May 27, 2020
My friends, it is my prayer that this letter finds you all well and healthy. We are certainly journeying thru challenging times and I am sure that you are all aware of the situation, understanding that this journey is far from over. Nobody at this point can really be sure how the corona virus will respond to the reopening phase of our country. We are surely not in charge of any of that and we have absolutely no control over what people will do or will not do.
However, I want you to be sure that the leadership of the United Methodist church, our conference, our Bishop, our District Sup. As well as all your leadership here at Fowler UMC are taking the idea of reopening our church and returning to in person worship very seriously. We have formed a team last week that is charged with the when’s and how’s of doing just that. Of course, we are not making this stuff up, and any plans and decisions we want to make, must be guided and affirmed by Rev. Gregg Sealy, our Inland District Superintendent.
I feel that you hear from me enough, and so I am offering this space to our Bishop. I would love for you to read what her thoughts are at this moment and share with you some of the guidelines she has put in place, as well as the 4 + phases we will be journeying thru together over the next few month. Please continue to worship with us, continue to connect with each other, continue to have hope, because we are not alone, and if we are willing to let God use even this stressful and scary time, God will use it for something amazing…that is my prayer.
Reimagining LIFE TOGETHER -
Requirements and recommendations for local churches and ministry settings to reopen buildings and return to ministry activities during the COVID-19 crisis. Released on May 20, 2020
Our Theological Task Realities of intense human suffering, threats to the survival of life, and challenges to human dignity confront us afresh with fundamental theological issues: the nature and purposes of God, the relations of human beings to one another, the nature of human freedom and responsibility, and the care and proper use of all creation. “Our Theological Task,” The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016, ¶ 105.4 To be Christian is to see the world and understand our place in it. Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God and his teachings about prayer, giving, and living all focus on our place in a world that is turned on its head. The simple phrase, “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27 CEB) is a reimagined way to be in the world as the beloved of God. As we contemplate coming out of this time of “stay at home” and isolation we are entering a world none of us could have imagined. We must take this opportunity to rethink what it means to be the followers of Christ, to be those on the Way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community” (from Life Together). As we reenter life together, we must allow for our dream or memory of community to fade to make room for love to emerge in new and different ways. The task we have is to reimagine church and all we are and do so that we can be what God dreams us to be. After all, church isn’t a building; it isn’t doors or a steeple. Church is the people in ministry and service. If we can’t do this ministry in the ways we have in the past, we will find new ways to do it. We will find a way. Our imaginations can show us what is possible. God doesn’t need our worship; God wants our worshipful lives. God doesn’t need our memories of community; God wants us to reimagine how we love and thereby create community. Our challenge is to love in new and innovative ways as we reimagine what church is, what community is, in this new reality.
Doing No Harm as We Return We are living through an unsettling time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disturbed many of the things we take for granted. It has caused much pain, hardship, and loss, exposing deep inequities woven into our societal fabric. Gathering as a community in person to worship God, growing deeper in discipleship, and serving our communities in many of the ways we were accustomed may seem minor, but it is profoundly important. We have all sacrificed something for our common wellbeing, and we have worked hard to reimagine both worship and service, ensuring that the critical work of the church continues. People are eager to return to our buildings and to the patterns of worship, discipleship, and service so familiar to us. This is natural but we need to walk carefully through the weeks and months ahead. Without a cure for COVID-19, and absent the widespread testing and contact tracing public health officials have repeatedly advised, we all share a new responsibility to do no harm. We should also think twice before letting go of all that we are learning in these days spent in the wilderness. What new practices and adaptations have we stretched to make? What might God want us to carry forward into this new phase in our lives together? This document is meant to provoke questions and provide guidance for local churches and other ministries as we reimagine returning to our facilities and ministry practices. This process will not be akin to flipping on a light switch — it will happen in phases. We won’t always move as soon as we are permitted, all activities won’t resume at once, and no one should expect things to be exactly how they were. Regardless of where we live, the practices of our local churches will be impacted for at least the next year. Our actions, and those of communities that surround us, can make a big difference in how harmful that impact will be. Creativity and resilience will continue to be blessed resources as we strive to do no harm, do good, and to stay in love with God. May God give us all the spirit of discernment, the wisdom to act with appropriate caution, and the patience to await the good God would have us do. Moving through the requirements for returning States across the United States have adopted phased guidelines for reopening their economies and lifting restrictions designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Each of the four states within the Greater Northwest Area are already taking some steps toward easing restrictions, though not at the same pace. The coronavirus has not impacted all communities evenly, and some of this unevenness is outside of science-based guidelines as governors navigate economic, political, and ideological pressures. Reopening and resuming in-person worship for local churches and ministries of the Greater Northwest Area will occur in a four-phase process. Three conditions must be met before advancing from one phase to the next of reopening:
1. Bishop Stanovsky ends or relaxes suspension of in-person worship and building closures, allowing movement to the next phase.
