Thinking About Reopening Church – In the Age of Coronavirus

Thinking About Reopening Church – In the Age of Coronavirus
by Nurya Love Parish

It’s been years since I blogged regularly. I think it was sometime in 2016 that I realized there were too many other things to do. That was Year Two of starting Plainsong Farm. In hindsight, I wish I had written more about the process of bringing a new ministry from vision to reality. But at the time, there just wasn’t time.

Now it’s 2020. Plainsong Farm is five years old. I’m the Executive Director and also serve a nearby church, which means I’m working to adjust two organizations to the pandemic’s realities.


I know a lot of churches are trying to figure out their plan, so it seemed like it could be helpful to share the draft that we have in development. To give some context, our bishop issued a pastoral directive restricting the use of our building for worship in early March, extending through May 10th.  This means we’ve been livestreaming worship from our homes for about six weeks. We’ve heard more recently that this date will be extended further.

In Michigan, we’ve been under Stay Home orders for six weeks and will be for at least another two more. (Yesterday was the first time we heard about our state’s reopening plan, which was impressive!)

Closing was like flipping a switch (albeit a very challenging switch, as I had never contemplated the possibility of leading Morning Prayer and offering a homily from my living room before). Opening will not be that simple. To open, we have to think about a million details. Not least is the question: how do we know what is safe, when?

What Has Been Decided

Our vestry decided at its last meeting that continuing to livestream worship to people who are safer at home is a priority. This decision is guiding my own thinking, because it means we need to figure out how to do something we have never done before: livestream worship from the sanctuary.

The vestry also empowered a Reopening Task Force composed of both wardens, the chair of the Worship Committee, the chair of the Safety and Security Committee, and our Zoom Guru who knows Zoom well from her work and has facilitated our worship on that platform.

What Needs To Be Decided

I’ve been trying to think about how to think about reopening. Yes, that was a convoluted sentence. But it struck me that going from principles and priorities (which would apply to both ministries) to specifics (which would only apply to one) could be helpful, at least for my tired brain. Then it dawned on me that if I’m thinking about all this, maybe you are too. So I dusted off the blog and now here we are.

Here’s my current draft that I’m sharing with the Task Force… let me say again that this is a DRAFT! Can you improve it? Let me know in comments please and thank you!


Preamble

As March has turned into April, it has become evident that coronavirus was not a short-term problem quickly resolved. While governments worldwide continue to struggle with this pandemic, what we fondly remember as “normal life” will not resume quickly, if at all. Paul Jarvis recently dubbed this world “the new abnormal,” and that’s a phrase that has stuck with me.

In this new abnormal, there are a few principles and priorities that can ground the work of disciples of Jesus Christ.

Principles

Disciples seek truth.

“I am the way, the truth and the life,” said Jesus. As Simone Weil wrote, “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

In the current context this has two implications: being faithful to seek wisdom in prayer and knowledge in science. The truth of God for our own lives and vocations comes to us in prayer. The knowledge of the world around us comes to us through science, data, and analysis.

Disciples seek the way of love.

Jesus taught the great commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” One of his earliest disciples wrote “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (I John 4)

In the current context we must be ready to sacrifice, for we know that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another. We honor those who lay down their lives daily as essential workers, first responders and health care providers.

Disciples seek to serve.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35 We have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for the healing and redemption of the world. We are his body now, to bless the world in his name.

How do we do that in this strange new world?

Priorities

This new world is full of trade-offs and uncertainty. There is no way to chart a clear path in constantly changing circumstances. It is likely that whatever we do, we will make mistakes. What kind of mistakes are we more willing to make, and what kind of mistakes are we less willing to make?

We will err on the side of public health and safety.

Taking every precaution against becoming a disease vector, we will rethink every aspect of our life together in order to support and promote community health and well-being.

We will err on the side of long-term thinking.

Early indicators are that this pandemic will be with us for a matter of months not weeks, and its long-term effects on society will last for years. As we consider an appropriate ministry response, despite the fact that we cannot fully see the future, we will make short-term decisions with long-term consequences in mind, including as we think through our worship practices.

We will err on the side of preparedness.

To whatever degree possible in a rapidly evolving public health, economic and social context, we will plan ahead and prepare ourselves for scenarios before they occur.

To minimize mistakes, we will respect the decisions of our bishop and governor, and heed the advice of experts, in particular…

A Phased Approach

(ChurchWork readers: Please note this is still a draft – this might not actually be what we do! Holy Spirit Episcopal Church members: I’m publishing this so people beyond the church can help us figure out what to do. This isn’t the plan, it’s just a draft! The plan is still in development.)

Level One: Stay Home, Save Lives – CURRENT STATUS – Following the guidance and direction of elected or appointed officials or of our bishop

The building is closed for everything except essential work (food pantry, critical office tasks done by a named few individuals). All worship will be conducted from our homes via Zoom and streamed live to YouTube.

Level Two: Limited Access for Worship Team OnlyWhen we re-open, this will be our first step

A small worship team leads worship in the sanctuary, which is streamed live to the congregation at home. The Worship Team: Rector, Lector, Musician, Camera Operator(s), Zoom/YouTube Operator. The goal is to continue to livestream worship from the sanctuary, unless of course we need to resume Level One due to health and safety concerns. This phase allows a small group to figure out how to livestream worship from the sanctuary while observing safe distancing. We will worship for at least two weeks at Level Two before considering moving to Level Three, to be sure that our livestream-to-home is working smoothly.

Level Three, Outside: Worship OutsideWhen it is safe for groups to gather, if the weather is good, we will consider this step

People are invited to print their own bulletin at home and bring their own seats for worship. Worship (Morning Prayer or Ante-Communion) is held entirely outside while practicing distancing. No furniture is moved. Ushers direct people to sit at a distance from one another.

Level Three, Inside: Congregational Access with Rearranged/Reserved SeatingWhen it is safe for groups of over ten to gather inside, we will take this step

After we know our livestream is stable and our streaming team is in place, we will rearrange sanctuary seats to ensure they are apart so the congregation can worship while practicing physical distancing. Bulletins for worship will include all needed materials for worship, and will be placed on the seats at least 24 hours before worship begins, along with hymnals and prayerbooks. Congregants will be greeted at the door and encouraged to wear masks. All reading and preaching will be conducted from the front of the church to minimize aerosol spread. The liturgy will be Morning Prayer or Ante-Communion. There will not be a gospel procession. The offering will be received at baskets placed where convenient for people to drop their own offering in; plates will not be passed. The peace will be exchanged without touch. There will be no coffee hour.

Level Four: Full Access to Worship When the coronavirus has been defeated definitively, we will take this step

We will rearrange seats to the maximum number for the space. We will review everything we have learned from our season of worship in the new abnormal, and consider whether God is calling us into any new practices for the next season of our life as disciples of Jesus. Most likely we will want to continue livestreaming worship indefinitely. Are there any other practices we have discovered that we want to continue?


I never, in over twenty years of ministry, contemplated writing a document like this.

I think that’s 2020 in a nutshell. We are all in a world that we didn’t realize was coming, and it’s teaching us things we didn’t know were possible.

It’s possible to lead worship from home for weeks on end.

It’s possible to adjust our common life radically to preserve life and health.

It’s possible to livestream. It’s possible for people to use technology that… a few weeks ago… seemed impossible.

If this much is possible, what else is possible too?


How are you planning worship where you are?

Share this: