You all have seen the headlines. The one today that caught my attention is: “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.” The subtext reads, “The virus has infiltrated Sunday services, church meetings, and youth camps. More than 650 cases have been linked to reopened religious facilities.” (NY Times online 7.8.20)
Well, on the one hand, 650 cases are not many out of all recently confirmed in our country. And, how confident can we be these cases were not due to some other circumstance than a church meeting? On the other hand, this is just the number we know from careful contact tracing. There could be far more transmissions we don’t know about? I get dizzy trying to follow these circular arguments that seem to lead us into conflict without any convincing conclusions for some.
I remember standing at the entrance to our worship space on a snowy Sunday morning in January. I knew I could get to church, so I figured, “Who knows, maybe someone really needs to be in church this morning.” The parking lot had been cleared, sort of… So, we declared we would be open for worship at 11:00 a.m., as usual! I stood there along with a couple of other hearty members.
The car approached slowly and then slid sidewise on the slick surface to a stop. The door opened and the 87-year-old matriarch slowly emerged from her car. As she started across the snow and ice with her cane and two ushers rushed to assist her, I thought, “This was a really bad call.” Would a church service for the few who ventured out be worth it if Mrs. Johnson had fallen and broken her hip? No.
Dear siblings, I know these are stressful times. Faced with months more of “creative” worship options while we await an effective treatment and vaccine, it is tempting to just roll the dice, hoping we can avoid any serious problems. But as we ponder our options, we must ask ourselves “How many people getting sick, (let alone dying), is an acceptable price to try and get our lives ‘back to normal?’”
Is returning to inside worship really worth the risk when we now know that a smallish space, with recirculating air, and people breathing, talking, coughing, singing (please don’t) in fairly close proximity to one another for 40-60 minutes are ideal conditions for spreading the virus?
We in the Office of the Bishop have concluded: No. In most cases, especially with infection rates surging in the U.S., we cannot imagine the benefits of returning to in-person, indoor worship outweigh the risks. So, please, keep my story of Mrs. Johnson in your heart and mind as you work through these challenging discussions. Because, as I was, you may be amazed how many at-risk members will make their way across the slippery COVID-19 parking lot absolutely sure they won’t fall and unable to avoid the deep desire/need to return to their beloved community when the doors to inside worship re-open. And don’t forget those at-risk members who may wisely stay home, but their loved ones or friends attending in-person worship excitedly share the news, (and hopefully nothing more), with them in person!
I share this not to shame, but rather to explain one of the reasons we continue to be convinced our safest option, for now, is to continue and expand our online worship. The next safest options are: drive-in worship-stay in your car; followed by outdoor worship staying 6-10 feet apart; and finally, the riskiest option: indoor worship. With all options, please follow ALL the required and recommended guidelines.
No matter what your community chooses, please model the guidelines in your own leadership (even online) – for example, when leading with others, please wear a mask, maintain a 6-10 foot distance from anyone other than at-home family, etc. As a side note, I also encourage our Rostered Ministers to wear a stole (a sign of the liturgical season and the office of pastor/deacon) when preaching or presiding.
For now, we continue to recommend refraining from Holy Communion, or at least only use a wafer dropped (not placed) into each hand or use individual communion packets. Soon we will have additional conversations about faithfully sharing Holy Communion during the pandemic in an online community.
Finally, if you return to in-person worship – please continue to offer online worship, email, phone, and other intentional connections to those who cannot or should not attend in-person worship. We understand how disorienting and isolating this pandemic is for many. Contact and inclusion are important.
I have no doubt we are all doing the best we can for the sake of our communities. So, along with our best advice, you have the ongoing respect, support, and prayers of all in our Office. This is a difficult and challenging time for many, including our leaders and members. Take care of yourselves as you continue working hard caring for others.
This too shall pass… Our churches have always been open! God is still in charge! And, I firmly believe we will be grateful we patiently took all the steps necessary to love God and care for our neighbors – at home, at church, in the community.
Feel free to call on us in the Office of the Bishop, if we can help… or you just need an ear to listen!
—Bishop Bob Humphrey