Direction and Guidance from the Presbytery of Donegal – March 25, 2020 Supporting Congregations in a Time of National Pandemic
Mandate Prohibiting In-Person Worship and Activities Through April 26, 2020
That the Leader Team and the Connecting Our Ministry Commission (COM) mandate that all congregations continue not to hold in person worship and church activities through April 26, 2020. Modifications to this mandate will be considered by the Leader Team and COM if the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lift gathering size and social distancing restrictions currently in place. The presbytery is prepared to assume original jurisdiction in order to enforce this directive.
Funerals, weddings, and mission critical initiatives are to be navigated on a case by case basis by pastors and sessions of congregations. Preschools must remain closed upon order of the Pennsylvania Governor. The Leader Team and COM plan to follow guidance from the CDC and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania about appropriate size of gatherings and when it is safe for people to be together.
We are of the conviction that we are to be a witness of care for all people, and in particular those who are most vulnerable. The Leader Team and COM encourage each congregation to continue to worship together, connect in study, and to engage both in member care and community outreach within the capabilities of the congregation. The Leader Team and COM will assess and issue further guidance before April 17, 2020. See below for further guidance, including options for communion.
Ways to Worship and Connect Together
The congregations of the Presbytery of Donegal are adapting to this “new reality” in ways that are diverse and creative. Some video ways include livestreaming video on Sunday mornings, recorded worship from the sanctuary, recorded sermons from the pastor’s home. Others are worshiping over telephone audio conference calls. Some are sending weekly (or daily) devotionals or bible studies by email or “snail mail.” Others are connecting through telephone care groups. The presbytery webpage offers many resources, and the Stated Clerk and Executive Presbyter are available for weekly consultation.
As life continues to go on, we recognize that the rhythms of life – and death – continue. When a family, a pastor, and a congregation are traversing the holy space of trusting God in the midst of grief, we first and foremost recommend calling on God who is with us “in life and in death.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1). In making decisions about a funeral, the family, funeral home, pastor, and session have several options – including postponing until a later date. The Leader Team and COM of Donegal Presbytery recommends relying upon funeral directors for direction about the best course of action, in consultation with the family. Funeral Directors are continually updated through their professional organizations about the best available options for safety and should be the authority in decision-making. Options include a burial by cemetery staff with a memorial service later, small gatherings at the funeral home or in the sanctuary, graveside services, and utilizing digital technology for people to participate. It is acceptable to do a smaller funeral service and to plan for a larger memorial service at a later date. It is acceptable to do a private burial and a memorial service at a later date. Pastors in Donegal Presbytery are free to decline to officiate at public events out of concern for their own health and the health of others. In all circumstances, we recommend abiding by the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and other government agencies about appropriate public gatherings and social distancing.
As with other life events, weddings have often been planned far in advance. Many venues are presently closed, and couples may wish to postpone until a later date. As of March 27, all courthouses in the jurisdiction of the presbytery are closed and not issuing marriage licenses. If a license can be obtained, there may be circumstances where continuing with a small wedding ceremony is advisable, especially in cases where financial and personal circumstances mean that being legally married is important. In these case, the Leader Team recommends that the pastor, the couple, and the session (when involved) have conversation about appropriate next steps, always remembering that the session decides what happens on church property and the pastor decides whether or not to proceed with the wedding ceremony. Pastors in Donegal Presbytery are free to decline to officiate at public events out of concern for their own health and the health of others. There is nothing to prohibit an intimate wedding to proceed over Zoom or over video-conferencing, with provisions for signature of the marriage certificate. In all circumstances, we recommend abiding by the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and other government agencies about appropriate public gatherings and social distancing.
Mission Critical Activities
Remembering Jesus’ call to love others as we love ourselves, the Leader Team and COM supports the continuation of life sustaining mission initiatives, including feeding programs for those who are vulnerable and support programs for those who struggle with addiction. These programs are to be staffed by people who are not in high risk categories for infection and they are to practice caution and safe practices for cleaning. In all circumstances, we recommend abiding by the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and other government agencies about appropriate public gatherings and social distancing.
Sessions are making different decisions about church offices. Some Sessions are working completely virtually and digitally, and their buildings are closed. Some Sessions are keeping offices closed to the extent possible and allowing only a minimal presence together at any one time. The Leader Team and COM recommend following appropriate CDC guidelines and prioritizing safety.
