June 3, 2020

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. … For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. – Galatians 5:1, 13
Dear rostered ministers, congregation presidents, and key lay leaders of the Pacifica Synod,

Last week, our Synod Vice President Lori Herman and I convened conversations among you on the subject of resuming in-person worship. On Tuesday and Thursday, we spoke with rostered and lay leaders from California; on Wednesday, with pastors, deacons, and leaders from Hawai’i. Both Hawai’i and California have given permission for in-person worship services to take place, asking churches to follow strict guidelines to protect staff and worshippers from contracting COVID-19. A few pastors and congregation leaders have contacted me asking for some guidance from the Office of the Bishop.

From the onset of the pandemic, I have asked you to follow public health directives from governors and local leaders. That continues to be my first piece of guidance. The governors of both Hawai’i and California have given permission for congregations to meet in-person. The guidance from Hawai’i may be found here and here , and the guidance from California found here . California requires congregations to have a written COVID-19 prevention plan, while Hawai’i strongly urges a written plan to be produced. I would recommend that each congregation put together a written plan that adheres to the guidelines of your particular state prior to holding your first in-person worship service.

Worship may look and feel different as you seek to protect your neighbors from COVID-19. The Hawai’i chapter of The American Choral Directors’ Association strongly advises “ against congregational singing at this time.” California State guidelines “strongly recommend” against congregational singing or spoken liturgical responses. Following these recommendation means there would be no responses such as “And also with you,” when the pastor says, “The Lord be with you.” There would be no recitation of the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, though they could be recited and prayed by the pastor on behalf of the people. There would be no congregational singing of the liturgy. Recorded music and live instrumental music from instruments like piano, organ, or guitar (but not wind instruments) are recommended. The aerosols or droplets that are invisible to us but come out of our mouths and travel through the air are the primary mode of transmission of the Coronavirus, and they travel further when singing and responding as a group. While the public guidelines do not forbid such practices, I would urge congregations to take seriously the strong recommendations of our public health officials. Pastor Terry Tuvey Allen from our staff has developed liturgies based on contemplative Celtic worship that would minimize singing and responses. Those resources will be available soon for congregations that wish to use them. We will send links to them within a day or two.

Physical distancing would also need to be a part of every congregation’s plan. The California requirements mandate that congregations limit the number of participants to 25% of the maximum occupancy, or 100 people, whichever number is fewer. A written plan would need to detail how worshippers both enter and exit the building. California’s guidelines also call for extensive cleaning when in-person worship resumes. Please read carefully these guidelines and consider how your congregation will accomplish these tasks.

Pay attention to those parts of your state’s guidelines where the word “must” is used. For example, the California guidelines state “Places of worship must take reasonable measures, including posting signage in strategic and highly-visible locations, to remind congregants/visitors that they should use face coverings and practice physical distancing whenever possible.” The word “must” means this is not optional. I have spoken to congregations that wonder about whether to encourage congregants to wear masks. California guidelines call for signage in the building to encourage the use of masks and of physical distancing.

The ELCA has also come out with guidelines for returning to in-person worship which are available both in English and in Spanish . Please refer to these guidelines as well. It will take some time to sort through all the requirements and recommendations, and for your leadership to craft your plan. Please take all the time you need to get this right. Your neighbor’s health will depend on what you do.

Remember as you craft your plan to look for new guidelines from local public health officials and your state’s governor. If the virus spreads quickly and our hospitals become overwhelmed, it may become important to go back to online worship only. As restrictions are relaxed, your plan would change as well. Be prepared to update your plan on a regular basis.

Many in our church are not ready to return to in-person worship. They should not be denied the comfort that online worship has given them in the past few weeks. I strongly encourage congregations to continue to reach out through the internet with online services, and through phone calls and cards to people who do not have access to technology. People should be reminded by all possible means that they are not alone. Not only is God with them, the prayers and thoughts of their church members are with them as well.

I have a particular concern for congregational staff, rostered and lay, who are in high risk groups. People over 65, or those with compromised immune systems, should not be pressured to be present against their own better judgment. Nor should a pastor who has a family member in a high-risk group be urged to lead in-person worship to the detriment of their family member’s health. I would ask that pastors over 65 or in high risk groups contact me for a discussion prior to resuming in-person worship.

In our conversations last week, I asked why people want to come back together for in-person worship. The main reason I heard was that people missed each other. For those congregations that are not ready to put together a plan for in-person worship but want to begin to come together, I wonder if meeting in smaller groups for Bible study, prayer, or fellowship might be preferable at this time than in-person worship. I would recommend no more than 10 in a group, physically distancing, wearing masks, bringing your own Bibles, meeting only with the same people week to week. If possible, meet outdoors or in a place where outside air circulates. If meeting indoors, consider shortening your time together. The longer you are in an enclosed space with recycled air, the more likely the virus, if present, will spread. And remember, if you meet in small groups, your pastors and deacons will not be able to meet in person with every small group. If they did, they could be infected and unwittingly carry the virus to the many groups with whom they meet. As testing becomes more accessible, rostered ministers may be able to be tested regularly, which would help assure they are not carrying the disease. Until such testing is available, pastors and other leaders would do well to limit the number of people they meet with in person.

Good people of the Pacifica Synod, I began this letter with verses from the book of Galatians. For freedom Christ has set us free. But do not use that freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. We are free to join for in-person worship. If your congregation chooses to meet and worship in-person, you are free to do so. But other congregations, in their freedom, may choose to refrain from such worship at this time. Whatever you choose to do, I pray you will consider these two questions: What would God have you do? And what protects your neighbor’s life and health? Please prayerfully consider your responses to these questions. Those who choose to meet in-person should not be criticized provided they follow the guidelines of public health officials. Those who choose not to meet in-person should not be criticized for their choices.

This time of vigilance against the virus will not last forever. But there is still no recommended course of treatment that has been scientifically proven to work. There is no vaccine widely available, and certainly no herd immunity. St. Paul reminds us “whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s,” yet God may have fruitful work for us in the future if we do not make foolish choices today. Please prayerfully, carefully consider what God is calling your congregation to do. Do not put God to a false test but keep up on scientific data and make your choices faithfully, using the best information available. May God bless you in your deliberations.

Yours in Christ,

Bishop Andy Taylor/he, him, his
Pacifica Synod of the ELCA
Together in Christ we equip, accompany, and serve boldly so all may experience God’s boundless grace.