Wednesday, July 8, 2020

St. Mark COVID-19 Strategy & Guidelines Beginning July 2020

St. Mark COVID-19 
Strategy & Guidelines
Beginning July 2020

1.      Though the individual hours of our staff remain flexible, the church office hours will increase to every weekday from 9:00am to 1:00pm.

2.      Small groups are allowed to meet on-site beginning July 1st. Leaders and attendees must follow the Small Group Guidelines outlined in this document.

3.      Anyone who participates in activities, programs, or services must complete the waiver form, Participation During a Pandemic, available in the church office.

4.      At this time, Sunday worship remains exclusively online. However, beginning on July 22nd we will provide an in-person worship service on Wednesday nights at 6:30p.m. This service will be recorded and used for the following Sunday’s online worship video.
a.    For safety reasons, this service will be treated as a small group and must adhere to the Small Group Guidelines, which prohibit physical contact and require a face mask at all times.
b.    Singing and spoken corporate prayers will not occur. Participants may whisper prayers, or speak from their heart.
c.    At this time, there will be no communion on Wednesday evenings, or fellowship time afterward.
d.    Hymns and other musical elements that require voices or breath will be edited afterward for the Sunday worship video.
e.    Attendance on Wednesday nights will be limited to 50 people or fewer, and all who wish to attend must sign up in advance. Registration will be available by calling the office or by using the online form available on the website and the smartphone app. Repeat attendance will be limited based on the number of people who are waiting to attend the first time.

5.      Certain precautions have been put in place to ensure the safety of all who enter.
a.    Though everyone is encouraged to bring their own mask, the church will provide disposable facemasks to anyone who may need one.
b.    Hand sanitation stations will be placed throughout the building.
c.    A professional zoom account will be available for use in the conference room to any small group leader who requests access.
d.    Rooms that are not in use will be off-limits unless authorized by a member of staff.
e.    After a space has been used by a small group, it will be thoroughly disinfected.
f.     Attendance will be recorded at all gatherings.

6.      The council is aiming for an outdoor, in-person worship service on Rally Sunday, September 13th, provided that Rockford is in Restore Illinois Phase 4 or higher. This remains only a possibility for now.

7.      The current pastoral transition process will continue, following our congregation’s constitution and bylaws. If a congregational meeting is required, the council will devise a clear and accommodating plan so that no one is excluded due to the pandemic.

Guidelines for Small Groups
St. Mark Lutheran Church
Rockford, IL

As St. Mark resumes some Small Group activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, the council has certain requirements for anyone who meets on church property. For the safety of all our members, and in keeping with our calling as Christians to love our neighbors, groups that meet on-site must follow these guidelines. Groups that meet off-site are strongly encouraged to follow these to the best of their ability. The health and welfare of our members and visitors is our number one priority in resuming all activities at St. Mark Lutheran Church. As it is determined to be safe enough, we will continue to gradually resume more of our “normal” church activities.

Small Group Leaders:
   Complete and submit the Participation During a Pandemic waiver.
   Schedule and coordinate gatherings through the office to ensure that there are no overlapping meetings during this time. Stay only in designated areas, and adhere to capacity limits. Though the state allows groups of 50 or fewer, our capacity limits vary based on room size.
   Provide a virtual meeting option for those unable to attend in person. The church’s Zoom account is available when using the conference room, and the office staff can assist you in setting up and coordinating a Zoom meeting. (other options include phone conference calls and other video calling services you are familiar with). Due to limitations, musical groups are exempt from this requirement and encouraged to come up with other creative means to include at-home participants.
   Take the temperature of all attendees upon arrival, or assign a volunteer to do so. Kindly, but firmly, ask anyone with a fever greater than 100°F to return home. A thermometer will be provided by the church office.
   Ensure that they and all attendees adhere to social distancing guidelines, as listed below.
   Keep an attendance record of all attendees and submit it to the church office.

   Complete and submit the Participation During a Pandemic waiver.
   Wear a face mask at all times. If a medical condition keeps you from doing so, please stay home for your own safety and take advantage of the virtual meeting option provided by the small group leader.
   Allow your temperature to be taken upon arrival. If you are experiencing any symptoms of illness, including a fever of 100°F or higher, you will be asked to return home.
   Refrain from handshakes, hugs, and all physical contact.
   Regularly wash or sanitize hands, especially after using the restroom or touching your face.
   Limit restroom capacity to one person at a time, unless with a family member or another individual under your care.
   Maintain a distance of 6 feet between yourself and others.

