February 18, 2022
As Governor Pritzker prepares to lift the mask mandate in Illinois at the end of this month, questions are flying about what this means for the church. Because we are UCC, every church makes its own decisions about its own operations. We have churches that have been meeting in person for months and others that have remained fully virtual throughout the entire pandemic. Regardless of what decisions you have made or will make at your church, I am writing with some perspective that I hope will help inform your next decisions.
First, as Christians, we are guided by the teachings of Jesus. I turn to John 13:34-35 (NRSV):
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What choices do you have and what shows the greatest love for one another? How does our response to this pandemic reflect our discipleship? How do our actions show our community what it means to be a disciple of Christ?
Secondly, as part of the United Church of Christ, we are united in our commitment to work for a “Just world for all”. I turn to Micah 6:8 (NRSV):
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
What options do we have at this time that demonstrate justice? That show kindness? That make evident humility? Who is affected by the choices we make?
Third, most of our congregations include the phrase “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here” at some point in their worship experience. As you consider the path forward for your church, you might ask: who do our decisions exclude? Who might they make feel more welcome?
I was the pastor of a local church in March 2020. I remember the continual decision making, the pressures of staying apart, and the desires to come together. I have walked beside you during this pandemic and feel your fatigue from constant decision making as well as the strain that isolation is having on the mental health of our community members. I know the arguments to come back together and the arguments to stay apart. I witness the frustrations with technology as well as the frustrations with the political polarization in our world. I can’t give you the right answer for your church.
I live with an autoimmune disorder and take medication that suppresses my immune system. I am fully vaccinated and boosted and yet, it is likely that my medication has limited the effect of those vaccines. It is likely that were I to get sick, I would have a harder time than many in fighting it. When my daughter, who works in fast food, came down with COVID, I left the house until all the other members of my household recovered from the virus because of my higher risk. There are others that are vulnerable in other ways – maybe they have lost family members to COVID and are grieving; maybe they are not able to be vaccinated for any number of reasons; maybe their health is frail; maybe they are just scared. I want to feel safe coming to your church. I know you want others to feel comfortable coming to your church. Every setting is different and “feeling safe” will mean different things in each context. It is up to you to prayerfully discern the right path forward for your church.
I realize that some of you wish I would just tell you what to do. For good and for bad, that is not how we do things in the UCC. I pray that each of our congregations will humbly and prayerfully discern the best way forward for your community. I hope that the questions I raise here help you deal with the issues. I offer the support of myself and any of the Associate Conference Ministers to be a part of conversations within your church at your invitation. May God bless you and keep you.
The Rev. Molly Carlson
Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