Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Coronavrius Chronicles 2, Electric Boogaloo: What do we do next?

I find myself muttering every morning, as I head upstairs to my home office and endless Zoom meeting, "What are we going to do today, Brain?  The same thing we do everyday, Pinky."

It's been almost six weeks of the stay at home lifestyle here in Massachusetts.  We have now had a
Sometimes you make my head hurt, Pinky.
stay-at-home advisory since March 26.

We have not had Sunday worship in the church since March 8.  I suspended in-person worship on March 11 even before the bishop and the diocese did so.  As it seems that we are reaching the peak in Massachusetts, I am getting a sense here that I think we all will at some point:  this will end at some point. (Keeping in mind the very definition of a peak means half the cases come on the downslope.)

Thing is, difficult times do come to an end.   The Jewish exiles in Babylonia were allowed to return and build the Temple.  Sometimes it ends unexpectedly: I've done research into Christianity in Eastern Europe post-Communism, and in the oral histories I recorded the persons I interviewed all said they had no idea that in barely 2 years, from 1989-1991, the Iron Curtain and Soviet Union would collapse. My mother grew up with a sense America had always been in deadly crisis, at war, with the survival of the nation at stake.  She had grown up in elementary school knowing nothing but rationing and air raid sirens and blackout curtains and people on the block getting telegrams that would make her mother rush over to the person's house.  When she heard the cheering and came downstairs and found out it had ended in August of 1945, she asked my grandfather, kind of stunned, “Well, what do we do now?” 

It's a question we all need to ask, at some point:  "What do we do now?"  We will emerge from our various shutdowns and stay-at-homes and suspension-of-worship.  My diocese, the Diocese of Massachusetts still has the suspension of in-person worship through May 31, and, while it could be relaxed, parishes are told to plan as though this is the case.  I've been doing my best to try to continue the mission, ministry, worship, and outreach in the midst of all of this.

It’s time to begin thinking about how we will re-start church after this suspension of all in-person church activties.

As we do, let's start with this:  I think it is essential to say that this will not be flipping a switch, and we will not be able to go back to the way things were, until there is a vaccine and/or some kind of approved, recognized, effective treatment.  When there will be a vaccine and/or treatment is anyone’s guess, but likely 12-18 months before there is a vaccine and/or a recognized, effective treatment.  I've had parishioners tell me they can't wait to have a big, huge celebration back in the church the first Sunday we are worshipping there again.  I've said to say, gently and kindly but clearly, "If you think we're going back to have 200 people packed into the church the first Sunday we're back, we are not.  It's likely we will not be able to do that for Christmas in 8 months, let alone the Sunday in a few weeks when we can resume worship.

Pandemics and crises have at times profoundly reshaped how society functioned and was ordered.  The Black Death of the 1340s had enormous political, cultural, social, economic, and theological impacts on European society.  The teenage years my Mom grew into after the war were in many ways different from her childhood years before and during the war.  The Christians in Eastern Europe emerged into a post-Communism society that ended up looking very little like their pre-Communist pasts.  We are not going to come back from this into the same pre-pandemic world, and, like our predecessors in the past, we don't know exactly what that new world is going to look like.

As I think have been thinking about planning, I have had roughly three different models in mind of what the restart might look like.  I didn't invent any of these, they are culled more or less from reading actual, reliable information and listening to competent, trained experts in the area.  My diocese has been extraordinarily helpful in having clergy Zoom gatherings with public health and epidemiologists available for discussion.  

a)         A best case scenario:  We have slowed the spread.  With less strict social distancing, some kinds of limits on gathering size, widespread testing for antibodies to see who has had the virus and may have immunity, along with rapid testing, tracing, and quarantining when cases emerge, we can moderate future spread and contain the virus when it does pop up until treatments and a vaccine are available.  Many things will be able to reopen with physical distancing, testing (temperature checks, etc), and limits on numbers of people gathering.

b)         Less than best case:  We have occasional, significant flareups as the virus spreads again when restrictions are loosened. Between now and when treatments are available we could have several 4-6
Yes I'm that guy who never does the wave at baseball games. Sit the he** down!
week (or longer) periods of shutdowns. This is what some call the “wave” scenario, where we may go in and out of shutdowns for 12-24 months until a vaccine and/or treatment are widespread.

c)         Worst Case Scenario:  Virus comes roaring back after we come out of this, we have to return to strict distancing measures, and are essentially on some kind of shutdown through the rest of 2020.