2. State and local public health guidance permits intended activities in the next phase.
3. A local church or organization reopening plan has been approved and implemented by the responsible District Superintendent or Director of Connectional Ministries working under the authority of the Bishop.
Currently, Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky has extended her “suspension of in-person worship in United Methodist Churches and other ministries and the closure of church facilities to all but essential services throughout the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho, and Pacific Northwest Conferences through June 15, 2020.”
Based upon the best information available, this suspension may be extended further, as necessary to do no harm. While this suspension is in effect, local churches and other ministry settings should prepare for the next phase of reopening. Requirement Two The governor of each state is responsible for the decision to reopen their state, easing mitigation efforts and physical distancing requirements as they go. With the governor’s consent, some counties or regions may do so more quickly than others, though only with the governor’s consent. United Methodist local churches and other ministries must always meet state sanitation and physical distancing requirements of their community, at a minimum. If there is dispute between local requirements and those required by state officials, the church should err on the side of the more restrictive of the two. If there is significant disagreement between public health officials and political leaders, again, err on the more restrictive side. Requirement Three No United Methodist local church or ministry across the Greater Northwest Area may reopen without approval of its plan by their assigned District Superintendent or Director of Connectional Ministries working under the authority of the Bishop. Each church and ministry setting needs to prepare a plan for a phased reopening that details how you will address the required ministry and safety-related items identified in this document while also wrestling with other faith-related questions raised by this pandemic. Begin now to plan for reopening and to receive feedback and pre-approval for your plan from your District Superintendent or Director of Connectional Ministries and procure the materials needed for safe reopening of facilities and return to in-person gatherings.
The Phases of Safe Reopening The Greater Northwest Area will be prudent and measured in reopening our churches and ministry sites and returning to in-person worship and gatherings. Four Phases will mark a safe reopening of local church and other ministry facilities throughout the Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington states. What happens in one location impacts the health of surrounding areas, just as one person’s personal distancing and hygiene practices impacts the people around them. While some states may allow faith communities to gather sooner and in larger groups than is permitted for other organizations, following our commitment to do no harm, United Methodist ministries will not open using this exemption. If infection rates increase in your area, or if you have a high proportion of people in high-risk categories, churches and ministries may need to remain in or move back to a previous phase. While the Greater Northwest Area will continue to closely monitor the statements of public health officials, we may not move into stages as quickly as permitted. We understand that this may create some tension in local communities eager to return to their buildings.
Please know that we are not making these decisions lightly and we review our posture regularly, guided by John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules: Do No Harm. Do Good. Stay in Love With God.
Phase 1 began on March 13, 2020 when Bishop Stanovsky suspended in-person worship and other gatherings for local churches and ministry settings. This suspension is in effect through June 15, 2020 and may be extended. A group of 5 or less is permitted to gather in the building to record or produce online worship resources, while practicing physical distancing, wearing face masks, and observing other hygiene practices. Each person may remove their face mask while they are speaking during active recording. Consistent with emerging research (https://www.wichurches.org/2020/05/08/church-music-covid19), the production of in-person vocal music is prohibited in facilities. High-touch surfaces must be sanitized after each use. Facilities are closed except for “essential services”. Ministries are strongly encouraged to continue or expand creative ways of meeting, serving, and worshipping together, striving to include vulnerable persons making healthy choices to participate in virtual ways.
In Phase 2 in-person worship suspension continues. It allows a group of 10 or fewer to gather in the building to record or produce online worship resources, while practicing physical distancing, wearing face masks, and observing other hygiene practices. Each person may remove their face mask while they are speaking during active recording. The production of in-person vocal music remains prohibited in facilities. High-touch surfaces must be sanitized after each use. Access to Church buildings is limited to designated staff, volunteers, meetings, and services. Ministries are strongly encouraged to continue to meet, serve, and worship together, remotely, striving to include vulnerable persons making healthy choices to participate in virtual ways. Phase
3 allows for in-person worship, weddings, and funerals for up to 50 people while wearing face masks and utilizing proper sanitizing and physical distancing. No communion, live singing or food service is allowed, and high-risk populations must continue to worship from home. Outside of worship, access to Church buildings is limited to designated staff, volunteers, meetings, and services. Fellowship and education activities for adults, children and youth must remain virtual and in-person vacation bible school and mission trips remain cancelled.
Phase 4 returns to more “regular” worship and other gatherings with no size limit. High risk populations are invited to join at their discretion, but churches are strongly encouraged to continue reimagined ways of sharing space, providing meaningful opportunities to participate in the life of the church virtually. With increased hygiene practices communion may be shared and limited “coffee hour” or “fellowship time” may resume. Live singing is still not permitted. Access to church buildings is open, while maintaining appropriate safety practices.
Beyond Phase 4
This is a “new normal” that is yet to be determined. This will include monitoring health indicators and guidance from government and health professionals. It will be important to establish new routines that are more protective of public health, and to take forward with us new practices that will make us more resilient if a similar challenge were to (re)emerge. Additional guidance will be provided in the future.