As of right now, our region is in Phase 4. Officially the state only makes recommendations for religious organizations and does not have any hard set requirements. We can claim religious exemption and hold gatherings with no masks, no distancing, etc. Rather than claim such exemptions, the Session has been trying to discern the path forward that considers the best options for the health of the community. The Session has chosen to follow the recommendations and seek comparable guidance that is given to other similar gatherings. According to the IDPH guidelines, the Phase 4 Guidelines say “The safest practices for religious organizations at this time are to provide services online, in a drive-in format, or outdoors (and consistent with social distancing requirements and guidance regarding wearing face coverings), and to limit indoor services to 10 people.” When looking at other large indoor recreation or theater situations, the capacity limits for them are clearly set at “the lesser of 50 people OR 50% of venue seating.” We will keep the congregation informed as we receive further guidance from health officials. We are hopeful that continued vaccinations, warmer weather, and reduced area infection rates will open up opportunities for us to gather in-person safely. We all miss in-person gatherings. In the meanwhile, please be sure to reach out if you need help (physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual) and know that your church family is here for you. The worship, serving, learning, and caring of our church continues. We are just finding new ways so we can do our part to help our region recover.
REVIEW UPDATE HISTORY BELOW
Every month, the Session devotes some time to discussing our response to the global pandemic. In particular, we talk about when and how we want to return to in-person activities. The current Session position is that we are avoiding in-person, particularly indoor, gatherings until the COVID vaccine is widely distributed and the infection rates are minimized. Possible outdoor gatherings will be considered later in the year based on weather conditions and pandemic numbers. Our region regularly goes in and out of health restrictions on gatherings. Our region has not been successful in keeping infection rates, hospital occupancy, and COVID-related deaths down. As a religious organization we can qualify for exemptions from the safety measures of limiting the size of gatherings, wearing face masks, etc. We can claim religious exemptions from these health measures, but the Session does not believe that it is wise or faithful to use religious exemptions in this way. We know that churches, even churches in our region, are making different decisions. We are not condemning churches who make different decisions, and we are not seeking to “keep up with the Joneses” by trying to do whatever those churches are doing. The elders are thinking, discussing, and praying about this. They are honestly seeking the Will of God for our congregation. The goal is faithfulness, and that faithfulness includes the safety of our church members. There is no selfish benefit that the Session receives from pausing in-person gatherings. The savings to the building maintenance and other costs are minimal. The challenge to keep people connected and provide weekly worship and faith formation is so much larger. Without in-person gatherings, it is harder to be a pastor or any other church staff person. There are only two benefits to the Session’s current policy that I can see. The first is the intentional benefit that is motivating our Session. The second is an unintended benefit that I believe is emerging. First, there is the intentional benefit of battling this pandemic. We can reduce the chance of infection in our people, and we are doing our part in the community to limit overall viral transmissions. Pushing to hold in-person gatherings when the infection rates and other metrics are in higher-than ever-before ranges will not help us to overcome this pandemic. Second, there is the unintended faith-formation benefit of this time of “exile.” In the Old Testament, we learn about a time when the people of God were forced to live apart from their place of worship and its rituals. Like the Israelites who were in that time of exile from their Temple, we must decide what our faith means to us independent of the building and the accompanying habits of our faith. They wondered if they could worship and grow in their faith without Jerusalem. The answer was yes. They had to add a level of intention that prepared them to eventually return. Will we find ways to hold on to our faith and our FUPC family of faith in these times? The answer is yes. And along the way, we may all find out what is really important in our lives of faith. Church cannot just be a place for social gatherings in this exile. Church must be more than a series of habits. And perhaps in the midst of this exile, we will not find ourselves lost in a wilderness, but instead discover that we have found a deep desire for Church beyond mere social gatherings and habits. Perhaps we will learn to care in deeper ways that do not allow us to settle for quick waves across a sanctuary or small talk over a donut hole. And maybe the worship and learning alternatives we develop will break us from habitual patterns such that we begin to discover what lies at the heart of our faith. It is possible that this is just a hard time that we need to endure, but what if these times contain an unintended blessing? What if this COVID pandemic experience actually made us a better church? I hope for that. I certainly do not hope that the pandemic will make us a worse church. And if we all hope for what good can come out of this as we seek to love and serve our God together, then perhaps those words of Romans 8:28 can come alive for us in this season: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Your continued prayers for the elders and the healing of our world are appreciated. I am glad to pastor this church with all of you, even in challenging times such as this. We are the church together. ~Pastor Rob
The last several COVID updates have been about resuming in-person worship gatherings.
