Lessons learned from reopening the church

Michael Smith

Converge Content Specialist

  • Church strengthening

“There’s no playbook when it comes to reopening the church,” says Brad Wilkerson, senior pastor of Rock Creek Church in Prosper, Texas.

Pastor Wilkerson sat down for a video interview with Dr. Bruce Hopler, Converge executive director of Church Strengthening, to discuss his experiences leading one of our first churches to reopen its doors to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wilkerson also talks about why pastors are experiencing emotional fatigue and the tension of living in the balance of rights and responsibilities.

 

Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation:

Bruce Hopler: You’ve been the senior pastor (at Rock Creek) for 13 years now. You were the founding pastor. And so you’ve seen it go through a lot of growth and change. One of the most recent changes has been COVID-19. It has hit all of our churches in a lot of different ways. And one of the big topics has been the gathering back in large groups.

Of course, the church never closed. If they’re healthy, they’ve still been reaching the community. But the whole gathering process, some churches have had limits because of their local restrictions. They’re just not allowed to get together. Some have some freedom in opening, but there’s some restrictions within that. And so they have to decide how that works for them.

There’s some churches that have a full open opportunity to get together, and they’re choosing not to because in their context, they did not feel like it’d be wise. An example would be the African American church. African Americans have been hit way harder when it comes to coronavirus. And so, many pastors that have a higher African American population would say, “We don’t feel like it’s responsible for us to meet.”

Then there are other churches that have done a deep study and thinking through their context and everything and decided: We think it’s time. Your church falls into that latter category. So I want to talk to about and pick your brain a little bit about that.

This is not a conversation about when you should open because it’s so different in every area. You have chosen to open, and I would love for us as churches and leaders across the country to pick your brain and learn from you about what you learned during that time.

So give us a kind of a short story of a context of where you came from and what you’ve been dealing with.

Every obstacle the enemy has thrown our way in the last 13 years, we have found a way through Christ to win that battle and see the victory on the other side of it, and COVID-19 is no different.

Brad Wilkerson: I kind of joke and always say we had the ideal situation. We were a church that met in a portable setting for 12 years in a middle school, started building a building about two and a half years ago — our first permanent location — took about 18 months to get that building done, moved in December of last year after literally 12 and a half years of portability. Fourteen Sundays in the building, and then we got shut down with COVID. So what an ideal situation, right?

We had to really think through some things, and we had to put some things into motion that we wanted to do in the future. We were so focused with getting in the building that online services was something that we knew we wanted to do, but it was in the future. And COVID-19 sped that up. We had to say, “OK, now we have to go online, so it kind of forced it.”

We’ve had our ups and downs as a church. Our journey has been like everybody else’s journey. The enemy has fought against us. There’s been great highs, and there’s been some difficult low seasons and some struggles, but through that relationship with Converge, through a lot of my relationships with my friends in the Southwest district, in particular Vision Arizona friends, and Converge president Scott Ridout, when he was the pastor of Sun Valley Community Church, coached me and helped me through a season of difficulty in year five.

But you know what? Every obstacle the enemy has thrown our way in the last 13 years, we have found a way through Christ to win that battle and see the victory on the other side of it, and COVID-19 is no different.

We had just built a beautiful facility. We were getting traction. We had doubled (our attendance). We’d gone from 500 to 1000 people in 14 weeks. Our financials were beginning to gain traction. People’s lives were being changed. We had already baptized 25 people in the new building, and we had begun to feel the momentum, and then this hit.

And in my humanity, and in my transparency, I worried. I wondered, “Oh, God, what are you doing?” But I also have seen how our team has risen up. They’ve shown themselves just like they did during 12 years of portability, that there’s no barrier they can’t break through, there’s no obstacle they can’t overcome.

We went to full online, and we’ve survived, and we continue to thrive in our survival. And so while there is no playbook for this — it’s kind of like taking that first child home from the hospital — it’s like, “Where’s the owner’s manual? There is no owner’s manual.

