Dean Letter: The Regathering Task Force

This is a transcript of a conversation between the Dean and Wardens about the work of Pandemic Regathering Task Force. Justin joined us from his car, parked somewhere in Utah, and at one point we unfortunately lost his audio.

Penny: Hello St. Paul’s. Today I’m having a conversation with our two wardens. They are, if you like, the first and second vice presidents of the corporation of St. Paul’s, the lay leaders of our community and our congregation, and we’re going to talk about the regathering task force that has been working on how we gradually reopen after the pandemic. So first, I’ll invite the two of you to introduce yourselves. Donna, would you like to go first?

Donna: Hello, everyone. I’m Donna Perdue. I’m the dean’s warden. And happy to be talking to you and telling you what the regathering task force has been up to while we were all away.

Justin: Hello, I’m Justin Lewis. I am the people’s warden in my first year as that, and in my second year on Chapter.

Penny: Thank you. And for those people who are not familiar with Cathedral-speak as such, the dean’s warden is equivalent to the senior warden in a parish. And then the people’s warden would be the junior warden. So we’ve been working along with about a half dozen other people for the last year on this regathering Task Force. As you look back at the last year, how do you feel, as parish leaders, how do you feel St. Paul’s has done during the pandemic?

Justin: I think we’ve done very well. I think that we were uniquely positioned to pivot our service offerings online because of our vast Media Library. And we already had the technology in place to implement after a few bumpy starts, you know, as we kind of figured out the new ropes. But I think that we were really able to create a new way for people to have community online and in other ways that that we have throughout the pandemic.

Donna: Yeah, I certainly agree. And we were blessed that we had recently or in the last few years, really upped our game on the audio visual. And so we were technologically prepared to pivot, as Justin said. And by doing that we did you know, new things, like committees meeting online and not skipping a beat, and morning and evening prayer just becoming vibrant communities. And so overall, I think we did a good job of finding ways to connect to people who wanted to be connected, invite new people in and cope with being apart.

Penny: And we discovered that it is possible to have church on Zoom and to be in community even when you’re apart. And for me, those were graces of this time. So early on in actually May of 2020, the bishop directed all the parish clergy in the diocese to create a task force to focus on plans for regathering and keeping everyone safe. We were pretty prompt in following her direction. It’s been just over a year since we formed that group. What do you remember about how we put the group together and the sorts of skills and experiences that we drew on?

Justin: We’re very fortunate as a cathedral to have so many talented folks as parishioners and parts of our community to really kind of step in and step up to provide expertise in how to do these things. And really, real intent on I think what you mentioned, Dean, Penny, creating and maintaining a sense of community, you know, church is more than church on Sunday and services on Sunday. There’s a lot more to it. And with our circles of love and other outreach that we had, we really were able to figure out different ways to keep people engaged, which I thought was really very important.

Donna: And a nice thing about the that we saw immediately that our task was going to be very multifaceted. And so we needed pastoral input, and a very practical input. So we got together people with operations, sextons, music, legal, as well as clergy. And you know, because often all of those factors would be in play, when we needed to consider how we could protect people, spiritually connect them, and also protect them physically, I guess that would be the mandate of the regathering Task Force. So everything from, as you mentioned, you know, the circles of love and finding other ways to connect and invite, but every day, and then down to very practical things like people going in and calculating and measuring airflow and dwell time and tape measures and distancing. And we were thinking, you know, trying to figure out from medical professionals, even trying to figure out how much is going to be air versus surfaces. And that’s not just Clorox wipes, it was people will say, Bob Oslie would say, what can we do for wood surfaces finished the way our wood surfaces are? I mean, it was that level of granularity of caring about ways that we would be able to bring people back safely.

Justin: I think what was so great about that, was that by having such talented people really kind of dig down as granularly to get those answers. It really empowered us to then proclaim that to other parishioners as they were voicing concerns, we actually have the information. We didn’t say, can you come back and pray, it’ll be okay. He said that we had parts per million calculations for our square footage and air transfer, which I think definitely put people at ease and made them comfortable with whatever their level of comfort was for our regathering, as we were able to start doing them in person.

