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Flexible and Faithful: Returning to Gathered Worship and other In-Person Activities

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas

On March 15, the Church of the Heavenly Rest held its last in-person worship service at the request of the Right Reverend J. Scott Mayer, Bishop of the Diocese of Northwest Texas. The  purpose of this suspension was to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and inhibit the spread of the novel Coronavirus. The original intention was for services to be suspended for two weeks. Within a few days, however, it seemed as though the entire world shut down: schools were closed indefinitely, businesses were shuttered, and our local hospitals braced for the worst. We were told to stay in our homes in order to mitigate the spread of the novel Coronavirus. Fortunately, our efforts at physical distancing appear to have “flattened the curve”, at least in Taylor County. While the risk of infection will remain significant at least until the development of a vaccine or an effective treatment for COVID-19, we have felt comfortable beginning a conversation about how to resume in-person activities at the Church of the Heavenly Rest.

On May 7, the Diocese of Northwest Texas published a document entitled “Returning to In-Person Worship: A Phased Approach”, which outlined what congregations must consider and put into place before inviting people to return to church buildings. Among other things, the bishop’s report stipulates that a church may not resume in-person worship until there have been at least 14 days of declining COVID-19 cases in that church’s county.

Over the past several weeks, several parishioners and members of the Heavenly Rest staff have gathered remotely to study these Diocesan requirements and recommendations and discuss how they will be implemented at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. We also solicited the rest of the congregation’s input through an online survey. Based on our conversations, the data published by the Taylor County Department of Public Health, and your responses to the survey, we have identified Sunday, June 14 as the projected date for our return to in-person worship. Please note that this is subject to change should there be a significant increase in the rate of infection in Abilene or Taylor County. The rest of this report will detail the measures that we are taking to ensure the safety of our members and those who serve this community. 

As we have explored how to return to in-person activities at Heavenly Rest, several things have become clear.

  1. Worship is a particularly risky activity in the current environment. Several of the most conspicuous features of church attendance, including sitting with a large group of people, greeting people with hugs or handshakes, and singing, increase the likelihood of infection, especially when they are done in an enclosed area. In order to mitigate the risks of worship, the Return Task Force has had to consider ways to increase the physical distance between those who attend church, as well as reducing the number of aerosolized droplets that are spread during a church service. As a result, our “first Sunday back” will look very different (and might feel less reverent) than the last time we gathered for in-person worship.

  2. There remains an enormous amount of uncertainty as we discern the way forward. One of the realities we have had to contend with is how much there is to learn about the novel Coronavirus. While some policymakers have indicated the possibility of a vaccine by the end of the calendar year, the general sense is that this timeline is probably optimistic. For this reason, there is currently no “end date” for our concerns about COVID-19. We will need to remain cautious and vigilant for the foreseeable future.

  3. The safety of our community depends on the actions of its members. In recent months, we have gained a new appreciation for the level to which we are connected to one another. Our actions as individuals, both positive and negative, have a profound effect on the people around us. As we return to in-person worship, we are asking people to make personal sacrifices not just for their own health, but for the sake of the other people in this parish community.

It is possible that the policies and recommendations outlined in this report might seem  excessive. In response, I would share two observations. The first is that this report represents the first stage of our return. We would prefer to relax requirements that are too stringent rather than tighten policies that are too lax. More importantly, we want to avoid what healthcare professionals call “medical regret”. We do not want to be in a situation where we know that there’s more that we could have done to reduce the risk of infection among our parishioners.

I have been using two words to describe our response to COVID-19 and our plans to return to in-person worship: flexible and faithful. As I hope I have made clear, the coming months will require significant flexibility on the part of those who are members of the Heavenly Rest community. We are contending with a number of “unknowns”, and we will almost certainly need to adjust our approach as new information becomes available. Moreover, individual parishioners will need to be thoughtful and responsive as we move through a strange and uncertain time.

At the same time, we will strive to be faithful in the midst of these challenging times: faithful to Heavenly Rest’s identity as a place of hospitality and a repository of grace, faithful to our Anglican vision that seeks to find a middle way and a “comprehension for the sake of truth,” and faithful to our claim that the God we worship has the power to raise the dead to life. We are implementing these measures not out of fear, but out of love for the people around us and because of our belief that every person is created in the image of God.

