I have not written to you in a few weeks. COVID-19 has led to a “new normal” of ministry for Hamburg United Methodist Church, for the Niagara Frontier District, the Upper New York Annual Conference, and for all of United Methodism. General Conference has been postponed for over a year, and our Annual Conference session will not take place until the Autumn. Livestream worship has been led by 3 or 4 live participants every Sunday since March 15. We are living in unusual times, indeed!
I find hope, in the midst of all this, in a hymn that the Eastern Nazarene College A Capella Choir sang to close (almost) every concert, “My Times Are in Thy Hand.” Quoting Psalm 31:15a, the hymn proclaims, “My times are in thy hand, my God I wish them there, my life, my friends, my soul I leave, entirely to thy care.” Earlier in the pandemic, I participated in a choral recording, by a group of alumni, of this powerful, moving hymn. When the production work is done, I will let you all know—but until that time, I find the words a comfort—“My times are in thy hand, whatever they may be, pleasing or painful, dark or bright, as best may seem to thee.”
These times often seem dark and painful for us, particularly when we consider them in relationship to the relative ease and freedom of our realities in February. Our losses seem to outweigh the gains from our current reality, particularly for those of us who find meaning or joy in gathering together for worship and other large group activities. I’m sure you grieve the loss of togetherness as I do. I have shared information with Church Council, our Worship Team, and others as it has become clear to me that the pandemic is not going away quickly, and that decisions will need to be made about what our common life might look like based on what might feel like constantly shifting guidance, science, and local realities in the days and months to come.
Leading Beyond the Blizzard
At the end of April, I began discussing my research into congregational preparedness in the wake of COVID-19 and what our “new normal” will need to be for the foreseeable future. The Church Council, the Worship Team, and the Trustees have discussed technological upgrades that should facilitate even smoother and better online worship sharing in the weeks and months ahead. One of the articles I found most useful in thinking about our current reality was written by a team of Christian entrepreneurs whose work most often supports church planters and new program developers. “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup,” helped me and other leaders of Hamburg UMC to come to grips with our current situation. The authors suggested that most Christians (and probably most people) in the United States, imagined that dealing with COVID-19 was akin to a natural disaster like a blizzard. Particularly in this part of the world, we have experience with blizzards! Usually, after a day or two, we can resume our lives, perhaps dealing with a bit of the aftermath, but otherwise like normal. Sometimes, a blizzard might leave us with disruptions for a week or two, particularly if it affects power lines, but we can handle it! Yes, sometimes we can’t get to worship or a meeting, but it won’t last that long.
“Leading Beyond the Blizzard” describes two other ways to think about our disruption—a winter or a little ice age. What then, is COVID-19 for Hamburg UMC? “Epidemiologically speaking, we are most likely facing a blizzard today, a winter for the next few months, and a little ice age for years — and that is if we succeed in suppressing or containing the virus enough to avert a catastrophic failure of the health care system this spring and summer with many millions of deaths (both from COVID-19 and other critical causes for lack of health care).” We may have begun our planning as if this was going to be something like a string of blizzards—we’ll move online for a few weeks, maybe a month, and then everything will go back to normal. It has become clear to me, and clearer by the day, that we are facing a more significant challenge. At this point, our leadership is preparing for winter—a series of disruptions and shifts—and we will continue to develop and implement solutions that will allow us to function and shift as nimbly as possible based on the current level of risk and federal, state and local regulations.
Preparing for Increased In-Person Ministry: First Steps
I do not yet know when we might resume in-person worship, nor how long it will be until we can all be together again as we used to be. Eventually, our region will begin to reopen. Based on current State guidance, that will not mean that we will immediately resume normal activity, or that social distancing will not be necessary. There will continue to be adjustment and evolution over time in how our gathering takes place, based on the best information we can gather. Hamburg UMC will not yet increase the number of people in the Sanctuary on Sunday, but we are preparing to do so, and when we do, you are likely to experience most of the following:
Social Distancing will continue from the parking lot when you leave the car, until you return to your car. To that end, we will be asking each family unit to leave at least 6 feet between them and others while entering the building, and also in the sanctuary when seated; masks will be expected for all those not directly leading worship;
Total worship attendance will likely be limited—we have discussed using Sign Up Genius or another online tool to reserve “seats” to comply with whatever gathering limitations will be in effect at the time;
Family units will receive socially-distanced seating assignments in particular locations in the sanctuary to maintain distancing while in worship together;
Singing, apart from a lead vocalist(s), will be either discouraged and through masks or not permitted until we have further guidance on how to do so safely;
We will be AVOIDING hand shaking and other physical contact;
Serving communion will need to be dramatically re-imagined—the Worship Team has begun discussing options and we hope to be able to adopt a faithful and safe way of sharing the sacrament together soon, with an intentionally expanded extending of the table following new rubrics for those willing to assist in that process;
We will be receiving the offering through a drop option on Sundays when you can be in worship—online giving remains an option regardless of your physical location;
Bible studies, Sunday School, and even our Children’s Table space will have to change, probably all taking place virtually—at least until an effective treatment, vaccine, or other long-term solution to COVID-19 is found, family units will need to worship together. Additionally, face-to-face interaction will have to be limited, social distanced, and very different from what we have become accustomed.
Perhaps most significant, the live-feed of worship and call-in option will continue, and likely be the main ways of participating in worship for most of us on most Sundays for the foreseeable future: https://www.facebook.com/HamburgNYUMC/
Many questions remain on the details of what the near future might look like for Hamburg UMC. This represents our best thoughts at this point, and may need revision. We are all in this together! Our work for caring for each other has moved online in the Hamburg UMC Fellowship group on Facebook, to the work of phone check-ins from small group leaders, and to interpersonal care. We all need to continue this! As your pastor, I am deeply concerned about each of your wellbeing, and the health and welfare of the entire congregation. Your pastor, staff and church leaders love you and care too much for you to take unnecessary risks. We are committing to working diligently to develop quality worship experiences both in person and online as long as we need to do so, and to find new ways to maintain and strengthen all of our vital ministries, even in these challenging times.
Christ is Risen! In Christ’s Service, with you,
Pastor David Nicol
1 Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard, “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup,” The Praxis Journal, last modified March 20, 2020, accessed May 12, 2020, https://journal.praxislabs.org/leading-beyond-the-blizzard-why-every-organization-is-now-a-startup-b7f32fb278ff.