Leadership teams within every religious community in the United States (along with vast swathes of the world) are grappling with the question of reopening their gathering spaces following the initial impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis. In the United States, where governmental guidance is fragmented between national, state, and local levels, many communities will be left to their local discernment on how to engage that reopening process.
This article intends to reflect on some of the questions congregational leaders in the Northern Texas–Northern Louisiana Synod of the ELCA might be pondering and some of the values that inform our mutual discernment. I recognize that many of our leaders will be receiving input (and maybe pressure) from a variety of directions, each with their own opinion. My intention is to inform process rather than provide any definitive answers.
Most people reading this article will already be somewhat familiar with the White House guidelines for “Opening Up America Again.” These guidelines focus on public health metrics, providing a three-phase process toward normality.
Although President Trump himself is eager for a full economic return, these guidelines indicate a slow, incremental process. While continually increased testing is the backbone of the recommendations, testing (of any sort) is not yet broadly available throughout the United States. This contradiction has led to dissonance between the White House’s public health and political messaging.
Along with other localized institutions, congregations will need to rely on local policy and data for their reopening decisions. While, for instance, the national view is that the United States has at least plateaued in its number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the exceedingly difficult situation in New York took place early within the national experience. Each state and each area will experience their own outbreak patterns.
This means that, to some extent, each congregational leader with input on reopening procedures will need to become familiar with the latest COVID-19 epidemiological assessments. In addition to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) has been a reliable source of interpretive data.
Specifically, IHME has provided state-by-state projections on when it will be safe to “reopen.” The present data for Texas indicates that, after June 1, “relaxing social distancing may be possible with containment strategies that include testing, contact tracing, isolation, and limiting gathering size.”
To be clear, this June 1 date is when the IHME indicates that it will be safe for Texas to enter a set of practices similar to what the White House outlines as Phase 1 of its reopening plan. Congregational leaders paying heed to this public health perspective will need to grapple with the contrasting message from Gov. Greg Abbott, who has announced that Texas will begin easing restrictions beginning in late April. What accounts for this discrepancy?
Values-Based Decision Making
Governments throughout the United States are presently under pressure to ease stay-at-home restrictions. Congregational leaders—alongside elected officials and policymakers—will be subjected to the competing priorities of public health, economic stability, ideology, and partisan politics.
At this point, much of the pressure is framed in economic terms: movements to “open the economy” are growing. At the same time, most public demonstrations have sought to promote individual rights, including rights outlined in the US Constitution. Meanwhile, many governors think it is too early to begin the reopening process.
What are Lutheran leaders to make of this present moment? How can we make definitive decisions when the situation is so murky? How can we insist on systematic, community-based discernment when members of our own communities are lobbying us to resume in-person operations immediately or not at all until 2021 at the soonest?
My suggestion is that in the policy struggle between public health, economic stability, ideology, and partisan politics, church-based conversations are weighted toward public health. While the economic effects of COVID-19 have been devastating for many people, including members of our congregations, abstracted notions of “the economy” hold little importance for the church.
In times of tension between concern for economic indicators such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the wellbeing of communities and persons, communities of faith are called to stand with the people. As this pandemic has reminded Christians, the church is not a building; the church IS the people.
Congregational concern for public health has direct bearing on decisions to resume in-person worship and gatherings. Our collective experience of COVID-19 has made us aware that certain populations are more vulnerable to its effects: people over 65 and persons who are disabled or immunocompromised. We have also seen that communities of color are facing more severe coronavirus effects, due largely to historically constructed and systemic socio-economic inequities.
Staying home and apart is one way we have been caring for more vulnerable neighbors and the health care systems designed to preserve our collective wellbeing. Although children are not considered high-risk for serious illness, they can carry the virus into multi-generational settings. In each of these communities, our churches risk being factories of continued pandemic spread, even with social distancing practices in place.
This article is primarily about decisions to reopen. In some ways, that is just one of the necessary decisions. One Christian educator has produced a helpful list of additional questions congregational leaders will need to consider before the doors are opened. When we do gather together in person, what conditions will we be facing and what practices will make our gathering as safe as possible, for ourselves and for society as a whole?
These are monumental conversations. As you move forward with your leadership team, acknowledge with one another the magnitude of the crisis we are seeking to navigate together. Preserving the health and safety of our congregations and their surrounding communities cannot be taken lightly. The situation is made all the more difficult since there are no absolutely correct answers.
I will continue to hold you in prayer as you discern what is best for your congregation and community. As individuals and as communities, we are all experiencing anxiety, loss, and grief. We will get through this, together.
The Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, directs Briarwood Leadership Center (Argyle, Tex.)