Communion May be Celebrated Virtually of May be Postponed
While the Directory for Worship starts with the assumption that God’s people are gathering physically at the Lord’s Table, it does not mandate this. The PC(USA) Office of the Stated Clerk has just released an Advisory Opinion on Communion in an Emergency/Pandemic. This advisory provides for ways a congregation may celebrate the Lord’s Supper within an electronic worship service during an emergency or pandemic. The advisory may be found here. The Leader Team and COM recognize that some sessions may decide to celebrate communion while the congregation is physically separated, and some may decide to wait until the Lord’s Supper may once again be celebrated as an embodied experience in a common space. In either situation, it is the decision of the session about how each congregation proceeds. The Leader Team and COM encourage, in either choice, attention to safety and the health of those participating.
If a congregation is going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually, people gather elements, as available, in their home and then leading in communion through a video connection.
Reasons to Postpone Communion Until the Congregation Regathers
If the choice is to postpone communion until the congregation can gather, sessions’ have looked to the words in the Directory for Worship where it states that “Jesus shared meals with his disciples.” They have noted that bread is often “placed in people’s hands” and people “dip the broken bread into the cup.” They have pointed to the General Assembly’s Advisory Committee on the Constitution, which does advise communion be “in person.” (see below) This choice embodies Jesus’ practice of drawing people together and Paul’s admonitions about breaking “down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) that exist between so many people and groups.
Reasons to Celebrate the Lord’s Supper Dispersed in Individual Homes
If the choice is to have people gather elements while apart and be led in communion by a pastor in another location, sessions’ have looked at the words in the Directory for Worship where it states that in the Lord’s Supper “the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church in every time and place.” They have noted that “the bread and cup are shared in the manner most appropriate to the occasion, “Worshipers may…receive the bread and cup where they are” and the “extended service of communion shall be authorized by the session.” This choice embodies Jesus’ practice of extending hospitality and Paul’s admonition to become “all things to all people.” (I Corinthians 9:22)
Book of Order References
W-3.0409: Theology of the Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) is the sign and seal of our communion with the crucified and risen Lord. Jesus shared meals with his followers throughout his earthly life and ministry—common suppers, miraculous feasts, and the covenant commemorations of the people of God….
When we gather at the Lord’s Supper the Spirit draws us into Christ’s presence and unites with the Church in every time and place. We join with all the faithful in heaven and on earth in offering thanksgiving to the triune God. We reaffirm the promises of our baptism and recommit ourselves to love and serve God, one another, and our neighbors in the world.
W-3.0410: Responsibility for the Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper shall be authorized by the session and administered by a minister of the Word and Sacrament.
W-3.0412: Great Thanksgiving
Following the offering and the preparation of the table, a minister of the Word and Sacrament invites worshipers to the Lord’s Supper using sentences of Scripture. At the table, facing the people, the minister of the Word and Sacrament† shall lead the people in a prayer to the triune God…
W-3.0413: Breaking the Bread
At the table, in full view of the people, the minister of the Word and Sacrament breaks the bread and pours the cup, or lifts a cup that has already been filled. These actions may be accompanied by sentences of Scripture or performed in silence…
The bread and cup are shared in the manner most appropriate to the occasion. Worshipers may gather at the table, come forward to meet the servers, or receive the bread and cup where they are. The bread may be broken and placed in people’s hands or they may receive pieces of bread prepared for distribution. They may drink from a common cup, receive individual cups, or dip the broken bread into the cup. Ordinarily ruling elders, deacons, and ministers of the Word and Sacrament† serve the bread and cup; the session may authorize other church members to do so. While the bread and cup are shared worshipers may sing, other music may be offered, appropriate passages of Scripture may be read, or the people may pray in silence.
When all have received the bread and cup the remaining elements are placed on the table. The minister of the Word and Sacrament then leads the people in prayer, thanking God for the gift of the Sacrament and asking for grace to live and serve faithfully until the coming of Christ’s realm in fullness.
As soon as possible after the service (ordinarily on the same day), the bread and cup may be shared with absent, homebound, or hospitalized members by two or more persons in ordered ministry. Those who carry out this extended service of communion shall be authorized by the session; equipped with the necessary theological, pastoral, and liturgical gifts and resources; and instructed to maintain the unity of Word and Sacrament through the reading of Scripture and offering of prayers.
At the conclusion of the Service for the Lord’s Day, the bread and cup are to be removed from the table and used or disposed of in a manner approved by the session, in keeping with the Reformed understanding of the Sacrament and principles of good stewardship. This may be accomplished by consuming what remains or returning the elements to the earth.