An Important Pastoral Letter

Grace and Peace to you, St. Mark people!

A lot has been going on at St. Mark since we last had a worship service in the sanctuary. The month of July is going to see some big changes for us. So that you know what is going on with your congregation, I would like to share with you some of the more major bits of news. Before I do that, though, I want to thank you all for your faithfulness during perhaps the most difficult time our congregation has ever faced.

Various ministries and groups have continued on in some capacity. Some have met via Zoom for Bible study, some have continued to create and care for the community by sewing masks or providing meals to local agencies. It has been a month since we bid farewell to Pastor Mark. A good number of long-term care facilities received bins of snacks and other delights thanks to your donations at his farewell parade. These months have not been ideal, but I am certain we have done the best we can, just as you always tend to do.

I am extremely proud of all the work that has gone into our online worship services. Musicians, lectors, families, and just about everyone on our staff have made ours one of the most outstanding virtual worship experiences available. The praise band remotely records a new song every week, Bob Rub works with various people to create original hymn recordings, and so many folks have been more than eager to be a part of this special experience. Just about everything you see and hear in our videos is unique to that week.

Alright, onto the news. First, I am happy to announce that the council has hired an interim associate pastor. Pastor Robert Franek comes to us from his most recent role as the interim pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church downtown. He served there about two years, after a long call at a congregation down in Wataga. Pr. Franek brings with him a love of worship, an astute understanding of theology, and a heart for our unique Lutheran brand of Christianity. For now, you will mostly get to know him through our Sunday services online. As we enter the fall and work our way back toward in-person gatherings, he will work mostly with our Bible study groups and the Confirmation program, in addition to leading worship along with me. I am so thankful for Pr. Franek’s willingness to be with us in this time of transition, and I so look forward to the work we will be able to do together.

About those in-person gatherings. The council and I have the responsibility to lead this congregation to the best of our ability, to make decisions for the good of everyone, and to live with faith according to the teachings of our Savior, Jesus Christ. As we have imagined what it would look like to reopen, we have remembered that Jesus calls us to love our neighbors and care for the sick and vulnerable in our midst. We have also committed ourselves to following the guidelines set forth by the CDC, the State of Illinois, Winnebago County, and the ELCA. Our Bishop, Jeff Clements, strongly encourages all congregations to take these guidelines seriously without searching for creative ways around the very rules designed to keep us healthy.

Last week, the council approved a motion to allow small groups to once again meet on church property. This is not a decision we have made lightly. Beginning July 1st, any groups that want to meet will be required to follow strict social distancing guidelines, and all participants will be asked to sign a waiver. This may sound extreme, but the recent uptick in cases around the country and even here in Illinois are a clear indication that we need to continue in our diligence to protect one another from this virus. Still, it is a welcome thing to be able to come to the building, and the council and I are certain we are able to gather safely, so long as we stick to the guidelines that have been given to us. A copy of those guidelines is included in this letter.

Ever since we closed our doors in the middle of March, the biggest question on all our minds has been both obvious and elusive. When will we return to worship? It is rare for Sunday worship to be cancelled for any reason, and none of us expected the initial three week break to last over three months. Almost every expert in infectious diseases will tell you that communal Christian worship is one of the most effective ways to spread a virus like COVID-19. Reports continue to surface of churches who gathered without precaution, only to cause a surge in cases. With that being said, you should know that after much deliberation the church council has decided that virtual worship will remain the primary mode of worship for now.

Virtual worship will not be the only mode, however. Beginning on July 22nd, we will introduce weekly Wednesday night worship, with a capacity limit of 50 people. This service will be recorded and edited into the video for the following Sunday’s worship. There will be safeguards, though. My primary concern as worship leader is your health and wellbeing, and we will follow the same strict guidelines small groups will be using. That means we will need to refrain from singing. Spoken corporate prayer will have to remain at a whisper. Our fast from communion will continue. Everyone will be asked to wear a mask at all times and have their temperatures taken upon arrival. And sadly, there will be no coffee, doughnuts, or mingling afterward. It is precisely because of these necessary limitations that we will continue to view virtual worship as the most meaningful option available.

If after all those restrictions you are still interested in coming on a Wednesday night, please call the church or go to our website or app to request a spot. Because space is incredibly limited, the office staff will do their best to make sure everyone is able to come on at least one of their requested dates. After you make your request, you will be notified in advance to confirm which dates will be available to you.

