Bishop Addresses Lifting of State Mask Mandate

By Sandra Steiner Ball

Dear Clergy and Lay leaders of the West Virginia Conference,

I have received questions regarding the Governor’s lifting of the mask mandate on June 20.  In response to these questions, I ask you to use your local church relaunch teams, to be in constant communication with local health officials, and to abide by the current and updated CDC guidelines. 

During the pandemic, I called upon every church to formulate its own relaunch team to determine when and how to use their buildings for worship and other gatherings. Guidelines that the relaunch teams were to take into consideration for making decisions and establishing policies and procedures were published on the Conference website. The relaunch team, along with the pastor(s) in each congregation, has the responsibility to make the decisions that best align with the direction of local health officials and the needs and concerns of the congregations and communities served in reaching people for Christ. 

Relaunch team responsibilities include making decisions around the policies and procedures for mask wearing, physical distancing, sanitizing, numbers of worship services – including reservations for worship seating if needed – and singing.  Every church is advised to stay in touch with local health officials since outbreaks may cause churches to have to change their decisions or make new ones.  Every congregation must have a plan of communication and plan for action should someone who has attended an event in a church gathering test positive for COVID. Congregations should follow CDC guidelines. 

The church exists to reach those who have not yet become a part of the faith community. Therefore, I encourage leaders to make decisions around what is best for those we are trying to reach with the good news of the Gospel.  As the church, we are also called to care for those who are most vulnerable in our communities, and decisions should be made with our responsibility for the care and safety of others in mind.  

Local congregations and local leadership know their community and the cares, concerns, and desires of the larger area in which a church is located.  (Both church members and the community members the church serves.)  That is why the direction from the conference office and from your bishop has always been to form and work with local church relaunch teams.  These relaunch teams can work to make the best decisions on behalf of their congregation and community, because they know and can communicate with both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in the area and within the congregation and they know their buildings – the air exchange rates, the flow of people traffic.  Additionally, they are in touch with local health officials, and can keep track of the local infection rates, including the COVID variants showing up in their area, as well as track the local vaccination rates among children and adults.

Pastors and lay leaders within the West Virginia Conference are asked to focus on an attitude of “Do No Harm” as we move into new phases of this ongoing pandemic. We all celebrate with persons in our congregations and communities who are fully vaccinated. However, not all persons are able or willing to be vaccinated at this time. While making decisions, we must remember that there may be children and youth, as well as some adults in our congregation, who have not been vaccinated and who could be more at risk of transmission when persons are not wearing face coverings.

We should seek to do no harm and extend extravagant hospitality in our congregations to our first-time guests and others who are not vaccinated. I continue to encourage congregations to consider the utilization of face coverings, social distancing, and other appropriate safety precautions. Prayerfully consider children, first-time guests, and the safety of your entire congregation, those vaccinated and unvaccinated, as you make changes to your church’s COVID practices and policies.

Bishop Sandra