Updated May 12, 2021 with link to guidance on singing.
As more Unitarian Universalists receive COVID-19 vaccinations, and because of our strong desire to connect once again in the sacred spaces of our congregational buildings, many congregational leaders are asking the UUA for guidance in decision-making about when and how to return to in-person programs and services.
This is a decision that each congregation will need to make based on its own unique circumstances. However, we urge congregations to move slowly, with caution and our deepest values at the center. We encourage you to move with care and humility, and a willingness to reverse course if things aren’t working, or if the virus resurges.
Last spring, as our congregations ceased in-person worship, our UUA leadership articulated the following principles for thinking about when and how to resume in-person programs and operations. They are grounded in Unitarian Universalism’s deep values, as our president Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray articulates in her video on COVID-19, Our Values, and Plans for Regathering, and they are core to who we are as a faith tradition:
- Our abiding care and concern for the most vulnerable, inside and outside our congregation.
Accessibility and inclusion for all of our members and friends to participate in our congregation, regardless of health status, health vulnerability, or ability.
Recognition that we are part of an interdependent web and, as such, our risk-taking and our protective actions affect far more than just ourselves. Our congregational decisions can impact other congregations and the wider community.
Ethical treatment and expectations for our leaders and staff, minimizing the risks to their own health and well-being.
Our affirmation that good science, coupled with our UU values, must be the basis upon which we make decisions about in-person gathering.
Commitment to our mission, community, and theology more than ever, mindful of the spiritual demands of this transition.
Our deep hope that we as a country, and as a world, will not return to “normal” when the pandemic is over. We seek to live into “a new normal” of more justice, more love, more equity, more sustainability, and more peace.
In this difficult and extraordinary time, we invite you to engage with us in ongoing creativity as we all minister to one another and the world.
- Moving into the coming year, the UUA recommends that congregations plan for multi-platform operations (also known as hybrid): a flexible combination of in-person and online engagement based on the needs and risks of your community.
- We recommend that your board develop a policy that will guide you in gradually resuming in-person operations, and, should the virus resurge, suspending in-person operations. Examples and resources for such policies are shared below under “Example Policies from Our Congregations.”
- Our recommendations for congregations are indeed more stringent than schools and businesses that surround you, for the following reasons:
- As a community that values inclusion and collective care, we don’t want to create in-person situations that inadvertently exclude those at higher risk, or create situations that force those at higher risk to publicly identify themselves. Our decision-making must center the needs of the most vulnerable.
- The membership of most UU congregations is an older, more vulnerable population than the general public.
- Most children are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. (See UUA staff Rev. Evin Carvill-Ziemer’s post on the risks of an in-person children’s program.)
- We do not want congregational staff and ministers to be put at risk on the job.
- A fully-open normally-operating congregation can present too many opportunities to spread a highly contagious respiratory virus like COVID-19.
- In case of emergency: In alignment with our UU values, the UUA supports opening congregational buildings to protect lives in emergency situations that call us to protect life, such as natural disasters and violence in the streets. In such situations we urge congregations to take utmost care to minimize the possibility of the spread of COVID-19. Consult local health departments and our sources for accurate information for guidance on minimizing the spread of the virus in such situations.
Key Principles in Planning
In her April 15, 2021 letter to UU congregations, our president Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray articulated these principles:
- As a faith community, we root our decisions in the values of inclusion and consent. It’s important that everyone who gathers in-person has the ability to consent to do so, so that no one is forced to choose between their congregation and the safety of themselves or their loved ones. This includes congregational staff and volunteers. When making decisions, the people responsible for congregational programs need to have a central role and those impacted by decisions must have input. As religious leaders, our role is to help facilitate conversation and decision-making in an atmosphere of mutual respect, acknowledging that members and staff have a variety of needs and perspectives.