This month’s COVID update is less of an update and more of a question… How are you
doing? We know that life is giving you challenges beyond the limitations on in-person
gatherings. We are trying our best to help with each and every need that people are sharing
with us during this difficult pandemic time. If you are having any sort of physical, mental,
emotional, or spiritual challenge, remember that your church family is here for you. Too
many times, people suffer silently and we miss the opportunity to help each other. Just
reach out to Pastor Rob or Pastor Alex. You are loved… by God and your church.
We are all facing the same questions in our lives. What is safe? Is this worth the risk? The pandemic has placed these two questions before every physical interaction we have. And then comes the next set of questions. Am I being too protective? Am I not being careful enough? And the answers are different in the heart and mind of each person. Churches around our nation and our own community are coming up with different answers. Some local churches have opened, wearing no masks in worship, and singing out loud with minimal spacing. Some local churches are holding limited services, gathering for shortened time periods, with no singing, and in carefully reserved, socially distanced assigned seating arrangements. Some churches, like ours, are only doing online or remote worship. None of these churches are right or wrong. They are all simply trying to do what they think is best for their congregation. I have talked with the pastors of many churches and engaged in many online forums to discuss questions about safety, risk, protection, and care. Some churches have felt like their online worship was not going well and that in-person worship would be so much better even with the restrictions. Sadly, some churches have received threats from their members saying, “Open the doors or we will stop giving money to the church!” or “If you don’t start holding in-person worship, I’m leaving for another church!” I am pleased to report that we have had no such threats at FUPC. We don’t do church that way.
The Session has continued to wrestle every month in various settings. During this time determining what is right for FUPC, we have seen restaurants closed, reopened and closed, and reopened again. We have seen schools adjust back and forth in their precautions. Many people in our congregation have had relatives or friends who have been affected or killed by this virus. At the end of the day, please know that your elders and staff are trying their very best to provide for the spiritual and physical needs of the congregation while asking the complicated questions related to resuming in-person gatherings. At this point, the Session is doing three things. First, elders are engaging the Coronavirus Task Force and various volunteers to make plans for how to resume in-person gatherings safely. They are using CDC, health department, religious, musical, and other related research to prepare for how to resume in-person gatherings whether outdoor or indoor. It is important that we prepare for this now so that we are ready to go when it is decided to resume in-person gatherings. Second, elders are working to keep the entire church connected. Even when we resume in-person gatherings, we will have some unable to join us in person. In addition, methods of connection like Zoom have enabled us to reconnect some of our dependent care and homebound members to worship each week. We have also reconnected with some of our college students and young families for worship and small groups. For those joining us for worship or spiritual formation, the church has offered setup assistance to anyone with technical challenges. Our connections aren’t perfect, but they weren’t perfect before COVID either. The Session is committed to improving and growing our connections. Third, elders are wrestling each month with the question of “Is it worth the risk?” The current view is that in-person gatherings are not now worth the risk. Opportunities of worship and spiritual formation can be provided well enough without the risk of in-person gatherings.
The Session knows this position will not make everyone happy; however, this is what the elders have prayerfully discerned as the right move for our church at this time. When we elected and installed these elders to be our Session, we promised to follow their leadership. We elected them to discern God’s Will for our congregation and then to lead us according to what they discern. They are trying their best, as is the staff. They continue to discuss this each month as they listen to the science, the community, their hearts, and to the nudges of the Holy Spirit. And your voice is always welcome. They have no desire to discern these issues without hearing from you. Please feel free to contact one of the pastors or elders if you have any questions or if you would like to help. We are a church family, working together to help one another through these times. Though we have put a pause on in-person gatherings, the church never closed. It has been open with worship, learning, fellowship, service, and more… just in different ways. Thank you for your support, patience, and offers to help.