Penny: Yeah, the task force really covered the waterfront, we had all of the executive staff, which included Martin Green, and Brooks Mason, and Jeff Martinhauk, Kathleen Burgess, and myself; we had you as the parish leaders, the lay leaders; we had medical expertise, we had disaster preparedness expertise. Martin Gree, turned out to be really interested in the technical side of ventilation. And he has very much kept abreast of that research, because that’s one of the great challenges we face, is these old buildings that aren’t terribly well ventilated. And having to come up with creative ways. So one of the questions was how do we make the air as safe as we can? And of course, the question of timing, is it safe to come back? Do we jump right in? When the state says, okay, you can do this? Do we go right ahead and do it? Well, we had an extra layer of authority, as we always do, with the bishop. And she was very proactive with her own Task Force, in giving us additional guidance. I wonder what questions or challenges sort of popped up for each of you along the way or that you were aware of.

Donna: Not wanting to be too cautious. And yet, we’re dealing with something where, in a way, you couldn’t be too cautious. But if we err too far, in a way that just kept people locked out, because we were afraid, what would that be like, shut up in the upper room trying to hide from the world that, you know, we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to find whatever the guidance was, we were making plans to say, “If this, then we have multiple pathways, decision trees.” Or, if we can do this, what would be a safe way to bring people back or to involve people, and I’d say, starting that service in the park, in the summer, prayers in the park, you know, just working our way through the logistics of that and the outdoors. But it was a bounded area by a fence, and a private park that we were given permission to use. So, you know, we could take, we could, you know, comply with our obligations to say take contact information. Only for tracing purposes, you know, take temperature, but never associate that with any person, as people like our medical professionals were advising us how to not ever mix or collect medical data. And yet we had to, you know, comply with some level of collecting data. So we always considered, you know, privacy data, medical, spiritual, physical, and, you know, just mixing them all together. But I’d say my biggest concern was the fear of being too cautious.

Penny: The fear of fear.

Justin: Yeah, I’m just very happy that we were able to craft a very tempered Anglican, some might say, and linear response. I think there’s so many businesses and other organizations that we saw, had fits and starts, you know, where they would open and close and open and close. And for most of the pandemic, by taking our time and following the guidance of the bishop and the guidance of the state, we really had a very linear and smooth transition back to reopening. We knew what we could do, we were able to start it at a lower level, and kind of inch along with data and information, and other you know, important facets of that of that information, so that we would not have those fits and starts that really hampered so many other institutions.

Penny: I was very aware of our sense of loss of the sacraments. And we all missed communion terribly. I completely understand why some of our fellow churches decided to bring back communion early. Because sometimes you get a lot of pressure from people. I’m very grateful for our congregation that we didn’t feel pressure to come back before we were ready. My guiding principle all along was, not how much can we get away with and stay within the law, but how safe can we keep people; and that seemed to me to be the overriding principle, and I’m very glad that we were all in agreement about that. We had the opportunity to try things out. As you said, Donna, with the outdoor service, we started trying communion with our giant Pez dispensers, we were able to practice a little and see how those would work; and be ready for the bigger Sunday service, as that came back. So I want to say that the staff felt very supported by the task force. And by the way, the taskforce continues to meet every other week. It’s been a year and people have been very faithful. And the staff have really appreciated having that backing and all those different skills. Compared to what I’ve heard from clergy colleagues in other places, this has been a very collaborative and collegial and loving process in the cathedral community. I mentioned the bishop’s office, that the bishop has, as I said, a diocesan Task Force, who have been guiding her. Every time we hear a communique from the state or the county, we wait, because the bishop is not far behind, very quickly following up with her own guidelines, and letting us know how much further we can go. It’s been important for us as Episcopalians to observe the bishop’s guidance and be sure to follow her example. As we come out of the pandemic, bit by bit and service by service and meeting by meeting, do you see any likelihood of any permanent changes to our corporate life, other things that you think we won’t go back to or that we’ve learned?

Justin: Well, I think that our online outreach definitely has some new ways to continue to grow our congregation and our corporate community. You know, what we found early on in the pandemic was that many of the people who were logging in weren’t just our regulars. It was a new way for evangelism and outreach: people across the country across the state across the world, were able to tune in and hear our music and hear sermons. Even the fact that we were able to have virtual preachers from all over and really kind of mix things up and give people different perspectives. So I think that there are definitely opportunities to figure out how we can continue to incorporate some of those aspects, but still really, you know, have that main core tradition of service that we have for our community.

