How to Write a Church Reopening Plan in 68 Easy Steps

  1. Close your eyes and pray.
  2. Take a deep breath and offer your life and ministry up to God. Ask for guidance, wisdom, and grace as you attempt to lead your community through a faithful response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. Consider both the short-term health of your individual church members and the long-term health of the church.
  4. Consult your state, local, and denominational reopening guidelines.
  5. Shit, these guidelines are all different. Which ones are you supposed to follow?
  6. Probably the most conservative ones, right?
  7. But wait, those guidelines are by definition overly broad. Maybe you’re being too cautious. There have been a lot of coronavirus cases in your state, but not that many in your region.
  8. Yet.
  9. Why do these denominational guidelines say you’ll be receiving more information in June when it’s already August?
  10. Hang on, you’re looking at the wrong PDF. This is version 1. Your regional judicatory is now on version 6.
  11. Check your email to see if version 7 has come out yet.
  12. There’s no version 7, but you do have a new email from a parishioner who would like to see you. After a lifetime of struggling with alcohol, she was finally getting her drinking under control when the pandemic hit. Now she’s drinking to the point of blackout every night and feeling very scared. She would consider inpatient rehab, but she’s in her 60s and afraid of contracting COVID-19.
  13. Reply to her and offer to meet with her next Thursday.
  14. Recall that this parishioner is confused and overwhelmed by Zoom. Suggest that you meet outdoors, in the park across the street from your church building, where you will sit six feet apart from each other while shouting over the noise from the busy street, your voices muffled by masks.
  15. Briefly anticipate yourself squinting through your foggy glasses, sweat trickling down your temples, as you lean forward and repeat: “I SAID, SO YOU MENTIONED BEFORE THAT YOU STARTED DRINKING AS A WAY TO COPE WITH TRAUMATIC FLASHBACKS FROM THE ABUSE YOU EXPERIENCED AS A CHILD?”
  16. Close your eyes and pray.
  17. Okay, back to the reopening plan.
  18. Review your notes from the last Zoom meeting of the reopening committee. Two members feel strongly that the church should reopen its building for worship, two members feel strongly that the church should keep worship exclusively online, and two members missed the meeting because they logged into Google Meet instead of Zoom.
  19. Recall that all six members are in agreement about one thing and one thing only: Ultimately, the final decision and its consequences belong to you.
  20. Check your email to see if you’ve heard anything new from the reopening committee.
  21. There’s nothing from them, but you do have a new email from another one of your parishioners with a link to that month-old New York Times article about coronavirus transmission in churches. The subject line is “Have you seen this yet??????”
  22. Reply to him with a complete sentence, not just the word “Yes.”
  23. Re-read the article in spite of yourself.
  24. Gosh, it’s pretty bad.
  25. Close your eyes and pray.
  26. Think about Frances. Frances is a 96-year-old woman who has been attending your parish since she was baptized there as a baby. She has no home Internet access, so she hasn’t been able to participate in online worship. Every time you talk to her on the phone, she tells you tearfully that she’s been a faithful churchgoer every Sunday of her life, and she never thought she would go so long without darkening the door of a church.
  27. Think about how, frankly, you never thought you would either.
  28. Think about how you would very much like to live long enough to do Frances’ funeral.
  29. Think about Esther. Esther is a 6-year-old girl who has been attending your parish since she was baptized there as a baby. Every time you talk to her on the phone, she tells you with quivering resolve that she misses church and Sunday school “so, so, so, so much.” Her mom and dad helped her mail you a picture she drew of your family and her family having a picnic together at church. It is labeled PICNIC HAPPY. You put it on your fridge.
