How can I convince my church leaders not to resume in-person services?
July 28, 2020 5:53 PM   Subscribe

My church is making plans to resume in-person services, justifying this by saying that they are following CDC guidelines by requiring masks, taking temperatures at the door and asking people who have recently traveled or had a possible COVID exposure to stay away. How can I articulate an opposition to this in a way that's doesn't sound alarmist or rage-y?

I attend a moderately sized Protestant church in the Deep South, in a town and a state where COVID is running wild and public sentiment is not uniformly strident (or even credulous) about safety measures. Even with a statewide mask rule, I see many people in public going without, and restaurants in my town are commonly full. I have not been a *monk* these past few months, but I am far more observant of restrictions than the general community norm seems to be. Schools are restarting in 2 weeks with full classrooms and buses 5 days a week; I order groceries online for pickup twice a month and haven't had a haircut or been to the gym since March.

My church had pivoted to online services in the spring, but now is making plans to return to in-person services. (The actual community spread is MUCH worse now than it was throughout the spring and early summer.) They claim that they are "doing it safely" by "obeying CDC guidelines". I am profoundly disappointed in this decision, and I want to make some kind of argument against it. I am pretty sure it won't make any difference, but as a member of the congregation I feel morally obliged to at least make the case.

* I don't believe that "temperature checks" and sore throat questionnaires go much beyond hygiene theater, because it's common to have the virus but be asymptomatic. Is this unreasonable, or am I missing something medical/scientific here?

* I don't believe that the church leaders are able or willing to actually enforce mask-wearing; that is, people will take them off as soon as they get inside and sit down, and no clergy is going to stand in front of them and say "mask up or leave" and actually mean it.

*I don't believe that it's going to be possible -- or a priority -- to keep people physically separated inside the building. Communications from the clergy have included phrases like "people will be seated at compassionate distance" -- what does that even mean? Is there enough room to keep everybody 6 feet apart or not?

Please help me get past my anger and disappointment about what I see as a moral failure on the part of the church -- missing the opportunity to set an example of "good behavior" that accepts sacrifice in order to contribute to the pubic health of everyone. I want to make a cogent argument without sounding like an alarmist freak or an angry b***h, but this is like month 900 of sitting in my house alone and I can't even tell the difference anymore.

Is this reasonable or pointless? Am I over-reacting? Should I not even bother? Can you suggest any phrasing or arguments that you think might be well-received?
posted by mccxxiii to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
“the opportunity to set an example of ‘good behavior’ that accepts sacrifice”

I think this is the angle you should take. It’s a message that should resonate with a Christian pastor. It may not work (see below), but it’s more likely to work than other approaches.

“Is this reasonable or pointless?”

Probably the latter. Sounds like they’ve already made the decision.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:07 PM on July 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

For what it's worth, I don't think you are over-reacting. I also don't think you're going to get anywhere by arguing about it; maybe I'm just exhausted by having mask arguments with people all day, every day. (I want a portable flip board where I can keep a tally of "Days Since Mask Failure.")

You could try sending an email to whoever is in charge at your church, basically saying what you've said here. Don't bother quoting statistics, people ignore them in favor of feelings. Just tell them you're disappointed in the decision, given the rapid community spread in your area, and you are sad to be leaving this church.*

* Obviously, that's a decision you'd have to make for yourself, and I'm not religious so my opinion counts for like nothing here, but that amount of values dissonance would make me break ties with an organization putting its members at such significant risk.
posted by basalganglia at 6:12 PM on July 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: UUA recommendation about why UU services should remain virtual. Maybe something in there will help your framing.
posted by lapis at 6:16 PM on July 28, 2020 [12 favorites]

Would the Texas Medical Association be seen as a reputable source? They produced this chart which shows that a wedding or funeral is a moderate high risk activities while attending a service with over 500 people is about the riskiest thing you can do.

So, the question is, as religious institution to encourage people do take care of the vulnerable in our community (you know, widows, orphans, lepers) as well as the many young and healthy who might have long term health problems from the complications of the virus by avoiding moderately- high and very high risk activities when there is an option to pray together virtually that also protects all of your members.
posted by metahawk at 6:16 PM on July 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Here is a list of guidance from a collection of mainstream Protestant churches. Check out the arguments that they use, particularly if they are in line with a more cautious approach to these risks.

