May 26, 2020 Congregational Letter

May 26, 2020

Dear Friends in Christ,

The last few months have not been easy, and we are so thankful for the many ways that you have individually and collectively stepped into new ways of being the church. Learning new skills, caring for our neighbors, using our imaginations can be challenging in the best circumstance and these have not been the best circumstances. We had hoped that we would be back to in-person worship for Pentecost, May 31, and both of us are heart-broken that we will not be. If your heart aches, let it ache. Allow yourselves to feel and do not judge those feelings.

The Treasure Valley ELCA COVID-19 Task Force made its final recommendations May 25 (see attachment, full document will be on our website). At our May 21 meeting, Trinity’s church council discussed the draft from the task force and agreed to covenant with the other congregations in adopting the task force’s recommendations. The first of these recommendations is to create our own congregational task force which will work through the comprehensive checklist. The goal of this checklist is to ensure that when we come back, either in small or large groups, we are gathering as safely as possible. Love and care of neighbor guided the cluster task force, and it will guide our Trinity task force as well.

You may be wondering what is so complicated about bringing people back to corporate worship. There is a big difference between going to the store or walking past someone on a trail and worshiping with a group of people. It relates to the degrees of exposure. The longer you sit inside where someone is infected, the higher your risk of becoming infected. And COVID-19 patients may be most contagious before they realize they are sick (no fevers, coughs or other symptoms yet). They would not realize they need to stay home, and that complicates matters further. Finally, our task force will need to do a lot of work to bring us back to a worship that will not be the same worship we left or the worship we experience online (see pastor’s article in the June epistle “What Would Worship Look Like”).

What this means as far as a timeline is that we may gather small groups of people outdoors this summer. We hope to make some driveway visits to our most isolated members. We know we all have longings for in-person conversations. Assembly worship is still in the future and will depend on the progress of our task force.

So, if you have been putting off joining online worship with the very real hope that we would be together in June, we strongly encourage you to try it out soon. If your schedule or home life means that it is easier to listen to Pastor Meggan’s sermon while folding laundry or dusting your home, that is fine. We are all adapting. If you would rather read the scripture, sermon and prayers on pastor’s blog, do it. We also encourage you to try connecting with us through Zoom (fellowship time, coffee with pastor on Tuesdays, a study group, or business meeting). Please do what keeps you connected to God and to the Body of Christ. You church council members will talk you through the new technology so please ask for help.

Council President Kim Mills                                                  Pastor Meggan Manlove

Kim Mills                                                                                Meggan Manlove

Attachment: 3 pages

May 25, 2020

To:  ELCA Treasure Valley Cluster Pastors and Council Members

From: Members of the ELCA Treasure Valley Cluster COVID-19 Task Force

Please find below a final document of recommendations for moving forward with in-person church activities and worship in ELCA Treasure Valley Cluster congregations. The document represents our collective conclusions based upon three weeks of extensive reading, study, prayer, and zoom meeting dialogue among and between members of the task force supported by the professional expertise each member brings to this issue. Members of the task force include: Victor Bartling, Physician from Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran; Patrice Burgess, Physician from Immanuel Lutheran; Andrew Finstuen, Dean of the Honors College and Presidential Fellow at Boise State University, Redeemer Lutheran; Jim Girvan, public health professor and health sciences dean (retired), Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran; Steve Gustufson, retired military logistics professional, Grace Lutheran; Meggan Manlove, Pastor of Trinity Lutheran; Kim Mills, physical therapist, Trinity Lutheran; and Paul Olsen, Interim Pastor, King of Glory Lutheran.

Introduction: Loving Our Neighbors

At the request of area pastors and church councils, the Treasure Valley Cluster COVID-19 Task Force convened in May with the charge to offer recommendations and guidelines for in-person congregational activity. As a group, we grounded our work theologically by emphasizing “love of neighbor” (a commitment similarly emphasized by the national office of the ELCA) Centered by Christian love for one another and our congregations, the Task Force established three principles for its work. First, recommendations would not violate any state’s orders. Second, recommendations would adhere to the Center for Disease Control’s findings and other science-based authorities. Third, recommendations would align with the Northwest Intermountain Synod’s guidance, as well as that of sister synods across the United States (including the Oregon, Wisconsin, and Texas synods).

