A Path to Phased Reopening
Dear Clergy,

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

When can we reopen our churches? It’s the question at the top of most of our minds.

I don’t know the answer yet, but I will be watching guidance that comes out from governmental authorities to determine the best time to begin a phased reopening, and will let you know as soon as I can. I do not expect to reopen in-person worship before May 31, and possibly much later, but I will send another message when that date becomes clear.

The purpose of this letter is to present some principles for a phased reopening. You will need to create a task force within your local congregation to determine how to adapt these guidelines to your context. When more guidance is available from public health authorities, I will be able to send you more specifics. In addition, at the end of this letter, I have some long-term questions that I urge you to think about now.

Let’s start with our immediate reality, and move to broader questions of mission.                            
Executive Summary: What Congregational Leaders Should Do Now

  1.  Prepare for a slow, phased reopening. Create a task force that includes clergy, wardens, worship leaders, formation leaders, and facilities people to make a plan for how to reopen safely on a limited basis, as described below.
  2. Make a financial plan for a slow return to normal. Please apply for diocesan financial assistance if you need help.
  3.  Start thinking strategically about how our reality may have changed for a long time to come, and think about how to make disciples in a new kind of church.

Preparing for a Phased Reopening
We need to prepare for the fact that restoring our church attendance from the current stay-at-home discipline won’t be as simple or as quick as simply opening the doors and having things back to the way they were before. Consider:

  •   Governmental authorities are unlikely to “reopen” things all at once. Reopening will likely happen in phases, with small groups allowed to gather with strict distancing guidelines, then slightly larger groups. Restrictive measures within group gatherings will lift slowly. At points during our recovery process, if COVID cases rise, we may have to revert to earlier stages. This process could continue for a long time.
  • A vaccine is unlikely to be available for a year to 18 months. Until a vaccine, or a very effective treatment, is available, gathering in groups will continue to carry risks.
  • Many of our parishioners are over 65 or in other high-risk categories (as are some of our clergy). Even if they are allowed to come back to church, many will choose not to until they feel safe.

Principles and Practices for Reopening

We will operate under these principles:

  • We will act with love for our neighbor, as Jesus commands. Protecting people from catching a deadly illness is an act of love.
  • We will respect the best guidance of government authorities and public health experts.
  •  This is a time of experimentation with a new way of being the church. It is okay to try and to fail, and to try again. That’s how we grow and learn.
  • We will stay focused on the mission Jesus gave us, to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey everything he has commanded us. We may need to invent new ways to accomplish this mission, but we will never forget that Jesus is with us, to the end of the age.

I encourage you to read this excellent article, which describes how public health experts divide the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic into four phases:
Phase One: Slow the Spread
This is the phase we are now in. During this phase, most gatherings are prohibited and most people are sheltering in homes. Most of our churches have already made the short-term adjustments they need to make, such as holding online worship, formation, and meetings, and staying in touch with parishioners by phone.

If you are not now holding online worship, and have not yet made other adjustments such as a member calling tree, I urge you to do it now, or talk to me about other options (which might include joining another nearby congregation). Online worship will need to be an option for many of our parishioners for a long time, as many people will return to public life gradually and reluctantly.

If you need help figuring out a simple solution for online worship, please contact Chris Tumilty at CTumilty@edsd.org. We are all in this together.

I have previously given the following guidance for this current phase:
  • Public worship should be online only. I encourage most church leaders to stream worship from their homes as a matter of safety and solidarity with our parishioners who are also staying at home.
  • However, I have authorized streaming part or all of worship from church buildings if technological issues make worship impractical from home, if the number of people at church is kept as low as possible (never more than eight people), and if physical distancing measures are observed. Clergy over age 65 are asked to remain home unless I have authorized an exception. 
Phase Two: Gradual Reopening with Restrictions
We will look to governmental authorities to tell us when it is safe to move into Phase Two, based on events in our area. Please form a group of leaders now and start planning for how to adopt the following guidelines to your setting, circumstances, and location.

In Phase Two, we may resume some in-person worship, with strict limitations at first, which may be gradually lifted over time.

