So, when I was growing up, my family would take road trips. My folks loved to explore new places – a passion they passed on to their children. And so, several times a year we would load up the Custom Cruiser Station Wagon and head out. Think Family Vacation starring Chevy Chase and you get the picture.
One of the places we would drive to was California. My mother grew up there. Her family lived there and so we would go and visit. California is a LONG way away. By the end of the second day I would be done. And I would start to pepper my father with the time old adage – ARE WE THERE YET? Ever heard that as a parent?
Right now, heading into week 753 of this Pandemic I am definitely wondering – ARE WE THERE YET? Are we about done with this thing? Are we ever going to get back to some semblance of normal? Isn’t it time to return to the office, to school, to the church? I know that you feel that way too. I know this because you tell me. And I know this because one of the questions I am being been asked with increased frequency is this: When are we going to resume worshipping in person at church?
Now, that’s a good thing. It means that folks want to return to church. And it means there is something to return too. I don’t take that for granted in this day when businesses, preschools and churches are closing their doors for good. I am glad that folks want to know when we are returning in person.
Here is my answer: I don’t know when. It reminds me of when my kids were younger. And they would ask – are we there yet? My answer would always be – in five minutes. No matter when then asked are we there yet, I would say – in five minutes. Even if we were an hour away. Or two days away. In five minutes. Which wasn’t terribly helpful. But the truth was sometimes I just didn’t know.
Here is what I do know. First, the decision about when to return in person to worship will be made by the Leadership Council of our church. Because there are many implications about returning it is appropriate that the time-table is not set by one person or the pastors but by the governing body of lay leaders in our church. Ultimately, they will be responsible for the consequences of resuming or not resuming in person.
When the Leadership Council met last month, the second wave of the pandemic was surging. The news was filled with reports each day of record number of covid cases in Florida. Several of our Council members work in the health profession. They were seeing the hospitals filling up. They also were advised of the CDC’s report of attending church as a risk factor of 8 out of 10. There was a lot of media conversation about opening up too soon. They also kept in mind that our United Methodist Denomination was highly recommending that we not open back up in person for worship. Consequently, they decided that we would not resume worship in person any time soon.
The Council did start a conversation about opening the campus for small groups and approved the opening of the preschools. But in terms of worship, they actually put on hold the work we were doing to invite small groups of folks to return to worship. Ultimately, they did this to protect the health of our church members. Certainly, there will be costs for not meeting in person in terms of mental and emotional health. And costs to the vitality of the church. But the health of our family members and staff was foremost in their minds.
There were other factors. Such as the cost of extra cleaning and maintaining safe distancing. One big factor was the loss that is created when exposure happens. Several times over the past few months we have had a person in one of our ministries contract COVID or be directly exposed to someone who did. We then needed to do contact tracing for everyone they encountered in that ministry setting. When it involved minors, we had to contact parents. Then those in the ministry who came in contact with that person had to self-isolate. This included entire families for multiple weeks. And multiple tests had to be done to clear that person to return to the ministry. What I am trying to get at is that just one exposure to someone with the virus could adversely affect an entire ministry for weeks. One question to consider is what would happen if we resumed worship in person and someone contracted the virus?
Another factor is the readiness of our family members to return in person. While everyone wants to return, from what I am hearing, most do not feel comfortable yet. I heard the other day that 70% of folks do not yet feel comfortable eating out at a restaurant. An activity that is considered safer than worshiping in person. And the majority of parents do not yet feel comfortable sending their children to school in person. In fact, many are waiting to see how the opening of schools will go over the next few weeks. Waiting to see if there will be a resurgence of the virus over the next month or so seems like a prudent marker to me.
The good news in all of this is that we are growing in our creativity as a church. I love that our Dance Studio 150 recently connected with students through placing signs in their yards telling them that their church family loves them. And I love that our family ministry is beginning zoom Sunday School for our children. And I love that our music ministry is working to send uplifting musical messages of encouragement to our shut-ins. We are continuing to find new ways to be the church even when are not yet in person.
So, are we there yet? Five more minutes. I wish I could tell you more concretely. I will work to keep you updated as the Leadership Council deliberates the timing. IN the meantime, please continue to look for information in our daily emails. Please share your thoughts with the members of our Leadership Council. As you know, Melissa Payne is our chair. Ben Howell is the vice-chair. They are excellent leaders and are actively seeking feedback on this. Finally, please don’t wait for an invitation. Reach out to the church through our website or phone and join a connection group. Serve in a ministry. Participate in a discussion group. There are multiple ways to be together while we wait to be together in person.