Tentative Date for Return to In-Person Worship Extended into June

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).

In a very abrupt way, COVID-19 altered many of the paths we were journeying and inspired us to examine and begin new ways of living and practicing our faith. I use the word inspired because through the creativity and flexibility I have witnessed in the churches and leaders of the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences of The United Methodist Church, I remain inspired. 

On April 24, I announced that in-person worship and congregational gatherings would remain suspended until the end of May. After careful observation of the current trends and most recent data surrounding the spread of COVID-19, consultation with medical professionals, conferring with the COVID-19 response task team, and deep prayer, I have discerned that our tentative date for churches to begin coming back together for in-person worship will be June 21, 2020

This date is not a mandate for which you must return to worship. Many of our churches will not be equipped and ready to safely engage in in-person worship. Rather, June 21 is a tentative date that will allow for in-person worship in an organized, phased manner where it is safe to do so.  It is also a tentative date which is subject to revision based on current COVID-19 data at that time.

In this season, I have often been reminded of John Wesley’s General Rules, “Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay In Love With God.” As we navigate our cautious and phased return to in-person worship amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been guided by these rules, particularly the first one, “Do no harm.”

Therefore, I ask you to observe the following:

  • First, approach this transition with prayer, seeking wisdom and guidance as you move forward.
  • Evaluate your local community and church context. What are the local, state, and federal guidelines? Is it safe to begin physically meeting again?  Would it do harm?
  • Have you assembled a local team to assist in guiding the congregation through the necessary steps to ensure you do no harm in coming back together?
  • Do you have on hand, or a plan to obtain, an adequate amount of approved cleaners and disinfecting agents?
  • Do you have face coverings available for those who may not have one?
  • Do you have volunteers ready, and does your congregation know the protocols and plans your leadership has agreed to follow?

On May 9, I announced that I had named a task team to guide us through reopening in light of Wesley’s General Rules.  This team, composed of laypeople, elders, deacons, local pastors, district staff, and current and former healthcare professionals from across our episcopal area, is diligently working to equip our ministries and local churches to come back together while being continually aware of our vow to do no harm.

Today I share the team’s initial guidance for coming back together while continuing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This guidance is compiled from the vetted resources of the CDC, HHS, OSHA, and state health departments. 

Many of you have questions. I want to urge you to refrain from seeking out answers from sources that are unverified, unregulated, and unreliable. The task team I assembled was brought together to offer guidance and recommendation to assist me in guiding these Conferences. Please resist the urge to go to social media or other venues to solicit guidance and answers to your questions.  Instead, contact your district office who can direct you toward the evidence and fact-based guidance vetted by our task team. I will remain vigilant in communicating this guidance to you with time to react on your local level.

As we anticipate returning to worship, I trust you are engaging in the best wisdom and guidance available. Worshiping our risen Lord is the highlight of our week. Our hope will always be to be together within our sacred places of worship. We can anticipate that our future worship will be unlike our past gatherings.  It is likely that for the foreseeable future we will engage in adaptive worship practices that allow us to do no harm. Simply be mindful of those that are most fragile. We do not want one United Methodist to become ill because of our gathering to worship.

I remain grateful for all who have done their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 during this season. Stay calm, stay the course, and stay connected.

May the peace of Christ be with you all.

Bishop McAlilly

Guidelines for In-Person Worship during COVID-19