As a physician and a lay leader in Northern Virginia, I was asked to serve on a working group to develop guidelines to help churches resume in-person worship, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our group of clergy, legal and medical professionals have met via Zoom multiple times over the past several weeks, to draft a set of protocols for each stage of reopening. These protocols will be reviewed by the Bishop and Cabinet and will be made available very soon.

We are in the midst of unusual and anxious times. We have needed to embrace new practices and have learned how we can be church without the building. We long to be back together, worshiping in person, but know times ahead will need to be different. As we take steps forward, we need to do so with safety foremost in our minds. We will resume in-person worship gradually and with great care, all the while monitoring the status of the pandemic.

Now is the time to be preparing for how and when our churches are able to safely resume in-person worship. Many churches are already developing plans for their eventual return. As they prepare, each church is asked to establish a Healthy Church Team, which should consist of representatives of the Trustees and Church Council, lay leaders, the pastor, a medical professional, a legal professional and others as needed. This group would provide advise and counsel to the lead pastor, chair of Trustees, Church Council and S/PPRC, and would coordinate with the pastors, staff, volunteers and the District Superintendent on creating a plan for in-person worship. Consideration should be given to determining the church’s readiness, willingness and ability to move to different forms of worship, preparing the building, accommodating worship to strict social distancing, sanitation needs, and communication of plans with the congregation and community.

Beginning May 24, every church that wants to have members gather in the church parking lot for Drive-In Worship may do so, following strict requirements specified in the plan for resuming in-person worship. These include requiring everyone to remain in their vehicles and prohibiting access to the church buildings including the restrooms. These requirements will be available on the Conference website in the Handbook for Healthy Church Teams. Additionally, there will be the Plan Summary, a Graphical Presentation of the Plan and a short introductory video from the Bishop. Please look for these soon.

A request has been made for some churches in each district to consider being “pioneer churches”, which would move gradually to in-person worship, following strict distancing and sanitation protocols, and provide feedback on what they learned, what are best practices, and what needs to be modified. After sharing their plans with the district superintendents, a small number of churches will be selected to serve in this initial stage of reopening. Ideally, these would represent different regions of the Conference and different sizes of churches. The numbers of participants in worship would be restricted to 25 or fewer, test services would be run following strict protocols, and input solicited, all the while monitoring the implementation and reporting to the Council and District Superintendent. The lessons learned from these pioneer churches’ worship services would be shared with all other churches in the district.

Clearly some regions in the state are being affected more severely than others. At no point during this staged approach to reopening would a church be required to open. As we move forward, we would do well to remember John Wesley’s Simple Rules: Do No Harm, Do Good and Stay in Love with God. We value the health and well-being of all God’s people, especially the vulnerable ones. We seek to share God’s love. We pray that more and more people will come to know the love of God and stay in it.

For those of you who have the gifts and expertise to serve on the Healthy Church Team for your church, please prayerfully consider serving. All of us need to be in prayer for our churches as we prepare to move towards reopening!

Karen McElfish
Arlington District Lay Leader