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Returning to our Sanctuaries


Dear Colleagues in Ministry,
In the days since Holy Week and Easter Sunday, I have found myself asking what is God saying to us during this time of quarantine? How does our response through corporate and private worship, service and generosity honor God? I’ve heard this strange period of life referred to by some as “The Great Adaptation,” and because of it, we have a unique opportunity to listen and bear witness more deeply, to the way of Jesus.
While my private devotional time has been both challenged and enriched in this season, I have also experienced great disruption and loss. I know that has been true for many Missouri United Methodists. The economic impact on some of our churches has been deeply felt, especially for those positioned within communities that are most vulnerable. Even with the apportionment relief offered last month, it is hard to anticipate what missional and financial impact this pandemic will have on the long-term health and vitality of the Conference and its churches.
Some think the coronavirus could reshape the country’s religious landscape and wipe out many small houses of worship; but in these last weeks, I have seen something different. I’ve experienced hope watching the creativity and hearing stories of our churches’ resilience.
Because of our shared pain and loss, many of us are itching to get back into our sanctuaries and return to “normal.” And yet, as people who do our best to do no harm, we must acknowledge that removing all restrictions may further endanger those most vulnerable in our communities.
For these reasons I am strongly encouraging all congregations in the Missouri Conference to not gather until we have a clearer indication that it is safe to meet. However, the decision to hold public worship is a local church decision. It is the Conference’s advice that you follow Missouri and your county’s health department guidelines and mandates. Please move slowly and carefully toward reopening in-house worship. Pay attention to your local context and authorities. The rules are different in every county across Missouri.
While your church may open worship after May 10, I advise you to refrain from in-house worship through the end of May unless your congregation can guarantee social distancing and appropriate disinfection cleaning before and after all services. Some congregations have an abundance of space and few people, which helps with social distancing options; other congregations do not. Most counties are advising to restrict attendance to no more than 25% of the building’s seating occupancy.
I am aware that disagreements may arise as to what to do and when to reopen in-house worship. If you strongly disagree with the decision, feel free to contact your district superintendent for guidance and assistance. Remember online, drive-up and outdoor services with social distancing could well be our safest option through the month of May.
The Conference offers some suggestions below for you and your leadership teams to consider as you do begin to move toward re-opening for public worship.
I have spent my entire career trying to communicate that the Church is not a building! That teaching has been met with mixed results. Perhaps that is the silver lining in all of this? I pray that once we are through the worst, we will never lose sight of the Church as the community rather than the bricks and mortar that house our “stuff.”
I am very proud to be your bishop. Thank you for the ways in which you have led and continue to lead during this challenging time. Stay faithful. Listen to the experts. Do your best. We will get through this together.

In Christ+

Bishop Robert Farr
The Missouri Area of The United Methodist Church

RESOURCE: Guidelines for Returning to Our Sanctuaries

VIDEO (can be downloaded for local church use):