  30. Think about how you know first-graders named Esther, Vivian, Hazel, and Ruby.
  31. Calculate how long it takes old-lady names to become baby-girl names again.
  32. Think about how it would feel to do Esther’s funeral.
  33. Close your eyes and pray.
  34. No, for real now, you need to get to work on this reopening plan.
  35. Jiggle your key in the lock to let yourself into the sanctuary. It will take you a minute to get the door open.
  36. Remember that you used to do this key jiggle flawlessly, without even noticing, back when you were in the church every day.
  37. Inventory your supplies. You have 500 disposable masks, 6 gallon jugs of hand sanitizer (you wanted those touchless dispenser things but couldn’t find anywhere to buy them), and 30 rolls of blue tape.
  38. Is it even smart to be messing around in your sanctuary with the blue tape? Should you just be holding services outside in the noisy public park?
  39. Wait, speaking of noise, you need to do a microphone check. Turn on the sound system, tighten your mask, and recite your favorite psalm into the pulpit mic.
  40. Pretty good. As long as you have no parishioners who depend on seeing your entire face to help them understand your words, and as long as you are careful not to say any words ending in “t,” people should be able to hear you just fine.
  41. Back to the matter at hand. First, you need to figure out your newly reduced seating capacity, based on safety guidelines and the size of your worship space.
  42. You know what would be really helpful here? A tape measure.
  43. Leave all your rolls of blue tape piled on the altar and wander away to go look for one.
  44. Return to the altar 40 minutes later, defeated. There is no tape measure to be found anywhere in this church.
  45. Oh well, you’re 5’3″, so if you can lie down between two seats with a decent amount of head room, that’s about six feet, right?
  46. Remember your former bishop’s admonition never to set your pen or coffee cup on the altar because “the altar is reserved for that which you are offering up to God.”
  47. Touch the altar. Think about how long it has been since you received the Eucharist.
  48. Gaze heavenward and say aloud, “Look, all I have to offer you right now is myself and this fucking blue tape.”
  49. Close your eyes and pray.
  50. Go back to your state, local, and denominational guidelines about seating capacity. Based on the guidelines, determine that your new capacity is either 35 or 50 or 124.
  51. Probably best to go with the most conservative figure, right?
  52. Get to work taping out 35 seats for worshipers.
  53. Wait, you and the organist have your own seats. Do you count as part of the 35?
  54. Probably best to assume yes, right?
  55. Get to work taping out 33 seats for worshipers.
  56. Under your breath, start singing one of your favorite hymns from childhood: “Be not afraid; I walk before you always …”
  57. Abruptly remember that you’re not allowed to sing.
  58. Pull out your phone and check your email to see if your music director has had any epiphanies about participatory worship music with no singing.
  59. There’s nothing from him, but you do have a new email from the sexton. All the basement flooding from heavy rains this summer has led to black mold in the third-grade Sunday school room. He just wanted to let you know.
  60. Size up the X of blue tape you have laid out to demarcate the seats in the fourth pew. That’s about six feet, right?
  61. Crawl under the X. Lie down on the pew and line up your feet with one end of it. Reach up above your head. Yup, seems fine.
  62. Look up at the ceiling. Watch the light filter in through the stained-glass windows. Look at the particles of dust dancing in the air, captured by each ray of sun.
  63. Think about how much easier all this would be if COVID-19 particles were visible to the naked eye, like dust.
  64. Take a deep breath. Breathe in the stale, holy air of this space.
  65. Breathe in all the prayers and hopes and dreams that people have brought here over the generations.
  66. Breathe in the Holy Spirit.
  67. Remember that the Holy Spirit is everywhere.
  68. Close your eyes and pray.

