I’m guessing we have used the words “unprecedented” and “polarizing” more in the past year and a half than we have in the past fifty years. In keeping with this trend, I want to say at the outset that this type of article is unprecedented for Upstream, and its content has the potential to make it one of our most polarizing posts. Polarization is not our goal here. We desire to help churches, not to divide or to make political statements. Our aim for this post is to use the information we have regarding vaccine and quarantine requirements (as of October 2021) to help shepherd churches as they make decisions about short-term trips in 2022.
There are great Christian brothers and sisters who have taken differing stances on masking, vaccines, social justice, and much more over the past year, so please let the generosity of Christian charity rule your heart as you read and consider the following article.
A question we have been asked regularly at Upstream is, “How do we deal with the challenges of having church members who hold differing views on the vaccine and doing short-term trips?” There is no easy answer to this question. Each church will have to decide what requirements they need to put in place for those they send. One of the first places we need to get feedback from, as missions leaders, is from the field hosts. My experience at Cornerstone has been that the vast majority of our overseas hosts have required those who come to their country to be vaccinated. Those who have not required it have unanimously recommended that we encourage or require it. This is the case in areas all around the world: Asia, Europe, Central America, and Africa. Here are a few of the reasons they have given for recommending or requiring vaccines:
Many countries are either requiring the vaccine to get a visa or are requiring varying lengths of quarantine, depending on whether or not someone is vaccinated.
In many countries, especially in Asia, being vaccinated allows for a more comfortable connection with those one is ministering to.
Since a negative COVID test is necessary to travel basically anywhere in the world and back into the US at this time, being vaccinated helps mitigate the risk of testing positive for COVID and either not being allowed to travel overseas or having a delayed return to America.
Many short-term trips are to countries whose medical systems are not as strong as those in America. Since many of these systems are already overloaded with COVID patients, the majority of field workers I’ve interacted with don’t feel they can safely host unvaccinated members of a short-term team. Short-term trip hosts know they have a responsibility to keep people safe, and they also know caring for someone who becomes sick or is hospitalized will require a lot of time and energy on their part.
For most sending organizations, vaccinations have been a requirement long before COVID. When I went with the IMB to East Asia, I received twenty-two vaccinations (they combined several of them, so it was only like eight shots, but still...). Many countries also require various vaccinations to enter their country. For example, seventeen African countries require proof of Yellow Fever vaccination prior to entry.
The vaccine is required to receive international travel insurance.
Unvaccinated international travelers will be required to get a negative COVID test within 24 hours of a flight. This will undoubtedly cause delays in world travel (https://jp.usembassy.gov/us-travel-requirements/)
Here is what some field workers we’ve connected with over this issue have said:
“Our Thai friends feel much more comfortable and safe talking with us and spending time with us when they know we are vaccinated. It has taken away a lot of barriers for building relationships!” - Sent-One in Thailand
“There is no way we can receive people in Guatemala without the vaccine. COVID is running rampant in our country, and the infrastructure doesn’t exist to take care of someone who is sick. I can’t invest the time required for dealing with an American getting COVID while also doing my regular ministry.” - Sent-One in Guatemala
“Sub-Saharan Africa largely does not require vaccination for entry, and most countries are not demanding quarantine. But given the instability of our healthcare systems, it is wise to take every precaution you can.” - Sent-One in Kenya
Let me acknowledge here that not everyone thinks the vaccination will cut down on hospitalization rates, lessen the effects of sickness, or guarantee a negative test. Given the current mandates, however, being vaccinated will make it easier to access certain places around the world on short-term trips.
With these realities in mind, what are some questions your church should consider as you make plans for 2022?
Will your insurance cover someone going overseas who has not been vaccinated?
This is an important question from a liability standpoint. Gallagher and Associates is one of the leading short-term insurance coverage groups in the US, and they currently require the vaccine for COVID coverage ($10,000/medical, $100,000/evacuation) unless a doctor deems the person is not a candidate for the vaccine. In that case a letter would be required from a physician to receive coverage.
If someone from your church contracts COVID and has to stay in the country longer, has to be hospitalized, or passes away, the result can be a bill of up to $70,000 without insurance. Ultimately, you will have to decide as a church whether you are willing to send your members on a church-sponsored trip without short-term medical coverage. We have always recommended purchasing travel insurance for all your short-term teams, both for their personal safety and your liability as a church.
What are the positives and negatives of offering the following options?
1) Requiring vaccinations for all those who go on trips.
You have access to more locations, and you allow for more ministry time, since being vaccinated may mean having a shorter quarantine or avoiding quarantine altogether.
If your team does have to quarantine, everyone on the trip will be able to enter the field at the same time, which helps the hosts with orientation and trip flow.
It reduces the potential for division within the team.
Unvaccinated church members who want to go on a trip will miss the opportunity.
Given the controversy surrounding vaccines, there is a good chance that making them a requirement will result in a lot of shepherding conversations and may inadvertently create conflict within your church.
2) Only sending trips to locations that do not require the vaccine.
It opens the door for more members to participate in trips.
It is unlikely to create much conflict or result in a lot of follow-up conversations.
Your church may not be able to travel to certain countries you’ve been to in the past.
Some members of your church may not want to go to places where a vaccine is not required.
3) Offering vaccinated and unvaccinated locations.
It provides options for varying opinions—kind of like offering both contemporary and traditional services.
It could result in maximum trips for your church and maximum participation from your church.
It may be more challenging to form teams when you’re having to make assignments based on who is and is not vaccinated.
