The Next Right Step: Updated COVID-19 Guidelines to Begin September 14, 2020
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are now in the sixth month of living with, and responding to, the COVID-19 pandemic, and as individuals, families, churches, and a society, we are weary and anxious. The present is challenging; the future is uncertain. Our Christian hope tells us that this is never “all there is,” and yet, so much about life these days is confusing and chaotic. Within the Church, we are constrained from the very things that bring us comfort, strength and hope: gathering together for worship, fellowship, and mission. God is our Creator who delights in his creation and makes us for communion with him and with one another. Our salvation is incarnational, and we are not meant for isolation and aloneness. Of course, we are weary and anxious!
Our governing principle throughout this pandemic has been to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We have sacrificed practices that are important to us, like public worship, for the love and safety of our neighbors in church and our neighbors in the larger community. The diocesan guidelines, and the protocols adopted by churches locally, are intended to flesh out this love. These guidelines are not intended to hinder our churches, but to help us all find ways to be a worshipping, serving, and Christ-centered community in these times.
In and through all of this, the Light of Christ shines on, and “the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) So many of our churches in West Texas, so many of you, continue to find ways, by grace, to be the Church and carry on in worship and ministry. Thank you, and thanks be to God, for your faithfulness and your visible witness to the power and love of God revealed inJesus Christ.
As we approach September, normally a time of regathering and new beginnings in our congregations and wider communities, it is important for your church’s leadership to review the Guidelines for Phased Reopening of Churches in West Texas. Remember that the basic, practical measures recommended by medical and public health officials really do work. Do not neglect to conscientiously
- wear face masks
- maintain six feet of physical distance from others whenever possible
- practice good hygiene, and
- sanitize common areas.
Churches open for in-person worship are still required to adhere to the diocesan guidelines, to maintain their own plans, to pay careful attention to current local conditions, and to follow the health orders and recommendations of local and county officials. Our current diocesan guidelines allow for modified in-person worship inside and outside church buildings; in-person Vestry/Bishop’sCommittee meetings; in-person AA and other 12-step recovery meetings; and continuing outreach ministries that meet an immediate need.
Further, I have given the 26 Episcopal Schools of the Diocese permission to reopen after they develop detailed plans and following guidelines from the CDC, State of Texas, and school associations. Their starting date for in-person classes must be approved by their Vestries, and our schools will re-open with varied plans for instruction and curriculum, throughout August and September.
I encourage all our churches to take full advantage of online technologies for gathering people for worship, study and fellowship. Many of our churches report they intend to continue live-streaming worship even after restrictions on in-person gatherings are lifted. If your church needs assistance figuring out live-streaming, recording, hardware, etc., please contact the diocesan Communications Office.
Phase 2(b): A Modified Return to Congregational Life
While we continue these practices, we can also begin to look ahead, toward the next phase of reopening. Because our church leaders have worked so conscientiously to develop plans for a modified return to in-person worship, and because parishioners have acted so consistently out of love and care for one another while worshiping together in person, I am confident that we can move toward further reopening, particularly regarding in-person activities on church premises, in those places where the spread of the pandemic has ebbed.
We will call this Phase 2(b): A Modified Return to Congregational Life, and the previous phase, in place from May 25, 2020 through Sunday, September 13, 2020, will now be referred to as Phase 2(a): A Modified Return to Public Worship. Beginning Monday, September 14, churches may offer in-person gatherings for the following purposes: Adult Bible study/Christian formation; youth and children’s Sunday School; youth groups; and Childcare. Additionally, on a case by case basis and at the discretion of the clergy and Vestry/Bishop’s Committee, outside groups may be allowed to resume in-person gatherings at the church. Clergy and Vestries/Bishop’s Committees may allow for these in-person gatherings even if the church has not reopened for in-person worship.
Deferred pastoral services, such as baptisms, may be held, assuming protocols are followed to the fullest extent possible. Baptisms are intended to take place within the context of Sunday worship; however, the Prayer Book rubrics allow for baptisms in other circumstances. Private, family-only baptisms, held inside or outside the church building, are an option. Also, clergy are permitted to visit the dying and offer the sacraments, if they are able to follow medical and safety protocols.
