Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance for faith communities

Shortly after news of the first person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in the U.S. circulated, Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky sent a letter to local churches and ministries encouraging them to take reasonable precautions. Over the year that followed, Greater Northwest Churches and ministries inhabited warranted caution, actively adapting to do no harm as the U.S. awaited vaccinations and grieved the loss of nearly 600k citizens.

In a pastoral letter on April 22, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky wrote to United Methodists across in the Greater Northwest Area, sharing her posture of hopeful caution as progress was being seen in the fight against the coronavirus. As she asked churches to “remain vigilant in their planning and decision-making processes,” Bishop Stanovsky also promised an update to the area’s COVID-19 guidelines by today, May 5.

That new guidance for local churches and ministries, titled Stepping forward safely in love and trust, is now available and goes into effect on May 17, 2021. The new framework builds upon, but replaces Reimagining Life Together. It acknowledges the continuing risk of disease, advances in science, and the increasing capacity of our local church leaders to manage the risk in their contexts.

This resource page is designed to support leaders as they make critical decisions in a situation that is quickly changing. We believe it essential that such decisions are made with the latest, fact-based information available to us.

Recent Q&A


The following answers were provided by the GNW COVID-19 Response Team in reply to questions lifted up by local church leaders. Originally appearing in their newsletter, they are provided here in reverse chronological order.

Q: What changes are you making first as cases come down?

March 9, 2022 – This week in the “Stepping Forward Safely…” Facebook group, there was a good conversation about next steps. I’ve seen similar discussions in other forums and know they are taking place in local churches as reopening teams balance the desires of members eager to return to (the new) normal and those who aren’t ready yet.

Step Forward

I say it was a good conversation because it was respectful and inquisitive. People asked each other what they were doing about masking, and others responded by sharing what their church had voted to do and not to do. While the decisions varied, most were trying to find their next careful step forward; one responsive to those wanting to relax mitigations without dropping their guard altogether.

Navigating the best way forward as we creep toward an endemic stage with COVID can be complicated. Loud voices are sometimes demanding very different things. And we each may have personal needs in conflict with those we seek to be in community with.

As a communicator, I often find myself at the keyboard when I want to discover what I really think. The process of writing it out helps me to gather my thoughts, just as respectful dialogue can help me to see a question or situation in a completely new light.

Whether through writing or in conversation with your reopening team or some trusted colleagues, I would encourage you to workshop your next step out loud. As you do, here are a few key questions to consider:

  • Does this next step carry forward the values that have guided your decisions this far? If it doesn’t, did your values change (for a good reason), or are you responding to pressure in conflict with them?
  • Can you explain the change to your constituents (members, guests) without them experiencing whiplash? Sharing changes to your mitigation strategy is essential to respect members’ different needs and risk levels. Sharing ‘why’ proactively allows you to make the case and communicate your values.
  • How will people with differing perspectives encounter this change? Making everyone happy is rarely possible, but listening generously to others may help you avoid unnecessary harm.
  • Does this step forward paint you into a corner? By now, we know that COVID is capricious. Consider sharing how you will determine when it will be time to put up your guard again.

Two years ago, Bishop Stanovsky issued her first COVID-19 Notice suspending in-person worship and gatherings of more than ten people. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for all you are doing in your ministry to care for people with different needs and desires! It’s been a long journey, and we still haven’t quite yet arrived, but that light at the end of the tunnel feels closer than it has in quite some time.

Patrick Scriven, on behalf of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

Q: Should we adopt the new CDC guidelines for masking in our churches?

March 2, 2022 – Last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new tool to assist those considering masking guidelines. The new guidance – COVID-19 Community Levels – considers COVID-19 hospitalizations and hospital capacity along with the rate of new infections in determining community risk.

The new release immediately changed how risk is assessed for counties across the US. Before the release, the entire region was considered High risk with only transmission rates weighed. Now, each state has counties identified as Low, Medium and High risk with the new guidance’s broader focus on community risk. It is essential to mention that data issues in Washington impact all risk assessments, including those offered by the CDC and CovidActNow. We urge caution until these systems fully recover from the Omicron surge as they are slowly starting to do.

The CDC’s update arrives as case rates continue to drop nationwide, and much of the population has some level of immunity due to vaccination or previous infection. Coupled with indoor mask mandates scheduled to expire soon in Oregon and Washington, we understand that these changes are causing stress in some congregations/ministries and jubilation in others.

The GNW COVID-19 Response Team is prayerfully discussing these new developments. We are working to adapt our thinking around this new tool offered by the CDC. As we do, like so many of you, we are discerning how we can live faithfully with COVID in our communities.

For the time being, we want to remind you that our current guidance asks Option 2 ministries to “follow the latest CDC guidance (especially relating to hygiene, masking, and distancing)” and to operate “within parameters required by local and state governments and those established by our accrediting/licensing bodies.” When there is a conflict between any forenamed, Option 2 ministries are committed to following the most cautious. If your ministry operates in a county where no CDC, state, or local indoor masking mandate or recommendation is in place, you are free to relax your masking rules as you are comfortable. Neither the bishop nor the GNW COVID-19 Response Team has established a masking requirement over ministries beyond those recommended by civil authorities.

