Faith communities around the country are facing difficult decisions on how and when to return to in-person worship as states begin reopening. A United Church of Christ congregation in Rumford, R.I., has decided to wait it out, at least for the next year. Leaders of Newman Congregational Church also encourage other churches to consider the same, if it is in the best interest of their community.
"Until we can ensure that we are doing everything possible as a community to lessen the risk of COVID-19 transmission during programs happening in our church building, we will not be gathering," said the Rev. Timoth Sylvia, Newman UCC Pastor. "It is a painful decision to make and to communicate."
On May 7, the church council and trustees joined Sylvia in the decision to suspend all in-person gatherings for a year, as a benchmark, after Gov. Gina Raimondo called on churches to have a plan in place for returning to worship. Newman UCC’s timeline hinges on a readily available, proven effective vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
"I am heartbroken to see the number of people who are still saying...we are waiting until the end of May or the summer. Me personally, I wanted to determine what is best for our community. To take that step back and recognize the emotional toll that it has on people," Sylvia said noting that he didn’t want to put his people on an emotional roller coaster offering false hope, just to have that hope dashed down the road. "We are all grieving, and need to lessen the anxiety. That’s the route we need to take, I think, as churches."
Grief, denial— and understanding
Sylvia communicated the decision to the congregation Friday, May 8, the day Raimondo said it was OK for churches to start meeting in groups no bigger than five people. Understandably, it was another experience of loss.
"I received a fair number of responses – not positive. People embodying their grief with anger and denial. It’s a heartbreaking decision and overwhelmingly they understand the need for it," he said. "One of the responses... They named that they appreciated how clear the decision is coming from a place of love. Anything we can do to lessen the risk of transmission we are going to do."
He pointed out that Newman UCC has already been touched by COVID-19. In a congregation of 250 active members, two have contracted the virus and are recovering at home. Many more have friends and family members who became sick. Some have died.
"Look at the population that gathers for worship. Many are older, with health issues," Sylvia said. "I’m reading and listening to the science. As we see communities open up, we are going to see the spread of the virus."
Going online; talking with other leaders
The church is now recording a 10:00 a.m. Sunday service it live-streams on Facebook and posts on YouTube. It also hosts a Zoom Coffee Hour immediately after worship at 11:00 a.m. But getting to that point, Sylvia said, was a process.
"We found our way in a hurry. We talked about wanting to be able to live stream, but hadn’t taken that step,” he said sharing that for the first two Sundays it wasn’t even a worship service, just "random thoughts" from the pastor. He then tried Zoom streaming week three, before recording the full service week four. Sunday, May 19, will be Newman UCC’s ninth week of online worship.
"We are still paying attention to what our state is doing. As I’ve been in conversation with folks in the church, I’ve said we will start seeing our communities open up. We may see the church down the street open and we are going to feel that pressure. But I am confident we are doing everything we can to lessen the threat of transmission," Sylvia said.
He has shared Newman UCC’s approach with the Rhode Island governor, writing to her on the day she announced that churches would be allowed to start opening, calling her decision "a deadly slope." Sylvia said he has reached out to the bridge Conference ministers in the Southern New England Conference and he’s been having conversations with authorized ministers in Associations in Rhode Island and Connecticut about delaying in-person gatherings until there is an effective, widely accessible vaccine for COVID-19.
"I’m all about covenant," Sylvia said. "Any way I or our community can be a resource to others, especially in these uncertain times, I’m happy to do it."
Looking ‘further down the path’
Church leaders are aware of financial challenges ahead. "We all have to be concerned about finances. We looked at March numbers, and, with April, we’re seeing a decline in pledges," he said, noting the church "has seen an increase in online contributions. We are going to continue to monitor the financial situation and make adjustments. We received a PPP (government) loan and kept all of our staff. For the moment we are okay, but it’s something we are going to have to watch and monitor."
The pastor said he continues to approach this response to the pandemic positively, out of love for the members of his church.
"To decide that our faith community will not gather for programs or worship for at least the next year means that we are given another hope to which we can hold," Sylvia said. "It allows us to set our sights further down the path and opens us up to a healthy process for grieving as well as for re-imagining how we are to be the church in this time.
"The church is not the building. Our ministries have not ceased. If anything, they are amplified in this time of increased needs."