Categorizing trips, especially by something as potentially polarizing as vaccine compliance, may result in “us vs. them” situations among your people.
With short-term insurance agencies currently requiring vaccines, your church would need to take on the liability or ask members to sign a waiver.
This third option may be the most practical if you have unvaccinated members of your church who want to be on mission. Offering trips that are open to anyone along with trips that are only open to those who are vaccinated allows churches to continue working with hosts and locations that require the vaccine and provide a missions pathway for those who have chosen not to be vaccinated.
How should you decide which route to take?
Because healthy short-term teams put themselves under the leadership of the long-term workers they are serving, mission leaders should begin by getting information from their field hosts. Ask them if they have a preference regarding the vaccine status of short-term volunteers, and ask them sooner than later so you have time to adjust (if needed). Take these considerations to your leadership team so they can incorporate them into their decision-making process.
How should we communicate this to our congregation?
Leaders should take care in how they relay information about vaccine restrictions to the rest of the church. None of us have enjoyed the unnecessary conflict of the past year and a half or the number of conversations we have had to have about masks or vaccines, and it is wise to take measures to limit those. Being open and transparent about the decision-making process will help reduce the potential for fallout once the decision is made.
As with any other decision your leadership team makes, it’s important to proactively communicate about the process, the reasoning behind it, and the decision you land on. When we don't communicate proactively, we leave our members to make assumptions about how the decision was made. If church leadership says, “We are requiring the vaccine” but does not let the church members in on the reasoning behind it, there will almost certainly be pushback. Establishing a clear, unified, and transparent narrative from the beginning is important for maintaining trust and helping your members feel included in and informed about the process.
The letter below is what we sent to the churches in our network that we help coordinate trips for. We’re not suggesting this is how your church should handle vaccine requirements; we’re just giving you an example of what communication to your church might look like:
After much discussion with our team and field hosts, we have decided that all college students going on a Salt Network Global Summer Trip in 2022 must be vaccinated. The main reason for this is that we believe doing so will serve our field hosts the best and enable students to do more ministry this summer. We also believe it will help your church streamline the process for who goes on trips for the summer and mitigate risks of COVID affecting their safety, their launch date, and/or their return date. Here is an explanation of why we think this is a wise decision:
Most countries and the CDC recommend travelers be fully vaccinated. By the time we send trips this summer, vaccination may even be a requirement for travel to some countries. For example:
Currently a SE Asian country is requiring a fourteen-day quarantine for all unvaccinated travelers and a seven-day quarantine for vaccinated travelers. Our field hosts believe that by the summer there will be no requirement for quarantine for those who have been vaccinated.
Another SE Asian country currently requires a vaccine to get a visa.
Being vaccinated decreases the length someone will test COVID positive, thus allowing for a shorter quarantine window. Currently all countries we are sending students to require a negative COVID test within seventy-two hours of travel. If a student does not test negative before the flight, they will not be allowed into the country.
Being vaccinated also decreases the chance of students getting COVID while in-country. If they contract COVID in-country, they could miss up to two weeks of ministry, are more likely to be in need of medical attention, and are at risk of not being able to return to the US with their team.
To receive short-term medical insurance, the COVID vaccine is required.
It is our conclusion that adding the layer of vaccinated vs. unvaccinated to the already long list of considerations for putting together teams will require unnecessary sideways energy from your church.
You will notice that we have added the following question about the vaccine to our application for Summer Teams. Please make sure you include it in your application as well.
Have you received the COVID vaccine?
Yes, and I am fully vaccinated.
Yes, and I am partially vaccinated.
No, but I am willing.
No, and I am unsure if I am willing.
No, and I am not willing.
Please reach out to us with questions or concerns about communicating this to students. We hope you will use this situation to remind students of the value of supporting and serving field hosts by honoring their desires and the value of taking steps to love the unreached who feel more comfortable interacting with those who are vaccinated, and we encourage you to maintain a non-judgmental tone and attitude in your conversations with them.
What we have gathered (as of October 2021) about various locations around the world:
Africa - At this point Africa does not have strong rules regarding vaccination and does not require a quarantine. A church should consider the unstable medical infrastructure in Africa when making decisions about sending teams.
Europe - Europe and the United States are slated to have an agreement on this in November. While the EU has a statement about not allowing entry to US citizens, each country in Europe is free to make their own determination. Currently there are no European countries that require a vaccination, but each country is different and has its own particularities regarding COVID policies. These policies also seem to change weekly. Delta has a good resource page that lists restrictions and guidelines for different travel destinations.
SE Asia - Some countries require a vaccine, and many reduce the length of quarantine if one is fully vaccinated.
We have to be careful about asserting right and wrong to our decisions about vaccines and COVID protocol. There is room for Christian freedom in this discussion, and we should seek to do all we can to prevent further polarization within the body of Christ as we navigate this new, and often confusing, reality we find ourselves in. As missions leaders we have a call to continue shepherding our churches well as we lead them in obedience to the commands of Christ. Let us do so with grace toward others and strength of leadership toward our churches, and let us do all things for the glory of God and the sake of the nations.
Mike Ironside is Missions Pastor at Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. He has served on staff with Cornerstone since 2006 in varying roles from college ministry to pastoral staff to being an overseas missionary sent from Cornerstone for 2 years. Mike is the Director of Cohorts and Content for the Upstream Collective. He also serves as mobilization director for Campus to Campus, a missions organization dedicated to getting US college students connected to church planting movements amongst college students worldwide.