I was recently in a Relief Society presidency meeting where several concerns about in-person meetings were brought up. I typed up many of my own concerns in the letter below. I was able to discuss it with my Relief Society President. I think it helped her to process all the many changes happening at church and also prepared her to use her voice in leadership meetings. Additionally, I sent it to my Bishop and Stake President. I don’t know whether or not my Bishop had a chance to read my letter before our ward’s devotional today, but he ended the meeting with clear directions that no one should feel pressured to attend church in-person with the up-coming changes. He also shared some beautiful words about unity and expressed a willingness to listen to concerns. He didn’t take much time, but it makes me feel much more hopeful that, at least locally, my concerns will be heard.
24 April 2021
“For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just? Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable, and it is even as I am. I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” Doctrine and Covenants 28:26-27
Here in Michigan, covid numbers are scary high. Younger people who haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated have particularly high infection rates. Many middle and high schools closed their in-person option and cancelled athletics after spring break. School policies might not be perfect, but I trust people who make the school policies for their job a whole lot more than church volunteers. Last weekend our Stake hosted an in-person (outdoor) youth activity, food included. I hate that youth who are high-risk for covid, or live with people who are high-risk, or need to quarantine, or are simply not comfortable attending in-person events during a surging pandemic, were excluded. This weekend there will be a stake in-person indoor youth fireside (thankfully with a virtual option this time.) No masking or physical distancing expectations were communicated to me for either event.
Joseph Smith led the church by teaching correct principles and allowing people to govern themselves. I wish church leadership would give some guiding principles to help local leaders decide when and how to safely hold in-person meetings. Every time I’ve asked my local leaders what type of metrics are being used to decide to return to in-person meetings, there has been NO mention of covid case levels or a downward trend of new cases or levels of vaccination rates. They have always just said that church leadership higher up is requiring it. Sometimes they apologetically add that attendance numbers are abysmal and they are worried people won’t come back to church. I want to trust that church leaders care more about my safety and wellbeing than a number on their report. Right now, I’m not sure that I do.
As a Relief Society councilor, I understand that local church leaders are feeling pressure from the Area Presidency to start holding hybrid in-person/virtual second hour by the middle of May. Making plans to open up more church meetings while schools are closing feels pretty absurd. I very much hope that covid cases go down quickly. By mid-May, people who were able to get a shot the very first week vaccines were available to the general public will be fully immunized. But many people were not able to get an appointment that early, and children still cannot be vaccinated. Maybe some of my hesitance is from change fatigue: our school district just changed schedules three times in four weeks. I know many people are struggling with isolation and need to be with other people. I don’t understand why leadership is pushing to emphasize larger ward-wide meetings instead of the Ministering program. Ministering involves small groups, and it can be tailored to the needs of the individuals. It strengthens relationships between ward members, maintains a tie to the church, and helps people feel seen.
It is also my understanding that the Area Presidency has instituted the policy that only people who attend church in-person can give talks and bear testimony. Our ward’s hybrid devotionals seemed to be working okay before this policy went into effect. This policy makes me sad because now the people who remain virtual are even harder to see, hear, and connect with. If Jesus needed to stay virtual, we would not hear his voice. This breaks my heart. When we exclude people from participation, it’s like excluding Jesus. “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:40
I want church to be a place where all people (with all their different needs) feel loved and valued. I’m worried our ward is dividing into an in-person group and a virtual group. I don’t want that; I want us to be one big I-care-about-you group. I recognize that I don’t have the full context in which leadership decisions are made. Communicating more clearly about the principles and reasoning behind covid procedures and church policies would help build trust and understanding. Thank you for your hard work and service during such challenging, ever-changing times.