Here are some facts about the risks - what would do to the community if 50 members fall ill due to the church's rush to reopen? What is the risk to pastors and ushers and community leaders?

“Our churches have followed protocols — masks, go in one door and out the other, social distancing,” said Cynthia Fierro Harvey, a bishop with the United Methodist Church in Louisiana, where three churches closed again over the last week. “And still people have tested positive.”
posted by metahawk at 6:22 PM on July 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

I don't know how your community feels about the Atlantic, but I thought this article laid out the real problems pretty well.

It is extremely unfortunate that the messaging around "safeguards" has been as incorrect as it has been. Very hard to say "science!!" when sources that claim to be science based are simply parroting old and wrong advice about 6 feet, disinfecting surfaces etc.

Any chance at all that you could ask them to at least do some of the services outside, so that people who really want to come to services, but not take on the risk of an indoor singing session, have an option?

in one door and out the other???
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:26 PM on July 28, 2020

I would write and strongly encourage them not to reopen, and if they feel they must, ask them to be truly vigilant about mask wearing. Send links to articles and studies that cover indoor spread case studies. Here’s one from the Washington Post that covers a bunch of them.

I found the outbreak in the South Korean call center to be extremely compelling , especially the graphic showing where people who got infected were sitting . Of 216 employees, 94 were infected, they believe by one person, because they were indoors. I was shocked when I found out none of my coworkers were aware of these events, and it is worth sending this information to your church in case they aren’t either. At least you’ll have tried, and if they choose to be stupid and reckless at least you’ll know it was an informed decision. Good luck, I think it’s both brave and vital that people speak up about this.

Sorry, my links don’t seem to be there, if I can figure out what’s wrong I’ll post another comment with them! Apologies!!
posted by sumiami at 6:36 PM on July 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

You may be able to use information from Derek Thompson's recent article in the Atlantic, Hygiene Theater Is a Huge Waste of Time, to help bolster your case about the risks of transmission, but NBC News recently published an article, 14 in Texas family test positive for coronavirus after small gathering, 1 dies, about "Tony Green, who lives in Dallas and hosted the event, [and] wrote a column titled, "A harsh lesson in the reality of COVID-19," in which he said he was a former COVID-19 denier," that may be more effective.

There have also been reports about superspreader events at churches, e.g. A new dilemma for Trump’s team: Preventing super-spreader churches (Politico, Jun. 28, 2020), Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases. (NYT / Yahoo reprint, Jul. 8, 2020), and in ‘Superspreading’ events, triggered by people who may not even know they are infected, propel coronavirus pandemic (WaPo / Stars & Stripes reprint, Jul. 18, 2020), it is noted:
Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland, and other experts have wondered if superspreading events could be the “Achilles’ heel” of the virus. If we could pinpoint the conditions under which these clusters occur, Milton argued, we could lower the transmission rate enough to extinguish the spread. “If you could stop these events, you could stop the pandemic,” Milton said. “You would crush the curve.”
posted by katra at 6:37 PM on July 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

I would send them every article I find on "people attended church services and then half the congregation came down with the virus." ALL OF THEM.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:39 PM on July 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: So sorry for the link failure earlier, it's been awhile for me! Here's the link to the Post article. Here's the cdc article on the call center, and to the image of the layout of the office
posted by sumiami at 6:46 PM on July 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Churches protect the vulnerable.
posted by amtho at 7:14 PM on July 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

I have usually gotten further with people by speaking my truth rather than sharing too much information, although I find the points you marked as best answer compelling.

So here is my thinking, I hope it helps.

I would not find it pointless to have one or perhaps two conversations with as high up as I could go, even if I knew they would fail. It would be something that I would feel kind of fell into the area of witnessing/conscientiously objecting.

I would let that person know that I have compassion for all the needs of the community that they are trying to address and what a difficult time and place it is to try to make these decisions. And then I would say "but I wouldn't feel right about myself if I didn't share what I am worried about."