What Your Reaction to “What Your Seminary Says About You” Says About You: Errata, Elucidations and Updates

Hey, Reverend! Hi! Nice to see you again!

Boy, was I surprised by the sudden wave of traffic my last post received. This blog is a pretty tiny, churchified niche of the Internet, where I tell you what to buy as an ordination gift or how to be a youth pastor if you’re not cool. Most of my posts are only read by desperate seminarians and two of my aunts. (Hi, Aunt Maureen and Aunt Peggy! Love you!)

But it turns out a LOT of us have strong feelings about where we went to seminary. I feel compelled to specify that I’m just a stranger on the Internet. I’m not on an ATS accreditation team or anything. If your school didn’t make the list, the reason is simple: I couldn’t think of a joke about it.

However, having received some helpful tips and corrective feedback, I have a few things I want to clear up:

What Your Seminary Says About You (abridged, with comments)

Virginia Theological Seminary
You are 27 years old and contemplating your first run for bishop.

No one disputed this.

Bexley Seabury
You wanted to go to seminary but you also had other stuff to do, you know?

I was pleased to draw the attention of the former dean of Bexley Seabury, who wrote: “When I presented the revised low-residency curriculum to some people at our accrediting agency, they asked, ‘And who is your targeted audience?’ I actually said, ‘People who have stuff they need to do in addition to following their call.'”

Calvin Theological Seminary
Your last name begins with a V.

Again, no one disputed this.

Harvard Divinity School
You are Unitarian, or wish you were.

I heard from a handful of male HDS grads who patiently explained to me what a Unitarian is and what Harvard Divinity School is like, which in no way replicated any experiences I had during the three years I spent as a student at Harvard Divinity School.

Berkeley Divinity School at Yale
You took great umbrage at the absence of a separate entry for Berkeley in the first draft of this post.

I heard from a LOT of BDS grads who wanted me to know that Berkeley is significantly more special than Yale, which in no way confirmed any of my stereotypes about Berkeley Divinity School.

Trinity School for Ministry
You totally are that kind of evangelical. WANNA FIGHT?!?!?!

One TSM grad politely offered to fight me. I considered it, but since in addition to being nearsighted I am also small, weak, and slow, I don’t like my chances here. I think my best bet is probably to yell something about being a “real Anglican” and then run.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
You are a former InterVarsity staff worker and have the relentless enthusiasm to prove it.

I chose “relentless” because “grating” seemed unkind.

Candler School of Theology at Emory
You have thought long and hard about whether you are an Emily or an Amy.

Unless you are a Don.

School of Theology at Sewanee
You wonder if it would be in poor taste to wear a seersucker alb.

Several Sewanee graduates reached out to let me know that while a seersucker cassock is very practical for summer, a seersucker alb would be unthinkably gauche. I humbly accept this correction and regret the error.

McCormick Theological Seminary
You feel quietly superior to people who went to LSTC.

A number of McCormick graduates confirmed this, leading me to reconsider the “quietly” part.

Starr King School for the Ministry
You are offended when people assume you believe in God, but also offended when they assume you don’t.

Regardless of seminary affiliation, this appears to ring true for Unitarian Universalists everywhere.

Seminary of the Southwest
You spend a lot of time explaining that you went to a real seminary.

I can neither confirm nor deny that anyone has ever attended this school.

Fuller Theological Seminary
You own 18 pairs of flip-flops and an electric guitar.

Apologies to all the Fuller grads who clarified that they actually own acoustic guitars.

North Park Theological Seminary
You are Swedish.

As I now know, some of you are Norwegian.

Multnomah Biblical Seminary
You are not reading this post.

100 points to the sole Multnomah grad who let me know that he read it! For what it’s worth, he said I was probably right.

What Your Seminary Says About You

Hey there, Reverend. I’ll be honest: I’ve spent three months trying to write one encouraging post about “ministry in the age of coronavirus,” and another about “motivating your church to work for racial justice,” and I just don’t have enough in the tank. Maybe you’ll get those when the pandemic is over. Or when I have child care again. Whichever comes first.

I recently attended a compulsory clergy retreat, on the topic of Finding Your Center During a Global Pandemic. By “attended” I mean I turned off my Zoom video and half-listened through headphones while feeding beans to my toddler and then helping her fit the pig, barn, and chicken pieces into her farm puzzle approximately 1,000 times. I only caught the gist, which I believe was “find your center,” but as I pocketed the rejected pieces of the farm puzzle (sheep, goat, horse, cow, and duck), I thought about the three things that help me center my soul instead of letting it spin around like an unsteady top:

  1. Dwelling in the presence of Jesus, who is the light and hope of my life.
  2. The love of my family and friends, even when transmitted over Zoom.
  3. Dumb jokes.

