On September 22nd Ontario residents will have to show proof of vaccination in order to dine indoors, go to gyms, theatres, sporting events and conference centres. The release and associated press conference made clear that:
“Essential retail, like grocery stores, are exempt, as are places of worship and hair salons, alongside other personal care businesses.”
Nevertheless, the mandate is likely to affect churches in a variety of significant ways.
Leadership Retreats And Conferences
Given the application of the passport system to “Meeting and event spaces like banquet halls and convention centres”, churches planning to host or attend spiritual conferences or to participate in leadership retreats are likely to be affected.
Our own church has a leadership retreat planned for late September at a nearby conference centre. Like many churches, we have pastoral staff and elected elders who are not yet vaccinated. How should this be handled?
Likewise, we have ladies hoping to attend the TGC Canada Women’s Retreat, but a significant portion of our ladies are not yet vaccinated. Should we cancel? Or only take those who will gain admission and thereby, potentially, sow division within the group?
Every church in Ontario is likely to be having difficult conversations in the very near future as to how to navigate these new realities.
Wedding And Funeral Receptions
While wedding ceremonies and funerals are considered “religious services” and therefore subject only to the 6 foot physical distancing requirement, wedding and funeral receptions are not. As of September 22nd a vaccine passport will be required for all those wishing to attend these important functions. As part of the news release, a short term, partial exemption was mentioned, stating that:
“From Sept. 22 to Oct. 12, unvaccinated individuals will be given a temporary exemption to attend funeral or wedding receptions at meeting and events spaces provided they show a negative COVID-19 test result 48 hours prior.”
Many churches host or otherwise facilitate such events which could place us in the awkward position of serving as bouncers to grieving family members or excluded celebrants. Many churches will choose to bypass that difficulty by simply refusing to host receptions of any kind until these restrictions are removed.
Multiple Worship Services
Even though the passport mandate does not apply to worship services, it will affect worship services because it will be presented as a short cut to the elimination of all current spacing and capacity requirements. In the near future one can easily imagine the Ontario government suggesting that if any churches wish to voluntarily adopt a passport system, the need for 6 foot spacing between congregants and family units could be eliminated. I don’t imagine many evangelical churches will take them up on their offer. This will leave churches in the difficult position of running multiple services per Sunday.
Most churches view multiple services as a short-term difficulty that is easily endured in support of the well-being of our neighbours. Even churches that decried multiple services at the start of the pandemic as an affront to orthodox polity have gradually accommodated to this reality. Multiple services, however, are extremely hard on overall church unity as the services tend to split along demographic lines. In our church, the young families almost invariably prefer the earlier service, while the seniors almost invariably prefer the later service. This has divided our congregation in ways we have worked very hard to avoid as we explicitly identify as a multi-generational church.
Despite our best efforts, however, we don’t seem to be able to reverse the trend. In addition, multiple services are remarkably taxing on volunteers. Our worship team arrives at 7 am on a Sunday morning and usually doesn’t leave the building now until shortly before 1 pm. Several churches in our area are currently unable to provide children’s ministry due to a lack of willing volunteers. As long as we are unable to gather as a single congregation, these difficulties are likely to continue.
Requests For Religious Exemptions
Many pastors are now receiving daily or at least weekly requests from congregants, community members and complete strangers for religious exemption forms that would seek to bypass the passport system. It is not at all clear on what religious basis a person would be considered exempt from taking this vaccine.
There may be a good number of health exemptions and a variety of other valid hesitations, but none of them is identifiably theological in nature and therefore most churches and denominations are staying out of the exemption business. Former Religious Liberty lawyer David French has written compellingly that there may be long term harm in attempting to frame this as a religious liberty issue. (Find his article here)
Pastors and elders will be wise to tread carefully here.
Further Division And Discord
This pandemic has seemed almost designed to stir up the maximum amount of division and discord within the church of Jesus Christ. We have fought over masks, conspiracy theories, civil disobedience, church polity, the nature of Old Testament law, the wording of Hebrews 10:24–25, the specific meaning of Romans 13:1–7, and whether or not the vaccine might be the mark of the beast. (Spoiler Alert: It is not.)
Most pastors and elders are exhausted.
And yet, it appears that we have at least one more controversy to endure. The passport system is likely to be wildly unpopular within certain segments of the conservative evangelical world. Pastors will be asked to engage in protests and to write letters and to prepare sermons, blogs, posts and tweets in order to overturn this legislation.
Simultaneously we will receive phone calls from elderly congregants and cancer survivors informing us that they will not be returning to corporate worship until everyone in the church has been vaccinated.
We will be spending the next 4 months between the rock and the proverbial hard place.
My advice to pastors and elders in this scenario is to speak to each other before you speak to the congregation. Decide where you stand, how you intend to proceed and what lines you are unwilling to cross.
Come to an agreement as a team.
Then stand together as a team.
What most pastors dread right now is being blasted from all sides.
Determine your position and then communicate your position with as much love, humility and patience as you can muster. And then huddle together, pray and endure.
This too shall pass.
Don’t let a momentary agony rob you of an eternal glory. Don’t sacrifice your ministry, your fellowship or your soul in support of either side of this passing controversy. Make reasonable policies, communicate kindly with affected parties, suffer losses and transfers with quiet dignity and pray for wisdom, insight and blessing upon our elected officials. We are in a crisis and many people outside the church are making extraordinarily difficult decisions on our behalf.
Lord have mercy!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.