Preliminary Guidelines to Prepare for In-Person Worship

Every day I am impressed with the bold and creative methods so many of our congregations are undertaking to worship and serve their communities in the midst of this pandemic. Thank you for your resourcefulness and innovation in this season.

On April 24, I announced we would continue to suspend in-person worship and congregational gatherings through the end of May. To date, we have been operating under health and governmental guidelines that we must continue to observe and monitor in the coming months.

While it is impossible to know what new developments may be coming ahead of us, I remain hopeful we will be able to gather in June for worship inside some of our churches. However, new protocols and limitations will hinder our normal worship patterns and we must be cautious in what we do.

I recognize that in Kentucky, Governor Beshear announced in-person worship would be possible May 20.

May 1, Tennessee Governor Lee offered guidance on in-person worship with the following: To minister to vulnerable populations while also protecting those populations and continuing our state’s progress to contain COVID-19, faith communities are strongly encouraged to continue offering online services and other creative methods of worship and ministry.

Faith communities should conduct as many activities as possible remotely and should follow the recommendations in this guidance when deciding to begin gathering in person once again.

Let me suggest the following preliminary guidelines:

  • Continue an online service option as you also worship in person until a vaccine is available. Some of our most vulnerable persons will need to continue physical distancing until that time.
  • As we imagine gathering again in our sanctuaries, consider alternative worship by developing a house church model of 10 or fewer people with appropriate distancing; drive-in worship held in parking lots; as the weather improves, is outside worship a model that could be developed?
  • It will be imperative that strict guidelines be followed and that adequate volunteers be available for monitoring.
  • Begin now preparing for in-person worship to allow for safety and physical distancing.  6 feet apart remains the norm into the future. It may remain unwise to have choirs leading in worship.

Because those many who gather to worship in our sanctuaries are among the vulnerable, my guidance will always be to err on the side of caution. I do not want one person to become ill because of our practices in worship. Faith communities should continue to conduct as many activities as possible remotely and should follow guidance offered by the Center for Disease Control.

Because we all are anxious to return to in-person worship, I have named a task team to guide our churches as they prepare to reopen. This team includes lay people, elders, deacons, local pastors, district staff, and current and former healthcare professionals from across our episcopal area.

This team is being asked to develop tools that will help our churches mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 and reduce anxiety around a return to in-person worship.

They will gather, vet, and prepare resources and guidelines.

However, individual church protocols, plans, and decisions should be made in consultation with local church leadership, health officials, and observing safety concerns and practices in your local communities.

Your efforts can be focused in two ways

First, begin your prayerful preparation now.

And second, by making sure your congregations, staff, and housekeeping contractors have the following:

  • Adequate amounts of cleaning and sanitization products. Alcohol-based and bleach-based surface cleaners are adequate to kill this virus.
  • Adequate number of masks to offer to anyone who does not arrive with one. Work toward gathering cloth masks can also begin now.
  • Adequate hand sanitizer for all places of entrance and possible places of contact with surfaces inside.
  • Develop a relaunch task team to guide these protocols so that the pastor and volunteers are working together to honor the specific contexts of your community.
  • At all times we encourage proper social distancing, handwashing, the wearing of masks, and for sick persons or persons who have been in contact with the virus to remain at home.

In each congregation, please be supportive of one another as you think about re-opening. It would be unwise to open for worship before proper protocols are in place. I trust that when the appropriate time comes to reopen, the decision will be mutually agreed upon by pastor and laity.

In the near future, additional resources will be announced. In the meantime, some basic resources for reopening are currently posted on the Memphis and Tennessee Conference websites.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to love our neighbor.

The Apostle Paul begins his letters to the Philippians by reminding them that, even though they cannot gather, they are still able to “advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12).

By participating in physical distancing, continuing our creative efforts of virtual and alternative forms of worship, we convey Christian hospitality while we live out Jesus’ call to love our neighbor.

Bishop Bill McAlilly