Several weeks ago, I noted that many people have asked me when we would return to “normal”. Obviously, the policies and recommendations outlined in this report do not describe anything that resembles Heavenly Rest’s “normal” way of conducting worship or other activities. The fact is, however, I don’t know if we will ever truly return to “normal”. As the writer and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee has observed, “the resumption of normality would signal a failure to learn. We need to think not about resumption but about revision.” Reading that statement brought an incident from earlier this year to mind. On a Wednesday this past January, I got several calls from parishioners I had appointments with telling me that they or a member of their family had been diagnosed with the flu. Over the next week, four out of the five people in my house, including me, came down with the flu as well. While I cannot identify the source of this mini outbreak with certainty, I am fairly confident that we all got the flu at church. Fortunately, none of the people who contracted the flu at Heavenly Rest were part of a vulnerable population, and everyone recovered. I mention this incident because the policies and procedures that we are implementing with respect to COVID-19 will ultimately help us be more responsive to the presence of other illnesses in our community. As we create a “new normal”, it will be characterized primarily by a new level of intentionality.

The following report is organized into three sections. The first will detail what participation in Worship will look like in this first stage of our return to in-person worship. The second section will describe our approach to Formation and Fellowship activities in the near future. The final section of this report concerns parish office hours and staff availability.

I am grateful to the members of the Return Task Force for their faithfulness, expertise, honesty, and willingness to serve: Amanda Watson, Rick Willis, Judy Godfrey, Dr. Sarah Ferguson, Lisa Goolsby, Nancy Estes, Dr. Tim Lillick, Diane Stearns, Gay Ann Walts, Nelly Njeru, Rosemary Suttle, John Walton, Robert Becerra, Mitsi Willard, Bikole Mulanda, Jesse Ratcliffe, and Blaine Beyer. I am also grateful to the members of the Heavenly Rest for their steadfast patience during a remarkable time in our community’s history. 

By way of conclusion, I wanted to share an adapted version of a prayer from the Ministration to the Sick section of the Book of Common Prayer. While the prayer is designated for use “in the morning”, it feels particularly relevant to this time in our common life. I pray that it will guide us in the coming days.

This is a new day, O Lord. We know not what it will bring forth, but make us ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If we are to stand up, help us to stand bravely. If we are to sit still, help us to sit quietly. If we are to lie low, help us to do it patiently. And if we are to do nothing, let us do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give us the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

I am looking forward to seeing you again. Until then, I pray that you will stay safe and healthy.

The Reverend David F. Romanik

Rector, Church of the Heavenly Rest

June 4, 2020

I. Worship Guidelines

When we return to in-person worship, we will have four services:

8:00 am Morning Prayer Rite I with Harp (Nave)

9:30 am Morning Prayer Rite II (adapted) with congregational singing (Courtyard)

10:30 am Holy Eucharist Rite II with Organ (Nave)

1:00 am Worship in Swahili (Nave)

In order to maintain a physical distance of at least six feet between households, we will be capping attendance for these services. The maximum number of people who can attend a service in the Nave is 60. The maximum number of people who can attend a service in the Courtyard is 68.

In order to ensure that everyone who wants to attend worship in person can, we are asking worshippers to make a reservation no later than noon on the Friday before the service they wish to attend. Reservations can be made by visiting or by calling the church office.

For the time being, we will not offer nursery care during worship, given the difficulty of maintaining physical distance between young children.

Worshippers will be required to check in upon entering the worship space. The purpose of checking in is to facilitate contact tracing: if someone who attends worship at Heavenly Rest is diagnosed with COVID-19, our check in software will allow us to contact everybody who was in the church building with the person who had the diagnosis.

Checking in may delay entry into the worship space slightly, so worshippers may want to arrive a few minutes early. Please do not arrive more than 15 minutes before a service begins, in order to allow adequate time to sanitize the worship space.

Worshippers are strongly urged to wear cloth face masks when attending church. The purpose of wearing face masks is to curb the potential for the asymptomatic spread of the virus. Masks will be available at the entrance to the church.

The Peace must be exchanged in a manner that avoids physical contact (e.g., waving, bowing, hand over the heart).

If you are immunocompromised, feeling ill, or are at all concerned about your health, please do not come to church. The 10:30 service will be broadcast via Facebook Live for those who wish to continue worshipping remotely.

Indoor Services:

Worshippers will enter the church building through the Narthex (6th Street entrance). After being checked in, worshippers will pick up a pew sheet from a table in the crossing. Ushers will count the number of people entering the Nave and direct people to a seat. When the Nave reaches its maximum capacity, people will be asked to attend another service.

