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Process matters when it comes to reopening a rural church during the COVID-19 pandemic

The reopening process so many Kansas organizations are going through brings together people with starkly different views on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some might think the entire ordeal is a hoax or a conspiracy, others just a giant overreaction. There are those who see it as a dangerous situation, particularly endangering those on the front lines as health care workers or in other roles who could be hurt when people don’t take the threat seriously.

The clamoring varies among regions and sectors, including faith communities across the country. When it comes to churches reopening, even President Trump has weighed in.

Now imagine being the pastor of a small, rural church charged with bringing a diverse flock together as you decide how and when your congregation will start gathering again for worship. Pastor Steven McVey of the Lamont Wesleyan Church in Greenwood County and the founder of a rural church-planting ministry called the Dirt Roads Network, has done that and tried to make a difficult process easier to navigate.

Steve McVey talks about the importance of process in reopening a rural church

Pastor Steven McVey of the Lamont Wesleyan Church in Greenwood County and the founder of a rural church-planting ministry called the Dirt Roads Network is encouraging rural churches to think about process as they reopen. (screenshot photo)

He thinks that sharing his insights can help pastors to prepare for the process challenges of reopening. Because of public gathering limits, many rural churches shifted to online services. But with the coronavirus still sickening Americans and limitations only gradually lifting in many places, he realized the path to welcoming people back to in-person worship wouldn’t be as simple as throwing open the doors.

Many of the rural pastors he knows deftly managed the technical challenge of shifting to virtual gatherings. But they weren’t necessarily ready for the adaptive challenge and the political minefields that lay in wait. 

“The average rural pastor was absolutely snowed under meeting that challenge,” of shifting to virtual services, McVey says. “There wasn’t any time to be ‘on the balcony.’ If they were aware of it, there was paralysis as to what ‘I can do about it.’”

But the risks of not thinking about the process were significant in rural congregations in ways that they might not be in an urban or suburban setting. 

“In a smaller church, anybody can be a big fish in a small pond,” McVey says. “One stakeholder with significant influence can cause a lot of heartache.”

The Dirt Roads Network describes itself as a rural ministry that believes every rural community deserves a “life-giving, Bible-believing, community-transforming congregation.” Launched in 2017, it offers rural-specific ministry to pastors and congregations, as well as cohorts for church revitalization and planting. It works with about 30 Wesleyan churches in Kansas as well as churches in the Great Lakes and the Carolinas. The organization received a Leadership Transformation Grant from the Kansas Leadership Center in 2019 and 2020 to underwrite participation in KLC leadership training programs.

McVey initially began discussing process challenges with a group of Kansas pastors he meets with as part of the Rural Matters Institute, a community for pastors and Christian leaders in non-urban contexts. Andrew Hurlburt, a fellow pastor at Lamont Wesleyan Church, heard the presentation and insisted that McVery make a video of it.

“He emphatically told me that this teaching could save hundreds of rural pastors some significant heartbreak,” McVey says.  

So he made a video advising pastors of a handful of things they should be thinking about, posted it to YouTube under the title of “Watch this before you announce when you are going to reopen your rural church” and saw it top 2,000 views by the end of May. In his presentation, McVey advises pastors to prepare for the potential of the church reopening “being a little prickly.”

“We have people who have been isolated. And when they’re isolated, they have the tendency to just hear their own opinions, and the opinions about COVID-19 vary greatly in our culture. … There’s some emotion behind those different feelings.”

McVey encouraged pastors to communicate with their congregations about how decisions about reopening would be handled prior to them being made. He advised them to survey their congregations so they could get a handle on members’ views and share those results.

In developing the process, McVey urged pastors to turn to local health care officials rather than rely solely on the guidance of state and national officials. 

“I want people who know my community to be making that decision,” McVey says. “I want people who know my congregation to make that decision.”

One of the pastors who’s benefited from McVey’s outreach is Chris McFadden, the pastor of Lakin Wesleyan Church, who indicated that he hadn’t thought carefully about his own leadership at his church of about 60 until hearing one of McVey’s presentations.

“I hadn’t considered the process of reopening because I was so focused on the moment I was in,” McFadden says.

With mass gatherings in Kearny County, west of Garden City, limited to 10 or fewer people under the county’s phased reopening plan, services at McFadden’s church continue online and will likely remain there until June, when gatherings of up to 90 people are likely to be permitted with social distancing. While Kearny County has recorded 44 coronavirus cases as of Wednesday, it’s close to Ford and Finney counties, which lead the state with 1,628 and 1,417 reported cases, respectively.

While some in his church felt strongly about reopening to limited in-person services right away, involving church members in the process and including local emergency and hospital officials in their discussions made it easier to hold to purpose despite calls to open sooner or stay closed longer.

“Mostly folks have accepted the decision out of hand,” McFadden says. “Some folks have dissented, but so far all of the dissent has been respectful. … Following the guidelines that Steven set forth was very helpful to me.”

McVey has heard from other pastors who have been inspired to define the process of reopening and communicate it up front. But he’s also heard from pastors who moved forward without a clear process and unexpectedly found their reopening approaches generating backlash.

“Some of the responses (to the video) have come from leaders who were a little bit behind the curve,” McVey says.

Once backlash happens, pastors can go back and communicate a process and turn to scripture to facilitate healing, McVey says, but outlining a process up front can save a lot of headaches.

It helps to understand that in the current political climate, people often try to discredit the sources of information, ideas or decisions they disagree with. Focusing on process provides an opportunity to avoid that trap.

If you can get people to agree on a process, McVey says, it can help people with different viewpoints accept the same decision.

“Rural people, agrarian people, understand process more than they do timelines,” McVey says in the video. “Basically if they understand the process, they’ll be able to accept the outcome even if they don’t agree with it.”

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive updates, subscribe here: https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/contact-us/join-our-email-list/

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