As many of you are aware, some United Methodist and other churches are have begun to tentatively open for in person worship. Some of you are ready to be back in the sanctuary for worship and are frustrated that Central has not opened up yet. I understand that. But there are some theological principles that are guiding my decision process. The two main principles are the church is not primarily a building, it is the people of God on a mission and the body of Christ must honor the most vulnerable parts of the body as much as any other. With those principles I offer you these words from the Office of the Bishop of the Florida Annual Conference:
“Whatever we do, churches should exceed the basic health guidelines. Churches are not the exception. By understanding all the ways the virus is still spreading, churches can take appropriate steps to mitigate risk. This includes following all the best guidance around limiting the size of gatherings, cleaning practices, social distancing, and the wearing of masks. The church will need to alter elements of worship like receiving communion, collecting the offering, the greeting time, and public singing. Any church, regardless of size and location, can reopen safely and faithfully if it will thoughtfully take its time, adapt and innovate.
Here are five things to keep in mind as you make your plans to reopen:
1. Build a healthy church team to do the careful work around reentering your buildings and relaunching ministry and worship. Include people who will see your blind spots. Be sure the team addresses what you will do when people ignore the guidelines, or you learn of a possible infection in your faith community.
2. Learn as much as you can about the science of how the virus spreads. If all you read is the guidelines, that is all you will be able to follow. If you begin to understand the science, it will push you to exceed guidelines and see the dangers unique to your context. Continue to look for best practices that you can implement in your church setting.
3. Communicate clearly and often. Plan for the people and circumstances who will need you to communicate even more clearly and more often. Be prepared to clearly articulate the guidelines and answer the question of “why we are reopening our buildings at this time.” Use stories and visuals wherever possible. Helpful communication increases trust.
4. Go slow. This is not a race to reopen. Give space for thoughtful reflection on your values. Consider how much time it will really take to carefully prepare your space and train your team.
5. Keep the faith. You won’t think of everything. You can’t. But you do serve a God who is with you now and is calling you into this new reality with hope and confidence. Our ultimate faith is in a God who is able to do immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3). God will guide us as we make space to truly hear, individually and corporately, from the God who is faithful – no matter when we are able to reopen.
As we reopen our buildings, may we seek to be in God’s time and not our own. We follow a God of hope and resurrection who knows all about making all things new (Isaiah 43:18). That is where our ultimate faith lies. Remember, the church has never closed. The church remains open, even as we don’t physically gather in our building. We do all of this so that we might fully love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
Things will be different. We will social distance. We will begin with three small worship services (8:30, 10:00 and 11:15). Masks will be extremely encouraged. You will have to register your attendance so we can contact trace if we have an infection. Seating will be spread out and bulletins will be placed on where seating is allowed. No congregational singing allowed. You will enter through the sanctuary doors and exit through the Chapel/Educational/North doors. Sorry, no coffee, donuts, hugs, or hanging around the church allowed.
Also, following the CDC, DOH, State, and insurance recommendations, the nursery will remain closed and children 8 and under are asked to remain home and safe, and children/youth 9-17 are asked to remain with their parent or guardian at all times during the worship service and anywhere in the church facility.
Our relaunch date for celebratory in person worship service is August 2. This date was chosen partially because the items we need for best practices current shipment date is mid-July. I will continue to communicate each week with you on what to expect in July, in August, and going forward.