Amending Guidelines for Phased Reopening of Churches
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Diocesan staff and I have been working for the past two weeks on guidelines with next steps for more extensive reopening of our churches. Then, the much-predicted post-Memorial Day surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases, along with increased hospitalizations, hit Texas. And it continues to hit numerous communities and counties within the Diocese of West Texas.
Even knowing that there are a number of towns in the Diocese blessed with low case counts, it would not be wise to ignore the present situation and move towards a substantial reopening of our churches and their ministries at this time, especially since many congregations are just beginning to ease back into in-person worship.
So, for the time being, the current Phase 2 guidelines governing public worship and the reopening of church offices remain in place at this time, with the following two limited amendments:
- Beginning July 1, Vestries and Bishop’s Committees may resume in-person meetings, following all protocols for gatherings outlined in the Guidelines for Reopening. Whenever possible, provision is to be made for members to participate remotely.
- Beginning July 1, AA and other 12-step groups; other support groups; and ministries related to social services such as mental health and feeding the hungry, may return to church facilities, with the permission of the Rector/Vicar and Vestry/Bishop’s Committee. Because of the critical need for these groups, clergy and lay leadership may choose to give them access to church facilities, even if the church has not yet begun in-person worship. All in-person meetings or gatherings at the church should follow protocols outlined in the Guidelines for Reopening.
These amendments are made with the expectation that diocesan and local guidelines will continue to be communicated and followed. Physical distancing, use of masks, careful sanitizing of spaces, and common-sense hygiene remain key to reducing risks of gatherings.
Prior to the above-mentioned groups returning to your church’s facilities and grounds, church leaders must provide them with their local plans for reopening, and also with the Guidelines for the Phased Reopening of Churches in the Diocese of West Texas, sent to all churches on May 1, and available on the diocesan website. Leaders of these outside groups must agree to abide by physical distancing and sanitation protocols. Unless the church provides cleaning and sanitation for the group, that group must have their own plan, in writing, for maintaining standards set in the guidelines. A copy of that plan is to be given to the church’s leadership. Your church’s leadership is responsible for determining the maximum capacity of any room used by outside groups.
Questions will surely arise about why this kind of meeting, but not that kind of meeting. Please keep in mind that we are all having to learn new ways of being together. Adding gatherings in small, incremental ways allows people to experience, assess, and adjust much more easily than if we were to begin all things again, all at once.
Finally, this surge in confirmed cases and hospitalizations comes at a time when quite a few of our churches had just begun to reopen for in-person worship. The combination for many has been unsettling—joy at being together in church, mingled with fear about the risks, and/or that they may have to reduce programming or return to online-only worship again.
I remind Clergy and Vestries/Bishop’s Committees that the diocesan guidelines give you full authority to make that decision based on your own congregation and the local COVID-19 situation. We have said all along that the pandemic has not gone away; surges are likely; paying attention to local health officials is crucial; and we must all understand that we may need to backtrack. All plans these days are subject to change. As much as we share in common, each church has its own particular characteristics that should be considered when deciding whether to hold in-person worship services.
Size of the congregation, age of members, number of families, size of the worship space, number of available staff and volunteers are all significant factors that make it hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all plan for the entire diocese. Church leaders should remain focused on what they believe is best for their congregants and staff in regard to resuming or continuing public worship. They should also value and seek out regular conversation and collaboration with neighboring churches to support and learn from one another.
Please note, the 14-day consistent decline in confirmed cases, which has been such a significant part of government and public health rules and recommendations, and thus, a consistent piece of diocesan communications, is no longer being emphasized nearly so much. Instead, as testing for the virus has become more widely available, health officials have begun emphasizing the “positivity rate” (positive test results, relative to all tests administered), as well as hospitalizations. While the statistics can be confusing and, at times, interpreted in contradictory ways, the present reality is that none of the measurements are trending in a good direction statewide.
For any questions or concerns that arise, you may contact the Rev. Mike Besson, Archdeacon, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-787-6311.
Please know that you are constantly in my thoughts and prayers, and that if I have to go through a pandemic (which apparently, I do), I would not choose to go through it with anyone other than you, the clergy and people of West Texas.
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
David M. Reed
Bishop of West Texas