There will be no Offertory collection for the time being. Pledges and donations can be placed in the offering plates at the back of the church. Please remember that your generosity makes the ministry of this parish possible.

A sanitizing station will be set up in the rear crossing.

For the time being, the altar party will not process in or out of the Nave.

For the time being, no congregational or choral singing will occur in the Nave.

At the outset of our return, sermons will be preached from an ambo in front of the altar rail. This is intended to limit the spread of droplets from the preacher.

At the 10:30 service, we will, for the moment, continue the practice of Spiritual Communion, in which we participate in the Eucharist spiritually, rather than physically.

There will be no receiving line at the end of the worship service. Worshippers are asked to take their pew sheets home with them and to leave the church campus as soon as possible. Departing worshippers may leave through the Narthex or Cloister doors.

Outdoor services:

Worshippers will be asked to bring their own chairs or blankets for this service, to limit the amount of setup required from our custodial staff. 

Worshippers will enter the Courtyard through the east gate (closest to the Gerhart Hall entrance). After being checked in, worshippers will pick up a pew sheet from a basket near the entrance to the Courtyard. Ushers will count the number of people entering and direct people to an area of the Courtyard. When the Courtyard reaches its maximum capacity, people will be asked to attend another service.

There will be no receiving line at the end of the worship service. Worshippers are asked to take their pew sheets home with them and to leave the church campus as soon as possible. Departing worshippers may leave through the north or south gates.

Other information:

The Nave will be fully sanitized between services.

Prayer Books, Hymnals, and cushions will be removed from the pews in the Nave to minimize shared surfaces and facilitate cleaning.

Lectors will sit in the congregation and read from a microphone stand on the floor of the Nave for the time being.

No more than four people (two clergy, organist, and soloist) will be present in the Chancel at any one time.

All rooms in the Parish House will be locked on Sundays, except for bathrooms. Those who attend worship are encouraged to avoid using the Parish House bathrooms if at all possible.

Please note these restrictions and guidelines are subject to change.

II. Fellowship and Formation Guidelines

For the time being, all formation gatherings, including Sunday School, New Member Formation, and other classes will take place either online or outside. Fellowship gatherings will be similarly limited to online or outdoors. No food will be served at fellowship gatherings for the time being. 

Welcoming newcomers remains a priority for our community. For the time being, all newcomers will be asked to fill out a digital visitor card (instead of one affixed to a “welcome bag”). Engagers have been encouraged to reach out to those who fill out digital visitor cards.

Leaders and facilitators of small groups are encouraged to make efforts to nurture community during this time that groups cannot meet in person. Look for opportunities to continue participating in the life of this community.

III. Guidelines for Staff Time, Office Hours, and Facilities Use

The Heavenly Rest offices reopened to the staff on Monday, June 1. Members of the staff who need to work from home for health reasons have been given permission to do so.

Members of the staff are expected to wear a cloth face mask on their way to and from their offices, or when interacting with parishioners or other members of the staff. Staff are also expected to complete a digital “self-screening” form on days they come into work, which includes a self-temperature check and a few health-related questions. Staff are expected to maintain appropriate physical distance (at least 6 feet) from people at all times. The purpose of these measures is to keep everyone on the staff safe and healthy.

We will maintain our normal schedule: 8:30 – 12:00, 1:00 – 4:30 Monday through Thursday; and 8:30 to 12:00 on Friday. 

For the time being, we will not have open office hours. Staff may have appointments in your offices, but those who come to visit with members of the staff will also be expected to sign in and out. It is possible that the number of appointments on a given day will need to be capped.

No lay volunteers will be permitted to work in the office in the first stage of our return.

Staff and committee meetings, including Vestry, will continue to be conducted via Zoom during the first stage of our return.

Use of the facilities by outside groups will be suspended until further notice. The only outside group that will be permitted to use the space is the 12-step groups, as long as they keep their in-person numbers to 10 and under, wear masks, maintain physical distance, and clean the room after they are finished.

Hands On Outreach, along with other requests for assistance, will continue to be conducted remotely. Food distribution will continue from 9:30 to 11:30 on Fridays.

Thrift House opened for donations beginning June 1. It will be open to shoppers beginning June 15. The staff will take donations in the morning and permit shopping in the afternoon. There are other measures that the staff and volunteers at Thrift House have discussed and will be working towards implementing in the coming weeks.

Please note these restrictions and guidelines are subject to change.

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