4-16-2020 COVID-19 PNC Update

Dear Siblings in Christ:

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

This is going to be my longest email to you about this pandemic season, yet, but it needs to be. It addresses one of the questions I’ve been hearing a lot lately, “When will be it OK for us to gather, again?”

The time after the resurrection was a fraught one. The disciples were hiding in this room or that unsure if the murder of Jesus was the end of something or the start of something. They didn’t know if the target for the religious leaders’ rage was only Jesus or if they were going to be targeted, too. They were still trying to figure out what had really happened to Jesus’ body in the middle of lots of guesses, hopes, and horror. They were still sorting through having a traitor among their close circle of twelve. Anything resembling certainty was in short supply. There was no going back and the way forward was unclear.

Here we all are after Easter. We’re physically distancing in our homes and we’re hearing mixed and changing messages about our level of risk. We worry about our own health and the health of those we care for and love. We’re still sorting through the barrage of information coming at us and trying to figure out how to weigh this piece of information or that. We’re still struggling with those who seem in denial or rebellion against what seems like the best possible practices for health and safety. Anything resembling certainty seems to be in short supply. There is no going back and the way forward is unclear.

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

When I sent the first email about COVID-19 to all of you on Ash Wednesday, it was with information that was immediately at hand. A virus that had ravaged China was, now, here and starting to kill people. At that point, it was clear that those most at risk were those with pre-existing conditions and those who were 60 and older. It was also clear that the transmission of this disease could sometimes happen particularly quickly where people were gathered. Most insidiously, those transmitting it might not have any signs of illness for two weeks to a month as they spread it to those they loved, cared for, worked with, rode the bus with, worshipped with… At the point I sent out the Ash Wednesday email, there had already been the case of the South Korean church from which, eventually, came thousands of COVID-19 cases. That was the story that really hit home for me.

51 days later, the basic information we started with about COVID-19 hasn’t changed that much. The stories and the horrifying numbers are the proof. This is a disease that is not difficult to transmit. It can be most deadly for those over 60 and with some pre-existing conditions.  At this point, the best way to prevent its spread is to severely limit points of human contact and wash our hands at least five times a day. 

There have been some new learnings along the way, too. Those who are under 60 are not invincible. There have been hundreds of deaths of those under 60 in the US and babies and children may also be at a higher risk. Emerging information is making it clear that this virus lives longer in the air than we thought. There is evidence that the six feet of distancing may not be enough and that droplets from an infected person might actually be transmitted 13 feet. It’s also seeming that although facemasks are not a full-proof method to prevent transmission, they probably are more helpful than not.

One of the questions I’m hearing from folks pretty regularly these days is “How long will this go on?” or “When will be able to worship together again?” I get it. The ways people have adapted to this moment are truly amazing. I’m in awe of what you all have pulled off. Yet, I miss being able to be in physical spaces with you for prayer, worship, fellowship… even meetings. I get it.

However, the basic information hasn’t changed and so neither can the practices we’ve adopted over the last several weeks

  • Our congregations still have a significant number of people in the groups at the highest risks of death from contracting COVID-19. 
  • Although there are advances every day in treatment and vaccine options, there is still no cure and no vaccine. My hope is that with the sheer numbers of people working on this and experiencing this a breakthrough could come within weeks or months but it hasn’t happened, yet. It normally takes one or two years to develop a vaccine and it takes a while to develop new treatments.
  • The information about transmission methods has, basically, remained the same. Although there are ongoing debates about how various surfaces might help transmit COVID-19, there is very little debate about it being airborne and, as I mentioned before, six-feet is no longer believed to be far enough. In most of the places we gather for worship, a 13 feet distance between attendees would be impossible to maintain.  On top of that, we sing together. When we sing, we expel air at a faster rate than when we’re talking or just sitting together. As we’ve learned from the unfortunate experience of several choral groups that met in the early days of the pandemic, gatherings for singing can too easily become disease transmission events.
  • Although there has been a lot of helpful advances in using tracking to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, tracking is not a cure. Tracking shows where physical distancing broke down and can help encourage changes in behavior that makes further transmission less likely.

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

Until there is a significant change in all these realities, it’s not going to be safe for us to get together at church again for quite a while. I know there is a lot of talk about getting to work again and, essentially, setting up a series of social and governmental switches that can turn parts of society on and off based on the spread of COVID-19 and societal needs. Generally, that makes sense. However, the number of people in our congregations who are at high risk, the way the spaces in which we gather for worship are set up, and what we do when we are together make it unlikely that it will be safe for us to gather in the same place for some time. 

Unless there is some miraculous change in the information we are receiving, I think we have to begin planning on our current practices continuing, at least, into the fall of this year but possibly for a year or more. I recognize that the challenges planning like this could present to all of us and that it will lead to many, many hard decisions.

Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Take another deep breath. Let that one out slowly, too.

I also have faith in all of us to, with God’s help, pull this off. I am convinced that on the other side of this when we’re all vaccinated and able to gather again, we’re going to be amazed at what we pulled off. Right now, we’re all taking a crash course in online worship and video production but, at the end of this, we’ll do as well at this as we once did worship. Maybe better. Most churches doing online worship are reporting that attendance is actually up. It’s a good time to begin online membership classes for those attending your church from different parts of the world who have found a spiritual home among you. The tools we have developed will change the way we look at ministry with those who are homebound for generations as our churches become better at integrating those who cannot be physically present because of health concerns or other life circumstances. We will become better at not just preventing the spread of COVID-19 but the flu, colds, and other diseases that can be deadly for those at higher risk. We will become better at asking for people’s financial support of our congregations and do a better job of sharing, generally. We will learn that, although our buildings are important, it is not our mission to serve them but make sure they are in service to our communities. We will go through some very hard times ahead but, in the end, I really am convinced we’ll be better.

In the meantime, do what you can to protect the mental, physical, and spiritual health of those who are the lay and clergy leaders in your congregation. As others have said about other disasters, this is not a sprint but a marathon. The pace might not be as fast as it once was but they are all still running. Insist that they take time off and rest. Pay particular attention to those who might have children at home. They are learning to be teachers now, too. If you have skills that you might be able to offer that you haven’t yet, offer them. If there are things you would be willing to learn to help, offer that, too. If you have the capacity to share more, financially, than you currently are please do since many are suddenly able to share nothing.

We will make it through this and we will be different. Maybe better. There will be much to grieve along the way but time to laugh, pray, and get to know each other better, too. 

This Sunday, most of us will read the story about the post-crucifixion disciples hiding in a room afraid and alone when, surprise! Jesus showed up.

Pay attention dear siblings in Christ. Today is a hard one but I think we are going to be surprised in the coming days again, 

And again, 

And again…

With hope,



Rev. Mike Denton

Conference Minister of
The ​Pacific Northwest Conference of
The United Church of Christ

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