Preparing to Reopen

Date posted: Saturday 09 May 2020

I am so grateful for the conscientious way in which the congregations of this synod are respecting Governor Walz’s stay-at-home order and practicing physical distancing as we go about daily life during this COVID-19 pandemic. Pastors, deacons, worship leaders, musicians, those with social media skills, phone tree callers and so many others have worked to provide worship experiences and pastoral care in a whole new way. Many members have worked to learn new digital skills to participate and great patience has been exercised by thousands of Lutherans in this unfamiliar time. Thank you for finding ways to be people of faith despite our inability to gather in familiar ways.


As we look ahead to the summer months, we still have no certainty about when congregations will be able to gather in person for worship. Knowledgeable professionals like Dr. Michael Osterholm at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota offer very sobering caution that this COVID-19 virus may continue to threaten us for many months to come until a vaccine is available and widely in use.


Yet, now is the time to begin to prepare the plan you will use when it is safe to come together in our church buildings. When the word comes from state officials that some religious activities may resume, each congregation needs to be ready with a thoughtful plan for how they will respond. This may include resuming worship services outdoors or with limited attendance in the sanctuary. There are many factors to consider – whether to gather at all, how to support those who cannot join together because of age or health risks, and how to meet the detailed safety parameters that will be required. Such decisions are best made by each congregation with consideration of its particular context.


Planning Teams

I urge each congregation to create a smart team if that has not already happened. This planning group might include members with public health expertise, those from the medical and health professions, leaders from public safety or schools, as well as your pastor and other key staff. The smart team knows your context, your members at greater risk, and the physical dimensions of your facilities inside and outside your building. The smart team will help think through the details that will need to be in place when it is time to reopen for activities like worship, funerals, weddings or small group activities.


Many others have been exploring these same matters and several helpful resources can be found from the Wisconsin Council of Churches and the Minnesota Department of Health. It is important to pay attention to the guidance of our public officials to understand that this pandemic may have waves of intensity as we await widespread immunity through a vaccine. Governor Walz has outlined the phases for greater re-opening of facilities and activities, using a three dial chart. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) outlines similar phases in great detail.


What becomes clear is that we will be living amid a pandemic for a long time, longer perhaps than any of us really understood back in early March. For the sake of reducing the risk of infecting others, as well as safe guarding our own health, we will need to practice physical distancing and other precautions for a long time.


A New Normal

We may need to forego familiar and beloved parts of our worship life in order to safeguard those who are older or at great risk because of other health conditions. Greeting each other with a hug or a handshake, communal singing and choirs, the way we receive Holy Communion in our sanctuaries, how we enter and leave worship and where we sit for worship all need to be addressed with a keen eye on maintaining physical distance and avoiding close contact with each other. Congregations will need to think about continuing online worship experiences even when some are able to gather in person. The ELCA bishops in Minnesota are working on some common resources to guide those decisions as more instructions become available from our elected leaders.


Most of us know the story of Noah’s Ark and those 40 days and 40 nights of rain and catastrophic flooding. I have thought of that story as we weathered March and April in our homes. Recently I reread this ancient story and was amazed when I realized that it took even longer for the earth to dry out than it had taken for it to flood. (You can read the blended account of that long slough in Genesis 8.) If it was hard to wait while the rains poured down how much harder it must have been to wait once the skies had cleared. Like Noah, we continue to watch for signs like the dove and the olive leaf to know that it is safe for us to return to the activities we have missed.


But we do not wait idly. We wait with prayers for others. We discover new and old ways to connect with others. We find ways to share generously with food shelves and agencies serving those in greatest need. We wait as those who have hope for the future and good confidence in God’s presence now. From start to finish, we are in this together.


Yours in Christ,

Bishop Patricia Lull


NOTE: Bishop Patricia Lull sent this message to rostered ministers and congregation presidents on May 8.