PICTURED: Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church designed by Sizemore Group

The Pandemic Impact on Church Communities and Buildings

by Tulia Scott, AIA, NCARB, NOMA, LEED AP BD+C,  Director of Architecture, Sizemore Group

At a time like this, many people would like to turn to their spirituality to guide them through the pandemic. However, most churches, like all other entities, were forced to close their doors in March. The one place where you could seek sanctuary from many of life’s trials and tribulations. Many churches have since been innovative and adapted quickly to the changing times to be there for their parishioners. The main priority being the well-being of the church community.

Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church is able to do a one-way aisle and mark ‘X’s on the floor as a guide for social distancing. The pews are also marked with a 6’-0” spacing and every other pew is skipped.

Architecturally, many traditional churches are adaptable since they may have a porch and/or Narthex designed for gathering before entering the main church. This can now be used for maintaining space between those entering and exiting the church. They are also often designed with a spacious main aisle and generous side aisles; main entrances, side doors and rear egress doors; high ceilings and spacious altars to accommodate the celebration of the service with space for the lectors, celebrants and altar functions. Some have durable floor finishes and easily cleanable pews and kneelers. The pews are generally 3’-0” apart, which makes it easy to skip a pew for the 6’-0” social distancing. Others may have individual seats which can be marked accordingly.

Virtual Services
Virtual services were the first to take off because some churches already streamed live on occasion, so it was a bit easier to convert. For others, they called on the resources of parishioners and professionals to help set up for the live stream, allowing them to reach many others across the nation and members hunckering down in other states with family. Live stream services are better able to accommodate large choirs because they can have cantors and musicians in a well-choreographed live or taped video, where they may have been limited to one cantor and one musician at in-person services. This has now been the norm for many months and the kinks have been straightened out.

Virtual Choir at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

Drive-up Services
Some churches constructed outdoor temporary stages and invited parishioners to attend a drive-up service with the same precautionary measures, to maintain social distancing and stay in or close to their own cars. One church coined the phrase ‘Pull Up and Praise’.

Seating diagram shared by St. Anthony’s of Padua Catholic Church Greenville, SC, with its parishioners as a guide for in-person mass.

In-Person Services
For in-person services, parishioners are limited and required to follow all safety practices of the CDC. Face masks are required for parishioners, hand sanitizing stations are made available, with one-way aisles and deep cleaning after each service. In preparation for service, many have removed all religious materials from pews and chairs and signage reminders are posted throughout to guide parishioners. The larger churches have been able to facilitate and adapt to the new requirements a little easier than smaller churches because they are able to accommodate the spacing guidelines. They also have additional overflow spaces and the ability to celebrate more services each week. Many churches have been able to integrate in-person services into their live stream program as a hybrid approach.

Church communities also continue to serve us in other occasions of life, such as baptisms, weddings and funerals bringing hope and peace to many. These occasions are now live streamed to many who may have attended or may not have been able to, so it is a blessing in disguise.

Outdoor Services
Some churches have moved their faith celebrations outdoors, including Sunday services and weddings. For urban churches with tight campuses, they have hosted services in public parks. Churches with ample land space have transformed large parking lots into outdoor naves and parish green spaces into altars. Our client Crabapple First Baptist Church is considering adding a new entrance to its existing building to better accomodate outdoor services now held in their green space.

Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church was designed to have a spacious narthex with a baptismal font and one-way traffic temporarily demarcated on the floor

Other Alternatives
Many are using other resources like the church ministries to be in fellowship with quarantined members, create opportunities for prayer, provide daily inspirational content, prayer walls and stand for social justice. They continue to serve the community at large, which is in need now than ever through meal programs, grocery delivery and general wellness checks. Churches have long been places of refuge catering to our physiological needs, and being places of fellowship and belonging. As in 1 Peter 4:10  “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

Our Recommendations
As architects and designers, we had no way of predicting our current circumstances, but we are problem solvers and change agents who have the ability to learn from our circumstances and adapt the spaces that we design to be fluid, yet timeless. As church designers we encourage our clients to consider master planning their sites to plan for the future, even if they have to do a phased development. This allows us to design for the vehicular and pedestrian circulations, outdoor prayer gardens, religious ed outdoor spaces  and many other features to enhance the campus. We engage the parishioners in the design to learn from the young and mature, and so too with all the ministries of the church to understand how they serve the parishioners and community at large to gauge the space requirements. We also listen to understand how they would like their spirituality to be reflected in the design of the interiors, exterior and space around the church and support buildings. We create cultural places and beautiful spaces.

How have you adapted your spiritual life during the pandemic? Are you staying engaged with your religious community by attending in-person service?

How has your religious entity adapted to serve the parishioners and community?

What changes would you like to see in the design of churches in the future?

Crabapple First Baptist Church is considering adding a new entrance to its existing building to better accomodate outdoor services. Many churches have moved services outside.