The Next Right Step: Extending Restrictions
Note: the following letter is presented in both English and Spanish.
Aviso: la siguiente carta se presenta en inglés y español.
Blessed is the LORD!
for he has heard the voice of my prayer.
The LORD is my strength and my shield;
my heart trusts in him, and I have been helped;
Therefore my heart dances for joy,
and in my song will I praise him.
The LORD is the strength of his people,
a safe refuge for his anointed.
Save your people and bless your inheritance;
shepherd them and carry them for ever.
Dear Friends in Christ,
After much study, prayer, and conversation with clergy and lay leaders in the Diocese of West Texas, as well as with bishops around the country, I am extending the restrictions on in person church worship and meetings. With great sadness, but with confidence that this is the way our Lord is calling us, we will continue to refrain from gathering for worship and other church activities in person through May 15.
While in some parts of Texas the spread of COVID-19 seems to be slowing, the great majority of public health and medical experts report that we have not yet reached the peak of confirmed cases. Increasingly, our smaller communities now report rising numbers of confirmed cases. A few short weeks ago, only ten of the sixty counties in our Diocese had confirmed cases. Today, 78% of our counties do. The practices of limiting non-essential travel and physical distancing are working. Together we are proactively slowing the spread, protecting the most vulnerable among us, and “flattening the curve.” But, our country, our state, and our communities still have a ways to go in this pandemic journey.
You, the clergy and people of West Texas, have borne this burden of love so well up to this point, and I am asking you to persevere for two more weeks. I understand and appreciate the efforts made by our state leaders to “reopen Texas” and restart the economy. Recovering from lost jobs and income will take people a long time. However, the greatest contribution Episcopalians as a body can make to the well-being of our communities and the defeat of the pandemic at this time is to wait. Public health and medical officials are watching for a two-week decline in confirmed cases following the peak to signal that we may begin emerging from our homes. To try and return to “normal” too soon greatly increases the risk of a second, more deadly outbreak. If the peak in Texas occurs at the end of April, as most experts predict, then restrictions on public gatherings and physical distancing requirements might begin to ease, in stages, by mid-May.
My fervent hope and prayer, and I know it is yours as well, is that by mid-May we canbegin to reopen churches and begin to resume something resembling normal church life, and also begin to discover what our new “normal” may be. But we all need to understand that this reopening will be phased. It will not happen all-at-once, nor will it look the same in all our churches and communities at the same time. We will be reopening while the pandemic is still in our midst, and so it will be essential that we fully recommit ourselves, and our churches, to continue the self-restraint and love of neighbor that have been at the heart of our response to COVID-19.
As we look with hope toward May 15, we must all work together, as congregations and as the Diocese, to continue the physical distancing measures that are so necessary to slowing the spread of the virus. The only way our phased reopening can begin is if the curve flattens, the rate of confirmed cases declines for two weeks, and we continue to actively love one another and love our neighbors by maintaining the habits the pandemic has forced upon us.
The Standing Committee, diocesan staff, and I, in consultation with clergy around the Diocese, have begun developing guidelines for our 87 congregations to use as each begins planning their reopening sequence. These guidelines will provide clear requirements and boundaries, while also considering the widely varying situations across the Diocese. Restrictions may remain in place longer for some churches than for others. I have been, and will continue to be, in conversation with my fellow Texas bishops, our ecumenical partners in this region, the bishops of Province 7, and Episcopal Relief and Development. We are all certainly in the same boat in this storm, and all are trying to find our way to higher ground together.
I expect to have these guidelines to our church leadership by the end of next week. Soon after publishing the guidelines, the Standing Committee and I will host an online gathering of diocesan clergy to discuss the guidelines and their implementation. We will also begin to look further down the road towards the eventual, full restoration of in person worship, fellowship, and ministries in our churches. After the large group conversation, clergy will continue this conversation and planning in regional, video conference groups.
While this letter focuses on coming together in person again for worship in our churches, we must remain keenly aware that the Church is also sent out, in the Name of Christ. The social and economic upheaval of COVID-19 will afflict the people of our towns and cities for a long time to come. We are to seek and serve Christ in them, while we remain physically distanced and once we can gather together in person again.
As you and your church continue to navigate this difficult season, please remember that you do not need to figure everything out on your own. It is not weakness to ask for help. You have brothers and sisters in other churches who are dealing with precisely the same struggles, trying to plan and act faithfully and creatively, and wondering how others are doing it. Call them and talk it over.
Your diocesan staff continues to work hard. They are as eager as anyone to be out and working with you in person, but know that they are always just a phone call or email away.
Finally, a word about your Average Sunday Attendance (ASA). I saved it for last because, for now, it is the least important of the many details we are contending with. Keeping attendance at worship services is a canonical requirement of our Church. Largely, ASA helps measure a congregation’s numerical growth or decline over the span of several years. However, one year’s attendance figures don’t tell much of a story. In this time of pandemic, how do you count attendance when people must join via various media platforms? What do you do if seventy-five people sign on during your live-stream, but 750 more check you out during the week? And how do you know if people are in attendance for a few seconds or the whole time?
Here’s the short answer: Don’t worry about it.
Continue to enter worship services as you normally would, whether in your Register of Services or separately. Note how many people join in, either during the live service or over the course of the next few days. The record will be important to have, even if primarily for historical purposes. Like a strike-shortened baseball season, there’s likely to be an asterisk attached to this season in the Church’s life regarding the ASA. The General Convention Office, which receives the annual parochial reports, will eventually issue some guidelines, but for now, they’ve said the same thing. In the midst of many other things to be anxious about, don’t be anxious about this.
Far more important is the well-being of the people and churches who are the Diocese of West Texas. I am so grateful to God every day for the patience, forbearance, and hope I see as you continue to love and serve the Lord, to bear witness to the Good News. I had hoped, we all had hoped, that we would be on the other side of the novel coronavirus by now. But here we are, closer than when we started, but not there yet. But, we have traveled this far by grace, and it will be grace that leads us home.
May the Peace of our risen Lord be with you. May the joy of Easter fill us and our Alleluias roll out like thunder.
Love in Christ,
David M. Reed
Bishop of West Texas