Pastoral Letter to the Congregation


Dear FPC Family,

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The past six months have been challenging for everyone, and yet even in the midst of the strange and unexpected circumstances we have faced, God’s grace has shown through in so many ways. I and many others have been so thankful for the Body of Christ in this season, and so many of us have experienced God’s grace through it. I find myself wondering again at how those who do not know the Lord walk through the challenges of this life without the support of the Lord and his people. I have rejoiced as I’ve seen how so many of you who have expressed your love for your brothers and sisters in Christ in a variety of creative and authentic ways over the last six months.

As we enter the fall and the time period in which a new year of activities and ministries would normally be launched, I wanted to answer some of the questions I have received on where we are and what we are doing. It has been some time since I have written a letter explaining some of the actions we are taking in light of the current circumstances, and while some of the issues below have been addressed before, if some people are asking these questions, then I imagine others may be wondering about them as well.

The questions are listed below, and each one is a link – you can click on them to go to the answers, posted on our website. The reason for this format is that, when the full Q&A was included in this letter, the letter came to about 10 pages, which can be a bit overwhelming. Not everyone is interested in the same information, and so this format allows you to click on the questions you are interested in and skip the ones you’re not.

The past six months have been significant for all of us in different ways. We have all learned things about the world we live in, and if we have been attentive, we have also each learned things about ourselves in how we have responded to the current situation.

For me personally, since before I was even installed as your senior pastor I have been painfully aware of the gap that exists between my experience and the responsibilities I am now called to. But that gap was even more felt as we entered a set of circumstances that, even in my wildest dreams, I had not envisioned would be part of my first two years as your senior pastor.

I still believe that our decisions to take the precautions we have taken at our church were the right decisions. That said, time will usually yield more perspective and new lessons from events. It will be interesting to see how each of us look back on this time period in the years ahead.

Such perspective is of course not available to us when we are “in it.” When this strange situation was suddenly upon us, we needed to look at the information we had and make a decision on what we would do (or not do) then and there. It would have been great to have had more information (it would still be great to have more information). But decisions had to be made. They still seem to me like the right decisions. But I am very aware that to others, they have looked wrong.

I am very thankful to those of you who have taken the time and exercised the patience to help me better understand your perspective and your thought process over the last six months. I have also had the opportunity to talk with other pastors – both locally and in other parts of the country – who have had a range of responses to this situation.

The questions we have faced on how to respond to this pandemic are complex questions, that require us to take positions on a number of issues, but that must then play out in very concrete ways. In such situations it is very necessary to recognize that sincere and thoughtful Christians will come to a range of different conclusions, that will result in a range of practical responses. This does not mean that our conclusions do not matter – they do. We are responsible before God for them. Some will be right, and some will be wrong. Some will be exercising more wisdom, and some will be acting in foolishness without knowing it. But each of us must do our thinking with a humility that acknowledges that while we are doing our best, we may still be wrong. And each of us must love our brothers and sisters who disagree, showing them respect and assuming the best of their motivations.

All of this has been a lesson for many of us (certainly for me) in walking in love and humility with those we disagree with. I hope I am learning, and I ask for your forgiveness for any ways I have fallen short of that calling in the previous months.

My earnest desire is for our church to be characterized by humility and love. We will still need to make practical decisions. We will continue to take precautions as a congregation. But our calling is to take each step in humility and love. Please pray for me, for our session, for all of our leadership, and for our congregation to this end.

With that said, below I want to answer some of the questions I have been receiving. I hope the information below will be helpful. You may not agree with it all, but I hope that more information about my thinking and the session’s decisions will be an aid to you as you navigate this difficult season in the life of our congregation. If you have follow-up questions, you are welcome to reach out to me, to the session, or to the staff.

Despite the difficulties of the past six months, God has been at work among us. Many of you have shown your faith, love, and patience in wonderful ways and that has been a blessing to me and to others. I thank you for that, and I praise the Lord for the ways he is working to bear his people’s burdens and build up his Church through your love and faithfulness.

This has been a trying period. It will likely continue to be difficult – at least for a while longer. We do not know where we are going, but we know the One we follow is faithful. We do not know what is coming next, but we know that the One who is sovereign over all loves us immensely. He has given his only Son for us – how will he not with him graciously give us all good things? For he promises us that he is working all things out for the good of his people.

Let us therefore walk forward with faith in God and love for one another.