Ministries still operating in Option 1 should consider whether now is a good time to move into Option 2 which provides more flexibility and responsibility. You can find Option 2 details and a commitment letter online here

For the past many months, our team has worked hard to provide the ministries of the GNW Area with the best, scientifically-informed recommendations that we can. We have erred on the side of caution, understanding that ministries were empowered to take responsibility and use discretion within these generous constraints. This remains our task and understanding.

Each step of this journey has forced us to wrestle with our individual comfort with risk and our social responsibility to others. When it may have felt like our ministries could do nothing that felt normal, we too shared in your frustration and exhaustion as we worked to adapt our own lives, both personal and professional, to the same challenges.

While we understand we are entering a new phase of this pandemic, we hope that our ministries will continue to carry forward with them the sincere concern they have embodied for those most vulnerable to this disease.

Some churches may be ready to remove their masks and embrace this new freedom quickly. We would encourage them to remain vigilant regarding changes to their county’s risk level as ‘no COVID’ is a fantasy for the time being. We also continue to affirm additional caution regarding singing, especially given the age of many of our members and the lack of vaccines for the youngest. We all should consider what we can do to normalize mask-wearing for individuals continuing the practice, as the CDC recommends for any with a high risk of severe COVID-19 (and those caring for/living with them).

Other churches may be reluctant to relax their masking requirements (and other mitigations) right away. Going slowly into what comes next may prove to be a wise strategy, as evidenced by experts who are continuing to urge more caution for now.

We would encourage all ministries to be in regular conversations with members and constituents, listening openly to concerns and communicating clearly about changes as they implement them.

We know that we all make better decisions when we lean on the wisdom gained from the successes and missteps of fellow practitioners. If you would like to share an experience or question that might inform our work as the GNW COVID-19 Response Team or inspire other ministries across the area, please send them to communications@greaternw.org or reply to this email.

Patrick Scriven, on behalf of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

Q: Should we still require masks if our state or city has dropped its mandate?

February 16, 2022 – Several states and local municipalities recently announced the ending or relaxing of mask mandates at dates in the near future. Just as this is causing some anxiety and confusion in public schools and other settings, we know it could raise questions in local churches and ministries in communities where these masking mandates are in effect.

As we have from the beginning of the pandemic, we continue to recommend that churches and ministries follow the most cautious recommendation in place, either those set by the CDC or by their state or local municipalities. It is important to note that parts of the GNW Area have had no state or local mandates to rely upon and used the CDC guidance throughout. And last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky clarified that “now is not the moment” to relax or drop mask mandates in schools and other public places, though there are reports that the CDC is considering new benchmarks for their recommendations.

Masks in church

For now, the CDC continues to recommend that all people over the age of 2 who are not fully vaccinated and fully vaccinated individuals with weakened immune systems wear a mask in indoor public places. They also recommend mask-wearing for all fully vaccinated people in areas with substantial or high transmission (as defined by the CDC). Nearly all of the US continues to exhibit high transmission rates as of mid-February 2022.

The public’s exhaustion with the coronavirus has been widely reported and sometimes explicitly mentioned as a significant motivation to end or relax mask mandates. While COVID exhaustion is very easy to understand and relate to, we share the concern of many epidemiologists and public health experts who caution that the science doesn’t support this action at this very moment.

We hope there is a time in the not-so-distant future when a relaxation of indoor masking will be possible and align with both the science and the public’s desires. With cases plummeting across much of the area, some ministries may soon find themselves in counties where they can consider relaxing their masking rules even under current CDC guidance.

We continue to recommend that local churches practice additional caution when engaging in congregational singing – you can find our recommendations here (you can find the GNW’s recommendations applied to your county here). Some churches may decide that masking will continue so congregants can sing with less concern about doing harm. Others may decide that going mask-free has more value for them than singing.

As local churches and ministries look toward significant changes to their mitigation practices, we encourage them to continue clearly communicating with members and constituents, including their rationale for changes. Good communication will make it less likely that individuals will find themselves in uncomfortable situations and permit individuals to make informed decisions based on their own needs.

Patrick Scriven, on behalf of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

Q: Is it time to resign ourselves to getting COVID?

January 19, 2022 – Last week, I had a phone conversation with a local church staff member that I have known for a long time. As we were talking, we briefly entertained whether this was the opportune time to get COVID before stating reasons we wouldn’t be running out to do it.

I don’t mention this conversation to suggest that getting COVID purposefully is a good idea – it is not. Several good articles are circulating sharing exactly why it isn’t – here is one to consider. I do mention my conversation as a way to acknowledge how fatalism and weariness impact us all, potentially leading us to lower our guard at precisely the moment that our communities (and hospitals) need us to hold the line.

COVID exhaustion is a real thing. We are all impacted by that exhaustion in our thinking about this virus.

The Washington Post published an excellent opinion piece this week by Jon Gluck. In his post, Gluck, who shares that he is immunocompromised, expresses his concern that people are gambling with risk in ways that do not bode well for others like him. “As more and more people decide to just live with the virus, or even try to deliberately contract it to “get it over with,” the immunocompromised and other vulnerable populations are being forgotten.”

