Hi Second Church Family,
So I know the question on all of your minds. It’s the thing I’ve had so many conversations, both over the phone and e-mail, with you about, and so just let me say, straight out, yes. Yes, I can show you some pictures of Evie.
The other thing that you might be wondering is when we will resume worship together at our church campus on Sunday mornings. I know there are other churches that are meeting already, but ours will not be one of them for the foreseeable future. At the May session meeting, held over Zoom, the elders and I spoke at length about our desire to meet and how to balance that with your care and safety, particularly given the demographics of our congregation and how many of you are in the most vulnerable category. We examined your responses to the online poll and then tried to discern what would be the best way forward. At the end of the meeting, we did the most Presbyterian thing possible: we formed a committee to continue studying the issues and to make recommendations at our next meeting. What this means is that we will not be returning to worship on our church campus at any point in June and likely will not in July, unless numerous safeguards and considerations are enacted. Here are our thought processes and the rationale behind our decision, as it currently stands.
The state of Virginia has maintained that churches may meet provided that they can do nine things, and if all nine conditions cannot be met, then the church service cannot be held.
- Occupancy is limited to no more than 50% of the lowest occupancy load on the certificate of occupancy of the room or facility where the service is happening
- Those attending services must be seated at least 6 feet apart at all times, excluding family members, who may be seated together. Virginia defines family members including blood relations, adopted, step, and foster relations, as well as all individuals residing in the same household.
- Seating must be marked in 6-foot increments.
- It’s recommended that those at services be encouraged to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth at all times (This has now become a mandate, per Governor Northam’s order, which went into effect on May 29th).
- No items may be passed to or between attendees who are not family members
- Any items used to distribute food or beverages must be disposable and used only once and discarded
- A thorough cleaning and disinfection of frequently contacted surfaces must be conducted before and after any service
- Signage posted at the building’s entrance that states that no one with a fever or symptoms of COVID-19, or known exposure to a COVID-19 case in the prior 14 days, is allowed to enter.
- Signage posted to provide public health reminders regarding social distancing, gatherings, options for high-risk individuals and staying home if sick.
I want to address just a few of these. With two people, six feet of social distancing is relatively simple, as the two individuals are six feet apart, but the moment a third person enters, complications arise, as each person needs a six-foot bubble. This graphic shows what such a bubble could look like
Multiply this by even ten people, and social distancing is not quite so easy, even in a church facility as large as ours. While our worship space is sizeable, our hallways and bathrooms are quite small and narrow, making social distancing impossible.
Next, in our congregational survey, of those who participated, just over 10% said they would not wear a face covering under any circumstances. This brings up the issue of how we enforce these guidelines that have been put in place. I wish we could just say that we trust everyone to be adults and to follow the guidelines, but we’re also Presbyterian, which means we believe in the depravity of humanity, so trusting people to be at their best doesn’t exactly come naturally to us. Nor, when you look at how people are behaving and what some are choosing to rebel against, should we place our faith in everyone to perfectly follow the guidelines. All it takes is one person who refuses to wear a mask and who does not maintain six feet of social distance to potentially endanger, without any malice or intent, others in our care. We cannot put anyone in the position of such danger.
Another consideration the session took very seriously was its need to be the caretakers of the congregation. Typically this means spiritually, but in this instance, we felt it meant physically as well. Just over one-third of those who participated in the survey indicated that they felt some degree of safe returning to worship in the church building, while just under two-thirds indicated they felt some degree of unsafe. When asked about the likelihood of attending in-person worship at the church if it were held in June, those numbers nearly flipped, with just under 60% indicating they were some degree of likely to attend and just over 40% saying they were not. To the session, these two statistics spoke volumes. These numbers mean that nearly half of those who had previously indicated they did not feel safe returning to worship in church would nevertheless return once we opened the church doors, even as soon as next week. Why would people who do not feel safe returning to church nevertheless choose to come back? One possible explanation that stood out to the Session was that you trusted us, perhaps more than you trusted your own judgment. Some part of you believes that we, as the Session, will not let you come back to church until it is reasonably safe for you to do so. And on that assumption, you are correct.
Another consideration that led to our continued indefinite postponement of meeting on the church campus for worship was the result of another survey question, in which we asked how you felt about the idea of returning to in-person worship. Of those who participated, 29% said they were ready to come back immediately; another 29% said they would not be coming back yet, as they or someone they lived with was considered high risk for Covid-19, and they wanted to continue with online worship; and 42% asked the session to take reopening slowly, to check the evidence of how the first phase is going, and to evaluate an opening date after more information was in. This is exactly what we have chosen to do.
Almost 95% of you indicated that it would be some degree of important to you for worship to be available as a streaming option in the future. The church sanctuary is not currently internet ready, as the wi-fi signal cannot reach from our offices to the sanctuary itself. Having heard your desire for live streaming worship to be available even after we have returned to weekly worship at the church building, we have contracted with Lingo Networks, our service provider, to expand the internet footprint on our campus. When they have finished their work, high-speed fiber internet will be available on all parts of our campus, including the Fellowship Hall and Sanctuary. Making live stream worship available will also entail a few other purchases, as well as the training of some volunteers, as currently I’m doing everything myself, but I would not be able to simultaneously run the live stream and lead worship – at least not without some serious distraction likely taking away from the overall worship experience.
As mentioned, given all of these considerations, the Session decided to postpone any definitive dates for returning to worship. It was observed by one elder that we should hardly be talking about meeting for worship in-person if we did not even feel we could meet, as the Session, in-person. If definitive answers have been reached and a well-reasoned plan for return has been created, this plan will be presented at the June session meeting; if not, then the plan will be presented at the July meeting. There are numerous other considerations for being able to return to worship safely that I have not outlined in this extensive explanation, but know that the Session takes its responsibility very seriously and did not reach any of these decisions lightly.
I am especially proud of your elders for how we reached these decisions. Despite having differences of opinion that mirrored the overall survey results, we were able to have a frank, honest, but also considerate discussion about all these issues. Your elders always showed great respect and due reverence for one another, realizing that faithful people can disagree, even for reasons of faith, but still be faithful to God and faithful to their vows as elders. These women and men have done you proud and served you well.
I know this decision is not what some of you were hoping to hear, and I understand and even feel your disappointment. I too am longing to return to worship at Second Church with all of you, but for the time being, I do feel that Session’s decision is the most wise and prudent. As I say in the Pentecost sermon, in this time of social distancing we are not huddled in fear. No, we are huddled in faith, as this act of distancing is itself an act of love and compassion for those who are most vulnerable. Sometimes fear takes many faces. I think the fear of uncertainty, and the uncertainty of how long one must live in this uncertainty, may be especially prevalent in our society now. In order to combat this fear, I think sometimes we try to summon faith, but it becomes a faith in the wrong thing, a faith in something God never promised, as we would rather choose to think God will simply protect us or make all of this go away if we choose to bury our heads in the sand and act as if Covid-19 were not real or serious. But such an attitude is not true faith; rather, I say it is that very fear masquerading as faith, simply so that we can feel comfortable again. We must not let fear masquerade as faith. Sometimes we must sit with the fear and realize that fear and faith are not enemies. Often they may go hand-in-hand, as true faith is always a little scary. But fortunately, God is with us in this time, come what may. Let us continue to worship together online, to lift one another up in prayer, and to seek the guidance of our great God.
It is an honor and privilege to be your pastor and to be able to walk with you during this time. Thank you for your prayers and your faithfulness, both to God and to God’s church.