Your servant in Christ,

Pastor Nicoletti

 

FAQs Answered by Pastor Nicoletti:

(Click each link to be taken to the answer)

 

What is the timeline for getting things back to normal?

In our church’s response to the pandemic, why was so much power given to an unelected “COVID committee”?

If masking is effective, and distancing is effective, then why are we doing both?

Why do we have to sign up for a service beforehand?

When do we get to the point of civil disobedience as a church?

Are you aware of John MacArthur’s statement on all this?

How are you thinking about disagreements between Christians on these issues?

The death rate is so low – why are we continuing with all these precautions?

If this is all so complicated, then why don’t we offer some worship services with precautions and other services without precautions?

Are you and the session aware that some of our members and adherents have begun worshipping at a church that is implementing fewer restrictions?

Why are you talking so much / so little about all this on Sundays?

What building changes are going on right now with Women’s Ministry of Faith and the nursery?

Didn’t we nominate elders a while ago? What ever happened to them?

 

 

 

 

What is the timeline for getting things back to normal?

At this point, we still don’t know. I am cautiously optimistic about the current trends, but only the Lord knows what the future holds. I, the staff, and the session continue to evaluate things as the situation on the ground changes. These conversations continue in various forms every week – sometimes every day. We have taken some small steps towards normality, and I intend to keep looking for ways to take such steps.

What I want you to know is that just because you are not seeing it, does not mean that those regular reevaluations are not taking place. We are talking about where we are and what the best options are for our “next steps” all the time – among the staff, the session, and other leaders.

Please continue to pray for the situation on the ground, for wisdom for us as we make decisions, and for a return to normalcy soon, through the Lord’s mercy.

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In our church’s response to the pandemic, why was so much power given to an unelected “COVID committee”?

 

It has come to my attention that this is a common misunderstanding of how we have made decisions over the past six months – and one for which I take responsibility, for not communicating more clearly.

To better explain, it might be best to dive into a bit of Presbyterian polity terminology. Presbyterian government distinguishes between a “committee” and a “commission.” A commission is empowered to look into a situation and make decisions regarding it. A committee’s power is only to “examine, consider, and report” to a higher authority. Our “COVID Committee” was a committee. It had no authority to make decisions on its own. Its task was to look into the situation, consider options, gather opinions received from the congregation, and then report to the session. The session then made all decisions about our course of action. There has, over the past six months, been much discussion at the session level. There is a range of opinions on some things. But all decisions have been made by the session. Which means that the frustration I have heard at times expressed towards the committee or its members would be much more accurately expressed towards me and the session.

I am sorry for not communicating more clearly about this process – both to congregants who were confused about the process, and to members of the committee who received some expressions of exasperation that were more rightly directed at me or the session.

The main purpose of the committee was to help us gather options and perspectives on our response to the pandemic. As the situation has shifted the session has determined that the committee has fulfilled its purpose and has thanked them for their work and dissolved the committee. Decisions continue to ultimately be made by the session, with ongoing input from the staff and the leaders of various ministries in the church.

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If masking is effective, and distancing is effective, then why are we doing both?

 

As a church, we have adopted the same approach that many have, which involves layering several precautions, rather than relying on one. As we communicated before we began holding in-person services again, the “Big Four” approach of masking, distancing, handwashing, and staying home when you have COVID-like symptoms are four practices where each in isolation may lower risk a bit, but when the four are combined they are much more effective in lowering the risk of a transmission or an outbreak. This is why we continue to employ both masking and distancing in our gatherings. Some have compared it to how both street signs and seatbelts are effective in lowering auto accident deaths. Risk reduction doesn’t choose one or the other though, but layers both approaches to significantly reduce the overall risk.

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Why do we have to sign up for a service beforehand?

 

As I shared at our September 6th services, the sign-up process we have used is not something that was mandated to us by anyone, or that is itself a precaution. It is a practical step for us as a church. One reason for it was to cap the number of people present at each service, at first along the lines of the precautions we were following regarding the size of our gatherings, and then later because we faced space restraints on how many people we could fit in each space while still providing distancing between each household.

But another challenge we faced was how to fit as many people as we could in each service while still providing distance between each household. The best way to do that right now, because of the restraints of our space, has been to assign seating ahead of time, which lets us maximize our space and efficiently fit more people. And to assign seats ahead of time, we need to know who is coming and how big their household is beforehand.

