Hello good people!
Beloved lay people in congregations who are desperate to be back together again, I feel you. I miss people so much! The CDC threw us a curveball this week. It has led to some misunderstanding and pressure to pivot suddenly and immediately. And we are not ready yet. We still need to be careful and thoughtful about how the entire system can readjust toward opening.
Why can’t we pivot back as quickly as we did when we closed our buildings and went virtual?
At least three reasons: uncertainty about whether we are all safe, the toll on our staff, the risks to the vulnerable in our congregations.
While our buildings were closed, those who are noncompliant about masking and vaccinations didn’t threaten others in our congregation.
Now that the CDC has suddenly said vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks indoors, that has changed.
We can talk until the cows come home about the complexity of that statement about masking indoors and the impossibility of enforcing it. It strains credulity to say that vaccinated people would go without masks because it’s safe for them, but all the Covid deniers and Covid shruggers-off unvaccinated people would suddenly do a 180° and begin to comply with mask wearing? Alas, human behavior tells us that’s not the case. Vaccine resistors would likely simply not wear a mask as well.
Covid precautions are structural safety nets–similar to the safety guidelines we’ve put in place for safe(r) congregations for children and youth. We created congregational safety standards ensuring that there would always be two adults with eyes on children in any setting, because we don’t make decisions about what adult is safe, we make a decision about what structures and circumstances enable us to say with some sureness this is a safe situation.
We no longer rely on our belief that an individual adult is a safe person; we rely on the systems that help us be able to say how we know children are safe.
The end of a pandemic and a run-up toward reopening is the same. We can’t make decisions based on believing that individual people are safe/vaccinated. We have to be sure that our systems and processes let us identify how we know our vulnerable members and our children are safe.
Inclusion Is Not a Goal, It's a Door
The people who staff and lead our religious institutions, schools, and other places we congregate – imams, ministers, priests, rabbis, educators, program directors, and other staff – have worked overtime and suffered mightily to keep everyone safe and healthy for 15 months. They learned new technology. They learned new skills. They did their job while completely isolated and alone, while their children did school across the kitchen table from them, or while taking care of ill or elderly family members. Some of them lost family members, friends, and congregants to Covid. And by some, I mean many.
We closed our church buildings and took everything virtual, re-creating and inventing out of whole cloth as we went to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Now the most vulnerable are children and those who can’t get vaccinated.
This pandemic has been awful emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. It has been a collective trauma. This is really and actually true, including for me. I sat in one chair in front of a computer monitor with a camera perched on a homemade cardboard stand for 415 days. It has been awful. Less awful than dying of Covid, though. Less awful than having a vulnerable adult or young member of our congregation become a long Covid cardiac patient who requires oxygen just to go for a walk.
Not to put too fine a point on it.
The CDC Throws A Curveball
So with the CDC curveball, many people in congregations who have been understandably lonely and isolated and craving in person spiritual connection are suddenly demanding that their churches reopen.
“It’s safe for the vaccinated people. We should be able to gather for our committee meeting.”
“We should be able to have the kids in the nursery and enjoy worship.”
“I’m not going to pay my pledge to the church until it opens.”
“I want to schedule an event. These are the set-up needs we need from the sexton. This is the staffing we will need for this event.”
“All vaccinated people are now safe to come to church and have a regular service. We saw it on that poster the CDC put out. We expect church in person next week.”
But again, we closed to protect the most vulnerable, and the most vulnerable now are adults who can’t get vaccinated, adults who always had difficulty accessing our in-person worship in our buildings, and our youngest children. In speaking of the vulnerability of children, we are talking about every young family who is part of our congregation now, as well as families that may be drawn to our saving message of Beloved Community. We are speaking of the new infant in our minister’s home, the toddler twins our religious educator has underfoot, the music director’s kids with their immune-compromised challenges.
“Open the church right now” means your staff, who pivoted on a dime to change and meet the needs of the congregation as best as possible during a pandemic, who worked far too many hours doing that, should now return to the building to open and staff it.
Some of the things I’m hearing sound much too much like “I got mine, tough for you.”
And … it’s not safe for children yet. We don’t know the impact of Covid on children’s growth and development. We still don’t know what long Covid will be like in children, but we do know that children get long Covid.
Them: We can have services and the children can just stay outside with masks.
Me: And if it rains? Or if it’s 100 degrees outside? If the air is full of wildfire smoke?
Them: Those families can just stay home that day.
Me: And the children of the minister, religious educator, music director, pianist, nursery staff, sexton? Who will keep them home and what message does that teach them about their religion?
Community Requires Inclusion
The Wisconsin Council of Churches suggests that congregations choose two out of three: masks, social distance, outdoors. They got that guidance out quickly without a lot of detail, but it’s an interesting framework.