It struck me as I pondered Gluck’s words how much time and our exhaustion with this pandemic has shifted what we are willing to tolerate. Perhaps you remember how jarring it was back in March of 2020 when the country lost more people to COVID than the 9/11 terrorist attacks when 2,996 people lost their lives. Over time, we have grown so accustomed to these numbers that such comparisons have lost their meaning – as I write, our 7-day rolling average of confirmed deaths is 1,757. How many of those deaths were preventable?

COVID exhaustion is a real thing. The potential impacts of decisions made because of that exhastion are not carried evenly.

Thank you for everything you are doing to protect yourself and others in your community from COVID! It cannot be said enough. As people of faith, we understand that every life is sacred, even as we struggle to keep these numbers connected to the individual lives behind them. And we have faith that even in the darkness of this long night which can obscure our sight, we are promised that joy comes in the morning.

May God bless us with endurance to continue to persevere, the empathy to think of others as Jesus would have us, and the grace to be patient and understanding with ourselves and others when we fall short.

Patrick Scriven, on behalf of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

Q: Should we upgrade the masking we use and require?

January 12, 2022 –

There is a growing consensus among public health officers and medical experts that masking recommendations, including those currently offered by the CDC (now under review), need to be revisited with Omicron. We believe that it is time for individuals and ministry settings to consider what they can do to improve this practice as a part of their risk mitigation strategy.

At some level, both the choice to be vaccinated and the choice of masks are individual decisions. But those choices impact entire communities. Previously, we have recommended that churches encourage their members to get vaccinated and to assist in community efforts to vaccinate as many as possible. In that same spirit, we now recommend that our churches consider changes to their masking policies, educating their members and leading by example.

Our GNW COVID-19 Response Team has recommended a layered approach to risk mitigation through most of the pandemic. This approach is sometimes referred to as a “Swiss cheese model” as it expects holes or gaps in any single effort we might employ. Practiced together, the strategies make a situation or setting safer than any single measure – or what one might refer to as a silver bullet approach.

There is no better example of this than masking, as even the most highly protective masks literally have tiny holes that allow for air transfer through their layers. N95 and similarly rated masks (KN95, KF94), also called respirators, are so named to communicate that they filter up to 95% of very small (0.3 microns) particulates when properly fit to a face. This means that when used correctly – which we all appreciate as part of the struggle – high-quality masking is imperfect, even if it is very good.

The high transmissibility of Omicron has caused a growing number of epidemiologists and other medical experts to question the standard mantra that any mask is better than no mask. While this mantra isn’t wholly wrong, different types of masks offer vastly different protection levels.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a helpful article on this topic which I would recommend as it explains better the differences in types of masks while offering pointers on proper fit (if you have exhausted the number of free articles you can read from the WSJ, the USA Today articles I share below offer similar information). They shared the following chart based upon research data published by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH).

WSJ Masking Chart

While this chart is helpful in showing the range in effectiveness between different types of masking, two things must be noted. First, the data included was published by ADGIH in April of 2021 on research done before that, meaning that it considered the spread of coronavirus prior to Delta or Omicron. Second, and more importantly, this chart assumes good usage of each type of masking, which is not an assumption we can assume. This is one example of why the GNW COVID-19 Response Team recommends a layered approach even when a church leans hard into any single mitigation strategy.

Speaking from personal experience, I have used a KN95 respirator fairly religiously since shortages started to ease in 2020. While the KN95s peculiar beak-like appearance garnered a few strange looks when they were less common, I found the extra peace of mind worth it. Several experts were already calling the “any mask is better” strategy flawed.

Last week, USA Today published an article considering the science behind shifting recommendations toward N95 and KN95 respirators. As part of that discussion, they offer guidance on how such masks can be safely reused, as they cannot be cleaned as cloth masks can. My practice has been similar, although less careful in this area.

Another article from USA Today offered suggestions on where you can purchase respirators and what to look for to ensure you aren’t getting a counterfeit, as fake respirators have crowded the marketplace.

While the CDC continues to recommend a well-fit multi-layered cloth maskas an acceptable option, the chorus of voices arguing for better masking should cause us to revisit our personal and corporate masking recommendations. With a growing number of institutions starting to require a medical-grade mask (often surgical or higher-grade respirator masks), it may be a matter of time before some public health departments begin to require the same.

If your ministry setting has relaxed its posture regarding masking, Omicron’s pervasive spread should cause you to rethink this. If you are still meeting in person, consider requiring at least a surgical mask, purchasing them to have on hand for those who arrive without a mask or with a cloth mask without any additional filtration. For ministries that can find and afford them, offer a KN95 (or equivalent) respirator in their place.

If people wish to wear a cloth mask with a surgical mask, they should wear the surgical mask underneath the cloth mask as that may improve the fit.Double-masking is not advisable with some respirators, particularly KN95s as it is unlikely to improve the filtration and may compromise its effectiveness.

Ministries may also revisit how they can model better masking through the practice of church staff and essential volunteers. Those congregations offering in-person worship options with severe levels of the Omicron variant present may wish to reconsider the removal of masks even by those leading worship.