That said, we realize that some find the sign-up process frustrating and burdensome, and so we have been working on how we can maximize our space, allow for distancing, and still give some people an option to come without signing up. One change we introduced starting September 13th was to give both “signed-up” and “not-signed-up” options for the 8:45 am and 6:00 pm services. For those two services we are now using DeSoto Hall for overflow seating. The service in the sanctuary is livestreamed into DeSoto Hall for those there to participate together, and the Lord’s Supper is served there in the morning. All the same precautions will be taken and asked in DeSoto Hall as in the sanctuary – including masking and distancing. But using this space gives us a lot more seating, which allows us to incorporate more people coming to the service without signing up beforehand.

So now, if you are going to attend the 8:45 am or the 6:00 pm service, you have two options. You can sign up beforehand for a spot in the sanctuary, so that you are guaranteed a seat in the sanctuary. Or you can simply show up for the service without signing up. If you show up without signing up, then if there is any available seating in the sanctuary, you will be directed to that, first-come, first-serve. Once the sanctuary is full, then people who come but are not signed up will be directed to the overflow seating in DeSoto Hall, where seating distanced by household will be provided, along with the livestream and the Lord’s Supper at the 8:45.

We do encourage you to sign up in order to make things easier for our staff and our volunteers – and to guarantee that you get a spot in the sanctuary. But you are also very welcome to come without signing up. You just need to be aware that since the 8:45 has been filling up and the 6:00 is usually almost full, you will likely be sitting in DeSoto Hall.

Of course we are still learning and working things out, and in the weeks ahead we will both be making adjustments and working on more ways we can move closer to normalcy while still taking precautions under the current circumstances.

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When do we get to the point of civil disobedience as a church?

 

This is a good question. Though the answer to this question is beyond the scope of this document, I want you to be aware that it is an issue the leadership has been discussing at some length – not only as a whole session but in conversations between elders. I have spent hours in conversation on this topic, researching the historic Christian perspectives on civil disobedience, reading contemporary perspectives on how churches should respond to the current restrictions, and talking with pastors both nearby and from other parts of the country who are wrestling with this question as well.

As we can see both locally and across the country, this is a question that sincere Christians can disagree on and come to different conclusions on. We need to respect and humbly listen to one another as we all work through such questions.

I will say that as your pastor it is of utmost importance to me that we have a Biblical rationale for any decisions we make. We must take seriously the calling on the Church to be faithful to her mission, following the example of Peter and John in Acts 4. We must also take seriously the calling the Lord puts on us in texts like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. Any response to the civil authorities will need to take all of these passages (and others) into account.

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Are you aware of John MacArthur’s statement on all this?

 

I am – several people have shared Grace Community Church’s statement with me.

I certainly respect John MacArthur’s ministry, and I do not doubt the sincerity of the leadership of Grace Community Church in their decision.

But I also remain unconvinced by their reasoning. Jonathan Leeman has provided some thoughts in response (available here and here), as has Gavin Ortlund (available here.)

I don’t agree with everything in these responses to Grace Community Church either, but I pass them on as examples of others who are thoughtfully engaged with the same issues as Grace Community Church, and have come to a different conclusion.

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How are you thinking about disagreements between Christians on these issues?

 

One of the things easily lost in this discussion is an appreciation for the complexity of the issues, which means that thoughtful Christians with sincere convictions can come to different conclusions.

Part of what makes this so difficult is that we are not only having to each decide between different interpretations of the data on the ground, but we are also called to navigate a number of values we are all called to, but which we can find in tension in the current circumstances.

These issues we need to weigh and navigate include:

  • The physical health of our congregation.
  • The physical health of our community.
  • The psychological and spiritual health of our congregation and the need to connect.
  • The concern to make worship available to congregants without asking them to violate their conscience.
  • The calling on Christians to stand up for truth and not fear death.
  • The calling on Christians to submit to human authorities for the Lord’s sake.
  • The calling to love our neighbors by preventing an outbreak that would set back the re-opening process.
  • The calling to love our neighbors by providing them a place to connect and worship.
  • The calling to maintain a good reputation with those outside the church.
  • The question of how we interpret epidemiological data regarding the pandemic.
  • The question of how we interpret varying and sometimes conflicting medical claims regarding precautionary steps.
  • The question of how we interpret the current political factors at play and how we are called to respond to them as Christians.

And we could go on. (In fact, I’m sure everyone reading this letter can identify things I have left off the above list … but I had to stop somewhere!)

Each calling above can be in tension or even opposition to other callings. As others have pointed out, the most difficult and divisive decisions any institution faces are not usually when a decision must be made between a good thing and a bad thing, but when important values are in conflict: when two or more good callings seem to be set in opposition to each other.

