I want to begin by offering you my sincere and heartfelt thanks. During these past weeks you have continued to be faithful in your support of our church, and our joint mission in the world. Many of us are deeply missing the fellowship and connections we experience when we gather for in-person worship on Sunday morning. However, the time is not yet right for us to return to that familiar form of worship. There are still too many variables, and too many health risks for the most vulnerable in our community. We have been wandering in a virtual wilderness for over 40 days, and that wandering must continue for a while longer.
In the days leading up to the send of Governor Parsons’ Safer At Home order, I sought out the advice of many leaders as we sought to develop a plan for recovery, and returning to some sense of normalcy in our worship. Taking all this advice into account, the Elders and I have come up with a framework for the next steps. It is very important to note that there is a great deal of uncertainty about how the virus will continue to impact us in the coming weeks, so this plan is intended to be flexible and able to be adapted as the situation warrants.
We are currently in Phase One of the recovery. In this stage gatherings are still limited to less than 10 people. Therefore, we will be continuing our online worship. Once health officials have seen several factors occur for at least two weeks, we would then move into Phase Two of the recovery. In this stage gatherings of up to 50, with appropriate physical distancing, are allowed. Due to the space constraints in our sanctuary, we plan to continue to worship online during this phase of the recovery. Once two more weeks have passed, and several other benchmarks have been confirmed by health officials, we would enter Phase Three. This stage removes the restrictions on gatherings if physical distancing and other safeguards can be maintained. During this phase we plan to return to worship at the church building AND continue with both dial-up and online options for those who cannot safely worship with us in person.
At this point in time I am hopeful that we will enter Phase Three at the beginning of June. However, there are MANY factors at play, so the church leadership will be monitoring the situation and adjusting the timeline for gathering back together in the same physical space regularly.
In a recent letter to the church, General Minister and President Terri Hord Owens offered these pastoral words:
This week, some state governments are beginning to lift stay-at-home orders and allow some businesses and industries to reopen their doors. These reopening conversations are understandably raising questions about how and when churches should resume in-person worship services. These are difficult decisions, but I want to encourage you, as difficult as it is, not to rush too quickly back. It is not yet time to gather for worship in person.
I know that it is heartbreaking not to be able to gather. We want nothing more than to hug our loved ones and squeeze the hands of our grieving friends. We want nothing more than to worship together and join our voices together in song. We want nothing more than to break bread together at our beloved communion tables…
The economic impact of this pandemic is devastating, to be sure, and many of the decisions to reopen business are in response. There is and will be much work to do as we care for our hurting neighbors.
Church, we don’t make decisions based on economics. We make decisions based on love. And here in this time, in the midst of this pandemic, the loving thing to do is not to gather for worship. Love, as we know from 1 Corinthians 13:4-5, is patient. Love does not insist on its own way.
It is not easy to love from a distance. It is not easy to overcome our own desire for being physically close to our church family. It is not easy to give up the familiar in favor of this new way of being.
It is likely we will never meet in quite the same way again. But we have a historic opportunity here. We have the chance to test new ways, learn creatively, imagine beyond old boundaries, and grow in our understanding of the family of God.
We are STILL the church! We are still the Body of Christ, deployed to share and grow God’s love in this, God’s world! We are still journeying together, still feeding and being fed, still a community of faith. Yes, we face many challenges and uncertainties. However, we do not face them alone. As we are promised in Psalm 23, God walks with us in this valley of shadows. And, equally important, we are walking with and supporting one another. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10a, NRSV).
Beloved Church, I pray that we all keep heart and trust that we are journeying together with God!