Closing Is Easy – Opening Is Hard

Thank you to Tavi White and for this photo

Two years ago today, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be a global pandemic. I remember those first days and weeks; not sure what to touch or not to touch, getting used to wearing a mask, and most of all assuming that we would all be back in church by Easter at the latest.

How unprepared we were.

This week, the Ontario government has announced that most mask mandates will end on March 21, 2022 with the remaining pandemic rules lifted by the end of April. It seems as though we are moving from a pandemic to Covid being endemic in our world.

What a long strange trip it has been.

As I have talked with friends and colleagues over the past few days and weeks, I have heard and noticed a couple of important themes.

  1. It is much harder to open back up than it was to close our church buildings.

When the world closed, our church buildings closed with it and everything stopped – that was easy; reopening is proving to be much harder. There are the technical aspects of reopening; cleaning protocols, live streaming, seating and vaccine arrangements. These aspects of reopening will be difficult, if for no other reason than most churches have had a very few people producing online worship. All of a sudden ushers will be needed. Church school teachers, volunteers and other leaders will be required.

However, more difficult will be the emotional and social aspects of reopening along with the realization that as members of our congregations we are divided about many aspects of this. This for churches has become the greatest of all challenges.

  1. Sessions are more divided than I have ever seen them.

I have been an ordained minister for over 35 years. In all my ministry I have never seen sessions more divided than over the issue of reopening. This seems to be a reflection of the binary nature of much of our feelings about this pandemic; pro-vax/anti-vax, open up/stay shut. There isn’t a lot of room for compromise available in these positions and the social media universe has made it even worse. While most congregations have reopened or will being doing so shortly, these have not been easy conversations to have. People have learned things about each other that they would rather not know and it has been difficult to find middle ground.

  1. Some people aren’t coming back.

Perhaps the most important reason to bring us back to in person worship is so that people will come back to church and we can be together again. The fellowship aspect of our congregations is significant and has typically been missed more than any other aspect of congregational life. At the same time, some people are not ready to come back or will not be coming back at all. Reasons for this include; lack of contact or resources from the church during Covid, discomfort with being in groups, and in some cases people have just gotten out of the habit of attending church, have found another church or will continue to worship online. Years ago I read that it takes 8 weeks for people to get out of the habit of going to church. It has now been two years. There is little you can do to get these people back other than to love them, provide them with online resources and keep the door open.

Please don’t blame your minister if people leave. People make their own choices to stay or go; it isn’t the minister’s job and it isn’t the minister’s fault.

  1. Be kind to one another. 

Please do not assume that you and the rest of the session or congregation are of one mind in this matter. Some would never have stopped in-person worship in the first place while others are extremely anxious about coming back. People may not be ready to remove their masks or hug or shake hands just yet. Likewise, understand that paid staff have no choice about resuming in person worship, and might be anxious about that. Remember that people are extremely tired, many are grumpy and some are angry. These are rarely emotions that bring out the best in us. This is a time that calls for an extra measure of love, of care and of forbearance and especially of patience.

It grieves me greatly that, as a nation, we started this pandemic with care and love for each other. We stood on our doorsteps and banged pots and pans together in solidarity. Over the last months our solidarity and mutual care seems to have fractured. Instead of Building Back Better, in many ways it seems so much worse. I do not believe this is our fate and I especially believe that as the church we are better than that. As we come back to a new season and a new beginning of worship together, let us remember the words of Paul who wrote the Galatians and said:

“My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love. All that the Law says can be summed up in the command to love others as much as you love yourself.” (Gal 5:13,14 CEV)

Click HERE for the document Seeking to be Faithful Together: Guidelines for Presbyterians in Times of Disagreement. This excellent resource promises to help your session and congregation discuss your church reopening well. It’s also great for many other discussion our communities of faith might have that find us passionate and sadly divided.

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