It is in the spirit of this last item that I present to you the following list. If your seminary is not included, it’s probably because I don’t know enough about it to come up with any sweeping generalizations, but if you mention it in the comments I’ll make one up.

I hope you will take this list in good fun (and perhaps comment to let me know whether I got your seminary right). We’re in this together, Reverend. Hang in there.

Updated 6/28/20 to add: SFTS, Mundelein, Loyola Chicago, Lancaster, Starr King, Union Presbyterian, Columbia, Andover Newton, Berkeley at Yale, Boston University, Asbury, Candler, Starr King, Meadville Lombard, Brite, Vanderbilt, Northern, Austin Presbyterian, Garrett-Evangelical, and Chicago Theological Seminary. Keep the suggestions coming!

Updated 6/29/20 to add: Bangor, Gordon-Conwell, LSTP, LSTG, United, Dallas, Perkins, Moravian, Seabury-Western, and Bexley Hall. I’m going to stop adding to this post lest it become unfunnily long, but will continue to reply to the comments.

What Your Seminary Says About You

Virginia Theological Seminary
You are 27 years old and contemplating your first run for bishop.

Church Divinity School of the Pacific
You own at least one article of clothing made out of hemp.

San Francisco Theological Seminary
You got into CDSP, but hemp makes you itch.

Philadelphia Divinity School
You are old.

Seabury-Western Theological Seminary
You don’t understand why people say the North Shore is out of touch.

Bexley Hall
You don’t really mind that no one has heard of you.

Bexley Seabury
You wanted to go to seminary but you also had other stuff to do, you know?

Calvin Theological Seminary
Your last name begins with a V.

Nashotah House
You are exploring your call toward celibacy.

Pacific School of Religion
You are exploring your call toward polyamory.

University of Chicago Divinity School
You are exploring your call toward getting an unemployable Ph.D.

Episcopal Divinity School (pre-EDS at Union)
You feel most at home in settings that replicate your dysfunctional family of origin.

General Theological Seminary
You have seriously considered pursuing a career as a vestment model.

Episcopal Divinity School (post-EDS at Union)
You don’t care that much about vestments, but you still thought it would be cool to go to seminary in New York.

Union Theological Seminary
You wonder why your friends reach for their drinks every time you say the word “praxis.”

Union Presbyterian Seminary
You are tempted to reach for your own drink every time you say, “No, the other Union.”

Harvard Divinity School
You are Unitarian, or wish you were.

Yale Divinity School
You are Episcopalian, or wish you were.

Berkeley Divinity School at Yale
You took great umbrage at the absence of a separate entry for Berkeley in the first draft of this post.

Andover Newton (pre- or post-Yale)
You’re still not sure whether it’s technically true that you went to Yale.

Catholic Theological Union
You’re not that kind of Catholic.

Mundelein Seminary
You are that kind of Catholic.

Boston University School of Theology
You’re not Catholic. That’s Boston College.

Loyola University Chicago
You’re not Catholic but Loyola gave you pretty good financial aid, so.

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry
You believe with all your heart that the Catholic Church will start ordaining women any day now.

Princeton Theological Seminary
You’re not that kind of evangelical.

Portland Seminary
You totally are that kind of evangelical, but you also love trees.

Trinity School for Ministry
You totally are that kind of evangelical. WANNA FIGHT?!?!?!

Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
You are not an evangelical. Well, it depends on what you mean by “evangelical.” It’s complicated.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
You are a former InterVarsity staff worker and have the relentless enthusiasm to prove it.

Episcopal Theological Seminary
You are old.

Northern Seminary
You see no reason not to say you went to seminary in Chicago.

Bangor Theological Seminary
You can ride a moose, but you don’t make a big deal about it.

Moravian Theological Seminary
You no longer bother to correct people who assume you are from Moravia, the country.

