This morning I had the privilege of attending a Zoom meeting for pastors with Gov. Brian Kemp, sponsored by the Georgia Baptist Mission Board (GBMB). The meeting was moderated by Scott Smith of GBMB's Research & Development Dept., and he's done a great job setting up and moderating these online events! The call also featured:
Brad Hughes - Brad is Chairman of the GBMB's Committee on Public Affairs, Assistant to State Representatives Kevin Cooke & Geoff Duncan and serves as Gov. Kemp's South Georgia Field Office Representative. On a personal note: I know Brad from my time in college where he served at the seminary & college's housing department and was actually present for my baptism as an assistant to Dr. Russell Moore, who preached that morning and baptized me that day. Brad knows his stuff!
Mike Griffin - Mike serves as the Public Affairs Representative of the GBMB's Committee on Public Affairs. He essentially lobbies our state government on behalf of concerns relevant to Georgia Baptists, and he is particularly adept at summarizing and condensing legislation and public policy information that is relevant to churches.
The purpose of this online meeting was to provide some helpful clarifications for churches regarding Gov. Kemp's recent executive order. Before getting into the details, the gist of it is that Gov. Kemp is allowing wide latitude for churches to operate in the least restrictive way possible while still attempting to limit certain functions for the cause of public safety. The governor seemed concerned not to have our state government limit or restrict religious meetings except when, and how, absolutely necessary.
Now, to get into the weeds...
Primary Sources & Explainers
I always find it helpful to go to primary sources and "explainers" from respected sources, so here are the resources you'll need right now if you are a pastor or church leader:
Executive Order 04.02.20.01: Executive Order to Ensure a Safe & Healthy Georgia - This is the text of the Executive Order (hereafter E.O.) that Gov. Kemp wrote to put the shelter in place in effect. This is the primary source. So, if you hear or read something that differs clearly from this document, it's probably a rumor.
Shelter in Place FAQ (excerpt for churches) - I'm uncertain as to the provenance of this document, but it was vetted by, and provided, by the GBMB. The complete FAQ is also available on the GBMB website.
"Governor, May I?"
I'm a dad of a 4-year-old, so the game "Mother, May I?" came to mind. Sorry! I don't believe we need to ask the government for permission to exercise liberties, to be clear...this is just a fun way to digest the information, so let's go with it:
Governor, may I...have a DRIVE-IN CHURCH SERVICE? Yes! Keep in mind that social distancing orders must be followed. They may also keep their office open for necessary tasks. Here are the pertinent selections from Kemp's E.O.: Churches are one of the 4 exemption categories in the shelter in place order under certain circumstances. To be exact, we fall under category 3 (E.O., p. 3): Persons are exempt if they "are engaged in the performance of, or travel to and from, the performance of Minimum Basic Operations for a...non-profit corporation." The bottom of page 3 of the E.O. clarifies the meaning of Minimum Basic Operations as "minimum necessary activities to maintain the value of a...non-profit corporation" and to "provide services" (E.O., p. 3). As pertains to church offices: "Such minimum necessary activities include remaining open to the public subject to the restrictions of this Order." Gov. Kemp explicitly stated in the Zoom meeting that drive-in churches are permissible, so it appears that drive-in church services full under the "maintain the value" and/or "provide service" categories above. A church worship service is one the main services provided by a local church, obviously, and meeting together helps "maintain the value" of the organization. It facilitates the gathering of financial receipts as well as well as keeps the organization afloat through a sense of fellowship among the members (even if the fellowship has to take place in separate cars and shared through a smile or wave).
Governor, may I...drive to church to PRE-RECORD/LIVESTREAM A WORSHIP SERVICE? Yes! Page 4 of the E.O. states that we can do what is necessary to provide for others to be able to participate in services from their residences. We are limited to "The minimum necessary activities to facilitate employees or volunteers being able to work remotely from their residences or members or patrons being able to participate remotely from their residences." So, this section allows us to do what is necessary to facilitate working from home AND to facilitate members being able to participate remotely. This means that church staff are permitted to drive to the church to get paperwork and other materials to bring back home as well as to record services for members to watch at home.
