Pastoral Letter on Church Reopening
Dear Hamilton Mill UMC Family,
As some of you know, last week I had the unexpected opportunity to be interviewed by a WSB TV reporter to address Governor Kemp's recent decision to re-open some businesses in the state of Georgia, including churches. And although I would've appreciated some softball questions to start off, like, "What are you preaching about this Sunday?" or "What do you think about this beautiful weather we've been having?" Instead, he very bluntly asked the question that has been on all of our minds: "So when's your church opening back up?"
If that's not the million dollar question these days, I don't know what is. And not just for churches. Every industry, business, and even family will ultimately have to make their own decision about how to balance our health, well being, and desire to "flatten the curve" and our ultimate goal of venturing out of isolation and moving back to a life that feels somewhat normal.
Believe me when I say that the vast majority of my conversations with our church staff, church leadership, and especially with God have revolved around this very issue.
So when will we re-open the church?
Let me start by stating the obvious, which is: It's still somewhat unknown.
I don't say that to be indecisive or nebulous. The fact of the matter is, we still haven't received any definitive information that has given us the assurance that we can re-open the church for worship in the near future in a way that ensures the health and safety of every person who walks through our doors and that is logistically feasible.
After all, just think about all of the varying factors involved:
  • How do we keep our average attendance of over 1,000 people at least 6 feet away from each other at all times?
  • How do we limit worship attendance and determine who can come?
  • How do we arrange the worship center in a way that makes that possible?
  • How many people are we able to fit in that space at one time while socially distanced?
  • Is worship invite-only? How do we handle overflow?
  • How many worship services would we need to have to serve that many people?
  • How do we clean and sanitize the building sufficiently between each service?
  • How do we obtain the needed cleaning supplies when the supply chain is backed up for weeks?
  • What do we do about nursery? Kids ministry? Student ministry? Small groups and Sunday School classes?
  • How do we handle communion, baptisms, our chancel choir, or passing an offering plate?
  • What if key staff members or volunteers are medically fragile and can't risk being exposed to others?

These are just a handful of the innumerable logistical questions that come with re-opening a 3,500-member church. So, again, the lack of having a definitive date for re-opening isn't because we're being wishy-washy about it. The fact is, there are hundreds of decisions that need to be made in order to re-open in a way that is logistically and financially realistic, socially responsible, and keeps everyone safe.
So, although I wish I could offer some insight that offered definite timelines for re-opening, unfortunately I can't. What I can offer, however, is my best guess - based on numerous conversations with our staff, church leadership, Annual Conference leadership, and medical professionals - on our timeline and our strategy in formulating our re-opening plan.
1)     First, a letter was sent out on Monday night from Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and her cabinet (that you can read in its entirety here) requesting all churches to continue to refrain from having in-person worship until at least June 22. Though the news was a bit surprising, it is a decision that was made in direct consultation with top experts at the Emory Healthcare System and the CDC.
Based on their projections and data models, it's simply not advisable to have large gatherings of people yet due to the risk of a second wave of the virus spreading, the continued limitations of our hospitals and healthcare system, and the lack of a vaccine for COVID-19. Therefore, we will be taking the Bishop's request under advisement as we formulate our re-opening plan at Hamilton Mill UMC.
2)     Second, because of the logistical complexity involved, we'll be taking a phased approach to re-opening the church. Currently, our plan is to continue online worship through end of May in our current format.
Then, on June 7, we'll bring our worship team back into the worship center and begin our new format of two unique live-streamed worship services every week. At 9:15 am, we'll have our modern worship service and we'll have our traditional service at 11:00 am.
Our goal is to gradually add people into the worship space over time in a way that is safe and logistically feasible. Exactly how we'll do that and what it will look like is yet to be determined, but each phase of our re-opening efforts will aim to add more people to our Sunday morning worship services.
In the initial re-opening phases, I anticipate that we'll start with Sunday morning worship only and then move to re-opening additional ministry areas like nursery, Kids Ministry, Student Ministry, and adult small groups and classes whenever that is deemed possible.
I also anticipate that as the statewide shelter-in-place order is eased, one way of resuming some level of corporate worship could start with small groups, extended families, or classes meeting together and live-streaming worship together in our homes. Although we're all looking forward to the time when we can gather together under one roof, this is one way that we can move towards that in way that is safe and easier to implement social distancing guidelines.
3)     Third, we will also be convening a Health Advisory Team at Hamilton Mill UMC comprised of medical professionals and experts in our community and congregation who can offer us insight and wisdom as we think through our process for re-opening. We'll be leaning on their expertise to help us come up with best practices, guidelines, and strategies for our church at each point in the re-opening plan.
As always, this plan for the future is subject to change due to new information or a change in the recommendations from our healthcare experts, so I'll be sure to keep you apprised of any news or updates as we work towards our re-opening plan.
I also hope you know that your church staff is here for you and we are whole-heartedly committed to doing whatever we can to help our church stay connected during this challenging time. Of course, none of us has ever been taught how to lead a church through a pandemic, nor are we experts in how to do ministry while in isolation.
But what we lack in expertise, we more than make up for in our desire to be a staff that, more than anything, wants to lead us faithfully in worship each week, to keep our church family connected, and to find creative ways for our congregation to continue to Gather, Grow, and Go, even while in separation from one another.
So please let us know how we can serve you, help you, or be of assistance to you during this season of quarantine.
Most of all, I want you to know: You are loved. You are missed. You are prayed for everyday. We will get through this together. And we will persevere!
Grace & Peace,
Pastor Jeremy