Online or other distance worship should continue, to accommodate people who will not yet feel comfortable leaving home to gather in groups.

Governmental authorities will likely authorize smaller groups of people to meet first, slowly progressing to larger groups. Our diocese will follow local government guidance to determine the maximum group size allowed in our churches at any one time.

People who are over 65 or in a high-risk group should be discouraged from attending in-person worship. Any clergy in a high-risk group who wish to lead in-person worship must be authorized by me personally. No one should be pressured to attend in-person worship.

In addition to any group size limitations instituted by government authorities, you should further limit your in-person attendance at any worship service to the number of people (or household groups) who can sit six feet or more away from any other people (or household groups). You will have to determine this limit based on the size of your worship space. You may need to adopt one or more of the following strategies (not a complete list of possibilities):

  • Increase your number of services, as long as there is time and personnel to thoroughly clean often-touched areas between services;
  • Move your worship to a larger space, such as a parish hall or outdoors (outdoor gatherings are safer anyway and may be preferable);
  • Each Sunday, invite a particular subsection of your congregation to attend (say, those with surnames beginning A-G); or
  •  Create a network of small house (or online) churches, with each home / online group assigned a time or a Sunday to attend in-person worship. I am attaching a document prepared by Canon Christian Gillette that proposes a structure for such small groups. This could be a great opportunity to develop discipleship and evangelism for the new future our church is moving into.

During this phase, careful attention must be paid to church practices to help prevent spreading the disease. I ask you to follow these guidelines, which will be gradually loosened as restrictions ease.

  • For now, please use soloists instead of choirs, since choir singing has been shown to spread the virus. All singers should maintain 6 feet or more of physical distance from others.
  • Ask people to wear masks when entering and exiting the church, encourage them to wear masks at other times (especially for congregational singing), and provide masks at the door for those who don’t have them.
  • Clergy and worship leaders should wash hands frequently.
  • Place hand sanitizer at the entrances and exits to the church, and other convenient locations, and encourage people to use it.
  • If communion is celebrated, distribute bread in a way that is safe. For instance, you might place wafers in individual cups on a table for people to take. Please do not offer the common cup during this phase. You may consider using Morning Prayer or Ante-Communion instead.
  • Ensure that people who come forward for communion stand at least 6 feet apart, and do not allow kneeling at the altar rail because of the danger of many hands touching the rail.
  •  Place collection plates at a central location instead of passing them hand to hand.
  • Ask people not to touch or come closer than six feet to each other during passing the Peace or social times.
  • Remove shared artifacts such as prayer books and hymnals, and instead allow people to take single-use paper bulletins from a central distribution point, or offer downloadable bulletins that people can access on their personal devices.
  • Station greeters 6 feet away from the stations where people pick up bulletins to welcome them and indicate where they can get a bulletin.
  • Prop doors open so people don’t have to touch doorknobs.
  • Engage in careful, thorough, and frequent cleaning of pews, door handles, light switches, restrooms, and all other things that are often touched, before and after each service.
  • Open doors and windows to provide good ventilation, or even hold services outdoors if possible.
  • Do not serve refreshments at social hour, and ask people to maintain 6-foot distancing.

During this phase, Bible studies, group meetings, and other non-worship gatherings should continue to be held online to the extent possible. Any in-person meetings should observe group size limitations and distancing and cleaning precautions.

Remember that worship is only part of our mission. Think about how you can use this time to enhance the rest of our churches’ mission of evangelism, discipleship, and service. Already we are seeing that online offerings are reaching many more people than before, and that people are engaging in daily prayer and Bible study offerings in a much more committed way. Every change in the church, no matter how unwelcome (like this pandemic), brings new opportunities for church mission. What new opportunities does this present crisis bring to your church? How can you bring Christ’s message of love to your congregation and your wider community?

As you think through a phased reopening, this article may be helpful: 24 Questions Your Church Should Answer Before People Return. Also please consider this decision tree for faith-based organizations.

Please form a task force now, composed of clergy, wardens, music leaders, formation leaders, facilities people, and others if appropriate, to create a plan for reopening as safely as possible when the time is right. I will let you know when phased reopening can begin. 