With our strategy to reopen, some ministries are going to occur this summer, and some are not. First, it is with sadness that I announce our Vacation Bible School, which had been postponed, has been officially cancelled for 2020. There is no safe or manageable way to host this beloved ministry program in a meaningful way. The guidelines given to us from our governing bodies simply make it a nonstarter, especially given how many students we typically host in a normal year. On the other hand, because the numbers are much smaller, our youth group mission trip is able to occur with many modifications. This group of less than 10 had planned long ago to spend a week doing mission work in Toledo, Ohio. Instead, they will be doing projects in and around the city, adhering to our small group guidelines, and sleeping in their own beds each night. I am confident that their diligence will result in a safe and meaningful experience.

Look for more activities and events happening at St. Mark this summer. Rally Sunday may provide us with an opportunity to have a Sunday gathering for the first time in six months, though it remains only a possibility at this point. Please do read the Memos email every Thursday, or use our smartphone app, in order to stay as up to date as possible. If you need anything from me or the staff, please ask. Now more than ever it is vital that we stay connected. If you have limited or no internet access, we are happy to mail a copy of the Memos and find a way for you to watch a recent worship service. Pastor Chuck and I may not be able to enter hospitals these days, but we are still able to talk and pray over the phone if you have any need. Starting on July 6th, our office hours will increase to every weekday between 9:00am and 1:00pm. I cannot wait until this is all behind us and we can see one another again. Until then, let’s do our best to keep the virus at bay, so that our long wait can be over as soon as possible.

Pastor Chad McKenna

Thursday, June 4, 2020

COVID-19 Strategy Update

I am so thankful for the many volunteers and well-wishers who made Sunday’s parade for Pastor Mark such a success. It was a delight to be able to see even a few of you as we drove by in our car to congratulate him on his retirement from a long and fruitful career. I knew I had been missing you all these past few months, and Sunday was a reminder of just how deeply I long to be back together with you all in some capacity.

Some churches in Illinois have opened up, some following the health department’s guidelines, and some not so much. Smaller congregations in our own synod of the ELCA are resuming worship in some capacity by the end of the month. Every congregation is different, and every worship space brings with it unique challenges. Our strategy must reflect our own uniqueness, instead of simply following what others may be doing. We are a large congregation, and our sanctuary reaches near-full capacity every Sunday. Social distancing for St. Mark will be difficult, to say the least.

Our council is taking this matter seriously. We want to be back in worship, but we want to do it in the safest way possible. The council has continued to meet via Zoom during the lockdown, and this topic has been our major point of discussion. To that end, we are taking the month of June to write a detailed and specific strategy for returning to worship in our unique context. I cannot give you a date of when that will be, but I can tell you that things will look very different from the last time we worshipped in our building. Everything from walking through the doors to holding a hymnal will need to be given serious thought. We have guidelines from the county, the state, and the ELCA churchwide office to aid us in this process, as well as an excellent and compassionate group of council members.

By taking at least this month to strategize, we not only will be well prepared, but we also hope to be at a point where the virus is much less threatening than it is today. If we were to meet this very Sunday, the precautions we would have to take would mean that we could only have about 35 people in worship. That’s not a typo. Thirty-five people. For the time being, our online services are a much more meaningful way to worship together than anything we might be able to do in the sanctuary.

One thing the guidelines have made possible is that our office can now be open. Where possible, some of us have been in the building this week, wearing masks, sanitizing every surface, and staying six feet from one another. The staff has staggered which hours we are all in the building, and many of us are still working from home on some days. Because of this, the official office hours for the month of June are 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You can always be sure to get a hold of someone during these times. I know this is a very small window, but as the summer months go on, those official hours will continue to increase. Access inside the building will be extremely limited, so if you need to come during those hours, please call ahead if at all possible.

Thank you for your patience, and for the many ways you continue to be the church during this difficult time. Our building may have been closed, but St. Mark has continued to be a community connected by our love for Christ and our commitment to one another. Please be in touch if you are in any kind of need, especially if you or someone you love could use a word of prayer. Pastor Chuck and I may not be able to make hospital visits these days, but we can still pray for and support you just as always.

 The peace of Jesus Christ be with you,

 Pastor Chad McKenna

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Thank you, Pastor Mark

I don’t know if you know this, but for the past five years, Pastor Mark and I have regularly played hooky from work. Every Tuesday the two of us would sneak out after lunch and meet over- what else- a fresh cup of coffee. There in that familiar restaurant we would talk about the coming week, or imagine the future of St. Mark, or talk about those aspects of ministry that I wanted to learn more about. On occasion, the conversation would drift to the latest iPhone or news about our families. More than once, I am fairly certain the volume of our laughter cleared out what remained of the lunch crowd. I hope you will forgive us for skipping out of the office so much. To be fair, we did talk about St. Mark at least 80% of the time.