That is the case in multiple ways in the situation the Church faces today. And it is not just theoretical. Christians must step out in courage and make practical decisions about what to do and what not to do, all the while knowing that we don’t have as much information as we would like, and we may learn in the end that we chose the wrong course of action.

That should not keep us from acting or making decisions, but it should give us a humility towards those with whom we disagree.

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The death rate is so low – why are we continuing with all these precautions?

 

Some have pointed out the drop in the death and hospitalization rates, which is indeed good news to give thanks for. The follow-up question sometimes is why we are continuing with precautions when the overwhelming number of people who get sick do not die.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is the question of ongoing health effects of the virus even for those who recover. Another is the question of Biblical grounds for civil disobedience (which I mentioned above).

But another key reason to consider is our callings to love our neighbors and to cultivate a good reputation with those outside the church, as we are able. And this calling extends beyond mere health concerns.

Whether we think it wise or foolish, those over us in the civil authority are using the case rate data to make decisions on which institutions can open when, and to what extent they can open. Some may think this wrong or unwise, but regardless of anyone’s position, this is the reality of the situation we and our community face, and which we must therefore navigate.

If we stopped taking precautions at church and it led to us hosting an outbreak, then even if everyone recovered just fine, we could still be responsible for delays or steps backwards in how much our county can reopen. Our decision to not take precautions could lead to a rise in the case rate that leads civil authorities to make decisions that hamper members of our congregation and our community from sending their children to school, reopening businesses, and further reopening the county in general.

Not only could this affect people in concrete ways, but it could affect our congregation’s reputation in the community in lasting ways as well. Elders – and then by extension congregations  – are called on to cultivate a good reputation with those outside the church as they are able to (1 Timothy 3:7). Being the congregation whose actions led to school and business shutdowns would certainly impact our reputation in the community – and not in a good way. Those costs need to be weighed in our decisions as well.

I mention these factors not because they are the whole picture. Obviously there are counter-arguments to these perspectives, arguments that have been made for re-opening sooner, as well as other arguments against re-opening sooner. I mention these primarily to stress that there are a number of things to consider in how we respond to the full picture of things as a church – beyond even just the current death rates.

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If this is all so complicated, then why don’t we offer some worship services with precautions and other services without precautions?

 

I appreciate the desire behind this question to meet as many people as possible where they are at, and to respect the differences in judgments between Christians. And this is an attractive option on a number of levels – including that it would take some of the heat off of the leadership. Neither I nor any of our leadership has wanted to take on the “public health” roles that we have had to in this time. The idea of shifting the decisions back to the individual is very attractive.

Nonetheless, I am forced to conclude that it is not an option we could take. There are several reasons, but one of which is that we cannot abdicate our role as leaders of the church as an institution. It is one thing to respect the private judgment of Christians on difficult issues and how they live that out in their personal lives. It is another thing for us to host worship services that include practices that we as a session believe are not the best response to the current situation. In addition, if there were an outbreak in our congregation at such a service, we would still be responsible for its impact not only on members’ health and the community’s health, but we would also bear the responsibility for how such an outbreak might hinder our county’s recovery (such as school openings and economic reopening) and our church’s reputation and witness in the community.

Again, I understand that some of you may disagree with this reasoning – and that is okay. I am merely laying out some of our thought process and why we decided not to offer two different types of services.

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Are you and the session aware that some of our members and adherents have begun worshipping at a church that is implementing fewer restrictions?

 

We are. I recently had a very good conversation with the pastor of a church where a number of our members have been worshipping. We affirmed that our churches are not in competition, that we respect one another though we have responded to the current situation differently. I am glad that there are other Bible-believing congregations close by who can minister to members of our church who have felt that they could not attend with us right now.

As I said in my sermon on August 23rd, our calling is to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, even as we may disagree with their decisions.

For those who continue to worship at Faith, our calling is to mourn the practical divisions that have arisen under the current circumstances, to pray for those who have left our fellowship, to welcome them back enthusiastically if they do return to our congregation, and to not look down on them if they do not return to us but decide to remain at another congregation.

For those of you who have been worshipping elsewhere, know that you are loved here, you are missed here, I do not doubt the sincerity of your position even if I do not share it, and you are welcomed to return when you feel you can. And if you decide to worship elsewhere even after the current circumstances have come to a close, I do not hold that against you. I hope that you can respect the goodness of our intentions and the sincerity of our course of action, as we seek to do the same towards you.