We are preparing for our eventual return to in-person services. Until then, we still have online worship only. However, we are gathering supplies and recruiting special volunteers for the time Session decides to begin in-person worship. It is not likely that childcare or Children’s Chapel will be offered when we first resume, but children of God of all ages are always welcome at all Sunday worship services. If you would be willing to be an usher or health screener for in-person worship, please contact Pastor Rob or a member of the Worship Committee.
The church remains in the implementation of our Remote Plan following guidance from local health officials, local civic/ education leaders, our Coronavirus Task Force, and the Session. The attached document (click here for document) was approved by the Session. In this Remote Plan, we will not have any in-person gatherings, but we will continue to be an active congregation. Worship, mission, teaching, caring, and other works of ministry continue in meaningful ways. There have been unique opportunities to offer our parking lot for drive-thru food relief efforts. We are also in close conversations with local schools to find the best way to support the children of our area.
If you have a need during this time, please contact one of the pastors. In the meantime, we continue to make the necessary preparations to safely resume in-person gatherings in the future. The church has a written plan that was distributed to members. Any updates to our plans will be communicated in a variety of ways.
As we remain in the Remote Plan phase of our response to the pandemic, we wanted to share with you the plans we are making for when in-person gatherings seem safe, wise, and needed. The attached document (click here for document) was approved by the Session. This document describes the Remote Plan we are in as well as future plans of how we might do outdoor or indoor in-person gatherings during the pandemic. It is a living document so we will continue to edit it, but it shows you the plans and necessary preparations for each stage of resuming outdoor or indoor in-person gatherings.
We are so blessed to see the ministry of our church thriving even amidst these remote gathering times. We see attendance, involvement and community impact all on the rise. At the same time, we know that many of you are having hard times within this pandemic. Please remember that your church is here for you through this time. Do not hesitate to contact the pastors if you need help or if you just feel overwhelmed and need some connection.
The Church is Open… But Not Gathering Physically In-Person
When are we reopening the church? We never closed. The church is open and thriving! Worship attendance has increased dramatically through online Zoom worship. We have welcomed several new members to our church family. We have also had so many more visitors to our Zoom-based online worship than we had previously with our in-person worship. We have had a record-breaking mission ministry through Needs Among Us to help local families in crisis. Individuals and families who were hurting before the pandemic struck are really struggling now. In response, our church has continued to walk alongside church members, worship visitors, and nearly 50 Children’s Home and Aid families with prayer, clothing, emotional support, food, spiritual guidance, rent/utilities relief, and more. We are staying connected with extra phone calls, cards, messages, and video chats. We are running Bible studies, life groups, classes, children/youth ministries, and more to help people grow in their faith. All of this has happened within the limitations of this pandemic. The church is open and doing the Lord’s work!
Now… if you want to know when we will resume our physically in-person ministries, that is a whole other question. It is a complicated question that involves government rules, contagious disease science, intentional prayer, careful planning, and a lot of guessing. We have established a Coronavirus Task Force that is made up of people within our congregation with particular relevant life experiences. The Session has discussed the recommendations of this task force along with the recommendations of the CDC, our Presbytery, denomination, and various other national faith organizations. As we continue to formulate a phased plan for how we will restart physically in-person church activities, we are determined to be good stewards of one another. We are carefully considering each aspect of worship, childcare, small groups, etc. and we are doing this using guidance from the CDC, our denomination, and other greater church resources. The current information available to us does not enable us to pick a specific date for reopening the building and resuming physically in-person ministries.
