Davis Chapel, Wake Forest University, socially distanced with March 15 protocols—chairs are only 3′ apart, and pulpit is way too close to the congregation.

The pressure is on.

The State of North Carolina implemented Phase 1 of its reopen plan on May 8, 2020. Some businesses can reopen with caveats: social distancing must be in place, extra cleaning must happen. State parks can reopen, but with limits on the number of people who can gather. Churches were to be allowed to meet outdoors, but still limited to 10 people indoors.

But two Baptist churches and an organization called “Return America, Inc.” sued, saying that the restrictions on gathering in churches violate the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And a federal judge temporarily blocked the North Carolina governor’s restrictions on religious services.

Now churches can open—with up to 50% occupancy, social distancing, and extra cleaning.

Upon hearing that churches could convene, a church member texted me, “If we’re opening, I’ll be there!” One church member, worried about our finances, who keeps asking, “Will we open by June?”

But hold on! The news says that churches are “super-spreaders.” In a case in California, 71 people connected with a congregation were infected with the virus. Also in California, a church was open on Mother’s Day and 180 people were exposed to the virus after one person tested positive for COVID-19 the day after. Folks have attended worship and died for it.

In early March, it was not too difficult to decide to close the church doors. With mounting numbers, and cries to “flatten the curve,” it became clear that closing church might help to contain the coronavirus. Closing seemed to be the loving thing to do.

But I believe church leadership will be pressured to reopen, sooner rather than later. And the pressure may not just come from our members, but also from our communities and partners. Reopening may soon be seen as the loving thing to do.

Will you resist? And if so, how?

The most compelling argument I have heard is theological. If we reopen, with modifications, who will be welcome in our pews? Will we ask our elderly to stay home? We will ask our immune compromised and sick to stay home? We will ask our children, at risk for MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children) to stay home?

Jesus’s invitation says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.” When sick folks lined up for healing, Jesus did not turn them away. Are we the church for the elderly, the sick, the burdened? Or are we the church for the young and healthy?

There are other arguments, too. There are public health officials who say we’re opening too soon. There are added costs of opening—having masks available, having to hire cleaning crews. And I myself hate the idea of policing my congregation—but I’m sure that many of them will break the rules of social distancing. The temptation to hug is strong in my church.

I cannot help but think that the second best argument would be the excellence of our current strategy, that worshiping, fellowshipping, and learning online is promoting spiritual growth and is highly inclusive.

However, I do not think my church has reached that level of excellence. We still have people excluded because of their lack of resources—no internet at home and no devices to get online. We still have individuals who are reluctant to meet online, saying, “It’s just not my thing.” We’re not participating in the same numbers as we were pre-COVID-19, although we’re pretty close.

The onus is on clergy to “produce” church and its programming. And with tech difficulties, massive learning curves, and increased pastoral care needs, this initial phase of online church has been stressful and disheartening. Yes, we could argue against re-opening too soon with our online excellence, but there’s still a lot to do to meet that mark.

So, dear readers, how will you navigate this pull to re-open? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas—for the times, they are upon us.


Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013).


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5 thoughts on “The Pastoral Is Political: Will We or Won’t We?

  1. We held worship services on May 17 with 28 people present in a sanctuary that seats about 250. City of New Orleans says no more than 25% of capacity of sanctuary or 100 people. We observed social distancing and everyone had to wear a mask. (I took mine off only when I went up in the pulpit to preach; it is one of those way up in the sky pulpits from a time before audio equipment and I was way, way distant from anyone.)

    We are currently doing two worship services: one online, filmed on Thursday afternoon with no one present in the pews; and one in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Some folks are not comfortable coming to church yet (surprisingly, it’s not just old folks, it’s young families too). Others wanted very much to come back to church, and the session members were unanimous in deciding to reopen with precautions. We do have a few people who don’t have internet access and some homeless or formerly homeless who don’t have access to technology either. So for now, two services. And a special videoed message for the children.

    I don’t see this reopening of churches as “political,” and I resist those who try to use this pandemic to divide us by political views. I see this as combining concern for others (and self) with a little common sense. If no one touches a hymnbook from one Sunday’s service until the next Sunday, the virus just doesn’t live that long on a surface. Yes, we are doing special cleaning in the sanctuary and bathrooms. But no one is in the sanctuary from Sunday to Thursday, or from Thursday to Sunday. Again, the virus just doesn’t live that long on surfaces. And the Thursday videoing crew is not sitting in the pews. (On Thursdays I bring with me hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and disinfectant spray. On Sundays, these are available as well.)

    Your mileage, of course, may vary. But do think things through. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), DON’T PANIC!

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    1. Thank you for sharing, Kathy. Please do let us know how it continues to go—you’re certainly an early adopter of reopening.

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  2. I so appreciate this, Lia. And I’m grateful to pastor in a state where re-opening is cautious and churches are in the last group to reach-open (we don’t have a date: the state is in Phase 1, and we have to see how it goes).
    This shouldn’t be political. But the vast majority of the pressure to open is coming from one side of our present political divide, and science is being overruled with calls for “freedom.” Scripture says little about freedom in the way it is being used. The good of the community, on the other hand, is always elevated over individual rights. It is my role to care for my community, I’m grateful to have the support of our leadership to do that without pressure to move forward more quickly than seems wise.

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    1. We just heard today that we enter Phase 2 on Friday, and my city was listed in the NYT as #4 in the nation of worrisome infections. 500+ in one chicken plant.

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