And then...for me I would share plainly what I was worried about.

One, that the church is missing the mark in its ability to take a leadership role and protect people. There are people who have to go back to work, to have their children in school or care, and to provide healthcare and other services. Every contact with someone increases risk where there is community transmission, and so the church could take a firm line in protecting its congregants from one more set of contacts.

Two, that given there has been community online, the "butts in seats" approach may be perceived as mercenary. I would also gently ask if that is the case and if so, see point below.

Finally, if it were me, I would be worried that fundamentally that it could tear the community apart in grief, sorrow, recrimination, and self-recrimination if there is an event that results in the suffering of congregants and their families.

I'd also ask if there is a middle way. Can they continue to offer online services so that people can make good choices. If someone's feeling a bit funny, or worried they were exposed, or anything - can they choose online and be safe, and that way they can also help protect everyone else. Also, could people be sorted into cohorts, so that any spread is minimized and easier to trace - for example, could people come to services 1 out of 3 times, in the same groups, so that there are 1/3 the people (and much more space) each week? If it is funds-driven could there be a fundraising drive?

Maybe there are options they just don't think they can do, that they will explore more if you are speaking out.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:20 PM on July 28, 2020 [8 favorites]

I'd suspect that the only thing that might be effective is to strongly request that they continue to offer the online services in addition to in-person, for those that do not wish to risk the exposure. And then whether they do or not, DO NOT risk the exposure, but stay in contact with those you wish to, and explain why if asked. When people become ill, or even that it tears through your church, as expected, sympathize but reinforce that is why you chose to stay safe.

I don't think you're going to change the minds of those who are stubborn, foolish, or believe they're invincible. I've come to realize through this that a great many people I know and care for are much more deliberately ignorant than I'd previously understood.
posted by stormyteal at 7:34 PM on July 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I serve an ELCA congregation in Northern New Jersey. Roughly 2 dozen people in my congregation contradicted the virus in late February and March. I know 5 people who died. My congregation's experience of the virus was small compared to my neighbors (in much larger synagogues/catholic parishes) but it was also very real. We returned to in-person worship on a weekly basis on July 12th. We meet outdoors, practice the six feet distance rule, require masks, track attendance for contact tracing, and do not allow congregational singing. Communion is practiced in what I call baptist style (people pick up the elements when they arrive and consume in their seats). We do allow congregational responses and will break the distance rule in certain circumstances (i.e. the few close moments during a baptism when water is poured over the head). Our musicians sing and are roughly 15-20 feet from where people sit. In-person, we're averaging attendance half of what we would expect. We still have a large number of people engaging online worship. In-person worship is something we do in addition to our worship online. So far this is working for us and we keep making adjustments as new thoughts/insights come up.

From your question, my sense is that there might not be anyway to steer the ship around. I bet there is a hunger for faithful people to gather together and that longing for community is overpowering. I don't think many of our Christian traditions spent time with honest lament, longing, and what the advent of Jesus is all about before this pandemic. When our communities stopped gathering in-person, we found ourselves launched into an unfamiliar territory. We masked those feelings of longing into action moving everything online, signing up for Zoom, and upgrading our AV equipment. We all chose to to over-work our way through this crisis and to eliminate that feeling of longing. But the longing is still there and once the transition to online worship happened, the urge to gather in-person grew. For some, not gathering feels like a restriction of "my rights." For others, none of this feels real. Others think they'll be fine if they get it. And others are using their faith to hide their fears - whatever those might be. I think you understand that longing. You get it. You're living it. And I'm personally grateful that you're willing to sit with that longing for a little while longer as a way to love God and your neighbor.

