Two weeks ago we published a letter from Lay Leader Doug Northup. He is part of the five-person Administrative LeadershipTeam that has been working diligently in partnership with me and the rest of the staff to try to lead Martin as faithfully and safely as we can amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In his letter Doug reiterated our team's longstanding commitment to follow the initial benchmarks set by the CDC and State of Texas for a safe return to gatherings: 14 consecutive days of decreasing numbers of new cases, deaths, and hospitalizations (and then later also the rate of infection or spread). He also acknowledged that Tarrant and Dallas Counties had both reached those thresholds on August 31, but went on to explain that, with the Labor Day holiday forthcoming and the return of students to optional in-person learning, the Leadership Team felt the need to wait several more weeks to see what impact those events would have on the safety of the community around us. In our group discussions, we generally thought that sometime by the middle of October we might know if we could safely plan something that might begin after the first of November. So what changed? Communion happened.
Last Sunday 75 people arrived on campus to receive communion at the Drive-Up event that followed the 11:00 online worship service. While it was so exciting to see one another in three dimensions after 27 weeks of virtual viewing, there was also a very real sense of sadness. The staff misses you. You miss being with one another. We all miss community, gathering in-person as a church, at the church. On Monday the leadership team, along with Pastor Faiana, Caleb, and I reconvened via Zoom to consider once again what the most faithful way forward might be. It was difficult work. I don't know that anyone left the meeting feeling wholly certain about the decisions we made, but we want to give safe, in-person gathering the best effort we can.
Studies continue to support that indoor gathering of any significant size for a prolonged period of time carries a very high risk of exposure even with social distancing and masks. The guiding principles from which the Leadership Team has worked since March are: the Great Commandment (basically, Love God and Love Others) and John Wesley's Three General Rules - 1. Do No Harm. 2. Do All the Good You Can. 3. Attend Upon the Ordinances of God (prayer, fasting, reading scripture, worship, etc.). Adding to the weight of the decision was the creeping, but very present, upward trajectory of the benchmark numbers even as we met to discern what might be safe. In the end, it was decided that we will add to our Sunday morning opportunities an in-person, outdoor worship service at 8:30 AM on our land to the west of the church (West Field). I know that for many of you, 8:30 is not your preferred worship time. Yet I'm reminded that nothing about this season of pandemic is preferred. I really hope that you'll be flexible, and understand that 8:30 is the only viable option that accommodates the online meeting schedule of the Sunday school and small group classes, as well as the 11:00 AM online worship experience we will continue to offer from the sanctuary, and our 2:00 PM online Tongan language service.
By worshiping outside we will be able to enjoy some things we would not be able to do otherwise. First and foremost, we will be able to sing together...out loud!
In order for this to work, we will all have to work together for the greater good. That means we will need to observe the following:
- Face masks covering both mouth and nose will be mandatory for everyone more than 2 years old for the entire time you are out of your vehicle on the campus. A mask must be worn even if you choose to wear a face shield. Please understand that having assured those who attend that masks will be worn for their safety, should someone persist in not honoring that commitment we will need to bring the service to an immediate close and adjourn.
- Disposable masks and a large bottle of hand sanitizer will be available onsite for those who arrive without their own.
- You may bring a beverage and push your mask up or down while drinking, but let's try not to make worship an opportunity for a breakfast picnic.
- You are asked to bring your own lawn chair or blanket on which to sit, and household groups should space themselves 10 feet (side to side and front to back) from other household groups to maintain social distancing that makes singing a much reduced risk.
- Obviously there can be no hugging or "holy kissing" - not even if someone tries to convince you they're just passing the peace. Make like a momma and just say no. lol
- The buildings will remain closed and there will not be bathroom facilities available during worship.
So, yes, it will be a very different kind of experience, but we have said all along that whenever we did return to corporate gatherings, it would be for a very different worship experience. During a pandemic, it simply has to be different; yet I am very excited that we have something to which we can look forward to enjoying as a community. Here are the good things you can expect:
- Preservice music as you choose your spots, set your chairs, and greet your friends with enthusiastic words of welcome and air hugs and virtual high-fives, appropriately distanced, of course.
- At 8:30 we will begin a worship service that will last 45 minutes and include congregational singing, prayer, special music, scripture, a short message, and any baptisms, reception of new people to the community, or special blessings appropriate to the day.
- There will be communion shared on the first Sunday of the month using the sanitary, manufacturer-packaged single serve elements we used for Drive-Up Communion.
- The service will be simulcast on FM 91.5. Anyone who would prefer to remain in their vehicles for any reason (safety, mobility, air conditioning or heater, etc.) is welcome to park along Coble Drive or at the top of the parking lot. The basketball court will be reserved for closer access for those who normally use handicapped parking spaces.
- In the event of rain or uncomfortably cold weather, we will move the worship "stage" under the porte cochere so that we can still enjoy an in-person service together. Our parking lot will become a drive-in worship arena, and you will be invited to participate in the service by tuning to FM 91.5 while remaining warm, dry, and (perhaps best of all, mask-free.)