United ____________ Seminary
You can’t understand how two financially unstable seminaries managed to consolidate into one equally financially unstable seminary.

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
You really wish people would stop asking you about Ravi Zacharias.

Iliff School of Theology
You really wish people would stop asking you about Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Duke Divinity School
You really wish people would stop asking you about the Traditional Plan.

Asbury Theological Seminary
You really wish people would START asking you about the Traditional Plan.

Luther Seminary
You really wish people would stop mimicking the way you say “about.”

Candler School of Theology at Emory
You have thought long and hard about whether you are an Emily or an Amy.

Wesley Theological Seminary
You believe that roads have middles for a reason.

Lancaster Theological Seminary
You spend a lot of time saying, “No, it’s LANK-uh-stir.”

Perkins School of Theology
You’re not from THAT seminary in Dallas.

Dallas Theological Seminary
You are only aware of one seminary in Dallas.

Columbia Theological Seminary
You have an impeccable wardrobe and a quiet sense of judgment.

School of Theology at Sewanee
You wonder if it would be in poor taste to wear a seersucker alb.

Lutheran School of Theology at Gettysburg
You’re not here for the drama.

Lutheran School of Theology at Philadelphia
You are SO here for the drama.

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
You pronounce each letter of “LGBTQ+” as a separate word.

McCormick Theological Seminary
You feel quietly superior to people who went to LSTC.

Chicago Theological Seminary
You believe that chanting the words “community organizing” counts as community organizing.

Starr King School for the Ministry
You are offended when people assume you believe in God, but also offended when they assume you don’t.

Meadville Lombard Theological School
You spend a lot of time riding public transit.

Vanderbilt Divinity School
You claim to know Amy-Jill Levine personally, even if you don’t.

Brite Divinity School
You are startled by the assumptions people make when they learn that you went to seminary in Fort Worth.

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
You have three hobbies: drinking craft beer, discussing craft beer, and thinking up catchy names for worship services held in bars.

Seminary of the Southwest
You spend a lot of time explaining that you went to a real seminary.

Fuller Theological Seminary
You own 18 pairs of flip-flops and an electric guitar.

North Park Theological Seminary
You are Swedish.

Multnomah Biblical Seminary
You are not reading this post.

How to Write a Kickass Ember Day Letter

Greetings, my fellow Episcopalians!

So you’ve been admitted to postulancy for Holy Orders. Congratulations! Time to get to work brainstorming your first Ember Day letter.

Ember Days are special occasions when the church is invited to pray for all those preparing for a life in ministry. If you yourself are preparing for a life in ministry, and by chance you have picked the ordained kind, Ember Days seem like they should be a chance for everyone to dote on you. Nope! Instead, they are a chance for you to do a little extra work.

By canon law, if you are in the ordination process as a postulant (step 1) or candidate (step 2), you are required to “report” to your bishop four times a year — during, you got it, the Ember Days. I will just go ahead and tell you when they are, because as far as I am concerned there is no earthly way you could guess. Continue reading

Every Single Book I Read in 2019 and What I Thought of Each: An Exhaustive List

Hello, Reverend! I recognize that 2019 was a quiet year on this blog, in large part because it was not quiet anywhere else. With my family, I moved cross-country, bought a house, started a new call at a new church, and adjusted to life with a tiny baby … who is now a not-so-tiny, joyful, rambunctious toddler. Nobody warned me that every cliché about how fast they grow up is true.

IMG-7573

She also helps unload the dishwasher.

In the midst of all that chaos, I did manage to read a few books. Not nearly as many as in past yearsI’ve kept a running list of every book I’ve read since 2007but enough to keep me sane amidst the chaos of ministry and parenthood. If you need a book to do the same for you, allow me to present the following 17 micro-reviews as a small encouragement to read something non-work-related in 2020. Woman cannot live on Feasting on the Word alone. Continue reading

Youth Pastor Ken (or: On Being Uncool in Youth Ministry)

Good morning, Reverend! Is this a busy week, or what?

