To Open You Must Contact Trace!

Recently, there have been at least two high profile cases of churches who returned to in-person activities having to backtrack as someone attending was later determined to be COVID-19 positive. In at least one of these cases, 160 people have been required to self-quarantine for 14 days. With no real sign of a generally available vaccine or widespread, inexpensive testing, incidents like this in all areas of society will likely continue. I hope churches are VERY carefully considering how and when in-person activities will return.

Guidelines have been distributed from many organizations outlining what congregations need to think through on the road back to in-person activities. As I have surveyed many of these, overall, they are very helpful. However, there is one topic where nearly every resource I have seen feels lacking: contact tracing. Simply put, contract tracing is about knowing which people have been in the same physical space at the same time. For example, airlines and cruise ships have searched their records to alert people who may have been traveling alongside someone who was later diagnosed with COVID-19.

The reality of what has already happened in congregations that have rushed back to in-person worship begs a question: If you needed to alert those who attended an in-person event at your church, could you do it? The quality of tracking individual attendance at church events varies dramatically and is often absent from smaller events like book studies and small groups. This information could be vital should a case of COVID-19 arise among your congregation. Knowing what events a person attended and who else was present could save lives.

At the same time attendance information is critical, the days of our primary tool for collecting it – the pew pad – are over. The risk of any item passed person to person being used by the virus as a tool to spread rules out things like attendance pads and offering plates. But we have never needed the data more. So, what are we to do?

Contact tracing is simply another prime argument for congregations large and small to embrace modern church management systems. Contemporary church management systems will track people and events, including which people attended which events. There are two primary ways of getting this data: self-reported and third party reported. Let’s take a quick look at both.


With self-reported, we rely on attendees to let us know they are present, much like what pew pads do now. One popular alternative to paper pads are kiosks where people can select their name and register their attendance. This often looks like an iPad placed near the entrance of where the event is happening. Obviously, this is problematic in a similar way to traditional pads. If you intend to use this type of solution, you will need an attendant who will sanitize the unit after each use, or at least provide sanitizing wipes for people to use.

A better option is to provide an online form for people to access from their own devices. We have created a public form for worship attendance inside our church management system for people to use for our online worship services. We will continue to use this whenever we transition back to in-person events. We are also exploring encouraging people to gather in small groups in individual homes as a step towards in-person worship. In this case, we will update our form so folks can tell us what house they are joining us from. Because the form is from our church management system, we can tie the attendance report to the individuals’ records in our system. Then it’s just a matter of a few clicks to pull up a list of who attended.

Another option would be to create a Google form for attendance. All reports to this form would be automatically added to a spreadsheet. Should the need arise, simply searching that spreadsheet would allow you to see where that person was and who was with them. (See the instructional video I made on this below).

Finally, some church management systems provide a way for participants to access the system directly to record their attendance and/or update their contact information. This generally requires each person to create an account first. While this can be helpful, the extra step of having to create an account, remember a password, etc. can be a barrier to some.

Third-Party Reports

Self-reporting notoriously offers poor quality data. Many churches were lucky to see half of those who attended pre-COVID register their attendance on the traditional pew pad. As a tool for contact tracing that sort of accuracy, or lack thereof, simply won’t do. So, while self-reporting is an option churches should strive to offer, the other option is to make tracking attendance a job. It could be an usher, greeter, or house church host, but somebody should be responsible for making sure there is a record of everyone who attended what, where, and when. Again, a modern church management tool can help tremendously. One option would be volunteers at each entrance equipped with iPads checking off the names of those attending (which may have the bonus of introducing new people to each other).

For smaller events, it will be critical for a host to be designated who is responsible for reporting attendance. I think this is something we are going to have to insist on for any in-person gathering, large or small, that the church sponsors. The alternative is guesswork, where we run the risk of either failing to report a contact or putting more people than necessary in a position where they have to self-quarantine.

In summary, every church will need a means of effective contact tracing if they hope to return to in-person events in a safe manner. It is not uncommon for people who contract COVID-19 to go from symptom-free to hospitalized or even needing a ventilator in a very short period of time. During that rush, it is entirely predictable that a whole history of where that person has been over the past two weeks would be difficult to get. Everyone would be far better off if that information were just a few clicks away.

My hope is every church will include contact tracing protocols in their re-opening plans, and, frankly, it would be very irresponsible not to. In addition, COVID-19 has demonstrated very clearly the benefits of modern tools like church management systems, live streaming, and Zoom. We should not waste this opportunity to modernize the infrastructure of our congregations. Adopting better tools for tracking and communicating with all of our folks will benefit to us long after COVID-19 becomes just another chapter in the history books.

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