Dean Phelps, Transitional Regional Minister
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 1 Corinthians 10:23 (NRSV)
Last night, a U.S. District Court Judge granted a temporary restraining order requested by a church in Jessamine County, ruling that the executive order banning mass gatherings impeded that church’s free exercise of religion. The judge further ruled that the temporary restraining order applies to all churches in Kentucky and that churches could resume in-person worship services on May 10, so long as they practice social distancing and hygiene guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention..
The judge’s ruling does not change my belief that as we talk about returning to in-person worship services, how is more important that when. Being healthy at worship compels us to plan how the congregation can gather in a way that guards the health and safety of the whole congregation. Whether we resume in person services May 10, May 20, June 1, or sometime later, pastors and church leaders must plan for the return cautiously, collaboratively, and compassionately.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who joined the motion brought by the church, said after the ruling, “I encourage all houses of worship to prayerfully and carefully consider when it is the right time to resume in-person worship services consistent with health guidelines.” He goes on to say, “We must continue to do our part to protect the health of our fellow citizens by reopening carefully.”
Kentucky’s Disciples have done an outstanding job during this time of staying healthy at home. We have worshipped together and cultivated community in wonderfully creative ways. I believe that same creativity and care will guide our work as we move toward being healthy at worship.
The judge’s ruling raises the concern for me that pastors and congregation leaders may feel undue pressure to reopen in-person worship services too quickly. Just because we can, does not mean we are ready or that we should. The decision to return to worship or to remain at home is not a test of faith, and it is not a test of fellowship.
Much more than that, our decisions about when and how to return to in-person worship services must be driven by the commandment to love our neighbor, both inside and outside the congregation. For this reason, I encourage each congregation to rely on available guidelines in order to protect our congregations and communities.
Yesterday, the governor’s office released Phase I guidelines for reopening houses of worship. You can find a copy of those guidelines attached. In addition, the Kentucky Council of Churches has provided Healthy at Worship guidance. The Region continues to review and update its guidelines for congregations as they consider reopening. These are all available on the Region’s web site as well.
Reopening requires a phased approach, and each congregation will move at the pace appropriate to their community and context. Some will be ready to resume in-person services sooner than others. We will not all arrive at the same place at the same time, but we are still one church. We are called to support, bless, and encourage one another. We will get through this together, and in the process we will see the love of God revealed in our love for our neighbor and for one another.
I am proud of the ways Disciples in Kentucky have continued to worship, witness, and serve in these most unusual circumstances. Your commitment inspires hope and confidence.