A Pastoral Note to Grace Covenant – May 24, 2020

Captain John Smith Overlooks the James

The good news is we may be beginning to see a light at the end of our tunnel. The bad news is, we don’t know for sure how far way the actual end of the tunnel is, nor what exactly we will experience once we come through the tunnel.

As I mentioned last week – and everyone knew already – Governor Northam opened the door for churches to legally begin gathering again for in-person worship. Many also seem aware that on Friday President Trump strongly urged the governors of states still prohibiting gatherings to make an exception for churches, though that urging has no effect on Virginia since any prohibition had already been lifted. I appreciate the President’s recognition of churches being “essential” (which many of us already knew).  Perhaps less helpful, though seeming well intended, are reports that state the President told churches to open their doors this weekend. With all due respect to the civil authorities, it is the place of neither the Governor nor the President to dictate what churches must and cannot do.

Several weeks ago the Elders of Grace Covenant decided to suspend in-person worship, and all in-person ministry activities, for an indefinite time because we believed that it was best for the physical health of the congregation.  We made this decision before there were any executive orders issued from Richmond. We made the decision because we believed wisdom dictated we do so, and because God’s Word requires we do everything in our power to preserve life.  Speaking only for myself, I have no regrets about that decision; nor have I heard regret expressed by any other church officer.

We are now coming to the time for us to re-open the doors to the church for in-person worship. Not because the President says we must, or because the Governor says we can, but because we believe it is time. At least, we believe it is time to begin a phased re-gathering, with appropriate precautions, allowing those who are at lower risk of serious effects from the COVID virus to gather for in-person worship.  But there are a number of preparations that we feel we need to make before simply swinging the church doors wide open. In this note I hope to communicate the pertinent decisions and the essence of the thinking of Grace Covenant’s church officers.

As many are aware, Grace Covenant’s Elders and Deacons met this past Tuesday evening, via Zoom, to discuss the particulars about re-opening, the protocols that will need to be put in place for the protection of worshipers, and the preparations that will need to be made. It was a fruitful and good spirited meeting.

The short of it is this: Grace Covenant will not host open in-person worship before June 14. June 14 is essentially our target date, but between now and then we will be keeping watch on what is happening in other parts of the country that have been opened for longer periods, and keeping an eye on the trends in our own area, in case there is any reason we would be wise to delay further. While we came to our decision on our own, the date correlates with when a number of other Williamsburg area churches are planning to hold their first in-person services.  I have been in communication with the pastors of several of these church, and we are sharing thoughts and ideas about best practices. But Grace Covenant’s decision was made independent of any other congregation.

We are hopeful that beginning preparations for mid June offers us the time to follow a wiser course for the protection of the physical health and the peace & unity of our church than if we were to rush into a return.  We are very much sensitive to the fact that within our own church we have both those who are very concerned about the continued threat of the virus, and others who are willing to take the risk to be back together worshiping with others. There is no way we will be able to satisfy all. But our hope is a little patience on the part of those anxious to return will also offer some encouragement to those who have greater concerns.

Here are some of the particulars related to resumption of in-person gatherings:

  • On Sunday June 7 we will hold a “soft” opening, with a limited number of people in the sanctuary, LiveStreaming the service at 10am. This service is expected to be taped, and available for later participating. It also provides opportunity to work out our protocols.  On Sunday June 14 we plan to move to two services, at our regular 8:30 & 11am times. Both services will be LiveStreamed; at least one of these services should be recorded.
  • We are encouraging all who are in the “at risk” category to remain home until that time when it is deemed “safer” to rejoin us. Recognizing that this could be a significant portion of our congregation, and because we value all of you, we have upgraded our camera and tech capabilities so that we can provide you with a much better LiveStream than we have previously been offering.
  • The number of people allowed to participate in any service will be limited by our ability to practice safe social distancing. We will plan for two services each week, beginning June 14. If the number of participants outpaces our ability to accommodate everyone while practicing safe social distancing, we will offer a third service if necessary.
  • There will be no nursery offered until further notice. Children are more than welcome in the worship service, if families are comfortable bringing them; but for the safety and conscience of our nursery volunteers, and to minimize the possibility of transmission of the virus, we will not initially provide a nursery for children.
  • All in-person Children’s and Youth activities will remain suspended until further notice. This includes our annual VBS, which was scheduled for the week of June 15-19. Alternative activities are being developed. More info on these will be provided at later dates.

There are other protocols, as well. Those will be published and sent out at a later time. But for now, hopefully the most immediate questions have been answered – when will we resume? what will be offered?

Let me finish with this: several noted churchman from around the country have suggested that this virus, and our response to it, poses perhaps the greatest threat to church unity in our lifetime. I do not know if that is hyperbole or not, but the potential for frustration and division is quite apparent.  People have a wide range of opinions about this virus, yet we still know little about it. Unfortunately the politicization of this pandemic has poisoned the reliability of much of the information we do receive. And as Christians we are no more innately immune to the frustration than we are to the virus. For all these reasons, and more, I want to commend to you an article published by The Gospel Coalition last week: Church, Don’t Let Coronavirus Divide You by Brett McCracken.

I share this article, not because I have seen any evidence in our church that causes me concern. On the contrary, you have all been fabulously supportive of our (sometimes feeble) efforts to minister to you; you have been gracious, encouraging, generous… while I hope to never have to pastor in such circumstances again, you have made serving this church as much of a joy as I imagine it can be during such times. I share this article as an invitation for us all to be united in prayer, united in purpose, because we are united in Christ, even if we may not all be united in opinion at this time about the best courses of action moving forward. I pray, with great hope and confidence, that for us, for Grace Covenant, this potential fissure will only serve to strengthen our Oneness in Christ, and deepen our love for one another.

Grace & Peace,

W. Dennis Griffith, Lead Pastor

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