Texas Churches, Plan Your Opening

Accessibility to the Vaccine Changes the Calculus

On Monday, March 29, Texas will open accessibility to the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone ages 16 and up.

In Leadership is an Art, Max DePree writes that leading is about “liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible.” He also writes, “The first task of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”

This last year has been difficult for everyone. The pandemic has seen to that, and I am of the deep conviction that our leaders, in most instances, have done as well as could be expected. Knowing the right thing to do has been nearly impossible.

Some institutions have made good calls in a timely manner; others have been an absolute mess.

As we’ve worn masks, practiced physical distancing, washed our hands with vigilance, foregone gatherings, altered usual rhythms, adopted new ways of thinking, and become habituated to changing social mores, I think most people’s intentions have been good.

But the outcomes are mixed. Mitigation efforts to combat the disease may have saved the lives of some while harming the lives of others—mental health, relationship strife, the economy, business, heightened political discord, and K-12 education have been strained in various ways.

Churches have been affected as well. Most pastors I know have tried to do the right thing at the right time, weighing obedience to biblical commands to gather and worship God alongside of other exhortations to seek and apply wisdom in all circumstances.

These pastors have led their congregations in demonstrating love of neighbor: educating their people about the recommendations of public health officials, visiting shut-ins or making phone calls to extend care to those who are isolated, using digital technologies to gather congregants for worship, masking, distancing, and encouraging vulnerable members to receive the vaccination after it became available. They’ve sought the best interest of their people—and the public at large.

There have been a few knuckleheads out there, too.

Some leaders have made decisions on the basis of popular sentiment, others have made calls based on prevailing political narratives, some made anti-intellectual arguments to disregard rational and reasonable recommendations made by leaders in the medical field, some have tested the winds and made decisions on the basis of preference or fear, and a few have been motivated by market factors, opening their doors in order to receive members from other flocks who were not meeting in their buildings.

Some have done well, others have done worse, and no one has been perfect.

But there will be a day in the near future where all of this will be behind us. The pandemic will be over. Get ready: many of the social mores that we have adopted will be clung to fiercely by some and abandoned by others, and this will cause conflict. In most instances, decisions about what to do, and when, will be made on the basis of feeling, and not of fact.

Our collective behavior will likely shift prior to the moment an “all clear” is declared by those in positions of leadership. Leaders, especially but not exclusively in the political realm, play it safe until they are certain public sentiment is on their side. Then, when enough people change their behavior they run to the front of the pack saying, “we did it!”

As our current crisis comes to a close, there will be a few leaders who make the right calls at the right time—even when there is risk. Those decisions will evaluated in hindsight, as all decisions are, and wisdom will be proven right by her deeds. In other words, there will be a few at the head of the pack who actually were there all along, who saw an opening before everyone else did, or who just got plain lucky.

We should recognize that the moment these leaders make the move to a new post-pandemic rhythm—the ones who will be seen as prescient—there will be some who will cry foul.

Why?

We’ve been acculturated to a new set of social norms. Over the last year, our norm has been to play things safe. Anyone saying that we need to end “safe” practices will be seen as a threat, even if the conditions have changed and a clarion call of “all clear” corresponds with the new facts on the ground.

We’re on the precipice of an increasing number of church leaders announcing post-pandemic rhythms. Resistance will come with those shifts. Resistance always comes with any change. But I still think adjustments are called for, that the facts suggest moving toward a post-pandemic rhythm is the right call, and soon.

Following Thanksgiving and Christmas, Texas experienced a spike in the number of coronavirus cases. Those numbers have been steadily declining since late January, and though some anticipated a hurricane of doom in the wake of Governor Abbot’s choice to end the state-wide mask mandate, case numbers have continued to experience a decline, albeit a milder one.

And for those who note that the cases nationally seem to have plateaued—it is only that—a plateau. Some national health officials have warned that this plateau could precede another spike, but we could have also hit a new floor. We may even see a further plunge after the leveling. Others warn of new variants, which their will be new variants. The degree of lethality of these new variants is as of yet uncertain. Time will tell.

What was true before the pandemic is still true today: though we can made educated guesses based on trends, we can’t predict the future, and we can’t always live in fear that the worst thing is going to happen every time we step out the door.

