Pastoral Letter About Reopening Churches from the Conference Minister

Grace to you and Peace!

On May 18, thirty-eight Moderators, Church leaders, and Pastors joined on Zoom for a conversation about “Re-Opening Church” – which basically means “Gathering for In-Person Worship”.  We need to remember that “the church” never closed!

I want to share below a summary of some of our comments, but first let me say that the pandemic is real and we are in this for the long haul.  Although it is each church’s decision, I strongly recommend that churches not consider re-opening their buildings until at least after June 31 and maybe even much later (some UCC churches have already indicated they would not re-open until the fall).  The situation is changing daily and until there is a vaccine available to everyone, we need to be vigilant.  Hopefully, you saw the recent letter in the UCC: KYP from our National Leaders.

Meanwhile, each church should develop a plan with clarity of the criteria used to determine when it is safe to worship in-person. The criteria should be based on CDC information – which looks at official decline in cases for your location.  Also, consider a plan of what would be required to keep people safe for in-person worship prior to a vaccine.   Remember that even testing is only good for a moment in time.  I may test negative for the virus but be exposed 5 minutes later and soon begin transmitting the virus!

Although states are allowing some businesses to re-open, churches are not the same as businesses.  Businesses may be able to limit people, social distance, deep sanitize buildings regularly, etc.  However, churches are different.

In our conversation on May 18, it was clear that our basic concern is the love and care of people – and therefore the health and well-being of each other.  Churches do not want to be responsible for people getting sick.  A church in Ringgold, GA opened up on April 26 and closed again on May 11 after several families had contracted the virus.  Many people are asymptomatic and spread the virus without knowing it (which is why masks/face coverings are so important).

As people, including church members, begin to travel more and visit businesses, there is more opportunity for exposure to the virus and therefore, transmitting it to others.

What would in-person worship be like in the midst of the pandemic?  The group started listing things that would need to be in place for people to worship safely:

  • The church would need to be thoroughly sanitized after each gathering (who will do this and what will it cost?)
  • Restrooms provide the greatest danger for transmitting the virus. They would need to be closed or allow only 1 person to use them at a time and have them thoroughly sanitized after each use.
  • Everyone would need to wear a mask (be sure to have extra masks for people that forget). Remember we wear a mask because we care about other people.
  • People would need to sit 6-8 feet apart in all directions (this would need to be marked). What would it feel like for families to come and sit together since they live together, but have someone who is single have to sit 8 feet away from anyone else?
  • Churches would need to determine how many people could be in the sanctuary safely at a time. Limiting fewer people may mean adding worship services, and perhaps having people sign-up to attend a particular service.
  • No congregational singing and no choir (remember that it is oral droplets that carry the virus).
  • No use of hymnals, paper bulletins, attendance books, pens, offering plates that are passed – anything that people touch.
  • No passing of the Peace, hugging, shaking hands, etc.
  • No Sunday school for children or children’s sermons upfront – it is difficult for children to follow the social distancing rules.

It was noted that this would not feel like worship.  It would actually be more isolating and depressing rather than uplifting.  We also talked about the anxiety that would exist for some people.

Those who are more vulnerable because of age or health issues or who live with those who are more vulnerable would not participate for safety reasons.  How will they feel being excluded and how will other people feel not having them present?

These are really hard realities!  But because we care for people, they cannot be ignored.

Yet, there have been many positive things that people are experiencing during this time!  The group celebrated the joy of virtual worship!  People have appreciated the creativity.  There seems to be more focused contact made with individuals through daily prayer, Bible studies, etc. which happen through Zoom and phone calls.  New people are participating! Therefore, future plans need to also consider what churches have discovered during this time and what things should continue even after the pandemic is over.

In the midst of all that is terrible about the pandemic, there are unexpected positive things happening beyond our local church experiences:  from the improvements to aspects of the environment, to being more aware of injustices; to cherishing connecting to people.  We are being forced to think about things in different ways, which can bring about newness.

Thank you to those who joined in our Zoom conversation!  Please look for another Zoom conversation on Re-Opening Churches on Monday, June 1 at 7 pm Eastern/6 pm Central.  All Moderators, Church Leaders, and Clergy are invited!

Blessings, Char Burch