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Written by Richard Poirier, president and CEO, Church Mutual Insurance Company, S.I.

The first rumblings of danger came from distant shores: a plague, far more contagious than the flu, was approaching. Soon, COVID-19 had reached the United States. By the second week in March 2020, “social distancing” was becoming an all-too-familiar term.

Suddenly, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship were faced with two options — suspend worship indefinitely or create alternatives. Nearly every ministry found ways to continue serving their congregations, using technology or other methods of connecting.

So, what happens when our nation begins to recover? Rather than returning to their former “normal,” houses of worship can continue to embrace and leverage innovative ways of reaching members in this new world.

Worshipping from a distance

The situation called for innovation, and places of worship rose to the challenge. Now it’s time to incorporate those novel ideas into your faith community’s practices as you move forward. Here are some ways places of worship adapted to social distancing – ideas you might consider going forward.

Digital worship: One Jewish community in Los Angeles opened a Facebook Live session on Friday nights to offer words from the Torah, with participants tapping out responses in the comments section throughout the session. Other religious leaders took a crash course in Zoom, Google Meetings and other virtual meeting tools to deliver services that accommodated social distancing.

The path forward: Survey your congregation — did they like the digital format? People are much likelier to participate in worship opportunities when they can conveniently access them from their smart phones and other devices. Just as many businesses are now allowing employees to work from home, places of worship can enable members to participate from their digital devices at home. Yes, face-to-face fellowship is a wonderful and rewarding tradition: one worth protecting. But at the same time, the ability to reach more members at their convenience – and to connect in multiple ways – can multiply your community and forge new bonds.

In recent years, many faith leaders have wondered about the best way to reach the younger generation. While the COVID-19 pandemic initially felt limiting, it forced places of worship to expand into the digital landscape — a world that’s familiar to Millennials.

Consider continuing to stream services and offer virtual worship for those unable or unwilling to leave their homes. Worshippers in their 40s and older have also been open-minded to new ways. You now have an opportunity to maintain a relationship with those who may not otherwise consider brick-and-mortar services. And you could also attract new members who want to access digital services.

Virtual offering plates: Many houses of worship made contributions using online and direct deposit channels well before the COVID-19 pandemic. But the crisis forced them to step up their online giving efforts so they could continue to meet their financial obligations during the nationwide shutdown.

The path forward: If you aren’t offering online giving opportunities, you should be. Ask those who are already giving in this fashion to open the app on their phones while others are passing around the offering plate during worship services. With more exposure, those who hadn’t before considered this method of giving will become more accepting online giving – and, in time, may consider it themselves. Promote the app in multiple places, such as on your Facebook page, website and newsletter. Direct deposit and online giving can create a more consistent revenue stream for your house of worship.

Drive-in services: Houses of worship took the old tradition of drive-in movie theaters to a new level by offering drive-in worship services. Attendees stayed in their cars and tuned in to a local radio station where they could listen to the service, which was live-streamed onto a large screen.

The path forward: Take worship outside! Consider planning outdoor services a few times each year at parks, drive-ins or even just outside your church building. New ideas can energize and inspire the most traditional of congregations.

Rise to the challenge

Faith communities across the globe grieved the loss of their community and cherished worship rituals. But then they rose to the challenge. They found ways to reach their community members when social distancing separated them; they touched hearts when physical contact was discouraged. Because so many everyday events were canceled, families had fewer distractions and were able to focus on the meaningful messages from their places of worship.

Religious communities also heard the call to serve their neighbors. They mobilized to deliver groceries, feed the hungry, care for children and help those who were particularly at risk of contracting the virus. The global crisis gave the faithful an opportunity to be good stewards of their gifts.

Safeguard your future, too

As we enter the recovery phase and you begin to think of expanding your ministries, consider how new ways of reaching out can also lead to greater risk. Many more people tuning in to your new digital resources could invite libel and defamation lawsuits. You also need to protect network security so hackers can’t access the personal information of your organization or your members. And, if you’re using social media for wider communication, make a point to monitor your feeds to ensure you are deleting any inappropriate comments or posts.

As you reach out and connect in new ways, remember to protect your members – and the future of your ministry. Religious organizations need to be vigilant in following safe social media practices and taking steps to protect their own organization’s data and financial security online. If you already have an internet use and access policy, you’re on the right track.

Be sure you also understand what your insurance liability policy covers in the event of a data breach, online defamation or other risks  – and update your policy if needed.

While a recent study by Church Mutual Insurance Company found that only 11% of today’s worshippers fear a cybersecurity breach at their place of worship, you’ll get a better idea of your actual risk by taking this complimentary online self-assessment.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a crisis unlike any we have seen in the past century. It was devastating on a global and individual level. But you now have an opportunity to explore new paths to fellowship, community and connection. Together, we can emerge stronger and more resolute in our determination to serve the greater good.

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