Yesterday, March 16, to support the nation-wide effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, I announced that our diocese will cease — for the immediate future — to offer public worship or gatherings of the faithful at our church buildings. Collectively, you responded with many excellent and worthy questions and requests for clarification on several points. A common thread runs through many of these inquiries and pertains to the use of our buildings as community and outreach centers.
I recognize that our church buildings are used for many things other than worship and many of our ministries are vital to our communities. Therefore, here are some additional clarifications to the Pastoral Directive promulgated yesterday.
Update March 18, 2020. Directions on weddings and funerals added.
- Day Schools and childcare ministries may remain in operation, as they are so crucially needed by families and neighborhoods, and those who work in daycare would be severely harmed by the loss of income as most are hourly workers making minimal wages. Happily, the latest analysis by experts shows that the risk to children from COVID-19 is minimal.
- 12-Step programs can continue to meet in your buildings but must follow the CDC’s guidelines capping attendance at 10 people who will diligently observe safe physical distancing.
- Food and hunger ministries can continue but should be served as take-out or to-go meals, not sit-down dinners. Assiduously follow food preparation safety guidelines, as always. Please, limit the number of people who enter your buildings at one time. Consider ways, when possible, to make the distributions outside. Do what you can to discourage people from queuing up closely while waiting to be served. Packing of backpacks (aka “Backsnacks”) can continue with the proviso that social distancing (6 feet) be practiced among the packers. Sorry, all you huggers out there!
- If you choose to do so, your church building can remain open during regular business hours for people to visit for prayer or reflection. Limit the number present at any one time. Again, social distancing (6 feet) should be practiced. Your administrative offices may function normally, though you might want to allow/encourage your employees (if possible) to work from home.
- Weddings. Weddings are optional and not (in the larger scheme of things) date sensitive. The postponement will be a disappointment to many brides, grooms, and families (though I can’t imagine they’ll be surprised). Still, we must postpone all weddings that would gather more than 10 people in our churches or in other venues. This is the only course that abides by the suggestions/requests of the various governments and governmental agencies that have informed us of the best societal and institutional responses to COVID-19. I must ask officiants to use their best judgment about outdoor weddings, but I discourage them because they will assemble people and tempt them to unsafe behaviors like dancing and hugging.
- Funerals. Funerals are not optional and cannot be delayed. Until further notice, only graveside services attended by a small number of folks will be permitted. This is the wisest course and is the middle way between safe health practices and the true necessity of ministry to the bereaved. Again, it is the only course that abides and accords with the best response to COVID-19.
- Springtime is often outdoor clean-up time at churches, so you may continue with such plans. Working outdoors almost guarantees proper social distancing and the fresh air is also vivifying. Just don’t end your workday with a group hug, but do end your workday with thorough handwashing!
- Be especially mindful of pastoral care in your congregations during this time. Be sure to check regularly on your most at-risk members, including those over 60-years old and those with chronic health conditions (like diabetes, heart disease, respiratory problems, etc.). Consider using phone trees or other ways to check in regularly and respond to their needs. This is a great time to enlist the laity into your pastoral care ministries.
- Don’t forget the often forgotten: consider sending cards to local nursing homes to let their residents know they aren’t forgotten. oConsider creating a group text list or use social media to check in on youth group members.
- Clergy should stay in touch and support each other during this difficult time. I will be very glad to meet with clergy in person (staying 6’ apart!), by phone, or by video call. I am also willing to meet with deanery clericuses if/when they gather by video chat. I want you all to know how much I care for you who are on the frontlines of parish ministry, the stress of which I know well and have not forgotten. I want you—who give so much care so lavishly—to feel cared for, too.
The Bishop’s Staff will be working from the office most days but occasionally from home until at least mid-April. We will still be answering phones and emails. Feel free to contact us. If additional questions arise, send them to me. If they apply to enough of us, I’ll add more addendums to the Pastoral Direction.
Health and peace to all.
Updated: March 18, 2020. Directions on weddings and funerals added.