Survey Says…

Dear Friends,

I want to thank the many of you who responded to the survey about our Christmas Eve Worship. The results are about what I expected—a third of you are understandably concerned about attending a gathering such as a Christmas Eve Worship Service; a third of you plan to attend (“in a hazmat suit if necessary”); and a third are undecided.

Christmas Eve, however, is not for another five weeks and a lot may happen between now and then especially if the COVID case rates in Wilson County continue to rise as they have done over the past two weeks. My greatest concern is for the safety and well-being of each of you and for our neighbors. There have only been a couple of cases of COVID within our congregation, and I would like to keep it that way. One local pastor I spoke with this week told me that he had lost three congregants to COVID and had been very ill himself.

On Thursday afternoon, I attended an online meeting between local pastors and Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital. The message of the doctors was to stress to the pastors the need to encourage their parishioners (and everyone) to observe the COVID protocols of masks and distancing. The local hospital is not full now, but they are worried that it could be soon. They are especially concerned about what will happen after Thanksgiving if too many people choose to gather together next week and become infected.

What the hospital doesn’t want to happen is for its beds to become so over-run with COVID patients that people requiring normal medical care are unable to obtain it. They are worried about a shortage of staff. They are worried about a shortage of supplies.

These worse-case scenarios are mostly avoidable if people take the simple precautions of masks and distancing and not congregating. It is certainly no fun, but it is what we need to do right now.

The good news is that two promising vaccines have been announced. From what I have read, the doctors and scientists consider the data from these vaccines to be solid. The original goal was to develop a vaccine with an efficacy rate of 60%. Each of these vaccines promise an efficacy rate over 90%.

This good news should not make us complacent. It will be months before the vaccines are available to the general public. We need to fight our fatigue, make short-term sacrifices, and continue our COVID practices.

This virus is real. This week, our nation marked 250,000 deaths from COVID. That is a quarter-of-a-million lives that were ended too soon. It is callous to justify these losses by saying, “They would have died anyway.” That is unacceptable. Every moment of life is precious. This virus has robbed us of thousands of years of life.

In the meantime, I will continue to monitor the situation in Middle Tennessee. Right now, it would be irresponsible of me to guarantee that we will hold an in-person Christmas Eve Service. That is our plan, but as with everything, we have learned to be flexible.

Blessings,

Sherard

COVID new cases

The A.V. Club

On March 8, 2020 B.C. (Before COVID), the status of technology in the FPC sanctuary could best be described as “limited.” Our audio system consisted of a pulpit microphone connected to an aging PA system and a couple of crotchety wireless mics with an affinity for feedback. Several years ago, we did replace the spherical ceiling speaker with something less ancient. Video capabilities in the sanctuary were non-existent.

Sporadically, over the past couple of years, we have entertained the notion of upgrading the sound system but there has never been suitable enthusiasm to countervail the headache and expense of such a project.

On March 15, all that changed when COVID forced us to close the church to in-person worship.

On March 22, we resumed worship but only online.

computer

Congregations that had previously invested in online video worship were light-years ahead of us (and every church like us). If we wanted to reach our people we needed to learn how to climb the audio-visual mountain… and  quickly.

For the first week of online video worship we employed a camcorder loaned by JD. That setup was basic. The audio and video signal from the camera hooked into Michael’s Mac computer which sent a feed out to Zoom and Facebook. Without Michael’s expertise, we may not have made it even that far. The video quality was fine but we were utilizing the camera’s microphone to capture audio from the pulpit and organ. That didn’t work so well.

At Allen Vance’s suggestion, we purchased a USB microphone to by-pass the camera audio. You saw that mic on the pulpit/table for several weeks. While it did an excellent job of picking up our voices, as you all noticed, it failed at capturing music.

Audio MixerNext, I purchased a PC (second-hand from another church) so that Michael could reclaim his personal Mac. Then we bought an audio mixing board and hooked it up to several conventional microphones (ones the church already owned). I appealed to Mark Fain to demonstrate to us how to use this device. The mixing board was a huge improvement for our sound output.

There remained the issue of the organ. None of our mics were designed to accommodate the wide range of sounds and frequencies created by such an instrument.

47jrI went back to Mark for guidance and he made some inquiries and returned with the recommendation that we purchase the WA-47Jr Microphone made by the Warm Audio company out in Texas. We set this up this last week and, as you could hear, the results were stunning with the organ coming through loud and clear.

We’re still not done. We can’t keep JD’s camcorder forever so we purchased a Canon XA11 as well as a small GoPro. We have also ordered a video switcher which will permit up to four video inputs. When that arrives, we will be able seamlessly to switch between three cameras and a computer input for graphics. When that gets installed you won’t know if you are watching FPC or CNN.

And, because we once again have a congregation in the pews, we continue to use the old PA system.

I want to thank Cal Clark and Jim Stueck for being our technical team on Sundays. Cal runs the sound board and Jim handles the graphics.

cameraBefore COVID, none of us had much audio-video knowledge or experience. But we’ve been learning. Each week presents a new challenge. For now, I think we’ve got it worked out. It looks like online worship at FPC is here to stay.

Blessings,

Sherard

Reopening… Update

The Session met Sunday evening, and in addition to their normal business they also discussed reopening the church for corporate worship. The consensus of the Elders was that it is still too soon to reopen. They will revisit the issue at their meeting on June 14. Meanwhile, a committee will be formed to plan and oversee our eventual reopening.

Everyone’s foremost concern is the safety of our congregation as well as the safety of the wider community. We don’t want to rush back to corporate worship and unintentionally become a vector for COVID. An article in the Washington Post this week described two churches who reopened and then had to close again because of a resurgence of COVID in their congregations.