And so what we’ve learned is a lot of times you won’t learn what you need to know until you just go do it. Just figure it out. You just got to figure it out and contextually what works in your area. What works for us may not work in other parts of the country.

BH: OK, so you went on Amazon, and you got the playbook of how it’s all supposed to be done. Yeah, I mean, everybody tried to figure this out. So you have become a little bit of a playbook for some of us because you’ve been out there. So give us some practical things that your church has done in response to reopening in a larger gathering during this COVID-19 season.

They were re-engaging into culture, and we're like, “OK, if they can go to a restaurant, then we feel like we need to open our door so that they can come and be in the Lord’s house.”

BW: Sure, well, our reopening was not really not just our decision, our reopening was based on our state’s decision to begin to reopen. So as our state began to reopen and went to different percentages of capacity, once it got to that 50% capacity we knew we were at a place where we could reopen, and we could do ministry now.

The churches were never told that they had to operate on a capacity percentage. We were allowed to go back in, but we wanted to adhere to our governor’s recommendation. So we looked and said, “OK, how can we do 50% capacity?” So immediately, we had to add a third service. So we added a third service to kind of lessen the crowd numbers. So that was something that we immediately looked at.

The second step was, now that we know that we're going to be at 50% capacity, we started removing every other row by taping those rows off. We didn’t take the chairs out. We just sat in every other row. We required family units to sit together, which the teenagers they really got upset with mom and dad. And then we put two seats, which was six feet, between each family unit.

Now, one thing Texas did tell us is if you ride to church together, you can sit together. For instance, we encouraged our widow ladies to carpool because our widow ladies don’t want to sit here and then two seats later another widow lady — they’re friends, so if they rode together to church, they could sit together. That was something that our local government allowed us to do.

All kinds of different things went into that, but the bottom line is once our governor said we can begin to go to 50% capacity in restaurants. Gyms were opened up. And what we saw were people were going to those things. They were re-engaging into culture, and we're like, “OK, if they can go to a restaurant, then we feel like we need to open our door so that they can come and be in the Lord’s house.”

We followed the recommendation of the government. But at the same time, we knew that we didn't have to adhere to 100% of that, because it was a recommendation to churches. But we wanted to do due diligence in the eyes of our congregants and our community that we were taking the right precautions and measures. So that’s kind of where we landed.

BH: So, volunteers, they come in and do they just do business as normal? Or did you guys make some changes for them?

BW: Well, 50% of our volunteers have not come back because 50% of our congregation has not come back. So we’re running about anywhere from 45 to 55% of our normal attendance. Currently, with the recent spike in Texas, our attendance was down (June 28), about 100 less than the week before.

But with that being said, it takes less volunteers to manage half the congregation. So while our children’s ministry has seen half of the volunteers not come back, they can service the children’s ministry because they don’t need as many volunteers.

And when I say they can do that, it’s because when we first opened, we did that in phases, just like any state or the nation, we opened in phases. So phase one in our opening, we only offered childcare for birth through kindergarten. And in our third service, which was our lowest-attended service, we were seeing only like four to five kids in the children’s ministry, so it didn’t take as many workers. So we were able to make those adjustments.

And so with the volunteers, greeting — here’s a great example. We desire to give you seven touches before you get into the auditorium. Well, now we know we’re not giving you any touches because we’re not physically touching you.

But No. 2, we’ve back that down to about three to four verbal touches or greeting at some level because people have been gracious with us, they've been patient with us, they really want to be in the house of the Lord. They want to come to church; they want to worship together, so they know that it’s not going to be exactly the way it was. And they know that we’re not going to inundate them with tons of volunteers. We just don’t have it right now. So our guest services with greeters and ushers, we’re managing that with half of the capacity that we used to manage it with, but we’re only running half the capacity as a church.

BH: What are some specific takeaways that pastors listening to this can say, “Oh, that would be a good idea to try with my church?”