Governor...May I have a REGULAR WORSHIP SERVICE? Yes! (with some caveats) Regardless of what you have been told, churches may still have regular worship services in their building as long as they follow social distancing orders, etc. You read that right! Gov. Kemp gave an implicit imprimatur by mentioning a church (average worship service attendance of 500) who had limited their worship service to the first 50 individuals. Thus, they were able to practice social distancing since their spacious sanctuary could accommodate the space needed for everyone to maintain a proper distance. (In spite of the effort, I still am NOT in favor of this idea, for the record!) There are a total of 20 guidelines to follow, actually, and they are listed on pages 4-5 of the order. This includes social distancing, notices that encourage hand hygiene, etc. If you choose to do an in-building service, like normal, these guidelines (where applicable) must be followed. Page 2 of the E.O. states: "No...non-profit organization...shall allow more than ten (10) persons to be gathered at a single location if such gathering requires persons to stand or be seated within six (6) feet of any other person." So, the answer to the question, "Can our church have a regular, in-building worship service?" the answer is: - Yes, if you can accommodate everyone being at least six feet apart at all times. - No, if you cannot accommodate everyone being at least six feet apart at all times.
Governor, may I...disregard a local order put in place during the pandemic if it is more strict than your E.O.? Yes! This was most surprising to me. You may, indeed, disregard the order of a mayor, etc., who bans you from doing any of the things mentioned above. In fact, whether your local ordinance is stricter or looser than Gov. Kemp's E.O., your local ordinance is currently suspended. To be safe, I would advise still abiding by curfews, however, just in case. That was actually Gov. Kemp's purpose (according to Brad Hughes) in drafting his E.O. There were too many local officials with different orders that a top-down, across-the-board order from the governor became necessary. Page 8 of the E.O. addresses this suspension of local ordinances directly (as long as the E.O. is in effect):
The Governor on Decision-Making
Gov. Kemp is obviously reluctant to have the state government exercise too heavy of a hand with regard to the operation of churches and non-profit organizations. He respects religious liberty and rights of conscience. He actually desires to keep churches functioning as much as possible, and here is his reasoning (transcribed from the Zoom conference):
"I have a strong belief that right now more than ever our people need their faith leaders...It is a time to put our faith in the good Lord and have His guidance in this...I've wrestled with these decisions. There's a lot of people that have said 'You shouldn't allow any church service.' I fundamentally don't think that's a wise move. I think our people need that now more than ever." (Gov. Kemp, 4/3/20)
Obviously, he's encouraging churches to have employees work from home, and he has endorsed live-streaming worship services. However, at this time, he has not "banned" churches from having their regular worship services.
Finally, as a minister, I want to leave you with some recommendations for my fellow pastors and church leaders:
Pre-record a service or livestream or, at the very least, only do a drive-in style service. My personal recommendation is that, at this moment, an in-building service is not advisable and, potentially, harmful. Georgia's Dept. of Public Health Commissioner, Kathleen Toomey, stated that many or most of the outbreaks in Georgia are related to worship services.
Be cautious! Obey the guidelines provided by the Georgia Department of Public Health, the CDC, and other reputable sources. Stay home as much as you can! For ministers, part of exercising care for our members right now includes proper hygiene. None of us wants to infect a church member with coronavirus, and we could do that by neglecting hand washing, social distancing and other guidelines.
Don't pass the plate (or anything else). If you do have a drive-in service or in-building service, put a bucket or some kind of box out. Let folks drive up and deposit their offerings or place it in a box inside. I would advise against handing out bulletins too.
Minister to others through prayers for them and calls, cards, or letters to them. Get a church directory and touch base with those in it, especially the older folks and those that are sick or at risk.
If you're reading this and you're not a pastor or church leader, please give, encourage and pray. Give to the financial needs of your congregation, encourage your pastors and staff, and pray for your pastors and staff (and other church members).
Be encouraged! The Lord is with you! A friend of mine, Mark Abbott (Associate Pastor/Minister of Music & Worship at Sweetwater Baptist Church in Edgefield, SC) shared an excerpt from the church's historical records: "'October (1918) no service; closed on account of Spanish Enfluenza (influenza)." This church was closed for about three months because of this outbreak of flu." Obviously, the church is still there and doing well over a hundred years after the unprecedented closure of the church for 3 months.
These are unprecedented times, but I'm reminded of the old gospel hymn:
Got any rivers you think are uncrossable? Got any mountains, you can not tunnel through? God specializes in things thought impossible, And He can do what no other power can do.