Where we are now with COVID and congregations

I’m watching the case rates in Santa Clara County, where the Palo Alto congregation is located. The 7-day rolling average is over 4,000 — yikes, that’s high. On the other hand, preliminary figures for mortality seem to show a low death rate — probably due in part to the fact that 82.8% of county residents have been fully vaccinated (thought only 58.2% of eligible residents have received boosters). But on the other other hand (that’s three hands, if you’re keeping track), anecdotal evidence from health care professionals says that ICU beds are getting full again, and elective surgeries and procedures that require an overnight stay in the hospital are being postponed.

Obviously, this is not where we hoped to be. But rather than feeling discouraged, I suggest we consider this as another problem in planning. So, how do we plan for next steps in our congregations?

First, just to say the obvious — any plan we make has to be flexible, to account for changing circumstances.

Second, to say something else that’s obvious — we’ve discovered that the big thing that draws many people to UU congregations is the community. Sure, we like the theology, but the big draw is a chance to be a part of a community with shared values. And many people want to get a regular dose of UU community in person.

Third, something else that’s obvious — we’re gaining a pretty good sense of what’s safest, and less safe. It’s safest to do in-person gatherings that are outdoors, distanced (or small groups), and masked. It’s less safe to do indoors events, but some indoors events are still possible in some circumstances. Instead of saying, “Oh we can’t do what we used to do, waaah!” we probably need to start saying, “Gee, what are our present options for fun and engaging communal events?”

So here’s one obvious thing I believe we should be doing: we should be planning outdoors events. Whatever that might be: outdoors worship services, outdoors small group meetings, outdoors classes. (And I know what those of you are going to say who live where winters are really cold — you’re going to say this doesn’t apply to you. Well, my-sister-the-children’s-librarian, who lives and works in Massachusetts, is doing outdoors story time for kids in the winter; sure, her attendance is lower, but people still show up.) It’s true that not everyone in your congregation is going to come to outdoors events, but I suspect enough people are hungry for in-person interaction that it’s worth doing.

Another thing I believe we have to do: start planning like COVID is not going away. I would love it if COVID suddenly decided to go away next month. But it now looks like there’s a good chance that COVID is going to become endemic. If it has become endemic, then we’re going to have to learn to live with it. So maybe we should start thinking about one or more of the following: requiring proof of vaccination; think about shorter indoor worship services (e.g., 45 min., to limit time spent indoors); adding more worship services (so you can have more smaller indoors services); creating permanent spaces for outdoor programs where possible; improving ventilation in indoor spaces; and/or many other things.

Another obvious thing we should do: for our online offerings, keep improving community interaction. I’ve been noticing that many people are getting better at participating in online events — video conferencing is a learned skill. Similarly, I believe many of us are getting better at facilitating online communal interactions. In my own case, I’ve become much better at teaching online, and at facilitating online meetings — again, these are learned skills. As we continue to get better at participating in and leading online events, one of our goals should be improving community interaction.

One final thing I believe we should be doing: we should go easy on ourselves. Yes, the pandemic is probably going to kill off some UU congregations; but if you start thinking that way, you’re liable to either get tense and stressed out, or sad and filled with grief, neither of which is going to help keep your congregation going. Of course, getting overwhelmed and doing nothing is also not helpful; my point here is that we do need to do something, we just don’t need to be overachievers. My primary rule for congregational life has always been: if it’s not fun, let’s not do it. This still holds true during the pandemic!

I’m actually feeling pretty positive about congregational life in the immediate future. Yes it’s different from what I’m used to, and yes it’s hard to let go of a lifetime of past expectations, and yes change is annoying and difficult. But new possibilities are opening up, and I’m actually feeling quite positive about the future of our congregations.

The UU year in review: 2021

Wow. It’s been a year of change. As 2021 winds down, I’ll briefly summarize the changes I’ve seen in Unitarian Universalist congregations — some positive, some not so positive, some neutral.

Not-so-positive

(A) Enrollments of children and teens appear to be falling precipitously. We don’t yet have official numbers from the year-end certification count, but I’m estimating declines of 33% to 100% across the board.

(B) Adult membership also appears to be falling in most congregations, though the declines are not as steep.

(C) There appear to be many fewer newcomers in most congregations. The lack of newcomers probably accounts for about half of the decline in adult membership. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations have an annual turnover rate of 10-25% (due to moving away, death, lack of interest, etc.), and depend on a steady stream of newcomers to maintain stable membership.

(D) From what I can tell, most congregations saw a decline in revenues this year. The decline can be attributed to the general decline in membership, loss of other revenue streams such as rentals, and the end of the federal Payroll Protection Plan.

(E) I’d say that more peripheral people have gotten out of the habit of occasional participation in the life of the congregation. It’s still too soon to know if they’ll ever come back, but I’m not hopeful.

(F) This past year saw an epidemic of clergy resignations. In the spring, the Unitarian Universalist Association was begging ministers to come out of retirement to fill all the interim ministry positions. By all accounts, this past year saw a shortage of ministers.

