What will church look like as we return to the buildings?

Current Affairs / Rhode Island / Weblogs

My colleague (and friend) Jim Hazelwood, the Lutheran bishop of New England, posted a letter about the first steps in the COVID-19 recovery process. He’s been a key conversation partner with the Episcopal bishops in New England and what he shares here both represents a large part of my thinking and includes some helpful suggestions I hadn’t thought of.

He writes particularly of the immediate stages of returning to the buildings as the state governments relax restrictions on gathering:

It’s not the Same Church we had in January — James Hazelwood:

…Recognize that a phased re-opening is probably your best scenario. As an example, Rhode Island has a current limit of 5 persons gathering and anticipates a process that will increase to 10, then to 15, then to 50. How will your congregation adapt to this type of model? I think a phased re-opening might look like this:

  • Phase 1 – When your state indicates a likely date for relaxing the quarantine, ask yourselves, “What’s most in need of attention?” One way to answer this question is to consider the most vulnerable and those who are grieving. Maybe it’s best to look at some social ministry that has been curtailed, such as a food pantry, before considering worship. In addition, if your congregation has had multiple deaths, perhaps attending to grief via memorial services is an appropriate first priority. The larger point is, don’t try to do everything all at once.
  • Phase 2 – As the next level of quarantine is relaxed in your state, begin conversations about how your congregation might be able to come together in smaller configurations. Not everyone will want to nor should they want to gather publicly, but some people are eager to have some in-person contact. One congregation might consider a gathering of its shepherding groups where six or so people meet. If you have the capability, perhaps that first meeting could be outside. In other words, think of Phase 2 as an intermediary step, think small. Also, think of those not able or desirous of an in-person gathering, how will you continue to attend to them?
  • Phase 3 – If your state officials relax restrictions to larger group gatherings, ask yourself how this might be done. A favorite question of mine these days is: What’s doable? Following the Rhode Island guidance, this means groups of 50 could gather together. If you have a smaller congregation this might work. But if you are in a larger congregation, does that mean you need to have multiple worship services or staggered attendance plans? In this phase, you’ll also need to consider ways you will attend to the expectations of sanitizing your building. Additionally, are you continuing an online presence as well? How will you do this simultaneously? One church is considering plans for an in-person gathering on Sundays, but then an online gathering on Wednesdays. Are you now asking your pastor, administrator, musicians, and others to do twice as much work? Have you considered partnering with another church to share these responsibilities and more evenly distribute the workload?

There’s more at the link above. Go check it out, particularly if you’re in parish or congregational leadership (either lay or ordained).

He goes on to lay out a process that he and his regional leadership will be using to think through what comes next in congregational life – in light of the months of experience we’ve all had in virtual worship. As he notes, and as we’ve experienced in the Episcopal Church, there are some real gifts coming from virtual worship and community life. There are obvious significant challenges (the shared Eucharistic meal being foremost in all our minds).

How we keep the good that is new, and the good that is old, is going to be a question for the next age of the Church to sort through. We’re being forced by events to deal with an increasingly networked and virtualized social existence. I’m both gratified to see how well and generously we’ve all responded, and I’m worried that so far we’ve only done the easy and obvious things. I don’t know what comes next. I know that God is with us, and that the Holy Spirit will lead us and correct our mistakes, but what that process will look like in the Episcopal Church will need some intentional conversation in the coming years.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...