05-06-2020 COVID-19 PNC Update

Dear Siblings in Christ:

You’re all amazing. Let me say that right up front. The ways you’ve all been living into this moment in your homes, churches, work lives, and personal lives have not been easy but you’re pulling it off. The days to come are going to be a challenge, too, but the fact we’ve done this well this long speaks to the faith, creativity, and support we’ll be able to draw on to make it through. The actions you’ve already taken have saved lives.

I know these days are not easy ones and I’m missing sharing in-person worship with you. The online worship experience is better than I thought it might be and we’re getting better and better at it each week. Still, I miss singing together. I miss the resonance of prayers in the sanctuary. I miss being silent together. Although online worship has its own advantages, it has its own challenges, too. Here’s the thing, though. 

I would rather grieve missing in-person worship with you than have to grieve you

Although there have already been too many of our members who have died as a result of this pandemic, if social distancing hadn’t happened we could have lost hundreds of us. About half of our members are over 60 and many more are in highrisk groups for death if they contract COVID-19. This hasn’t changed since we first started learning about this disease. We’re learning new ways COVID-19 effects the body and that those under 60 are at a higher risk than we previously understood. We’ve learned that singing is at least as effective a means of getting the virus into the air as coughing. Our decision not to have worship in person has saved lives.

The idea of a “phased restart” has been getting a lot of attention these days. It makes sense in so many ways. Organizations and governments of all sorts are putting together a series of “if-then” plans that name the conditions under which it may make sense to increase human interaction in order to get some things done. This is a daily conversation among my colleagues in the United Church of Christ these days as we try to sort through all the information coming our way. The Wisconsin Council of Churches’ guidelines are really being looked at as the gold standard right now. The basic guidelines and the linked resources they share are very good.

I confess that, as I read them and many of the other restart proposals, I’m sometimes looking for a magical solution. I’m looking for someone to say “We’ve figured it out! Here’s how we can get back to normal without anyone getting sick.” None of the plans I’ve read have that; particularly as related to worship. As I mentioned before, all of the phased plans being developed are rooted in an “if-then” logic that looks at the conditions (the “if”) that could point towards a result (the “then”). 

Our conditions haven’t changed. I mentioned these before:

Until these conditions change (with a vaccine, new preventative measure, or a cure) our results from getting together for worship will be the same as they would have been previously. If we get together for worship, then we would contribute to the spread of COVID-19 among our church members and communities, and, as a result, many would get sick and some would die. So far, we don’t have the capacity to mitigate the reality of the underlying conditions in any practical or foolproof way.

I know there are some in the religious world who are framing worshipping together as a religious rights issue; that the government can’t tell a church whether or not to worship at any time. I’m not a lawyer but I think there’s a good chance they’re probably correct. However, whether or not a religious body has the right to gather with the current conditions it is irresponsible to do so.

In the same way, someone in my role doesn’t have the capacity to tell a UCC church they can’t worship in the same place together. Congregational autonomy, which I honor and respect, doesn’t give a Conference Minister that kind of power. However, our covenant together means that I have the responsibility to suggest to you that it’s still not safe for your congregation to gather for worship now and, unless the basic conditions change, it is unlikely to be safe for quite some time.

You’re all amazing. The ways you’ve all been living into this moment in your homes, churches, work lives, and personal lives have not been easy but you’re pulling it off. There’s been a lot of talk about this being “a new normal” and our need to adjust to this reality. That’s not bad advice in some ways but the idea of “adjusting to this new reality” is also insufficient. As people of faith called to “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God” our task is not just to adjust to reality but to adjust reality. This is not a moment that fatalistically subjects us to the end of things but is a moment that, with God’s help, could be the start of many good things.

With hope,


——–Rev. Mike Denton,

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

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