Baptist and Reflector
NASHVILLE — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee released guidelines May 1 for churches as they consider gathering together for worship.
“Tennessee’s faith leaders have been incredibly innovative in finding alternative ways to worship that incorporate social distancing so they can continue to provide spiritual guidance, fellowship, and service to their neighbors during these challenging times,” Lee said in a written statement.
“Religious liberty is important and must be protected, and that’s why the State has always deemed religious services as essential gatherings throughout this pandemic. As we look to reopen our economy in a safe fashion, the decision on in-person gatherings will be up to each individual faith community.
“We’re confident in their ability to determine the proper time and how to incorporate these guidelines to worship in a way that protects the health of their congregation,” Lee said.
The guidelines were prepared by the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. The document noted: “This resource is an aggregation of suggested protocols from various faith communities across Tennessee. Not all suggestions will be appropriate for each faith community. These suggestions are included as a courtesy for your convenience. These suggestions are not, and should not be construed as, mandates or requirements by the State of Tennessee, the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, or any other entity of federal, state, or local government.
The document also stated: “Due to the potential high risks of potential widespread transmission of COVID-19 in houses of worship, faith communities are encouraged to continue alternative worship options. When faith leaders determine it is time to begin gathering in person again, faith communities should recognize that meeting in person should be different from meeting in person before the COVID-19 pandemic. It is likely that certain changes to in-person gatherings should remain in place until a vaccine for COVID-19 is available. Governor Lee hopes that all Tennesseans will continue to make responsible choices to protect themselves and their neighbors from COVID-19.”
Among the suggested guidelines are:
• Evaluate how you can provide for your congregation spiritually and emotionally, while continuing to protect vulnerable populations and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
• Wear face coverings. Social distance by staying six feet away from others. Consult the CDC guidelines and guidance from your local health officials to determine the risks of gathering in person. This should include thinking about the percentage of your community classified as vulnerable, how conducive your facility is to allowing social distancing, the size of your community and more.
• A phased approach to resuming in-person gatherings is recommended. Vulnerable populations (everyone 65 years and older, people with disabilities, people with serious respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, people who are immunocompromised, and others) and children’s activities/nursery programs should not gather in person until a later time. Consider solutions to minimize close personal contact that may be part of your services, such as handshakes or sharing food and drink.
• As the phased approach begins, limit the size of attendance in your sanctuary and other confined spaces to create seating arrangements that provide at least 6-foot distancing between household units. It is recommended not to exceed 50 percent of maximum capacity of the room and should enable full compliance with CDC recommendations for social distancing and hygiene. Over time, as Tennessee continues to see the successful containment of COVID-19, it will be appropriate to gradually increase capacity.
• Encourage members of your community to stay at home if they are symptomatic, have a fever, have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, or have traveled internationally or to a domestic hot spot in the past two weeks.
• If you learn that a member of your congregation has tested positive for COVID-19, consult CDC guidelines and local health department recommendations to determine whether you should immediately cease in-person gatherings, close for additional cleaning or otherwise change your protocols.
• Stay informed of updated safety protocols and recommendations as the COVID-19 situation in your community develops.
Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, mentioned that many pastors and churches are still wrestling with the most appropriate time to fully gather together.
“I believe the best advice on returning to church I’ve heard comes from (SBC Executive Committee President) Ronnie Floyd, ‘As soon as we can, as safely as we can,’” Davis said. “Our pastors are doing an incredibly great job in an incredibly difficult situation. I just encourage them to continue doing the best they can where they are with what they have.”
Davis encouraged churches to continue talking with one another, other local pastors and checking with the TBMB for the latest information to “keep their people safe.
To support churches, the TBMB has developed a “Gathering Together Again” document (link below) that has been updated and available for download. Davis said the TBMB’s position regarding guidance to churches has not changed and emphasized the following five points complement what the governor said and should help churches come to a decision about what “quickly and safely” mean for them.
- Ultimately it is a local church decision (both in terms of autonomy and the church’s context relative to the pandemic).
- Be prudent and make decisions based on the best available information for your area.
- Consult with local health officials in making a decision as they will have the best understanding of area risks.
- Consider the potential risks to members and visitors, especially those who might fall into high-risk categories.
- Be a good neighbor and a good example to your community. (What would it look like if you’re meeting and the community is locked down?)
Davis said the Gathering Together Again document (https://www.tnbaptist.org/reopen) will be updated with the latest information and made available to churches as soon as possible. He also noted the TBMB hosted a webinar on reopening churches on April 30. The video of the webinar is now available at https://vimeo.com/413797529. B&R
The governor’s full document can be accessed at www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/governorsoffice-documents/House%20of%20Worship%20Guidance%20FBCI.pdf.