The sense of the Executive Committee carried forward from recent meetings has been that our first priority is to try and continue outreach programs to our community wherever possible. As to coming together again and meeting at the church, the Executive Committee has envisioned that smaller group activities will likely resume before large group activities such as worship.
Our Executive Committee has been meeting regularly during the present COVID-19 experience. We met last week to assess several of our programs and worship. We addressed these specific programs:
First Steps Preschool
Live on-site Worship
Small Group Activities
With the recent efforts locally and statewide in Florida to reopen the economy, more people are returning to their places of employment. This includes many of the parents who have children at our First Steps Preschool and in our Neighborhood Ministries program. These now become important outreach efforts that impact our community. Accordingly, the Executive Committee took the following actions:
1.First Steps Preschool
The Executive Committee has directed the Preschool Director to develop a plan to reopen the school. There is ample direction from the Florida Department of Health (FLDOH), the Florida United Methodist Conference (Florida Conference), and the CDC establishing criteria for resuming preschool operations. Class size will be limited to 10 people and student capacity will total eighty children maximum. Our confidence that this can be done safely is buoyed by the fact that over half of the Polk County area preschools have reopened very successfully and almost without incident. Our Director will recruit a Reopening Committee including a representative from the medical community to advise on this plan. The vision is that First Steps will reopen hopefully within weeks or as soon as we can with insuring the safety and health of the children and staff.
Our Committee took two actions relative to Neighborhood Ministries:
- We authorized Sean Hults, our director, to enter into a Summer Feeding agreement with the Polk County School Board. First UMC will be a drive thru pickup point for children’s meals, seven meals a week per client to be distributed on Mondays and Thursdays. This is a vitally needed community ministry and will begin June 8.
- Just as for Preschool, we have directed Sean to develop a plan to reopen with the advice and counsel of a similar Reopening Committee. He will be working toward an opening in early July. Groups will be limited to 10 people and operations will follow published criteria for day camps. It is anticipated that Neighborhood Ministries will function at about half its usual capacity, or about 35 students.
Our committee also discussed the resumption of live, onsite worship. Up until now, the Florida Conference has asked that churches not have worship on campus until after June 15 at the earliest, and even then worship would have to conform to criteria from the Florida Conference, FLDOH and the CDC.
The initial criteria we will follow is to wait until there is statistical support from the FLDOH/CDC that five “gateway” statistics have shown a decline in the number and rate. At this time other criteria include six foot “social distancing” between family groups, removal of common contact items (hymnals, Bibles, offering plate), suspension of communion and congregational singing. The choir will not be present. People on the platform must be socially distanced and will be limited in number.
If you can imagine what such a worship service would look like -- attendees would be wearing masks, every other pew would be roped off, occupied pews would be at less than half capacity on average, a maximum of about 200 people would be distributed all around the Sanctuary and book racks will be empty. We will not sing and will not be invited to speak the Affirmation of Faith aloud. Because of the limited occupancy, we will have to reserve a seat in advance. Likely, we will not be seated where we presently sit and those who sit near us will not be the usual friends we expect to see. The Executive Committee is very concerned this kind of worship service will fall far short of what we all have come to expect.
The word we receive from the overwhelming majority of our congregation is that we are not ready yet to attend such a service. We have heard from less than a handful that we are being overly conservative in not immediately restarting worship as some other churches have done. They cite different statistics and feel that the perceived risk of assembling in these times of pandemic is overblown.
3. Live Onsite Worship
As of our Wednesday, May 27 meeting, the Executive Committee tabled further discussion about worship until our next meeting on June 10. Until then and perhaps for some time after June 10, we will rely on the online worship program that is being both well-received and well-attended – by about twice as many as our average live attendance earlier in this year.
4. Other Small Groups
- Vacation Bible School will happen online this year. Children’s Ministries is also continuing its daily lunch bunch programs which have been well-attended.
- Adult Groups: most of our adult Sunday School classes are meeting via either video or voice conference. My own Sunday School class is very pleased with the conference call format we are using. Bible study groups are meeting using Zoom or other video/audio platforms with much success. Current input is that these classes and groups are not ready to meet yet in person.
- Youth continue to have weekly meetings and Wednesday night Bible study online. Dave Jans, our Youth Director, reports that attendance has been disappointing. He is working with Forrest White, our Director of Missions to develop in-person service opportunities that would offer the youth a direct fellowship opportunity. This will hopefully spur interest in the online Summer Program being developed.
Your Executive Committee will meet again June 10 to further discuss all of these items with intent to approve the resumption of both Preschool and Neighborhood. At that time we will reassess the statistics that will guide our live onsite worship decision. Our agenda will expand to include other small group activities as necessary.
Most of you are healthy. A few are not. We pray for both groups and we seek not to add to those who are not healthy by our actions.