In the meanwhile, our current closed building policies will remain in place. Until Session decides otherwise, we will have no physically in-person gatherings or committee meetings at the church. If the policy is changed, we will send out communications by email, website, and newsletter. The state of Illinois has outlined a 5-phase process for full recovery from this pandemic crisis. Currently, the policy says that we will only enter the final Phase 5 once there is a widely available vaccine or successful treatment plan for COVID-19. Phase 3 allows gatherings for up to 10 people. Phase 4 allows gatherings for up to 50 people. We don’t really have the opportunity to consider our normal worship practices of over 250 people until Phase 5. Moving into Phase 3 or Phase 4 gives us the opportunity to consider small gatherings, but it does not mean we will automatically start small physically in-person gatherings or meetings. Only Session can make that decision.
We have many people in our congregation with high risk factors. Even after we have the opportunity to consider smaller in-person gatherings (and then if we decide to start some gatherings), we will still have people who need special care and consideration. How we implement any in-person activities must be carefully designed. Even the implementation of other “in proximity options” like outdoor or drive-in worship must be carefully planned. While we develop a plan for eventually resuming physically in-person ministries, we are considering how we can stay equally engaged with those who may not be rejoining us physically in-person for a long time. We will also be considering how to continue to reach those who have recently started their relationship with our church through Zoom worship. Even after we resume full, physically in-person ministries, it seems certain that we will also continue to offer some form of online worship and other ministries.
On behalf of the staff, I want to say thank you for all of your support and encouragement. We appreciate all of the notes, emails, and other expressions of gratitude. The Session’s decision to continue to pay all of our full-time and part-time employees has been affirmed by your communications and generous financial offerings. This is hard work. The staff are trying to reinvent what church looks like in a new context while the new context shifts under their feet on a weekly basis. And by the way… they are doing a really great job! I stay connected with many friends in ministry around the nation, and I can tell you that we have one fantastic church staff. Everyone is doing their best to make good choices for the sake of your spiritual and physical well-being. If you have a physical or spiritual need, please do not hesitate to reach out to any of us.
The church is open and thriving! The church is doing the Lord’s work! Thanks be to God!
Like the rest of the world, we have been adjusting on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis as the government restrictions, CDC recommendations, and PCUSA suggestions come rolling in. We want to be faithful in our response so that the church is modeling good practices and good care. We have established a Coronavirus Task Force that will be thinking through all the issues of our response. Based on their recommendations, the Session will likely need to make some decisions. In the interest of public safety, the staff met today, participated in another presbytery-wide conference call, and made some temporary decisions to enable a quick response.
- Church Building Closed: The church building will be closed at least until the end of March. Staff will be using the offices to help facilitate the ongoing ministry of the church, but we are not hosting any meetings, gatherings, or outside groups during this time. Individuals who need to come to the church to drop-off donations or perform essential church work like signing checks for our bills are welcome. While some of you like to come visit the staff during the week and that often makes our work more fun, we are asking that you refrain from just hanging out in the office to chat for now. Despite the building closure, we will still maintain our heightened cleaning practices of doorknobs door handles, and common surfaces.
- Videoconferencing Available for Meetings: Church committees or groups that need or want to still meet can use our church’s Zoom video conference account. If you would like to setup a videoconference call, just contact Kaitie, Stephanie, Pastor Alex, or Pastor Rob for help.
- Helping Children’s Home: The one exception to our closed building will be its use by St. John Bosco Children’s Home. Their children are housed together already and desperately need some active time. Many of the children have behavioral challenges that are significantly helped by this use of our gym.
- Needs Among Us Dropoffs: If you have items for Needs Among Us, please come by during regular hours 8:30am-4:30pm and drop them off in Cornell Commons around the big center table.
- Need Anything? If you need any help during this difficult time of social distancing and various containment efforts, please contact the church office or one of the pastors directly. We want to continue to take good care of one another through all of this. Remember that your church family is here for you, provided by the God who loves you, saves you, and never abandons you.
