Should We Resume In-Person Worship?
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:4
This is the scripture used by the Southwest Conference UCC to open discussion about how and when to safely resume in-person gatherings in our communities of faith. In a similar manner, SNEUCC Bridge Conference Ministers wrote Phasing Forward Guidelines 2020 with Jeremiah 29:7 as their guide: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
When we strive to love one another and to look to the interests of others, we are called to provide safe communities of faith for all people. Many people who are more vulnerable due to age, disability, and chronic medical conditions are at higher risk for infection. It is well known that the COVID-infection rates vary by location. People of color are affected disproportionately and may fear the vaccine due to historical injustices. It is well demonstrated that some who are infected are asymptomatic and therefore able to infect others. The increasing presence of Covid variants that may spread more quickly is also of concern.
Careful consideration of these factors in your community will inform future steps.
We hold tightly to the promise of the time when we will be able to freely gather, converse, hug, and fully participate in gathering for worship and faith filled community with one another. This time is drawing closer, we can see the light of hope as many are getting vaccinated. We also see inequities in distribution and limited vaccine supply. The answer to the question of resuming in-person worship is that it will take time, patience and careful consideration of all of the variables in each local community to re-open safely and prevent resurgence of the coronavirus and its variants.
The SNEUCC Phasing Forward Guidelines 2020 clearly delineate steps for returning to in-person gatherings based on Insurance Board, CDC and State recommendations for cleaning, ventilation, community spread risk assessment, physical distancing, masks, hand hygiene and contact tracing. Phases one through three are applicable today depending on the local community. Due to high positivity rates and the emergence of several covid-19 variants, SNEUCC has announced that the conference offices will remain closed until at least the annual meeting in May. Virtual worship services are recommended.
If your congregation has not begun planning for resuming in-person gatherings, now is the time to prepare. Think about the need vs. the desire to resume gathering. We all miss physically being in community with others, but is it safe? What is the risk of infection in your community? Can the activity be conducted virtually? What are the demographics of your congregation, your clergy?
During this time between early vaccine distribution and herd immunity there continues to be the risk of contracting the virus, even if vaccinated, as well as risk of spreading it to others who may or may not be vaccinated. Therefore it remains critical to wear well-fitting or double masks, maintain physical distance of six feet or more and practice frequent hand hygiene.
As you prepare your physical structure, decide protocols and implement measures for cleaning and physical distancing remember to educate your congregants. Keep everyone informed of the process, progress, and safety protocols when in-person gathering resumes. Reliable messages to inform people about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine is an important step toward gathering together. Connect with your Department of Public Health for reliable information to share. Remember, clergy are trusted messengers so be prepared with the facts. You do not have to be responsible for doing all the research.
Daniel P. Chin offers scientifically-based ideas to assist congregations considering safe gathering in Christianity Today, Where Two or More Are Vaccinated: Advice for Churches in 2021. Chin emphasizes the need for careful consideration of each community’s specific circumstances and offers the following advice.
Consider the infection rate in your community
The decision to resume in-person gathering must be informed by the infection rate in your community. By signing up for COVID infection and vaccination updates with your Public Health Department, Emergency Management office or CovidActNow.org you can receive detailed information on the data for your community.
Consider the risk of COVID infection and severe complications for your congregants. When we strive to love one another and to look to the interests of others, we are called to provide safe communities of faith for all people. An example of community level guidelines related to infection risk is offered by the Connecticut Department of Public Health Town-Level Covid Response Framework. Recommendations and restrictions are listed for gathering at times of low-risk yellow zone (5-9 cases per 100K per day), moderate risk orange zone ( 10-14 cases per 100 k per day), and high-risk red zone ( 15 + cases per 100K per day). Gathering in-person is discouraged when the community is in the orange and red zones.
Develop a cleaning and disinfecting protocol. Remove shared items from the worship or meeting space. Provide hand sanitizer and masks for those who do not have one. Post signage to promote physical distancing. Make sure the heating and ventilation systems are operating properly, if the building has been closed. Make a plan for tracking attendees in case contact tracing is needed. Plan how to respond if someone becomes ill during the service.
Consider resuming in-person gathering slowly, start small, when allowed by your state guidelines, and the data in your community indicates low risk of COVID infection. Resume in-person worship adhering to Recommendations for In-Person Worship such as limiting the number of people allowed to gather in your space while maintaining six foot physical distancing, refraining from singing, passing the peace, and physical contact.
We are feeling fatigue and restlessness after a year of pandemic life. Now is not the time to let down our guard. The more we can remain vigilant in protecting ourselves and others for a little while longer, the more lives we can save, the more we can slow the virus down. Dr Anthony Fauci explains that viruses cannot mutate if they don’t replicate and vaccinating widely is the path to reducing the number of mutations. Until the risk is low in your community, it is advisable to continue virtual worship.