BW: Well, the first thing we did is we engaged with a company there locally in Dallas. It's called GermWrap. Now, I know there’s other companies that can do this, but this is just a local franchise that we have in our area. And James Hernandez is the man that owns that local franchise. We got in contact with James. We did not know James, but James knew the situation because he’s living in it himself. And we contracted with James’ franchise of GermWrap to come in and disinfect our building.

First thing on Sunday mornings at 8 a.m., before the 9 a.m. service, every chair is disinfected, the entire lobby, the entire children’s ministry, everything that’s touched in the children’s ministry is disinfected, and then he does that again between all three of our services. We backed our service times down to 50 minutes so that we could give a little extra time for the disinfecting before the next service. So that was huge because people visually saw that No 1. And No. 2, they smelled it when they walked in that the disinfecting smell, and it dissipates quickly, but it’s there, you know it’s there. And so that sent a message that we were trying to do the things we needed to do.

We did not require our greeters or ushers to wear a mask or our children’s workers to wear a mask until the recent spike. Now with the recent spike this past week, we set that into motion that all employees of the church, anybody in leadership, anybody that’s serving in any form or fashion greeting, ushering, any guest services area. Obviously, we’re not doing the cafe right now — that’s shut down. Any children’s worker has to wear a mask; it’s required. It’s not required of the congregants because it’s not required in our state yet. The moment that’s mandated by our state, then we’ll mandate it as a church.

One other thing is we’re temperature checking every child and every children’s worker before they’re allowed in the children’s wing. So all of that is happening at the children’s check-in stations. We now have opened up our complete children’s wing. Two weeks ago, we opened that up, but again, our numbers are so low that we’re able to spread those kids out in the square footage that we have available to us.

BH: So I’m hearing things like you’re every other row and three services — just things to kind of keep people spread out. Also, the whole sanitation type stations you have.

BW: Yeah, I should have bought stock in hand sanitizer. I have it all over the building. And not only all over the lobby, but in every children’s ministry room. They’re hand sanitizing stations, so they’re everywhere. And we have our janitor we call it we got him on Robo-mode. He's cleaning between every service, the bathrooms, and working hard to keep it and wiping the doors down. We have it where people don’t touch a door. We open the door for them, so it’s a touchless environment. The kids check-in station someone is checking you in and giving you a tag, you’re not touching self check-ins. So a touchless experience is what we're trying to give them.

Now, I know our people are very loving people, our people love to hang out, they love to hug, they love to shake hands. We’ve really had to reiterate that over and over and over, not with our serving people, but just don’t congregate in the lobby when we’re done. We need you to exit the building. You can kind of get outside, but we need to exit the building because we need to disinfect because they like to stand around and talk because they love each other, they love being in community.

BH: So I enjoy hearing about how you’ve created all of these different environments, disinfection and all of that and that as you are watching things progress or change, you are responding to it, to the region spike. You’ve shared, “OK, what do we do about that?” As a staff, you’re constantly meeting. There’s no one size fits all solution for you guys, you’re just gonna keep going at it. So, I do have one last question for you; it’s more on a personal level. But before we do, anything else you want to tell us or have you covered everything about practical suggestions when it comes to opening up for larger gatherings.

So we can’t do church like we normally think of doing church. So can we just go be the church in ways that we haven’t thought about in the past?

BW: A few other things I would say is we did some creative things to engage children that were in the auditorium. We did some creative things as people were walking in. Instead of playing our normal scrolling announcements on the screen, we had our children’s pastor shoot videos like movie preview videos, and he does all kinds of voices. He’s great at doing different celebrity voices, and he would kind of lead the people through coming in the building inside the auditorium, about spacing out and those things, but he did some puppet work to engage the kids. It was preservice, but it got the kids involved.

The other thing we did is we launched a brand new kids website, where he would pre-record the kids lesson in his creative way. We encouraged our parents to bring the tablets, and the kids sitting in the auditorium with headphones could listen to the children’s lesson while I was preaching because I know first and second graders don’t want to listen to me. That was a great idea that came from this, and the team did a great job with that.

