Lovely when it's falling, especially as it settles on trees, but a serious hazard to drive in unless your community has the equipment to keep the roads relatively passable. And even then, traffic may (and probably should!) slow to a snarl. That's why schools and some businesses have "snow days," days they cancel work as usual because it's just not reasonable or even safe to expect their employees and those they serve to come in.
In fact, it's a snow day in Nashville (where my office is-- and GBOD is closed today, too!) and "back home in Indiana" (where my family lives) today. In Nashville it's because there's simply not enough equipment around to deal with almost any degree of snow (it snows annually but rarely there), so the National Guard have been called in to assist. In Indiana, it's not that the snowfall was that great (4 inches or so) but that it's too cold for road salt to melt it and the winds are constantly creating new dangerous drifts. The plows push it away and it blows right back.
Having grown up just north of the Mason Dixie line in Cincinnati, and having spent most of my professional years in Indiana so far, I've seen a good number of snow days over the years-- for schools and businesses.
When it's schools and businesses, though, usually it's not that big a deal. Sure, there is some lost business, but you'll get right back into the swing of things tomorrow or the next day, right? It's usually more of an inconvenience than a crisis.
But not so for many congregations. The "next day" is often a full week away. A lectionary or sermon series may have been interrupted. Practices for Christmas choir music and the children's pageant may not happen as they should have. And especially in the "year-end giving days" of December, congregations are relying on every dollar or check in that plate to make budget and denominational obligations for the year.
With all these pressures, and perhaps few contingency plans in hand, congregations may be more than a little reluctant to cancel even when many other organizations and businesses would.
So, what's a pastor to do? How do you make the call about whether to call a snow day on a Sunday, or even Christmas Eve? And what do you do about worship and finances if you do make that call?
Calling a Snow Day
First things first: Safety matters
. Keep in mind who is in your congregation and what their physical capacities are. Many congregations have a much higher percentage of older adults, some of whom may have varying capacities to navigate by car or on foot on snow and ice, than schools or businesses. Some congregations have a large number of very young children (and their parents!) who may need extra help and bundling to manage without falling or getting hurt. If schools and businesses are closing, or even announcing delays, in weather like you're facing, you may want to plan to do the same. Even if schools and businesses might remain open, you should think carefully about whether conditions are safe enough to expect your
people to come out, whether for worship, choir rehearsals, or whatever.
Don't leave this decision to the last minute if you can avoid it. Work with leaders in your congregation to develop a policy
adopted by your church council and a communications plan
you will implement when the conditions call for a snow day on a Sunday or other gathering. The policy should include objective criteria that fit your area. Keep in mind specific criteria may vary widely by region and access to snow removal. Consider calling your local school districts to see how they make these decisions. While in Central Indiana, 4" or more of snow with temperatures in the single digits might be a reasonable criterion in areas with some snow removal available, but in the center of Milwaukee, where snow removal is more aggressive, you might consider waiting until at least 8" or more have fallen.
As for the communications plan, if you don't already have one, start creating email lists, phone trees, or other systems to make sure everyone who normally attends knows you have cancelled and any other information they need to know. Again, school systems can provide helpful guidance or models of how to develop your plan. Many typically provide multiple means for every parent and teacher to be contacted-- phone calls, email, text messaging, or Facebook. Find out how your participants prefer to be contacted, and make sure they get the information they need by their preferred means. It doesn't hurt to communicate it twice!
And of course, always use the local media-- radio and television-- so anyone who doesn't get the personal message has a chance to get it publicly. But rely on these as a backup. Direct communication remains your best first option.
When You Make the Call
You do want folks to know when they might expect worship to be cancelled. Communicating your policy helps that. You also want them to know when you have actually cancelled worship. That's what your communications plan does.
But you don't have to settle for just announcing a cancellation. There are other things you can do that allow your worshiping community both to worship and to offer their financial support despite the fact that you will not gather that day for worship.
Here are several options to consider.
1. Meet in the middle.
This takes some advance planning, but it can enrich the community of folks who live near each other. If it is not reasonable for many folks to drive in to your worship facility in a safe and timely way, perhaps they could get safely to a point nearer their homes. Make out a map of your worshiping congregation showing where everyone lives. Then see where there may be clusters of folks relatively close to each other who could drive safely to some point, whether a home of a member or an open business, like a coffee shop or restaurant, where they could gather for a small group worship and prayer time. If you plan to meet somewhere in public, be sure you have the cooperation of the place where you will meet first. Identify one or more of these persons as "cluster worship leaders" and be sure to send these persons a suggested order for small group worship (a well known song, an opening prayer, a scripture for the day to read and discuss, an order for prayer, and a closing song). Let the clusters meet whenever they can, wherever works best for each.
2. Worship and pray with others where you are. Use your social networks and encourage folks to share worship with immediate neighbor in their homes. There are two outstanding online resources that could help you offer morning prayer together, or if you can't get outside at all, with others you may invite via Facebook or email or phone to pray with at a given time. Mission Saint Clare provides the complete services for the daily office, including the references for the readings for each day. If you don't want the daily office readings, but the Sunday readings instead, you can find the listing on the GBOD worship website (http://www.umcworship.org) or the full texts on the Vanderbilt Lectionary website (http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu).
Or, if enough of you use Twitter, you might find @Virtual_Abbey a great resource for a more contemplative service of prayer. The Virtual Abbey offers morning prayer every Sunday (around 8:30 ET usually), and daily morning, evening and night prayer most other days, drawing on a variety of resources in English from around the world.
And to let others know what you're doing, consider "Tweeting" something like this:
Has worship become a snow day? Gather family & neighbors & pray with @Virtual_Abbey. We are!
3. The money.
If you live in a place that is prone to have a snow day or two each winter, start now to create opportunities and reminders for people to send in their offerings online or by check. Always include a prompt about sending in offerings, by whatever means, in your cancellation notice. Make it as simple as possible for people to do. The more you do this, the less cancelling worship becomes a financial problem for your congregation.
What's Worked for You?
If you've planned ahead with policy, communications plans, and ways for people to worship together in person or online and share their offerings, snow days may become more of an adventure than a crisis where you are.
No doubt, some of you have done just that.
We'd love to hear your stories of what's worked, what hasn't worked, and what you're learning as you create alternatives for worship when gathering at your usual facilities is not an option. Feel free to share your stories in the comments below.
In the meantime, be safe out there!
Peace in Christ,