When Can We Worship Together Again in the Sanctuary?
 
   On Wednesday, May 13, the Virginia Annual Conference issued required guidelines that all our congregations must follow to gather again for Sunday worship.  I sent the requirements to the church council members on Friday May 15.  On Monday, May 18 the Trinity Church Council met via Zoom to discuss the possibilities for in-person worship at Trinity.
     
    The Conference will have a staged re-opening, with some congregations allowed to worship in person earlier than others.  All congregations must follow the guidelines to ensure the safety and well-being of our people, and all congregations must form a Health Church Team to oversee the implementation of the guidelines.
  
      Stage One is for a few, select congregations to gather in person for worship beginning on Sunday, May 24.  Stage One congregations must have fewer than 25 folks in the sanctuary, and all persons must be masked. Choral singing, congregational singing, printed bulletins, pew hymnals, pew bibles, passing the offering plate, and passing the peace are not permitted.  Children aged 12 years and younger are not permitted to participate.  Folks wishing to worship in the sanctuary on Sunday must pre-register their attendance and submit a one-page health form/contact sheet (to be reviewed only if an outbreak in the community occurs).  Trinity has not been designated a Stage One church.

     Stage Two churches are those churches that normally have fewer than 50 folks in worship.  The start date for Stage Two congregations has not been set (perhaps it would be Sunday, June 14, but that has not been confirmed by the conference.)   The same strict guidelines must be followed for Stage Two congregations as Stage One: printed bulletins, choir, congregational singing, passing of the peace, and passing the offering plate are not permitted.  Children 7 years and younger are not permitted. Pre-registration and health forms are required prior to attending worship.  The congregation would have to have staggered dismal from the sanctuary to ensure that we weren’t congregating in the hallways and narthex (which is our favorite thing to do on Sunday).   Face masks are also required, and if someone refuses to wear a mask and insists on staying in the sanctuary, the pastor must immediately cancel the worship service.  Because Trinity’s normal worship attendance exceeds 50 on a Sunday (we were averaging 137 folks), Trinity is not a Stage Two church.  The Conference guidelines do make provision for larger congregations like ours to apply to become a Stage Two church.  We would have to from the Health Church Team, implement the guidelines, and apply for a waiver.  

      Trinity’s church council discussed at length whether or not we should apply to become a Stage Two congregation.  What would our worship look like without greeting each other, singing, our usual liturgy, small children, and those adults who are in higher-risk groups who would not be able to be present?  Could we have meaningful worship simultaneously in the sanctuary and online, given the guidelines?  The church council discussed the technical equipment we would need to acquire and train ourselves on in order to create new online worship that unites those in the sanctuary with those who worship at home.  The sad reality is that the way that this diabolical virus spreads itself impacts all the elements that make our sanctuary worship meaningful.     It was the unanimous decision of the church council that Trinity would not apply to become a Stage Two church at this time.     

   Trinity has been designated a Stage Three church, when all Virginia Conference United Methodist Congregations may resume much of our usual, normal life.  The Sunday start date for Stage Three has not been set. 

   Trinity will continue to offer our current form of Sunday worship: a combination of pre-recorded videos and online liturgy.  Home versions of this worship are adapted, printed, and mailed to those of our church members who do not have computer access.  Trinity will form a Healthy Church Team to oversee the process for when Trinity is permitted to worship in person again.  
 
   I have an abundance of feelings about all of this, as I suspect all of us will.  We are yearning to see each other face-to-face and to be in the same room worshiping God, singing, and praying, and being together!  Other churches in our area have already gathered for worship or will shortly.  It’s hard not to take our place with them.

    And yet!
   
    United Methodists have three general rules which have guided us since our foundation:  do good, avoid harm, and follow the ways of Christ.  At this time the best way for Trinity to follow those rules is to continue to worship as we are. As your pastor, I am at peace with this decision.  

    Summertime is usually a slow season for Trinity when much of our church ministries are slow or at rest.  That need not be the case for this summer!
   
     I have had a conference call with the other Lexington churches about forming an online/Zoom/Community-wide, at-home Vacation Bible School to be held in July.
     We have graduations to celebrate, eighth-graders who are ready to confirm their faith, and new members to officially welcome into the family. 
     I’ll be working with our church leadership to develop the ways we can still nurture our faith and reach out with love and compassion to the community.
     Daily Devotions will resume in early June to unite our congregation and strengthen our faith.
     
     The Conference guidelines may be changed in the days to come!  Stage 3 could come about sooner than we expect! 
      I will keep you apprised of any new developments.  

     I am grateful to God for the Trinity church council members for their wise reflection, open discussion, and leadership.
     I am grateful to God for the Trinity church staff who has adapted to these strange new times with grace
        and willingness to try new things.
     I am grateful to God for the people of Trinity who have continuously stepped up to care for each other and for our community. 
     I see the blessings you have given to one another!

     I am eager to hear from you about your reactions (positive and negative) to all of this, and your ideas of the ministries Trinity Christ is calling us to do for each other and for our community. 
 
     Pastor Joe