“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1).
So begins the account of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church in the book of Acts. As we approach the day of Pentecost in the year 2020, we understand that it will not be possible for the members of our congregation to be “all together in one place” for Pentecost on May 31st.
While some restrictions are being lifted locally, the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 global pandemic—as well as continued restrictions regarding large gatherings—will require that we consider our return to church in a way that is measured and mindful of the needs of our entire faith community.
To that end, the Session has charged Ruling Elders Jan Myers-Newbury, Mary Lang, and Pam Howe to work with our staff team of Jenny, Amy, Gail, and Harry, to develop our plan for gradual reopening. This group is meeting every Monday morning to consider the latest government/public health guidelines, organize the creation and collection of resources like masks and hygiene supplies, and create a step-by-step process for public worship and building usage.
The bottom line, practically speaking, is that no one knows what the immediate—or even the non-immediate—future holds. In accordance with guidance from the PC(USA), we cannot use government “phases” as our only benchmark. They are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for our reopening as we will also look to health and science experts for guidance and recommendations. The committee will be recommending to Session that we not consider gathering at all until the government moves us to the GREEN phase. This does not mean in-person worship will immediately resume at that time. PC(USA) guidance recommends that each congregation makes its own decision. For instance, implementing reopening logistics for a 30-person congregation in a large sanctuary will look different than preparing for our services that average 125 attendees. The decisions for our congregation will be based on a conservative assessment for the safety of all, and we are currently unable to promise a specific date for our return to in-person worship.
What we do know is that gathering for worship will not look the same as it did prior to COVID-19. When the time does arrive, it will most likely be considerably restricted—both in the number of worshippers and the content of worship. For example, we are now starting to learn how quickly singing spreads the virus, and we will have to reconsider what music will look like during the service. It is also likely that services will look different from church to church. When we begin to gather, we will continue with our online worship opportunity each week so that all may have the opportunity to worship in some fashion.
As we work out all the logistics, we remember the promise of faith—that God will bless and keep us, the risen Christ is with us, and the Holy Spirit connects us with believers near and far. Despite our careful planning, there will surely be awkward and confusing moments as we adjust to new protocols and practices. There will be times of frustration, disappointment, and grief. Some needs and wants might not be met. This will give us the opportunity to exercise the spiritual gifts of patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
And there will also be blessings. God will be doing a new thing among us, as God always does, and there will be wonderful surprises, great celebrations, and moments of deep satisfaction. We will have opportunities to savor the spiritual gifts of love, joy, peace, generosity, and faithfulness.
Let us be faithful, then—to God and to one another—as we receive the gifts and work
through the challenges of this time in the life of our congregation and world. Above all, let us remember that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Dr. Vincent Kolb