Donna: And at an operational level, it’s been just wonderful to watch the growth, as I mentioned before: the morning prayer and evening prayer that were offered, but were rarely attended. And now online they’re just these communities of great support and love that I think will stay and if there’s any hybrid form to do this, we’ll figure it out. But I think in a way it was like, well, this was maybe what it should have evolved into, maybe that’s the best place for it to be is online at the beginning and the end of the day. The other thing I like, and I’m saying this, as Dean’s Warden and being expected to be sitting in ex officio, on a lot of meetings, is: we switched to online committee meetings and got all the work we needed to do done. I don’t want to say never go back in person, because we very much miss each other, but possibly have things like once a quarter or even more rarely have in person meetings, but then we can have virtual meetings that we fit around our work and our families. And a plug I want to put in there is that I hope that that invites more people who have very active family lives and work lives to say you can be part of, you know, committees, because you can so to speak phone it in, but that you could participate virtually, you don’t have to find some way to take off and drive down possibly, you know, with the worst rush hour traffic, you know, the wrong direction of the day, etc, etc. But that you could can contribute, you know, in, in addition to your busy life, and I think that will enrich leadership and participation in a lot of the life of this church.

Penny: Yeah, we’ve all learned a lot of new tricks. And as much as we complained about having to learn the ins and outs of Zoom, it’s been a great addition to our toolbox. And now we’re learning how to do hybrid activities like the Sunday forum, and we bought some equipment and people have again, learned skills. So we have learned and grown; and in the daily office, the morning and evening prayer groups. I’ve discovered that we have a lot of theologians in our congregation. And we have some really, really deep conversations about Scripture and life at those services, and I hope they always continue. I do want to name the members of the task force and make sure that that their contribution is recognized; as I said some of them, but I hope I don’t forget anybody. Our staff, Kathleen Burgess, Bob Oslie, and Martin Green. Jeff Martinhauk, Brooks Mason; and lay leaders: yourselves Donna and Justin. And also Konnie Dadmon, our altar guild canon sacristan. Wayne Riehm, our communications guy, Jen Jow, our disaster preparedness person, Don Pellioni, our medical expert. Is there anyone I’ve forgotten? I hope not. But it’s been a great group. And we’ve worked well together and have accomplished a lot, not least, keeping this community intact. And most of all, I want to thank both of you for your leadership and collegiality. It’s really a joy to work with you, as our leaders. I want to offer you a chance for any final thoughts about the regathering Task Force and process.

Donna: I was going to say it was a good process, we would bring things to the table, people would have done some research; and we would discuss things and we didn’t always start in the same place. I would say, for example, the question of communion, you know, included only pastoral or theological discussions, but also, say, ecological discussions, as in, there were options to buy a prepackaged little mini, plastic chalice and a little chiclet wafer; and I know, some churches were even doing that and drive by communion. And so it came to discussions of, well, does Jesus really want us to create more single use plastic waste? And also what is the meaning of communion for us, you know, the mystery of the elements, but what is, absent the corporate celebration for us, what is the importance; and so you know, we certainly had to go around the room multiple times, so, you know, over and over as our technology options, and our options for being in person, you know, evolved, to say, Well, what shall we do? So, it was, it’s been a good process

Justin: [Inaudible] It was such a great learning; there were experts in diverse areas, and everyone was able to share their expertise with each other, so that together collectively, we all just learned so much about the process. And I think we’re, you know, we’re ready for the next issue that we have to address, you know, whatever that may be. But it also prepares us for good times as well. So that we can figure out new ways that we can be more efficient. As Donna mentioned, you know, potentially holding on to virtual meetings, that frees up time not just for family, but it also frees up time for outreach. It frees up time for prayer, it frees up time for all different types of things that we can learn to do differently. And it’s been a great lesson in how we can still become and maintain our sense of community as a cathedral. Despite this disastrous curveball of a pandemic.

Penny: And what I appreciate I think, overall about the work of the task force, is that because we had that group of people meeting regularly and giving us clear direction, we, the staff, were able to continue doing what we do: the mission of the cathedral and offering pastoral care and prayer, and sermon preparation and all the rest of it; and to expand our mission: to make plans for the chancel renovation, the future outreach center: we kept moving forward. And we were able to do that because we didn’t have to spend so much energy on trying to figure out how do we reopen because we had so much help. And so I want to thank you again, and thank you to the whole Task Force. Our work continues. We are not done. We’re still meeting every two weeks and we will continue to do so until this whole unprecedented period is behind us. So, to the cathedral congregation and those who are watching, I will see you on Sunday.

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