While most, if not all, of us would like to return to the time when we did not have to consider the negative personal and collective health implications of “going to church”, the existence of COVID-19 has changed much of what we took for granted. In fact, worship services have been singled out as an activity prone to spreading the virus quickly and efficiently. In some of our congregations, a high percentage of worshippers are in the vulnerable category for contracting the virus (age 60 and above or those with underlying conditions). These individuals are at higher risk for severe symptoms, which may lead to death. These concerns are only heightened by the reality that COVID-19 can be spread by asymptomatic individuals.

In this context, our committee raised significant concerns for the health and safety of our pastors. They are called to the office of the pastorate, but they also have a call as daughters and sons, fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, friends and spouses. Should precautions break down or relax it would potentially jeopardize the health of our pastors. As Bishop Kempel wrote to the synod: “how do we minister to those who minister to us?”

Consequently, public health preventive measures—including physical distancing (6 feet away), wearing masks in public, sheltering in place, washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, and testing for and tracing of infected individuals—are our only safeguard until a vaccine is developed. The public health measures are preventive only and do not absolutely insulate a person from being infected, even if those measures are followed by everyone. Chances of infection are greatly reduced if everyone does practice these measures, however.

With all of this in mind and after significant deliberation, we have erred on the side of caution with the three recommendations we offer below. The recommendations provide for congregational discretion—they are recommendations, after all—but that discretion is couched in a call for disciplined adherence to the preventive measures designed to curb infection rates. These recommendations may be superseded should state or Federal shelter-in-place orders resume or advice from medical and public health experts warn against gatherings outside the family unit. This approach reflects our commitment to the love of neighbor and our conviction of the severity of the health crisis the COVID-19 virus represents.

Recommendation #1: Congregational COVID-19 Implementation Team

Prior to opening the church building for in-person use, each congregation shall appoint an implementation team who will be responsible for completing and monitoring, specific to their congregation, the Northwest Intermountain Synod readiness check lists found in Appendix A of this document. The team, which reports to the church council, should be comprised of two-three lay, non-council members plus the Pastor. A lay person should be appointed to head the team as one of the intentions of this recommendation is to relieve the Pastor from serving as the main contact person for all issues related to worship and COVID-19. The team will be responsible for interpreting CDC, state, and local guidelines. They will serve as the congregational point of contact for all questions that arise concerning the recommended COVID-19 protocols and use of church space (please see Appendix B). Members need to lovingly yet firmly monitor and ensure the required use of masks, physical distancing, and other measures. Those in the worship community who desire not to participate in gatherings with such required measures are of course free to engage in worship online. Congregational consent on these matters—even if some members respectfully disagree—is paramount and, more importantly, it expresses our grace-filled covenant and commitment to the well-being of all.

Recommendation #2: Small Gatherings

The Treasure Valley ELCA Cluster Task Force recommends small gatherings of 10-20 people may begin no earlier than July 1, 2020. Small groups include weddings, funerals, baptisms as well as Bible study, prayer group, church committees. This recommendation is contingent upon congregations’ demonstration that they have the resources, plan, implementation team, physical space to ensure distancing, and commitment to meet the guidelines set forth by the Northwest Intermountain Synod (See Appendix A and B). In short, and among other precautions listed in the appendices, congregations should require masks of all participants, establish rigorous cleaning protocols, and prepare facilities with signage and markers ensuring proper physical distancing standards. These measures apply to both indoor and outdoor gatherings.

Recommendation #3: In-Person Worship

The Treasure Valley ELCA Cluster Task Force recommends that in-person worship remain suspended until a proven vaccine is readily available. For congregations who elect for in-person worship before a vaccine is available, the Task Force recommends that they gather no earlier than July 19, 2020. This recommendation is contingent upon congregations’ demonstration that they have the resources, plan, implementation team, physical space to ensure distancing, and commitment to meet the guidelines set forth by the Northwest Intermountain Synod (See Appendix A and B). In short, and among other precautions listed in the appendices, congregations should require masks of all participants, establish rigorous cleaning protocols, and prepare facilities with signage and markers ensuring proper physical distancing standards. These measures apply to both indoor and outdoor worship. Even with these precautions, in-person services would explicitly not include singing, passing of the peace, communion, passing of offering plates, and possibly liturgy spoken in unison.

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