Presbytery of the Pines - UPDATE
Guidance for Sessions Concerning the
Re-Opening of Churches
The Presbytery of the Pines Leadership Council
May 5, 2020
 
Guidance for Sessions concerning the re-opening of Churches
  
This guidance seeks to answer the basic question: When can we open the church? Sessions have the authority over worship and building use and are responsible for the care of members of the congregation.
 
Initially, two things need to be made clear:

  1. All congregations are subject to mitigation practices mandated by regional civil authority. This guidance can not be construed to be giving permission to Sessions to disobey regional civil authority. Of course, Arkansas and Louisiana currently have different mandated mitigation practices.
  2. There is no strategy to open churches that is without risk.  As long as there is no vaccine, no proven medical treatment and no extensive testing, any opening of the church will involve risk to the lives of our vulnerable members. The question to the Sessions is: How much risk are you willing to take with the lives of your congregation? This is complicated by the fact that most of our members fit into the most vulnerable group: those over the age of 60 or have medical issues.
 
Given the current realities, we think that there are at least three possible options for Sessions to consider as they think about opening the church for regular face to face worship. These would be: 1. A phased opening of the church; 2. Not opening the church until society is opened; 3. Opening the church to “normal” services. It is also important to recognize that we may never be able to fully return to the type of worship and ministry that was typical before the Covid 19 crisis.  
 
Option One: A phased opening of the church.
 
This abbreviated version of a three-phase opening is based on the U.S. Federal Guidelines released on April 16 and the phases proposed by the Wisconsin Council of Churches. 
 
The only real measurement we have at this point to guide us in the application of these phases is the rate of infection of the Covid 19 virus. When your region has had 14 days of declining infection rates, it is possible to move to Phase One. This two-week measurement is significant because it takes this length of time for a change in infection rates to become apparent. Any rise in infection rates would require a return to more strict mitigation practices.
 
Phase One.   After 14 days of declining infections.
  1. Groups no larger than 10 people.
  2. Required use of cloth masks in public places or enclosed spaces. (Sanctuary, etc.)
  3. Maintain six feet of social distancing.
  4. Vulnerable populations: shelter in place.
  5. Worship: continue on-line.
  6. Church employees work from home as much as possible.
  7. Weddings and Funerals: no more than 10 persons in attendance.
  8. Plan for cleaning and sterilizing doorknobs, pews, hymnals, etc., if anyone meets in small groups in the church building.
  9. No choir practice. No group singing. Singing requires social distancing of more than six feet.
 
Phase Two.  After another 14 days of declining infections.
  1. Groups no larger than 50 people.
  2. Required use of cloth masks in public places or enclosed spaces.
  3. Maintain six feet of social distancing.
  4. Vulnerable population: Shelter in place.
  5. Worship: Outdoor services could allow greater numbers of participants; larger churches may need multiple services.
  6. Church employees could work in the church offices with social distancing and masks.
  7. Plan for how you will limit church attendance.
  8. Provide masks at all services.
  9. No congregational singing. A sung solo or duet is possible with distancing.
  10. Plan for sharing the sacrament of communion in such a way that will protect the congregation.
  11. Plan for cleaning and sterilizing building and Sanctuary.
  12. No coffee time or social space. Also plan for areas of high movement and crowding.
  13. Consider alternatives for hymnals, bulletins and other objects that are routinely touched by members of the congregation.
  14. No hugging, shaking hands or Passing the Peace.
 
Phase Three.   After another 14 days of declining infections.
  1. Cloth masks optional.
  2. Vulnerable population: designated area in Sanctuary where they can practice six feet of social distancing and wear masks. Or they can continue to shelter in place.
  3. Social distancing optional.
  4. Plan for cleaning and sterilizing building and Sanctuary.
  5. Be mindful of current CDC recommendations.
 
Also be mindful that members may want to continue social distancing and wearing a mask, or not attend public worship, until they feel safe. This may take some time.
 
Option Two: Not open the church until the society is opened.
 
For many congregations, the phased approach will not really work because most of the members of the congregation are in the high-risk population. For these congregations it may be easier to “hunker-down” for the long haul. That is, continue to develop various forms of worship, bible study, Sunday School and other ministries by electronic and social media. These congregations could wait until a vaccine is found, a proven medical treatment is established, or testing becomes more available with tracing and isolation of infections. In other words, when the CDC recommends the opening of society, the church would also open. Hopefully, this will be sooner than later.
 
Option Three: Open the church and resume services and ministries.
 
If civil authority allows, this option would be to open the church and return to regular services. This is a high-risk option. This is especially true in regions where infections are high or still rising. This option may be possible for very small congregations in isolated regions where there has been little or no record of infections. But even these congregations are taking a risk. All it would take is one visitor or a relative from an urban area to bring the virus and infect the whole congregation. We would highly discourage the opening of any churches without mitigation practices in place.   
 
Conclusion
 
At the end of the day, the Session has the responsibility to evaluate the risk level for their context and the needs of the congregation. Every situation is different and requires a thoughtful response. We encourage Sessions to take their time, pray for guidance and talk to the members of their congregations. You are the shepherds of your flock. They are in your hands. We will pray for you and support you in the decisions you make. We are here for you in these trying times. God bless you in your ministry in Jesus’ name.
 
Members of the Presbytery Leadership Council
The Presbytery of the Pines