How other Christian churches in suburbs are working toward reopening
As small gatherings of worshippers prepare to return to Catholic churches across Illinois as early as May 23, other Christian denominations are cautiously inching forward with reopening plans.
The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago will release new guidelines next week for a gradual but "very modest" reopening, Bishop Jeffrey Lee said Thursday.
Starting June 1, the first stage of the plan will allow groups of only less than five to return to church buildings to record or livestream services.
"We're still encouraging people to plan to continue online worship and Bible studies and classes out of an excess of caution," Lee said.
The diocese encompasses three of the four regions in Gov. J.B. Pritzker's five-step recovery plan for lifting coronavirus restrictions in Illinois. Each region can move forward from one phase to the next based on various metrics, meaning the diocese will have to knit together a variety of protocols.
So Lee is encouraging cooperation among clusters of congregations to work together on more detailed modifications.
"We're quite likely going to have different communities being ready for different steps at different times as this moves on," he said.
Lee and other religious leaders are reluctant to attach a date to resuming in-person worship.
"We know that people are anxious and want to get back to worship, but we also know that this is a health crisis like we've not seen before, and we really don't want to put people at risk," said the Rev. Gary Erickson, assistant to the bishop of the Northern Illinois Synod, a regional body for 141 Lutheran congregations.
Some pastors have presided over weddings and funerals with groups of 10 or fewer people, but many other congregations have put those services on hold, Erickson said. The synod isn't in any hurry to move beyond the governor's limits on gatherings, he said.
"We're willing to be slow and cautious and take the whole summer if that's what it takes to keep people safe," Erickson said.
Wheaton Bible Church near West Chicago will continue meeting virtually through the end of June, spokesman Michael Stein said.
Another megachurch, Willow Creek in South Barrington, does not plan to open for in-person pastoral services in May, spokeswoman Liz Schauer said. Instead, Willow Creek will continue to offer services online, along with digital small groups and events.
"While we greatly anticipate the day when we can gather physically for church, we believe we have a part in continuing to slow the spread of COVID-19 and caring for our community and church family," Schauer said via email. "We are consulting local officials and medical professionals as we form a multistep approach to reopening our building."
As stay-at-home restrictions ease, some staff members will return and follow public health recommendations, but many will continue working from home, Schauer said.
"As further guidelines are revealed by the state, we will offer in-person small groups, classes and workshops, and on-site Care Center services," she wrote. "We are exploring ways to hold in-person church services at limited capacities that follow safety protocols to ensure the protection of our congregants, guests, volunteers and staff."
Lee, the bishop of the diocese stretching from Chicago to Galena to Warsaw, noted reopening plans are a "living document" and not a linear process.
"Christians are called, I believe, to act together for the common good," he said. "Refraining physical worship right now can be an act of discipleship and actually a kind of prayer. Our job is to protect each other and especially those who are most vulnerable."