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Empty Chairs: Thoughts on Church Reopening
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resized 20200427 202855 300x146I hate preaching to empty chairs.


Can’t stand it. I didn’t sign up to become a televangelist and I certainly don’t have the hair for it. Moving worship services to online only for the past ten weeks has been a drag, though Sam and our team have done a phenomenal job in making those services as accessible and engaging as possible.


Nobody wants the church to re-open more than I do, and I believe that’s true for every pastor I know. We were called to minister with people. We love the interaction that happens in the midst of a sermon as we see the impact of the Word of God and the movement of the Spirit on the faces of people we love. We look forward to the moments when we lift the bread and cup of Holy Communion, when we dip our hands into the baptismal font to initiate a young child or a new believer into the Christian faith, and when we greet people at the door. All of those things are suspended right now and it fills me with a profound sadness along with a restless sense of wanting things to be resolved.


But when I look at those empty chairs each week as I’m recording the sermon, I’m reminded that as confounding as the situation is right now, those empty chairs are the result of a temporary situation. I’m also reminded that if we don’t handle the situation wisely and with appropriate respect some of those chairs could be empty permanently.


Re-opening churches has become a political football, like most things in our culture today. The President announced on Friday that he wants churches open. Governors want to mitigate outbreaks of the coronavirus but are doing so with widely varying approaches and results. Bishops and church judicatories are issuing guidelines on re-opening that are at some points hopeful and at other points overly restrictive and difficult. Insurance companies are getting involved with guidance about opening while avoiding lawsuits if someone contracts the virus at a church gathering. The news media reports on churches that did re-open and experienced such outbreaks, a couple of cases resulting in the deaths of the pastor and some parishioners. Some people complain that the virus is a hoax and everything should be open at once; others look at the numbers and express deep concern about opening too early. As my pastor peers and I have discussed often over the past several weeks, none of this is giving us and our lay leaders the consistent guidance and information we need.


The bottom line for pastors, however, is that care for our people takes precedence over politics. Always. “Pastor” is another word for “shepherd” and shepherds are responsible for the spiritual and physical health, welfare, and thriving of their flock no matter what politicians and pundits may proclaim. We hate empty chairs, but we hate to lose one of the flock even more.


I know many people are wondering about how re-opening is going to work at TLUMC. “What are we going to do?” is the question I hear from folks via email and when I run into them in the neighborhood. The answer to that question is, “We’re going to do our best.” That means that whatever we plan is going to be focused on maintaining both the spiritual and physical health of every person in our care to the best of our ability and with the best information at hand.


The church staff and the Church Council are in the process of formulating that plan and are making preparations for a lot of different scenarios based on the guidance we are receiving from multiple sources. We will abide by local and state laws along with the guidance we receive from our Annual Conference. Right now, the guidance we are receiving is that the coronavirus spreads most easily in indoor spaces where people are in close contact with one another and where ventilation is limited. Most of the guidance we’re seeing for indoor worship puts significant limits on the number of people you can have together at once, tells people over the age of 65 and who have compromised health to stay at home, strongly discourages things like corporate singing and shared responses, requires cleaning and sanitation between services, limits contact between people, and requires masks to be worn by all. That doesn’t look or sound much like worship, if we’re honest. It won’t be like this forever, but it is the current reality. Planning for worship under these restrictions will be an arduous task–not impossible, but it will take some deep consideration.


On the other hand, meeting outdoors appears to be safer for a lot of reasons–sunlight, wind, and distancing tend to not be good environments for the virus to spread. The reality is that meeting outdoors for any sort of corporate worship may be our best option for the short term this summer. Our Board of Trustees has been working diligently to make that possible. Our parking lot is being resealed and re-striped, and a contractor has been engaged to run electric power and internet from the church to the crosses on the hill. We have purchased an FM transmitter that would allow our most vulnerable folks to worship with us from the safety of their cars by simply tuning their car radio to the appropriate frequency. Others may be able to bring a lawn chair and join us on the hill while keeping appropriate social distancing. Our Art Committee is putting in a stone altar at the crosses for us to use for preaching and for serving communion. We have purchased prepackaged and sealed individual communion elements for safe outdoor use. Our hope is that in June we will be able to launch the next phase of our re-opening and be together in worship in whatever way we can. Watch for more information and guidance as we finalize these plans. Of course, we will continue our online worship and programming each week as well.


Whatever plans we settle on, we know that there will be hiccups and we know that there will be some folks who question the process. Thirty plus years of ministry experience have led me to understand that we can never please everyone. But I’m going to ask in advance that each of us lead with grace and assume the best. Christian discipleship has always been about valuing, protecting, and sacrificing on behalf of others, deferring our desires in favor of loving God and neighbor. Wearing a mask, altering your schedule, lip-synching a hymn or praise song, putting on some sunscreen, or refraining from a handshake or hug are inconveniences we may have to endure for a while in order to care for one another. I trust that the people of Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church will rise above this challenge and “watch over one another in love.” That is, after all, the Methodist way.


I hate empty chairs and I look forward to the day when they will be full again. In the meantime, while the building may be closed, the church is not. The Holy Spirit is still at work among the scattered church as much as he is when we are gathered. Let us continue to pray together for relief from the pandemic, but let’s also pray that God would use this time and use us to grow deeper in our love for him, in our love for one another, and in love for our neighbors.


That will make a sanctuary full of occupied chairs even sweeter someday soon.

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