In August I got a reminder that my syllabus was due for the course I teach at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. At that moment, I realized that autumn is upon us. I don’t know about you, but the summer disappeared. They say time flies when you’re having fun, and I suppose it also flies when you’re in the midst of a pandemic. And here we are, in pretty much the same place as we were in March.
While I hope for a quicker return to some sense of regular order, I think that the timeline has expanded from where I thought it would be a few months ago. For the foreseeable future, things will be different. But, in due time, we will return to all of us worshiping together in the sanctuary rather than in the diaspora watching our computer screens.
As businesses and schools reopen in the Capital Region, churches have been reopening their sanctuaries as well. The Consistory has helped to provide a direction toward the goal of meeting in our sanctuary in the safest way possible. These plans are summarized below.
Let me provide a big qualifier, however. I often joke that we have enough time to make plans and then to chuck them all because things have changed. But this is a serious possibility for our reopening plan. Colleges and schools in other parts of the country have already suspended in-person instruction due to outbreaks of the virus. This could happen in our area as well.
Consistory has recognized this possibility, noting that the reopening goal may change if the infection rate increases in our region. So, the planned reopening is what we are striving for. We cannot guarantee that this will happen according to the proposed timeline. Change happens relatively quickly, and much of it is out of our control. So, keep this big qualifier in mind.
When will we reopen the sanctuary?
We plan to reopen in sanctuary for worship in October. October 4 will be a soft reopening only for Consistory members and greeters to give them some experience with the new requirements – almost like a dress rehearsal. That way they can help the rest of us get used to this transitional time. We hope for the sanctuary to be open for the congregation on October 11.
How many people can be in attendance?
That number will continue to be refined. Much of this is driven by state requirements, which require churches to have no more than 33% of their capacity occupied during services. Between this reduced capacity and the requirement for six-foot distancing between households, we expect that we can get 40-ish people in the sanctuary. A reservation system will be set up through the church office. Details will be coming about how the reservation system will work.
Will we have coffee hour?
Sadly, no. Sharing food at a common table is not recommended at this time.
What about singing?
State guidelines require a 12-foot distance between individuals who are singing. That means if there is congregational singing, households would have to be 12 feet away from each other. As this would seriously reduce the number of people that could attend services, there will be no congregational singing unless those guidelines change.
Will there be a change in the flow of people?
Yes. Only the front and side doors will be used; the back door from the parking lot will remain locked. People will be restricted to the sanctuary, the narthex, and the accessible restroom across from Fellowship Hall. Access to the lower floor and Fellowship Hall will be blocked off. I know this is really frustrating, but this helps to manage the spaces in the church building that need to be disinfected and cleaned.
What about masks?
Face coverings will be required in the sanctuary. Although we have been able to remove our masks when meeting outdoors, there is more risk indoors. Our situation is compounded by the lack of air circulation in the sanctuary space. We don’t have a either a mechanical air handling system (HVAC) or a natural air handling system (windows in the sanctuary do not open). We will have a supply of masks in case someone forgets to bring one.
What about hand washing?
Whenever a person enters the sanctuary, they will be expected to wash their hands in the bathroom or to use one of the hand sanitizer dispensers that will be placed at each door.
Can I sit in my usual space?
There will be marked spaces and an usher/greeter will take you to a space. It is almost certain that you will not be in your usual space.
Will things be different in the pews?
There will be no hymnals or Bibles in the pews and the pew cushions will be removed to facilitate cleaning/disinfecting. You are welcome to bring your own Bible (and cushion) from home.
What about those who cannot attend services in the sanctuary?
The service will be live streamed online for those at home. Unfortunately, we will no longer be able to use the Zoom platform, as streaming is not conducive to that. At this time, it appears that listening to the service via a phone call will not be available while we are doing the hybrid worship.
How long will there be an online option for viewing services?
We will livestream services until it is safe for people to gather without restrictions. That will be based on requirements and recommendations from state and federal governments.
I’m unhappy about this.
Me too. Trust me, I never would have imagined pastoring like this, and I do not like it one bit. We are existing in a way that is both profoundly wrong and profoundly necessary -- both of these can be true at the same time. It is not how it should be, but it is what we have to do now. We need to not only think about ourselves, but to show love for our neighbors as well.
Is this a for-sure thing, then?
Nothing is for sure at this point. This is our best plan for now, but innumerable things can happen that would change the plan or require us to scrub it. Things may change for the better or for the worse. The Consistory is doing its best to lead the congregation through this challenging time safely and faithfully.
Finally, but certainly not least important, the Consistory is strongly encouraging everyone to get a flu shot this fall, especially if they are planning to come to the sanctuary for worship. Flu season will be upon us soon, and with two significant respiratory viruses circulating, we do not want to compound risks and concerns. Let’s do what we can to keep ourselves and others safe. This is another way to show love for our neighbors.
Friends, things are not okay. But the good news in all this is that we are not left alone to fend for ourselves, nor is everything left up to chance. We trust that God is leading us through, to somewhere, even when we cannot see it or understand it.
Thank you all for your grace to me and to your Consistory during this time.
With deep and abiding love,
The Rev. Matthew J. van Maastricht
Pastor and Teacher