The CDC put out a statement that has no real guidance. States have varying responses from No Mask Free For All to my state’s We Will Continue Masking mandate. The pandemic is not over yet. There’s an economic push to get people back into the world, doing things and spending money. I get that. The safest time to do that push is this summer when people will be outdoors a lot. Now, before any more double variants develop and we find out if vaccines will continue to be useful.
The CDC announcement has led people to begin to demand that churches open fully, no masks for vaccinated people. But churches are not businesses. They are places of community, care, connection and covenanted relationships.
At the same time, church members, you are an employer. You have a responsibility to your staff and their families not to intentionally put them at risk. Congregation members, you have an ethical obligation to care for the most vulnerable. To center their needs. To prioritize the medically vulnerable and the children.
Even if the intention of fully reopening suddenly and before it is safe for all is not to be exclusive, the impact of that decision leaves families and vulnerable adults outside the congregation.
Reopening Will Be Complicated
Your professional leadership (and many of your lay leadership) spent hundreds of extra hours doing a sudden pivot to online. Lay people may not understand that it takes several weeks to prepare for a regular year opening in the fall. Religious education programs require curriculum, materials, a plan for each class, volunteers.… (Ohhhh, right now the entire volunteer pool is adults desperate to get back together with adults.)
Cleaning, organizing, communication with all those parents and volunteers… (Ohhhhhh, pandemic executive function challenges remain, and many an email has gone unread or unremembered. Seems that will impact a sudden shift to reopen in a safe, organized manner.)
Documentation, registration information with life-threatening allergies, etc., organized and coordinated and communicated, safety standards updated for Covid and explained … and understood. It is not possible to go from an online program to a live program in just a couple of weeks.
Don’t demand a sudden pivot. Your congregation almost certainly has a reopening task force that is guided by both the science that the CDC leans upon, the public health and state guidance, and the knowledge of human behavior, with meaningful input from the leadership responsible for implementing whatever comes next.
We are getting so close to being able to open safely we can taste it. But we have to be careful not to spit out other people in the process.
Be excited about creative possibilities as we move forward carefully. We need to move with thought and intention toward what is safer rather than embracing something as “immediately safe for most of us.” We need to ensure that staff are compensated for the overtime they put in this last year+, and that they get their vacations this summer as well as any other time off they did not get last year (because that was necessary to successfully pull off online programming). All this means that we need to be careful and thoughtful about how the entire congregational system can readjust toward opening.
If you have ever thrown a dinner party event, you know that people don’t just show up and things have magically fallen into place. It is a complex process. Much of the labor that goes into the event goes rightly unnoticed by the guests, who simply eat the food, enjoy one another’s company and the music and the surroundings. Our religious lives together are more complex than the guests might know. Trust your professional leadership about how long it will take to reasonably and safely reopen. Trust them to lead.
Don’t ask them to do even more heavy lifting, overtime, and risk their children or other vulnerable family members. Don’t tell young families and all of the vulnerable people who were finally able to participate in the life of your congregation online that they’re out. Don’t demand a sudden pivot. Continue on the path of carefully and thoughtfully preparing in a timely way. Don’t blame not fully reopening on the children, claim it as a moment when your Beloved Community lives into the commitment to center the vulnerable and marginalized.
What We Can Do Now
Meantime, those people you miss? You can invite all of your vaccinated church friends over to your house for a dinner party. You could meet them in the park for a collaborative time of meditation and reflection. Your social justice committee meeting on Zoom could plan a downtown or bike path clean up, or reach out to the local racial justice group and offer to provide water and snacks for the next rally. “Tell us where and when and we’ll appear. We’re vaccinated, committed members of your group or allies, and ready to show up this summer wherever and whenever we are needed.” Then fill one of the unused classrooms with bottles of water, snacks, and basic first aid supplies so they can be gotten in a flash and distributed an hour later.
More, call a family you have been close to in the congregation and ask if you might visit and help with the kids, or in the garden, or in any way they ask. Offer to be of service to a family that is not yet as free as you are to move in the world. Check in with the ministry team about who among you could use a visit or a safe, caring ride to the doctor. Double down on connection through service. Establish or reestablish relationships of care with those who cannot safely regather.
Your need for social and spiritual connection at this time does not have to require that everyone return to the church building right now in full. That might feel easiest and best, but it’s not.
We don’t have to suddenly pivot. We can bend and reopen in a way that will embrace all with inclusion, equity, and justice. We co-create Beloved Community so that All of Us Means All of Us in a meaningful, liberatory way. So we all get free together.
Amen. Blessed be. May it be so because we make it so.