Safe Return: Guide for Worship Leaders During the Pandemic Released, with Input from Perkins Community Members

 


DALLAS (SMU) – Christians have always assembled with Jesus’s assurance that “where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20). But as churches begin re-opening for worship, many wonder about the best ways to do so safely. 

A new resource, “Resuming Care-Filled Worship and Sacramental Life during a Pandemic,” has been created to provide guidance, with input from a Perkins School of Theology faculty member and two alumni. The 36-page document proposes ritual practices for the safety of the general public and for the vitality of Christian congregations. 

“During this pandemic, love of neighbor requires careful planning,” the guide states. “None of our official worship books offers guidance for how to lead worship while wearing a cloth face covering or how to use hand sanitizer dispensers in a worship service.” 

The resource was developed by the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacraments, an interdisciplinary group of more than two dozen theologians, scientists, physicians, pastors, bishops and practitioners from United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopal, Pan-Methodist and Roman Catholic traditions, among others. The group began meeting in May via Facebook Live to work on specific advice before sending conclusions to medical experts for review.

Dr. Mark W. Stamm, Professor of Christian Worship at Perkins School of Theology, a member of the Consultation, contributed drafts of two sections of the guide, focused on Holy Communion and Extending the Table (providing communion to those unable to attend worship in person). 

“The task was to take these essential, classic traditions, and re-imagine them,” Stamm said, “We had to ponder: ‘What is the essence of sacramental practice? Of the Eucharist? What has to stay the same, and where can we adapt and adjust?’” 

As with other sections in the resource, Stamm’s drafts were submitted to the group, reviewed and then discussed and finalized via Facebook Live, with input from medical experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The resource also included links to guidelines issued by regional denominational groups responding to the CDC’s recommendations. The process was completed quickly, in just six weeks. 

Two Perkins graduates are also members of the Consultation: Brian Hehn (M.S.M. ‘12), Director of The Center for Congregational Song, The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada; and Dr. Diana Sanchez-Bushong (M.S.M. ’86), Director of Music Ministries, Discipleship Ministries, The United Methodist Church, and a recent recipient of the Soli Deo Gloria Alumni/ae Award, which recognizes Perkins alums for outstanding service in the field of Church Music. 

In addition to standard guidelines – practicing physical distancing, wearing a mask, washing or sanitizing hands frequently – the resource suggests replacing congregational singing with alternatives like clapping or stomping, shortening sermons, and “passing the peace” to fellow worshippers with a gentle nod or a reverent bow instead of a handshake or other physical contact. The guide urges worshippers to focus on creative approaches to worship, instead of limitations. 

“A care-filled response to that challenge is much more than unlocking the church doors and inviting all to come, sit, sing, and greet one another as had been our custom,” the document states in its introduction. “We know the dangers posed and the risks taken if we were to do that. We care enough not to let that happen.”

The project was funded in part through a grant provided by Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Conveners of the Consultation were the Rev. Dr. L. Edward Phillips, Associate Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Candler, along with the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, Pastor and Consultant, and the Rev. Larry Goodpaster, Bishop-in-Residence at Candler. 

While there are not yet any specific plans for updates, Stamm expects the document will be revised as scientists’ understanding of the COVID-19 virus is refined. 

“We plan to keep the conversation going,” he said. “This is not the last word.”