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Why are you talking so much / so little about all this on Sundays?

 

I have received both of these questions from congregants.

Some have been distressed that I have not spoken more about the current situations and how it is affecting our congregation. Others have urged us not to talk so much about these things on Sundays, as they long to have an hour focused on heavenly things without thinking of these worldly struggles. Some want to address it when we are together, and others want to set it aside. Both of these desires are understandable.

In a similar way, some members have gotten frustrated with us for repeating some information too often, while others have expressed confusion about that same information that we had expressed multiple times in repeated communications. (In fact, that is true of several items addressed in this letter.)

Navigating a congregation with such a range of desires and needs is a challenge. I am learning that in much communication it is impossible to please everyone. That said, I have no doubt that my communication has been far from perfect.

I am continuing to learn when, how, and how often to communicate some of the things that need to be communicated. In the ways I have failed to do that well over the past six months, I ask for your grace and I welcome what constructive criticism you may have. I also ask you to bear in mind that what is required to communicate well with one member of a church like ours might frustrate another member. Some of that will be unavoidable. I strive to improve regarding the avoidable frustrations I have caused.

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What building changes are going on right now with Women’s Ministry of Faith and the nursery?

 

As some of you are aware, we are in the midst of making some changes on how we use some parts of our space, and we are considering other future changes as well.

The main change has been to the space designated for Women’s Ministry of Faith (WMF). In late June and early July the staff began talking with the Building Use Committee, the leadership of WMF, and other leaders about the possibility of moving the main space used by WMF from the room in the basement to the main floor of the former manse at 629 S. Winnifred St.

A few thoughts went into this decision. The first was our ongoing goal of being the best stewards of our space that we can be. While most of our building is used six days a week, we were aware that the WMF room was used by WMF on average between three and six hours a week. Despite that, it has also been a great blessing to have space set aside for our WMF gatherings. When 629 S. Winnifred became available, it seemed like we had a solution that would benefit everyone. The room that had been used by WMF could be converted into classroom space that could be used six days a week to support one of our core goals as a church: supporting the Christian education of covenant children. At the same time we could move the WMF space from a room of 471 sq ft, to a space of 1,535 sq ft, which includes a kitchen and a bathroom. While the new space is divided up (there is a dining room, a living room, and two bedrooms), the main meeting area still comfortably fits all the couches that were in the former WMF room.

Over the month of July this transition was discussed with WMF leadership, and after that the furniture and other items in the WMF room were then moved to the top floor of 629 S. Winnifred St. in August. Our administrator, our deacons, and members of the WMF council are currently working on ways to improve and beautify the space. I am excited to see what it will be like when they are done. Like the old WMF room, the space will primarily be for use by WMF, but will also be available to others.

I’ll add that this change was initiated by FPC leadership as we sought to think strategically about the best use of our space. No outside group requested this change.

One other building use change that has been discussed by some has been the shift of the Sunday nursery from the two rooms in the basement to a mobile nursery in the south end of DeSoto Hall. This is a possible change that the staff has been discussing for over a year. That said, the details are not finalized, and we were still working through those details when, through an office miscommunication, the proposed change was made known more widely in the congregation. We had intended to perfect the proposal further and discuss it with those who would be most affected by it before finalizing everything and announcing the change, but miscommunication on our part that led to this plan being shared more broadly changed that. At this point, this change is very likely to take place, but is still being worked through. Our staff is working on some of the details with the nursery leadership, and once we have the details worked through we will communicate our plans and their rationale more broadly. We know that there are a number of details to consider in a change like this, but if you are aware of some that you think we may be missing then please feel free to let us know in the church office.

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Didn’t we nominate elders a while ago? What ever happened to them?

 

We did! Good memory! Remember that, back before everything went crazy? Ah … the good old days.

The elder nomination process has been “paused” for several months. Until we are able to gather without distancing, we are not able to complete the process. Elder elections must happen at a congregational meeting, and distance/absentee/proxy voting is not allowed in congregational meetings according to our denomination’s constitution. As long as we are unable to hold all our voting members in one space, we are unable to complete the election of new elders.

As a session, we discussed where in the process to “pause” things, and at the time we decided it best to pause right where we left off – in the middle of training. Of course, the next question is when to start up that process up again, in anticipation that when the training, examining, and presentation parts of the process are completed then we may be able to meet in person for the election. That is something I will be discussing with the session going forward.

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