In McClennan county, where I live, cases have been relatively flat since early February. The data is here. Residents are still being diagnosed with COVID. That’s a fact. The trend has been moving in a positive direction, however.

Consider also that a number of our local population have had the virus and recovered. Others have received the vaccine. More people are immune today than there were a year ago. Finally, there are still those who are willing to accept the risk of exposure in order to establish a post-pandemic rhythm of life.

Church leaders can begin planning a shift. They can start talking about what it might look like, and prayerfully discern a way forward.

It would not be prudent for church leaders to announce a new post-pandemic rhythm the Sunday after the vaccine is made openly accessible to the population. But making an announcement that a shift will occur four to six weeks from now? A case can be made.

Pastors can empower congregants to make choices regarding masking based on each congregant’s risk tolerance.

By announcing a post-pandemic way of operating in light of increased availability of the vaccine, churches create an incentive for congregants to schedule and receive vaccinations if they have not done so already, which would increase the rate of speed the overall population moves toward herd immunity.

If someone has not received the vaccine and are comfortable unmasking, they may do so.

If they have not received the vaccine and want to continue masking and distancing, they may do so.

If they have not received the vaccine and are not comfortable being in the presence of others who are unmasked, they can view worship online (if available) or choose to stay home until risk levels reach a more tolerable level.

If they have received the vaccine, there is no need to broadcast the fact, but these persons should feel increasingly confident about interacting in public based on the scientific findings that every brand of vaccine has been shown to be widely effective, that recipients of the vaccine appear to not be at risk of spreading the virus to others, and that the vaccine itself is meant to be an avenue to overcoming this thing and leaving our pandemic mitigation habits behind us.

If a person has not received the vaccine, attends public gatherings, and contracts the virus (which I do not wish on anyone), these persons knew the risks—and had the option of waiting for a vaccination prior to attending a worship gathering. The responsibility belongs to the congregant, who freely made a choice.

At present, many congregational leaders have enacted mitigation strategies to reduce risks and to make those who are uncomfortable more comfortable. That has been noble.

However, with a shift in policy toward a post-pandemic rhythm that may include the lifting of masking recommendations and a closing of distancing measures from six feet to three feet (if it is safe in schools, there is no reason this same recommendation should not be effective in churches), congregational leaders can incentivize a broader segment of the population to receive the vaccine. That is also noble, though to a different end.

Church leaders can also demonstrate publicly that there are former freedoms worth reclaiming and re-instituting in our post-pandemic world, including public gathering for the worship of God (in distinction from online delivery models) and enjoying fellowship with other human beings.

Local schools, including our area colleges and universities, have chosen to keep the same health precautions in place until the end of this academic year. I think that is wise.

For churches, the timing might work out to be about the same. But the time to plan is now. The time to shift is soon. Open access to the vaccine changes things.

It is time to acknowledge the new reality, to serve people by clearly communicating a plan and inviting others to help bring it into effect, and then, once we reach the other side, to thank everyone for their sacrifices, both past and present, for their boldness and courage, and, last but not least, for their witness.

We need leadership in a post-pandemic world, not only once that world arrives, but that helps us to get there—together.

Book Notes

I read a few more pages in David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. I chose to put aside Thomas Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions for now. Once I begin reading it is hard for me to put a book down. But Sowell isn’t the right read right now.

Instead, I read Timothy Keller’s new book, Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter. I recommend it. Keller fills a gap in much of our preaching, explaining how the resurrection is central to the gospel message and a source of power for Christian living today.

I also began John Graves Goodbye to a River, and though I’m only forty pages in, I already know this will be a book I will treasure.

Sights and Sounds

Over the weekend I watched a little of the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.

No time for movies this week, though our family did begin watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney +).


Last Words

Last Friday I shared a cool drone video set in a bowling alley, and this week I shared an article about death and another about a political controversy centered on education.

Before I go, standard copy.

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Be well this week. Bless others.

Best,
BAS

P. S. - My Sunday school lessons have lately been built from J. I. Packer’s 18 Words: The Most Important Words You Will Ever Know. This image was modified with Adobe’s PS Camera.