What does this mean for churches?  I have been thinking of this as I read my own parish for what post-shutdown life may be like.

It is important to point out that churches have been hotspots.  This is why we have to take this seriously and address what changes we may need to make.  In South Korea, France, California, New York, and other places we have epidemiological evidence through tracing of contacts from infected people that churches were significant spreaders of the virus.  In South Korea, a single infected person attending her church infected 37 other people.  Congregations often have larger numbers of persons in high risk categories and thus the potential for more complications.  I have been particularly shaken by seeing on social media how funerals have led to illness and death for those who attended either just before, or in spite of, stay-at-home orders.  One of the nation's largest African American congregations, the Church of God in Christ, has seen its leadership devastated, with literally dozens of bishops and senior clergy succumbing to the virus.

As we move forward over the next 12-18 months, churches will need to be ready to respond to a situation that may change several times, sometimes rapidly.  This will likely not be a linear, smooth trajectory from pre- to post- pandemic church life.  We may need to make decisions again and again based on subsequent flareups or changing situations.  Rather than constantly be reacting, I have been proposing the following to my own parish as principles for a values-based decision making process as we look into future where we cannot know exactly what will happen:

--Jesus summed up the entirety of what it meant to be his follower as “Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself.”  We will continue to look to God as our strength, our comfort and our hope.  And we will love our neighbor as ourselves.  Loving our neighbor means looking out for them, caring for them, and holding onto something other than own individual needs or wants.  And Jesus also closed a loophole in his Parable of the Good Samaritan by reminding us that everyone is our neighbor.  Everyone.

Decisions we make should place on emphasis on how those decisions are loving actions towards our neighbors. All our neighbors.

--Jesus said we will be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable in this world: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”  Churches have disproportionate numbers of persons who are in at risk categories.  We also need to keep in mind you cannot know if someone is in at at-risk category just by looking at them.

Decisions should be based on an abundance of caution as a guiding principle, with the care and safety of people as paramount, especially the most vulnerable, without assuming or judging who is vulnerable or not.

The Rev. Cotton Mather led the drive toward smallpox vaccination in Boston nearly 300 years ago.  Church buildings have installed fire prevention alarms and sprinklers.  Religious groups have adhered to and followed governmental public safety mandates, ordinances, and regulations.  Churches should lead and model this
"A monarchical modalist says 'what'?"
behavior in our current context.  This is why, when the stay-at-home advisory was issued in my state, I switched to live-streaming from my living room rather than from the church.  It feels weird, like a middle aged episode of Wayne's World, but I thought it simply essential to lead by and example with regards to the stay-at-home advisory.

We will abide by recommendations and guidelines issued by state and local Boards of Health.

As Anglicans, we are part of a larger community: members of a diocese, of the Episcopal Church, of the Anglican Communion.  We are mutually accountable to one another in those relationships, as well as being able to share resources and best practices.

We follow all directives from the diocese.

I've been thinking about the above to guide decisions my Vestry and I need to make.  Well, what kind of decisions might we need to make?

What follows are some considerations I have offered to my Vestry to discuss.  This is not meant to be comprehensive, exhaustive, or take into account every possibility.  We will likely receive guidelines and recommendations from our states, from county Boards of Health, from our dioceses or judicatory bodies that will impact and shape our actions.  These were just a starting point for us as we think about how we are going to have to do some things differently for the foreseeable future.   

Worship:         We may need to implement distancing within the church based on our overall capacity.  Like that tape on the floor in the supermarket.
                        No physical passing of the peace.
                        No kneeling at the altar rail:  single file, socially distanced, coming up for communion.
                        No more intinction.  Seriously, despite what people think, CDC studies have shown it is less sanitary than drinking from the cup.          
We could add a service that is only for those who are in high risk groups, like those early morning shopping hours at the supermarket.
Continue to record/livestream worship since there still may be members who may not feel comfortable attending in-person worship for some time.
No physical passing of collection plates.
We may not be able to have every service be a celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
No more social hour/coffee hours after services.

Operations:    Implement social distancing requirements for all other outside groups using the church, revising our building use agreements to incorporate this requirement.  Just like groups can get booted if they use thumbtacks that wrecks the paint job on the wall, or steal the church's coffee, we need to make groups accountable for implementing physical distancing and abiding by group size limits.

