A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN: MOVING TO GREEN
As you probably have heard, Northampton and Lehigh counties have been designated by the governor of Pennsylvania to move to the “green” phase of the state’s Process to Re-Open Pennsylvania today, June 26.
That move is significant in that it allows for gatherings of up to 250 people, while the yellow phase only allowed for 25 or less. That, in turn, means that we could conceivably hold worship services at our pre-pandemic levels of attendance, which rarely exceeded 250 people in a given service except for special occasions.
The Session, the Worship Committee, and the Board of Trustees have been monitoring these issues closely, so I want to use this column this week to explain a bit more of where we are in terms of thinking and process. While everyone is longing for the chance for us to gather again in-person, we are also sobered by how religious services are consistently ranked as one of the highest-risk activities possible in terms of transmission of COVID-19, and how many of the worst hotspots of the pandemic so far have been centered around church services of one kind or another.
Some of those services have been shockingly indifferent to physical distancing precautions that are still necessary even in the green phase (e.g., wearing face masks, maintaining a distance of 6-10 feet between people, etc.). But some of them claim to have been diligently following such precautions but have still seen significant infection outbreaks.
Accordingly, there are several actions that are either in process or have already been taken that will guide our response to this new development.
- First, the Session has already decided that there will be no changes to the status quo for the church’s ministries for at least a month after Lehigh and Northampton counties go green, which means the earliest possible date for any return to the building would be July 26. This action was taken to protect against getting caught in a potential surge of new infections once many of the restrictions of the yellow phase are lifted.
- Second, the Worship Committee has been working on some ideas about when and how to resume any form of in-person worship, which might include experimenting with an outdoor service if they (and ultimately the Session) can be convinced that we can do so well, in terms of both the quality of the worship service and mitigating the risk of the virus. That is still in process and may not ultimately be deemed prudent, but it seems appropriate for the congregation to know that this is at least being considered in light of the changes in the state restrictions.
In the meantime, we are establishing a Building Reopening Task Force comprised of people with expertise in public health, medicine, biological science, and property management. They will be making recommendations to the Board of Trustees and the Session on what criteria should be used to consider any resumption of in-person activity in the church buildings, as well as how we might do so in terms of stages, limits, and protocols, should it be deemed reasonably safe to do so at all. You will be hearing more about this as their work develops.
I want to close by reiterating that while we all would love to be able to come together in-person, it is clear that the church leadership is being guided by a sense of deep responsibility for the well-being of our members and friends, and that responsibility will govern not only how but whether we can consider resuming worship or other activities in-person.
I also want to say that, regardless of when we get back to in-person worship, livestreaming our worship is here to stay, and so that will always be an option whether you are traveling for summer vacation or simply are unable or unwilling to return to worship or other church activities once it is possible to do so. (Previous services are available for viewing at fpc-bethlehem.org/services/).
Please continue to pray for our congregation, our members and friends, our community and especially the “essential workers” who continue to serve in such profound and humbling ways, and our nation and world as the pandemic remains very much present and active for all of us.
Grace and peace,
PS – Please remember our “Sermon Response” sessions available via Zoom, after each service on Sunday: an opportunity to reflect on the message with others.