I don't know if news articles will convince the leadership to wait for the advent of in-person worship a little longer. I bet they feel that they are being faithful, careful, and loving. And they believe they are caring deeply for the spiritual health of their people. I don't doubt their sincerity to be faithful followers of Jesus is a very weird time. So if y'all are going to be faithful, what does that actually mean? For my community (and myself), we need to be stringent in their following of protocol. We need to be in a place where we can stop worship if someone doesn't follow the rules. We need to be able to cancel worship for several weeks if someone is sick or exposed to someone who is sick. We need to invest in things that are more than just cleaning theater (i.e. invest in UV lights in stall in sanctuary space). We also had to go through deep prayer, conversation, and thought when it came to seeing what worship in-person needs to spiritually feed the community. For my people, they needed to pray - out loud - together. That's why we're outdoors and have no plan/idea if we'll go indoor. Being indoors, speaking together, or singing is just too dangerous. And the people who will come to worship will not be the "super healthy." It'll be people from 2 months to 90 years old. Jesus wants us to be a multigenerational community. That's a gift that also empowers us with responsibilities.

I'll echo something warriorqueen said: talk to people in the congregation who are higher up the so-called chain of command. If there's a taskforce guiding this reopening process, email them your thoughts. Be honest about the issues you see (i.e. what does that space guidance mean?). Share your truth. Lean into your faith and where you see the Spirit guiding you (because I know the Spirit is). Ask the leadership to explain their guidance and plans. And talk to the clergy. I appreciated the people in my community who shared with me their concerns. It helped me (and others) see issues we didn't think of before.

In my denomination, the churches in Northern New Jersey are all over the map. Some are gathering on-line only. Some are now gathering in-person outdoors. Others are making plans for indoor worship or have just started. I'm blessed that my clergy group is active, meets weekly, and we talk - talk - talk about this stuff all the time. If your congregation feels like it's doing it alone (or feels like they need to keep up with the congregations that are already gathering in person), they might need help seeing what's possible in this moment. Jesus isn't calling every community to be exactly the same.

And I'll affirm that it's okay for you to keep doing what you're doing. Stay home and let the taskforce or leadership know why. Your not gathering in-person is still you actively loving God and your neighbor. You are still faithfully following your call from God. And even thought that's hard - keep at it.
posted by Stynxno at 7:41 PM on July 28, 2020 [19 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone so far for the thoughtful answers! Just to clarify, they do plan to keep the services online while they also have them in-person, and there has been an outdoors option when weather permits. (It's so hot here right now that I don't choose that.) My concern is not that I don't have a choice to worship safely, it's that they are offering this other choice that will be so dangerous for the congregation and the community.

