Sunday, I stepped to the pulpit, anointed my hands with sanitizer, and fumbled with how to best remove my mask before preaching. We are wearing masks to model compassion and identify with our vulnerable neighbors. The mask is an outward sign of our inner commitment to “watch over one another in love.” Unfortunately, my mask’s ear loop was caught inside my glasses frame creating a three pronged tangle of elastic mask straps, steel glasses frame, and a tiny silicone microphone chord tucked behind my ear. I silently repeated Dr. Bill Cooper’s mask removal recommendations: “Disinfect hands, slide your fingers up the elastic, lift away from your face, do not touch the center of your mask, place it down, disinfect hands.” I slowed down to do my best, confident that the Belmont congregation is full of kind and patient people, who want us to get this right.
For over a month, a Regathering Task Force, appointed by our Executive Committee has been pondering and planning the best practices for Belmont UMC to re-enter shared public worship space together. On May 21, Bishop McAlilly announced that in-person worship would be suspended until June 21. We want to ensure our return is safe and aligns with our core values of hospitality, nurture, diversity, and mission. We are committed to making decisions rooted in data and best practices, not our desires. In a way, we are in the midst of a spiritual test, engaging in a kind of fast from our beloved congregating. May the day we all can embrace and sing be better than chocolate on Easter. In this in-between wilderness, let us find nourishment in gathering online for worship, Zoom groups, daily spiritual practices, and in due season socially-distanced smaller gatherings.
There are challenges to coming back into shared space. The Reopening Task Force is looking at ideas such as reserving a spot in worship via Realm, checking symptoms at home, arriving 30 minutes early, wearing masks, checking in through our Community Center, taped off seating, ensembles instead of choirs, softly humming hymns in a mask, greeting each other at 6-10 foot distance, observing creative solutions to avoid traffic bottlenecks within our 100-year-old building, only sitting with whom we live, not passing the plates, and taking our conversations outdoors immediately after worship. Indeed, until we get the green light from Conference, health and governmental leaders, smaller back porch gatherings in which we partake in online worship together, communion in the park, or small groups singing on lawns will bring a sustaining joy.
Our return will be fluid and move in stages from smaller gatherings to larger groups. We will also need to give each other grace as we will get some things wrong, and learn as we move forward together. Each returning stage will offer a chance for us to practice, evaluate, build up, and perfect safely sharing worship space. As with any new habit or practice, there will be a learning curve. Therefore, we will recruit an initial band of less vulnerable folks to learn best practices and serve as guides for the later pilgrims. This core group of guides will help evaluate and model new gathering practices. We only will step into the next stage of return, when we feel we have mastered our previous stage and see improving community health trends. As we slowly regather we envision taking turns attending. The Mayor’s Nashville Roadmap recommends smaller returning bands of 10, 25, 50,and then 100 worshipping in the sanctuary. These smaller bands will not replace the thriving online worship experiences that are currently sustaining our Sunday morning rhythms. Online worship is not going away, it’s a newfound tool to connect us when we are unable to physically be together due to geography, health, or schedule. Our June worship theme is “Christ’s Kin-dom: On Earth- Right now- Among us” (Matthew 10:7) Our June worship will focus on supplementing and strengthening home and small gathering worship and discipleship practices.
Finally, I must confess most of this letter was lifted almost whole cloth, from Jeff Sheehan’s email to our Regathering Team. I am so deeply thankful for Jennifer Bagwell, Angie Slade, Susan Fagan and Jeff who have made this difficult and fluid planning process deeply joyful. It is strange how fully we can lean into each other, while standing ten feet apart. I am so honored to pastor such a compassionate, considerate and Christlike congregation.
Love Pastor Paul