Dear Members and Friends of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem:
This letter is to update you on our work as the Session’s Building Reopening Task Force.
For much of the pandemic, we have been meeting regularly to analyze the state of the pandemic, consider issues and possibilities related to usage of the church’s buildings and grounds for worship and other activities, and plan for an eventual return to indoor activities in the church buildings.
Over the last 6-8 weeks, there have been an unusual number of developments in the pandemic. Some have been encouraging signs: in particular, the development and distribution of highly effective vaccines against COVID-19 is providing a sense of hope that the pandemic could be brought under control in the not-so-distant future.
Others have been cause for some concern, particularly in terms of so-called “vaccine hesitancy” by some people, as well as the spread of new variants of the virus. We have been monitoring all of these developments closely, all through the lens of whether and when we might be able to start some form of indoor physical gatherings.
Our guiding commitment throughout the pandemic has been to fulfill the “Greatest Commandment” that Jesus identified when he was asked which commandment in the Law is the greatest. Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
This is precisely why the Session decided to make the shift to digital ministry in March 2020: because gathering in person and thereby helping to spread COVID-19 to others would have been the opposite of loving our neighbors, and therefore of loving God.
The Session also established a Building Reopening Task Force once we had made the shift to digital ministry as a clearinghouse for all questions related to building and grounds usage during and after the pandemic. This Task Force is made up of congregational leaders with various gifts and backgrounds, but particularly in terms of public health, medical science, virology, and building management.
Our particular tasks include: monitoring the spread and risk levels of the pandemic; recommending health safety protocols and any changes to them; and discerning under what conditions it would not only be reasonably safe to begin gathering in person again in some form, but faithful and loving to do so.
Early on in the pandemic, both the Task Force and the Session considered the protocols necessary to even approach a minimal level of safety for unvaccinated persons during indoor worship, and determined that they would be so disruptive to the quality of worship that we can offer a more meaningful and faithful worship experience digitally than in person indoors.
Worshipping in person would have required limiting attendance to about 50 persons in a given service because of the dynamics of physical distancing, and asking anyone in a high-risk category (i.e., over the age of 65 and/or with respiratory, vascular, or heart conditions) not to attend at all. Such worship would have no congregational singing, no unison prayers or responses, no passing of the peace, no offering, and no Communion. All persons, including the preacher, worship leaders, and any musicians, would likewise have to remain masked and distanced throughout the service.
So indoor worship would be dramatically impeded by these protocols, and the livestream broadcast would be, as well, unless we moved to prerecording two digital-only services in addition to offering Sunday in-person worship, which is not sustainable with our current staffing resources.
More troubling, though, is that even with all such precautions, there have been considerable and persistent questions about whether they are adequate in terms of mitigating risk. Nationally, there has been outbreak after outbreak beginning at churches even when they have been observing such protocols.
Indoor, in-person worship continues to be one of the most dangerous possible activities in terms of COVID transmission. Unlike, say, shopping at Wegman’s, worship involves spending a significant amount of time around the same people in the same enclosed space and breathing the same air, often without adequate ventilation. And that risk has actually increased rather than abated since last spring and summer.
While the trends of key metrics such as vaccination, hospitalization and death rates are trending in the right direction, Northampton County continues to be at a very high risk level, and Pennsylvania’s new case rate currently remains around three times higher than it was in the spring and summer of 2020.
For many months, the Building Reopening Task Force has been meeting regularly and deliberating throughout the pandemic and struggling with evaluating the various risks and possibilities of reconvening in-person for worship and other ministry activities along the lines above. These have been difficult and complex decisions that have required significant thought, energy, and deliberation to sort through.
The development with the potential to change all this, of course, is the creation and distribution of highly effective vaccines against COVID-19. Pennsylvania is still very much in the rollout process of those vaccines, but there is encouraging news coming from the PA Department of Health about the schedule and availability of them. And so we believe that help is on the way and that, while we need to continue to proceed with prudence, there is cause for real hope.