- Worship in March is ONLINE: Worship will be held online only, not in person, for at least the month of March. You can also join for the audio by any phone. We had a great first run on March 15 of using the Zoom technology to connect 199 participants from over 5 states plus Germany! You can join by computer/tablet/smartphone to get the video and audio or by phone for just the audio. Let the church office know if you try it on Sunday and have problems. We would be happy to help you get yours setup. Details on how to get connected will be updated on our website at https://www.firstunitedpres.org/worship/online-worship. This is a great way to invite friends (local, national, or international) who may be missing worship opportunities. The direct connect link you can use on Sunday starting at 10:15am is https://zoom.us/j/299269153. To join by phone, you can call (312) 626-6799 and then enter Meeting ID 299 269 153.
- Visitation Ministry: Deacon and pastoral visits will be done via phone or video calls for now. Many hospitals and care facilities have started to restrict visitors already.
- Staff Support: FUPC will continue to pay our hourly workers even when their services are not needed. This situation is causing enough financial distress and we want to take care of our staff. Of course, other ongoing financial commitments and expenses will also be covered for our church building and operations.
- Giving and Offerings: Your offerings to God and financial support of our ministry efforts can still be made by mailing in checks or using our online giving option at https://www.firstunitedpres.org/give. Even without the building open, our ministries and mission are still actively moving forward. We are just using some creative ways to be the church at this time.
- Good News: I wanted to end this list with the sharing of Good News. We have been able to help several families in crisis already during this pandemic situation. In addition, we have some church members who were feeling overwhelmed and we were able to be the voices of comfort and prayerful reassurance to them. We have been in constant contact with local leaders, participating in discussions on how we might be a blessing to the community’s needs. This virus does not change our mission. This virus simply means we have to be creative and flexible as we continue to serve our God and live into our mission. We will be in touch with more worship, faith growing, community serving, and fellowship opportunities during this difficult time.
As always, please feel free to contact Pastor Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-315-2788 if you have questions or concerns.
On Thursday evening, Presbyterian pastors from all over the St. Louis area participated in a video conference call to discuss how we might respond to the community efforts to slow down the spreading of the COVID-19 virus. The church staff and Session held discussions this week as well noting that we are going to have many people feeling isolated and many people hurting financially due to the situation. We are putting together a task force to think through the internal and external response that this situation requires. In the meanwhile, we are making some decisions regarding upcoming activities of the church this weekend.
- Group Activities: We are not telling any groups that they cannot meet at the church, but we are suggesting that gatherings for this weekend and next weekend should consider postponing. The Preschool Spaghetti Dinner for March 20 has been postponed. The Helmsmen have already decided to cancel their March 21 gathering.
- Worship Summit: The Worship Summit for Saturday morning is postponed.
- Additional Cleaning of Church: Our cleaning service was contacted, and they are being especially diligent in cleaning all door handles and common surfaces around the church. They are already doing that with their other corporate clients. We have also added restroom signage to remind people to wash their hands frequently.
- Deacon Hospital Visits: Starting this week, hospital visitation will temporarily be done by phone.
- Sunday Worship: In-person worship is canceled, we have an alternate way for you to still worship with us online or by phone! See the next point below.
- Sunday Worship Alternative: We will be offering a way for people to connect with our 10:30 worship service from home by computer, tablet, smartphone, or even regular phone. The worship service will be streamed live (and recorded for later playback) using a technology called Zoom. Participants will be able to listen and view our worship service as if they were in the pew. You can participate with video and/or audio using your computer, tablet, or smartphone. You can also participate with just audio using any phone line. This is our first time attempting this so there may be some hiccups, but we want to make it possible for our church family to worship together. For more information and directions, click here. If you have problems this week, contact the church office during the week and we will help you get connected for next week.
We are continuing to speak with local officials, medical professionals, presbytery, and other sources to seek guidance. In addition, we will be looking for ways to help those in our community who may need some assistance during this situation. We will continue to be the great church of caring and service that we are. We just need to make some adjustments as we navigate this everchanging situation. As always, please feel free to contact Pastor Rob at email@example.com or 618-315-2788 if you have questions or concerns. The details about our Sunday Worship Alternative online are available here.