Finally, consider how you might educate your congregation (remote or in-person) by sharing information about better masking practices. Most church members spend most of their time in public in other settings besides church, and we should care about them wherever they are.

The pandemic continues to challenge us as new variants emerge and our beliefs about what we know are disrupted. As in so many areas of life and ministry, our openness and willingness to adapt to new information can be hard to maintain but also can reward us with better results.

Patrick Scriven, on behalf of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

Q: Should we cancel in-person worship for Christmas Eve?

DECEMBER 22, 2021 – We know that the Omicron variant of coronavirus is present across much of the area though that presence is uneven. Cases in King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, have soared upward over the past few days with some indication that they are still at the beginning of this surge. Several other counties are beginning to show signs of the same. Some churches are already making the difficult decision to move Christmas Eve worship outdoors or online.

At the earliest opportunity, we strongly recommend every local church and ministry gather their reopening team to discuss their current plans and practices in light of Omicron. Those conversations should include a thorough review of current (when you meet) information about Omicron with as much local and regional context as possible. The best decision for some ministries may indeed be to move their worship services online; others may make other adaptations. We implore all our churches to be vigilant and err on the side of caution as they consider this decision for the days and weeks ahead.

We’ve updated this guidance page on the GNW website – Changing course as COVID-19 cases rise – to reflect our concern about relying solely on CovidActNow colors or daily case counts to project what may be underway in your community. Especially as we move through this time of uncertainty, it would be advisable to review county-based metrics here, on CovidActNow, or with your local health department if they provide daily updates. Please see Becky’s update above for more details on the metrics to watch in this uncertain time.

Over the past several weeks, scientists and public health officials around the globe have scrambled to learn more about the Omicron variant. While our collective knowledge remains imperfect, there is significant evidence that the variant is highly transmissible, far outpacing previous variants.

There is a growing understanding that Omicron is quite effective at evading both immunities generated from prior infection and those offered by vaccination, especially when those immunities have waned over time. Thankfully, vaccines are still largely effective at reducing the likelihood of severe disease, even as they are not as effective at preventing breakthrough infections.

Throughout the pandemic, it was often the case that a metro area might experience an outbreak. At the same time, another region saw only a slight increase or experienced outbreak weeks or even months later. Omicron appears to be very efficient at spreading, more so than previous variants. While regional differences remain, modeling from the CDC suggests that it is already quickly replacing Delta as the dominant variant across the country. If case trends follow those seen in South African and Europe, public health officials fear January will bring widespread illness across the US.

As communities of faith, the goal of our response to any variant of COVID-19 should be perfect love, not fear. Where much of what we are learning about Omicron is prompting serious concern, we are best served considering how we can love our neighbors better by what we do next.

For some congregations, especially where a surge is starting or underway, ceasing in-person worship and gatherings may be the best way to act with love as Christ would.

For ministries that determine in-person gathering is still safe for them to continue, the layered mitigation approach we have been encouraging, sometimes referred to as the Swiss Cheese Model of Defense, is still the best strategy to employ. Understanding that Omicron appears to be more adept at exploiting gaps in these layers, we would ask reopening teams to consider ways to strengthen their practices.

  • One way to make our worship spaces safer is through vaccine requirements, as vaccines are our best tool to protect those who remain vulnerable in our families and communities. In some communities, this might be a requirement for worship leaders, whereas, in others, you might require vaccination or testing of all participants. At a minimum, churches should encourage vaccination for those eligible, and boosters as recommended by the CDC. Additionally, they should seek out community partnerships when possible to alleviate vaccine access concerns. 
  • Another way to further safeguard our ministries is by encouraging members to improve their masking practices. While all of our ministries should already require masking, many are non-specific as to the type or quality. Quality face coverings — namely surgical, N95 and KN95 masks – are far more effective than many cloth masks.
  • Dropping congregational singing (if you have started to practice it) may be difficult emotionally, but it is one of the easiest things to eliminate to reduce the opportunity for virus spread.
  • Additional improvements to ventilation and adjustments to the other mitigation strategies we detail here can help congregations provide a safer environment. Still, none of these strategies are as effective when the disease runs rampant in the community.

In a few short days, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus. Whether we do that in person or through gathering online, may these celebrations be a blessed reminder of a God who loves us so much that God came to live among us, seeing poverty, oppression, racism and even sickness and death firsthand. Like Jesus, may we find ways to love through days both dark and bright, delivering hope and light to weary people—including ourselves.

Patrick Scriven, on behalf of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

Q: What can we do about the latest COVID-19 variant, Omicron?

DECEMBER 1, 2021 – After many Americans celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday, news broke on Friday of a concerning variant of COVID-19 first identified in Botswana and South Africa. The new variant B.1.1.529, known as Omicron, has 50 mutations, with more than 30 on the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach itself to human cells. The World Health Organization designated Omicron as a variant of concern, and several countries, including the U.S., imposed new travel restrictions to slow the variant’s global spread.

