By Stewart Smith, General Presbyter
In light of Governor Asa Hutchinson’s announcement yesterday (May 4) related to guidelines for places of worship safely resuming physical gatherings, most of our congregations are faced with a very difficult decision on when and how to resume “in person” worship services. Whenever I am faced with a difficult decision and unsure how to proceed, I find myself frequently saying, “I would rather err on the side of grace than law.” In most situations as a pastor, that thought process has served me well.
At this extraordinary time of pandemic, I find myself thinking, “I would rather err on the side of safety and the health of the people I serve, and the health of those in my community, than on resuming in person gatherings as quickly as possible.”
The presbytery staff has received phone calls from pastors seeking guidance on when and how to resume “in person” worship services. We discussed this topic at our weekly staff meeting this afternoon, and understanding that we do not speak for the presbytery but rather to the presbytery, we believe that the first line of Governor Hutchinson’s guidance should be the practice for the near future. He said that, “…the use of online platforms is strongly encouraged.” In addition to the difficulty of adhering to all the guidelines put forth (see below), it is unknown at this time what the level of recurrence of the Covid-19 virus will be when various entities begin to re-open and resume physical gatherings. In the meantime, the staff would like to encourage sessions to begin conversations on what markers you would need to see in order to feel comfortable resuming “in person” worship services in your unique setting. I would imagine those markers will vary from congregation to congregation.
To help your thought process, Presbytery Builder Carol Clark has written this linked document with suggestions for your session and congregation to consider.
I continue to be extremely proud of the pastors, CREs and sessions of our congregations. You have adapted very well to this most extraordinary circumstance and found ways to connect with members and provide worship services in a safe manner that continues to lift up and proclaim the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That message is so very needed at this time of crisis and our expanded online presence is reaching more people than our prior “in person” worship services have reached. The staff’s prayers are with you as you wrestle with this incredibly difficult decision and as you seek to be faithful in this time and place.
Gov. Asa Hutchison issued guidance on Monday for houses of worship to resume services in light of the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Use of online platforms is strongly encouraged.
- Exterior signs should advise that one should not enter if they have had a recent fever, symptoms or contact with a positive patient.
- Six-foot physical distances except for family groups.
- Face coverings should be worn at all times by anyone over the age of 10.
- Worship leaders addressing congregation, and performing singers, may take off face masks.
- 12-foot physical distance required between worship leaders and parishioners at all time.
- Move meet and greet times outside if possible.
- Refreshments should be offered outdoors only.
- Lines for entry-exit monitored for use of six-foot distancing.
- No physical contact.
- Eliminate use of items touched by multiple people, such as collection plates and shared books.
- Refrain from having people come forward to common altar rail for holy communion, etc.
- No classes for youth or children.
- Sanitize common areas.
- Hand sanitizers available at entrances.