So we can’t do church like we normally think of doing church. So can we just go be the church in ways that we haven’t thought about in the past? And so that’s some things we’ve done. We've said, “OK, if we can’t worship together, how can we? How can we work together to be a voice in the community of calm, of hope, of a voice that we’re here for you, that we love you? And we’re concerned about you and all those in this community.”

We’ve done blood drives in our parking lot. We’ve done food drives in our parking lot for our local food pantry called neighbors nourishing neighbors. And then we did something that was really unique, that’s really been a huge blessing for a lot of people and we’ve actually seen a lot of traction from it. Obviously, God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and wisdom and a sound mind.

We were going to do a yard sign for Easter. And we do this frequently, where people put a yard sign that invites them to Easter or Christmas Eve and being that Easter didn’t happen in the building this year. Easter wasn't canceled, but it just didn't happen in the building. I came up with the idea: Instead of doing the Easter yard sign, what if we just made a yard sign that said faith and a greater sign and fear and put our church website on it — faith greater than fear.

We’ve seen probably over 450 of those signs being placed in our community. And now that we have reopened, we have seen so many first-time visitors that were walking in the neighborhood because everybody’s walking in the evenings. Like people are walking outside like never before. They were seeing these yard signs; they were going to the website. They began to engage with us online in their living room. Now that we’re open, that’s where most of our first-time visitors are coming from, the yard sign.

We want stability, but God wants the church to lean into agility. And we’ve got to learn to pivot quickly. We’ve got to be agile. We’ve got to not be afraid to make a mistake. We’ve got to be not afraid to try something.

So there’s a way to be the church without actually having church, and we’re not guaranteed that we’re going to be able to stay open. We know each week is a different adventure. And so last week we said, “OK, we’re gonna have to make these steps.” At the end of the day, we want stability. I want to know what’s coming tomorrow. I want to know what’s coming next week. I’m a planner. And here’s what I’ve told our congregation, we want stability, but God wants the church to lean into agility. And we’ve got to learn to pivot quickly. We’ve got to be agile. We’ve got to not be afraid to make a mistake. We’ve got to be not afraid to try something. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But let’s try it.

And so that would be my encouragement, is that contextually the things that we’ve done may not work in your area. And you may do some things contextually wouldn’t work in my area, but we can learn from each other. Try it. Try something and just don’t sit at home and do nothing. Get out there and be the church. Thank God for technology. Can you imagine if this would have happened in 1985? Thank God for technology; thank God for creativity. So we’ve done lots of things. And we stole some of those ideas or borrowed some of those ideas. You know what they say, obscurity is originality, so just don’t tell them where you got it.

When you move in a building in 14 weeks, and you’re beginning to gain traction in a brand new community, because we relocated 6 miles to the east from where our middle school was. Brand new community, beginning to gain traction. I mean, who’s this Rock Creek Church? So we spent the first three months in that building just telling people who we were and who Jesus is, and now all of a sudden, this happens, so we had to get really creative. And God’s been good, our online approach and effect have been outstanding. I can’t say enough about our team of people that made it happen.

BH: So a couple things that I heard is the fact of just being incredibly proactive, just being flexible, agile and just being missional. You know, just getting out into the community. And those are the types of churches that people will say, “I want to be a part of a local solution,” and you guys are being a local solution.

BW: Yeah, I mean it’s proactive, but it’s also reactive. I just find that I lead better to get out in front of something and see it coming, and so we’re already thinking, “What if we have to shut back down? We’re thinking about what does this look like in the fall. I’ve had people tell me, “We’re not coming back till January.” I’ve had people tell me they’re not coming back till there’s a vaccine. That’s the reality we live right in. And so with that reality, then I’ve got to find ways to reach into their lives with the message of the hope of the gospel. And we can do that in different ways besides just assembling on Sunday morning.

 It’s the solution side of it that we need to choose to live on and say, “You know what, I’m not gonna debate what’s right, what's wrong, why this happened, why this didn’t happen. I'm just gonna go be Jesus.”