Here in my neck of the woods, we’re getting ready for Homecoming Sunday. I am hard at work prepping my sermon, trying to recruit that final leader for seventh-grade Sunday school (why is it always the hardest position in the church to fill?!?!), and counting the days until I get to see my beloved high school youth group kids again.

I have two words about high school youth group: GIANT JENGA.

Actually, I also have a little story. Consider it a pep talk as you launch into this crazy time of year, at least if you are resolutely uncool like me. Continue reading

Spiritual Strengths Inventory (for when your faith is down in the dumps)

Hey there, Reverend! I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. If you ever choose to go public with your thoughts about sexual harassment or sexual violence in the church, I suggest building in several months off afterward to deal with all the mail.

On a not wholly unrelated note: I don’t know about you, but I found my seminary training to be a bit lacking in the pastoral counseling department. I did take one class on something called “spiritual care,” during which I learned a great deal about the love lives of my classmates and very little else. If I am ever again in a position to counsel someone who is heartbroken after desertion by a paramour from the back row of Old Testament II: Histories & Prophets, I will be ready to roll.

Somehow, though, I had a feeling that my friends in the mental health field were developing skills a bit more sophisticated than “mirroring” and “active listening.” They were learning to notice their clients’ thinking errors and challenge them, directly but kindly. They were learning how to help people name their struggles and — even more important — start to imagine being able to overcome or endure them. Continue reading

General Ordination Exams: Online Resources

Hey hey, Episcopal seminary seniors! Around the world, Christian clergy are breathing one big collective sigh of relief and thinking, “Now that Christmas has passed, I finally get a break.”

But not you. HA! Oh, not you.

Just an hour from now — maybe a little more than that if you are lucky enough to live on the Best Coast — your travails with the General Ordination Exams will begin.

Before I continue, I should note that my wife frowned when she read my last GOE post and said, “You’re a little too cavalier here.” So if you’re reading this right now, I just want to take a moment to thank you for putting up with the bossy, know-it-all attitude I’ve cultivated on this blog. In real life I’m actually pretty shy.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the final throes of exam prep and are sneaking a peek at this site, here’s a quick roundup of useful links that may come in handy while you’re taking the GOEs. Bookmark this post and you’ll have them all in one place. Continue reading

How to Pass the General Ordination Exams

I try to write this blog in an ecumenical spirit, because I view all Protestant denominations as basically interchangeable we all serve one Lord, profess one faith, and share one baptism. But I have to take a moment here in cyberspace to give a shout-out to my fellow Episcopalians. Specifically, those who are in their final year of seminary and preparing to square off with the General Ordination Exams.

Hey, friends! You’re feeling a little down lately, huh? Seminary is not nearly as fun as it was two years ago, am I right? You’ve been reading all those depressing studies about gender-based clergy pay discrepancies, haven’t you?

And now, to add insult to injury, you have to spend Advent getting ready for the GOEs.

Life truly is unfair. Continue reading

What I Need Men in the Church to Understand About Sexual Violence

Hey, everybody. Welcome to new readers, especially those who found their way here from Episcopal Café. It’s been humbling to receive such an outpouring of support in the wake of my last post (although awful to hear such a chorus of affirmation), and especially humbling to hear from those of you who have endured sexual harassment, abuse, or assault. You are not alone, even when the world conspires to make you feel that way.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last week over the culture of sexual violence in the church — or, more accurately, the culture of sexual violence in the world, which the church has enthusiastically supported for centuries — and what I most need men to understand about it. Not only because men are statistically more likely to be perpetrators and less likely to be targets (although this is also true), but also because, by no coincidence, men are more likely to be in charge.

Listen up, men. You are, overwhelmingly, our rectors and senior pastors. You hold, disproportionately, the positions of highest lay authority on our church boards. You are, with depressingly rare exceptions, our bishops. All the hashtags and social media campaigns in the world aren’t going to make one little dent in the church’s complicity with sexual violence unless you decide you want to do something about it.

Are you ready? Let’s go. Continue reading