Sunday School Amidst COVID-19

Written by Keith Schwanz
From his column It's Your Money

its-your-money-00-19_article.jpgDave starts the coffee brewing before I arrive. I move the podium into position and check to be sure all handouts are ready to distribute. The assigned person will bring coffee cake or donuts. The first ones to enter the room enjoy energetic conversation punctuated with laughter before the session formally begins at 9:30.

I began pastoral ministry in 1977. As I reflect on decades of service to the church, out of the myriad jobs I have performed, I most like teaching an adult Sunday school class. Sunday mornings are a delight because of Sunday school.

I was introduced to an inductive process of Bible study through The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study by Oletta Wald while still a college student. That book started me down the road of guiding the process as a Sunday school class discovers the abundant life found in God’s Word. Rather than being the “sage on the stage,” the one with all the answers, I relish being the “guide on the side” as together we discover God’s will and way for us.

But much of what we’ve known, and what I value so much, may be about to change. I have reviewed federal and state directives on appropriate responses to COVID-19. Necessary, reasonable actions in light of the pandemic may require a radical adjustment of what Sunday mornings look like. Should someone carry the coronavirus to church, it could easily be transferred to others around the coffee pot and pastries. Passing papers among the class could inadvertently send the virus down the row, too. Our Sunday school class averages about 20 in attendance, twice the number currently allowed for groups, and we wouldn’t be at least six feet apart. The seating in our Sunday school room does not allow for the physical distancing recommended.

As I draft this article, I have been observing the stay-at-home guidance for eight weeks. In risk management terms, I am in the avoidance phase. One way to manage pandemic risk is to avoid being where virus transmission can happen. When congregations do not meet for worship, they seek to deal with the risk through avoidance.

Necessary, reasonable actions in light of the pandemic may require a radical adjustment of what Sunday mornings look like.

A second way to manage risk is through reduction. My wife and I have settled into a pattern of doing our grocery shopping early on Tuesday mornings. We go to the store at a time when only older persons are admitted. We observe the “at-least-six-feet-apart” rule and follow the direction arrows taped to the floor of the store. We wear face masks and disinfect our hands as soon as we get back to the car. As congregations begin to gather on Sunday mornings, the ongoing risk will be mitigated by not passing the offering plates and not shaking hands. This is risk management by reduction.

Sometimes, a risk is recognized, but the action is not altered—retention of the risk. For example, suppose a parishioner is receiving hospice care at home and the family asks the pastor to visit. The pastor could retain the risk and visit the family during the final hours of a person’s life. Necessary hygiene, of course, would receive attention (reduction), but the risk is acknowledged and retained.

When a congregation purchases hazard insurance on a building, it transfers the risk to an insurance company. The company pools the premiums from many congregations and then is legally obligated to pay for damage should one of the congregations experience a fire. In these days of COVID-19, it might be that a pastor with an underlying health issue will ask another person to make a pastoral call. This is risk management by transfer.

Faithful Amidst Change

Last Sunday morning at 9:30, I guided our inductive Bible study via Zoom. Sixteen people gathered around computer screens. In the background we saw microwaves, wall hangings, and window drapes. We are managing the current coronavirus risk through avoidance.

We started the study the way we always do, with prayer:

Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.

I could not hear everyone say that prayer like I usually do, and those I did hear cut in and out, some sounds trailing through my laptop speaker after others had finished. The technology cannot fully replicate our typical practices. By the end of our class session, however, we knew that God had once again answered our opening prayer.

I look back through more than 40 years of teaching Sunday school and realize that what we face today is nothing like anything we encountered previously. We have to confront risks we did not even imagine before. In the months ahead, we may have to radically change how we interact on Sunday mornings at 9:30.

We can and will make the adjustments necessary given the new reality. The church has changed practices multiple times in the past 2,000 years. Now it is our turn to modify what we do to better embody the unchanging love of God for the sake of the world.

Keith Schwanz is a writer and editor. He previously served the church as pastor, church musician, and seminary educator.