- Follow the science. Congregations should follow the latest CDC guidelines and local public health regulations to determine the best ways to move forward as the pandemic recedes. Our public health advisors have all stressed the dangers of this time and the need to remain vigilant. Vaccine distribution remains uneven and inequitable (nationally and globally), new and more contagious variants are spreading, and children are not yet eligible for vaccination. Many unanswered questions remain, such as how effective the vaccines are in response to emerging variants, whether vaccinated people can spread the virus, and how long vaccine protection lasts. I can’t stress strongly enough the need to proceed with caution in our planning.
- Go slow and be flexible. Now is the time to plan and consult with the people responsible and engaged in your programs. Take time to create a shared understanding of the risks. Given the ongoing risks, worship and other large gatherings should not be the first thing we return to in-person. Our public health officials have also said that as we begin to have some in-person offerings, we have to be prepared to shift back to all virtual if conditions change. Create this expectation, flexibility, and resiliency from the beginning.
- Finally, be humane and realistic with expectations of ourselves and others. Remember, the goal is not perfection. The most important values in this time are care and compassion. We’ve experienced a year of traumatic disruption and loss. Be realistic as leaders and convey realistic expectations to your congregations. There are well-founded concerns that multi-platform ministry will require additional work without additional staff and volunteer capacity. It’s important to have honest conversations about our capabilities and expectations. And keep in mind that significant changes might be overwhelming even if dearly wanted.
How Can We Decide When to Resume In-Person Gathering?
Examples from Our Congregations
The UU Congregation in Reston, VA has created an excellent policy on when to consider regathering in person. They have chosen five key measurable criteria for their metro area (metrics) that they will use to determine when and how to resume in-person worship:
- Daily New Cases: at or below 1 per 100,000 people per day in the area
- Infection Rate: new infections in the area less than .88 per already-infected person
- Test Positivity: testing in the area is widespread and 3% (or less) of the tests are positive
- Tracers Hired: 90-100% of the number of tracers needed according to public health professionals are working in the area
- ICU Headroom: area hospitals have less than 50% of available ICU beds in use by COVID patients
Your congregation’s leaders and/or its COVID-19 Task Force will need to decide which counties and cities’ data to take into account. Perhaps your members, staff, and visitors are from a single metropolitan area. Perhaps they come to you from three counties. The Reston congregation is looking at data for their own county and seven neighboring cities and counties.
The UU Society in Coralville, IA has posted an informational slideshow (PDF) and this Phased Reopening Plan (PDF), outlining guidelines for worship, small groups, religious education, and more at each phase.
Our UU congregation in Duluth, MN has developed a six-tier COVID-19 safety plan (PDF) based on local health indicators. Their work provides a second example of how a congregation might enact its own guidelines.
Dr. Kim Kilby and Dr. David Pratt, members of UU Society of Schenectady, NY, are active in public health leadership and COVID-19 response efforts in their professional roles as well as in the congregation. They contributed this piece, Unitarian Universalists Gathering in the Time of COVID (PDF, 2 pages), to their congregation's newsletter in January 2021.
The staff and board of The Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford, IL have created this draft policy for welcoming in-person participation and are seeking feedback from congregation members. It includes an FAQ and is explicit about how they will handle children's programming.
Additional Decision-Making and Policy Resources
- Our Guidance for Outdoor Gatherings During COVID-19 offers considerations for safety and inclusion of people with all abilities when meeting outdoors.
- Our Guidance for In-Person Singing as COVID-19 Subsides gives ideas and strategies for slowly incorporating safer practices of in-person singing into congregational life.
- We offer this series of values-based and practical questions for congregational leaders to consider matters of authority, staff capacity, liability, and more as you plan for resuming in-person activities and worship.
- Consult our Sources for Accurate Data page for reliable information on the COVID-19 virus and pandemic.
As the pandemic continues to play out, we as Unitarian Universalists and we as UU congregations will continue to face uncertainty. The best we can do at any given time is to lean in to our values as well as draw on the gifts and wisdom of our own people. Know that, whatever comes, we as your UUA staff are your partners. We will be here to help you think through tough situations and find a way forward. We will help connect you with others so we can all learn together. We will be there working alongside you for health, love, spiritual connection, and justice in your communities and beyond. Find your congregation's regional staff for direct support.