This is part of my conflicted thinking, because I could just do TV church and keep my mouth shut. I have, throughout my life, been a live-and-let-live gal, reluctant to evangelize (heh!) about my opinions. But this just seems like such a PROFOUNDLY bad idea, directly contradicting all the science that we know about COVID (and likely somewhat political based on the demographics of my community/congregation) ... for those reasons I feel compelled to speak to it.
posted by mccxxiii at 8:04 PM on July 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: My denomination shut down face-to-face services early, and I'm on the council for a small congregation that recently decided not to return to face-to-face services yet*. I also had a recent conversation with a friend who is a minister in a congregation that desperately wants to return to face-to-face services, but she does not believe it can be done safely. A couple of thoughts coming out of those experiences:
  • A lot of people are grieving the loss of their pre-COVID life, and may or may not be able to articulate the deeply-held idea that going "back to normal" for worship will make them feel more steady, like they're more able to cope. This is tricky to combat as it's hard to reason people out of a position that they didn't reason themselves into. However, for my congregation at least, meeting face-to-face won't be "back to normal" - we won't be able to sing, we won't be able to "pass the peace" with a handshake, we won't be able to do communion/eucharist the way we're used to, we won't be able to share supper after the service or even linger in the building after worship is over. We'll also need to mobilise a small army of volunteers to put on masks and gloves and make sure people are doing what they ought to be doing, including telling people to go away if they appear to be sick or if our building is at capacity. Getting people to reflect on how different this is to what they're hoping for when they think of face-to-face as "back to normal" is a sad experience but a realistic one.
  • My friend belongs to a congregation with a lot of people who are vulnerable because of health conditions or age. A number of them are very cavalier about their own health, and quite insistent that it is discriminatory/infantilising to tell them what they can and can't do, for example, wanting to continue to be greeters at the church. My friend responded quite simply: I could not live with myself if I gave someone coronavirus and they died. People having these conversations are still assuming that this will never happen, but we may not know that we're infectious until after we've infected others. I think this makes the issues a bit more stark and allows people to move from a theoretical position to one more grounded in reality.
  • A lot of the people who rely on face-to-face services to meet their needs, and who can't engage with online services for whatever reason (e.g. they don't own a computer, they don't know how to use a computer) are struggling right now, and it's legitimate to want to help those people. (In my congregation this includes a contingent of people who are poor, some who have serious mental illnesses, and some who have cognitive disabilities.) Unfortunately, at least in our case, a lot of those people have extra health vulnerabilities that make it unwise for us to encourage them to meet face-to-face right now anyway. A lot of the work of keeping those vulnerable people in a state of emotional equilibrium is currently falling on clergy, which may not be sustainable. Is there something that concerned volunteers in your congregation could do to keep vulnerable people connected, which might allay the sense of urgency about this? There's also a group of people who were regulars pre-COVID and have not connected with online services, for reasons that don't seem to relate to accessibility. It's scary to think of not being able to reconnect with these folk and possibly losing them from our congregation. Again this may require some deliberate and out-of-the-box thinking.
  • One of the biggest things my church has going for it is our location - a lot of people walk past us regularly, and we get a regular flow of visitors, whereas while we're meeting online we're unlikely to grow or be able to welcome new people who need church at this time. Is there a way that your church can prioritise reaching out while remaining online? (If so I'd love to hear about it because I have no good ideas).
  • Financially, unless your congregation has a strong culture of automated giving, your church may well be struggling - the number of people who will give online is much smaller than the number of people who will put cash in the plate on a Sunday. Your leadership may well be feeling this limits their choices for staying online longer. Having leadership that is willing to be open with the online congregation about this could turn this around, however.
Bottom line, I think it's worth continuing to raise this and argue not to meet face to face, and I hope that addressing some of the drivers for this might help.

* While the number of cases in our city is rising, it's almost certainly lower than the number of cases in yours.
posted by Cheese Monster at 8:40 PM on July 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think you will feel better if you say something, I think you just have to be prepared that it will not make as much difference as you hope.

I am in conversation with several leaders from different congregations about reopening (all from tiny congregations). The strongest driver towards reopening is the desire to return to as much of normal life as possible. In my explanation of why my own congregation is not yet reopening in person, I focused on the extent to which reopening now will not be normal, and that what we can offer in person is not yet better than what we can offer online. But, a big part of my reason for us not reopening is that actual social distancing with people you know is hard, and I have met my congregation. They are wonderful stubborn people just like me. If they won't comply I'm not sure whether I'll be able to make them.

I think it's reasonable to say that you'll only really trust your congregation's leadership when you hear that they have turned people away for refusing to wear masks, or having a raised temperature, or when they've insisted on more spread apart seating and asked people to stop singing, and closed the building promptly following worship. Or when they close again completely in a second wave. Doing the right thing when it is hard to do is what builds trust.
posted by plonkee at 4:06 AM on July 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Check your MeMail.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:42 AM on July 29, 2020

There are a couple Scriptures you might want to have handy that may be compelling to other people in the congregation -

Rom. 12:17-18 - "...Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." It is the responsibility of the church to show love to its neighbors. If there is an outbreak and it shows up on the front page of the newspaper, how would the church members feel?

I Cor. 8:9 (but really, the whole chapter) - "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak." Sometimes we must sacrifice our liberty for others for the cause of Christ.

I would probably have this conversation with the elders and/or pastor only.
posted by eleslie at 5:45 AM on July 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

Also, Proverbs 12:15: "Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice."
posted by madcaptenor at 7:14 AM on July 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

Churches in WA Australia have been able to open, and anecdotally, I've heard that people prefer meeting online rather than the new COVID normal, which isn't the same as the old normal. (I'm in Victoria, where meeting is online only.)

The other thing is bringing the name of Jesus into disrepute- it's such a bad look when churches are part of outbreaks.
posted by freethefeet at 5:40 AM on July 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

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