03/23/21 COVID-19 PNC Update

Dear Siblings in Christ:

It’s been a while since I’ve written this long of a note. So, get your cup of coffee or tea, and let’s talk about meeting in-person.

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

The emerging news about COVID-19 continues to improve. Infection rates are way down. Vaccinations continue to go up. The pandemic is not over yet, but we’re getting closer to the end every day. As of yesterday, all of the State of Washington is in Phase 3 and, today, the Governor’s office expanded the guidelines for inside and outside religious gatherings. The recommendations have room for singing! The news is getting better and better, and the forecast is good. 

But let’s talk about forecasts for a moment. Think about when you’ve been in some sort of harsh, multiday weather pattern. It’s too hot, too rainy, too chilly, etc. You check the 10-day weather forecast, and it seems like it will never end. Then the prediction changes, and the forecast is that, in three days, the weather pattern will break. You start doing a mental countdown of sorts, looking forward to a better day. 

But, the prediction is for the future, not the present. If it’s predicted on Wednesday that the rain will stop on Friday, you don’t take your raincoat off on Wednesday. It gets even trickier in that transition zone between one weather system and the next. Things may be getting better, but the weather is still a bit unpredictable. The forecasts don’t even agree. What do you do, then?

We’re in one of those transition zones with the pandemic. I am very optimistic in a way that I haven’t been for more than a year. I have never been more excited to get a shot and will do so as soon as one’s made available to me. Every time I hear that a friend or family member is fully vaccinated, I can’t help myself. I clap. 

I take some time to study the COVID-19 maps every day. They give me a good idea about what the pandemic looks like throughout the conference (and in areas where my family lives). Just a couple of months ago, I’d have to prepare myself to take in the weight of some awful numbers. Now, more often than not, I read through them, nodding and smiling a bit. The combination of the vaccine and our changed behavior is making a difference more quickly than expected. The forecast is excellent. So, it might seem strange that I still recommend a high degree of healthy caution in moving forward with gathering in our church buildings, again. 

The last bit of Micah 6:8 is usually translated as “… to walk humbly with God.” What’s fascinating about this translation is that the Hebrew word’s actual meaning translated as “humbly” is up for debate. Some scholars suggest that this word would be better translated and “wisely.” Some suggest that we need both words to understand the intention of this one Hebrew word. The suggestion by some is that maybe this verse would be better translated if it were to say something like “…to walk humbly and wisely with God.” That makes a lot of sense.

As we move forward through this pandemic time, humility and wisdom are required. Here’s some of what we know:

We also know this: complying with Washington State’s guidelines is not simple. A church must have a system for enforcement of these guidelines. In particular, they say:

  • “Prior to beginning operations as described in this document, all religious and faith-based organizations are required to develop for each location (indoor and outdoor if applicable) a comprehensive COVID-19 exposure control, mitigation, and recovery plan. The plan must include policies regarding the following control measures: PPE utilization; on-location physical distancing; hygiene; sanitation; symptom monitoring; incident reporting; location disinfection procedures; COVID-19 safety training; exposure-response procedures, and a post-exposure incident project-wide recovery plan. A copy of the plan must be available at the location for inspection by state and local authorities, but state and local authorities do not preapprove the plan. Failure to meet planning requirements may result in sanctions, including the location being shut down.”
  • “A site-specific COVID-19 supervisor shall be designated by the employer at each job site to monitor the health of employees and enforce the COVID-19 job site safety plan.”

Your church’s in-person safety would be determined by how closely your church follows these guidelines and, well, a bit of luck. Even if these guidelines were adhered to, your gathering together is not risk-free. And, not gathering increases the risk of mental and spiritual injury for some members of your congregation. And, gathering will increase the anxiety of some members of your community. All these things are simultaneously true. That’s what makes this transition so difficult.

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

So, church communities need to turn towards each other. In these days of transition and ambiguity, the humility and wisdom among us will help us make a way through.

We need to turn toward each other with humility. Humility is a spiritual recognition and celebration of our humanity. It recognizes what we can do and don’t have the capacity to do. It honors our fears, hopes, discomfort, and failures. It acknowledges that we can’t always do what we might want to do and that sometimes God calls us to do things we don’t want to do. It means that sometimes one person’s desire for certainty and expediency may not align with another’s uncertainty and cautiousness. At its best, humility is filled to the brim with grace for ourselves and others. It makes room for all those things in others that we struggle with within ourselves.

We need to listen to each other’s wisdom. Humility in and of itself is a wise path, and wisdom approaches the world with humility. Wisdom holds on to the position of trusting that we are better than we sometimes think and not as far from healing as we might fear. It sometimes widens circles that are too small and sometimes shrinks circles that are too large. Wisdom is not solely possessed by any one person, religion, culture, age, philosophy, etc. but is a vibrating, holy, sacred force that can heal the world.

One of the things that helps uncover the humility and wisdom among us is consent. For our congregations’ physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational health, we have to do our best to honor the reality that not everyone will be on the same page around when and how we meet in person. We’re going to have different motivations, access the risks differently, and bring the last year’s experience along with us. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to move quickly. To protect the health and safety of those who attended our churches, we had to act, then explain. It helped that we had other people telling us what to do, too.

We’re at a different moment now. It’s still a dangerous one, but we have more information about avoiding risks and other kinds of choices to make. We do not need to approach this moment with the same urgency required at the beginning of the pandemic. To move forward, we have to make these decisions together; with our congregations’ members and staff. We need to move forward carefully and slowly. 

The last year has been traumatic enough. We can avoid making the re-entry process traumatic, too. It makes sense that different churches should move towards meeting again at different speeds and in different ways because the needs, concerns, interests, capacities, and sense of safety among other churches’ communities and members will be different. Also, as new needs, concerns, and interests emerge, consent may need to be renegotiated. As capacities and sense of safety change, consent may need to be renegotiated, too. That’s as it should be.

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

If we focus on uncovering the wisdom and humility among us by insisting on a process that holds consent at its center, I am convinced that we will do what is right. By centering consent as central to our decision-making, I am also confident that we will have gained a new skill that will uncover the humility and wisdom among us, a skill that will help us become the church that God and God’s people need.

With hope, Mike

Rev. Mike Denton

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

You can give to the ministries of the Pacific Northwest Conference by going to www.pncucc.org and clicking on the “Donate” button​.​

Follow me on Twitter @denton_rev

3 thoughts on “03/23/21 COVID-19 PNC Update

  1. Dear Mike, As your loyal and grateful fan AND registered nurse, I thank you for this wise document ! Mary Margaret Pruitt

    Like

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