Formation & Christian Education:  For Youth Group and Sunday School, follow and adapt whatever models the public school systems might implement.  Consider continuing to hold other activities (Bible Study, for instance) online, or in larger spaces with physical distancing. 

Finances:       This is going to profoundly disrupt our financial picture.  Many churches will likely have suspended in-person worship for 10+ weeks.  That's 20% of the year.  This impacts plate offerings.  This impacts other sources of revenue -- our church has two major fundraisers that we may not be able to hold, as well as a Thrift Shop that has been closed for weeks.  Members' ability to give will be impacted by job losses.

How do we deal with these disruptions in ways that are fair and justice?  I have blogged here before on the profound economic disparities we have in the church between full-time clergy and part-time clergy, and between clergy and lay employees.  In many settings, lay employees are treated little more
Even Scrooge's employees got Christmas off.
than serfs, with hours manipulated to prevent benefits being offered and sometimes laid off with no severance (and normally unable to file for employment, though not in this current context given recent legislation passed).

We cannot speak to the financial injustices of our society if we treat our own employees no differently.

I have deferred a salary increase for 2020 so that we do not have to consider reducing lay staff hours at this time.  I'm not a martyr or a hero, am not humble bragging, and am not fishing for praise.  I think over the years on this blog it should be pretty clear I don't care much what other people say (Lord knows I've burned enough bridges, but mostly to places I didn't want to visit, anyway).  I just don't see how I could have the integrity to comment on the injustices of our society with a full time job with a raise and a pension and health care while cutting part time lay staff who do not have the same kind of benefits or hours.

And I have seen it in the church when we have had to deal with other kinds of crises.  I served in a church setting where I was laid off and my department's budget was cut.  While that happened, other departments did not lose a single staff person, and others had the temerity to lobby for increases while people were losing their jobs.  

I lived through the 2008-2009 financial collapse and saw its impact on all levels of the church -- local, diocesan, and national -- and often the size of your endowment or or how well connected your supervisor was ended up being more important than any considerations about priorities, goals, or mission.  I was actually re-hired after being laid off.  Two previous positions had become one position, and the budget for program work was 30% less than it had been in 2001.  Yet not once was there ever any kind of strategic discussion about what to prioritize or do differently.

I will not remain silent this time around if those with closer access to power and privilege in our church are shielded and cuts are on the backs of the marginalized, less connected, and less powerful, or when there are no strategic discussions about how we will do things differently, or set goals and priorities to guide the difficult decisions we may make.

For instance: as of today, April 19, 2020, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2021 is basically two weeks: 10 legislative days plus organizational committee meetings beforehand and travel days on either.  

If we think we are going to get several thousand people together for a 14 day meeting in the midst of financial collapse and global recession, with perhaps no vaccine in place, we are out of our freaking minds.  We have simply rejected every reform proposal and refused to do change much of anything about General Convention.  No other Christian denomination, even ones larger than the Episcopal Church like the ELCA and United Methodist Church, have their governing bodies meet this long. 

Rather than being too long and costing a ton of money, a Convention held in the circumstances of a major recession and global health crisis would be a mockery and an affront, the Episcopal Church's own version of those people holding "My body my Choice" signs while refusing to wear masks in public.  Are we honestly going to ask people from dioceses closing churches and laying off staff to pay for people to spend 14 days rewriting resolutions already submitted by Executive Council and Task Forces?

If we think we're all going to jump back on planes to go to meetings where we talk about what to do about climate change, we are out of our freaking minds.

Repeat "if we think..." as necessary.

I said on this blog years ago much of our structure will not change, because most folks don't seem to want it to.  Some people even derive their power, privilege, and status by their connectedness to our structure and ability to navigate it.  The 2015 General Convention eliminated almost all Standing Commissions and other committees.  By 2018, they had added back EVEN MORE committees, spending MORE money for them to meet, and without the clear lines of communication and mandates that the prior canonically defined commissions and boards had.  

I also said years ago on this blog that we will not reform our structure or governance because so much of our church is just addicted to meetings, so rather than change eventually it will just cease to be able to function.  I have written more times than I can count how in many ways the collapse is already in here, in slow motion, all around us.

This pandemic may be the impetus that brings much of it all tumbling down.  The extinction event has begun.

As my Mom said on August 14, 1945: "What do we do next?"  

It's time to ask the question.