In the weeks and months ahead church leaders will have to make tough decisions about summer programs. Whether we are canceling, moving forward, postponing, scaling back, or moving online – let’s be intentional not reactive.
During this global pandemic, we are taking things week by week and often one day at a time. With so much uncertainty, it is hard to know when we will return to gathering in our buildings and what that will look like. As summer draws closer, parishioners are asking, “Will VBS be canceled?” “Are we still going on the Mission Trip?” “Can I still go to camp?”
Each church and organization will have to navigate these questions in ways that are appropriate and fitting for their context. Here are a few things to consider:
Slow Return to “Normal” Projected
As new cases of COVID-19 decline in the countries effected before the United States, some lock down restrictions are slowly being lifted. Until there is widespread testing for the virus in our country, some forms of physical distancing will likely need to remain in place to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities. Physical distancing from people at high risk may continue until a vaccine is available. We don’t know exactly what that will look like for faith communities, but it seems certain that the return to “normal” ways of gathering will be slow.
National Church Postponed Major Event Scheduled for July
On April 8th Bronwyn Clark Skov, Officer for Youth Ministries for the Episcopal Church, announced that the triennial Episcopal Youth Event scheduled to take place July 7-11, 2020 will be postponed. You can read the full statement here. The scale of this event, which draws thousands of people together, is obviously much greater than a summer event taking place at an individual parish, but it indicates that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be measured in months, not weeks.
A Time to Focus on What’s Essential
This pandemic has called all of us (well, really forced us) to focus on what’s essential. In the first few weeks of this global crisis, we did not have capacity for anything else. As we find a new normal and new rhythms, we will likely have some increased capacity. And we get to intentionally and prayerfully decided what to do with it. Perhaps this is a time to continue focusing on what is essential. A time to do a few things well. A time to produce less and connect more deeply with members of our communities.
And let’s remember, our communities are expressions of the Body of Christ. We are blessed with diverse gifts. Might this be a time to invite members of your Body, your congregation, to be creative with you? To pray for and imagine new alternatives if you do indeed need to cancel what you had originally planned?
Church Size Matters
When you need to make a decision about canceling summer events such as Vacation Bible School, Pilgrimages, Summer Camps, and Mission Trips might depend on the size of your community. Bigger churches will likely need to plan further in advance. Smaller communities are, by nature, more nimble and flexible. Smaller churches might be able to wait a little longer to make a decision.
Nuts & Bolts: A Few Tips on How to Cancel
Take Your Time
Canceling a beloved, annual, and/or long planned event can be emotional. Take your time making the decision. Do your research. Pray. Get buy-in from leaders. Give people time to adjust to the idea of canceling or postponing. Attend to the emotional aspect of cancelation.
Communicate Clearly & Directly
Once you have made a decision, communicate clearly and directly. Put all the details in one place. Plan to communicate the information more than once. If this is a big event that means a lot to your community, do not burry the information in the weekly announcements. Send a dedicated email or physical letter. Make phone calls to those who will be especially disappointed. Again, acknowledge the emotional component – the grief and disappointment.
Provide *Optional* Refunds
If appropriate, offer refunds. Millions of people have lost jobs due to the pandemic, so some families might welcome a refund. If appropriate, you might offer the refund as optional. Some people may want to make it a donation to the church if their financial situation is stable. Be clear about where the money will go (the general operating fund, youth ministry budget, credit towards future events, etc.). Be clear that if someone chooses not to accept the refund you will not be able to offer it again at a later date.
Offer An Alternative (If Appropriate)
As part of tending to the emotional element of cancelation/postponement, consider whether an online alternative of some kinds might be appropriate. Could the pilgrimage group do a summer monthly book study via Zoom? Could you set up a FaceBook group for families where you provide activities throughout the summer related to your VBS theme? Could your youth group collaborate on a service project from home such as writing letters to older members of your community?
Sounding Board: Lifelong Learning Office Hours
Each Thursday, Lifelong Learning offers Online Open Office Hours via Zoom. These office hours are “drop in” and we are happy to serve as a sounding board for folks considering what it looks like to cancel or postpone summer events. Register here to join us!