By Glen Guyton, executive director, Mennonite Church USA.
With nearly all states in some phase of reopening, pastors and church leaders are discerning if, when and how to return to public worship. Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) encourages local congregations to consult with their MC USA area conference leaders. Our conferences provide a network of resources and support, and our conference leaders are equipped to lead in faithful obedience to God’s kingdom and within local, state and federal guidelines. Many conferences already have provided guidelines for reopening. Others are in the process of providing such information.
Here are a few additional considerations for ministry leadership teams:
- Embrace a new “normal.” Everyone assumes that we must try to get back to “normal.” I say why? While there are many things to lament about COVID–19, we see God’s hand in hidden blessings and a spirit of hopefulness. Personally, I have seen what was lost due to the busyness and hyper-consumerism that is part of our secular and religious societies. The period of physical distancing has allowed many of us to breathe and experience a new form of social connectivity that was lost. We may have realized that certain programs or meetings are not necessary or life-giving to our ministries. I encourage you to pause for prayerful consideration before rushing back to the old way of doing things.
- Emphasize to your members that mitigation procedures are not preventions or cures. Medical experts have made it clear that procedures such as wearing homemade masks, reducing building capacity, staggering services and spreading out seating are for mitigation only. These actions may reduce the severity, speed or rate of the infection. Though lessened, the risk is still present. No member or church leader should feel obligated to return to in-person community worship. People are ultimately responsible for decisions about their own health and well-being. As leaders, let us walk alongside our members and support individual discernment, being careful not to infringe our will upon those that do not feel safe.
- Pay attention to diversity and practice inclusion. This means knowing who is most at risk in your congregation and centering the most vulnerable when it comes to providing ministry services during COVID–19. As Anabaptist/Mennonite followers of Jesus, we are called to focus on the most vulnerable in our communities. Demographics matter in your decision-making process. In this pandemic, the most vulnerable, especially the elderly, African Americans and the immune compromised, are at greater risk. Some may feel that “if the church is open, I need to be there.” Read Pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler’s piece about how she is working through these questions.
- Pay special attention to public singing. Public singing is an important part of Mennonite worship. It also aerosolizes mucus, potentially spreading infected particles at a higher rate. Combined with asymptomatic spread, this could make congregational singing risky. Explore other types of worship, from instrumentalist solos to worship music videos.
- Church leaders must be mindful of their areas of expertise. The reopening process raises many public health questions. As most of our religious leaders are not medical experts, we need to avoid making medical decisions or giving medical advice and defer to reliable sources. The existing polarizations in our country make discernment more difficult, as pastors and leaders also may face pressure rooted in motivations other than public health. Pay close attention to the recommendations of your area conference and public health officials. Be an informed consumer of online information, verifying sources for accuracy.
- Prepare for the “next” normal. There is no guarantee that any of our old paradigms will be restored, especially in the short-term. Have courage to be creative. There are many ways to gather and be the church. MC USA has provided webinars on the use of technology to worship and gather. There are other resources online and in your community that can help you connect in new and exciting ways.
Good leadership requires making good decisions, even if hard or unpopular. Deciding if, when and how to reopen is a big decision with serious consequences. Leaders in MC USA bear the weight of this tremendous responsibility. Opening the doors means determining what amount of risk (uncertainty) is or is not acceptable for the community.
I encourage you to process each decision with prayer, good counsel, compassion, good knowledge and a measure faith. Our hearts must be one to serve and care for the people entrusted to us.