Omicron

What more do we know about Omicron? Not a whole lot with any certainty. Because of its many mutations, particularly on the spike protein, there is significant concern that the virus is more transmissible. Scientists around the globe are studying the variant closely to determine this and understand how it compares to Delta.

There is also some concern that the variant might be able to evade, to some degree, the protection offered to us by vaccination or previous infection. The CDC strengthened its vaccine booster guidance on Monday, recommending that all adults over 18 receive a booster. They pointed to the emergence of Omicron and early data suggesting increased transmissibility and the “potential for immune evasion” as their rationale.

Public health experts are concerned about a repeat of our all too recent past, and we should be too. Before Delta arrived, cases were trending down across much of the U.S.; many people were done with COVID, even if it wasn’t done with us. The impact of human behavior can be significant, especially when we let our guard down too early.

While cases were declining across much of the Northwest, they were trending up nationally before the holiday. Concerns existed before the news of this new variant about the potential impact of holiday travel and behaviors on community transmission.

As we wait for more information about this variant, churches should use this moment to assess where they may have become lax or complacent in applying their COVID-related mitigation practices. Are you following your plan, and is it well suited to your current risk level?

Churches should consider passing along the CDC’s updated guidance on booster shots, especially for those members who may not consume much news. As of last week, 37.5 million Americans had received a booster out of the 130 million-plus that were eligible. Even among the most vulnerable groups, there are still those who haven’t received a booster.

Finally, suppose Omicron or another future variant does pose a direct threat to the community you serve. In that case, it is always best to know how you will make decisions responsively to changing risk. Review with your reopening team how your congregation adapted to the Delta wave. What did you do well? What could you improve, and what will you need to communicate to your congregation if future changes are warranted?

The GNW COVID-19 Response Team is monitoring this news closely, and we will provide future guidance as warranted. For now, there is no reason to panic, but please do remain vigilant.

Patrick Scriven, on behalf of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

Q: Can we safely celebrate the winter holidays in person this year?

OCTOBER 13, 2021 – On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned against a premature declaration of victory against COVID-19 even as he shared that vaccinated Americans should feel reasonably safe celebrating upcoming holidays. His words echo similar advice offered recently by CDC Rochelle Walensky and other experts as much of the US sees coronavirus cases decline.

Over the past week, several news outlets tackled the question of what we might anticipate as winter arrives and what we need to do to be adaptive to changing circumstances:

Each piece is worth reading (or listening to) for those making personal decisions about what to do to keep themselves safe, choices that can also make faith community events and activities safer too. The following points are made repeatedly in these and other articles on the current and future state of the pandemic.

  • Things are starting to get better again, but caution is still warranted. Overall, the situation in the US is improving, but some experts anticipate a winter resurgence. Low vaccination rates, changes in personal behavior (moving inside, dropping safety protocols), and the threat of a new variant are all variables on experts’ minds. While we know more about how COVID-19 spreads, reliable forecasting remains elusive.
  • Vaccination matters. Vaccination makes a quantitative difference in almost every way that matters, and the presence of unvaccinated people in an event you are participating in should impact your planning. The expected emergency use approval of a vaccine for younger children (5-to-11 year-olds) will help given time and robust adoption, as will efforts to deliver more vaccines globally.
  • This is a time to be adaptive. Whether you are considering personal travel or planning a communal event (i.e., Christmas Eve worship), it is best to have a backup plan. We are still in a season of unpredictability where rigid planning can lead to disappointment and unnecessary risk. None of us are living in a bubble. When case numbers are high in the community, even a layered mitigation strategy can fail.
  • Masks matter, but they are not all the same. Scientists researching the Alpha variant were able to show that it transmitted more efficiently as an aerosol than previous strains, and they expect that Delta is even better. A growing body of research shows that while any mask is better than none, cloth and basic surgical masks are not nearly as effective as those rated N95 or KN95, especially against a highly efficient virus.
  • Plan to use rapid testing strategically around travel and events. The prevalence of breakthrough cases during the Delta surge has led to more conversation about the availability of rapid testing. The mitigation strategy has been popular in other countries and could help reduce the disease’s asymptomatic spread. Last week, the Biden Administration announced a plan to increase the number of at-home rapid tests to 200 million per month by December. As they become available, consider how you might use them to mitigate risk for you and events you participate in.
  • Hope is on the horizon. Last week, pharmaceutical company Merck announced that they would be seeking FDA approval for the first antiviral pill intended to treat COVID-19. In clinical trials, it cut hospitalizations and death by about 50 percent, and other similar treatments are in the pipeline. Treatments like these could help to save lives and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul wrote, “We even take pride in our problems because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Despite the challenges posed to us by the Delta variant, we are making real progress against this disease. And as people of faith, we can trust that the problems we have faced will, with God’s help, produce endurance, character, and hope.

Over these many months, our United Methodist churches have been sacrificial in adopting safety protocols for the common good. Along with similar actions of others, we have helped to bend the curve of this virus to give scientists the necessary time to study and develop treatments to save lives.

It may indeed be possible to approach the various fall and winter celebrations with more enthusiasm this year than last, but we should be very cautious about letting down our guard. As we plan how to celebrate some holidays in person again, let us remain committed to loving our neighbors as we take full advantage of all that we have learned, and the gifts science has delivered.

–Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications, PNW Conference

Q: Does our church need to abide by the new vaccine mandate issued in King County, WA (or one like it)?

On September 16, Public Health – Seattle & King County Dr. Jeff Duchin issued a new health order. The order requires proof of a coronavirus vaccination or a negative test (within 72 hours) to attend most restaurants and bars, indoor recreational venues regardless of size, and outdoor events with 500 people or more, beginning October 25. Similar requirements are in place in a small but growing number of cities across the country and might be expected in other parts of the GNW Area at some point.

In a provided FAQ, King County states that faith-based institutions “are strongly encouraged but not required to verify vaccinations.” It has long been the position of the Greater Northwest Area that its churches and ministries take seriously guidance provided by state and local public health authorities, intentionally not availing themselves of special rules offered exclusively to religious organizations. This position is an expressed commitment of Option 2 churches and ministries where it states, “[w]e will not use privileges accorded religious organizations to exempt ourselves from science-based restrictions applied to non-religious civic organizations of similar function.”

Therefore, United Methodist churches and other ministries operating in cities, counties, boroughs, or states where a vaccine mandate exists should develop and implement a plan to require proof of vaccination or negative test as required by any health order. This applies regardless of whether those ministries are in Option 1 or 2 of the “Stepping Forward Safely…” framework. Churches and other ministries may make missional exceptions from this mandate when a particular program or outreach is focused toward a vulnerable population.

To be clear, this is a specific and consistent reminder that churches and ministries should follow state and local public health guidance in addition to the same from the CDC, whichever is most cautious. We are not recommending vaccine mandates for all ministries across the GNW Area.

While vaccinations remain free and widely available, we do understand that access remains uneven in some communities. At times, some of the same communities with less access have more reasons to be hesitant. Our position, especially given the critical importance of vaccination in the public health struggle against coronavirus, is that churches and ministries can best serve their communities by partnering with public health and other civic organizations in providing more access and advocacy for vaccinations.

Q: When will it all be better? Christmas? Easter?

SEPTEMBER 22, 2021 – Over the weekend, I had a tough conversation.

During the early months of COVID, my father passed away after years of struggling with degenerative lung disease. Months later, my grandfather passed away as COVID-19 made its way through the long-term care facility where he lived. My mother lost her husband and father while dealing with a significant medical crisis of her own. When, in July, she finally decided to plan memorial services for each at the beginning of October, it was a triumph and a step forward in healing. 

Fast forward to this weekend. I have been watching numbers in my home county in Wisconsin slowly tick up for weeks and it is now the worst in the state. As I write today, the daily new case rate is 141.1 per 100k, coupled with some unfavorable statistics. One out of every four people tested for COVID-19 test positive, and only 35.1% of the population is fully vaccinated. None of these things made me feel like it would be a good idea, but I was still holding onto hope that things might suddenly get better. 

The Mayo Clinic provides public access to a tool they use to forecast COVID-19 risk up to 14 days which works in most states (Alaska seems to be an exception).* When another GNW COVID-19 Response Team member shared it a few days earlier, I left a browser tab open, hoping to explore it more closely. As I looked at its forecast for Rusk County, I was shocked to see they predicted daily new cases would rise to 257 per 100k with a high and low range of 104-556. This projection helped solidify my decision.

So, I called my mother to let her know that it was doubtful that I would make it. That wasn’t easy because I want to support my family and properly mark these passings. While I encouraged her to reconsider the timing, I was clear that this was not my decision to make.

I’m happy to report that my mom called back to say they would be rescheduling just a short time later. She also shared that my sister, who lives locally, was relieved as she had been concerned that her family might need to quarantine unpredictably as the virus runs through the school and community. While I was thankful for this outcome, I am still sad that we will need to wait longer.

I share this personal story to answer the question. Nobody has a crystal ball, and it is impossible to predict when it will all be better. Many of us started to feel positive about things in July when the data was heading in one direction. And then Delta arrived, and things got bad again quickly.

So, are we completely blind? No, I don’t think so. Thanks to the efforts of so many civil servants, we have data that can help us to see the trends and studies that continue to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Delta’s arrival was a shock, but it wasn’t a complete surprise. And we have seen, even in our relatively small region, how our actions (distancing, masking, and vaccination) and those by civil authorities have made a significant difference.

Do I think packed candlelight services will be making a comeback this December? I believe that is highly unlikely. But it may be the case that parts of the area are back to where they were in July again. Hopefully, we will have learned that this won’t yet be time to let down our guard.

Collectively and individually, there is a lot of healing that needs to take place. Praise God for the saints among us who have been busting their tails to adaptively offer opportunities for healing online and safely in-person! And may we all be given a full measure of patience for all that still needs to wait.

Patrick Scriven serves as director of communications and young people’s ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference. He is also a member of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team.

*Another reliable resource for projections (on a state but not county level) is the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Q: Can churches require their employees to get vaccinated?