Accordingly, the Task Force unanimously recommended to the Session that we can consider returning to indoor, in-person worship with some new protocols in place, while also continuing to offer vibrant digital options, once the number of Northampton/Lehigh county vaccination appointments is in “sustained decline.”
In addition, the Task Force recommended that we begin allowing small groups to gather for meetings in the building, provided that
1) the number does not exceed 50% of the state’s guidance on room capacity to ensure appropriate distancing at all times (e.g., current guidance is 25% of a room’s capacity, so ours would be 12.5%);
2) that every person remains masked and distanced at all times inside the building, regardless of vaccination status; and
3) a digital alternative to in-person attendance is provided for First Pres groups to accommodate those who are unable or unwilling to attend in person.
As of last night, the Session has approved both of these recommendations, effective immediately, though scheduling of small groups inside the building is dependent on the building staff’s availability, which is currently limited due to vaccination status, so we may not be able to accommodate every request for a while.
That said, you should be in touch with Cristy Mette, our Administrative Operations Manager, with questions or requests for space; she is best reached by email at email@example.com or by calling the church and leaving a message for her.
We believe this approach is the best way we can not only continue fulfilling Christ’s Greatest Commandment, but also our congregation’s core value of being “Welcoming to All.” While many congregation members and friends have been vaccinated, many have not, and it is important as an inclusive congregation that we give everyone who is eligible for a vaccine a reasonable opportunity to receive one.
While we will not require vaccination for attendance in worship, we strongly urge anyone who is eligible for vaccination to get fully vaccinated before attending indoor, in-person activities of any kind.
We also recognize that this is not currently an option for children under 16 years of age, and little indication that will change in the foreseeable future, so parents will have to use their own best judgment on whether children should attend congregational worship and events indoors once we have resumed such activities, and we will continue to offer digital options for worship, children’s Sunday School, etc.
But children will be welcome at all church in-person activities once they resume, subject to the same protocols as adults, if their parents decide to bring them.
The good news, of course, is that we are already several weeks into that window in terms of Phase 2 of Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout, but we are not yet to the point of seeing a sustained decline in vaccination appointments, and speculation as to when that will be is not very accurate or helpful beyond a sense that it is on the horizon.
It is also important to remember that the building and worship staff are both essential to our ability to hold in-person worship again, and much of the church staff has only become eligible for vaccination in Phase 2. That means they still have to go through the process of getting appointments and waiting for full immunity before we can proceed with any resumption of in-person worship.
So: the Task Force is encouraged by the increasing availability of vaccines in the last few weeks; we will continue to meet regularly and evaluate the situation; and we will communicate again with the Session and then the congregation when we feel that circumstances have changed to the point that reaching our capacity to resume some form of in-person worship and other activities indoors is imminent.
Our focus as a Task Force is now on monitoring for a sustained decline in vaccination rates that would allow us to proceed with in-person worship opportunities and making final determinations on the appropriate new protocols that would be observed for such gatherings, and then making appropriate recommendations to the Session for implementation, which obviously makes all final decisions.
We will communicate with the congregation again when the Session has approved any further changes. In the meantime, if you have any questions or concerns or ideas that you would like to express about any of this, please direct those to the Task Force by email, using the firstname.lastname@example.org email address. We will respond as best we can and as soon as we can to your message.
We are grateful beyond measure for the congregation’s resilience in the extraordinary circumstances of the last 13+ months, and we know that you appreciate how much we all want to be able to worship indoors and in-person, how important it is to be confident that we can do so faithfully and well before doing so again, and how complicated and challenging it is to sort through all the considerations that bear on such a decision.
We covet your prayers for the ongoing work of the Task Force, and we ask that you continue to hold our church, our community, our nation, and our world in your prayers as the pandemic continues, and especially all those who are serving as first responders and essential workers, as well as those working to manufacture, distribute, and administer the vaccines.
Yours in Christ,
The FPCB Building Reopening Task Force
Belle Marks, chair
J.C. Austin, staff
Rebecca Angione, staff