This next phase of reopening, Phase 2(b), assumes careful planning by clergy and lay leadership specifically for the added in-person activities, and a written plan that is communicated to all members of the congregation. Each congregation must submit their plans for Phase 2(b) to the Rev. Mike Besson, Archdeacon, prior to entering into this next phase.
The Diocesan Guidelines for Phased Reopening have been updated to reflect the protocols for both Phases 2(a) and 2(b). See pages 4-8 of the Guidelines for the safety, sanitation, and hygiene guidelines that apply to all permitted gatherings.
I advise church leadership, even if no plans for further reopening are taking place, to revisit the Guidelines to ensure compliance, especially regarding protocols for communion and wearing masks. All those responsible for leading gatherings with participants must be made aware of the diocesan and congregational protocols and agree to abide by them.
Churches are encouraged not to try and do everything at once, but to gradually implement in-person gatherings, assessing and adjusting as needed. In communities experiencing outbreaks, planning for further reopening is encouraged, but adding more in-person gatherings is strongly discouraged. And none of this is intended to mean that churches should begin a wider phased reopening. Quite a few of our churches have faithfully and wisely chosen to refrain from any in-person gatherings until we are much further down this road.
As we have experienced, further reopening of the life and ministries of our congregations must be carefully considered, weighing numerous factors, both within and beyond the local church. I ask that clergy and lay leaders strive to stay fully informed regarding all of the following criteria:
- The positivity rate: out of all tests, the percentage that are positive
- The increase/decrease in daily confirmed cases in your city or county
- The local hospital status: how many COVID patients? How many available beds? How many COVID patients are in ICU? How many available ventilators? In other words, how taxed is the hospital system in your area?
- The local testing capacity
- The doubling rate: the number of days projected for the confirmed cases to double
The State of Texas, and numerous other government agencies and medical organizations maintain websites with daily updates for the above information.
While preparing their local reopening plans and protocols, church leadership should assess their own spaces and consider these and other questions:
- How many people can we gather in the nave for worship, or in other church facilities, following the guidelines?
- Can we maintain adequate sanitation in a timely manner for each gathering and each type of gathering?
- What options do we have for outdoor worship and other gatherings?
- What in-person gatherings would be considered highest priority, and what can wait?
- How many of our parishioners are in categories of increased vulnerability? What are we offering as means of connection for those considered high-risk?
- Has our city / county issued directives/recommendations limiting the size of gatherings or advising that people stay home?
In all these things, we need to stay mindful that we cannot eliminate the risks COVID-19 brings to any gathering, and so our goal remains to act carefully and prudently to reduce risks for the sake of our churches and the larger community.
All our plans, no matter how well done, are subject to change, depending on the course of the pandemic. We saw during the terrible June and July spike the importance of including in our reopening plans a plan for reclosing. Every parish, mission and school preparing to reopen for any level of activity should have contingency and communication plans in place to address the following:
- A church staff member, school staff member, or regular volunteer tests positive, reports covid-like symptoms, or comes in close contact with someone who tests positive.
- A member of the church who attended a worship service, or a school student/parent tests positive, reports covid-like symptoms, or comes in close contact with someone who tests positive.
- An attendee at a church gathering other than worship tests positive, shows symptoms or comes into close contact with someone who tests positive.
- What factors would initiate postponing, canceling, or reclosing for in-person activities?
These updated guidelines can’t possibly address every situation or answer every question. I welcome your questions, and members of the diocesan staff are always ready to assist you and your church in developing, communicating, and implementing your local plans. Archdeacon Mike Besson continually gathers information on what our churches are doing regarding reopening, and you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your leadership and service during these difficult days. Our God is bigger than COVID, and these times will not last. May his Spirit sustain and encourage you, keep you healthy, and fill you with peace.
Love in Christ,
+David M. Reed
Bishop of West Texas