One church is in Ringgold, Georgia, just 20 miles south of Chattanooga. That church reopened on April 26 after the governor gave the okay. Since then, several families have tested positive despite the church’s precautions. According to the article, only about 25% of the members actually attended worship while the rest watched online. Still, the virus was able to spread.

Meanwhile, the FPC staff continues to try and improve the online worship experience. We also anticipate continuing streaming worship for the foreseeable future, if not indefinitely. Even when we do resume in-person worship, there will be some who, for health reasons, simply should not attend. We will stream worship for them.

One question that many of you have asked me is, “How many people are worshiping online?” As best we can tell, watching live on Sunday morning, there are between 80 and 90 individuals. In addition to that, there are people who, during the week, watch the recorded video on Facebook.

So, when does FPC reopen? We just don’t know yet. We hope it will be soon and we are planning for that day and look forward to it with great anticipation.

Meanwhile, stay well.

Sherard

When Does the Church Reopen?

The foremost question in all our minds is when will we be able to return to normal worship at First Presbyterian Church? When can we gather together in the chapel and sanctuary and lift our voices in song and prayer? Unfortunately, no one knows the answer to this question. At our April meeting, the Session discussed the possibility of reopening the church and the consensus was that we must not rush. The health and safety of our congregation as well as the larger community must be our top priority. Worship can wait. That is the sacrifice we must make for our church and our neighbors.

As your pastor, I keep a close, daily watch on the news regarding COVID-19. Right now, there is no vaccine or treatment and testing is extremely limited. We still know very little about this virus. Our doctors and scientists are trying to ascertain essential information such as infection rate, gestation period, even symptoms. Why is this disease seeming to cause heart attacks? Why is the disease seeming to cause strokes in people in their 30s and 40s?

Ken Braddy is the pastor of a Baptist church in Nashville and also works at Lifeway. Recently, he posted “24 Questions Your Church Should Answer Before People Return.” It is an excellent (and daunting) set of questions that need addressing before we safely re-open our doors. (You can ignore the question about social distancing in the baptismal pool.) A church is a complicated organization that presents especially challenging scenarios for dealing with COVID-19.

At this point in time, I do not believe that FPC should consider resuming our normal activities before June 1 at the very earliest. Even that date is probably overly optimistic. For now, like the rest of the nation, we are dealing with this pandemic week by week. And we will continue to be a church.

Stay well.

Sherard

Social Distancing

Dear Friends,

I would like to share with you two articles that I found to be helpful in explaining/showing why social distancing is important in the fight against COVID-19. Both articles rely on animations so I would recommend looking at them on a desktop computer if possible.

The first article is from the Washington Post (no subscription needed). Using four simulations, this article demonstrates how we infect one another and why social distancing is effective in slowing the rate of the virus’ spread.

Washington Post surge

The second article is from the New York Times (might require a subscription??). Using a simplified model, its interactive graphs show the difference between best case and worst case and why it is so important to “flatten the curve.”

We not only need to protect ourselves and our loved ones, but we also need to protect the community from the potential “surge” that could overwhelm the health-care system.

Lenten Challenge #1

Dear Friends,

I hope you all are doing well in this age of Coronavirus. Please continue to practice social distancing. We can and should learn from our neighbors in Italy who are roughly 10 days ahead of us in the infection curve. As a pastor, I find it oddly counter-intuitive to remind my congregation that the more we can isolate ourselves, the better we will be. It should be the other way around.

Despite the events of the world, Christians are still in the Season of Lent and Lent demands spiritual discipline. For the remainder of Lent, I would like to present you with a Lenten Challenge. Each day, I will offer you a task. Many of these tasks will be influenced by our lives under the virus, others will be simple exercises of faith.

For the first task in our Lenten Challenge, between now and Wednesday evening, I want you to make a phone call to someone outside our congregation who is shut in. Today, I called my friend Ray whom I have not seen in a while to say hi and make sure he and his wife were okay. They are.

The church website now has a new page called “The Pastor’s Blog.” I will post there every day or so while we are unable to gather in person at our church. We need to remember that even though we cannot congregate physically, we are still a church.

I will be posting these challenges to the blog, and intend to make is so you can share a comment telling about your Lenten Challenge experience each day.

Lenten Blessings,
Sherard

Uncharted Territory

Dear Friends in the Congregation,

The emergence of the novel coronavirus has forced us all into uncharted territory. We need to accept that our world is going to be different for a while. The good news is that the situation is not permanent. Things will return to normal. The bad news is that there is likely to be suffering along the way.

For me, the first significant sign of change was the cancellation of our corporate worship. The hallmark of being a church is that we worship together. Canceling this essential component of our faith was extraordinarily difficult.

However, your Session met yesterday at 11:00 am for nearly two hours discussing our situation and planning for the immediate future. The tone of the meeting was surprisingly upbeat and positive as together we decided that we will face our future with faith and confidence.

Below is an outline of some of what we discussed and the plans we hope to implement. You will be receiving a number of emails from me as we seek new ways to communicate with one another.

  • The Session voted to cancel all corporate worship services and church activities until March 31.
  • Each Sunday, at 10:00 am, First Presbyterian will hold an online worship service. I will send you details on this in a day or two. We intend to use the Zoom platform so you can watch/listen with your computer or cell phone.
  • The church office will continue to remain open Monday through Friday from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm.
  • Sherard and Michael will implement online, interactive Bible Studies.
  • Sherard will implement Lenten challenges.
  • More as we figure it out.

Just because we can’t gather for corporate worship doesn’t mean that we can’t stay connected as a church. If you have any ideas, we are all ears. As I said, this is uncharted territory for us all.

Each of you are in my prayers and I ask that you keep me and the church staff in your prayers as well.

In Christ,

Sherard