Among pastors in the SWMN Synod, the topic of when and how our congregations will re-open for in-person worship is met with apprehension and caution. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. One thing is clear, and that is that things will not go back to normal.
The Salem council decided in May to hold off until July, but that does not mean a re-opening date is set. The council and worship committee are in the beginning stages of thinking through a plan so that we know when we will do it and how we will do it. Unlike most years, council is meeting in June and July so that we can review and discuss where things are at.
In talking with Pr. Matt Danielson of Baxter/Saron Lutheran Churches (with whom we are partnering for online worship), we have agreed that the 10AM ONLINE service will be the 'main' service for our congregations for the foreseeable future, until the majority of our folks can gather together safely. If there is a resurgence of COVID19 cases in the fall, we will need to return to online worship only anyhow.
I don't mean to sound discouraging in all of this, but we do need to be honest about this process. There will be some grieving about what has been lost, at least for now. This grieving will better allow us to move on and accept some changes in how we do in-person worship.
Based on my understanding of state health guidelines and from discussions with other pastors, when in-person worship resumes at Salem, here will be some of the realities we need to accept:
- Nothing will have changed with the reality of COVID19. Folks who are still high-risk will need to stay home.
- While we cannot force everyone to wear masks, masks will be necessary to ensure everyone's safety. Masks are important for protecting others from your germs, and to reduce the disinfecting that needs to be done afterward. You might be comfortable not wearing a mask in public, but someone else who wears a mask to worship might stay home next time because you didn't wear one.
- Your favorite spot to sit in the pews will probably not be available. Seating will be marked, spread out in the sanctuary to allow for the six foot spacing between households. That means you might be sitting farther toward the front or the rear than you might desire. You might be comfortable being a few inches closer than six feet, but the person closest to you might not be and you will need to respect that.
- Any space in the church that is used will need to be disinfected before and after use. This means that we cannot have folks spread out into the social hall until we have maxed out the sanctuary. Unused areas of the church will need to be closed off until needed.
- The pews will not have cushions because cushions cannot easily be disinfected. You may need to bring your own cushion if you need one.
- Hymnals will not be in the pew racks because we cannot disinfect them after use.
- We will project the order of service on the TV so as to eliminate the passing of bulletins.
- We will not be able to sing or speak in unison at all during the service. This is considered a method of transmission for COVID19. This means that the worship service will be listening to scripture readings, the sermon and prayers, which also makes for a short service.
- There will be no Offering because we cannot pass the offering plates.
- Holy Communion will not be at the rail or by intinction, because we need to figure out a way to do it safely, which might involve some version of self-serve using the juice/wafer packets. The usual ways that we do communion, including lines with servers speaking "The body of Christ/The blood of Christ" over the bread and wine are considered methods of COVID19 transmission. Hearing those words and sharing it as a community are a core part of Holy Communion in the Lutheran tradition so it presents an issue we will simply need to be patient with as we figure it out.
- We will be unable to have coffee fellowship in the social hall. There might be an alternative method, but it will be more complicated for volunteers doing the serving.
- Folks will need to be excused from their pews in a way that maintains social distancing, there cannot be a long receiving line, and there cannot be standing around and visiting afterward.
- Restrooms will need to be disinfected after use.
- Those in attendance will need to sign in so that we have a record of who to notify should there have been possible exposure to COVID19. Anyone at the service where there was exposure may be asked by the county health department to quarantine.
- The service would need to be from 9-9:30AM to allow me time to set up for the online service at 10AM.
I'm letting you know this so you have some time to process it, and perhaps even grieve, because a return to normal may not happen in 2020. Realize that the familiarity you may be wishing for is not likely to be possible. Outdoor worship services are a possibility, but the only thing that really changes is the disinfecting. The distancing required even in the parking lot still creates complications for achieving a sense of gathering together.
I know that many have begun to resume life as it was before, but we are not through the woods with COVID19, and until there is a vaccine, it will return. Fortunately, we do have options, and give thanks to God for what IS possible. Please be supportive of our council and worship committee folks in words and prayer as they think through these new realities.
As I said before, Pr. Matt Danielson and I intend to continue the 10am online services together as long as we need to so that there is an established service to fall back on until the majority of folks can attend worship together at their own churches.