Dear Friends in Albany Synod,
 
We are following the news of the slow reopening plans being proposed and implemented by state and local governments. We are wondering, what should our church’s reopening plan be? Some churches have already developed plans for slowly re-starting in-person worship and other gatherings over time, and some classes in our synod have already issued guidance. Some of us are anxious to get back to in-person worship, while others are anxious to avoid making an imprudent decision that may have devastating consequences. Nearly all of us anticipate that these decisions will be difficult and may result in conflict. We recognize that the next few months in ministry may be more difficult than the last two and a half months of quarantine. 
 
We are bombarded by resources to help guide our decision-making, cluttering our social media and filling our email inboxes. Some of these resources are clear and helpful. Others are needlessly complicated, or worse, filled with inaccuracies. Who do we trust? I’ve included a few of the best resources I’ve encountered in the “helpful links” section below. Please feel free to make use of them as your church engages in this conversation.
 
Here is my one best piece of advice: develop a clear decision-making process before you make any decisions! I gleaned much from a talk by Amanda Bruehl, Chief of Staff at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Amanda’s talk was part of an online seminar I attended from the Reformed Church Center at NBTS a couple weeks ago, and you can watch the recording of it (link is below). Amanda suggests a 4-step process by which churches move forward with reopening their buildings:

  1. Form a Covid-19 task force to comb through resources and develop a plan that is situationally appropriate for your congregation. This work is too time-consuming and complicated for the entire consistory. Better to delegate this work to a smaller group of people who have gifts and experience. Amanda recommended that the task force contain at least one person who is raring to reopen, and another person who is on the extreme end of caution. She also recommended that the group include a diversity of ages and backgrounds, so that the concerns of all different types of folks are all taken into consideration. Do you have a doctor in your church, or someone who's an expert in human resources? Put them on your task force!
  2. Next, get clear on your shared values which will guide your decision-making. Do not rush this step. Generous conversation about your shared values will lower your anxiety and will allow you to make decisions based on your best thinking. What is most important to your congregation? Is it being accessible and available to the community? Is it giving glory to God? Is it addressing isolation and the need for connection among people? Is it inclusion of all people, even and especially the most vulnerable? 
  3. Develop a plan that has clear steps, and progresses in phases. Our state government is progressing through a phased plan and measuring benchmarks before moving on to the next step. Churches will need to progress from more restrictive to less restrictive measures. Once your plan is developed by your task force and approved by your consistory, discuss how to communicate the plan clearly to the congregation. 
  4. Develop behavioral guidelines for how to proceed. This includes specific guidance around cleaning the church building, personal hygiene, mask-wearing, personal distancing, and other behaviors. Consider the following questions: how will you educate the whole community about any new expectations for behavior and participation in in-person gatherings? What will you do if anybody (church staff or members or others from the community) tests positive for Covid-19, has contact with someone who tests positive, or otherwise has symptoms of the illness? Is there a clear expectation communicated that these folks will stay home? What will you do if people do not abide by these guidelines, how will you keep people safe? 
 
The resources below make it clear that we're going to have to make some big changes in order to do in-person worship again, at least in the short term. The RCA’s Faithward article offers specific guidance, such as: all present should wear masks, handshaking should be prohibited, nobody passes collection plates or communion trays. Because singing is probably a super-spreading activity, there should be no choirs or congregational singing. They recommend that everybody sit at least six feet apart. The hardest one for me to accept is that anybody over 65, immunocompromised or has other underlying health issues should stay home.  
 
I fear that church under those conditions will feel sterile and strange and incomplete for a while. Some churches will proceed anyway, trusting that those who show up will agree to play by some very strange, new rules. Others will experiment with drive-in or outdoor worship for a while. Many others will decide to continue to worship virtually, so that a larger percentage of their congregation can participate. These are hard decisions, which is why I suggest forming a task force to do careful research and develop a responsible plan that will work, given the circumstances of their congregation.
 
Implicit in all I write above is my last piece of advice: don’t rush your decision-making! Create space to listen well to as many voices as you can. Try to set aside your anxiety so that you’re making decisions based on your best thinking, and not your gut feelings. If I can help you, your consistory, or your Covid-19 task force, please ask. I’m here for you.
 
Your Synod Ministries Coordinator, 
Abby Norton-Levering



Helping Our Communities Process Grief
Rev. Dr. Sherri Meyer-Veen recently led a workshop entitled, "Permission to Feel". Here are the notes and resources from that workshop.





Domestic Violence and Covid-19
While sheltering in place, people in your community may find themselves unable to leave an abusive household.

From the RCA Faithward:

Service Provider for those experiencing abuse (located in Albany)

Legal Assistance for those experiencing abuse

Therapy, counseling, and advocacy
Professional Financial Planning Help

BOBS has teamed up with an organization called  Everence  to offer certified financial planners to our pastors. These are top tier financial planners who specialize in clergy finance. They know the ins and outs of clergy taxes, housing allowances, and the details of RCA clergy compensation more than most advisers you’ll meet.  
 
Everence  has their planners set up to work with you completely online. From a secure web form to transfer sensitive documents, to video conferencing, you’ll be paired with a planner who will do this work with you right from your own home. There is no better time to begin this process.  
 
Cost: This year-long process costs $1,500. BOBS has secured a grant from the Lilly Endowment to cover half of the cost, meaning that no RCA pastor will have to pay more than $750 for the experience. Rochester, Schenectady, and Schoharie classes have committed to supplement the cost further by covering half. The Synod Ministries Board is also offering scholarships to make this financial planning accessible to anyone who wants it.
 
  • What’s Included: Cash Flow Planning - Set a smart budget and tell your money what to do, not the other way around.
  • Protection Planning - Have the right insurance at the best price, to know that you aren’t paying too much, and that your family is protected.
  • Investment Planning - Create an investment strategy that aligns with your values, goals, and risk tolerance.
  • Tax Planning - Clergy taxes are a headache! Have confidence you are doing it right.
  • Retirement Planning - Wouldn’t it be nice to know that your plan will provide you with the type of retirement you want to experience?
  • Estate Planning - Having an estate plan in place helps you to care for those you leave behind, and it also allows you to be generous in bigger ways than you thought possible.
  • Charitable Giving - This unique “seventh pillar” of the Everence planning process takes into account that being generous stewards of our finances is at the heart of our faith, and allows you to be as generous as possible with what God has entrusted you. 

If you’d like to have a meeting with an  Everence planner to see if this is right for you, email Billy Norden, Retirement and Financial Education Coordinator, to get started:  bnorden@rca.org .