Neutral

(G) I expected more resignations by other (non-clergy) paid staffers in UU congregations this past year. But so far I’m not seeing evidence that that happened. This may be because so many other paid staffers are part timers, meaning they weren’t exposed to as much stress as full-time ministers. Or it could be that the resignations happened, but they’ve been less visible than minister resignations.

Positive

(H) Online adult religious education classes have proved to be more popular than in-person classes in some congregations. The convenience of attending a class while sitting comfortably at home turns out to be quite attractive to many.

(I) Moving online apparently has worked for many (not all) support groups, again due to the convenience.

(J) Congregations have adopted digital giving tools, to the pleasure of most people under the age of 50.

(K) Most Unitarian Universalist congregations have developed good to excellent online services. Online services have proved so successful that most of the congregations I know of plan to continue multi-platform services (i.e., combined online and in-person services) after the pandemic is over.

(L) Online does not work for everything. And most Unitarian Universalist congregations have developed safe ways of having at least some in-person programs.

Summary

In a time of great change, it’s easy to get despondent, just because change can be so disorienting. But I have to say I’m feeling mostly optimistic. In a follow-up post, I’ll have more to say about how I believe we can address the not-so-positive changes productively.

But the positive aspects of this year of change are very positive. Even though our primary “product” continues to be in-person connections, it’s also good to be able to expand the ways we can connect with our congregations, by adding multi-platform services, online classes, and digital giving.

Scrooge would have loved omicron

Scrooge famously said: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”

The omicron strain of COVID-19 is acting like Scrooge. If you go wish your family ‘Merry Christmas’ in person, you could wind up with omicron in your lungs. Bah humbug.

A month ago, we started planning in-person services for Christmas Eve. But as of today, it looks like we’re going to be moving to online-only for Christmas Eve. Omicron is present here in Santa Clara County. Omicron doubles every 2-4 days (depending on who you listen to). Vaccinated and boostered people are getting omicron. Everyone is expecting a major surge by mid-January. So in-person indoors meetings are most definitely Not A Good Idea. Bah humbug indeed.

I had been looking forward to seeing people in person on Christmas Eve — especially college students, many of whom come home for winter breaks. But honestly I’m relieved that we’re not going to have in-person services. I admit it — I don’t like the looks of omicron.

So — see you online….

Noted without comment

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn now lives in the Bay Area, where he attends the Lighthouse Church in San Francisco, and plays in the worship band. According to a recent news article — about how he recently recorded four songs that will benefit the church’s homeless ministries — being a Christian in the U.S. may require apology:

“While he doesn’t have ‘any hesitation’ identifying as a Christian, [Cockburn] is starting to wonder if that’s such a good thing to say in public in the U.S. these days. If someone asks if he’s a Christian, he still says, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian, but I got vaccinated.'”

COVID’s impact on health care providers

The Wild Hunt, a pagan news blog, has a good post on how health care providers are dealing with the current COVID surge: “Pagan health providers respond to the Delta variant surge.” The author, Stacy Psaros, interviews several nurses who say things like, “You have healthcare workers being driven out of the industry due to burnout, physical and emotional stress of the situation.” Psaros also includes a few facts about how the current surge is different, including that in the week ending August 19, 22.4% of the weekly reported COVID cases were children, according to the American Pediatric Association.

Towards the end of the article, Psaros spends too much time quoting a nurse who doesn’t believe in vaccine mandates for health care providers and doesn’t think the experts are to be trusted — so much so that the editors of The Wild Hunt had to insert a disclaimer refuting some of this interviewee’s more ridiculous assertions. Sadly, it sounds like Psaros agrees with this interviewee, while not really understanding how this kind of libertarianism actually contributes to the health care provider burnout she’s reporting on. Nevertheless, despite this serious flaw, the article is worth reading so you can hear from some health care providers about what they’re experiencing.

People

I’ve been at a religious education conference for most of a week now. It has been very nice to be able to talk with colleagues in person, face-to-face. But it’s also exhausting. I talk with people for an hour over breakfast, then teach a class where we spend a lot of time talking, then talk for an hour over lunch, and often for another hour after lunch — and then I’m ready for a two-hour nap.

Others at the conference are having similar experiences. It’s really good to be able to be in a big group of people for the first time since March, 2020, but it’s also really tiring.

Many conservative Christians are appalled by anti-vaxxers

Steve Hassen, a conservative Christian, has written a blog post that explains why conservative Christians should get vaccinated. The blog post is based on a podcast interview with Professor Warren Throckmorton, a psychologist. Here’s an excerpt from the blog post:

“I asked Throckmorton for his view on the COVID-19 pandemic and what he thinks about vaccination? He and his family are vaccinated. When I asked him about Christianity and science, he told me Biblical sources provide believers guidance. He pointed out that Timothy, a disciple of St. Paul, had a stomach ailment. He was not advised to pray or just have faith but to take a little wine (that is, treat the ailment). Luke, who wrote one of the Gospels, was himself a physician. God gave us incredible gifts: our minds, intelligence, and curiosity. Certainly, we are meant to use our minds and think and not allow irrational fears to cause harm and death.”