Churches with Schools. Schools are authorized to reopen under the strict limitations set out by the government. I invite you to consult with Canon Gwynn Lynch ( GLynch@edsd.org) or with Serena Beeks with the Diocese of Los Angeles Schools Consortium, of which our diocese is now a member ( SBeeks@LADiocese.org).
Phase Three: Lifting Restrictions
While some restrictions in Phase Two may be gradually lifted, such as the group size limits, full lifting of restrictions may not happen until a vaccine is widely available. Again, we will pay attention to public health and government guidelines.
Phase Four: Rebuild Our Readiness for the Next Pandemic
This public health principle applies to churches too: how will what we learn from this crisis strengthen us for the next crisis, and for a changed world? The world has been changing for quite a while now. The changes we are experiencing now may prepare us for the twenty-first century church that God is calling us to become.
The Long-Term Questions
I suggest that you read, and pass on to your lay leaders, the following article: “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization is Now a Start-Up,” by Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard. The authors use the metaphor of Blizzard, Winter, and Ice Age to ask what we are living through. Is it a short-term emergency that requires some specific actions but everything will be back to normal soon (a blizzard)? I think most of us originally thought that’s what this was. Is it a state of affairs that will last for a season, which will require some adjustments to how we do our mission while the season lasts (a winter)? Or – is this actually the dawn of a new Ice Age – a time when we need to completely rethink how we do everything, and many of our assumptions and approaches will change for good?

It’s time for us to accept that this is winter at the least, and possibly a new Ice Age. We will not return to “normal” soon; we will need to invent a new “normal.” Our normal should be based on the bedrock foundation of our Christian faith: Jesus Christ and the mission he has given us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

I suggest you form a strategic task force to consider questions such as the following:
  • What financial strategies should we adopt? Please see some cogent suggestions in this article, which is a follow-up article to the one cited above: Strategies for Winter: Redemptive Leadership in Survival Times. Congregations who need financial assistance are encouraged to apply to the diocese for it.
  • How shall we carry on our mission of evangelism, discipleship, and service? How does the present reality change how we should do our core activities? What opportunities might this crisis open up to us that we hadn’t considered before? You could think about an expansion of your online reach, the creation of small discipleship groups when large ones aren’t allowed, the possibility of expanding your worship beyond Sundays in missional communities, or other missional actions. Canon Christian Gillette will be happy to talk with you about how to develop your mission at this time; contact him at CGillette@edsd.org.
  • How should we stay connected with our members who can’t access online worship and/or cannot attend in person?
  • How can we proclaim Christ’s message of love, hope, and peace to our communities in these changed circumstances?

I know that staying separate from each other as we are now doing strikes at the heart of the way we have always practiced Christianity. In our baptism, we become one body, the Body of Christ. What does it mean for us when the cells of the Body are separated, unable to gather, unable to share in Christ’s Body and Blood, unable to exercise our gifts for ministry to each other and our communities in the ways we have learned to do?

I believe it means we need to learn new ways to be the Body of Christ. This is a bigger question than the question of simply reopening our churches. This is the time for us as clergy to lead our vestries, bishop’s committees, and other leaders in discerning God’s future in a strange new time. This discernment will require us to answer immediate, short- and mid-term questions about how we will organize ourselves. AND it will require is to answer some long-term questions about how we should be reinventing ourselves for an unknown future.

In all things, let us remember that Jesus has commanded us in Matthew’s gospel to Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." This is not the church we trained for or ever expected to lead. Yet Jesus is with us in this new reality. And our mission continues, to make disciples and to proclaim the good news of Christ. We may need to reinvent the church over and over, but I am confident that God can bring good out of bad. Even in the pandemic, we need to learn new things and experiment with innovative ways of being the church. And the new things we learn to do may be exactly the things we need to do to proclaim the gospel in the twenty-first century.

In Christ,

The Rt. Rev. Susan Brown Snook
The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego
2083 Sunset Cliffs Blvd., San Diego, CA 92107