Yes. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers can require vaccination and/or regular screening for COVID-19 as part of their terms of employment, subject to reasonable accommodations. No current state law in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon or Washington prohibits a church or ministry from doing so. OSHA will be issuing guidelines that will be mandatory for employers with more than 100 employees soon that churches may want to consider implementing.

Requiring vaccination for paid and volunteer staff positions can add a layer of safety for ministries and communicates confidence in the efficacy of vaccines to reduce the frequency of severe cases, especially now that one has full FDA authorization for adults over the age of 16. Still, churches should proceed with care, making sure they understand the impact it will have on staff and have a plan for fairly addressing accommodations required by law.

It is the recommendation of the GNW COVID-19 Response Team that local churches and ministries strongly consider a vaccine mandate as an expression of our faith that calls us to love our neighbors.

Review section K. Vaccinations to learn more on the EEOC website.

Q: Since winter is coming, how can we use ventilation and filters to lower the risk of COVID transmission while indoors?

SEPTEMBER 8, 2021 – During the spring and summer, many of our congregations have been worshipping outdoors. It is wonderful to worship in God’s creation, and it is so much more COVID-safe than being indoors. But fall and winter will be upon us shortly, and, in many places, outdoor worship may not be practical.

First, before moving indoors, can you tweak/add things to make outdoor worship possible for longer? Here are some ideas, but please share yours in the GNW Stepping Forward Facebook group.

  • When locally allowed, add propane heaters or fire pits so that folks can warm up, at least momentarily.
  • Add canopies, remembering that sidewalls are problematic, possibly disrupting the airflow and creating pockets of concentrated, potentially virus-laden aerosols.
  • Suggest that folks bundle up.
  • Provide disposable hand warmers.
  • Provide blankets or suggest that folks bring their own.
  • Encourage folks to bring warm beverages, being mindful of the need for physical distancing when consuming a drink. The viability of this suggestion depends on your site’s current risk level, risk tolerance and opening plans.
  • Move worship to a later time in the day when it is a bit warmer.

Once it becomes necessary to move inside, or if you already have and are wondering what you can do to increase the safety of your congregation and other groups using your space, consider these thoughts and ideas:

Read and download the rest of this advice on ventilation.

Q: What precautions should we be taking for our Christian education programs and preschools in our local church settings?

SEPTEMBER 1, 2021 – For many reasons it was a successful summer season for Camp and Retreat Ministries (CRM) of the Oregon-Idaho Conference and Pacific Northwest Conference with 10 camp and retreat sites fully operational and offering enriching experiences for everyone from 3 to 83 years old.

Oregon-Idaho CRM Executive Director Todd Bartlett counts it a success for one other reason: no cases of COVID-19 have been reported, even with overnight camps operational all summer long. A number of risk mitigation factors were put in place to make this happen, with agreement among all of the campers and non-UMC facilitated camps as well, to the safety precautions.

“We did as much outside as we possibly could,” Bartlett said.

That meant breakfast at Suttle Lake Camp in 40 degree weather or scrambling to find extra dining space at Camp Magruder when the rain started along the Oregon coast.

It also meant campers masked whenever they were inside buildings. Cabins with bunk beds were re-arranged to accommodate physical distancing. When they were outside, campers stayed with their same cohort throughout the week and physically distanced themselves when in outdoor spaces as well. All of the camps offered health screenings – including temperature checks – each morning as well, Bartlett said.

 The PNW Camps similarly had much success this season, reports CRM Executive Director Alan Rogstad. Each of the four PNW Camps offered summer camping with similar precautions to their ministry partners to the south.

Read more about the practices that made camps successful on our GNW News site.

Q: How are local churches creatively approaching safety?

AUGUST 25, 2021 – When it came time to welcome people back into the congregation at Hillview United Methodist Church in Boise, Rev. Brenda Sene had an easy way to “sell” the message of following strict COVID-19 protocols.

“We are a reconciling congregation,” Sene said. “We are here to make people feel emotionally and physically safe.”

Sene said there were some people who were hesitant to wear masks, but when the church put its guidelines into the context of welcoming everyone – including protecting unvaccinated children – it just seemed to make sense.

“Once I explained it that way, no one complained,” she said.

The message isn’t internal, either. Recently, the Oregon-Idaho Conference held a small ordination and commissioning service at Hillview UMC and ushers greeted people at the door with a reminder to keep themselves masked because the church wants to welcome everyone into its space and the only way that can be done by following safety guidelines.

Sene said greeters are advised to be gracious, but they all offer reminders – in their own way – about the importance of sharing God’s love by protecting the health and well-being of their neighbors.

Every other church pew is adorned with “faces” of people wearing masks to help with the physical distancing — and also making the congregation look a little fuller to the preacher. Children, who Sene said are an important part of the congregation, each have their own worship bag with their name on it (and guests are given ones they take home) where they can play with toys and add their own items, which helps provide an alternative way to keep kids engaged in worship and lowers possible transmission rates.
– Written by Kristen Caldwell

Q: Is it still safe to preach without a mask if you are vaccinated?