Recently, Pastor Mark and I sat down for one last meeting, although our place of escape this time was the conference table at church. We left the confines of our houses in lockdown to sit on either side of that 12-foot long table, fresh coffee in hand. He asked me to come with any lingering questions about his role as Senior Pastor. Though I had a few, I was surprised that I wasn’t able to come up with an entire list of inquiries. It isn’t that I’m not curious; rather, it’s because we have talked openly for five years about our roles as your pastors, and almost every topic you can think of has been broached. I have been able to learn firsthand from him simply through the way we have worked together.

It has been an absolute dream to work alongside Pastor Mark for these five years. Even though he has been the one in charge, it has been a true partnership. I have always had a voice at the table. When I first arrived, I was asked to sit in on meetings for the capital campaign in 2016. Plans were well underway when I arrived. It would have been understandable if I had been asked to simply focus on all the new responsibilities I had as your new associate pastor. Instead, Pastor Mark invited me to be a part of that team in addition to my other work.

I could take you to the Common Grounds CafĂ© and brag about all the little details that were my idea, but that’s beside the point. The trust Pastor Mark gave me then, and in many other moments of decision since, was about far more than simply bouncing an idea off of one more person. It had to do with Pastor Mark’s understanding of leadership. It’s one of the reasons our staff works so well together. We truly have been a team, not simply a staff to support the vision of one person. The collaborative nature of our working relationship has cultivated in me a better sense of what it means to lead a congregation. I have learned so much from our time together, and I will miss the leadership and partnership that he and I have had.

Thank you, Pastor Mark, for the wonderful ministry you have had at St. Mark. The many years of dedication you have had in this place have left us all stronger, healthier, and more optimistic than ever before. I pray that we always remember the lessons you have taught us.

Pastor Chad McKenna

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

With Gratitude

Dear St. Mark friends,

I began my sermon last Sunday acknowledging that my retirement was close at hand.  I shared a famous anonymous quote that seems quite appropriate for this situation: “Don’t cry because it’s over.  Smile because it happened.”  I believe there’s room for both tears and smiles as we anticipate closure to our shared ministry over the past fifteen years.

We can all relate to departures and the subsequent transitions that result from them.  Life is largely defined by the way we handle these transitions.  In his book, Managing Transitions, William Bridges writes, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.  Change is not the same as transition.  Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy.  Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation.  Change is external, transition is internal.”

Thirty-seven years ago, I was ordained into the holy ministry of Word and Sacrament.  I knew what I was getting into: a vocation that would involve a lengthy sequence of hellos and good-byes; a series of exciting beginnings, as well as grace-filled departures...a lifetime of transitions.  Tears and smiles serve as salt and pepper, seasoning our lives as we serve God and neighbor.  I realize that, for some of you, my retirement may seem like a mixture of salt and pepper.

Pastor Chad will become St. Mark’s primary pastoral leader in June, as is the case in the vacancy of the senior pastor position.  I encourage you to fully support Pastor Chad in his new role during the call process.  It’s also important to clarify the boundaries that I intend to observe as a newly retired pastor.  Professional etiquette requires that I find a new church to join in the coming months.  Thus, I will not attend any future worship services or church events at St. Mark unless specifically requested by the new senior pastor.  The one exception to this will be an available Sunday down the road once we have returned to our church nave for full worship services.  I look forward to preaching one final sermon in your presence in the weeks to come!

I will also refrain from any pastoral care in my retirement.  This includes weddings, funerals, baptisms, counseling, and any other pastoral acts on behalf of St. Mark.  While I intend to honor the friendships that exist, I will refrain from engaging in any discussions or activities surrounding the many ministries of St. Mark.  This vital separation of pastoral expectations and activity is necessary and healthy for all of us, allowing St. Mark to move forward with new leadership and bold visioning for the future.  God is are in good hands!

Finally, I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve St. Mark these past fifteen years.  Together, we have served this community with faith, courage, and innovation.  We have wept together, and we have laughed together.  We have endured many trials and hardships, and we have celebrated significant growth and accomplishments.  We have done it all as one family of faith. 

