches receive disparate or unequal treatment,” Infranco said. In other words, places where other kinds of group meetings—birthday parties or book clubs, for example—are allowed, but a Bible study of the same size wouldn’t be.
IBSA Executive Director Nate Adams said the state association’s posture has been to help churches innovate and adjust to this season, while waiting to see how the situation unfolds. ADF, a partner of IBSA, is watching the situation closely in Illinois, Adams said.
As they prepare to reopen under the current plan, IBSA churches are asking questions about what smaller gatherings might look like: how should facilities be cleaned and sanitized in advance, what can be done to promote social distancing, and what about ministries for kids and students?
Some churches are distributing surveys to members to determine what are the greatest concerns and needs ahead of reopening. Many pastors are preparing for smaller crowds. Even as restrictions relax, it’s likely churchgoers won’t return in full force, at least at first.
“It’s going to be a slow move back to normal for our worship service,” said Adron Robinson, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills, a south suburb of Chicago. At the other end of the state, Chris Winkleman is preparing First Baptist in Harrisburg for a similarly gradual return. Leaders at the church won’t rush people to get back in the building, he said at the town hall. They’ll continue to offer services online and via radio broadcast.
Some questions about reopening, said Kevin Carrothers, may indicate more clarification is needed in the state’s plan. For instance, if 10 people are gathered in a church’s sanctuary, can 10 more people meet in the fellowship hall at the same time?
Carrothers, an attorney and associational mission strategist for Salem South Baptist Association, recently helped host one of IBSA’s Church Helps webinars designed to help churches navigate issues related to COVID-19. The webinars are held every Tuesday and Thursday at 11 a.m.
IBSA’s Church Helps webpage also features dozens of resources on reopening, virtual ministry, shepherding from a distance, and the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Go to IBSA.org/church-helps.