AUGUST 18, 2021 – When the CDC updated its masking guidelines in May, saying that fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in many settings, church leaders saw an opportunity. If, as the CDC guidance suggested, vaccinated people were largely safe from infection and from being contagious themselves, their vaccination status should make their participation in worship as a maskless preacher or liturgist reasonably safe.

The Delta variant is turning that thinking on its head. Early studies of COVID-19 infections in regions where the Delta variant is dominant are indicating that the vaccines may provide less protection against so-called breakthrough cases. And while these cases are often mild, as the vaccines provide a layer of protection for most, those with asymptomatic and mild cases are still quite capable of passing the virus along, even if they are unaware of their illness.

Simply put, vaccination alone isn’t enough with Delta in our communities.

One church that paused to rethink things in light of Delta was First UMC of Seattle, operating under Option 2 of the GNW’s “Stepping Forward…” framework.

“When the Delta variant started to rise, First Seattle’s lay leadership requested we take additional steps to reduce the risk for our live-streamed worship services, which began Sunday, August 15th. Our lay lectors and preachers alike must produce proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test from 24-72 hours prior, to speak without a mask,” said First UMC’s pastor Jeremy Smith. “If they don’t get the test results back in time, then they can do the same role, but wearing a mask.”

Smith noted that surgical and musical performance expectations in the Seattle area inspired these extra steps.

Rev. Katie Ladd, who serves as pastor of nearby Queen Anne UMC, shared that her church (also under Option 2) has adopted a similar practice, having faith that mitigation efforts have and will continue to make a difference.

“Every Friday, we review cases per 100k for our county. In high risk, we halt indoor singing from the soloist and use only instrumental music indoors. Speakers, we allow for two, can only unmask if vaccinated with a negative COVID-19 test in hand.”

Access to testing is likely to vary by community. Rev. Smith shared that drive-thru testing in King County was paid for by his (PNW Conference) insurance. Others have used modestly priced testing available from local labs and even companies like Amazon, which offer quick results.

“We are looking to create a pool of people to enter into group saliva testing to cut down on costs, assuming that this practice will be a long-term one and not something for the near or intermediate future,” said Rev. Ladd. “We are preparing for COVID to be endemic, and we want our practices to prepare us for this potential reality.”

– Patrick Scriven, PNW Director of Communications

Q: How are GNW churches managing the current rise in COVID-19 cases?

AUGUST 11, 2021 – Twin Falls County, Idaho, experienced rapid growth in their COVID case rate in late July…while the pastor of First UMC in Twin Falls was on vacation. Members of the reopening team and the worship leader recognized this, being well-informed about the shift in CDC guidance and additional information about singing from the GNW COVID-19 Response Team. With access to information, local statistics, and practical guidance, laity in leadership were equipped and empowered to make loving decisions on short notice, encouraging and requesting that all worshipers (regardless of vaccination status) wear masks in their indoor worship service. 

Pastor Buddy Gharring was back to lead worship the following Sunday when masks continued to be the norm. “The ability to offer a clear, straightforward, and health-conscious (science-informed) answer to the question, ‘When are we going to be able to sing indoors again?’ is a very welcome gift. I am thankful for the people who have worked so hard on this tool,” says Gharring of the recently released singing dashboard. “Singing is incredibly important to many, and this takes the guesswork out of it, providing a simple metric and great reasoning.”

At Puyallup UMC in Pierce County, Washington, sanctuary upgrades have kept the congregation worshiping online, with an anticipated return to in-person worship in September. Like many other churches across the GNW, they now have to reconsider their plans for the fall as daily case counts rise dramatically in their county.

Communication has been a priority of the church’s reopening team and pastors throughout the pandemic. Finding itself back in the very high risk category, according to CovidActNow, the church is following its plan and stepping back. In a message to members, Rev. Cara Scriven shares how the church will adjust its practices in response to higher community risk levels. “While this is discouraging and disappointing to all of us, we trust that God is with us even when we struggle,” wrote Scriven to members of Puyallup UMC.

Read her message on the Puyallup UMC website.

Other Key Resources

Good, science-based information is essential in responding to the coronavirus. 

Recent GNW COVID-19 Response Team Updates

Subscribe for updates from the GNW COVID-19 Response Team

The GNW COVID-19 Response Team is using this email list to regularly share updates and important COVID-19 related news and resources. 

Click the link below for others to subscribe. You will need to select “GNW COVID-19 Response Team Update” from the subscription list.

Protect Public Health • Slow the Spread

United Methodists in the Greater Northwest are adjusting their lives to protect the health of the people in and served by our churches. Trusting the science, we are committing to do all we can to slow the spread of the virus and keep it from overwhelming the health care systems.

Resources offered to assist faith communities in developing plans and procedures to adapt to this changing situation. 


Innovate in Worship

The COVID-19 pandemic is pushing us outside of our comfort zones in so many areas. Leaders are moving online when they can, embracing new tools to facilitate connection, nurture spiritual growth, and support the continuance of worship.


Reimagining Life Together

Guidelines for Reopening Buildings and Returning to In-Person Ministry

Linked below are resources for Reimagining Life Together. The materials, set to expire on May 17, 2021, provided guidance for local churches and ministry settings during the first year of the COVID-19 crisis.