A question that many people are asking is, “When will our church buildings be reopened?” The answer will vary from church to church, based not on a specific date, but on local data.
Our North Alabama Conference District Superintendents recently hosted 32 virtual town hall meetings attended by 860 of our clergy and lay leaders. Discussion centered around Do No Harm: Recommendations for Reopening our Church Buildings (www.umcna.org/donoharm) and a video featuring Dr. Neil Lamb, faculty investigator and Vice President for Educational Outreach at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology (https://youtu.be/vaBz3U-jxPQ). An addendum addressing youth and children ministries protocols will be added to the Do No Harm document in the near future.
The Cabinet and I are asking clergy and local church leadership teams to follow these guidelines in deciding when and how to safely reopen our church buildings. This includes a phased-in approach, basing reopening decisions on data in each church’s context, and consulting with local health officials. Factors that are important to bear in mind are: 1) demographics (awareness of members in high risk categories), 2) location (How many COVID-19 cases are in the church’s county and are the numbers of cases showing a steady decline?), 3) congregation size and 4) capacity to follow standards about sanitation and social distancing set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/faith-based.html and the Alabama Department of Public Health www.alabamapublichealth.gov/covid19/assets/cov-sah-worship.pdf.
Also, please note that according to the CDC, those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are over the age of 65 and/or have preexisting health conditions. People (clergy and lay) who fall into “at-risk” categories are encouraged to avoid crowds and stay at home whenever possible. We discourage all persons from returning to in-person worship until they feel safe doing so.
Churches who meet the criteria in the guidelines may enter into Phase 1 of our Do No Harm document on June 1. Churches that do not meet those guidelines are requested to continue to offer only virtual ministry until they meet the criteria to safely begin in-person ministry as stated in Phase 1. Phase 1 begins when there have been two full weeks of declining cases in your county, a consistent supply of tests are accessible, and the cleaning supplies needed to sanitize our worship and meeting spaces are readily available. At this point, gatherings of no more than 10 are recommended along with masks and social distancing.
When churches enter Phase 1, The North Alabama Conference recommends the following:
Although the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the majority of our churches not worshipping in-person during most of Lent, all of Eastertide and on Pentecost Sunday, our congregations have continued to be the church in the lives of our members and in our communities. Thank you for the creative ways in which you have provided pastoral care, outreach, online worship services, Sunday School classes, Bible studies small groups and children’s and youth ministries throughout this time.
The Cabinet’s prayers and my personal prayers are with our clergy and local church leaders as you discern together the appropriate time to reopen our church buildings. Our hearts are filled with gratitude for you and your ministry during this pandemic and beyond.
As always, it is a privilege to serve as your bishop.
North Alabama Conference