In the love of truth, and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of all.
In loving fellowship, we strive to honor the sacred, connect with each other and serve justice.
Those sentences form the covenant and mission of First Unitarian Church. They are the statements that tell the world (and remind ourselves) of who we are.
These past few months we have felt these values tested. It is not easy to unite for worship when we can’t gather in a large group for worship. It’s not easy to connect with each other in loving fellowship over the computer screen. It’s hard to serve justice and our neighbors when all the organizations we work with have been on lockdown.
As our society begins to cautiously reopen, your staff and lay leadership at First Unitarian Church have deeply considered how and when to reopen in-person operations at our beloved building on Main Street. We felt the tension between the values in our covenant and mission. On the one hand, we love truth. And the truth is that we don’t know exactly what gathering size is safe and what is dangerous. We are reading the news and learning from emerging science the same as everyone else. On the other hand, our purpose is to worship God, honor the sacred, and connect with each other. Our church exists to bring people together in communion with their highest ideals. There are ways the spirit is fed in person that cannot be matched through a computer screen.
Holding these values in our hearts, looking at the safety plan for reopening drafted by the Buildings and Grounds committee, and hearing the opinions of our members, the Prudential Committee voted last week to begin reopening the building at the end of September. Specifically, they voted to open the building for small groups, rentals, and a “studio audience” who could be present at the live broadcast of the Sunday morning worship service. They asked me and the staff to work with Buildings and Grounds to establish safety protocols and details for these different activities.
Outdoor meetings, with masks and social distancing, can begin even sooner than late September. Details on how to reserve the garden for a small group will be published in this week’s newsletter. Small groups can meet in the Dining Room and Unity Hall starting September 27. I will be offering small group opportunities both in-person and online. We will make every effort not to exclude anyone from the ministries of First Unitarian Church.
We will also publish details on how you and your family could sign up to be part of our studio audience for worship services. I want to say a word about this opportunity. For the time being, our worship services will be primarily directed to our online audience via YouTube live. The sanctuary will still look like a television studio; not all of the elements of the service will be visible in-person. We will ask parishioners to sit in the back half of the sanctuary, and for households to maintain distance from each other. We will start with a small number of in-person attendees, and may increase if there is a high demand and if developments indicate it is safe. In the meantime, you may find the fullest experience of the service continues to be online. We will be working in the coming months on transforming the sanctuary into a space that can simultaneously host beautiful in-person worship services and broadcast live online, hoping for that day when a fuller in-person worship service is possible.
Without coffee hour, singing, an ideal view of the service or the opportunity to be physically close to one another, you may wonder why we are opening the service to any attendees at all. It’s because we know that there are members of First Unitarian Church who cannot access our online ministries. I will be reaching out to these members in particular to invite them to attend the broadcast of our services. We also know that any of you may have a week when you need to be in the sanctuary in order to honor the sacred or connect to your spiritual center.
As you can see, reopening is not one thing we do or don’t do. It is and will continue to be a process. Your Prudential Committee will consider how to conduct our diverse church programs at every meeting this year. We will continue to reach out to you for your feedback and input.
Your staff and lay leadership listened carefully to what you had to say about possible reopening, faith development for children and youth, and feedback on our online ministries. You can see the numbers from the survey we sent out here. Here are summaries of what we learned in our two listening sessions, and from the comments in the survey.
Adults have participated in many different online church groups since March. Respondents identified online meetings of the Sisterhood, UUGuys, Choir, Tea with the Minister, committee meetings, Wiogora, and listening sessions. Some people noted they had led an online offering by preaching for a summer service or organizing a group. One person mentioned a book club, one person met with YRU2, and one person noted their online donation to Dismas House as a way of participating online.
15 of the respondents to the survey bring children or youth with them to church. In this small sample, we heard that parents, guardians and grandparents are not ready for their children to return to in-person sessions for Sunday morning faith development. Small groups may be an option for our youth, and we are exploring play possibilities or other supports for families. Stay tuned for more information about online faith development on Sunday mornings and other options for children’s and youth’s engagement this fall.
We asked for feedback on our online worship services. We heard a great deal of gratitude and appreciation for the online worship services. We also heard ways we can make them better, including an online “coffee hour” following services and adding in more worship elements from our in-person worship services. We are exploring ways to support singing and spoken responses at home as well.
Amid all these details and plans, one conviction sings in my heart above all others. My ministry has never been solitary. My ministry is with you and with our community. Both online and in person, my priority is to minister together with the church. I would love to see you. I hope you will join an online or in-person small group, or that we can find a time to sit down for a cup of coffee in the church garden or over Zoom.
I love you and I’m here for you as your pastor. These are challenging times. But together we can find ways to live up to our sacred covenant and call, loving truth, creating community, and serving the world.