- Face masks are still required
- Social distance as much as possible
- Follow CDC guidelines
- Inform district superintendent of revised plan
- Vaccinations strongly encouraged
ALCOA, Tenn. -- As governors alter their state mask mandates and vaccinated Americans feel safer to return to public places, Holston Conference is also responding to reduced numbers of coronavirus cases by giving local churches freedom to decide how to proceed through the rest of the pandemic.
Beginning May 1, a conference-wide “protocol” of requirements and restrictions, established to prevent people from spreading COVID-19 on church property, will no longer be in effect.
The only requirements that remain in place: “You still have to wear a mask,” said the Rev. Jeff Wright, “and you still should social-distance as much as possible.”
Churches are also expected to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommendations. Vaccinations are “strongly encouraged,” Wright said.
For the last year, Wright has chaired a 14-member task force, created by Bishop Dindy Taylor, charged with navigating the spread of COVID-19 throughout Holston communities in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
The task force created and implemented a 29-page document in June 2020 that has both been praised and criticized for protective measures such as prohibiting congregational singing and limiting the number of people inside church buildings.
Beginning May 1, local churches in Holston Conference may set their own protective guidelines for resuming activities.
For example, they can sing during worship, as long they’re wearing masks, Wright said. They can have Sunday school and offer a nursery to parents. They can also return hymnals and Bibles to the pews, since the CDC noted in early April that the risk of contracting the virus from touching a contaminated surface was less than 1 in 10,000.
Wright and the task force announced the end of the Holston Conference safety protocol in an April 23, 2021, email to church members and leaders.
“In lifting the Protocol, we are not saying just do what you want to do,” the email said. “We are still trying to save lives. Wesley’s three simple rules -- Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God -- must still guide our hearts, our minds, and our actions.”
On April 29, Wright said in a telephone interview that Holston churches are still expected to proceed carefully. If church leaders alter the pandemic safety plan they submitted to their district superintendents over the past year, the task force requests they inform their district offices of their new plans, as a matter of record.
“We’re still in the middle of a pandemic that hasn’t gone away yet,” Wright said. “What we want them to do is to be safe.”
Wright said he is often asked why congregants are still required to wear masks if they have already been vaccinated or if their states have ended mask mandates.
“Our answer to that is because the CDC says so,” Wright said. “We’re hearing in the news about how many people are not getting vaccinated, so we’re still trying to ‘do no harm’ and keep people safe.”
- Tennessee mask mandate (updated April 27)
- Virginia mask mandate (updated April 29)
- Georgia health restrictions (updated April 8)
Because Holston Conference’s 853 churches and related ministries are located in three different states, each with different health mandates, trying to set policies for Holston has been challenging, Wright said.
“I know that everyone has not agreed, but we’re so thankful for everything our churches have done to keep people safe and still show the love of God,” he said. “I haven’t heard of any of our churches being a ‘super-spreader site.’ Local health authorities have thanked us for that, because some non-UMC churches have been labeled as super-spreader sites in our area.”
While several Holston clergy were infected with the virus, some becoming very ill, none have died from the virus to his knowledge, said Wright, who also serves as Appalachian District superintendent of 102 churches.
Wright joins many others in being glad to leave the past year behind. In November 2020, he tested positive for COVID-19, although he says he experienced mild symptoms. In February and March of this year, he received his vaccinations in the Mafair United Methodist Church parking lot.
On May 1, the task force that Wright has chaired for the past year will officially be dissolved. After a year of checking coronavirus case statistics every morning, Wright says he’s looking forward to breaking the habit.
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.