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Steps for Reopening and Invitation to Zoom Call

To the Clergy and Wardens - Steps for Reopening

Dear brothers and sisters,

Greetings in the Risen Jesus who is Lord over all!

We have faced the challenge together of ending public church services for this season. I want to commend you all for the prayerful and creative ways you have continued to share the gospel and pastor your flocks.

In many ways, moving churches online was simpler than the next challenge of reopening them.

As leaders, we need to realize that we are heading into territory where there are conflicting values. The political debate is how to weigh the protection of people’s health with the preservation of the economy. Our struggle as church leaders comes as we try to balance the call to love our neighbor by guarding everyone’s health and the call to worship God together as a Christian community.

Where there are conflicting values, there will be inevitable disagreement. In the face of the disorienting loss of normal life, people also have the strong desire to return to the familiar as quickly as possible. (I recommend that you read Canoeing the Mountains, especially chapter 7 on adaptive leadership in the face of conflicting values and loss.)

I share this because you are now called to some very careful and prayerful planning before you open the doors to your churches again. It is unlikely that everyone will agree with how you proceed. We must display grace to one another as we wrestle with the decisions.

Here are some principles to help guide your decisions:

  1. Reopening is going to be a process with multiple phases. I recommend that you read the CDC/White House Guidelines that describe three phases: https://www.whitehouse.gov/openingamerica/. Your congregational phases should not begin ahead of any government ones in your area. For many reasons you may decide that your phases may well need to be started after the government phases begin. You need to have a plan to implement the different phases, and clearly communicate your plan to your people. Do not reopen until you have communicated your finished plan (no later than the Wednesday before a Sunday reopening). This will give people time to decide when they should personally return. A rushed and poorly communicated reopening is much worse for your people than is waiting longer to reopen well. And please note: you should make it clear that things could change if the spread of the virus increases again in your area. And do not predict when subsequent phases after reopening will begin. You will need to monitor when the phases are enacted in your local area. Given our geography as a diocese, reopening dates for different congregations will vary.

  2. Not every member should return when you reopen. According to the CDC Guidelines, the elderly (probably most easily defined as those eligible for Medicare) and others medically vulnerable should not return until your last phase (see the Appendix to the Guidelines). You need to make this recommendation clear.

  3. Social distancing will limit the number you can have in your worship space for at least the first two phases, and will almost certainly prevent you from having coffee hours, classes, childcare, dinners and other gatherings until the final phase or later. While it is not spelled out in the guidelines, individuals or families in worship will need a radius of at least six feet of social distance at all times in the first two phases. You may need to add services to make this possible, although the absence of the medically vulnerable may well obviate that need.


Let me share four practices as you reopen.

  1. Continue to have an online worship service or consider going online. It will be quite a while before everyone returns. And we have discovered that many potential visitors check out churches online before they consider
    attending.
     You may need to reconfigure your worship space to make this possible.

  2. Please think through what it takes to reopen, especially concerning what will be required in disinfecting your church. Likewise poll your volunteers to see who plans to return and help. These issues should be carefully discussed and decided by your leadership and staff. Look at this set of reopening guidelines, for example. I was struck by the number of issues it raised that had not occurred to me.

  3. Anyone who sits in the congregation should know that they are expected to continue to wear masks going forward. You and your leaders may decide whether those who lead in worship and are seated upfront should also wear masks and, if so, for which parts of the service.  Likewise anyone distributing the bread should wear a mask. And do not pass either the Peace or the offering plates. Sadly we are a ways from being safe.

  4. Given the complications of trying to have communion with masks on, you may want to reopen with a season of Morning Prayer instead of the Eucharist. If you celebrate the Eucharist, distribution should remain in one kind, e. bread only, until you are into your final phase or later. The Spiritual Communion prayer should be included, both for those online and those who do not feel comfortable receiving. The elements should remain covered during the Prayer of Consecration so that the celebrant cannot contaminate them. You have liberty to decide that you will distribute the bread after the service, to be consumed later (hygienically, in plastic bags, etc.). This would also enable your members to take the bread home to those unable to attend.


Finally, I have a deep concern for the health of our clergy. All of you should be careful and vigilant about protecting others and yourselves. Several of you are in the vulnerable category. In the first two stages of the CDC guidelines you should be staying at home, or in groups no larger than ten. Your own vulnerability may be the primary reason to delay your reopening. Or you may train readers to lead Morning Prayer until you return. Some of you are more likely to be infected by a COVID19 patient or a caregiver, and this will affect your planning.

We will meet together tomorrow, April 23rd during our weekly clergy/leader call at 11am EST to discuss this in more detail. Please also feel free to talk with me (texting first please) if you have any concerns or questions. These are obviously general guidelines and cannot address every situation. Contact Jessica Jones for Zoom meeting information.

Be assured of my prayers for you in this next season. I am convinced that the Lord is using this time to strengthen our faith and reach those around us with the gospel. March forward trusting in the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

In Jesus the Messiah who has conquered death and brings life,

+Neil

The Rt. Rev. Neil G. Lebhar

NLebhar@GulfAtlanticDiocese.org