Dear Beloved Members and Friends of the Washington Congregational Church,
In mid-March, as COVID-19 was steadily appearing in the US and concerns about the spread of the virus were growing, your church leadership and I made the hard decision to suspend in-person worship for the remainder of the month. We hoped to be back in the sanctuary soon, perhaps by Easter.
As Easter approached and we were under “stay-home” orders, we sadly accepted that we’d have to continue our physical distancing, and promised a rowdy resurrection celebration and party when we returned. I’m sure many of us thought that time would have come already.
Yet here we are on the brink of summer, a time when this congregation, unlike many others, actually increases in attendance and activity. We eagerly await the return of beloved members and friends from their winter abodes, and anticipate a flurry of energy and fellowship.
Those beloveds are returning, slowly, but are having to quarantine themselves for two weeks after they arrive. Many businesses and restaurants in New Hampshire are slowly starting to re-open under strict conditions, but it is still clear that gathering in-person for worship right now is not safe.
Every church I know of across the country (and even in other parts of the world) is wrestling with how to proceed, when to open the doors back up and resume in-person gatherings, and what that would look like.
While it is true that some congregations have resumed worship in their buildings, at least some of those openings have caused new COVID-19 outbreaks, even when using every precaution.
Other churches are taking the opposite approach. At least one New England UCC church has decided not to gather again until May of 2021. The Unitarian-Universalist denomination has issued a recommendation of the same for their congregations.
As for our church, we do not have a clear picture of when it will be safe to return to our sanctuary for worship. I am very hopeful that it will be well before next spring, but like many of you, I am committed to remaining apart until it is safe for most–if not all–to join us.
I am also concerned about what we’d have to eliminate or drastically change in order to meet safety guidelines: no singing, no unison prayers, no Communion, no passed offering plates, no paper bulletins, requiring reservations for limited seating, using one entrance only, and no coffee hour, for instance.
With all this in mind, your Church Council addressed this question in our recent Zoom meeting. After a great deal of careful discussion, they voted to suspend in-person worship until the end of August, at which time we will reassess how to proceed. In the interest of full disclosure, this was a split vote. While all were unified in wanting to keep everyone safe, there were concerns that moving away from a week-to-week “wait and see” approach would create too great a disappointment for those eager to return.
I know this is difficult news for all of us. Like you, I mourn the loss of our in-person gatherings, especially so early in our ministry together, when there seemed to be a wonderful spirit and energy brewing. I, too, worry about a loss of momentum and of connection, especially with those for whom worship online isn’t an option. However, I know, too, from conversations with many of you, that like me, you are committed to making sure that nothing we do as a church helps spread this virus and puts people in danger.
This decision means that we can move forward with plans for the summer without having to continually question whether things might change “by then.” We will continue to innovate and get creative, and will be creating opportunities to welcome newcomers, strengthen relationships, learn and grow in our faith, reach out to and display a presence in our community, and serve our world. We will find new paths of loving God and our neighbor, following Christ, and being moved by the Holy Spirit.
Our doors may remain closed, but our hearts–and the Church–are not.
As always, I’m here if you would like to know more about why this decision was made, or to discuss any aspect of it. I’m available at this email address, on Facebook messenger, by mail to the church, or by phone/text at (603) 325-3022.
I remain in prayer for you all, and I hope that you would continue in your prayers for our church, our community, and for the world.
In the Peace of Christ,
Rev. Beth Simmons
Pastor, Washington Congregational Church
One Halfmoon Pond Road