Dear People of God in Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania:
In mid-March, when we suspended in-person worship, none of us could have imagined the ways the world was about to change or what would be required of us in response. Throughout these long months, you have been resilient, flexible and collaborative as we have gathered for online worship, raised more than $21,000 to feed first responders and people in need, rallied to stand against racial injustice, and begun to discern the mission to which our church might be called in a postpandemic world.
The pandemic will not be over for some time, but places of business and other public gathering places have begun to reopen in both Pennsylvania and New York. The public health standards in both states now permit, in most places, small in-person gatherings for worship. In response, we have developed, in consultation with the clergy of the diocese and the mission strategy advisory group, these guidelines for reopening church buildings. We are grateful to the Dioceses of Indianapolis and Chicago for sharing their plans, which have informed our thinking and helped shape our response.
As you will read in this document, although returning to in-person worship is permissible beginning July 5, I do not recommend that most congregations do so. Reopening our buildings for worship can present a significant risk, particularly to clergy and laypeople aged 65 and older and to those with underlying health conditions. It will require extensive work and possible expense to comply with the cleaning and disinfecting protocols outlined in this document. You have my full support if you judge that continuing to worship online is the best choice for your congregation, and I will continue to host Sunday online worship with leaders from across the diocese for the foreseeable future.
My caution about reopening does not equate to a desire to remain still. I hope that we can devote the weeks to come to more of the collaboration already beginning to flourish across our partnership. How might lay and clergy leaders use this time to work more closely with one another? Might it make sense for congregations to partner with one another as we plan for in-person worship in new ways? How might we support one another as we experiment for the sake of the gospel in a time like no other?
Whether your congregation chooses to reopen or decides to continue gathering online, my staff and I are available to support you as you review the recommendations and requirements in this document, and consider how you might collaborate with colleagues and diocesan neighbors to continue serving the people of God. Thank you, as always, for your faithfulness to God’s mission in our region.