May 6, 2020

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

It is a challenging task to issue guidance for the vast array of diversity found in the congregations and members of the Arkansas Annual Conference, especially when some of you are ready to reopen immediately while others want to wait until late summer. However, this challenge pales in comparison to the task pastors and church leaders face as you make decisions about reopening your church that will impact the well-being and health of others.

I am offering the following guidance based on Governor Hutchinson’s May 4 guidelines, The Bishop’s Task Force on the Safe Reopening of Churches and the Cabinet, as well as CDC guidelines, State Department of Health guidelines, conversations with a number of pastors and laity, and a great deal of prayer. I reserve the right to change this guidance if the situation warrants.

  1. Churches should use the next few weeks to plan and carefully prepare before you take any actual steps to reopen. There’s an old saying, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Take time to develop a plan for your church, obtain necessary safety and cleaning supplies, and talk with the members of your congregation about their feelings and needs. Caution on the front end will make a significant positive difference for the long term. 
  2. Churches must not make decisions about how and when you reopen based on the faulty assumption that the worst of Covid-19 is over and everything can now quickly return to normal. The coronavirus can – and will – surge again if we are not vigilant about following guidance from experts concerning how and when to reopen. Quite frankly, it is still a dangerous time. Governor Hutchinson recently extended the state of emergency in Arkansas for 45 additional days. Medical modeling from the past couple of days has dramatically increased the expected number of cases and deaths from predictions issued just a few days ago. Perhaps most alarmingly, more and more people are ignoring the very health and safety practices that successfully contributed to the “flattening of the curve”.
  3. Churches need to utilize the deep resources of the Christian faith as you decide how and when your church will reopen. This ‘extra step’ is essential for Christians and quite probably will result in a different decision than you might make without this step. Jesus’ command to love God and your neighbor as yourself, John Wesley’s First General Rule to “Do no harm,” and Jesus’ admonition that whatever we do to “the least of these we do to him” challenge you to consider the impact of your decisions on others, especially children, those who have underlying medical conditions those over 65.
  4. Your church must understand that Governor Hutchinson’s May 4, 2020 guidance for reopening places of worship does not give churches a green light to open immediately with no restrictions. The Governor’s guidance should be treated as a directive as you plan for the safe phased reopening of your church. It is highly restrictive and focuses on concrete benchmarks that must be in place as churches begin the reopening process:  
    • online platform strongly encouraged
    • signs displayed to advise no entry if recent fever, symptoms or contact with positive patient
    • 6-ft. physical distancing except for family groups
    • face coverings should be provided and worn at all times inside by everyone over 10 years old
    • worship leaders addressing congregation & performing singers may take off face masks while speaking or singing
    • 12-ft. physical distance required at these times
    • hand sanitizing stations at entrances
    • ”meet and greet” times moved outside as possible
    • refreshments offered outdoors only
    • lines for entry/exit monitored for distancing
    • no physical contact
    • eliminate use of items touched by multiple people, like collections plates/shared books
    • refrain from having people come forward to common altar rail for holy communion, blessing, etc.
    • no classes for youth or child care
    • sanitize common areas

    Churches need to be aware that the Arkansas Department of Health has the right to intervene if your church reopens and is not employing recommended health and safety procedures issued by the Governor.

  5. Churches that cannot fully implement the Governor’s guidance must not reopen.  If at any time there is a reported case of COVID-19 in your church, you must immediately close until the proper safety steps have been taken.
  6. Churches must consider issues of liability in reopening. It is essential to contact your insurance company and Board of Trustees prior to reopening in order to address potential liability risks your church may face.
  7. Churches are strongly urged to use the following dates and stages to safely reopen. This recommended schedule 1) gives your church adequate time to plan and obtain PPE and appropriate sanitation supplies; 2) allows for the gathering of data concerning the impact on the number of cases and deaths from states opening at a faster pace than Arkansas; and 3) enables you to implement your church’s plan in steps that will allow you to learn and adapt.
    • Continuing: No churches should hold in-person indoor activities through at least May 17.
    • Continuing: Churches should continue streaming worship and other activities online.
    • Continuing: Churches can continue drive-in worship and drive-through communion utilizing previous guidance.
    • Effective immediately: Churches can conduct small outdoor study groups or Bible Studies of 10 or fewer people if CDC, State Department of Health and the Governor’s guidance issued May 4 are strictly enforced.
    • May 31: Stage 1 begins for groups of 10 or fewer persons for in-person events if CDC, State Department of Health and the Governor’s guidance issued May 4 are strictly enforced.
    • Mid-June: It is anticipated that Stage 2 for groups of 50 or fewer persons for in-person events if CDC, State Department of Health and the Governor’s latest issued guidance.
  8. Churches should do everything reasonably possible to keep track of individuals by date who attend any in-person church event as your church reopens so the information can be provided to the State Department of Health should anyone who has attended an event test positive for COVID-19.
  9. Churches must be fully aware of the potentially tragic consequences to people in your families, congregation and community if your church opens without fully implementing the Governor’s May 4 guidance. The premature reopening of churches without implementing the recommended guidelines will have a direct impact on the health and well-being of people you know and love. Wishful thinking and best intentions are not enough to keep people alive.
  10. Churches should continue to utilize the guidance document produced by the Arkansas Annual Conference: “Arkansas Annual Conference Guidance: The Safe Reopening of Churches In Response to COVID-19”. Please check this link regularly as it will be updated. 

You have important and weighty decisions to make in the upcoming weeks about when and how to reopen. I hope you will remember four things as you move through these days. First, I love you. Second, I respect you and know you will make the best possible decision. Third, I will be praying for you. And, fourth, we are not striving just to go back to our old normal – we want to seize this opportunity to embrace Jesus’ new normal.

God bless you.

Grace and peace,

Gary E. Mueller
Bishop