Update On In-Person Gathering For Smoky Row Worship Services

Our Governance Team recently met to talk through a “Draft Reopening Document” prepared by Rich. That document presented a phased reopening plan for our in-person gatherings, including worship services. (An edited version of the plan is available.)
A number of significant points were discussed in relation to both a phased reopening and Smoky Row’s congregational makeup, including:
  • The CDC recommendation that even with “minimal or moderate spread in the local community,” those who are high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 should be encouraged to participate in congregational gatherings in ways other than in-person.
  • The reality that Smoky Row has a bimodal population–think of an upside down bell-curve. Our congregation is primarily made up of those who are older, and inherently high-risk, or children whose parents are seeking to prevent COVID-19 exposure. When including those who have immune-compromising illnesses that place them in a “high-risk” category, it’s clear that we are a congregation made up of primarily high-risk individuals.
  • Any in-person gathering prior to the development of a vaccine requires that those who are high-risk be asked to refrain from participating, which creates a two-tier congregation. Further, participatory events would still require masks, distancing, no singing, etc., as well as significant work for a very few potential participants.
These considerations in mind, the Governance Team is suggesting that we do not gather for regular in-person worship until a vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed, tested, and distributed.We recognize that…
  • We have no idea when this might occur, although concerted prayer that it happens as quickly as possible must be part of our regular corporate prayer life.
  • The infection rate could, perhaps, drop to almost nothing in Central Ohio, at which point we could revisit a phased reopening prior to a vaccination protocol. The Governance Team will revisit this each time they meet.
  • There are costs to this. Smoky Row leadership will have to work more creatively and intentionally to develop means of connecting. Our congregational finances may be impacted. Spiritual fatigue and negative emotions may develop. Our regular attendance may plateau or drop.
We recognize the important need to create new opportunities for connection, possibly including:
  • Special outdoor worship services at times other than Sunday mornings for those who can participate,
  • Supplemental Zoom gatherings/groups, such as book clubs, classes, Youth Club hangouts, and the like,
  • Special outdoor group service projects, either on Smoky Row grounds or elsewhere (e.g., gathering in a masked, physically distanced way to update the Community Garden or partner in a Sawmill Wetlands litter clean-up).
  • Encouraging thoughtful “quarantine bubbles” among the congregation, so that those who can connect safely are able to do so.
  • Engaging parents to discern the ways Smoky Row can still help nurture their children’s spiritual development.
To that end, we’ll begin to plan for and schedule various opportunities mentioned above, even as we welcome other suggestions.
So, again, the Governance Team is suggesting that we do not gather for regular in-person worship until a vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed, tested, and distributed, or infection in Central Ohio has basically ended.
There is no way to be excited about not gathering together in person for a long time. There are many losses wrapped up in this. We are and have been, however,incredibly blessed throughout the pandemic so far. Many congregations nearby us have not seen each other–either in person or over Zoom–for weeks. We’ve been able to approximate our regular in-person worship service and adult education classes without any significant loss of attendance. It’s not the same as gathering together in person, but the interactive nature of our services have been wonderful compared to the very little that some congregations near us have experienced. We have to thank God for that. Beyond this, our congregation has continued to serve the community in nimble, responsive ways for Jesus’ sake.
This decision asks much of us. It asks that we see with eyes of faith that God is still at work among us and through us as a congregation. It demands that we trust one another, and depend on each other for our congregational survival, offering prayers, feedback, support, and finances as we’re able. It means getting even better at communicating highs and lows of faith and important congregational news. It means walking a dark path together, as sheep traveling in a flock through a shadowy valley, knowing that the one who guides us is a good shepherd and will not forsake nor abandon us. It means taking more responsibility than we might usually do for our own spiritual growth, and learning how to reach out again to those we miss whenever we miss them, because the easy mechanism of seeing each other on Sunday morning or in Life Group isn’t available. It means not being fearful or judgmental, but acting with wisdom and compassion as we hear news around us.
On a personal note, I want to say that I deeply believe in God’s capacity to carry us through the unknown, and do so not simply safely, but in a way that provides blessing and increases all the good God has to offer us. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I do believe the Governance Team is doing all we can to act with deliberate, Spirit-led faithfulness on our behalf. If anyone wants to talk through any aspect of this decision, I welcome it and want to talk, too. Stay healthy, stay safe, stay faithful. God is with us.
~Rich, for the Governance Team, 6.23.20

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