I hope that many of you are excited about an opportunity to gather together once again. However, let me also be clear that if you are not comfortable gathering by October 18th, that is perfectly okay. We will still provide the 11:00 AM online service with the same commitment to quality you've come to both enjoy and expect. Each of us must make our own determinations about what we are willing to risk, both for ourselves and those with whom we may share a home. If you are part of group that is highly vulnerable to the consequences of this virus, the health experts strongly recommend that you avoid gathering in groups at all. However, should you decide to grab your chair, brew a cup of coffee, and don your best Sunday mask, I will be delighted to worship with you...at a safe distance, naturally.
So why October 18th, you may wonder? Is it because the 18th is the Sunday after Lord's Acre and we traditionally gather for a special service that day? Yeah, I really wish I was that good at planning in a global crisis! No, the real reason is much more mundane. My family had planned to take an extended vacation the day after Easter, but with the COVID crisis hitting us in March, that didn't happen. We were supposed to tag along with the Brattons to Disney the first week of September, but who wants to be in those crowds and they aren't offering the usual lineup anyway. Ultimately, we chose to book our favorite Angel Fire vacation home for an extended stay safely distanced from others, where we can hike and fish, rest and play. We will leave after church this Sunday and finally take that family vacation we've been promising one another and Erin all year. So, I'm going to be away on Sunday Oct. 4th when the amazing orator Rev. Dr. Cindy Ryan guest preaches and again on Oct. 11 when Pastor Faiana blesses everyone with her graceful words of hope and encouragement. I joked with the leadership team that I couldn't have it appear that as soon as I left town everyone ran back to church, but the truth is I simply couldn't bear to miss being with you the first time we return for in-person worship. So, October 18th it is, and isn't it wonderful that it happens to fall on Lord's Acre weekend!
That brings me to one final thing: even as I write this, the counts of new cases and rate of transmission are rising in Tarrant County and we have experienced eight consecutive days of new cases in excess of 300, some days very close to 400. These are per capita rates of infection we have not seen since early August. On September 15th Tarrant County Public Health Director Vinny Teneja shared with the County Commissioners in open court his assessment that that "something is brewing." Should the cases and rate of infection continue to rise, or the public be asked to further restrict itself for the common good, the Leadership Team may deem it prudent that we take a hiatus from even an outdoor in-person service in order to Do No Harm. Conversely, should numbers begin to trend down significantly over an extended period of time, the Leadership Team would gladly reconsider resuming worship in the sanctuary - although, again, that worship would look very different from anything to which we are accustomed.
I ask you to continue to pray for me, Pastor Faiana and Ted, the remainder of the Martin staff and the Administrative Leadership Team. I know many of you have been doing so from the beginning as I have received so many notes, emails, and texts telling me you are praying for us and supporting us and the decisions we are making. Discerning what is best for our church, what's best for everyone's safety, and what the most faithful way to respond is in the midst of a pandemic has asked of your Administrative Leadership Team more than may have ever been asked of a group of volunteer church leaders in modern history. It's certainly more than has ever been asked of clergy. The best options are not easily determined, and even considering what other churches are doing doesn't provide much clarity. So many of our sister churches of varying denominations have worshiping memberships of less than 100 and that makes social distancing very easy in sanctuaries built in years gone by to hold many times that number or they have megachurch facilities that offer unique options not available to most of us. Some laity leaders and pastors have felt they had no other options but to make the decision to return to in-person worship because of strong pressure from within the congregation, or because of the weight of a mortgage that rapidly became crippling when the bottom fell out in March.
I am SO THANKFUL for YOU, the congregation of Martin United Methodist Church. I am thankful for your ongoing support, patience and prayers for a team of leaders that want nothing more than to ensure our decisions do not lead to any COVID-related suffering or loss of life. I am thankful that you believed it was possible to retire our own burdensome mortgage, and that you did so 2 1/2 years ago by working together. I am thankful that you have continued to be faithful in your tithes and offerings so that we have not had to furlough anyone. I thankful to you for being faithful in worship and finding value in the efforts of the worship team to make "virtual" meaningful. And I thank you for holding us all gently in your love and prayers.
I sure do miss seeing you each one of you! I miss your smiling faces and your hugs, both of which I will continue to miss with masks and social distancing. But I also continue to pray daily, first and foremost, for your safety. I pray daily for the ministry of our church, and I continue to pray without ceasing that God's spirit keeps us connected, even in the midst of these unprecedented times.
We will plan to move back to three Sunday services of worship on October 18th:
- 8:30 AM In-Person Outdoor Service
- 11:00 AM Online English Language Service
- 2:00 PM Online Tongan Language Service
In the meantime, I wish you God's peace, and I pray that wherever you go, whatever you do, you stay safe.
With much love,
aka "The Vicar"
P.S. Both "Lunch with Lara" and the Wednesday Evening Study will continue as scheduled. Pam Cook is the point person for Lunch and Rev. Gena Anderson will be leading on Wednesday. You are in for a real treat!