Hassen covers a lot of ground in his blog post. He takes on Trump: “How can anyone [who’s] religious think God is using Donald Trump?” He explains how science and conservative Christian faith are compatible. He critiques Christian nationalism and dominionism, two of the biggest threats to U.S. democracy today. And he touches on the problem of narcissism in the pastors of mega-churches (some of what he says there reminds me of one or two people who used to be ministers of some of our largest UU congregations).

Hassen reminds me of the conservative Christians I used to know back in the day: people whose intelligence, morals, and ethics I held in great respect, even while disagreeing with them on some theological points. Unitarian Universalists who like to demonize white evangelical conservative Christians might want to read this post, and expand their horizons a little bit. If we’re going to stop the threat to democracy represented by QAnon and Trumpism, we need all the allies we can get.

Masks for employees

A couple of weeks ago, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) decided that masks would be required in workplaces, unless all employees in a given area proved that they were vaccinated. Then the business community leaned on Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, and the rules quickly changed. Requiring businesses to determine the vaccination status of their employees would hamper the economy, said the business owners. Newsom is facing a recall vote so he quickly agreed, and Cal/OSHA had to fall into line, and now employees who say they’re vaccinated (no proof required) won’t have to wear masks.

Mitch Steiger of the California Labor Federation, AFL/CIO, disagrees with Newsom. Steiger pointed out that workers in rural areas — some rural counties in California have vaccination rates on the order of 25% — will especially be at risk. When the San Jose Mercury News asked for comment, Steiger said, “We will literally have decided to sacrifice workers’ lives in order to spare employers the inconvenience of looking at a vaccination card.”

It happened again

The state of California just changed the COVID rules again. As reported by Bay Area News Group:

“Under mounting pressure, California’s workplace-safety board on Wednesday voted to drop controversial new rules that would have required many workers to keep their masks on for months — just hours after state officials announced that vaccinated Californians can go mask free in most settings starting next week.”

(The “mounting pressure” was from business groups, who out-pressured employee groups and unions who emphasized the safety of workers. Next time some politician says, “We follow the science,” remember that there are still many things scientists don’t know about COVID, which means that politicians are responding to political pressure as much as they’re “following the science.”)

The most difficult aspect of complying with COVID rules is that they’re constantly changing. Those of us who work with children are going to be dealing with changing COVID rules for at least six more months, assuming the vaccine trials for children aged 5 to 11 are completed by late this year. And those of us who also work with children under age 5 may be dealing with changing COVID rules for another year.

It’s exhausting. You learn one set of rules, and they change. This is inevitable. Our knowledge of COVID keeps changing. Though Americans love to blame people — the Democrats blame the Republicans, the Republicans blame the Democrats — in this case, there are no people to blame. We can only blame the virus. It’s silly to blame an unthinking virus. So there’s no blame.

But it’s still exhausting. COVID rules are changing on a weekly basis. It’s impossible to keep up.

Mind-numbing

The State of California has been updating its COVID regulations over the past three or four weeks. As a religious educator, I have to familiarize myself with three separate sets of regulations: “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies,” “cohorts for children and youth in supervised settings,” and “daycamps and other supervised youth activities.”

Reading through these regulations is a mind-numbing experience. Many of the regulations start off saying “you have to do thus-and-so” but then refer you to another Web page or PDF which says “you have to do this-and-that,” where the two different sources don’t exactly contradict each other, but don’t seem to be in full agreement either.

And sometimes the rules are vague. In my favorite example, the state rules frequently say that “physical distancing” is required, but then they don’t tell you exactly what distance is required. Are we supposed to assume six feet? But a year ago, some of the physical distancing requirements were greater than six feet, as for example the distance required to be maintained between two stable cohorts of children. And now federal recommendations from the CDC are saying that three feet might be enough physical distancing; is the state trying to be deliberately vague about the amount of physical distancing, so they can decide later whether to adopt the CDC guidelines or not?

And I’m glad I don’t have to deal very much with the “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies,” because those regulations contradict themselves. Due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, California is not allowed to have regulations for places of worship that differ from the regulations for other large gatherings. And the first page you hit on for “industry guidance” for “places of worship and cultural ceremonies” basically says to see the guidance for large gatherings, which should make things easier, right? — but then there’s also a link to a PDF with rules from 2020 that are clearly not acceptable under the Supreme Court ruling, but because they’re linked to from the current “guidance” mean that still you’re supposed to follow them — I guess?

I understand that this must be an incredibly difficult time for state regulators and state employees. I’m sure they’re doing their best. But as it stands now, the regulations are so disorganized that I sometimes find it impossible to understand what I’m supposed to do. I sometimes feel like they wrote these regulations assuming we’re all big corporations who can hire full-time staffers to sort through this mass of material. The things is, if you’re a small nonprofit or a small business and trying to figure it out on your own, the staffer who’s trying to make sense out of the regulations doesn’t have hours and hours of spare time because we’re already working overtime trying to deal with everything else the pandemic is throwing at us.

To top it all off, they keep updating the regulations. So I have to figure out if I should put in a lot of time now trying to figure out the regulations, or wait and see if they change things again next week.

My mind is numb.