Letter to the Congregation: Restarting Our Church

April 22, 2020
      First of all, the Coronavirus pandemic is far from over.  I feel like repeating Winston Churchill’s famous words following the British military victory over Rommel’s forces in 1942: “Now is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
      We feel as though we have all been through so much already.  How can I say that we have a long way to go?  My friend and fellow pastor, Dean Prentiss, from Wesley Park UMC, lost his uncle to the virus last weekend.  That’s the third family member of a person from my small clergy support group of seven pastors that has had a family member stricken by COVID-19.  Thankfully, no one else connected with our clergy group has died.  I’m sure there are people from our congregation who know someone infected by the virus as well.  Medical experts and scientists are telling us that it’s likely that there are more people who have been infected than we realize, but that they have gone without symptoms. 
      One thing we do know is that churches will look different in the months ahead; possibly it will include the kind of changes that will be lasting.  Certainly, the live streaming of worship services and ZOOM meetings will have a place in our future. 
     Below are some of the ideas our church leaders are currently considering on how to go about reopening Sparta UMC.  We are sharing these thoughts as a way of getting our entire congregation engaged in the conversation about the way forward.  Please read these ideas and join us in our prayer and dialogue in the weeks and months ahead.

     When we begin back at the church, we will likely be limited to a handful of worship leaders who will continue our live streaming. I am looking forward to working on a team again!  We also have better technology and musical equipment in our church sanctuary.  The last Sunday we were able to broadcast from the church (March 22nd), before “Sheltering in Place” began, was so wonderful.  It will be great to get back to that level of teamwork.   

     This stage will likely unfold simultaneously to stage one.  It will begin with a call to prayer in families to consider becoming a kind of home church.  We might call it a “Family Church Home.”  This is a Sunday morning gathering place where a small group comes together to live stream our service in a private residence.  A family would invite a few people (mainly seniors who are unable to live stream themselves, and for whom avoiding crowds is important) to join them.  This setting would still strictly maintain all social distancing, face masks, and hand washing practices, but would give people a chance to remain connected.  For some, just having a few others with whom to share worship would make a huge difference.  Having Family Church Homes throughout our parish will help address the isolation some are feeling, while limiting the risk of coming together in larger groups.  This setting will be a little like having a small Bible study group.

     As we move into summer, we will need to discover ways to have some fun together.  Someone has already suggested we move some of our worship services outdoors.  Maybe this could happen at Roger’s Park (like it has happened at times in the past), or out into our own church yard. What other ways can you imagine that we can have some fun this summer?  Maybe other churches will give us some great ideas too.

      It is likely that our governor will begin opening Michigan in stages.  One can logically imagine that we will be limited to gatherings of perhaps 10, 25, or 50 people for a while.  The size will probably start small and grow over time.  Before the pandemic we averaged well over 100 people every week in worship.  Of course, that many people now would not allow for proper social distancing.  To make using our sanctuary work better in this new COVID-19 world, we might find that adding a second worship service would help.  By doing this we would be able to spread people around the sanctuary better.  Of course, we would also require face masks as well.  Masks would be provided for those who did not have their own.  Family Church Homes would continue, where possible, during this stage because it may be quite a while before our most at-risk people can safely be out in public.  Many medical experts believe that it will require the development of a vaccine to see all our elderly friends back in places where large groups congregate.       
     You may notice that there are no timelines attached to this preliminary plan.  Our church leaders have only begun the conversation.  Now they want to hear from you.  If you become aware of something interesting from another church, please write it down and send it to me or our church office.  I am convinced that our church has special strengths that will help us through these difficult times.  Right now, financial giving is remaining strong and many of our people are reaching out to others in amazing ways in an attempt to keep people connected.  I am doing my best to provide a Sunday morning experience that we can expand as we are given the thumbs up from government and church officials.
     We have a long way to go.  We will want to have programming for children up and running, and women’s circles meeting again.  But everything must happen in a safe way.  We are uncertain when it will be safe to have our office open with staff to greet visitors, or when Free Community Breakfasts can once again bring us together in support of our community.   The journey ahead will undoubtedly shape us as individuals and as a church and I am convinced we will learn and grow along the way.  I am simply thankful to all of you for your faithfulness and kindness in the midst of this challenging moment.

Pastor Phil