Regardless of the numerous transitions that define our individual journeys, we will continue to serve one Lord and one Church.  In that light, we will always be together in the Spirit...sharing in the common work of serving Jesus!

With deepest gratitude,

Pastor Mark

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Just Ask

When I was in high school, one of my favorite hobbies was making home movies with my friends. Most have been lost to time and obsolete technology. We filmed with handheld camcorders and edited with high-end software from the school library. It was a skill I honed well into college when my imagined future career was much different than where I am today. When I entered seminary, I never imagined that those old skills would one day be vital to my ministry.

I hope you have been tuning in to our weekly online worship services. Not because a lot of effort goes into them, but because it is important for all of us to maintain some sort of routine in all of this. We need time every week, every day even, to focus ourselves on God’s great love for us. If such a thing was true before the virus, it is even more true now.

These videos continue to teach me about taking care of myself and relying on God to provide. When we first started, I did everything. That first video on April 15th was literally all me. It was short, yet exhausting. After that, the videos got much more complicated, but I still was doing most of the work, overworking myself even more. It was all due to my inability to ask for help because I did not take the time to imagine how I could rely on others. But each week has been a little easier than the last because so many people continue to insist on helping. Our worship is once again truly a collaborative effort that takes the efforts of many who are in front of and behind the camera. I am so grateful for the ways so many of you have contributed to our unique, but temporary, style of worship.

In chapter 11 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples to ask God for help in their ministry. “Ask, and it will be given to you;” he says. “Search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Jesus isn’t saying that God will stuff our wallets if we just keep asking, or that if we knock on the door of our dream house God will open it to us and hand us the keys. What he means is that God will always give us what we need to do God’s work - to care for ourselves and others. 

What do you need these days? Where are you spread too thin or falling short? What keeps you from asking for help? In my case, I neglected to pause and reflect about the tasks I could ask others to do for me. Maybe you are in the same place, or maybe you know what you need but find it hard to ask because of pride or shame or the fear of being a burden. You do not have to do everything. It is not all up to you. There are others, especially in this congregation, who are eager to be there for you. 

Go easy on yourself and others, ask for help when you need it, and remember that God has enough grace for each and every one of us.

Pastor Chad

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Our Wilderness Wandering

Dear St. Mark friends,

Last week, we learned that Illinois will have a modified stay-at-home order beginning May 1.  Thus, we will continue to offer online Sunday worship services for the foreseeable future.  The “foreseeable future,” however, is quite vague.  I had two conversations with Bishop Jeffrey Clements this week regarding the eventual return to regular worship for our synod congregations.  He said that he doesn’t anticipate that happening until mid-summer at the earliest.  Bishop Jeff noted that churches will need to follow state guidelines as we slowly introduce small group gatherings...eventually leading to medium and larger group gatherings.  This will take time, involving steps and phases to properly evaluate and implement our courses of action. 

Such waiting is hard for all of us.  Day by day, we grow wearier of this stay-at-home routine.  It is precisely in such situations that Scripture encourages us to turn to God for patience, strength, and hope.  The Psalms can be a true source of inspiration for us during these long days of waiting and longing for a return to normalcy.  Yet, we wonder what that new normal will be and how will we adapt to it?

As you know, my final Sunday is scheduled for May 31, Day of Pentecost.  I am deeply disappointed that my last month as your senior pastor precludes our worshiping together at St. Mark.  These remaining weeks will not include the joyful face-to-face encounters I had hoped to share with you.  Still, I trust that God will somehow provide what we need to acknowledge the significance and delight of our 15 years together as “pastor and people.”  I want you to know that I intend to be available for the first weekend we are allowed to worship together at the church, whatever that might look like.  I’m eager to have the chance to say “good-bye” to you in person.

In the meantime, we pray for God’s grace to sustain us.  I also want to thank you for your continual support of St. Mark through your financial gifts to our ministry.  During this difficult time, we have fallen behind in our offerings and need your assistance.  I would kindly ask that you revisit your pledge for this year and strive to fulfill your weekly giving.  While our ministry feels like it’s “on hold,” our financial commitments continue...and we need your help to stay current.  Again, I extend my appreciation for your faithfulness and support.

Together, we will get through this time more resilient and focused as a congregation.  I am grateful for your witness to the power of God’s Spirit to lead us!

Walking this journey of faith with you,

Pastor Mark

St. Mark COVID-19 Strategy & Guidelines Beginning July 2020

St. Mark COVID-19  Strategy & Guidelines Beginning July 2020 1.       Though the individual hours of our staff remain flexib...