BH: And what I like about that is you’re saying that you as a leader need to find a solution to that, not blame them for how they feel.

BW: We all know what the problem is. We all see it. It’s right in front of us. We can’t hide from it. It’s on social media. It’s on your TV. It’s in your newspaper. It’s everywhere. It’s right there across the street, potentially. It’s the solution side of it that we need to choose to live on and say, “You know what, I’m not gonna debate what’s right, what's wrong, why this happened, why this didn’t happen. I'm just gonna go be Jesus. And I’m gonna live on the solution side.”

BH: I have one last question. Pastors all over the nation are experiencing emotional fatigue, decision fatigue, change fatigue, constant conflict. No matter what they do decide, there’s going to be lots of congregants who are going to be upset about their decision. How are you doing emotionally and spiritually? And then what would you encourage for pastors across our nation for their emotional health?

Living in the balance of those rights and those responsibilities has been so emotionally fatiguing. What is the right thing to do? What is the right thing to say? And sometimes you don’t want to say anything; being silent is not the answer.

BW: Well, I’ll be honest; I’m tired. I’m not just mentally tired; I’m physically tired. I had gotten into a really disciplined routine pre-COVID of going to the gym. I had lost 30 pounds, and I have since not kept that 30 pounds off. I’ve gained that weight back. Because the gym is shut down. And if I have to work out at home, it isn’t happening. So I also tend to when times get tough, I tend to get undisciplined in my eating, and I don’t eat healthy. So that’s been a result of the stress and the tension.

Emotionally, I think the fatigue is more trying to balance what’s the right decision. I feel like we’re living in the tension of wanting to do the right thing because we don’t want to be criticized for doing the wrong thing, even if our hearts were pure in whatever decision we made. And so I think pastors right now are living in that battle. The battle of what is the Good Samaritan, the love your neighbor as yourself approach?

At the same time, when do you stand up and say, “We are the church, and we have to stand up for our rights to have church,” and pastors are trying to live in the balance of that. Because we have rights, but we also have responsibilities. Living in the balance of those rights and those responsibilities has been so emotionally fatiguing. What is the right thing to do? What is the right thing to say? And sometimes you don’t want to say anything; being silent is not the answer.

And so, yeah, I’m tired. But I’m Zoom tired. The Zoom meetings are crazy because not only do you have them constantly, but they’re not the same as in-person meetings because you don’t feed off that person’s community moment, when you’re in the presence of someone else. But here’s what I would say: As a pastor, it’s OK to do some things like if you’re prerecording services, prerecord three or four and then take some weeks off.

You know, we just came in here. I didn’t just drive here for this (interview). We’re in town for the Church Planting Assessment Center, but we took the whole week off previous to this week just to drive here from Texas, just to get away. Just to spend some time apart, not apart from each other, my wife and I, but apart from the area, just to kind of unplug from it. So I think you have to stay in your normal routine, you have to not work 24 hours a day. You have to turn the computer off. You have to disconnect.

But I’m going to go back to one thing I love to do that just helps me tremendously. I have a screened-in back porch. And I go on the back porch and I read. I’m reading a book right now called How to worship a king. And I’m just learning again what genuine worship is. And I’m learning more about my God, more than I knew before, and I’m learning that through this he’s going to get glory and so I’m being replenished by the Spirit of God through reading.

And another thing I would say is it’s OK to schedule a nap; it’s OK to say, “I need to shut my eyes for a bit. I’m tired. My eyes are tired. My brain is tired.” My hobby is golf, but we lost golf for a while in our area, but it’s back open. So getting out and playing golf, going for walks, but not being afraid to schedule time off.

Coronavirus updates and reopening resources for your church >


Michael Smith, Converge Content Specialist

Michael Smith serves as Converge’s content specialist. He has nearly two decades in the newspaper publishing industry. Michael worked as a copy editor and designer for the Tampa Tribune for more than a dozen years. He also was a member of the editorial staff of Florida Baptist Witness and other publications across the Southeast.

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