Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. has issued the following letter for churches sharing some of his thoughts about reopening church buildings as Kansas and Nebraska move into new phases of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference is urging caution in reopening to ensure, as best each congregation can, the health and safety of parishioners and the communities our churches serve.
Sisters and Brothers of the Great Plains Conference,
The peace of Christ be with your spirit in all ways and all times, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. I want to address a topic all of our churches across Kansas and Nebraska are considering at this time: when to reopen our buildings for in-person gatherings.
I am purposeful in making a distinction between the church and a building. We closed our buildings out of an abundance of caution for our parishioners and for the mission fields we serve. The church — the body of believers in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior — never closed or stopped being the church.
Suspending face-to-face worship was a relatively easy decision. COVID-19 Infection rates soared, and the danger to vulnerable populations escalated quickly. Our two states have witnessed more than 20,000 people fall ill to the coronavirus, and we have mourned the deaths of more than 330 people. The pastoral and prudent action was to move worship online so people were not exposed to the virus, and I’m proud of how quickly our congregations addressed that concern.
We can’t quickly open our church buildings in the same manner. Many topics we rarely considered in quite this much detail must be thoroughly addressed: when our doors will be opened for in-person gatherings, whether the church will provide masks, sanitation procedures, and if entire portions of buildings will be closed off to limit where deep cleaning must take place. In meetings with some of our pastors in each district, I have found that some churches are already meeting in person again. Others plan to do so at some point and to some extent in June. Still others are looking to July or even August. One county-seat church with a meat-packing plant in the community is planning to start in September because of a recent COVID-19 outbreak.
The conference is providing a worksheet to help you think through the decisions that have to be made. The worksheet is meant to help you explore as many aspects of reopening your building as possible. You can download the worksheet here. Because coronavirus circumstances vary from area to area within our two states, you and your church leaders will have to decide for yourselves the definitions of phases of your opening strategy, which benchmarks must be met to move to the next phase, and what those phases mean for your context.
More guidance can be found on the conference website at www.greatplainsumc.org/coronavirus. Our conference staff is working diligently to keep this information updated so you have the most up-to-date information available related to gathering in church buildings.
Many of us have been working through the daily devotions associated with the church as recorded in Acts titled “Catch Fire in 50 Days.” During the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, we are reading about how those earliest followers of Christ spread the good news about Jesus Christ throughout the known world in turbulent times.
We also live in turbulent and challenging times, as do all the people throughout the world. Our assurance and hope is in God’s forever and inseparable love for us:
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)